A social worker turned lawyer, Debbie Ausburn has spent decades raising other people’s children as a foster parent and stepparent. Her children have taught her that, even though she was their Plan B parent, she could forge strong and rich relationships with them.
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🎶 Podcast Intro: Welcome to the pursuing uncomfortable podcast, where we give you the encouragement you need to lean into the uncomfortable stuff life puts in front of you, so you can love your life. If you are ready to overcome all the yuck that keeps you up at night, you're in the right place. I am your host, Melissa Ebken let's get going. 🎶
🎶 Episode Intro: Hello friends. Welcome back to the pursuing uncomfortable podcast. I'm Melissa, your host. On this episode, I introduce you to Debbie Osbourne, who is a former social worker and now a lawyer. She is no stranger to foster parenting and step parenting. She's here today to share her unique insights and strategies and tips for being the plan B parent. If you want to add your comments or ask a question, make sure you hop over to the blog at melissaebken.com/blog. Leave a comment, ask your question, let's keep the conversation going. 🎶
Melissa Ebken 0:06
Hello, Debbie, and welcome to the pursuing uncomfortable podcast. How are you today?
Debbie Ausburn 0:12
I'm doing fine. Thank you for having me.
Melissa Ebken 0:15
It's a real pleasure to have you here today, Debbie, with your background in social work and your legal expertise. I know you have a tremendous amount you could offer. But I know today our focus is on one specific topic. So before we get into that, is there anything you would like to say about what you're doing these days? Or what's bringing you joy in this moment?
Debbie Ausburn 0:42
Well, I am just enjoying being a step mother and former foster parent we have my husband, I've never had biological kids. But between my husband's kids and my former foster kids, I've collected seven kids and 10 grandkids, and I am just enjoying being part of the their lives and the family.
Melissa Ebken 1:08
And it's really clear that your heart is full.
Debbie Ausburn 1:12
Oh, yes, I, you know, the most important relationships of my life have have come by very strange and odd ways. But I thoroughly enjoy them and cannot imagine my life any other way.
Melissa Ebken 1:29
It's not easy. Being a step parent, it's not easy. Being a foster parent, it's not easy being a parent. relationships in general are difficult. But being a step parent being a foster parent is a unique relationship. And they're not both the same. They each have their own distinct qualities about them. And you've had experience in both. Would you tell us how you got started with foster parenting?
Debbie Ausburn 1:56
Well, I think it goes back to when I was growing up my parents were always working with at risk kids and with youth organizations and doing a lot of ministries in our church. So So I grew up with that heart for back then we call them at risk kids. Then I when I got out of college, I spent a few years as a social worker. And frankly, I just burned out, I got tired of dipping out the ocean with a teaspoon. And so I retreated to law school. But I stayed interested in working. And then when I got out of law school and started my legal career with legal jobs, I managed to find some jobs that that I was able to work with being a foster parent. And it was because of my social work background, I had just seen the need for people to be foster parents or mentors or whatever they could do to invest in the lives of one child at a time. And that was my goal. So I started out actually working as a, an emergency shelter or emergency foster parent, just you know, taking kids who needed somewhere for two days up to two weeks, while the social worker found a permanent placement for them. And then I moved into respite care, which was working to give a family a respite of break, either one weekend at a time, or every weekend or a few days, while if parents had to travel for example, I was an option as a licensed foster parent. And then from there, I moved into full time foster care long term placement.
Melissa Ebken 3:57
And I know we can't get into specifics with privacy laws and whatnot. So please understand my questions aren't asking for specifics. But right some of those experiences that really stand out for you.
Debbie Ausburn 4:11
Well, I think there's there's several experiences you know, I my experience is better with older kids, I don't understand babies and not ever having had them and plus my personality I used to joke with my brother and sister that their children when they were babies were sweet and wonderful, but but basically boring until they could argue with me. So, so my style works better with with older kids. So what that meant is I would get kids who, you know, by the time they came to me they had a lot of years of trauma behind them. And some it was physical abuse. Some was sexual abuse. But there was always some level of, of problems, but we now recognize as adverse childhood experiences and trauma. And so you know, you'd have kids who'd react in different ways. In my book I talk about the one child who he was, it was respite placement. But he just, I couldn't contain his energy and couldn't, didn't know what to do, how to help him until the weekend when he discovered my hammer and some old boards in my garage. And he just started pounding away on that board. And that that was what gave him an outlet and kept him calm and fascinated for the times that he visited with me. And I have friends who've read that story and relatives who've read it and said, okay, see, so you had a child with hyperactivity and anger issues, and you gave him a hammer? Yes, I did. And it worked beautifully. Something about the outlet for his aggression, and the repetition was calming. And I bought scrap lumber, I bought roofing nails for him, because they had the Whitehead and the short shank, and it gave him just bedient gratification to end up with a board covered with roofing nails. And that, you know, that's one where my desperation, stumbled across something that worked quite well. A lot does with parenting, you just kind of stumble into things. And if they work, you go with it, you know? And then, you know, I had some kids who ran away a lot. That is it social worker site, runaways, runaway, it's what they do, it's how they cope. And so it doesn't take a lot for kids to decide to run away. Sometimes it was it was, you know, frustrations or high stress, like a disagreement over grades or chores or something. But I had not expected looking back now, of course, I recognize it. But at the time, I wasn't experienced enough to recognize that even good days could prompt a runaway episode, because it was so unfamiliar to them. And particularly when we were getting along and having a good day, and they were getting attached. They would push away, because in their experience, whenever they got attached to someone, something terrible happened. So they would push people including me away, just to protect themselves.
