Everybody has some idea about what it would be like to foster children or adopt a child from foster care. Some people imagine a child beaming from ear to ear, sitting at the kitchen table, talking out his problems and moving boldly toward a bright new future, one made possible by his new family.  Some imagine an angry child dragging in a lifetime of baggage that she’ll throw destructively around a home that had once been structured and stable.  Others may conjure up images that more closely resemble something along the lines of  the ABC hit show, The Fosters– attractive people, lots of drama interlaced with heart-warming moments, and, of course, some semi-incestuous attraction between foster siblings.

But the truth is that no two foster care situations look alike. Different foster families, different foster children, and all of the things that go into blending the two will combine to create a unique situation.  It’s impossible to say what foster care is “really like” for everyone, but if you’re considering becoming a foster parent, here are some things to think about:

1. The kids won’t always be grateful.

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“I think I was a little naive about the whole thing,” confesses former foster mother Liana Smith (not her real name).  “When we decided to become foster parents my kids were 14 and 16.  We had a niece and a nephew that had spent a lot of time in our home– they both came from single-parent families, so they spent a lot of time with us.  They liked to be here and we liked to have them.  In my mind, that’s what I was thinking foster care would be like– someone wanting to come and spend time with us.”  But, she adds, “that’s not necessarily the case.”

Liana discovered early on that–while they were providing a child with a safe place and a stable family– that wasn’t necessarily what he wanted. She adds, “He felt like he was torn out of his home–from his family– so he was resentful instead of grateful.”

Foster children may feel displaced and angry instead of excited about being in a new home.  They may have a lot of tough emotions they are poorly equipped to deal with.  Most foster children– especially older ones– feel an intense loyalty toward their birth families and they may view you, their foster parent, as yet another person trying to keep them away from their family.

However, some children will be excited about their foster home.  One young child, who had been placed with a foster family after years of being emotionally and physically abused by her own mother, excitedly told her social worker, “My new mommy makes me pancakes!”

2.  You’ll need preparation.

Going into foster care without sufficient preparation can be a bit of a shock.  Liana, whose state at that time didn’t require her to take classes before becoming a foster parent, remarks that before she became a foster parent she was “really naive” about what to expect.  She was unpleasantly surprised when social services dropped her eleven-year-old foster son off at her house for the first time and, as they were leaving, casually mentioned an upcoming appointment with his probation officer.  She remarks, “I was thinking, ‘You never told me that!  I’m not sure about that!’”

These days, however, before you are allowed to foster children, all states require preparatory classes.  “They lay it all out there,” says foster mom Jackie Searle, of the classes she and her husband took in order to be able to foster children in their home.  “The ladies who taught our classes were women who had been foster parents themselves for many years– and they were full of good information.”

In addition to the classes, you may also want to talk to other foster parents and read books about foster care and foster adoption.  (Some recommendations:  The Foster Parenting Toolbox, A Child’s Journey Through Placement, Fostering or Adopting the Troubled Child, and The Foster Parent Survival Guide).

3.  It’s harder than you realize.

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“It’s just like regular parenthood: you hear beforehand that it’s hard but you don’t realize how hard it is until you go through it,” says Jackie Searle, who has six children: three biological, one adopted from foster care, and two in the process of being adopted from foster care.  She adds, “In many ways you have to learn as you go.”

She adds, “I didn’t realize how hard it could be sometimes and how hard it still is today.  Even though [our daughter] has been with us for four years, it’s still hard.  You would think that it gets easier–and it does!–but in other ways it doesn’t.  The kids are who they are– and they come with the problems they come with.  For them, it’s a lifelong battle with some of the issues that they have.  It’s not necessarily something that we can make go away over a couple of years.”

Many children in foster care have special needs.  However, your adoption agency or your state’s social services department will help you determine what type of child would be the best fit for your family.  When the Searles began working with their adoption agency, they were given a checklist that would enable them to decide what would or wouldn’t be a good fit for their family.  They were given an opportunity to identify the kind of special needs their family could handle.  She says, “They try to work with you that so that you’re not placed in a bad situation– or putting your kids in a bad situation.”

4. It can be heart-breaking.  

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Most people quickly grow to love the children in their care and so, naturally, it hurts to watch them hurt.  To witness children struggle through their confusion and losses can be hard on foster parents.  Searle explains, “You’ve got this little person who is, say, two years old and has had experiences and been places that even a lot of adults have never been.  They have a lot of big feelings and big emotions and big things they have to process– but they can only do it in a two-year-old way.  For me that was the hardest part, to try to help them cope with the things that have happened and the losses that have come to their lives at such a small and tender age and then trying to guide them into a place of comfort and healing.  It’s especially difficult with a very young child who can’t speak or has trouble communicating.”

It may also be difficult if you aren’t working towards adoption and your child is ultimately placed in a different home or back with his or her original family.  In an article on Yahoo Voices, Kristin Whiting remembers, “When my first foster placement left our home, I was devastated.”  It can be hard to grow attached to a child– and building attachment is an important part of providing good foster care– and then lose them.  However, having a child move on doesn’t mean you will lose contact with them.  For example, even ten years after their foster child was moved to a different home, the Liana Smith and her family still keeps in contact with him.

5. It will impact your family.

Adding a new child to a family– through birth, adoption, or foster care– will make a splash in any family, no matter what.  The impact of the change will vary depending on the family and the foster child.   Smith remembers that fostering a child impacted her family “greatly,” though not necessarily in a bad way.  “There were lots of good things about it because my kids were always concentrated on each other in the teasing, annoying way, so throwing a third one in there was good for that.”  However, the presence of a foster child also created some problems for her biological children.  “I don’t want to say they were jealous,” she says, “but it was just a huge adjustment for them to have someone else here, and our foster son took a lot of time– no doubt about that.  I think sometimes they resented him in ways.  That’s a strong word to use, but it’s probably somewhat accurate.”

