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Feminist Success Stories - Célébrons nos réussites féministes

Karen A. Blackford
Marie-Luce Garceau
Sandra Kirby

Part V: Caring — Partie V : Question de soins et de services

Mothering for the State: Three Stories of Working Class Foster Mothers

Baukje Miedema et Nancy Nason-Clark

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  • 1 I would like to thank the Nels Anderson Fund, the Canadian Federation of University Women, and the (...)

1Foster mothers are women who enter a contractual relationship with the child welfare system for the care of children who have been apprehended by the state. Foster care can be described as “the provision of planned, preferably short-term, substitute care for children who cannot be adequately maintained at home” (McKenzie 1989, 1). In New Brunswick, the role of the foster mother and other foster family members is described as providing the apprehended child with “stability of a substitute family” (New Brunswick Health and Community Services Information Sheet n.d.).1

2From an outside perspective, foster mothers appear to be exploited by the state: they provide twenty-four hour care to a troubled child for the cost of that child’s room and board in the foster family’s home; they agree to accept children on short notice (often two to three hours); they receive little information on the child’s presenting problems or past difficulties with the law or the education system; they agree to transport and accompany the child to medical and therapeutic services; they provide ongoing academic support to the child including assistance with school work; they offer physical care including the provision of meals, lunches, laundry, and a clean living space; and they agree to provide emotional support and counsel to multi-problem children. However, the relationship between the foster mothers and the state is far more complex than this suggests.

3While for most women mothering is relegated to the private sphere, the care provided by the foster mother is strictly supervised by the child welfare system. As such, she is a public mother, mothering on behalf of the state. In this paper, we want to explore, based on the personal stories of three working-class foster mothers in New Brunswick, the central paradox in the way in which the state understands the contribution of women who foster; i.e., the rewards and challenges they attribute to their work. We will discuss the centrality of their personalized concept of “mothering,” and how they believe that as mothers they have something important to contribute to children who are in need of safety and stability.

4On the one hand, the child welfare system relies almost exclusively on women to provide care and stability for dislocated children for whom the state acts as guardian. The state provides limited reimbursement for the costs these women incur, relying on their volunteer labour to meet a public need. However, while the foster mothers provide twenty-four hour care to foster children, they are not involved in the decision-making processes related to these children. As such, the state depends upon their altruism and their skills for care and nurturance, but appears to disregard that same knowledge and experience when decisions about the future of the foster child need to be made.

  • 2 These are fictious names.

5Annie, Barbara, and Connie2, three New Brunswick foster mothers, tell stories of fostering experiences that can be characterized as examples of success in the feminizing of the child welfare system at the level of the individual caretaker/child relationship. These women derive self-worth from their caring and self-esteem from others who acknowledge the important roles they play in the lives of marginalized children. Yet, in their relationship with the state, they are very vulnerable because their mothering knowledge is marginalized and they have no involvement in the foster child’s future.

6While the system of foster care receives much attention in the social work literature, the lives and experiences of women who foster are often overlooked. Within the debate around foster care, it is assumed that fostering is a family responsibility, affecting the lives of both adults and children who offer their homes as refuge for dislocated children (Cohen and Westhues 1994; Kulp 1993). Yet, the reality of the foster experience is that, while the support of all family members is crucial to the success of the foster placement, it is the lives of foster mothers who are affected the most (Kendrick 1990).

7The feminist literature on mothering offers somewhat opposing views of motherhood (cf Everingham 1994; Rossiter 1988). Neoconservative and liberal feminists argue that women’s mothering is inevitable and that society should strive to make mothering as rewarding as possible without changing the social patriarchal structures of contemporary society (Descarries-Bélanger et al. 1991).

8On the other hand, feminists grounded in psychoanalysis and radical feminist thought argue that mothering is socially constructed. Nancy Chodotow (1978) believes that mothering is not grounded in biology but emerges as learned activity from a gendered life experience. While radical feminists also see motherhood as socially constructed and the ultimate result of patriarchal society, they advocate the “abolition of motherhood as an institution and the domestic responsibility of women” (Descarries-Bélanger et al. 1991, 16).

