Jenn Bruer

Foster parenting- a spiritual calling

This is for foster parents & anyone who seeks to support them

This came to me as I spent the last few weeks preparing to co-deliver a workshop to a group of foster parents, all seeking to make a difference in their respective corners of the world. This caused me to reflect on my own personal feat with fostering, I provided service for the Children’s Aid Society of Toronto for 18 years, retiring in July of 2018. It was both challenging and rewarding, as they say.

A lot of what we see in the behaviour of children in care is merely the effects of trauma, creating an illusion of sorts, and doesn’t represent who a child really is. The “real” child is often buried beneath wounds – not so different from you and me, we just hide it more easily.

There’s a spiritual aspect of being a foster parent that is rarely spoken of, highlighting this may inspire you to transform your experience, and thus the experience of the children you are called to serve. 

Any act of service, no matter how small, is a sacred one 

Foster parents are often overlooked and certainly under-appreciated within our community. They have no sick days, no benefits, they are merely reimbursed for their service, and to say they get little appreciation would be a grand understatement. Fostering was my life’s work and is still my life’s work by extension of the messages I now feel called to share, usually pertaining to burnout. 

While carrying out this calling, you may sometimes focus on the inevitable eyes of judgment surrounding you; the eyes of workers who have never lived with other people’s children, the eyes of community members who think they can do a better job but would never consider it for a moment, and even the judgmental eyes of the hurting child before you. 

In these moments, hold in your mind’s eye these powerful words from Theodore Roosevelt:

 “It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood…”

You are IN the arena 

Here is a certain reality of being a foster parent. You will stumble. You will struggle. You will be utterly aware in many encounters that you could have done better. But you are in the arena. Fostering takes bravery. You will not be perfect, but you are trying. Cultivate a sense of compassion for any perceived failure. Of every child I ever served, one thing I could always see in them was their awareness that I was trying my best. That was one of the rewards, they often extended me the very gift I was trying to extend to them…compassion

Once I embraced this calling as spiritual, I became more successful and I now embrace all incoming experiences, challenges and blessings alike, with the importance they are due. 

You are in service 24/7, 365 days a year. Even when your foster children aren’t with you, you are still fostering –listening for a phone call, knowing that wherever they are they may need you, shopping for their needs, resting up so you can be ready for their return etc. You cut the toenails of other people’s children!!! You hold space for other people’s children as they rage-fully lash out at you for their pain. You hold space for them even when they look at you with contempt in their eyes because you aren’t theirs forever. You wipe their noses and you rub their backs. You wake up at 2am when they have night terrors. You sacrifice time with your own children and with your extended family because of this calling. I could go on and on, but you get the picture. 

YOU live this.

Rethink the meaning of success

Don’t lead with the expectation of seeing your impact. Re-think the meaning of success. It’s common as foster parents to look for behavioural changes as proof of a job well done. 

A few years ago, I fostered a 12-year-old girl. She was challenging and rarely happy with the care we provided. She always seemed angry and it seemed like we never made an impact. After a short placement, this young girl moved back home. I reflected in this moment and felt in some way that I had failed her, I felt I hadn’t “reached” her. I wanted visible results! When I saw her a year later, she looked like a new person, the transformation in her was visible. When I said with surprise, “What happened to you?”, she responded lovingly with, “You happened to me!” 

Sometimes we see the impact we make and sometimes we don’t. Perhaps it is not always for us to know.

Make this about you, not the child….wait what?

Allow fostering, and any experience, challenge, or relationship, to be about YOU and not the other person. This may be contrary to what you have been taught (i.e. this all being about the children) and this may sound selfish at first but hear me out. Allow this experience, like all experiences, to be about your personal spiritual growth. 

My belief in the structure of the Universe is that we are all on the exact same path, every last one of us, including the children we serve. We are all on the path to becoming the people we are most capable of being, bestowing our unique gifts onto the world, to eventually reach our full potential in our lives and ultimately through, and in, our service. Your service isn’t about them, it’s always about you.

