A few months ago I was at a summer barbecue chatting with a few ladies. The topic of foster care and adoption came up when a woman named Beth announced that after much prayer and waiting, her husband had finally come on board with fostering. A few of the other women shrieked with joy and said things like “Yay! Our babies can be friends and grow up together!” and “I’m so glad this is finally happening to you after all that waiting.” Beth went on to talk about how she’d been wanting another baby for such a long time, but now she was nervous about starting over again with another little one when her youngest is so big and independent. There was more chatter about babies, playdates, etc.

I was struck dumb. So many thoughts went racing through my head. I’m so glad that my mouth was sealed shut and I didn’t say any of them. After 12 years of being a foster parent, I know too much. I’ve seen too much. I know it’s not as simple as getting a baby and celebrating happily ever after.

I’ve seen mothers lose their newborns and drive away from the hospital with an empty car seat and a broken heart. (Yes, they lost custody of their baby because of choices they made, but that doesn’t make their grief any less valid.) I’ve seen grandparents with broken hearts begging to be allowed to visit with their grandbaby while he or she is in foster care. I’ve seen mothers who lost their babies because of someone else’s bad choices and doing everything in their power to get their babies back. I’ve seen the raw joy and relief in a mother finally reunited with her baby after a few days in our care. I’ve seen a mother break down in court when her rights to her baby are terminated. There’s nothing happy about any of these scenes.

During that conversation at the barbecue with the happy ladies, all these scenes ran through my mind and collided with the one in front of me. I couldn’t figure out how to convey any of the ideas in my head without sounding like a Debbie Downer. So, I just smiled, nodded, and said something like, “That’s so great” and the conversation thankfully moved on. This is what I would love to be able to tell Beth. 

Fostering is a ministry, not a way to grow your family.

Fostering is hard. If you’re in it to grow your family, you will be heartbroken. The point of foster care is for families to get healthy and be reunited. Read that again: the point of foster care is for families to be reunited. We fostered 25 babies in 12 years and adopted only three of those children. One child was Native American (NA) and was adopted by a NA family, so that means 21 children were reunited with their families! Praise God for that.

If a baby comes to your home and isn’t able to be reunited with his or her family, the goal of foster care was not accomplished. Maybe a parent wasn’t able to get healthy or rehabilitate from drug addiction. Of course, it is a joyous thing for the child that they have your family to love them, but it still needs to be acknowledged that there is always loss in foster and adoption. I believe biological families are meant to stay together.

Foster children are not yours to keep.

We have fostered 25 infants in 12 years. When I first started fostering, I dressed the baby in my taste of clothes and did her hair in my own way. When she would come back from visitations, her hair would be done a different way and she would be wearing a completely different style of clothes than I was used to seeing on babies. I would get a bit annoyed and change her right away until a friend gently reminded me that different cultures have their own ways of dressing babies; just because I wasn’t familiar with it, it doesn’t make it wrong. This is kind of a silly example, but it does show the possessive attitude I held within my heart toward our placements. (There’s nothing wrong with dressing your placement in your style of clothes, as long as we make space for differences in parenting!)

Foster children still have a family. Their parents have the right to ask that a certain formula be used, certain skincare products, shampoos, clothes, etc. It is still their baby. Let us not play dolls with other people’s children, pretending that they’re ours when they still have a family.

Personal issues need to be worked through before placement. 

Things like infertility, family size, and anything else related to your own personal issues need to be worked on before you start accepting placements. Fostering is emotionally demanding work. We need to be emotionally healthy for the children we care for. We cannot expect traumatized children to fill any emotional voids in ourselves. They need us to bond with them and love them as our own, but they also need us to let them go when the time comes for them to be reunited with their family. It’s impossible to do this well if we are still grieving our own infertility or other issues.

Children Come with Trauma

It’s important to realize that a foster child may struggle to adjust to your family. Children placed in foster care tend to have experienced trauma and neglect in their past. A baby placed in foster care may be there because of in-utero drug exposure, neglect, or exposure to domestic violence. They may have attachment difficulties. They may have developmental delays, learning disabilities, and behavior challenges that surface as they get older. Of course, there is joy in meeting these challenges together and delighting in their progress. But it’s important to realize that it won’t be easy. 

I really don’t mean to come down hard on Beth. In fact, I’ve been in her place. Before we got into fostering, I had an idealized picture of what it would be like. It’s just that the conversation made me realize how far I’ve come in my own journey, and how much I’ve learned over the years. I know she will have her own journey. She is just taking the first steps on what will likely be a great, winding adventure. She will figure out these truths as she goes. I trust that God will be with her and guide her, so she doesn’t need my advice.