9Everingham (1994) expresses the struggle between the divergent philosophies of mothering this way:

How can the fundamental contribution that women-as-women make to society be specified without tying women’s identity to some essential notion of what it means to be a woman? Any fixed formulation of women’s “nature” has the potential to undermine women’s efforts to achieve some measure of personal autonomy. Yet to ignore women’s specific experience as women, and their contributions to society as mothers, inhibits our understanding of nurturing activities and the possible development of a socio-political system grounded in an ethic of care. (Everingham 1994, 4)

10In other words, if women want to be recognized as mothers, they may be relegated to the domestic sphere almost entirely through the justification that mothering and its associated activities are biologically determined; on the other hand, to ignore women’s contribution as mothers to society will render their work and contributions invisible.

11Basing her analysis on personal experience, Amy Rossiter (1988) felt uncomfortable with the sharp bifurcation in the theories explaining motherhood. She states:

I was stuck on the horns of a very painful dilemma: I believe that children’s attachment to their mothers was based on their physical relationship to the maternal body; yet I understood that same preferential attachment to be implicated in the maintenance of patriarchy. (Rossiter 1988, 13)

12Others have suggested that economic conditions and social class play an important role in how mothering is viewed by women and society:

That lack of validation for women’s caring obscures the work involved and reinforces the idea that this is the natural work of women. In a society that values paid work in the public sphere, the work of women’s caring in the private sphere has received little attention. (Baines, Evans and Neysmith 1991, 30)

13Many women in the contemporary western world find that mothering produces both incongruence and ambivalence. When a mother chooses to care full-time for her children, she is relegated to a subordinate position in society and her life is determined by the domestic sphere. If she chooses to be childless and to participate in the public sphere fully, she is questioned about her choices and often meets with criticism. If she chooses to participate both in the domestic sphere as a mother and in the public sphere as a worker, she has to carry out a delicate juggling act (Nason-Clark and Bélanger 1993; Hochschild 1989), one for which there is no clear-cut solution.

14An added quandary in the early as well as recent works on mothering is that they deal with women who mother their own children (Chodorow 1978;Trebilcot 1983; Wearing 1984; Rossiter 1988; Kaplan 1992; Everingham 1994). Furthermore, much of this literature understands mothering from a middle-class vantage point. But what about the experiences of working class women who choose to mother other women’s children?

15Dorothy Smith (1987) has created a “map” to analyze “the work of mothering in a complex of relations that organizes its social and material character” (1987, 170). In a similar fashion, we analyze the daily experiences of women who have chosen to mother children who are not their own. The complex of relations for these mothers involves relationships with the state, personified in various social workers, medical, educational, and therapeutic professionals dealing with foster child and the biological family of the foster child. Mothering for foster mothers, therefore, is not a private matter but a very public one. As public mothers, these women fulfil many of the responsibilities associated with mother care yet they are deprived of several rewards (i.e., seeing their children grow up, making decisions in early childhood that have the potential to affect their later lives).

  • 3 Some women had retired from the workforce.

16The narratives of the three foster mothers presented here are part of a larger study on foster care in New Brunswick. The initial research sent a survey to all 650 foster families in New Brunswick (one survey per foster family), but, of the returned surveys (47% response rate), 93% were completed by women. Exactly half of the foster mothers themselves reported that their partners shared in the provision of care for the foster child. However, upon further analysis, it was revealed women were far more involved in the practical day-to-day physical activities, such as assisting with homework and providing transportation. The majority (55%) of the foster mothers were full-time, stay-at-home moms; a further 20% worked full-time; and 20% worked part-time outside the home.3 Those working for pay tended to be involved in jobs that mirrored women’s work in the home, e.g., cooking, baking, personal care. By contrast, the majority of their male spouses had obtained full-time employment or were seasonal workers. A very small percentage of the male spouses did not have employment outside the home.