Every experience is your teacher, every person you encounter is your teacher, and nothing you experience here is random, or at least that’s how I see it. We aren’t here as humans having spiritual experiences, we are spiritual beings having human experiences. Thus, by extension, fostering is a spiritual experience. 

I try to approach all people as my teacher, even when I am teaching. I have done plenty of teaching but in every instance, I was learning too. 

If you approach fostering as a spiritual calling, and recognize that this, and all experience, is more about you than it is about the experience itself, you will cultivate and nurture yourself, to help from a place of strength and less from a place of weakness. 

When we approach helping from a place of strength and making it more about us and our spiritual stance, we become less susceptible to burnout. 

Allowing burnout serves no one

While self-care is valuable, self-care alone will not prevent or resolve burnout. There is more to preventing burnout; ideas in our minds and hearts can cloud us from showing up as our best selves. Check out my book to see how I eventually recovered from burnout which I experienced in 2011. Know that burning yourself out because you are holding the weight of the world on your shoulders, isn’t necessary. You are capable of so much more.  

See every child as your teacher, approach them from a different space, a humble space, less from your ego and more from your heart centre, with less defence and more offence, more from the truth of who you are and thus calling out the truth of who THEY are. Make every single moment about YOU, holding firm to who you are in all of your convictions, people, including the children, are watching and learning. 

Surrender & show up

Nothing teaches you surrender like deep conflict. We all know the fostering experience is riddled with conflict, both internal and external. Allow the fostering experience to guide you toward surrender. 

I can’t tell you how to surrender, but I can give you a little snapshot into what it means for me. 

This Universe, as I experience it, is more intelligent than me. You can call this God, Allah, Energy, Source, natural intelligence, or whatever structure feels best for you. When I surrender to this natural intelligence, in my life in general and especially as a helper, I am surrendering to something that knows what it’s doing, because I certainly don’t. The Universe is much more aware of my own personal gifts (and wounds) than I can be. Giving up attachments to the results is vital to truly surrendering to the path and embodying our best selves. 

In surrender mode, my number one goal as a helper (and person) becomes merely showing up. Stepping into the arena. I do so with very little fear because I have surrendered, and the Universe has my back.

In the past, in my life in general and as a helper, I felt burdened by thinking I had to create the path. That was my ego. 

I need to be ON the path or IN the arena. The path of surrender isn’t an easy one to be on, sometimes, as I experience it- it’s like walking into a thick fog (the fears of the future) that blocks the light (the growth and blessings that are coming), but proceed in surrender mode, knowing there is light ahead, even if you can’t see it. Have faith. The voices in your head will attempt to fill you with fear. But with love in your heart, ignore the voices and blindly walk along the path, your heart centre will direct you to where you belong. 

Brick Walls

As you walk along this path and stumble into a brick wall (I walk into plenty brick walls, thank you!) know that you were guided right into that wall. The Universe was using that wall to shine light on emotional or spiritual wounds or obstructions that would otherwise prevent you from being your best self. Every experience is your teacher.

Separate money from service

There is no amount of “payment” for the sacrifices you are making, move past any thoughts to the contrary. Be grateful for any reimbursement that does come through and let go of any that doesn’t. I am of the belief that The Universe knows and sees all that we do and will correct itself in our favour. Any focus on money will take away the focus from the real work to be done here. When necessary, put on the “financial hat” in meetings that are about money and require you to advocate for funds, make money the focus only in those moments, once you leave the meeting, take off the hat. As best you can separate money from the service, and hold steady to the importance of the work ahead- being of service to the children. 

In conclusion

The most powerful spiritual act I can embody is to hold in my heart the awareness of the innate goodness of anyone who stands before me, especially in spite of behaviour that could suggest otherwise. In doing so, I stand in my greatness and call out to their greatness. The most spiritual thing you can do for any human being, child in care or otherwise, is to hold that knowing inside of you. 

