The Way Back In: Fostering Compassion for Parents

The Way Back In: Fostering Compassion for Parents

By Julia Hanessian

Julia HanessianA couple of days ago, on my way into work, I called my Mom to see if she could pick up my daughter from school later that afternoon. We chatted for a while about how I was doing: how busy I was, the difficulties of balancing work with life, how I miss having time with my daughter and family, and how I was wrestling with the trade-offs that we all have to make in our lives to succeed. She patiently listened and then gave me exactly what I needed: the “you can do this” talk. After my cathartic upload, I asked her about what was going on in her world. And of course, being the wonderful naturalist mother that she is, she started talking about broccoli. Yes, broccoli.

She has been growing broccoli in a winter garden on the side of her home. The garden is a covered area on the sunniest side of the yard, butted up against the house and located next to the dryer vent so that it gets as much heat as possible. The broccoli had been doing well up until a couple days ago when it suddenly got very, very cold. She was disappointed, because despite her best efforts to keep her broccoli growing, the mature plants withered. Then she saw something that took her by surprise: a few feet away was a little healthy broccoli shoot which had begun to grow. It was uncovered in the shade, yet it had managed to sprout in the bitter cold. She said it was a little garden miracle.

I generally don’t find the topic of broccoli growing very interesting, but strangely enough, her story made me think of the families that I work with in foster care. It struck me that although children appear fragile because of how small they are or because of their age, in many ways they are more resilient than adults. Although they have been through traumatic experiences, they have had less time to accumulate traumatic experiences than many adults have.

I don’t believe in “bad seeds” or that anyone starts out in life with an intention to harm themselves or others. Similarly, I don’t believe anyone gives birth to a child thinking they will abuse or neglect that child someday. I considered this big withering broccoli and this vibrant little shoot, or the parents and their children, if you will. I paused and asked myself, “How many negative, traumatic experiences would it take for a parent to become drug addicted and neglect their child or not protect their child who is being sexually abused under their own roof?” Then I took it a step further. What would it take for me to get to the point that I cared so little for myself that I couldn’t care for the ones I love the most in this world? I shuddered at the thought of how badly broken and abandoned I would have to be to neglect or abuse my family.

baby-broccoliThe thriving little broccoli sprout may be surprising, but also makes a lot of sense. Little shoots can adapt better to their circumstances because they don’t have long hard stalks and large crowns to support like the more mature broccoli. They can stay low to the ground, are less exposed to the elements, and they take less light and water to grow. It’s the mature broccoli, the parents in the families we serve, that have the burden of a lifetime of experiences that have led them to the point of withering like unusually warm days followed by the days of bitter cold, wet days providing an abundance of water to the roots followed by days with no water. This constant shock and trauma takes its toll.

Parents who have had their children removed from them need just as much love and community as their children do, and maybe even more. In child welfare, there is no shortage of sympathy and compassion for the children. However, there’s not such an abundance for the parents. If we as human service professionals stretched ourselves to offer parents more love and compassion, engaged parents and attempted to understand their long difficult road, how do you think they would respond? I don’t know, but I am curious whether that engagement would produce better outcomes for the family.

In no way am I saying that it is easy to engage every parent in a compassionate way. Despite our best efforts they may reject us. Let’s also not forget we have the main responsibility of caring for their children, which can make it even more complicated and difficult. Extending compassion towards the parents could just feel like a bridge too far for many reasons. It’s easy to believe in kids because they have so much life ahead of them, so many choices they have yet to make, and the parents have already made so many poor choices that it seems impossible for them to escape them.

However, it’s really important to remember that ALL of us (children and adults alike) need the same thing consistently to succeed throughout our life; we need to know that someone believes in our potential to be our best selves. We need to have that someone to reach out to that will give us the “you can do this” talk because they really believe you can, like my Mom did that morning. We need someone to see beyond whatever darkness we may be experiencing in that moment. Many of our youth and parents have not had that, and as a result their successes may be few and far between. If we can be the ones who are courageous enough and kind enough to believe our kids and their parents are on the road to becoming their best selves, that might just be the little extra bit it takes for them succeed.

I came across this beautiful quote expressed by a woman who had lost her way in life but then bravely challenged herself to find her way back. In the book Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail, the author Cheryl Strayed had this insight along her journey and an insight I hope every child and parent whose life we touch will have:

“I’d finally come to understand what it had been: a yearning for a way out, when actually what I had wanted to find was a way in.”

The author, Julia Hanessian, MSW, LGSW, is a case carrying Social Worker for therapeutic and traditional foster children and their families at Seraaj Family Homes, Inc.’s Washington, D.C. office. See more of her work on her blog “Perspectives” at