Should My Foster Children Call Me Mama?

I was very lucky to have an extended maternity leave with my son.  My due date was in February, and my school offered to let me take the rest of the year off.  Our little guy was 6 months old when we started looking for daycare, and it was much more difficult than I thought it’d be.  We’d hear of an infant opening, look up the provider on Facebook, and find a string of photos of the provider partying, drinking, and posting obscenities.  I turned down several providers through Facebook stalking without ever meeting them in person.

As most new parents, I was selective.  We interviewed a young woman who was just opening a daycare.  She gave us a tour of the home before it was furnished and functional, but she did have a large television in the otherwise empty living room.  At the time (when I was the inexperienced mom who believed my children would never watch TV), I saw it as a red flag and dipped out.

But by far the worst interview we had was scheduled late at night.  We arrived at the provider’s in home daycare.  It was in a bad part of town, it was dark outside, and we stood at the door knocking for several minutes before she answered the door.  She arrived at the door wearing Tweety Bird pajamas.  I thought maybe she had forgotten about our interview, but she welcomed us in with a “I’ve been waiting for you to get here” and gestured us inside.

She lived in the top level of her home and brought us down a rickety staircase to the daycare in the basement.  The floors were concrete and the gray cinder blocks on the walls hadn’t been covered with drywall.  It took my eyes a minute to adjust to the low light, and I scanned the room to see if I could locate a window.  I noticed a small, opaque, rectangle on the far side of the room.  Standing in that prison like daycare,  I already knew we were done here, but we still sat down to talk to this woman- mostly out of morbid curiosity.

She talked about how the doors were always locked because they had a registered sex offender living a couple houses down.   She mentioned her dogs that she kept downstairs with the kids (my son was and still is afraid of dogs).  Then she got on the topic of what the children called her.  She told us that some of them call her by her first name, but she likes when they just refer to her as Mama.  She said that she was so close with all of them that they see her as a mom, and some of them forgot what her real name was.  We cut the interview short after that.  My vague curiosity had vanished and turned into a “nope, not ever, I’m done” mentality.  I did not want my child, who will be in this person’s care for most of his waking hours, calling her mama.

I brought that experience into starting foster care.  I understood how a bio mom might feel if their child was calling another woman “mom.”  With that desire to respect my foster child’s actual parents, it was still tough to know how to proceed.  There were two things we encountered right away that complicated things: the first was that we were looking at an age range that was largely nonverbal, and the second was the question of what we’d do if a child wanted to refer to us as Mom and Dad, would we correct him or her?

When we did receive our first placement, all he could say at the time was Mama.  Everything was Mama.  If he was thirsty- “MAMAAAAA!!”  If he was hunger- “MAMA!”  If he was bored- “Mamaaa!”  It soon became apparent that he probably wasn’t going to be able to say our first names (especially my husband’s name which is 3 syllables long).  It also became apparent that while we often referred to each other by first name, my 3 year old son called us Mama and Daddy a thousand times more frequently than my husband and I talked to each other by first name.  At his young age, I’m sure he just believed my name was Mama.  He certainly didn’t place the same significance on the word that I did.

If he was an older child, I’m sure I would have introduced myself by my first name and given him the option to call me whatever he felt comfortable with.  I might even have offered up a few suggestions if I felt he wanted or needed parameters.  At some stage of my musing, I thought Tia and Tio, the Spanish words for aunt and uncle, could be a possibility.  It was familial without being too heavy on family, if that makes sense.  I’ve also heard other families going with Mama [insert first name], Nana/Papa, more formally by last names, or by some nickname.  Still others would say that they are Mom and Dad in their house, so they wouldn’t have any reservations about being referred to as such.

At the end of the day, I realized that the name is secondary.  I’ll probably always err on the side of caution and lead with first names, but I don’t see sticking to it rigidly and correcting a child every time as the best way to go either.  Nevertheless, whatever not so black and white name game I’m dealing with at home, I still want to affirm bio mom’s role as well.

One of the small ways I can show respect and affirm my foster child’s mom is refer to her as Mama at visits.  Whenever we see her walk up for a visit, I’m saying, “Look, here’s Mama!  Go get Mama!” as I put him down and let him wobble over to her with a huge grin.  At home, we asked her for her picture so we could hang it above his crib.  I worked on teaching him to blow a kiss one week in preparation for visitation, so at the visit I could say, “Blow Mama a kiss before you go.  We’ve been working on that this week so he could tell you goodbye.”

I think those little acknowledgements go a long way.  I’m letting her know that I respect her, and I’m not competing for her role as mother.  That’s her title.  And I’m not out to hurt her feelings or make her feel like she’s being replaced.   Yes, I am filling in and doing everything a mother would while she gets better, and that’s why I’m not upset if my foster children see that love and nurture as something a maternal figure would provide.  It might actually be a good thing for these kids to know that this is what a mom should be like.

I had a lot of thoughts outlining exactly what I’d be called and how it would all work.  I found it’s truly not that simple.  People are much more complicated than my black and white thinking.  All I can do is live each day intentionally and recognize that my job is temporary.  It’s to open up my home and provide some stability until they are able to go home to their Mama.

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