Fostering, if you allow it, will be a virtuous journey to YOU becoming your best self, and in the process, the children you serve will be given permission to do the same. 

THIS is your ministry.

Ungrateful teens? time travel as a parenting technique

Anyone who is or has raised teenagers can attest to the fact that parenting teens can be a stressful situation When it comes to stress management and burnout recovery, dealing with ungrateful teenagers is certainly something that can promote stress!

Someone asked me the other day, how do I not build up resentment dealing with teens? As a mother of teenage twins, and also having fostered and counselled countless teens over the years, I feel inspired to delve into this.

From muttering under their breath, not saying “thank you” when it’s appropriate, not accepting “no” for an answer, the list goes on with regard to what we parents of adolescents deal with!

We have known for sometime that the human brain is not fully developed until around the age of 25, even though we have all of our grey matter by the time we are 12, which includes neutrons, cell bodies, nerve fibres and support cells. But it takes another DECADE for all of that matter to be fully wired-up in a process called Neuromaturation. Scientists believe this process is one of the reasons for some common teenage behaviours, like increased risk-taking, a lack of regard for consequences, and needing to be accepted by their peers. I like to think of it like the teenage brain is “under construction” so-to-speak. The brain is especially under construction in the pre-frontal cortex, the last area of the brain to develop, which is responsible for things like self control, goal setting, motivation, planning and understanding consequences. This partly explains some of the behaviours and attitudes we see from teenagers.

“Adolescence is characterized by making risky decisions. Early lesion and neuroimaging studies in adults pointed to the ventromedial prefrontal cortex and related structures as having a key role in decision-making.” (Blakemore 2012)

So as you can see, some of the things we see with our teenagers is actually developmentally appropriate. But no matter how often we remind ourselves of this fact, as parents we can easily  become resentful as children of all ages often show little appreciation for our life-long selfless commitment and sacrifices on their behalf. Am I right?

Luckily, I have developed a strategy for coping with this rampant under-appreciation and to prevent resentment from rearing it’s ugliness. I use this strategy in a way that honours the mother that resides deep in my being, and it involves time travel. 

Luckily, I have developed a strategy for coping with this rampant under-appreciation and to prevent resentment from rearing it’s ugliness. I use this strategy in a way that honours the mother that resides deep in my being, and it involves time travel. 

With every loving act that may not be well received or appreciated, instead of pulling back from the said act, I lean into it with greater love and an open heart-centre. If I have trouble, I travel briefly to the future. Yes the FUTURE.

Do you believe in time travel? You may not believe in time travel as depicted in the movies, in a beam-me-up-scotty kind of way, but in fact I believe time travel is already here and has always been here. 

Do you believe in time travel? You may not believe in time travel as depicted in the movies, in a beam-me-up-scotty kind of way, but in fact I believe time travel is already here and has always been here. 

What do I mean? I mean that I travel, not in physical body but in consciousness. You actually already do this to a greater or lesser degree in some respects everyday. You make choices that honour the future-you everyday. Maybe you have a super-greens salad or practice yoga, you attend fitness classes, or maybe learn new skills and concepts. All of this you do for the you that is yet to come. You do so many things that seek to shape the future, and perhaps you even sit in meditation creating and recreating the future you with intricate detail and intention. In a similar vein, I time travel for my children. 

I travel to the future where I envision the children I have raised are grown. I see them as adults being the loving and kind beings I already know them to be, I see them contributing to the world in a meaningful way, I see these images of the future with intense pride and I know that these acts in this moment- in this very time and space continuum- have contributed fully to the wonder that I know exists in the future. I know it exists because I travelled there with my consciousness, and to some extent I am creating the future with my intentions and choices, as we all do on a daily basis. 

