Foster parents come in all ages, life stages, and temperaments. Some are incredibly organized, others handle the chaos of foster care by just making it all work. Some foster parents are homebodies, others are very active and seem to never sit still. Children in foster care all have different personalities, too, so it’s right and good that there would be such diversity among foster parents to meet those needs. There are a few skills, though, that seem to be common to those who handle this work well.
Very rarely will anything in the foster care world happen on your schedule, and you will need to be patient in big and small ways. Your kids will need time to adjust to your home and your parenting and to decide to trust you – there’s just no way to rush that.
Birth parents are rarely able to quickly address all the issues that led to bringing their kids into care. Imagine an addict who must get clean, get a job, find housing, learn to parent well, and demonstrate stability – this takes time. The court system will not move as fast as you think it should. You will find yourself waiting for court hearings or visits to start, waiting for a social worker to call you back, waiting for the next placement to arrive. Patience is the key to handling all the waiting with grace.
You will also need to be able to discern when it is time to stop being patient.
In the best-case scenario, your foster child will have a lot of people in their life advocating for their needs. Caseworkers, lawyers, judges, court-appointed special advocates, therapists – all of these people will argue for what they think is best for the child in your home, but no one will know the child like you do. You’re the only one doing day-to-day life with them. You must have the courage to speak up on their behalf and, if necessary, fight for what they need.
You will also need to advocate for yourself and your family. If you’re overwhelmed, say so. Ask for help when you need it. If you’re not comfortable saying yes to a placement, say no – and stick to your guns. Don’t allow yourself to get so overwhelmed and burned out that you aren’t serving anyone.
Patience and flexibility go hand-in-hand, and the need for flexibility is never more apparent than when you get a call about your first placement. I have said yes to eleven placements and have gotten calls about half as many that didn’t pan out, and they have never come at a “convenient” time. This is part of what you are signing up for.
Foster parenting is hard work. There are times when it will break your heart – when a child you love returns home, when a decision is made that you don’t feel is in the best interest of a child, when there are no good or easy answers. These things are painful and it’s right that they would be difficult. Resilience isn’t so much about developing a thick skin, as it is about doing it all over again even when it’s hard.
This last skill is both obvious and not so obvious. Love is a feeling, yes, but it is also a choice, especially when it is more about action and less about emotion. It is possible to learn to love your foster children better.
And most importantly, love is what makes you keep going even through the hard parts. That’s another thing that most foster parents have in common – they will tell you it is absolutely worth it.