By Jodie Whitcombe
Thank you for what you are doing! I don’t know you… but I do. You want to make a difference in the world. You love children. You have big hearts, and those hearts are full of bravery. You have spent months, maybe even years considering the idea of opening your home to kids who need one. And now it’s about to happen! You have prayed. You have waited. You completed piles of paperwork. Then you waited again some more. You have a room prepped for children you don’t know. Right now the room feels empty, which in itself feels strange. Almost like you are missing someone you haven’t met yet. You have a stash of toys and clothes even though you don’t know what the kid will like or what size they will wear.
Actually there are a lot of things you don’t know, and you are trying to be okay with that. You hope they will like your home and their room, and you hope they will like you! You have imagined what your home will feel like when it’s filled with these children. What will their voices sound like? Will it seem strange to be called Mr. or Mrs.? Will they call you mom or dad someday? When they cry because they miss their families, will they let you hold them? When you hear their laughter for the first time will it make all the waiting worth it? (It will, I promise.) What will they look like? What songs do they like to sing? You are afraid and excited all wrapped up in one big ball of emotions. You can’t wait to meet them!
I don’t know you… but I do, because I’ve been there. I’ve done and felt and thought all those things. These complicated thoughts and emotions have all swirled around in my brain, and they still do sometimes. Becoming a foster parent is a big deal. It’s inside this complicated and flawed system that you will be given the opportunity to parent these kids. It’ll be hard, but worth it. It’ll be heartbreaking and heartwarming at the same time. Beauty will be found in the brokenness; healing in the turmoil.
My husband and I have been involved in this crazy rollercoaster of fostering on and off for the last four years. It still feels like I have a lot to learn! But if I think back on our journey sometimes I wish I could go back in time and know what I know now. Unfortunately, I have not yet invented a time machine. So let me go back vicariously through you! New foster parent, let me share with you some of these things I wish I had grasped more fully in the beginning.
Your job is not just to love these kids, but their families as well. To fulfill the role of a foster parent you are not only committing to loving, caring for, and parenting a child on a full time basis. That would be hard enough as is. But no! That’s not the end of your role. The best foster parents are also committing to loving on, communicating with, and even partnering with the child’s biological parent(s).
Some people want to view foster care as a way to “get a child for their family,” but that is not what foster care is really about. Instead, you are providing a hopefully temporary home for a child. Yes, I said hopefully. I said hopefully because every child deserves the very best effort to be put into helping their biological family heal so that it can be safe for them to return. No matter how amazing your family it is, it will always be traumatic for a child to be separated from their first family. The amazingness of your family will never erase that, even if the case ends in adoption. That is why no matter how much it hurt you to hear about why the child was removed; no matter how hard it is to think about loving parents who did XYZ to a child; no matter how inconvenient it is for you… You do it anyway.
The thing is that these parents will always be important to this child. That is why you are called to show kindness and respect to them, even if they may not treat you same way. They might judge every little thing you do because it’s the only sense of control they have in the situation. They might be hard to be around. These parents mean the world to this child, this child who will soon feel like they are yours. These parents are likely unsupported. These parents are likely coming from generations of dysfunctional families. These parents likely really need a person in their corner. Maybe that person can be you. Make the most out of every interaction, every visit, every court date. I’m not going to tell you it’s easy, because it’s not. And I’m not saying you are going to be best friends with the parents. I’m just saying it really does matter, so do the best you can.
It’ll get harder before it gets easier. You have probably heard the phrase, “the honeymoon period.” When referring to kids in care this phrase simply means that they might behave better in the start and when they become more comfortable in your home things might get harder.
In the beginning you might think to yourself, well, this is already really, really hard so I guess we skipped the honeymoon period… Then BAM all of the sudden you have no idea what happened to your life and they are throwing you challenging behavior after challenging behavior. You have thoughts that you feel remorse for thinking. These thoughts entertain the idea of calling and asking the caseworker to please come take them back. When this happens to you, take a deep breath and be kind to yourself. You are new at this. It’s okay to feel overwhelmed. Any sane person would feel overwhelmed in your shoes. It’s okay to think things you wouldn’t say out loud. My advice here is to try and put these behaviors into perspective. There are many reasons why the behaviors are occurring. It is probably partially due to the trauma the child has experienced. It is possibly partially due to questionable parenting techniques that the child may be accustomed to. It’s complicated and probably due to lots of things (and yes, please advocate to get this child into therapy!) Look at yourself in the mirror and give yourself this little pep talk: They are behaving this way because they feel safe in my home. Safe to share their feelings. Safe to show me all the stuff they have to hide from others. Safe to be angry. Safe to test limits. They are behaving this way because they trust me. Trust that I will respond with patience. Trust that I will love them despite their baggage. Trust that I am the grown up and can handle it. Trust that I will set boundaries and routines to help them. Trust that I will not give up on them.