Melissa Ebken 7:59
Yeah, and I've experienced that in in healthy adults too, and and myself that, you know, emotions are powerful things, and we don't always know what to do with them. And with the energy that they produce inside of us.
Debbie Ausburn 8:16
Well, caring about people makes you vulnerable. And kids who are tired of being vulnerable, will will resist being vulnerable. And as adults, you know, there's a lot of foster parents, one of one of our go to to meetings or groups with foster parents or even step parents. The a constant thing that comes up so frequently, particularly parenting older kids is just how do you keep caring about kids when they keep rejecting you? Because it requires a high level of letting ourselves be vulnerable to kids that are actively rejecting us. And that that's tough. That's a tough place to be.
Melissa Ebken 9:10
It is. And I think a lot of folks experience that with their kids in their teenage years, especially Yes. phases that they just don't appreciate you they don't, by all evidence present, even like you might be right to, to love through that stage. That's hard.
Debbie Ausburn 9:31
It is very difficult because with I joke that with teenagers, it's part of their job to to reject you and to be ungrateful. It just is what they do. And they go through that and, and to some degree we have to realize with these kids, no matter how much we love and care about them, they don't have the life experiences or the frontal lobe development, quite frankly, to understand the efforts that we're going to make their world the way it is. And, and part of that is development. And part of that is just the way it's supposed to be, you know, I mean, on some level kids shouldn't have to worry about all the things that go into making the world the way it is, when they do worry about it too much. For example, if they start worrying about whether there will be electricity, or whether there will be food in the refrigerator, or any of these other things baseline that they take for granted, if they start worrying about that, it's a sign that, that we're not doing our job. And we call that, you know, an adverse experience for the kids. So on some level, we're supposed to be doing things that are invisible to them. And at the same time, we're supposed to be preparing them for adulthood, where they have to know enough about it, particularly as teenagers to be able to start moving towards taking responsibility for themselves. And teenagers, of course, they just, they want the freedom and without the responsibility, and that's a developmental stage too. And
Melissa Ebken 11:22
there's no avoiding, yeah, and finding that balance is so hard. But it's determined enough so that they're not feeling responsible for but they are getting some experience in finances, budgeting, balancing, different things that want your attention in life, that's a hard thing to do.
Debbie Ausburn 11:46
It really is. And there's a lot of different techniques I, I have learned a lot from other foster parents and techniques that work well with, with our kids, all of my kids, for example, when they got to a certain age, I started making them responsible for for washing their clothes, and started offloading some responsibility. We also started giving them I can call it allowances, but basically just figured out how much money I spent on them for XYZ. And I started giving it to them and letting them have control over it. So when they were younger, for example, they were responsible for all of their entertainment, I gave them we gave them a certain amount, and then they had the opportunity to make more money with chores. And they could lose money for not doing their chores or having bad grades or, or whatever. And when they ran out of money, they ran out of money, we didn't buy any extra toys for them or, or anything. And then as they got older, when they got into teenage years, I started offloading. I just gave them a budget for their clothes. And so whenever they said, Can I have such and such? The question was, do you have enough money, I've already given you your money for this month. And you know, we had to remember one child I had who I kept pointing out, Winter's coming up, you need a winter coat. And this child kept finding really cool shoes and other stuff on sale and cold weather hit. I'm not going to say the head note because of course, you know, you can't safely let kids live with all the consequences of their decisions. But the code that was available was a hand me down from me and my husband, and it was it was you know, secondhand and not at all fashionable, were cool. And I still remember the discussions and the arguments over I expected them to wear that coat. No, I expected them to have saved their money and bought the cut they wanted and since they didn't that was the only option. And the you know, this is the way that you might have a closet full of really cool shoes, but she needed a coat. And so it was you know, that gets into letting them live with the consequences of their decisions and and you know, you care about them. You you again, you don't you know, hand them the electric electricity bill. Well I do for my adult kids that live at home but the teenagers know. They just they just are responsible for taking care of, again, their allowance and if they want more money, there's there's always There's always plenty to be done that I can let them do instead of hiring someone else. So you know, whatever the market rate is. If they do as good a job, they can make that amount of money If
Melissa Ebken 15:01
so, how many years did you spend as a foster parent?