17Providing a family for a troubled child was reported as one of the primary motives for entering into a contractual relationship with the child welfare system. As we shall see, providing a family environment centres around the role of mother and her provision of love and care to children in need.

18While the purpose of the first phase of this research was to sketch a profile of foster parents in New Brunswick, the second phase focused on the experiences of foster mothers, through twenty in-depth interviews in various geographical locations around the province. To illustrate the complexities of foster mothers’ decisions and the impact of fostering on women’s daily lives, we have chosen three interviews as the foundation for this paper.

A Window Into the Lives of Foster Mothers

19The main goal of the narrative approach is to take seriously “what people say about their lives rather than treating their words simply as an illustration of some other process” (Cruikshank 1990, 1). Through presenting three foster mothers’ own stories, we hope to provide these foster mothers with “the opportunity to present themselves and their lives as they would want them presented” (Cole 1991, 40).

20The three foster mothers described in this chapter were chosen out of the twenty foster mothers interviewed for the study (Miedema 1999). The sole criteria for including these three women in this chapter was the concept that they illustrate a wide variety of fostering experiences based on the ages of the foster children and the purpose of fostering. One foster mother fostered only teenaged children; the second foster mother fostered an infant with the hope of being able to adopt the child in the near future; and the third foster mother fostered a handicapped child. The foster mother’s stories are neither typical nor atypical fostering experiences; each story was unique to the individual foster mother. Although the fostering experience was framed by a complex set of relationships between the foster mother, her family, the state, the foster child, and the foster child’s family, this article illustrates that one foster mother’s story alone cannot embody the fostering experience. These three stories, then, illustrate, from the perspective of the foster mothers, the impact of various aspects of fostering on these women’s daily lives.

Annie’s Story4

  • 4 The original transcript text has been presented in tact, except for some minor editing. All names (...)

21Annie was a heavy-set, middle-aged woman with a grandmotherly demeanour and a warm, friendly personality. She lived in a small village of rural New Brunswick in a large, well-kept house from which she ran a seasonal business. She also cared for an elderly father.

22With her two grown children on their own, eight years previous, Annie decided to become a foster mother. Since that time, she has provided care for sixty children. At present, Annie is fostering four teenage children, two of whom are young offenders.

23The interview with Annie was rather chaotic: her partner entered and retrieved items from the kitchen on several occasions; curious foster children poked their heads in from time to time; the phone rang, and the dog barked. This was a snapshot of Annie’s life.

On the decision to foster...

We both made the decision to become foster parents. I fostered before [another province] when my boys were younger. When we moved here, I had [own seasonal business], so in the winter I said: “I will foster.” It sort of grows on you. If you don’t have kids, the house is empty. It gives me something to do. A little bit of income and...I enjoy it. You do see the rewards. You see the rewards. Maybe not right away but you do see the rewards. It makes you feel good.

On the impact of fostering...

The foster children come here with no rules...most of them who come here they don’t know what it is to sit down and have supper at the same time every night, go to bed at the same time, to have a shower at the same time. A lot of them don’t have any morals; like respect for other people’s stuff; not to take stuff that does not belong to them.
House rules, normal house rules, every house has them but they are not written down. Mine are written down....The first two weeks, the angel period, the children are really, really good. Then they become normal kids again and they try to do what they did at home and stuff like that. Then you have to teach them, what you think is right as a foster parent.

On attachment...

