Yoga and the Art of Foster Parenting

She arrived two months ago, her clothes and stuffed animals packed into several garbage bags. Her kind social worker made sure she was comfortable, handed us her medical card and headed for the door.

So began our five weeks with Sara: A slip of a thing with chestnut hair that whirled around a gorgeous gummy smile. Five years old, with the timing of a standup comedian, the rage of a trapped lion, and the compassion of the Buddha. It’s now been a week since she left and I’m just trying to get a grip on what she taught me, because she taught me a lot.

John and I have been married five years. John has two nearly grown kids. A while back we decided to take the foster parent training. We noticed at the second session that several couples didn’t come back—the instructor said this was normal. “They see that it isn’t all sweetness and light,” she said.

So we were pleased when Sara’s first day here was good. The three of us played, went swimming and ate dinner together. She was cheery and adventurous and even drank the green smoothie I made her. We put her to bed that night feeling satisfied—this was going to be just fine.

Then, the next morning as I was getting her dressed, a tantrum erupted. And what a tantrum it was. Her small limbs were muscle-bound and she stiffened her body like iron. If you’ve ever tried to dress a seal with rigor mortis, you’ll understand. She ripped off any item of clothing we managed to put on her. She clawed at herself, screamed, and threw whatever object she could reach.

It took two of us half an hour not to dress her. So we gave up trying and I put my clients who were waiting for projects out of my mind. I pulled her into our bed and lay next to her, my hands on her back, while her body shuddered with sobs. She finally fell asleep on my chest. That day the social worker emailed us to say the court case was getting messy and Sara might be with us until December. Not a couple weeks as we first thought. December, eight months away.

Holy crap, what had we gotten ourselves into?

After she rested, she happily dressed and skipped outside to get in the car with John. I looked at the sky. I saw that this was not going to be simply a matter of mastering time management or creative child-psychology skills.

As the days went by, I understood something about foster kids I never would have predicted. Sure, it’s great to provide them love and a warm bed, good books, healthy food, and a predictable routine, things many of them have never received. But the truth is foster kids are actually miniature spiritual teachers, sleeping in our guest beds and singing from their car seats.

In yoga, there is an ancient set of guidelines called the Yamas and the Niyamas. They are a guide to behavior in the world—and who better to teach us about this subject than a foster child? Here’s what I learned from Sara.

Ahimsa. Nonviolence. Do no harm to any creature in thought or deed.  

When Yogananda asked Gandhi if he would kill a cobra to protect a child, Gandhi said, "I must confess that I could not serenely carry on this conversation were I faced by a cobra."

For me, cobras = Sara’s tantrums. And for several weeks, I could not be serene when I faced them. Not at all. My husband, a much cooler customer than I am, was an expert at simply holding space during them. Sometimes he’d even laugh a little.

“Well, it is kind of funny,” he would say as a tiny cowboy boot hit my head. His theory was that rage was natural after what she’d been through and the more she got to express it in a safe place, the more it would detox from her system.

It’s a good theory, but in the beginning, at least, I found my anger ramping up as hers did. I had to keep putting myself in time-out. In these moments, I found myself feeling compassion for parents who lose it on their kids. This part was very humbling.

But every swell of anger I felt was only fuel to her fire, so I learned to sit with her during the tantrums and simply breathe. It took all my energy. In the car, as sneakers and sippy cups were flung into the front seat, I breathed. As I carried her screaming, writhing body to the bath, I did my thing—breathed. And when she would look at me with beautiful eyes turned flat with rage, I stayed in the room and with as much kindness as I could muster, I breathed.

Satya. Truth and honesty. Tell no lies. 

Sara was raised until age 4 by a meth addict, who the social worker thinks parked her in front of the TV 24-7. Then she went to a foster home where she was lost in a crowd of babies and teens, sometimes not being fed. Her previous foster parents may have made up some stories for DHS about her behavior in order to get more money. Yet—and perhaps it was just her developmental stage—Sara didn’t lie.

In fact, if she spilled or broke something, she would come and tell me, always saying, “Sorry!” in her squeaky little mouse voice. She never sneaked food, either. She asked permission for every one of the 10,000 Gogurts she got out of the frig. Maybe lying and sneaking are for those who fear loss—who are keeping loss at bay. After all, she’d already seen the worst possible consequences and had suffered many losses—being taken away from her dad to a stranger, and then being taken from that stranger’s house to our strange house.

My brothers and I, raised with two strict Catholic parents and all the comfort and material things a kid could want, frequently lied under duress and wove some tangled webs as a result. Now, I’m not saying Sara had a complete moral code dialed in, but in a very interesting way, she kept her affairs clean and clear. Maybe she spoke the truth because she had nothing to lose.

Asteya and Aparigraha. Non-stealing and abstention from greed. Not coveting what is not ours.  

While the social worker can say, “Treat her like she’s your own child,” a foster child is not your own. But there were times it felt like we understood her better and could do a better job of parenting her than anyone else could. Times we felt like she was ours. When she sat on my lap at Easter dinner, I felt like she’d always been there. When she laughed with her grandma on the phone, I felt a pinch of jealousy. When she did well at art class, I felt elated. When I saw her remembering to cover her mouth when she coughed or mastering her sight words, I felt what any parent would feel: Super proud. I always made myself remember that this was short-term, though.

But after we read at night and she kissed me and fell asleep holding Pink Bunny, I did not “abstain from greed.” Even when I was bone-tired, even when she’d had a rough night, I hated to leave her warm side—I devoured those cuddled, sleepy moments.

To show up for her fully and remember that our only job was to keep her safe and healthy—temporarily—was not easy. But every day she taught us how to do it.

Santosha. Cultivate contentment and tranquility by finding happiness with what you have and who you are.

Sara was good at santosha. In fact, within 10 minutes of her arrival, she had set up her Dora tent and was singing inside it. Me, I’m still learning this one. I have a habit of thinking my real life is another step ahead of me. One day as we were hiking a man stopped me on the trail. “You have a wonderful family,” he said.

“Oh, no, actually…” I started to explain, retreating into my old belief that I come from the land of misfit toys, family-wise. Then I looked at them all, my handsome stepson carrying Sara on his shoulders, his girlfriend and my stepdaughter talking and laughing with John. I saw that they were my family, as transient as that moment may have been. “Thank you,” I said. “They are wonderful.”

Isvara pranidhana. Acknowledgment that there is a higher principle in the universe than one’s small self. 

When we were talking about the day ahead, Sara would always ask, “Am I coming back to the log house tonight?” Accustomed to uncertainty, she just needed to get ready for whatever was coming next and then she could step into it.

Then the judge changed the plan and allowed Sara’s grandmother and grandfather to be her foster parents—a very good decision. The afternoon they arrived from Utah to take her home, Sara reached up and hugged me. “We love you, sweetie,” I whispered into her neck. “You are strong and whole and you will always know exactly what to do.”

“I’m not coming back to the log house anymore, am I?” she said.

“No, probably not.”

And that was that. Thank you, Sara.

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