Debbie Ausburn 15:05
Um, I think I actively was a foster parent for about 10 years. But then the two of my kids, they, they're not related to each other. And they lived with me at different times. But they aged out of the system, but still lived with me. And I still took care of them and still supported them. You know, that's what you remain. Yes. Yeah, exactly. I mean, that with biological kids, not all parents, some parents do, but not all parents will cut them off at age 18. And, and certainly my family didn't, and we would, you know, we just, we just kept the ties and kept the connections there.
Melissa Ebken 15:50
That's beautiful. And then later, you got married, and you had step children?
Debbie Ausburn 15:57
Yes, I, my husband had five kids, only three, only two of them were at home. The other three were adults at the time. And so I moved into again, I was, I was plan B parent. Because that's it as a foster parent. And as a step parent, I was coming into a role that the kids even when they accepted me, they, they really would, would rather have had their biological family still intact. That was I tell the story about our youngest son, at one point, his mom asked for custody. And you know, so we were looking going down this court proceeding, and we were trying to get our son, my husband's youngest son, my stepson to tell us his preference, and he just wouldn't, he was not going to say anything that sounded like he was taking sides. And of course, we weren't asking him to take sides. We just didn't want to spend a lot of time and resources and energy on something if he was totally opposed to it. And finally, my husband said to him, put look, if if you had a magic wand, what would your life look like? And this child didn't hesitate at all. He said, If I had a magic wand that you and mom would still be together. There was this sort of pause. And then he looked over at me and said, no insult you and the dogs would be right next door. So, you know, this child and I had bonded, we were really tired. He was the youngest I came into his life at a time when when kids are more willing to bond with, with step parents, and we did and still do adore each other. And we have a great relationship. But I understood it wasn't about me, I didn't take it personally. It's just that kids would rather have their parents together. And he literally would have loved having me as a neighbor, or a teacher or a basketball coach or something
Melissa Ebken 18:15
in this life,
Debbie Ausburn 18:16
as long as I was there somewhere, and as long as his parents were back together. And so that was was one thing that I learned that being a Plan B parent. It sounds terrible, but it's pretty wonderful. If you're, if you're willing to recognize that you're not the person who's supposed to be in their life. And and that's okay.
Melissa Ebken 18:41
Yeah. So what are some tips and strategies you can give to those of us who might find ourselves in that situation as a Plan B parent?
Debbie Ausburn 18:51
So Well, first of all, recognize that you're not supposed to be there at from the kids perspective. And that you never will be the person who's supposed to be there. And, and that's okay. So you're not trying to replace their parent. If you if you try to replace their parent in the sense of just taking over. Or if you let it turn into a competition, you're going to lose. It doesn't matter how wonderful you are, you will always lose to those biological ties. It's just it's a I think it's a primal urge. It's beyond logic. And it doesn't matter how wonderful you are, you don't have the biological ties. So the role I always urge people to go to is I look at the fact that it took to use the framework of storytelling. You know, we are a storytelling species. We are hardwired to think in terms of stories and that's how we make sense of our world and so our kids develop an air Reddit of their lives. And if you look at all the great stories, they have a lot of different aspects. But they all have a hero who is trying to get to a goal and a villain who is stopping them. And then a mentor who is helping them reach that goal. Well, you know, in a kid's story, they're always the hero. And that leaves two roles for us. We're either the villain or the mentor. And the villain role is actually sitting right there. For us. There's a there's just a strong presumption to put us in the in the villain role. It's an all the old stories. I, I used to joke with my kids that I had never been a stepparent before. But but I've read the manuals, so I understood Cinderella and Hansel and Gretel and Snow White. So I had this down how to be a stepmother. And of course, it was a joke. But if we can move ourselves into that mentor role, which is not the same as a parent, but it's a caring concern person who has their back who's always watching out for their interest, who is more or less wise. And I always find it very reassuring. When I'm reading these stories, to realize that mentors don't have to be patient, they don't have to be brilliant. Right, there's, there's just a lot of things that we don't have to be. But we do have to have, we do have to care about the kids, we do have to have unconditional love. I make a point in my book in my writing, it's not unconditional commitment. Because commitment has to have strong boundaries, all healthy relationships have boundaries. And that's another thing that mentors do for kids is they set very clear boundaries. And if the kids, you don't get past those boundaries, they they have consequences and structure. So but at the same time they offer structure, the mentors offer a lot of concern and caring, and high a lot of high nurturing a lot of saying to them. Yeah, you screwed up, but I love you just the way you are. And I think that probably is one of the most important things that we can say to them is learning how to how to say to kids, man that that wasn't the smartest decision you've ever made. And and we're still good, still love you and care about.
