When I was a child, I walked through my mother’s garden with a sense of awe and wonder. The velvet, emerald grass spread under the Chinese elm trees and lilac bushes. The roses in brilliant hues of red and gold climbed the wall of our old ranch house. The sweet peas huddled near the gate, and the phlox, morning glories and baby’s breath rambled in the beds near the house. It was a wonderland of beauty at every turn.
I did not think too much about the effort it took to make an Eden like that. It just came alive with the first breath of spring and stayed until the first frost. I remember seeing my mother in her floppy straw hat kneeling in the flowerbeds pulling out the weeds and grass that grew among the flowers or planting new varieties of plants among the old ones, but the entire process seemed like wondrous magic wrought by a fairy queen.
It was not until I started trying to grow a flowerbed of my own that I realized what backbreaking, heart-rending, risk-taking work it was. I put in the effort to make my Eden. I planted the best varieties, I weeded the beds and I watered them just as I saw my mother do. I even asked her advice and followed it, but my flower garden never looked like it came out of Better Homes and Gardens. It looked more like the backyard playground.
I got the floppy straw hat and the hoe. I watered and weeded. In fact, I thought I would do more just for safety’s sake. Just as the flowers started to come up, I started weeding. I was not familiar enough with the weeds or the plants, so I took the hoe and chopped up everything that looked like a weed. A few weeks later, I wondered why some varieties never bloomed. It was a no-brainer for some people, but it took me a while to realize that weeds need to be pulled by hand until one can distinguish the weeds from the flowers.
There were other problems that did not plague my mother: dogs. I bought pre-grown flowers from the nursery and planted them. They looked lovely with their fresh blooms. I was so excited. I would finally have my Eden. Next thing I knew, there was Wylie, our big black dog, sleeping on my flowers. After I took the broom and chased him away, I examined my flowers. They were a mass of crushed petals and broken stems. I knew they would never be the same again.
The dogs were not the only problem. I had horses and cows wander by, eat my blossoms and leave unwanted fertilizer piles among my posies. My garden was more of a mess than magic. Even the rabbits, who should have been more respectful, being a symbol of Easter and all, would come by and level my plants to the ground. They ate everything: leaves, stems and blossoms.
Finally, I concluded, I needed a fence. My mom had a big high fence with locking gates, and she kept those gates closed. Anyone who left them open had to face her wrath. She knew the importance of fences and gates. I do not know why it took me so long to get the picture.
Raising children resembles gardening. It takes time and effort, and the family is designed to provide the strong high wall to keep the predators out. When we were raising our children, it was easier than it is now. The predators enter the home from every direction. Children are given a cell phone to play with from the minute they can hold it in their hands. They are bombarded with images hardly before they know what they are. Color and entertainment constantly shape their world. They don’t take time to play outside. They would rather watch someone else play on the TV than do it themselves. I often wonder what kind of adults they will become. Playing is a rehearsal for the future. It develops problem-solving skills and builds strong imaginations. I shudder to think of the confusion that is fostered in the young mind when they grow up thinking that problems are solved with a swipe on the screen.
With the current trend in attitudes about marriage and divorce, more and more children find themselves in broken homes surrounded by people with broken lives. Children need a father and mother to raise them in a family like my mother’s garden. She was diligent and careful to plant and weed. She took time to get to know the plants. That is the way she raised her children.
I remember when my husband and I were training for foster care. Both of us coming from stable families, we were shocked to learn the challenges children face in foster care. These children come from homes that resemble my flower garden. There is no protection from the outside world. Appalling stories of 18-month-old children in diapers wandering alone on the busy streets of Show Low, Arizona, made me cringe. I do not even like to drive on the streets of Show Low because the traffic is so bad. I winced at stories of parents who drove by the social services office and dropped off their teenagers because they are tired of the struggle. I wept to hear of toddlers and preschool children being abandoned in cars to care for themselves. I gasped at the idea of parents doing drugs with their own precious children. I became nauseous at the idea of fathers taking sexual advantage of their children. I could not believe that mothers could defend and lie about the father’s behavior and in some cases joined him in the acts. Worst of all, I could not believe that these crimes were unpunished, and in many cases children, after 15 months of foster care, are sent back to these parents.
We are living in a crazy world where children are exploited with false ideas. Children, unlike flowers, are not bought or sold at a nursery. They are the hope of future generations, our leaders of tomorrow. They are the gardeners who will raise the flowers in the Eden of the future. If they have never seen Eden, how will they do that?
Foster parenting is a calling to be angels to the rescue. Often foster parents receive calls at 2 a.m. for a child to be brought into their home. The child comes through the door toting a black plastic garbage bag containing all their belongings. They have just witnessed the struggle between a police officer and their parent. The child is afraid, hurt and alone. The foster parent fixes a meal and tries to make the child comfortable and secure. The child only wants to know what is going to happen to their parents. Even an abusive parent is a hero to their child.
The foster parent loves and nurtures the child for months while the parents try to make necessary changes. If the parents improve a little in their parenting skills, the child goes back to the parents. If the parents do not improve, parents’ rights are terminated and the child goes into long-term foster care, where they wait for a kind family who wants to adopt them. If the child’s behavior is bad in foster care, they are sent to another foster family. With each foster care disruption, the child’s chances of finding a permanent family diminish. If the child gets to 18 without adoption, they are on their own. Hopefully in foster care they learned skills to help them become productive adults. If they have not learned these skills, they revert to the way they were treated by their parents and plant their gardens without fences, and the cycle repeats over and over for generations.
After raising four children from foster care, I could not help think of how parenting and love is like my flower garden. The weeds need to be plucked, the wall needs to be high, and the gates need to have locks to keep out the dogs and other predators. Children need to be able to see Eden before they will ever know that family gardens are a place of peace and safety.