She remembers one occasion when her older teenage son left his hunting rifles out in his bedroom on the day the social worker was coming to re-check the home.  “I know he was trying to say, ‘let’s just get him out of here,’ Liana remarks, “because he would never do that.  He always locked them up.”

On the other side of the coin, Searle comments that her children “haven’t experienced anything beyond the normal sibling issues,” though she notes that one difference between adopting an older child and having an infant is that “when you bring home a three-year-old, the three-year-old goes right for your favorite toy.  There’s more of an adjustment period with babies.  With older children, the adjustment starts to happen right when they walk in the door as opposed to a few months later.”  Because they had their first foster-to-adoption placement when their two oldest biological children were quite young, her children perceive fostering children to adoption as an expected way to build a family.

5. It’s a big time commitment– and there will be social workers in and out of your home.

In addition to all of the usual things kids do—school, soccer, dance lessons–your foster child may need to attend appointments with counselors, educators, and probation officers.  They may have regularly scheduled visits with their birth families.  Liana, whose foster child was respectful and well-behaved at home, often got into trouble at school.  “I would just cringe when the phone would ring during school hours,” she remembers.

The Searle family currently has three visitors in their home every month– a social worker from the state, a social worker from their adoption agency, and a CASA worker.  She says that while she understands the importance of these visits, they can sometimes be disruptive.

6. You’ll need a good support network.

Secure your primary relationships.  “My biggest advice [to people considering foster care] is to really have a solid marital foundation,” recommends Searle. She’s quick to add, “People can do this without being married– I’m not saying that at all– but they will need to have a really good support system.  And if you have a relationship– if you are married–if you’re extending your family by adoption–make sure that you and your spouse have a good marriage– because it’s hard, and it’s tough, and there’s going to be some rocky moments, and there’s going to be some learning curves, and you need to have a good solid foundation in order to be able to bounce back.”

As a foster parent, you’ll also have access to your state’s department of social services, which will always be available to you to provide support and guidance.  Also remember that respite care is available for foster parents who need a break from the non-stop demands of parenting.

It’s also a good idea to connect with other families who have, or are currently, fostering children or who have adopted from foster care.  The Searles were fortunate enough to find a religious congregation filled with people whose families have been augmented through the foster care and foster adoption programs.  These families, says Jackie, have been invaluable in providing support for her through her own foster parenting and adoption journey.

7. You won’t be stuck in a bad situation.

Many people worry that if they accept a foster child into their home, and the child is more than they can manage, they won’t be able to do anything about it.  This is not true.  No foster family is ever “stuck” with a child they can’t parent.

After almost two years of fostering, the Smith family encountered a situation with their foster child that made them decide that he could no longer stay with them.  Liana contacted their caseworker, who called together a meeting at the department of social services.  The child was quickly removed from their home.  After he was gone, the atmosphere in their home immediately relaxed.  “It was kind of a relief,” she remarks.

Don’t feel bad if a placement doesn’t work out for your family.  Smith says that her husband told her almost a decade later that he felt like they had “let down” their foster child when they moved him to a different home.  However, she says, “It’s always easy to look back and see what you could have done” but at the time the decision they made was what everyone felt was in the best interest of their family and the child.

And sometimes it’s better for a foster child to have an opportunity to try living with a different family, in a different situation.  “Not every child is going to fit every family,” says Searle, “and so, for that reason, some kids do get moved around a lot because they are in search of a particular home that can care for them. Some of those kids have special needs– but no child in the system is so ‘special needs’ that they can’t be adopted.  I would say every child is adoptable by somebody.  They just need to find the right somebody.”

8. It’s worth it.

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Though there are challenges and difficulties in fostering children, there are payoffs too.

Searle describes them this way:  “It’s those little moments when they finally begin to feel like a part of your family.  They start to say little things in the way your family does.  Every family has its quirks and when your foster kids come into your house and start talking like you and their mannerisms start reflecting your family, that’s a nice thing to see.”  And then there’s the biggies:  “The first time they tell you they love you.  The first time they call you ‘Mommy.’  The first time they give you a hug. All of these things that they do more and more over the years– and you can see the comfort they find in your home, that they really feel love that they really do feel they belong here.  For me, it’s kind of a reminder that I’m doing okay at my job and that they are supposed to be here.”

The Smith’s former foster child, now a young man beginning a family of his own, recently came into town for a visit.  Later, he texted Liana to say how much he had enjoyed spending time with their family that day.  “That was just a little thing that said to me that maybe we did have that much influence on him,” remarks Liana.  And even though their experience with foster care was difficult, she says, “I’m glad we did it.  I’m glad we have the relationship with him that we do.  I’m excited that he feels comfortable enough to let us be a part of his life.  To me that’s the payoff.”

So should you do it?

“If it’s something you are interested in, definitely look into it,” says Searle.  “I run into people all the time who say ‘I wish I would have adopted,’ or ‘I wish I could have adopted.’

Do a little soul searching first, though.   “For us– for me–it was a lot of prayer and a lot of thought about what we were going to do and what we were capable of handling.”  She adds, “The truth is that not everybody can do it.  It’s a very hard road– and for some people, it might not be the right thing for their family.  But if it’s something you’ve ever felt like doing, you should definitely look into it–you should definitely do it–because there are lots of kids out there, and they’re waiting for forever families.  They are troubled, yes, but they are some of the most loving little people I’ve ever met.”