93. Defending Our Children

93. Defending Our Children

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Find Your Inner Strength

Defending Our Children

When you are a mother, you are never really alone in your thoughts. A mother always has to think twice, once for herself and once for her child.

~Sophia Loren

My husband and I had finally decided to be licensed for foster care. Our children were young at the time, and they were excited to get involved in caring for a little brother or sister. The children we cared for were never much older than three months, almost exclusively female, and African American.

Providing foster care was a fun, rewarding and exhausting ministry. Everyone in the family was involved, pitching in where they could. It truly was an enjoyable experience. There was only one big issue. My father-in-law.

Our first long-term placement was three-month-old Evelyn, who lived with us for two years. She was an even-tempered, fun-loving little girl.

My husband’s father was an eighty-year-old immigrant from the “old country.” Having suffered a stroke before my husband was born, his body was paralyzed on the left side. My father-in-law didn’t like Evelyn because she was African American.

When taking a family picture, he’d make sure she was positioned behind someone. While she sat uncomprehendingly in her high chair, he would point his finger at her and request that she “Go back to Africa.”

Mercifully, my children were too young to know what he was saying. My mother-in-law would glare and tell him to stop. But that only worked for a while. It would start all over again at the next visit.

I would leave those weekly dinners with a mix of anger and sadness. This was my child he was talking to. How could he do that? My husband wouldn’t address the issue. “That’s just him,” he’d say. “He doesn’t know any better.”

After living with us for two years, Evelyn was adopted by her maternal grandmother.

Time passed, and we were ready to accept another long-term placement. I told my husband that I’d have to call his father first. His remarks and attitude would no longer be tolerated. The words were bad enough, but now my children were older, and they would understand his hurtful comments.

If he couldn’t change, we would stop visiting. He wasn’t going to be a reason to stop fostering, but he’d sure be a reason to stop putting a helpless child in his line of fire. I had to speak up.

I practiced my lines for days. It felt like weeks. The day of the call, I paced around the house waiting for more courage. I muttered to myself, “Come on now! It’s just a phone call. What’s the worst that can happen? What if he gets so mad, he refuses to speak to me again?”

All of this internal chatter wasn’t helping. I was getting short of breath, which happens when I get nervous. Shaking my hands, trying in vain to flip away those nerves, I finally called.

My mother-in-law answered the phone, and we exchanged pleasantries. I asked to speak to my father-in-law. “Oh!” she responded. I never called to talk exclusively to him, so I knew she’d be surprised. Now he was on the phone.

Oh boy. My words came out very slowly at first. My stomach was flipping. “Hi!” I started out brightly. I should get an Academy Award for acting. I was feeling anything but bright.

“Remember how we were foster parents a few years ago?” No response. I plunged ahead. “I know how you treated our daughter last time. You said some mean things, and it really upset me.”

It felt like I’d popped the cork from a shaken bottle of champagne. Finally released from my mind, the words now tumbled over each other in the race to be expressed.

“We are going to be taking another placement soon, and I wanted you to know that I can’t accept that kind of attitude toward any child we are caring for.”

Continued silence on the other end of the phone. Now for the really scary part. “If you feel that you can’t change, we won’t be visiting you while we are caring for this child.”

And I was done. I felt like I was suspended in midair. Or waiting for the ax to fall. Now what?

Silence.

After a few seconds, which felt like years, he told me he didn’t understand what I was talking about. While he did have a thick accent, I knew he had heard and understood me. I asked for my mother-in-law, and I explained the situation to her. I was a complete sweaty mess at this point.

She told me that she would speak to him as soon as we got off the phone.

Click.

Oh my Lord, call the paramedics. How I hated this. I try to avoid confrontation, and apparently my father-in-law does too. We never spoke of it again. We never had to.

I don’t think he had ever been approached this way by any of his immediate family, and the experience probably shocked him. Maybe he was as surprised as my husband that he was capable of changing his behavior.

He accepted our next daughter. Not with open arms, but with tolerance. He would offer her little treats at the dinner table, and praise her block-building skills. It was a transforming moment for me to see him change so radically. Actually, it was probably more transforming for him.

We went on to care for ten more children, and with each one, he became more and more at ease. Seeing him finally singing “Happy Birthday” to our foster children, I knew his heart had changed.

This whole episode showed me how important it is to stand up for what is right, with or without fear. It taught me that sometimes you just have to take the lead, bite the bullet, grab the bull by the horns . . . pick your favorite cliché.

In spite of my anxiety, I had to do the right thing and speak up. You know what else I learned? That words can change the world, one person at a time.

~Ceil Ryan

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