I serve that future being that is my daughter. As she walks the earth, I serve the mother she may one day become, knowing these selfless acts contributed to her in the most meaningful way, and if she never sees it, that’s ok because I do, I see it in my travels. I do not serve the ungrateful, disrespectful moments that exist; in those moments I remind myself that those parts of adolescence are developmentally appropriate – just in a similar way that when my 2 year old would get into the lotion that I accidentally left within arms reach and spread it everywhere, I didn’t stop serving him in that moment. Why? Because I knew that this act was developmentally on-point and I continued to serve the future him. 

Serve your teenagers, they need you, and you make a difference to the world when you do. Love them unconditionally, know that it’s not their job to appreciate you, it’s not their job to notice you. 

Parenting has the capacity to change the world as we know it. You breathe life into the children you serve and that breath has ripple effects throughout the future. Your contributions can be felt for millennia.

Citations:

“The Teenage Brain: Under Construction.” American College of Pediatricians, 15 May 2017, http://www.acpeds.org/the-college-speaks/position-statements/parenting-issues/the-teenage-brain-under-construction.

Blakemore, Sarah-Jayne, and Trevor W Robbins. “Decision-Making in the Adolescent Brain.” Nature News, Nature Publishing Group, 28 Aug. 2012, http://www.nature.com/articles/nn.3177.

Resistance much?

In my recently released book I wrote, in detail, about my physical, mental, and spiritual transformation, after recovering from burnout. This was an awakening of sorts, although that word feels a little cliché and over-used, sounding a little too complete, as if I have awakened and I can lean back, cross my arms behind my head, put up my feet, and take a long sigh because, “I’m done! Phew! Glad that’s over, now I can rest here in my awakened lovely state…”

*screeching sound of a car coming to a halt*

Not so fast… I might be more awake, but there is more awakening to be had – isn’t there always? Self examination continues, unraveling self-imposed, culturally-reinforced conditioning, reaching uncharted territory.

Say WHAAAAT?

Yes, the road of self examination continues. An inevitable part of of any journey is obstacles. On the path to self examination and eventual discovery there is always this unfortunate yet necessary thing called resistance.

“Kites rise highest against the wind, not with it.” ~Winston Churchill

what is resistance?

Imagine for a moment, people around you are suddenly plagued with a sore throat, fever, chills, dry hacking cough, often followed by an overwhelming feeling that’s a bit like, “Oh no! It’s coming for ME!” and then followed by, “NO, I do not want this!” (resistance). Then, you wake up in the morning and the inevitable has happened, your throat feels like razor blades when you swallow. You furiously wished it wasn’t going to happen to you – and now you fight this thing angrily thinking again, “but I don’t want this”. This is about the simplest example of resistance I can think of.

Self-imposed road blocks

Resistance, in the context of this article, is a word I use to describe a feeling when I have hit something (figuratively), much like a road block which stops me from progressing and growing past the place where I am. These road blocks provide protection against a perceived threat, but often these threats are just illusions, like the ever present fear of the unknown. These blocks are often our body’s way of just wanting to keep doing what we have always done. Resistance is usually a self-imposed road block that we put in place to resist becoming the new person we know we can be. It’s human to resist change, and it might even be a survival instinct.

A natural part of the journey

Along my journey I expected the resistance along my path to disappear because I didn’t allow resistances to have power, I sensed I was gaining control over resistance, because I was more mature (maybe even above it), because I was finally in the natural “flow” of my life (so why would resistance pop up?).

I often thought, isn’t flow a sign that you are right where you are supposed to be? Well, yes and no. Flow happens more easily when you accept the present moment, when you embrace peace, when you stop letting fear own you, and when you rest in a place of security. It’s a phenomenon that I have experienced first hand and it’s real; the part I hadn’t realized is that resistance is still a part of the process, that these road blocks are a part of the drive. I am not mad about it, but I admit that I think it kinda sucks.   

