From time to time, people ask me about being a foster parent. Whether they have been considering it for years or have just recently thought about it, they always have questions. Most people don’t know anyone who has been a foster parent in real life and don’t have much of an idea what being a foster parent looks like day to day. Since different people have asked me to share what being a foster parent is like, I thought I would share my thoughts here.
I am no expert. I fostered two different babies. One was a preemie right out of the hospital. I had him for 7 weeks before he went to extended family members. After about 6 months, sadly, he went back into the system. The other was several months old when he came to live with me, and I had him for about 8 months before he went home to his birthparents. Unfortunately, about six months later he went back into the system as well. Cumulatively, I was a foster parent for less than a year. My experience was incredibly wonderful and incredibly challenging at the same time.
One of the first things I would recommend to anyone who is considering becoming a foster parent is to read “The Middle Mom” by Christie Erwin. She and her husband have made fostering their life’s work, and she has some great advice and experiences to share. One of my favorite lines in her book says, “God can only bless a heart that is willing to be broken.” If you do it right, foster care is heartbreaking work.
The single most important part of being a foster parent is to love completely, recklessly, without abandon, fully knowing that you will eventually be physically separated from that child. So many foster children become adults without having ever experienced loving attachment, which is essential for development. If you don’t know anything about attachment, please read up on it so that you can understand how vital it is for all children to experience. A lack of attachment has far reaching negative effects throughout a lifetime. Essentially, by making a commitment to love and attach to a child in the foster care system, you are selflessly allowing yourself to hurt so that they don’t have to hurt later on. At the very least, there will have been one adult in their young life with whom they have experienced attachment. Even if they leave you when they are very young like my babies did, and will not remember you consciously, their unconscious mind will remember. That experience will be embedded in their psyche forever, and will be vitally helpful to them as they grow into adulthood. They will remember that feeling of love and comfort, and it will help them to become more resilient teens and adults.
Being a foster parent is not like being a regular parent. If you are “all in” as a foster parent, you will feel every bit that child’s parent, even though you didn’t give birth to them. In addition to all of the responsibilities of being a parent, you also have extra duties. At the very least, there will be meetings with social workers, regular visits with birthparents, and paperwork. You must document everything you do with your foster child, including visits to doctors or specialists, visits with birthparents, medications you give, and bumps, falls, or illnesses they have. There are also periodic evaluations, phone calls with the child’s lawyer, occasional court dates, and team meetings. You are not a solo parent. You are a “team” who’s collective job it is to work towards reunification of the child with his/her biological parents. If this is not possible, then the goal of the team becomes to find a placement in a permanent home for the child to be adopted. It takes a lot of time for parental rights to be terminated, so the process is easily dragged out. I don’t know what the statistics are, but it is sad to say that from my experience and the experiences of others alongside of whom I have taken this journey, many times kids are reunified with biological parents too soon or without enough support and sadly end up back in the system, a trend that you are powerless to fight against, as you have few to no rights as a foster parent. Oftentimes it feels as if you are a glorified babysitter, although I urge all foster parents to fight that feeling and act like a true parent, no matter how you are treated.
Being a foster parent will stretch you in ways that you do not anticipate. In addition to being a loving, caring, safe, and educational place for a child that you know will eventually be leaving you, you also have to be prepared to work with all of the adults involved. This means working with people you may not agree with or get along with, remembering that this is one of the ways you can try your hardest to do good for the child who is in your care. At a minimum you will work with a social worker, or two if you decide to foster through an agency rather than through the county (I had two.), the birthparents, sometimes having visits separately if the parents can’t get along or there has been a history of domestic violence, and the child’s lawyer. It can be frustrating to say the least because often it can feel like the social workers and the parents do not understand what is best for the child. You feel like you know better since you are with them all the time, and often your ideas and pleas are listened to but not regarded. It is essential to be able to handle conflict with respect and grace, knowing that ultimately, the social workers and birth parents have more pull than you do. The best way to make a difference is to be a positive presence even when you disagree. It is important to speak up and voice your concerns AND to do it in a respectful way. When I went through hard times with this, I had to pray and pray and pray that God would fill in the gaps. And there were such obvious gaps that I SO wanted to fill but was not allowed to. I had to trust God to fill them in and to fill in my own that I sometimes couldn’t even see.
Also, realize that most often, as the foster parent, you will be responsible for monitoring the visits with the birthparents. Often birthparents have some kind of substance abuse issue or some trauma in their lives that stunt them emotionally. Many times you can be dealing with a birthparent who is physically in their twenties or thirties but emotionally is still a teenager. You have to have so much patience. Making the birthparents your enemy will cause so many problems. Work to love them and have compassion towards them. If you have children rather than babies, make sure you don’t speak negatively about their birthparents to them. Many times you will have to be the adult and hold your tongue. Remember that you are dealing with people who are hurting, and they feel jealous that you get to have so much time with their children. It can be hard for them to see a way out of their situation, even if it is easy for you to see what they “just need to do” to get it together. They are overwhelmed and need your help. I’m not talking about enabling. I’m talking about having a compassionate heart, an open line of communication, and healthy boundaries. This may be the very first time they have experienced anything like the relationship you could have with them. You could change their lives by your presence in it. Be deliberate.
If you are going to foster, you need a support system. I fostered as a single woman, and while I am so grateful for my experience, I would not necessarily recommend going down this road as a single mom. It is hard. Painfully hard. I had a great support system in close family and friends, but it was still hard. If you are planning on fostering as a married couple, be on the same page as much as possible. If one person is passionate about being a foster parent and the other agrees because they see how important it is to their spouse, things will begin to go south quickly. Pray and research and pray and plan and pray. Trust the Holy Spirit to guide you. Trust that God will lead you to what is right for you.