I had such a naïve view of foster care adoption before diving into it. Even with all of our classes and instruction, like so many things, it was just impossible to gain a real understanding of what it is until we were living it. There are dozens of things I could go into that I understand now but did not before, but here are some that have stood out in our experience.

1. You can support reunification and be terrified to lose the child you love as your own all at once. This is one that is still surprising to me. I knew it would be complicated, but I didn’t understand what it means to really live two realities at once. In one, you loving a child—your child, in so many ways—with everything in you. You’re planning your future. You’re imagining what it might be like to walk them into kindergarten, to send them to summer camp, to help them move into their dorm. It feels so real and so possible and so right. But. There is another reality, the one where you are reminded at every turn that this child is not yours in the way that means they will stay. The one where you cry thinking about their parents, the struggle they are facing, what things must have happened to take them to a place where their child is in your home. Where you want to grab them by the shoulders and beg them to fight, to make it right, to run as fast as they can towards happiness and live there with their family, intact and healthy.

2. The paperwork is overwhelming. I thought I had an idea that the paperwork would be overwhelming. Then I was actually, physically overwhelmed by it, and I realized that I had no idea. I’ll be honest and say that it’s intense. There is, of course, the placement paperwork, which felt very much like buying a house in terms of volume. There are daily activity logs, doctors visit logs, reimbursement forms, receipts to show that you are in fact providing food and clothing for your child. It’s a lot. After four adoptions through foster care, I now own nine three-inch binders full of paperwork from our time as foster parents. Someday, it will provide details for my kids about their journey to us.

3. Yes, you can fall in love with a child in an instant. I know that there is a wide range of experiences as to attachment with a child, and there are many factors that can influence this. But for me, I was shocked at how fast love for a tiny stranger can come. It was quite honestly awesome, in the truest sense of the word. I have said before that the moment we met our daughter, a mother was made. I wouldn’t be her mother legally for 14 more months, but that didn’t stop me from loving her ferociously and with absolute abandon.

4. You will cringe every time someone says that your foster child is lucky to have you. When we went through our training classes to become foster parents, we had this idea that we would be building our family and helping kids in the process. Win-win! And it isn’t that this is exactly untrue, but when you meet and fall in love with a child who has been hurt in the most unthinkable ways, all you want in the world is to take that hurt away. Ideally, I would be unnecessary in this scenario. This child would be safe and healthy with his biological family, having never been hurt. That would be lucky. It isn’t lucky that they are in this situation, and while I know that it always comes from a place of good intention, being praised as a rescuer of babies just feels wrong. I am blessed to know my kids, I am thankful they are safe and call me mom. But declaring them lucky to have us in their lives brushes the tremendous loss they have experienced to be here under the rug and creates an unhealthy us-versus-them (adoptive parent versus biological parent) scenario that we would very much like to avoid.

5. Court is hard. It is just so hard. I had never been to court for anything of significance before we started our journey as foster parents, so finding myself in a courtroom every few weeks was fairly shocking. It was always an emotional experience, where there might be a right outcome, or a necessary outcome, but it never felt like there was a happy outcome. Not right then. I remember leaving court on the day that we discovered our child’s biological parents’ rights would be terminated, and being congratulated by their attorney in the elevator. It felt so wrong to be congratulated while my children and their birth family were experiencing such a loss. We celebrated our adoption day, yes. Our family being officially formed was a joyous experience. But another family breaking, even if was necessary, even if it directly preceded our own parenthood, is never something to celebrate. Attending court gave me a newfound respect and reverence for the judges, lawyers, and social workers who walk into these situations each day.

6. Visits can be awkward, but sometimes they’re not at all. Of the four children we have adopted through foster care, only one had any regular visitation during their case. It is incredibly sad that the other situations were not safe or stable enough to provide that, and while it made our schedule “easier” in some way, it is a loss that I grieve on behalf of my children. In the situation that allowed visits, I fully expected it to be agony for everyone involved. And I won’t ever say that it was easy, because it wasn’t—most especially for the child, who was confused and processed that confusion in usually very loud, very heartbreaking ways. But, while we had a few tense moments, I consider getting to know my child’s biological family, however they may be struggling, to be priceless. I learned about their trials, I got to see pictures of the big baby shower they had, and I got to see firsthand the love they have, that we will always share, for the same child.

7. It is so, so worth it. Really. The pain and the tears and the exhaustion and the complicated, complicated feelings. I would do it all again without hesitation, because it led me to these breathtaking, delightful little people. It created a safe place for them to land when they needed one. And in the end—miraculously, heartbreakingly, humbly—it made me a mom.

Have you been a foster parent? What would you add to this list? What have you learned?