My personal story of how fostering heartbreak taught me to genuinely love my adopted siblings, starts with me in an extremely volatile and angry state, caught in the middle of chaos orchestrated by random change and a broken system. I was a freshman in high school when my family’s idealized and romanticized version of life came crashing down around us, causing intense emotional turmoil. We spent the next four years trying to pull our lives back together and learned much along the way. You, my friend, struggling with uncertainty, anguish, change, or hatred: I write this acknowledging the repulsive and selfish parts of my own soul and hope they speak to all the gut-wrenching, real human feelings we experience around grief. Adoption and fostering can be sources of overwhelming joy, but sometimes they’re accompanied by heartbreak induced by uncertainty, anguish, and doubt. Seeing where the opposites come together often proves impossible. My heart for this article resides in the marriage of those conflicting emotions.

I grew up as the oldest biological daughter in a family who fostered for years. My family constantly had teenagers from broken homes, babies, toddlers, you name it; kids of any age or background roaming our house. In complete honesty, I had never been particularly attached to any of them until our home was blessed with a sibling set: one toddler boy and a baby girl. For safety and privacy concerns, they will be referred to by their nicknames (BuggaBoo and Squinchy) in this article. I fell in love, the very moment Squinchy was placed in my arms. She came home from the hospital to my family, and as a 14-year-old girl, I was absolutely smitten with this child. I loved her more than anything I had ever loved before, even though I adored all of my other siblings as well.

If you’ve experienced heartbreak at the hands of the foster care system: it’s the material of nightmares.

According to an article, “Being a foster parent is sort of like a marathon. There’s a whole lot of blisters and lost toenails before you cross that finish line. With fostering though, there’s no finish line. There are water stations along the way that give you relief and that give you the boost you need. When the child hugs you. Says they love you. When there’s a wonderful, successful visit with their family. When you are able to adopt that child. But there’s also times when the marathon is cut short. The child you’ve given your heart to has to leave and you are left empty.” I agree wholeheartedly. But nobody truly sees the marathon ending short. It’s comparable to being tripped right before the finish line, unable to finish what you’ve trained for all this time.

My parents wrestled through countless court dates, visitations, doctor’s appointments, but it all seemed worth it because those children would be ours. I knew the primary goal of the system was reunification, but it truly didn’t matter. Their biological father showed up once, and their mother, unfortunately, could not break free from addiction. She was hostile, their relationship was toxic, and my innocent heart had no doubt that BugaBoo and Squinchy would share my last name soon enough. Even the magistrate and judges concurred. I was over the moon for so long, it made all of the stress worth it. Until, out of nowhere, approximately 10 days before our foster care journey would end with an adoption, a relative caregiver stepped up.

She had never met my foster sister, as Squinchy had come straight home to my family. My foster brother hadn’t seen her in nearly a year, as she hadn’t shown any interest in visitation. She had failed her home study four times and was deemed an unsuitable parent by the county several times over. My family was devastated, and I can certifiably deem that the worst moment in our foster/adoptive history. Our caseworker sobbed with us as we grappled with the world seemingly crumbling. On the same day my family would have legally gained two members, we instead were handed condolences and a court plan for integration.

It didn’t seem fair to anyone because it wasn’t.

Anger is one of the five stages of grief. Let me tell you, I was angry. Every bone in my body raged against this broken system, where just because someone shared blood with the child I called my family, every imparted piece of my heart wasn’t worth anything on paper. I was shattered, and many days were spent avoiding anyone who would ask how I was or try to make it better. One particularly dark day, all of their toys, blankets, sippy cups, and crib sheets went into a box. I shut the nursery door and zip tied it shut. I mourned the loss of two souls that still roamed this earth but no longer beside me, and it was horrific. I wanted my sense of control back, my altruism, my innocence. Yet most of all, I never wanted to experience that heartache again; even if it meant I never loved anyone that much again. But life isn’t always conducive to a “leave me alone” attitude. Thank goodness.

Due to the fact that my parents are one of the closest things to saints I’ve met, they weren’t going to allow heartache to jade their lives forever. They bridged a relationship with the relative caregiver and have helped out whenever possible. (I went twice, and then sobbed outside the house because it hurt to see these children live in abject desolation. My heart is a work in progress.) Eventually, they decided that the world needed more parents, and they were going to adopt, even after fostering. Heartache fostered brokenness, it became redemption in my parents’ lives. I, instead, stayed bitter.

Hatred was easier than forgiveness toward the relative caregiver, my parents, and me. I was angry that I’d hoped and loved, only to experience such intense disappointment. Not to mention, furious with this woman who didn’t even know my family but deemed us unworthy because we didn’t share the same skin tone. I lived in offense toward my parents because why on earth would anyone ever get close to the very entity that felt as though it tore a hole in the center of our family last time? Hostility consumed my heart, and I literally wanted nothing to do with foster care or adoption. In full disclosure, this article is not easy to write, and I’m ashamed of the ways I hurt other people merely because I was hurt.

