“We’re a complex family,” said Daphna; summarizing with this brief sentence the interrelations of body and soul. In their lively home, Daphna and her husband are raising six children, four of whom are fostered. When I entered the house, I saw piles of laundry and the clutter of a large active family. A box full of groceries lies on the kitchen floor, and any minute now, the frying pan will sizzle with hot oil and freshly made schnitzels. In the driveway, ready and waiting, is a large family car. It’s a cheerful home, with Daphna at its heart. She’s tall and full of energy, and her striking hair is long and gray. She smiles and says, “As I said, we’re a complex family”.
Daphna and her husband have two children of their own and four foster children. Her husband has three grown-up children from his first marriage. “We began fostering after my husband and I each went through a complicated personal and familial journey. I was married twice before with no children, and have two children from my husband, with whom I have a strong and loving relationship. When our two children started school, we wanted to do something meaningful for ourselves, but especially for them. The idea that we could give a home to children in unfortunate circumstances, filled us with a sense of mission.
We weren’t prepared for the new dynamics and the challenging impact to lifestyle and our daily routines that we faced with the welcoming of the foster kids, who arrived burdened by the difficult memories and challenges of their lives. When you make a decision to open your heart and home, there is no going back; children are not temporary objects to be passed on from one family to another.
At the beginning of our marriage, my husband’s youngest daughter from his previous marriage lived with us, and I had to gently weave a delicate bond between us based on trust. Then, when our children were born, the family dynamic changed, and we all learned to give each other space.
When we started thinking about expanding the family, we discussed opening our home to a lone soldier. However, after giving it some more thought, we realized that this would be a short-term arrangement. Shortly after, we were asked to become an emergency foster care family for children who were removed from their parents’ homes and needed to be temporarily placed until a permanent solution can be found for them. This generally happens in emergency situations. Our biological son was about eight at the time, and when we approached him with the idea, he just lay on the couch and kept quiet. I sat down next to him and explained. I told him what motivated us and how we wanted to help other children. At first, he didn’t say a word, but once what I said began to sink in, he said: ‘I can’t stand to hear children crying, I already have a younger sister.’ I realized that it wouldn’t be fair to bring young children into their lives, and make room for them in our hearts, just to say goodbye a short time later. Children need stability and a continuous emotional bond. I realized that emergency foster children would come in and out of our lives and that our children would experience frequent separations that would be unsettling. I wanted to do good in the world without hurting my children.
My husband and I make all decisions together. Our marriage is very strong and we are both ready to take on challenges. It’s impossible to start such a journey without a strong and loving marriage.”
“One day, the family coordinator from the Orr Shalom Organization told me they were looking for a home for four siblings. Four children at once… this wasn’t what we had in mind. I wore a ring with a beautiful stone on one of my fingers. Thoughts were running through my mind when, suddenly, the stone popped out and rolled on the floor. It occurred to me that it must have been a sign. It was that same moment, I decided that we would take in those four siblings.
We already began our journey as a complex family, this would take even more adjusting. We were about to face more significant changes.
Four siblings arrived at our home. The color of their skin distinguished them from our children, highlighting differences between them. We had to find a way to ‘prove’ to them that, from that moment on, they were considered an integral part of our family. We had to prepare for their integration at all levels.
The four siblings came from a nuclear family of eight children - a warm family which had been struggling to assimilate, and felt alienated by their surroundings. When the youngest child was two years old, a tragic incident added to their suffering; their parents died, and in an instant, their world collapsed.
The siblings were taken to an Orr Shalom family group home, where they lived for five years. When the three eldest siblings turned 18, it became clear that the four younger ones needed a more permanent solution.
At the time, the eldest of the four minor siblings was a 16 year old teen girl; the boys were 10 and 13, and the little girl was 7 – four children who had experienced loss and separation. We decided to create a home for them”.
“One day, the door to our house opened, and both symbolically and practically, we became the complex family we are today. Each one of us - the four siblings, our biological children, my husband and myself - had to find the strength and will to build a family together.
One of the boys was born on the same day as our son. I remember that, wanting to create a sense of belonging, I used to introduce them as ‘twins’. It was artificial and naive, and I now realize that it wasn’t the right thing to do. The simple truth is always the most natural and there is no need to embellish the facts.
The first four years of our life together were very difficult. In retrospect, it was like each one of the siblings needed a year to adapt. Four children – four challenging years.
The first year was spent on a roller coaster of panic attacks. When the children came to us, they were very distressed. They suffered from abandonment and attachment disorders and were distrustful of everything. They experienced a world that didn't protect them. The relationships that they shared as siblings had to be rebuilt with us. All four acted out as a result of their need to fill material and emotional voids. We had to teach them basic habits: not to pounce on food or new things they were given, by reassuring them that there is plenty for everyone and that nothing will ever be taken away from them again.
I remember the first four years as a chaotic blend of extreme emotions at every step they took – laughter and tears, despair and great joy at every step they took. Orr Shalom worked with us through this process with the children; we could never do it on our own. Their team of social workers worked hand in hand with us and the siblings, and provided us with valuable parenting advice.
