I just finished reading Wolfsbane and Mistletoe, a werewolf Christmas anthology edited by Charlaine Harris and Toni L.P. Kelner. One of the things that struck me about it was how many of the short stories – at least three, four if you count a child raised by wild dogs – involved kids either currently in the foster care system or having matriculated from it at some time in the past.
Wolfsbane and Mistletoe is a not a romance anthology, but it does contain stories by a number of authors who write romantic paranormals or fantasy with a romance edge to it. And I have lost track of the number of times I’ve read books with foster care alumni as protagonists or heroes or heroines who rescue needy kids from the horrors of the foster care system. And the thing is, I can’t decide how I feel about it.
On the one hand, taking in needy children fits in very neatly with the romance genre’s heart-and-hearth foundation. Heroes and heroines are frequently outcasts or outsiders who have suffered, so their choosing to care for children in similar circumstances feels both touching and right. Romance requires a certain amount of closure for the reader: villains are caught and punished, deadbeat ex’s get what they deserve, money lost comes back. Uniting a lonely, lost child with a caring, responsible adult is another way of providing that romantic satisfaction to the reader. And it’s such an easy way to do it.
I will admit to finding this scenario satisfying. Life is so infrequently fixable like this. But it’s gratifying to think it could be. And a child so desperately needs someone to care for him and take care of him, even more than an adult needs to find his one true love.
On the other hand, the needy orphans and foster children found in romance are always, always so resilient. Yes, they may lie some or go on a quick shoplifting spree. The teenaged ones will give lip. But in a short period of time, after cookies are baked, or a garden is planted, or an adult sticks up for the kid to his teacher/principal/social worker/bullying nemesis, the child always realizes this is the home he’s been wanting for…forever. And isn’t it beautiful that he’s found his forever home?
The fact is that most of the kids in foster care just aren’t that resilient or undamaged. Many of them have had poor care since they were in utero – they’ve been exposed to alcohol, poor nutrition, neglect and/or abuse since their first day as a fetus. Many of them have significant emotional or learning challenges. Some of them are terribly, dangerously angry. Some never developed the ability to attach to anyone. Often these disadvantages will stay with them. As a whole they will struggle with employment as adults. They will abuse alcohol and drugs. They will not be able to plan long term because they’ve never learned how to think outside of what is happening right now. They will not miraculously morph into stud muffin P.I.’s or multibillionaires who are haunted by their pasts until they meet their soulmates. Many of them will wind up in prison, develop mental illness, or experience homelessness. In both nature and nurture many of them are set up for failure.
Why do I care? Well, it’s personal. In 2004 I adopted my son from the Russian orphanage system. In researching what to expect from this life-changing decision, I learned all about Fetal Alcohol System, Reactive Attachment Disorder, and the likelihood of success the average Russian orphan has given all the barriers he faces (he has about a 10% chance of leading a normal, healthy life). I look at my son now, bright and beautiful and healthy and full of life, and it is just unimaginable that given slightly different circumstances he would have a completely different life. He was, through no fault of his own, on a path to misery, and now he is walking – skipping – running down a road that I pray will lead to happiness and success.
But despite my son’s general good health, lack of post-institutional challenges, and natural abilities, in my mind I can’t quite convince myself that that would have been enough. That he would have been the naturally resilient one, the one who could live without love and nurturing and then be able to give it with passion to someone else as an adult. And if he couldn’t, where does that leave the kids who are hampered by abuse/neglect/FAS/RAD? No place good, I’m afraid.
It’s not that I want to see the romances I read filled with realistically troubled, emotionally damaged kids. That would pretty much negate any sense of HEA any author could conjure up. Even the most lovey-dovey couple is going to find their honeymoon dampened by presence of a deeply troubled kid. But I wish authors would stop using “Foster Care” as shorthand for “lonely and alone, misunderstood, and deeply deserving of a hero(ine)’s love.” Because the feeling of being truly vulnerable, truly alone and at the mercy of strangers, is something beyond what the average romance reader has experienced and, unfortunately, not wiped clean by the experience of falling in love.
It feels like a fantasy to me, and not a good kind of fantasy – a willfully ignorant one.