When my mother and father announced they’d foster again, I realized these children wouldn’t be with us forever. Although it was difficult, we took time to grieve and the pain was manageable. It wasn’t until Mom and Dad decided on international adoption as our pathway that I sincerely lost it (definitely not the moment you want to be immortalized in print, right?). How dare anyone attempt to replace the children I was so sure were supposed to be our family? Didn’t they know these kids wouldn’t replace the sister I had lost? How do you ever love anyone, knowing it may not be the same or as grandiose as last time? I had big questions that it didn’t seem like anyone had answers for.

Adopting after fostering can be hard, especially when you've experienced extreme heartbreak in the foster care system.

But time had the answers. It started with my look on love and heartbreak. I viewed them as stark dichotomies, that sorrow somehow impaired my future capacity for affection. How wrong I was is both comedic and dismaying. Four years of contemplation, pens whose ink often went toward filling books of just how maddening the world was, and a lot of prayers brought us to this work in progress because I may never be truly done grieving. These children would never replace what I had lost. Just like how the children someone adopts will never replace the ache of infertility. But these children filled the holes shaped like them in our lives. Adopting after fostering is an emotionally conflicting experience. Additionally, children are complex beings and projecting my past onto their future was cruel. Somehow, it eventually clicked.

It’s crucial to recognize our own grief and subsequent run from it for what it is. Ugly, painful, and uncertain days come from the prior. I didn’t ask for grief. Those children have known days without power, with roaches crawling over their feet, days without running water and with an unstable family purely because my family was ordered by the state to no longer exist as their family. Nothing hurts more than that knowledge. Perhaps your grief manifests as mine did, complete apathy toward anything that could remotely spark hurt. Maybe your sadness pushed you to try and fill that gap or replace what will never come back. However you tried to escape your sadness, my heart breaks for you, my sweet friend.

Adopting after fostering can be hard, especially when you've experienced extreme heartbreak in the foster care system.

We must address the lie that brokenness stole something from us.

I couldn’t offer the blissful existence I had before, unaware of loss’ power to corrupt the human heart, to the next child in care. True. But I could give my new siblings, and someday the children I’ll adopt, the option of an ear to listen. I could cry with them when life didn’t go as I imagined it would. When you’re knee-deep in chaos and disappointment because life never came out this way, in every scenario you’d imagined, sometimes all it takes is a gentle friend to hear your cries even if they cannot possibly solve it. Kids needed that and by the time they came into my parents’ home, I had spent years learning from the few sweet friends who helped life hold together.

Brokenness changed my family. It tore through the bonds we created and dreams of a life untouched by grief. But it also allowed us to heal mangled relationships and begin again. The number of times we say, “I love you,” is almost ridiculous. Leaving the room or the house, going to take a shower, getting up in the morning, are all punctuated with “Okay, I love you.” Heartbreak gave us the compassion we needed in order to love these new children well. Kindness grew in the hole BugaBoo and Squinchy left because there was no other option. We stopped yelling to solve arguments, sought therapy for the anxiety and sadness we all experienced, and came out a more united family.

We must also recognize love and joy when they do come into our lives, determining we will not allow grief to constrict our hearts. Adopting has brought so much joy into our lives along with growth that hasn’t always been comfortable. But what kind of existence is that?

It doesn’t mean you would have wanted it this way.

Full disclosure: I would have chosen to keep my foster siblings a million times over before ever experiencing that loss again. Although I’m grateful for the healing, I think most people reasonably wish that they could undo the terrible moments of loss in life. Foster care has an incredibly high burnout rate because it often sits at the dissection of our unmet expectations and overworked hope. Adopting or fostering again doesn’t mean you’re suddenly at peace with the disconnection between our expectations and reality.

People join the realm of parenthood because they love children and long to parent. Children in America are in crisis due to an epidemic of parents scared of the system. But the people who step up and become foster parents fulfill their core longing to impart love on another child. Returning to the very system that tore apart your expectations can seem masochistic. Adopting after having a situation go awry is simply choosing which emotion will reign strongest in your life. A love for children or a fear from any previous pain?

What will drive the trajectory of your life?

In complete honesty, I would have stayed out of any circle holding the potential to hurt me. If this article wasn’t clear enough already, I was not on board with writing adoption into our family’s story. But thank goodness someone else had the compassion I lacked because our family would be missing three beautiful children. Nevermind how those same children would have been without a family. Adopting after fostering was a difficult transition, no doubt. Any sort of life choice concurrent with past trauma is nothing short of terrifying. But oh, adoption isn’t the act of having a perfect family, untouched by grief. It’s allowing that grief to soften your heart and allow strength to grow through the cracks of what was.

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