Monday, March 19, 2012

What's in a Name?

When we first started fostering, we weren't sure what to ask the theoretical kids who came to our home to call us.

We didn't want to ask them to call us Mom and Dad because we knew they would have parents that they associated with those names. Whether those associations were good or bad, we wanted them to be able to leave that with those people and have us be a "fresh slate."

We didn't want to ask them to call us Mr and Mrs LastName, because that seemed overly formal for the parental role we expected to be filling.

We didn't want to ask them to call us by our first names, because that seemed a little too familiar. (Keep in mind, we're talking about children ages 0-6. If we were expecting teenagers, this might have been a different conversation.)

What does that leave?

Thankfully for us, we live in the south, which means that many children around here are used to sometimes addressing adults as Mr or Ms FirstName. My bio children called most of their preschool teachers this; most of the adults they interact with at church use this format; the children in the choir I direct call me this as well. I didn't love it as a plan, because I felt like it didn't go far enough to establishing the strength of the relationship. Foster children in my home are more closely linked to me than a child I happened to teach to sing This Little Light of Mine. We assuaged that guilt by reminding ourselves that we would be open to "special" names if the children wanted them, but that those could develop naturally.

So, we were introduced to our first placement, R and A, as Mr FirstName and Ms FirstName. They were only with us for the length of the day. R was a whirlwind, into everything, trying everything, and mostly played with Mr D. I don't remember what he actually called us if anything. Within a few hours, A was following me around the house and calling me Mommy. I think we quickly would have been Mommy and Daddy to both of them, but they were gone before the first night had passed.

L and O came from a very different family situation. We have been Mr FirstName and Ms FirstName the whole time they've been here (over 8 months now!). They see Mommy every week; they talk to both Mommy and Daddy regularly on the phone. Mommy and Daddy are real people to them, people who are important in their lives, people they expect to go back to. Whenever O has slipped up and accidentally called me Mom or Mommy (because my biokids all call me Mom, after all!), L has been quick to correct him. Which has been fine. I've always responded to her correction -- usually a snapped, she's not your mom! -- by speaking to him with a smile and saying, "I'm your Ms. FirstName!"

A few weeks ago, L announced out of nowhere that maybe she could call us Mom and Dad because she calls her parents Mommy and Daddy, so it "wouldn't be confusing because it's different names." I felt she was just testing for a reaction, so I just calmly told her that would be fine if she wanted to do that or she could keep calling me Ms FirstName; I'd answer to either one. She dropped it, and continued to call me Ms FirstName.

Yesterday, she came home from a respite night. She'd had a great time with this family, which has daughters both older and younger than L, at least one of whom is a different ethnicity than the rest of the family. I'm not sure if that triggered something or not, but last night she announced that she was going to start calling me Mama, and kept correcting herself when she started to say Ms FirstName. We'll see how long it lasts.

I don't know what it means that she's changing my name. I don't know if it means anything. I would have been content to be Ms FirstName for them throughout their stay, although I'm not going to reject her desire to call me something else. This is not a placement that is ever likely to turn into an adoption--I expect them to go back to Mommy at some point, although I don't know when. I do hope that we're successfully giving her a model of what a functional marriage should look like. (Her parents are divorced, and there was domestic violence in the home prior to their split. Mommy appears to be true of the stereotype that abused women often end up in other abusive relationships, so L has seen a lot of that even after the divorce.) Maybe someday, she'll be reminded that she wants what "mama" had from her boyfriend/husband (respect, affection, trust), rather than what "mommy" had (verbal and physical abuse).

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