How to tell if you should keep growing your foster or adoptive family

Before I even start, I have to say that I have gotten this wrong before. And that is a harsh reality because this is human beings we are talking about—literally, children that need a home. I have had to end two foster placements in the last decade, and both times it was excruciating. I would have given anything to go back, rewind time, and do things differently so that I wouldn’t feel the pain of that torn relationship. If that is how I feel, imagine how the displaced child felt. And when I have talked with those who have walked through an adoption disruption or dissolution, both on the adoptee and the adoptive parent side, the pain is magnified immensely. Knowing if you should continue to grow your family temporarily through fostering or permanently through adoption is tough. This is a life-changing decision, and I’m not just talking about your life. I’m also talking about the children that may come into your home.

How do you know if you should grow your family through foster care or adoption?

No matter what your situation, if you have no children now, if you have a birth child or children, if you have been fostering already or are just getting into it, or if you have already adopted or are just starting the paperwork, this is one of the most critical questions you will ever consider in your life. Children in foster care and children waiting for their forever homes have already experienced trauma. They have already faced separation from their first family through which they experienced their primary bonding experiences, no matter how limited or poor. Even children from extremely dysfunctional homes will still often want to live with their biological parents; it is how we were designed.

Children are hardwired to bond with their caretakers, even when the caretaker is doing a poor, neglectful, or abusive job. When we consider taking in these children from hard places, we are handed a fragile heart that has already experienced hardship. It is our duty to prevent, when at all possible, more hardship. Unnecessary and frequent moves between foster homes can leave a lasting scar on developing children. Kids that move around a lot may change schools often, leave friends, start but not complete hobbies or activities they sign up for, and basically leave a trail of pieces from their life wherever they go. Each foster home has its own rules, expectations, and flavor for life. A child entering a new foster home must adapt to all of these things in order to survive. And it is survival living.

If you imagine, for a moment, what it would be like if someone came in right now and said that you had to pack up and leave everything. How would you feel? And then if that happened over and over out of the blue, how do you think you would manage that? We MUST keep this in the forefront of our minds as care providers when we consider opening our home to another placement or adoption. It is even more critical in the case of adoption, where children are told they have found a forever home and that they don’t need to worry anymore. While there are some cases where adoption disruption or dissolution is necessary for the safety of one or more people in the home, it is devastating to the heart of a child who dared to trust that she had indeed found a permanent place to call home. So, just how do you know if you are ready to grow your family? Here are some of the most important things to consider:

- Do you have the time? Is your current schedule so full that you feel like you are constantly behind? Are you working long hours, doing major renovations, or anything else that is eating up time? If so, think about the time you need to have to care for a child. Arguably, babies and toddlers take up the most time, but teens also need a loving adult available to guide and supervise as well as mentor and really be engaged in their lives. If, when you think about adding to your plate, you already feel overwhelmed, this might not be the right time to add to your family.

- Do you have the energy? At the end of the day, are you often feeling exhausted? If so, think about the extra tasks that will be required of you when you add to your family. If you feel tired just thinking about adding in visits with birth parents, doctor’s appointments, and social worker meetings, then perhaps some changes need to be made now before growing your family any more.

- Do you have the emotional space? Fostering and adoption are emotional, period. If you find yourself already emotionally drained with the kids in your home, don’t be ashamed. Kids from hard places bring backgrounds full of pain, and we as caretakers take a lot of that on when we learn their stories and hear about their experiences. This is good, as it allows us to empathize and bond with the kids in our home. However, if you have a large emotional load as it is, think about how your mind and heart might feel adding more to that load. You don’t know right now what another child may bring with him. While it is never the child’s fault, his story or circumstances might be too much at this time.

- How is your health? Your pre-foster or adoption home study has probably already screened you for critical illnesses. Overall, though, is your health and the health of others in your home at a place where you can care for more people? In my own journey, I have had to say no to adding additional children in our home when one of our little girls was going through a rough patch medically. She was on a feeding tube for over six years, had multiple surgeries, and many, many medical interventions and appointments. Her care is complex. Sometimes, things went well and we could foster; other times, she was being hospitalized every other week, and we were just slogging through. There was no way we could add another placement during those times.