Melissa Ebken 22:44
So tell us about your book.
Debbie Ausburn 22:47
Well, it's titled raising other people's children. Because that's what I felt like I've I've done, I, I've always joked and make my living as a lawyer. But what I do is raise other people's kids. And there's a certain skill set to that. Although being a foster parent and being a stepparent are very different, there's still a lot of ways in which they're very similar. And so I talk about those principles, the fact that we're not the person who's supposed to be there, principles for how to deal with the person who is supposed to be there. Sometimes that person is there. Sometimes they're intermittently there, sometimes they're not there at all. And there's always different ways of helping kids do that understanding that our role with kids are one of our jobs is to help them have as healthier relationship as they can with their biological parents, to learn how to work with whatever is there. I talk about some of the principles of, you know, one of the things that I talk about with with traumatized kids and and I think we have to understand that kids who have lost a parent through divorce, have suffered trauma, we tend to try to normalize that and say the kids are fine, the kids are resilient. But the hard data shows that that children of divorce, they have a lot of I have a lot of problems, and that that's not to criticize parents sometimes divorce is the only sane situate same solution to an insane situation and I never will pass judgment. But you know, the analogy I like to use is whenever you say for example, that that cancer drugs have side effects, that doesn't mean you're anti Answer drugs, it just means you, you have to recognize and deal with the side effects. So when we are working with children of divorce it, it doesn't mean we're pro abuse any more than we're pro cancer, it just means we have to recognize the side effects of the divorce. And to recognize that there's certain things that just come with that territory and spaces that we need to fill in, and it's going to be our job to fill those in. And so, you know, one of the principles I talked about is commitment is stronger than love. I can love a lot of people. But if when you make a commitment, it has to be a one way commitment to kids, you have to keep caring about them, even when they're rejecting you. It's heavy lifting, but it's it's the only way to build a relationship with them. Unlike adult relationships, our relationships with our kids, they're always one way they're, you know, they're not adults. And being like us, like I said earlier, being ungrateful and rejecting you is, it's part of their job is part of, it's part of how they process the world. And I remember our youngest son, who fright few years after I got married, it was it wasn't, it was within the first year. I was telling him good night, one night, and he would, you know, have kids or he would also talk about what was on his mind that day or whatever. And in this particular night, he said, Debbie, whenever you and dad broke up, and I said, we're gonna break up. He said, Yeah, whatever. If you and dad break up, can I come live with you? I, of course, don't have any good, it went on my husband, you know, don't, don't, don't ever mess with me. Because not only will I take everything you own, but I get kids to do. So, and it was flattering, but I realized that there was a sad aspect to it, which was he was just convinced that all marriages break up, he had never seen one stay together. And so he was trying to, you know, prepare his world. And, and, and make sure that I stayed in it to some degree.
And if, I guess maybe 10 years later, it was sometime within the past three or four years, I was talking to him about that incident. And he said, Yeah, he used to worry about that a lot. And, and I asked him, when he quit worrying about it, and what made him quit worrying about it. And he stopped for a minute and thought and he said, Well, you're still here. And I realized, you know, we can say a lot of things to our kids. But the fact that we care about them, that we love them that we're going to be a part of their lives, they're not going to believe it just from words, they just have to see it. And that's the only thing that will convince them is when they can look around and say oh, my gosh, she's she's still here.
Melissa Ebken 28:36
Debbie, you have so much wisdom. And I would encourage every parent, whether you're a step parent or not, there's so many good lessons to be found here. So get a copy of raising other people's children, you can get it at raising other people's children.com. Or they click on the link in the show notes here and it'll take you right there. Debbie, before we leave, I do need to touch on something that was mentioned way back at the beginning of this. You said that? Well, the way I heard it anyway, was that you want to have relationships with children who argue with you. So my question is, where do we send them? And how does that work?
Debbie Ausburn 29:23
Unfortunately, right now all of our adult kids have moved back home temporarily, or they keep saying it's temporarily. But you definitely can reach me at Debbie osbourne.com Or it may be easier to just to look at raising other people's children dot blog, which is where I have my blog, and you can email me and I will walk through with you how to survive those years until the aliens return their brains.
Melissa Ebken 29:57
And so we don't send are argumentative kids, because,
Debbie Ausburn 30:03
well, I'll take them for a weekend there. I can take them for a weekend and convince them that their lives really are not that bad back at your place.
Melissa Ebken 30:12
Good enough. That'd be it. This has been a delight and I've learned a lot I hope others have to and thanks for writing such a meaningful and relevant and important book.
Debbie Ausburn 30:24
Thank you very much for your time. I've thoroughly enjoyed it.
Melissa Ebken 30:27
Me too. Bye bye.
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