Dear New Foster Parent,
I have been thinking about you. I have been thinking about you because you had no idea what you were getting yourself into. I want to assure you that no new parent knows what they are getting themselves into. A biological child born via a perfect vaginal birth will turn their new parent’s world upside down. In that way, you are like all other new parents.
You are a real parent.
I want you to know that you are a real parent. You love a child and are responsible for raising him. He lives in your home, you keep him safe, and provide for his every need. If that isn’t a “real” parent, I don’t know what is.
A pregnant couple can read every pregnancy and child-rearing book, take every available class, and talk to every new parent they know, but they will still never understand or be prepared for the first night with their newborn. You, too, can give the utmost care to your preparation. You can fix the room just right, read every foster care blog you can find, and join a support group, but you can never understand or be prepared for the first night with your child. I want you to know that when life is hard and you want to quit, there is nothing you could have done to fully prepare for raising your child. Just as there is nothing a biological parent can do to fully prepare for raising their child. In that, you are also the same.
However, you will be painfully aware that you are different from a biological parent. This difference will become a burden you will bear with tolerance. Ignorant and well-meaning people alike will remind you that you are not your child’s biological parent with their thoughtless questions. They will use words like “real” and inquire about “your own” future children. And your heart will ache, not because you don’t have “your own” child, but because he is “your own.” Still, the world will question your love for him and his place in your family.
Love does not heal all.
I want to warn you that love isn’t enough. You may love your child more than you’ve ever loved anyone or anything. You may be willing to give up everything to help her, but I want you to know that love can’t fix your child’s problems any more than love can cure cancer or diabetes. The trauma that your child has suffered has affected her brain development. The physical scars your child bears may not be visible, but they are there—inside her.
The challenges you face together may be short-lived or lifelong, but there is no way of knowing what the future holds. This too will be a constant in your life. You will want to wave a magic wand and help your child become the person you see glimpses of from time to time. You will want to help her reach her potential. I encourage you to give your child the tools and help needed to improve her behaviors, but to accept that the life you envision for her may never be possible. Simply loving your child exactly as she is now, without condition or expectation, is the greatest gift you can give her.
You are not enough (and that’s okay).
I want you to know that you are not enough, but neither is the most qualified parent in the world. You will need help. You must learn to ask for and accept it. You and your child will benefit from any and all resources and help you are able to obtain. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again—if it takes a village to raise a child, it takes a village, constant communication, and a team of experts to raise a child who has experienced trauma. This finally stuck for me when I attended a training on how childhood trauma affects the brain. The speaker was a well-respected researcher and child advocate. She said in no uncertain terms that a child who has experienced severe or repeated trauma will not behave like a healthy child who has been been raised in a safe and loving home, nor should he be expected to. Let me say that again—nor should he be expected to.
Manage your expectations.
I want you to know that a child who has suffered trauma, including early separation from his biological parents, cannot be expected to behave like a biological child who was raised in a safe and loving home. As such, he cannot be parented in the same way either. To start, you must lower your expectations. Second, be aware that the parenting techniques your parents used with you (time outs, groundings, a stern conversation) could be ineffective or have negative results with your child, as will the disciplinary actions advised by your well-meaning friends and family. You will tire quickly of the “advice” given to you by people who have raised healthy biological children. Unless those people have experience with trauma kids or attachment disorder—smile, nod politely, and ignore everything they say.
Your child’s social workers and counselors can help you with appropriate disciplinary techniques for your child (time-ins, positive reinforcement, ignoring). Often, outsiders won’t understand your actions, and that’s okay. In fact, it probably means you’re doing the right thing because trauma kids cannot be disciplined like healthy children. Say it with me—trauma kids cannot be disciplined like healthy children.
Sometimes it doesn’t work out.
When you become a foster parent, you are likely aware that you may not be able to adopt your child. That, you prepare for. That doesn’t mean you don’t attach to or love your child implicitly. It just means that you know the consequences of giving your heart and home to a child who could leave, but you do it anyway. What I did not prepare for at all was the possibility that I would love my child and she would be available for adoption, but that I would not have the ability to parent her. It hurts every time I think about it, but I am finally able to share the story of our failed adoption.
We intended on adopting our daughter from the beginning. She knew it and we shared it publicly, but as time passed and our daughter developed new and surprising behaviors, we realized that we could not give her what she needed. It was not a matter of help or resources, but of who we are. It became clear to us and our entire team that our daughter needed two things that we could not give her—a stronger female presence and to be in a family that looked like her. I could no more change my personality or skin color any more than I could heal her wounds.
And so, our daughter moved in with another family. She now has twin sisters and a mother figure whom she calls “grandma.” We remain involved in her life as her “mom and dad,” but she lives in another county.
Love cannot fail.
After our daughter left, I felt like a complete failure. I felt that we had hurt our daughter more than we had helped her. I felt like we had abandoned her and we were no better than those who had neglected and abused her. I questioned God. I questioned our motives for entering foster care. I questioned every decision we made along the way and depression took over. We suspended our foster care license and I sought out counseling.
It took time, processing, prayers, and countless conversations for me to grieve and accept our role in our daughter’s life. I have come to realize that unconditional love cannot fail. I have been assured by professionals that our daughter is better off because of the love we gave (and still give) her. I have had to accept that, no matter how hard I tried or what I did, it was impossible for me to give my daughter what she needed. Knowing that our daughter is thriving in her new home has helped us heal and is a source of joy. She is happy and healthy. That is all I’ve ever wanted for her.
Experience has limits.
I tell you all of this because, on paper, my husband and I were ideal foster parents. We successfully helped raise three older children (my stepchildren) and we have two kind, healthy, well-adjusted younger children together. We don’t believe in spanking, we hold our children accountable for their actions, and we teach them to be “peace-makers and problem-solvers.” We are Christ-followers, we don’t yell, our marriage is strong, and we are doing well financially.
I researched foster care for two years before we started our application, we read several books on parenting kids with trauma, and we attended supplemental trainings to our required classes for our license. We felt prepared and ready when we accepted our first foster care placement.
I want you to know that foster care is not easy, and it may be the most difficult thing you ever do, but that it is worth it. Love your child, trust your gut, take care of yourself (and your marriage), accept help, and let the rest go. I will be praying for you.