Being a foster parent can be beautiful. It can be rewarding. And it can be really, really hard. Here are three things that are hard about being a foster parent (and some tips on how to deal with them):
When I talk with folks who tell me they’ve always wanted to be a foster parent “someday,” they very often also tell me that what holds them back from pursuing foster care is the fear of getting too attached to a child and having to say goodbye. It’s true. Goodbye is hard. It’s harder if you’ve had the time and made the effort to connect with a child. Sometimes it feels like your heart is being ripped out and stomped on. There is no way around this.
But here’s the thing: the hurt means you have loved well. Every child needs healthy attachments to caring adults. To be perfectly honest, getting “too attached” is the point of foster parenting. I don’t think it’s fair to put my fear of being hurt ahead of a child’s need for a safe, loving family. Even if that family is temporary.
How to deal: Let yourself grieve when a foster child leaves your home. Talk, cry, watch movies all day, do what feels right. Circle the wagons and focus on spending time with your family. Do things that you couldn’t do (or couldn’t do easily) while your foster child was with you. Be gentle with yourself. And know that you have loved well.
I’ve been a foster parent for four years. During this time, I’ve had three different social workers and my foster children have had many more. The vast majority of these folks (as well as the lawyers, CASA volunteers, and judges I’ve met) are good people who genuinely want to do what is best for children. They are overworked and underpaid. They are under-appreciated and some of them are burnt out. But they are good people. Good people who have to exist in the heart of an incredibly broken system. Laws are outdated and reactionary. Rules seem arbitrary and archaic. Emotions run high. And everything requires two signatures.
I am generally a pretty nice person, too. But in my zealous attempts to advocate for the children in my care, “the system” has enraged me. It has caused me to lose sleep, miss work, waste ridiculous amounts of time and money and (twice) use my powers of persuasion to get the big boss involved in my foster children’s cases.
How to deal: Try to look for the faces instead of the rules. Whenever you can, muster an extra ounce of patience and kindness for the folks involved in your foster children’s cases. Yoga and meditation don’t hurt, either.
Those Awkward Moments
People say ridiculous things to foster parents. They ask prying questions about birth families. They ask if all of our children are “ours” and if our kids are “real” siblings. They ask how much we get paid to take care of our foster children. They tell us how wonderful we are and how lucky our foster children are to have us. They ask if we are scared that their parents will “come back” for them. Sometimes they just stare.
Becoming a foster parent means joining the ranks of conspicuous families. When I first became a foster parent, I thought this meant that I was the “face” of foster care to the world and I must always look good. Now I know that folks who end up involved in foster care are both smart and brave—they won’t be deterred by my rumpled appearance or the meltdown of one of the little ones in my care.
How to deal: It’s OK to tell strangers to mind their own business. I usually say something like, “Oh, that’s his story to share.” Other times you may want to engage in an educational conversation. But, most of all, find a safe space, a space where your family does not feel different. And go there often.
If you are a foster parent, what would you add to this list? If you are considering becoming a foster parent, what do you think might be difficult about the journey?
Learn about how to become a foster parent.