- How is your attitude? Not kidding here. What is your motivation? As care providers, we need to check that we are remaining soft and that our heart attitude is right. It is no good to provide a home out of obligation or a sense of duty. It has to be desired, and we have to go into these things with joy and love. If we are needing to be talked into a new placement or potential adoption, this is a red flag.

- Do you have time for yourself? Even the most-seasoned caregivers will burn out without some downtime. If you are already feeling that you never get enough rest, have time for a hobby, or time to see friends and family, you may want to rework your schedule before growing your family.

- Is there a possibility of siblings joining your family? If you think it is likely or plausible that a sibling to a child currently in your home may need to come into care or may be eligible for adoption, you may choose to close your home to other placements in order to prepare for that child or children. This is a hard circumstance because there are no guarantees. A birth parent may not have any more children, or she may choose or be able to parent in the future. Additionally, a relative may step forward or another unforeseen outcome could happen. I know, in our home, we would want to be able to welcome any sibling of our children who were adopted. This means we need to think carefully before saying yes to any other placement or adoption.

What if my partner feels differently than I do?

If one parent in the home is ready to grow the family and the other is not, it is best to wait. Parents need to work together on everything from discipline to managing activities and schedules. If you aren’t on the same page about fostering or adopting, it can create tension and even problems within the relationship. As hard as it is, the keen parent should wait for the unsure one to feel comfortable and ready. This will promote an atmosphere where growing your family will be the most successful.

How can we prepare to grow our family in the future?

Yes! Just because you are not ready right now doesn’t mean that you will never be ready. There are plenty of things that you can do:

- Pray about it. If you are a person of faith, the best thing you can do is spend time in prayer about what you should do.

- Journal about it. Write down any fears you are having or anything you see as a roadblock to growing your family. Seeing it on paper might help you to summarize the trouble spots. You can start taking a look at what parts of your life might need to change in order to welcome another child. From there, you can make real changes based on tangible issues.

- That being said, the next point would be to set goals. If you are currently bogged down with major renovations, for example, you may want to make a timeline and set goals as to when you want to be done in order to then focus on growing your family. You can make goals about prioritizing downtime or times of rest so that you feel less burnt out. You could also make goals about taking specific parenting classes or reading books pertaining to fostering and adoption to prepare yourself.

- Reorganize anything that doesn’t fit. If there was an obvious area where growing your family would be a challenge, and this is an important goal for you, then it is time to reorganize. This can include things like changing your work schedule, rearranging your house, or renovating to make new rooms. Root out anything that isn’t working for your family. It is fine to reinvent your lifestyle or the way you have been doing things. This might mean hiring a housekeeper, hiring someone to help with your lawn, finding a sitter to watch your other kids so that you have some personal time, switching to online shopping, or any other thing that might make your life more simple. Cancel groups or activities that are tedious or that you don’t love. If the kids in your home currently are involved in a ton of activities, it might be time to think about making some changes. Simplify! Sometimes, these types of changes feel strange at first, but they can make a huge impact on your daily living.

- See a counselor or talk to a mentor. Sometimes, fears can crop up about fostering or adopting when it comes to growing your family. Fear does not mean that you are headed in the wrong direction. Talk it out with your family and seek advice from them and from professionals who can help.

- Do the paperwork. Even if you aren’t entirely sure what to do, you can usually start the preliminary criminal record checks, references, and anything else your social worker has for you. They may stop short of the home study until you are sure, and it is important to be upfront about your thoughts, but sometimes doing the prep work will help you decide if the timing is right for you.

The shape of your family is ultimately up to you. I know what it is like to accept a foster placement against my better judgment, and my entire family paid a cost for that. I also know what it is like to desperately want to adopt again and be forced to wait. Both experiences are challenging. The shape of your family should never be formed by outside pressure, a feeling of guilt, someone else’s opinion, or pressure from a worker (although, to be fair, social workers have to make hard calls every single day and are tasked with the job of placing kids in homes even when there aren’t open homes at the moment).

The shape of your family can change at any time. You might not be ready now, but that doesn’t mean you won’t be ready next year or in a few years. There is no expiry on shaping your family. A family shaped by foster care and adoption is not typical. We don’t necessarily get to plan and choose the timing, let alone the circumstances, of how our family grows. The shape of your family may take time to develop, and you might not have the full picture right now. Foster care and adoption take faith and patience, but the outcome is a beautiful family knit together through journeys we would never have imagined. Is there anything more beautiful?