We are spiritual beings on the search for expansion and evolution. For a lobster to shed its shell (referred to as molting) it must go through quite a bit of resistance. For a flower to burst through the soil it must face the resistance of the soil, ironically, the very thing nourishing it. For a baby to come into this world- you get the picture, I will spare the gory details on this one. The bottom line, as a growing and expanding BE-ing we must face resistance and not expect it to be absent from our lives as we evolve.  Births are always a little painful and yet always worth it in the end.

A signal to Let go

Sometimes resistance can signal the need to let go of a belief that might no longer serve you. Like, for example, in the health and fitness world many of us believed that fat was unhealthy; once I began reading information and educating myself about the importance of fat in my diet I began to challenge myself to eat fat again. But after years of feeling that fat was “bad”, when I began to include fat in my diet again I faced resistance, this resistance felt like doubt, hesitation and/or fear.

In North America, women face a conditioning from both themselves and our culture, perpetuating the notion that to be healthy, sexy, or even to have basic worthiness they must be slim. I do not agree with this, and yet at times I face these road blocks of resistance myself, the conditioning creeps in and I find myself looking in the mirror, examining my body as if it’s an object in need of improvement, instead of seeing my body as the incredible, loyal vessel that it is, to all of the experiences I have been and will be, gifted with.

Strategies to crushing Resistance

Often when it comes to resistance, just being aware of the blockage is enough to make it disappear. But if it isn’t then I’ve provided some strategies below that might help.

Whatever strategy you choose in dealing with resistance, please don’t run. Ever. If you run, if you turn around and go back from where you came, you are merely grasping at the person you were, trading in the person you can be and certainly the person you want to be. You are good enough as you are, you don’t need to change but change is calling your name, why deny the you that is trying to come out?

Ask questions, stay curious

When you notice resistance popping up, the first step is to ask questions, like, “What is this feeling and what is stopping me from moving past this?”, or “What am I afraid of here?”, or “What is this feeling I have?” Like Brené Brown suggests, stay curious – she is always right!

Resist the urge to protest

When you face resistance, you might feel the need to add your own external resistance to the mix. It’s like when you get sick, instead of letting your body heal, you feel stubborn about giving into the illness and accepting it, you take on too much as if in denial of the very thing that is happening. Have you fallen victim to this? Adding external resistance is like seeing a road block and adding 10 more in front of it out of fear of moving past the barrier. It makes no sense. Resisting the urge to protest is big.

If you have read my book you know that I am no stranger to perpetuating my own resistance- for me this took life in the form of fear. Fear of not being good enough, fear of not being kind enough, fear of… you get the picture. For you it could be cynicism, anger, or any host of creations you add to the mix.

These obstacles are like protests against your own change. Don’t do this! Don’t add more layers of fear, more stories about why this new version of you cannot come into fruition, like maybe you aren’t deserving, like maybe you don’t have it in you, like maybe you are too old to change, too young to change, too broke to change…

Finish this sentence to look for clues: I could grow if only it wasn’t for….  The answer to that question is likely the added layer of resistance (the protest) – it’s probably not even the resistance itself.

What you resist persists

A good way to deal with resistance is to embrace it. Just like when you get sick, don’t resist it –allow it. “What you resist persists” – I have been hearing this cool mantra buzzing around lately and I love it! Embrace the phase of resistance with the knowledge that when you feel resistance, you are just at the finish line of growth, this is the ribbon at the end of the marathon, the break-through, and then you are free- at least until the next ribbon (see what I meant when I said it kinda sucks?)

These obstacles are the very entrance of the next growth period, like the seed pushing past the soil; when we feel the discomfort of resistance we must lean into it. 

self compassion is a must

You can’t attempt to disturb any internal blockage without practicing self-compassion. In these moments I remind myself saying, I am not this resistance, this is just a trapped fear or emotion. I am not my thoughts, I am so much greater than this. Just like dust might be found on a window sill, dust is not a part OF the window sill, it can be cleaned off. Sure, you might be afraid, fear might be present in you, but fear is not you.