I have to be careful you know, I really like him. In fact, I feel so sorry for him that it is not funny. Like they have been dragging this case for six years. Now that he is fourteen, they realize, I think it was a month or two months ago, just before he came here, one month and half, and they just found out that it is the mother who does not want him. It is hard...the kid has been trying and trying and I don’t know....
When [B] left his mom came and got him. She said: “You will probably see him again, it will not be long.” No social worker and nothing. I felt happy and hurt.... Not very many will say thank you even when the parents come and get them, half of the parents will not say a boo. Then you do have the odd ones. Like I got a book with cards and stuff like that.
I have a lot of contact when the kids leave. [A foster girl] moved to Ontario. She phones me. Wherever she moves, like she is a little gypsy, but wherever she is, she phones. Mother’s Day she will never forget. I get cards, she sends me pictures of her kids. I have [P] another girl from [city]. She phones me three times a week. Another one would bring the adoption papers. That is the reward. The kid is still thinking of you. That contact means a lot to me. I like cards and stuff like that. Then the others, you don’t hear, you wonder about them.

On the type of care Annie provides...

  • 5 All interviewed foster mothers were asked if they felt that the care they provide was professional (...)

Family care. It is like I said before, showing the kid what a normal family is. I am not saying that all foster children are street children. Some of them, like I say, they don’t know what utensils to use, they don’t know that you have to take a bath every day. Things like that. Just normal family behaviour. Professional [care]?5 What I meant maybe was, how can I say? It is like a profession, you are like a teacher and for girls, teaching them how to sew, how to cook and clean and taking care of children. You teach them how to cope, how to take care of kids.

On the rewards...

I enjoy the kids and I really like doing it. I would be very lost if I did not have it. I enjoy cooking for them and enjoy taking care of them.
Others think I am up too much. Especially with four teenagers. They think I am crazy. A lot of people think I am crazy. They say: “You got four teenagers? Are you crazy?” They don’t understand.
I often pay stuff out of my own pocket. Lots of stuff. I am not saying big things because I cannot afford it. But little odds and ends. It is very unfair, there should be, you know, a scale, not depending on the mood or the feeling of the social worker if the child comes into care.... It is bad enough that they are away from their family. They should have their needs met.

On the relationship between the Department of Health and Community Services and Annie...

It is sometimes hard to get in contact with the social worker. It depends again, it depends on the worker. Sometimes the worker is too busy, they are really busy, I should not say too busy, but they are really busy because they have a heavy case load.
The thing that really concerns me is the aftercare for the kids when they leave. Like they sometimes...the kid has been in care for six months, he should be doing okay and they take him and put him back, you know, there should be more closer contact. I think even more so after they leave here. Because they are floating, they are not sure if they want to go for the good or the bad.

24Annie’s story mirrors the experience of foster women around the province in that she sees traditional domestic and mothering responsibilities as critical components in the care she offers to the foster children. Her story differs from others in that she chooses to look after teenagers, which in the minds of many foster mothers is considered the most challenging or difficult age group. Central to Annie’s fostering experience is her goal to provide a family and to mother children in need of care, stability, and safety. As a result, it is the traditional domestic labour responsibilities that Annie sees as the expertise she brings to fostering.

Barbara’s Story

25Barbara lives on the outskirts of a small town in a new house with a large live-in kitchen. Barbara is thirty-four years of age, a university educated stay-at-home mother, married to a tradesman with a highschool diploma.

26Initially, Barbara became a foster mother because she was involuntarily childless. For the last six years, she has taken care of nine foster children of varying ages. After fostering for six years, Barbara and her husband decided to adopt one of the children for whom they cared.

27At the time of the interview, Barbara had an eight-year-old daughter she had adopted, and two other foster children (an eight-year-old and an infant whom she was planning to adopt). The interview atmosphere was quiet because the baby slept almost all the time and the other children were in school.

On the decision to foster...

...we had just found out that we couldn’t have any children of our own. That was very difficult for myself more than my husband because I was very hurt, very angry. I felt that I didn’t want to bring up other people’s children, if I couldn’t have my own. So with the support of my husband and sitting down talking about it, this is something we thought that we should try We had put a lot of thought into this. This is something that you can’t just jump into. You need to have a lot of time to think this out.

On the impact of fostering...