Don’t worry what other people think. These kids may have these challenging behaviors, but you’ve got this! You are extending patience and grace. You are using all the positive parenting techniques you learned in training. Maybe it is going okay at home, but whenever you try and take the kids somewhere you feel judged. Lets pretend at the grocery store line there is a meltdown. The full-blown screaming at you that they hate you because you wouldn’t buy them gum kind of meltdown. It feels like every eye in in the store is on you. You do the only thing that has worked for this child- you hold them.
You just scoop up the angry, screaming child and hold them. You hum a song that you have began to sing at bedtime each night. “I know you are angry about the gum. It’s okay to be angry. Try humming with me instead of screaming,” you whisper gently. The lady behind you says, “If that was my child they would be getting more than a hug!” Your face turns red and you hold back tears. You want to turn around and explain to this lady that this child was severely neglected so your main job right now is to make sure he feels heard. You want to explain you are just a new foster parent doing the best you can.
Don’t let it get to you. You owe her no explanations. Maybe everyone is thinking your “new age” parenting is spoiling this child. Maybe even your family is questioning how you are raising this child. Then they see the behaviors and are confirming in their own minds that because you have had the child for three whole months and they are still acting up this way it must be your fault. Yes, you had them three months. Three months to undo a lifetime of trauma and dysfunction. You need to trust your instincts and not worry what other people think of you. Being all you need to be for this child must trump impressing the lady in the line behind you, or your brother-in-law, or your neighbor. Turn on some Taylor Swift in the car on the way home and shake it off. Then refer to the below tip and go vent to someone who gets it.
Find your village. This fostering thing is hard! I cannot understate the importance of having a support system. Join Facebook groups to find other families who are doing this. Having someone to talk to who “gets” it can be like a life line on this journey. Your village doesn’t have to be all foster families; it can be anyone. Your neighbor. Your sister. Your church. Your friends. There are so many people who say they wish they could foster but it’s not in the cards for their life stage. Find those people who have a heart for fostering and let them help you. In our culture accepting help does not come naturally to us. Our high expectations of ourselves and our pride can get in the way.
Accepting help first means admitting to ourselves we need it. It means being okay with another person seeing our mess and our not-put-togetherness. Accepting help is allowing yourself to be vulnerable. Maybe being vulnerable isn’t your thing. Maybe you are the type of person who has a clean house, healthy crock pot meals stacked in your freezer, and finishes your Christmas shopping in October. Maybe you are the type of person who does everything yourself. I’d give it a few months before your life begins to feel a little less in-control and a little less manageable. You are taking an unknown child(ren) from a hard situation into your home. Add in driving this child to visits and doctors and therapists. Then you have caseworkers coming in and out frequently. The cherry on top is the emotional roller coaster that comes along with loving a child who feels so very yours, but isn’t.
Yep, becoming a foster parent is a fabulous way to learn vulnerability. Let go of what you want others to think of you. Let go of wanting to be in control. Let go of the high expectations. Maybe you are the help giver. You like helping, it allows you to be a part of something bigger and use your gifts for the good of others. It’s your turn now- let others help you. Let others be a part of this. This is something bigger, and this really big something that you are now doing… it takes a village. When others say they want to help, when they say they don’t mind, we have to trust them that they mean it. This part is so hard for me at times. It makes me feel “less than” to need help. This is one of the biggest lies. Don’t buy into it. Needing help is okay. Vulnerability is a beautiful part of being human. You just gotta embrace it.
So new foster parent, take what you like from the four things above and take it one day at a time. The world needs more people like you. People who are willing to do the all the “little” things that actually are so big they will never be measured. Things like holding this child, singing to them, kissing their boo boos; things like making a mother’s day gift for the bio-mom, sending a thank you e-mail to an overwhelmed case worker, driving the child all over the place. Yes, the world needs more people like you. People who are willing to do the hard things. I’m betting some of these things you are about to do will be on your list of most treasured memories. At the end of our days I have a feeling it’s going to be these kinds of things that were the most worth while.
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