book review: A Heart so Big by Reo Hogarty

So I just finished a memoir by a foster carer in Ireland Reo Hogarty. It’s very different from the fostering memoirs I’ve read in the past and I’m not sure what I thought of it.

The story, rather than focusing on different children she fostered (though it does do that to some extent) seemed to be an overview of Reo’s whole life. It gave detailed little stories of her childhood, relationships with her siblings and friends. Showed her outgoing tomboy personality at a young age, her ability to have no problem with bringing a school friend home to end up staying for weeks. Her going out with twins where they had no idea the other was dating her things like that.

The events took place in Ireland in the 70s. At that time there really wasn’t a very good social services system set up at all. Strangers would just take in children in need often through churches or people who knew people who could help. While working with her friend and “partner in crime” Doris they did selling at a local market trading goods. Reo became a familiar face and kind heart and many children/ teens would stop by her van for a cup of tea some food and a rest. Often these kids were brought home for weeks or months.

It’s shocking but this is how things were done at least from her perspective. At one point Reo was stopping by a hospital for some reason. Saw a couple arguing and the father refusing to accept that his little girl had a physical illness that had caused her inability to walk. On the spot after talking with the mom Reo agreed to take the girl in until the husband calmed down. The girl went back to her family a few years later once she had had enough therapy to walk. This was with no case plan social worker supervision or anything. Random stranger takes in random stranger’s child. Seemed to be an everyday event in this woman’s life. While I commend her big heart (the title of the book) I question her wisdom in many of the situations she got herself into. Often ending up in poor neighborhoods to rescue different children.

During the war with northern Ireland a huge number of children were seeking new or temporary placements. Again this was done imformally person to person in a network type situation. Reo had expected six children. She got about thirty. At eleven at night. They all rushed around and somehow made it work for a good few weeks!

Sadly there are few stories of particular cases from beginning to end. In the case of one little girl Sharon she was found neglected at a neighbor’s house and abused by her older brother. Reo talked about how hard the placement was, the tantrums with Sharon needing anger management, therapy ETC. But it then lead into another story about something else. There wasn’t a cohesive feeling to the book. It seemed to focus as I said on Reo’s life in general, and not so much the fostering. There were detailed sections on adventures she and Doris took that involved a whole lot of silly drinking. The loss of her friend Doris that sent Reo into alcoholism. Things like that. She got an award in 2004 I believe. Mother of the year or something. Having fostered over 140 children. While this is hugely admirable, it would have been more touching to hear in depth stories of helping the children her responses to them and the healing process. And less about her own personal life.

When she did speak of her role as a foster carer she said something I’m not sure I agree with. In advising new carers she’d say”Become a foster parent because you want to help the child. Not because ,” you expect the child to think of you as their mother or father. Or to love you for the rest of their lives. They might never love you. But you have to do the very best you can for them at all times no matter what. Fostering is one of the few jobs where your ultamite goal is to not be needed any more.”

While agree with the sentiment of helping no matter what, I don’t agree about not having at least some expectations for a positive attachment to be built. Yes the child has a mother and father, but birth parents could have been abusive or it’s a very emotionally touchy situation. I’m not a foster parent or have been in foster care but I would think the best situation is to constantly reassure the child that while they’re with you they’re family. Experts call this “for awhile family” as opposed to adopted “forever family.” But they should get this sense that the parents love the child that they want to bond with them. Otherwise it’s like ok this child is just passing through the house given the essentials, safe environment ETC but no homebase. I don’t know just never heard the role of a foster parent explained in quite that way.

And to add more contradiction Reo tells stories of having an open door policy for children that leave run away etc but need to come back she always accepts them back even as young adults. Again this shows no social service system set up where it’s kind of like a revolving door.

So that’s basically the book. Very jumbled between stories of Reo’s personal life, fun silly times, greif over the loss of her best friend, ETC with some stories about the kids in her care. Nothing detailed. I expected better of the book having read the description. Am also curious to hear or read anything on fostering from that time period of the 700s to see if in fact the social services system was as unformed as it says. And how many situations of children going to random unsupervised strangers there actually were. Because they were extremely lucky to find Reo and not some crazy rapist child abuser.

Would love to hear thoughts on the book. Maybe I’m just missing something but I was not very impressed.

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