It has changed our lives. By now we have adopted one. We used to be able to get up and go before as we felt free but now children come first and we just take one day at a time. We can’t plan ahead like before.
I wondered if it was good, because I was used to being able to go wherever I wanted. But I wouldn’t change that for anything now because it is really a great experience. We do a lot of family things together which is nice and we do take the time to do things, just my husband and I by ourselves.
I knew it would be a lot of our time spent with the children, because with your own children you know what they are like right from a young age. When you get older children, they are set in their ways, you don’t know a lot about them so you really have to work with these children more. I find with the little one that we have now, we had him since birth, it made it easier on us than the other [foster] children.

On attachment...

...if they are here for a long period of time, it makes it harder to see them leave. Even I found, we have had a couple of cases where it has been overnight to maybe just a few days or a week, it has been hard to see them go.
... [It] was very difficult for us to decide for her [current foster child] not to stay with us. She is at a very difficult age and has a lot of problems in her background. We have two other children, we feel that this is our family right now, we like to have a time to be with our family. We did tell her that she was going to leave and she dealt with it very, very well. Children can deal with things very quickly when they are leaving, or if they are staying. They learn to adjust very well. She has her moments when she doesn’t want to leave us but we are going to be like an extended family to her, she’ll never lose contact, she’ll pick the phone and call us. Or she’ll come up different times, when she wants to call us and ask to come up she can and we will do some special things with her. We have been like parents that she never had before and to make it a lot easier on her, we agreed to be an extended family for her which is nice that you are able to do that.

On the type of care provided...

Well it is family care because it is not just the foster parents that have to deal with it. It is their family members too. Like my mom and dad and his [husband] parents, brothers and sisters and that. It was not on very good terms at first for his side but on my side it was just wonderful because they knew that we wanted children so much and they were really happy for us. But we had to deal with both sides. Now that we have fostered for a few years and have had children, they know that we really do a lot of good for these kids. They may not be our own but they feel very special to us and we try to make them fit in to the family.

On fostering and rewards...

...with the baby we had, we went and got the baby at the hospital and it was just a matter of three days because the baby had to stay in hospital until things were checked out. That is the thing about children, babies are usually placed on adoptive placements. We had our name on the adoption list before we started fostering. We thought well maybe it could be quite a while down the road before we have a chance to adopt any babies.
We decided yes, it worked out well. We still kept our name on the list for a baby and it wasn’t until last year that we got a call....We had the opportunity of going to see the baby. We went shopping, got clothes and stuff for the baby and took them to the hospital and got him dressed and brought him home the next day. It was nice to be able to go because it was something I wanted always to experience. I mean, that is about the newest you could get a child.

On the relationship between the Department of Health and Community Services and Barbara...

No, I think it is great the way it is. I have never had any problem.

28Barbara’s story is centred around her own voluntary childlessness. She enters into fostering as a vehicle to become a real mother of an infant child. Like the majority of women who choose to foster, Barbaras philosophy of caring is rooted in traditional notions of mothering. Unlike other foster mothers, however, Barbara has some very specific goals about her fostering experience. She had indicated her desire to adopt children before her involvement with the foster care system and foster care in New Brunswick provides foster families with priority adoption. Clearly, one expedient way to adopt a child is to volunteer to become a foster parent. Barbara was successful in her efforts to adopt. In the beginning, she adopted a school-aged child and now she is in the process of adopting an infant. The adoption of the infant fulfilled her desire to construct an experience of attachment with a foster child that imitates as much as possible the experience of birth mothers.

Connie’s Story

29Connie, forty-two years old, lives in a small two-storey house approximately twenty kilometres out of a major town. She lives with her husband, a grown son, and one two-year-old special needs, foster child. While neither Connie nor her husband completed high school, she has attained a GED Diploma. He is employed full-time as a mechanic.

30Connie has been a foster mother for more than eleven years and has taken care of a total of seven foster children. For more than six years, she fostered a severely handicapped child who needed twenty-four-hour care. Eventually, the child died, leaving emptiness in Connies life.

31The interview with Connie was interrupted a number of times by phone calls, a knock on the door, and the waking up of the young foster child.

