Romance’s Foster Kid Ubiquity

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.

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9 Responses to Romance’s Foster Kid Ubiquity

  1. LinnieGayl says:

    Wow, Rachel. I just read your entry for the third time. It’s given me a lot to think about. First, it made me cry about the happy story involving your son. He is a lucky boy, indeed. But mostly, it’s really going to make me think every time I encounter foster children — or heroes or heroines who are former foster children — in romance novels.

    Thanks for a very thought-provoking entry.

  2. AAR Rachel says:

    I’m glad it struck a chord with you, LinnieGayl. It’s been percolating in my head for a long, long time.

  3. Janet W says:

    Would you include historicals in your observations? Mary Balogh has written about some fairly wounded children – - altho usually not starving, except emotionally. Like Anna in Balogh’s “Best Christmas Ever”, mute since her mother’s death by drowning (Regency Christmas III) or the three Parr orphans , “The Surprise Party” (A Regency Christmas), trying so hard not to fear the future, protect each other and treasure their few happy memories of their dead parents.

    I actually think Balogh gives her wounded children (and adults) a lot of authenticity — what do you think? Is is the instant happy ending in contemps that is more troubling for you?

    And fascinating blog, thank you!

  4. AAR Rachel says:

    I suppose it’s the lack of complexity re: this issue that really bothers me. And, yes, it includes historicals too. I read – I believe – With This Ring by Carla Kelly in the middle of my adoption journey, and what struck me most, and what still stays with me is that this couple poses as a married couple and because they need a baby to make all the details fit, they stop at an orphanage and pick up one. Then, while reading it, I just thought, “Where’s the social worker, where was the home study? Their rationale for adopting is pretty flimsy.” It was so effortless. Now I think of stuff like “Is it reasonable to think a child would bond so easily?” and “What are the chances she was exposed to alcohol in utero?” As well as, “Will this child grow up and wonder about her biological parents? Will she ever be angry that she is beholden to her adoptive parents’ generosity?” I recently read another short story by Kelly in Here’s to the Ladies about an “orphaned” Lakota (?) baby taken in by an army family. I had to wonder if the child would ever resent that more care was not taken in finding his biological relatives. Even given his parents’ great love, he may find it is wrenching to grow up in a white culture, but not be truly white. How will his parents deal with these types of conflicting feelings?

    Even with one of my favorite romances, The Shadow and the Star, I have to mentally make up a little backstory for young Samuel, giving him a stable caregiver for some of his infancy because he had to have learned to bond in order to be able to bond normally as an adult. Children who don’t learn to bond by the age of 3 will never learn it. So, in my mind, Samuel had a family and lost all of them to a cholera epidemic at perhaps 4 at which time he fell into evil clutches.

  5. Rachel, that’s a fascinating set of observations, and I see where it ties into the romance field. In the SF field as well, because of the tendency of SF fans to feel like outsiders. (I say this as a long-time SF reader.)

    As the author of one of the stories about a kid from foster care, my main own reason for having an orphan was to give myself an “outsider looking in” perspective. He’s learning about the werewolf world, so I can fill in the details of that setting without huge expository lumps.

    Which isn’t to discount your observations, of course. Writers betray all kinds of feelings in their work, often unconsciously. This is just an example I hadn’t thought of before.

    Food for thought…

  6. AAR Rachel says:

    Toni – I did actually enjoy your short story very much (liked the werewolf in the Nativity mythology particularly) and can understand how it related thematically. As I said, I do tend to respond to this kind of story. In fact, several of the stories involving foster kids were among my favorites of the anthology.

    I suppose I am merely confused as to how I feel I should respond as compared to how I do respond. Ah, well.

    Thanks for stopping by and commenting. And Merry Christmas!

  7. CindyS says:

    Having once considered adoption ourselves, I know what kind of obstacles can occur. For me, I had this romantic idea that orphans were children who had no parents but in fact, most of these children were wards of the government. Their parents were still alive but had done something so wrong the government took the children away. I was 25 at the time and overwhelmed by what I was being told – alcohol abuse, cocaine abuse, mental, physical handicaps. And these were the children in our own country.