While being there for each of the foster children, we also had to look out for our biological kids, so that they wouldn’t be lost in the family undertaking. Our youngest daughter had a hard time accepting the change. I had to encourage both her and myself to believe in the path we had chosen and keep our eyes on the horizon to not break down.
During the difficult periods, I did a lot of reading about fostering. There are many studies that show that in the long term, the biological children of foster families gain life experience, moral values, and enhanced social skills. Knowing this helped me and gave me strength in moments of crisis.
We all had to be patient. I could gradually feel the change within myself. Since the foster children joined our family, I became a better mother to my children. I know now that raising two biological children was too easy a task for me. I learned that I need challenges. Yet, I could never imagine the enormous challenge I undertook. But once we started this journey, I knew that we would do everything within our power for it to succeed.
During the first year of fostering, we lived in a smaller house, and the environment was intense. Our biological daughter and the youngest foster daughter shared a room. Their physical traits were strikingly different, and that visual difference somehow added to their struggles. Our biological daughter suffered a lot, while our foster daughter felt that her place as the youngest had been taken over by a light-skinned, blue-eyed little girl. When I put them to bed, they stared at each other with daggers in their eyes, and I had to place pillows between them to create a boundary.
My foster daughter used to have frequent tantrums and behave aggressively. I will never forget the look of terror reflected in my biological daughter’s eyes. In the midst of the chaos, I had to hug them, calm them down and create a safe space for both of them, while remembering not to give up. I was determined to simply not give up, although there were days when I was close to doing so.”
“The daily struggle reminded me of my childhood. I was a parental child. I now realize that this is what formed my personality, as if preparing me for what was to come. People take behavioral patterns with which they grew up into their adulthood. I learned from a young age how to run the home, be responsible for myself, strong and independent. I also learned to respect and give space to others. As strange as it may sound, when my eldest son was born, I used to observe our cat with her kittens. I saw how naturally she behaved with her kittens and, when she died, I felt as if I lost a maternal role model.
My parents respect our decisions but find it hard to accept the foster children as being equally important to them as their biological grandchildren. My biological children are prioritized when they are with my parents, and the foster children also have their biological family.
I find the word ‘Ima’ (mother) very significant. I can divide it into two different feelings that arise within me. Firstly, lack of a stable and inclusive mother figure throughout my childhood. Secondly, the mother that I believe I am. I want all my children to see me as an inspiration. I make a conscious effort to balance being a woman, a wife, a mother, a daughter and a friend.
I chose altruism as a way of life – not out of sacrifice, but coming from a conscious choice with a framework and boundaries.
When my foster children would tell me that I’m not their mother, I used to reply I wasn’t trying to be, but that we are a loving family for them, and that we will never take the place of their birth parents and biological siblings. There is a place for everyone, and it’s important for me to always talk and to remind them of their biological parents as well.
In real life, there were moments of great difficulty as well as moments of light and goodness, with the latter fortunately getting longer. The greatest pain was seeing our biological children’s suffering. It made me feel guilty and doubt our decisions. To see my daughter being hit by a girl I chose to bring into her life, was a moment of truth. I tried to remind myself that this is a process, and by the time I calmed down, the girls were already playing together.
All the children call me ‘Ima’ except for the eldest, who calls me by my first name. ‘Ima’ is a word with many meanings, and I like to hear it coming from different voices.”
“Nine years have passed since I opened my front door to four apprehensive and frightened siblings. Together, we have been through days and nights which forged into the complex family we are today. A family that has everything.
We set an example for our children by never seeking outside help in the home, showing them how we can help each other manage on our own.
One of our two foster daughters often says that it’s a shame that her elder siblings never got to grow up with us. I take this to mean that she feels fortunate, and for this I am grateful.
I have always loved working and learning. Today, I am an acupuncturist and have a clinic in our backyard.
Being a foster family is a life choice that is not for every family. Although there was a price to pay, we gained more. We have all become better people and more appreciative. When I hear ‘Ima’ in six different voices, I know I made the right choice.”
Three years after my interview with Daphna and 12 years after the children joined their family, the eldest finished her military service in an elite unit, and is studying for a degree in criminology, psychology and human resources. Her brother started his military service. With support from Orr Shalom, and overcoming fierce challenges, he joined the IDF’s elite special reconnaissance unit (Sayeret). He walked the length of the Israel National Trail, and bought an apartment with the allotted government money that was saved for him. The third brother graduated high school despite his struggle with learning disabilities. He completed a gap year prep program and enlisted in the army. The younger sister graduated high school and was accepted for a year of National Service at a boarding school, where she works with at-risk youth.
I designed a wide silver cuff bracelet for Daphna, using a technique that, for me, represents the scorched earth after the death of the biological parents.
During the interview and after, I had a hard time getting the names correctly: who was a biological child, who was fostered, and who was from a previous marriage. At some point, I simply gave up when I realized it made absolutely no difference. I used the same approach with the beads that decorate the cuff bracelet. I didn’t choose a specific number of beads to represent all the children in the family, but instead attempted to convey the feeling of chaos, of complex family relationships, and the beautiful, inspiring process they have been through as a family through all the years.
Photo: Zohar Ron