During these times, practice good self-care. Don’t be too focused on the resistance, just a few minutes a day is often enough. Take breaks. Practice mindfulness to draw your attention away from the road block. Sometimes acknowledging the road block and then asking the question is enough for you to move past it. Don’t be harsh on yourself and don’t be judgmental of yourself- that is not helpful. Remind yourself that everyone has resistance, and everyone is on the same path. You aren’t alone here.

Observe from a safe space

Once you have asked the questions and noticed the road block, notice what is popping up, observe with curiosity the stories that are circling in your mind about why you can’t move past this. Observe, keep asking, stay in the moment; for me resistance usually lasts a few days but for some it can be years. Ask yourself what it might look like if you move past this. Ask yourself what it might feel like if you just gave into this, if you gave into the fear; what you might miss out on by giving in. For example, if you give into the sickness and just accept it, the very thing we often resist, does it stay? No, it disappears with time and acceptance.

Ask, “What would it feel like if I let go of this thought?”, or “What would it feel like if this road block were gone and what would I do differently?”

To face resistance, I stay in it and I lean in gently, not in a pushy way but in a curious kind of way. I keep asking and I keep silent so that I can hear the answer. For example, when I feared walking into my first yoga class, I felt I wanted to go, I felt the resistance pop up, I could feel an obstacle of my own creating stopping me from being the person I wanted to be (in this case a yogi). I observed the road block, I asked, “What is this?” and the answers came in an instant: “You aren’t slim enough!”, “You aren’t flexible enough!”, “You aren’t spiritual enough!” I knew as soon as I got the answers that these were road blocks of my own making perpetuated by the culture around me. I knew these were lies but I still was overcome by FEAR and it stopped me from being the person I wanted to be. Then I asked the hard question, “What would I look like if this road block wasn’t in front of me?” It would look like me walking into a yoga class and doing yoga for MY body, not for any of the potential onlookers. Of course, once I took the plunge, yoga ended up being a safe space of others just like me and now, fast forward a few years, and I don’t know what my life would be without this sacred practice. I molted, like a lobster, and it was worth it.

a little goes a long way

When it comes to resistance I like to think of the old school game Ker Plunk, clear plastic tube filled with marbles and a bunch of sticks below the marbles which prevent the marbles from dropping. The sticks resemble resistance and the marbles resemble the new you; the sticks (resistances) are stopping the new you (marbles) from emerging. The good news is you never have to get rid of ALL the resistance to proceed past the road block; taking just a few of the sticks out allows the marbles to pass. For example, when I finally pushed past the fear and went to my first yoga class, I was still fearful, there was still some resistance, but I got rid of enough “sticks” to move past and attend the class.

ACT AND TEST

The final step is to act as if the resistance is gone. As you act it will become clear if the resistance is gone, or if you still have work to do. Once it’s gone you’ll know it because you’ll look back and say, “I grew! Look at me!”, and it should feel a little lighter.

At times, resistance is like a clogged pipe – once the pipe clears you feel a gush of “flow”. Other times, however, it’s much subtler and feels like more of a trickle than a gush, you barely notice it and then, when you do notice it, you become filled with a sense of pride.

Often when I unknowingly let go of some resistance, I don’t even know I am doing it until I take a moment to reflect on, and look back at, the previous versions of myself. I have been practicing yoga religiously for a few years now; often I don’t feel like I am learning and then I do a pose and reflect on the abilities of my body, realizing my tree pose (or any pose) looks stronger or deeper than it did before, realizing I grew and evolved!

Repeat, repeat, repeat

And then… Bump!

Wait a minute, what is this now? Oh man another road block. And so, the cycle begins again… 

Oh, and if you think your expansion and growth ends at a certain age, think again. I spend a lot of time with seniors and I continually observe their growth. Life doesn’t let go of its persuasion of personal growth and expansion, no matter how late in the game we may be.