An open letter to the other family members of a foster family.

Fostering a child can be an extremely rewarding experience for foster carers and their families. So, who can foster and how do you tell your family that you intend to become a foster parent?

The foster care process and becoming a ‘foster family’ isn’t about qualifications, it’s about your ability to offer a young person a stable home to grow up in. No matter what your relationship status, gender, age, sexual orientation, skin color, religion, or whether you have children of your own or not, you can be considered to become a foster parent.

“The fact that I’m a grandma has no bearing on my ability to provide suitable care –age provides great experience. We take part in lots of family activities together, my own children and grandchildren with foster children all together, having lots of fun.”

(Linda Tellwright, a grandmother & current foster carer to a 17 year old)

But this isn’t just about you. It’s about every other person in your life also. Your own decision to become a foster parent was unlikely to be something you decided to do in the spur of the moment and therefore telling your family also needs similar consideration and planning.

Be pragmatic – some family members will be more supportive than others and it is absolutely your choice as to whom you share your news with. Ensure that when you do, share your news with wider family members, you have a list of facts to impart AND answers to their trickier questions that are likely to come up, because believe me, THEY WILL HAVE QUESTIONS.

But during their questions… Try not to feel that you are justifying your decision, you are simply paving the way for fostering a child and ensuring that your wider family understands how they can best support you and be involved with your foster child. I have a fantastic support network of family and friends around me and this is important to any foster parent.

Be clear that it isn’t always going to be about ‘arrivals’ but also ‘goodbyes.’

Foster Grandparents, I know you have hesitations about how all of this is going to impact your life. I know you have fears and I’m not going to tell you they aren’t warranted. You’re worried about the work that is going to fall on the shoulders of your children, the time it might take from your other grandchildren, how your family will deal with loss, and you worry about safety issues. You want to be supportive, but you’re also unsure about how wise it is for your child to pursue this hard life– the life of a foster parent.

The role of a Foster Grandparent is important, but you probably don’t have people in your life to tell you how to do it well. I don’t know of any support group meetings for foster grandparents or resources written for them. No one can tell you how it is going to feel the first time you see that child who needs your family– that mix of love for them, sorrow for what they’ve gone through, and apprehension about how they may break your own child’s heart. You may be unsure of how to react or what to say. If you’re open to suggestions, here’s what I wish I could have communicated to my own parents when we started this process.

I know you may have reasons why you don’t think we should pursue this because you anticipate the pain we will go through. We know there will likely be pain and we’re okay with that. As my parent, sister, loved one, I know you don’t want to see me struggle, but WE are willing to struggle so a child doesn’t have to. I’m willing to do that, but I need you to be willing to support me even on my hard days.

We need to feel safe to cry to you. If I sense you aren’t supportive of our decision to be foster parents, I’m not going to feel safe sharing my pain. I’m afraid if you knew how hard this was you’d encourage me to quit. I need you to be someone who wants to hear my heart and can love me and this child without trying to fix the situation. Many problems in foster care just can’t be solved quickly or in ways that are going to make us all happy. I’ve got to be okay living in that tension and I need you to be there with me.

Remember when you had fights with your spouse during those newlywed days? You were always encouraged to forgive, to stick it out, to choose love. You’ll need all of those reminders again as you work through this difficult relationship with your foster child, their family and a frustrating legal system.

I want you to love this child. I know their future is uncertain. I know they may not exactly “fit” in this family right now. I know they don’t have my nose and my partner’s eyes and you weren’t there to see their first yawns and smiles. But I need you to be all in with them. I need to know you aren’t drawing boundaries to keep YOUR grandkids in and this foster child out. Please be thoughtful of ways you might be drawing hurtful distinctions– not giving them gifts the same way you would your other grandkids, not offering them physical affection, using language that implies they aren’t your “real” grandchildren, leaving them out of family traditions (even if it’s because you assume they wouldn’t care,) doing family pictures without them. I need you to realize how important you are in the life of this child. You may be the only healthy grandparent relationship they have and if you intentionally leave them out, they won’t ever get to fully experience it.

It’s important that you respect this child’s story. We have to be careful about confidentiality issues and we need you to be careful, too. We don’t want the private, painful details of this child’s story to become the topic of discussion at your prayer group. It doesn’t need to get passed around to the neighbors. We may also need you to be respectful if there are questions we just can’t answer. We need for you to be able to hear the hard things that might impact your interactions with this child and know that conversation stops with us. Please don’t think of that as a limitation on your ability to be honest, but as an important role in this child’s life– a keeper of their story.

Please be willing to learn along with us. I may be struggling to figure out how to do hair I’ve never worked with before. I may be dealing with health issues that are all new to me. I may be trying to problem solve behavioral problems, school issues, developmental  questions, and emotional outbursts that I don’t have the answers for yet. I’d love for you to be a student with me. I need you to know that traditional parenting answers may not work for this child because of their history. We might need to adopt some new family traditions and cultural practices as we learn to understand and value this child’s ethnicity. I’d love for you to be excited about the learning process and embrace the changes we might have to make.

I’d love your practical help. Bringing a new child into our home is a difficult process. If I gave birth to a new baby, there might be a shower from our friends and family and you might come stay with me and help out because we understand bringing home a baby is challenging. When we bring in a foster child, we have all those same challenges PLUS the need to build an attachment with this child who is likely fearful and angry. We’d love for you to be part of our support team.

I want you to be proud. In general, I don’t want the rest of society acting like I’m a saint because I love these children who are entirely lovable and worth loving. But, I do want to know you see how hard this is, you appreciate what I’m doing and you’re proud of me as your child. I want you to talk to your friends about the important work of foster care. I want you to see this as your own calling, too. I want you to take pride in your important role as a foster grandparent.

I asked my mom once when she changed from being nervous about us becoming foster parents to being supportive. She told me it was all about seeing the child. That’s what really drives the point home and minimizes the worried wonderings. We are in it for these kids. And Foster Grandparents, we’d love to have your support.

“I have a 19 year old son and a seven year old daughter of my own. They’ve adapted really well to being a foster family – my daughter was only two when we started and doesn’t know life without foster children. They are all the same age and are like normal brothers and sisters; one minute they are arguing and the next they’re full of love for one another!”

(Malika Azahri, 37, and husband Phil, 36, live in Norwich and have been foster parents for just over five years)

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