- When I first tell you I’m going to become a foster parent…
What to skip: “Aren’t you worried? Those kids can be so tough. Let me tell you a story about a book I read (or worse… a movie I saw) about the foster care system and how I couldn’t stop crying about it for days.”
Here’s the thing: Nobody becomes a foster parent by accident. We apply, take classes, and go through licensure. Every step of the way, we have to confront massive questions about ourselves and our lives.. sometimes in 20-page handwritten applications. Even if we didn’t begin with that level of consideration, the system forces us to take that time to think about our choices.
What to say: “I’d love to know more about what led you to become a foster parent.”
This shows respect for all the work and thought I’ve put into this. If you listen to my story and then have follow-up questions? Great. But chances are, I’m going to answer a lot of your questions before you ask them. Like, yes, I do plan to invest in some indestructible furniture.
- If you’re thinking about the challenges of being a foster parent…
What to skip: “I could never do what you’re doing. It’d be too hard for me.”
This is like responding to someone’s “I’m pregnant!” announcement with, “Oh, but I’ve heard labor is SO PAINFUL.”
Honestly? We’ve all chosen to do painful things in life. So, maybe you haven’t chosen to be a foster parent. But you’ve probably risked vulnerability for love. You’ve moved away from friends and family. You’ve played a sport you loved even though you now have a knee surgeon on speed dial. People do painful things all the time. Think of how you got through the last painful experience you had. Think of what your loved one said while they held your hand and fixed you a glass of wine on top of a pile of ice cream.
And if you can’t stomach my rants about “The System,” or learning a new name every so often, or watching me go through the heartbreak of transition, I get it. It can be a lot. We can go our separate ways. Right now, I need friends who are ready to offer support.
What to say: “It sounds like there are going to be some rough times, but you can count on me. I might not know what to say, but I’m here for you. Do you think you’ll want wine or ice cream when your heart is broken?”
Both, please. I want both.
- When you’re thinking about how foster parenting might be different from other types of parenting…
What to skip: “I just think you’re missing out on the true experiences of parenthood, like pregnancy and labor and getting to name your child…”
If you stop to think about it, what you’re essentially saying is, “You will never be a real parent. Not fully.” And that’s a rejection of everything I’m working toward. I get it. The rhyme never said, “First comes love, then comes marriage, then comes a lifelong entanglement with the child welfare system and a series of placements that will set your heart on a path of growing and breaking forever.”
Unless we grew up in the foster care system, none of us were taught how to do this. But I’m taking a deep breath and going for it.
What to say: “What parts of parenthood are you looking forward to?”
There are lots of experiences I’m going to get to have as a parent — and I’m excited! Ask me about them.
- If you think I’m doing the world a favor…
What to skip: “You’re doing such a great thing, saving those poor kids.”
There is nothing that gets under my skin faster than the savior narrative of foster care. There are no heroes and there are no villains — only the incredibly snarly, messy, complex, and beautiful families and people that make up this system. And I include myself in that system, by the way. I am snarly, messy, complex, and beautiful.
I am not saving anybody. I’m providing a safe and loving home for a child for as long as that child is with me. I’m going to school meetings and soccer practice and kissing bruised knees and tucking babies into bed each night. None of this is heroic — unless it is heroic when you do it, too.
Sure, kids who’ve been through significant trauma have a lot of healing to do. But giving them a safe place to do the work is not an act of heroism. It’s an act of humanity. If I get a medal for it, than so should you. And also your kid’s teacher. Possibly their doctor, too. And that really great babysitter.
Kids come into my house whole, not broken. They come with trauma and baggage and very few belongings. But they also come with wholly formed personalities, senses of humor, survival skills, smarts, and playfulness. There is nothing to fix, only to heal and continue to grow and thrive.
What to say: “Tell me about the kids you’ve cared for.”
When you say this, I see that you recognize my kids as individuals, as whole, sparkly, fabulous people.
And if you’re an experienced parent, I may need your advice, especially if I’m dealing with a situation I’ve never encountered before, like advocating for my kids in school or choosing a soccer organization. Ask about how they make me laugh, how they push my buttons — and I’ll ask you right back.
Because we’re there with other parents. Our kids may change, and we may have a lot more paperwork to fill out, but we are just as up to our elbows in mud, poop, grinning, anticipation, heartbreak, and exhaustion. And like other parents, we wouldn’t trade it for anything.
And last but certainly not least…
- If you’re stuck on thinking about when the kids go home…
What to skip: “I can never be a foster parent. I’d get too attached.”
If I had a dollar for every time I heard this. In fact, I hear it almost every single time me being a foster parent comes up. So, I want to clarify a few things…
There’s often an inclination, when a person enters the foster care journey, to not allow themselves to get attached to the children they’re caring for. They call it a safeguard for when they have to say goodbye. But, this defies the human wiring we have to love, and really doesn’t cut it. Here’s why…
First…I am not some woman with the super power to love and attach only to the extent that it won’t hurt me. That super power doesn’t exist. I loved my foster babies who were in my home before now, I love the ones who are currently in there and I’ll love the ones who are still to come as though they are mine. I fight the inclination to post a cute photo of the girls on Facebook every day. I am proud of every single milestone. Their eyes melt me, and their screams can dissolve me to tears. I love to hold them and play with them and get those super cute laughs. Their snuggles are the best. You could even say I’m attached. And it will hurt to say good-bye. So if you are the kind of person that would get “too attached,” congratulations. You’d be a great fit as a foster parent. So maybe we aren’t perfect, but we are loving, and we’re available. Bio is of course first choice. But when a bio family can’t provide that bonding in a safe and loving atmosphere, enter foster families.
We step in — and we get attached. At least, as much as we can. We stand in the kids’ corner, advocate for their needs, love them as if we gave birth to them, dream, and pray, and hope for them with all our might. And then one day, we have to say good-bye.
We have to let go and hope that all of our love and sleepless nights and fears and hopes and prayers and meetings and sensory tools and visits and preparations were enough.We hope that we bonded and they bonded to us. We hope that we gave them the gift of the ability to trust others. To believe in their own worth. To know they are loved. To know that there is something to love and relationships outside of abuse and neglect.
In short, getting too attached is one of the best gifts we could give these kids. Even if it hurts to say good-bye.
And if I might add one more thing . . .
If being a foster parent sounds like it’s just setting yourself up for hurt … I want to challenge you. These children did not choose to be foster children. Their lives are completely up in the air, and are dependent on total strangers’ decisions. When you guard your heart so carefully that there is no room for them in it … They do not disappear. When you dismiss their plight with a wave of your hand and a quick excuse, they are still without a home.
Foster families who are already stretched thin take in one more kid because no one else will. Social workers have the kids sleep on sofas in their offices until they can find a home, somewhere. Siblings are broken apart and only get to see each other every once in awhile.
So maybe ask yourself . . . What if I could? What if I could get attached, love a child, and say good-bye? What if I could give a kid love and stability because that’s what our home is made of? What if there is a child out there who is worth the risk of getting my heart hurt? I can promise you one thing … There is. There have been four for me.