    I was obviously too young and not the type of person who thought they could handle a child with such a harsh background. I could barely take care of our two spazzy dogs!

    Even now, 13 years later I know myself too well to think I could handle a child not bonding to me. I have such a feeling of fear and depression come over me when I think of the number of children who will never understand love or physical sensation. (Romanian babies rolled around on huge racks and not touched or nutured)

    Also, from a first year psychology class I understood what would happen to infants who didn’t have even a surrogate mother. They took baby monkeys away from their mothers. They put a group with stuffed animals and the other group in cages by themselves. The ones with no surrogate were heart breaking and the results have never left me. The monkeys with the surrogates at least had a chance the ones without never learned to socialize.

    Just recently I watched either a Dateline or 20/20 where a couple adopted two sisters from Russia. The younger one adapted fine while the older one had RAD and the parents video taped it so people would understand. The poor girl couldn’t stop wandering around the house sobbing for hours. The parents didn’t know what to do. She ended up going to a program designed for children with this disorder. It was heart breaking.

    So like you I have to make up a back story for at least the infancy. My fav. author Nalini Singh has Psi characters who from my understanding do not have physical or emotion contacts with each other. The author has not delved into how the babies are handled but I’ve had to tell myself they know enough that babies need to be held and shown some sort of affection in order for them to become productive Psi. Until I read otherwise that is the back story I’ve created.

    All the same, the idea of being completely alone and still finding someone who will love you is a strong romantic idea. I think the ‘true’ idea behind it is that many of us feel like outsiders and maybe not worthy of love. So if someone who was never considered lovable is able to find love, then in our romantic ideal, anyone can.

    Okay, enough from me. I loved your post and agree that in this kind of a situation *I* need to create an alternative history that allows me to surrender to the story. Without it I become troubled and fidgety thinking about how the story is implausable.

    And on a personal note, I’m in awe of you and your family and so very happy that Max is such a beautiful reminder that anything is possible!


  8. Shaun says:

    Wow, Rachel

    I’ve been thinking the same thing for years….I have two adopted children. Both are from the U.S. and for us being Canadian these were international adoptions. One is doing very well, although she does struggle with learning issues and loss related to her birth family. On the other hand my son has huge struggles. He was just released from the hospital after a 2 month stay.

    Love as great as it is doesn’t fix all problems. I generally avoid any romances with an adoption/foster element because generally they just feel too superficial.

    One of the reasons I like the Eve Dallas series is that it shows a much more realistic story about the long term issues for children both in the system and unfortunately not in the system but abused or neglected. I think its interesting how Rourke with his childhood relationship with the butler (? )is much more emotionally open than Eve. I know that some people find Eve irritating and want her to ‘get over it’ but I think that in this case her continuing journey of attaching is very realistic. I thank God for the support of professionals, and our health care system. But I worry about my son every day.

  9. Leigh says:

    Rachel, I can’t believe it has been four years since you left for Russia. I know that you love being a mommy.

    It has always bothered me how much authors seem to have orphan, fosterchild kids, and kid with psychological problems all healed by the power of love. I remember reading one book (contemporary) where the little girl felt like she was disappearing. It has been a while, but it seems likes she would look down, and could no longer see her feet, and then her hands etc. This started right after her mother died. The heroine was able to cure her by love and caring. I quit reading that author right after that.
    I think people either in child development,teaching medical field or individuals like yourself, who have researched this area have a more difficult time suspending belief. We notice things like that, because for most they are not that lucky. Like you said the other side of the coin, is who wants to read about long term pyschological problems or even physical problems in a romance.

    I suspect that many authors tend to take liberty with the true situation in all areas. Over the last four or five years I have been reading an author who tends to have either the parent of the hero/heroine long term alcoholics or the heroine/hero abused alcohol at one time. No one ever has problems maintaining their sobriety or any problems with trust, and sustaining long term relationships.

    Then of course we always have happy wonderful marriages with happy healthy children, and no financial worries.

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