On the decision to foster...

I got lonely and I missed having kids. I missed feeling needed, that was my main thing. I enjoy having kids around and I found it very lonely in the house. So I just said: “That’s it, I’ll take another one.”

On the impact of fostering...

It was hard to get babysitters so we had to stay home. One of us was more used to him so one of us would go and the other would stay home. Now it is fairly easy to get babysitters. I used to get frustrated but my husband was a great sitter. He supported me a hundred percent. Like the little guy that we had a while ago, we had him for a little over six years, and he was total care. Six years and then he died. He couldn’t even sit up on his own. He had spastic. You had to be able to know how to handle him. A lot of people were scared of him. See we got used to him because he was with us.
But I did have babysitters come in you know like every week and I went for groceries and stuff like that but we just didn’t go out as a couple, as a husband and wife team very often.
Family care I would say it is more like the closeness of the family unit. The time for playing and helping him learn a little bit. The professional care is the therapy and stuff. That is how I looked at it. To me, I feel I can do just as good as anybody else under the circumstances with the child I had because I had been taught enough about how to look after them. A lot of the kids, the other little guy, everybody used to say I was around him enough that I knew more about him that they did. Which is true because we as foster parents are around these children twenty-four hours a day so we know.

On attachment...

[But now] I have a little boy that is two-and-a-half, but he is tiny, tiny, he was born at a pound and a half and he is only twenty pounds. So he is special needs. We are going to adopt this little guy.
Well, I think it is the idea that I’ve had him so long that I’m scared that they would take him out of my home. I brought him home from the hospital. He was six months old when they got him out of the hospital and I brought him home.

On rewards...

You make fairly good on special needs, [but on regular foster children] maybe $4.00 a day, that’s all you get. I think the last time, I can’t be quoted, but it was about $120.00 to $150.00 a month, that’s not much for buying baby food and milk. Like I mean they had to go buy Pampers, they have changed that now, Pampers are no longer under them.
I feel they are losing their foster parents because of it. Because I mean people take kids because they want to but they don’t need to go into the hole for it. I mean you are allowed so much for maintenance and clothing and stuff but I mean that doesn’t go no where. I mean the cost of living goes up, okay we get a raise maybe $4.00 a year, that s not going to buy nothing. They don’t realize what it cost to look after the child. I mean you can go out and babysit and make three times the amount of money a month as what when you are looking after a child twenty-four hours a day. Even the chances of having teenagers, they could burn your house down. Social Services will reimburse you so much. No, it is not enough.

On the relationship between the Department of Health and Community Services and Connie...

You shouldn’t have to go ask [concerning information]. They should just bring it all out in the open. Because I mean you are taking the child. I mean you have to know whether that child has got AIDS or has been tested, I think anyway. They’ve never brought stuff like that. I mean it is something that not everybody needs to be checked on but it don’t hurt.
I felt that the worker thought that I didn’t know nothing. But really after I got to know her, I could see where she was coming from but I just felt that they aren’t reading their paperwork or whatever because I had other kids and like, the special needs was really special needs. I thought if I can look after him, I can look after anybody. I felt all they had to do was look back in my files and see that. But she was a new worker and she didn’t know me. So I could see where she was coming from but I didn’t like it.

32Connie’s experience of fostering is also rooted in notions that the best care children can receive comes from mothers. But, in Connie’s case, she has chosen children who are in need of constant care, thus intensifying both the skills and endurance required of the foster mother. For six years, she provided around-the-clock nurturance for a severely handicapped child until his death in the early 1990s. At the moment, she is both caring for a special needs child and considering adoption of that child because she is worried about his future.

Understanding Foster Mothers’Stories

33Embedded within each of the stories that Annie, Barbara, and Connie have told of their fostering experience is the centrality of mothering. For these women, their motherhood was not rooted in their biological experiences, though two were indeed biological mothers. Nor was their mothering simply a function of expressing a need to be needed, although that motive too can be gleaned from the stories. Rather, it is an interweaving of the notion that children need to be raised by a mother in a family setting, that their personal skills as mothers qualify them to look after children who have been apprehended by the state, and that what they impart to these children is the experience of a woman who cares for them to the point of irrationality as a mother is supposed to do. In a retroactive fashion, these foster women strive to overcome the limitations that dislocated children experience: not having a mother to provide care, security, stability, and love.

34So what does motherhood include? Mothering demands a “single-minded passion” for a child (Roth 1994). It includes irrational giving (Aaker 1994), “24-hour duty” (Luxton 1980), and “playing, talking, reading and generally worrying about them” (Luxton 1980). From the perspective of the twenty foster mothers in our study, success in fostering is defined as a woman who can act out her mothering role for a child who has been taken from its own mother. As with the working-class women in Wearing’s 1984 Australian study, money and education are less important to their sense of self-worth than are the roles of wife and mother: in fact, it was their opinions and ideas as mothers that caused other people to pay attention and admire them. In a similar vein, the women in our foster care study report that their success derives from the fact that as mothers they can make a difference in the life of a child, a child who for whatever reason has been deprived of continued mother-care.

35Relying on the feelings of the foster mothers concerning care, the state uses these women’s altruism (foster care is the backbone of the child welfare system in New Brunswick) and benefits from their volunteer labour. However, at the same time, the state appears unwilling to tap into their knowledge and experience at the level of the child welfare system as a whole. Rather, the state depends almost entirely on the advice of “professionals,” who may have had limited contact with the foster children. In fact, the state considers fostering as something for which “no special skills [are] required” exposing the state’s understanding of what mother care is (New Brunswick foster care pamphlet). The New Brunswick Foster Care Pamphlet goes on to state that “if you are able to love children you would make a good foster parent.”

36The three foster mothers whose stories are told in this article illustrate several contradictions inherent in the “web of relationships” between foster mothers, foster children, and the social workers employed by the state for the purpose of child welfare (Smart 1987; Luxton 1980). First, there is the value of mother-love. On the one hand, it is the love of children and the value a woman places on mother love that prompts a woman to consider foster care. Yet, the state does not value such a commitment enough to include foster mothers as part of the foster child’s decision-making team. Second, consider the importance of mother-care. While the state upholds the desirability of providing a child s care in a home setting, indeed expects foster mothers to take children at short notice (under circumstances that are often fraught with tension and conflict), it also removes children from the foster care environment without adequate preparation for the separation of foster mother and child. Third, there is the importance of mother-contact. Although the state requires the provision of physical and emotional care for the foster children by the foster mothers, as soon as the foster child has left, foster mothers are not encouraged to remain in contact with the foster child; in fact, they are often actively discouraged. The result is that many foster mothers still worry about the children who once lived with them.

37Thus, foster care is a prime example of the success of feminization of care at the individual level (for both foster mother and foster child), without necessarily demonstrating success at the level of broader structural changes to the institution and society. In essence, the foster mother provides the foster child with the most essential aspect of fostering (love and care) at a personal level that an impersonal system is unable to do. The irrational mother-love, the desire for mother-contact, and the perpetual mother-care of foster women bridges the gap between the multiple needs of children in care and the inflexible bureaucratic nature of the state. Surely, this is one of the central paradoxes of the role of the foster mother: at the point of her greatest irrationality (be it economic, time, or affection), she is most successful to her foster child.



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1 I would like to thank the Nels Anderson Fund, the Canadian Federation of University Women, and the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada for their support.

2 These are fictious names.

3 Some women had retired from the workforce.

4 The original transcript text has been presented in tact, except for some minor editing. All names and personal information have been changed to protect the foster mother’s identity.

5 All interviewed foster mothers were asked if they felt that the care they provide was professional or family-based care.


Research Associate, Family Medicine Unit (Dalhousie), Fredericton

Professor, Sociology Department, University of New Brunswick

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