When I was single and a 20-something-year-old pediatric nurse, a child in my care needed a foster home. I loved him, and for about fifteen minutes, I considered it, before realizing I was nowhere near ready for that commitment and filed the thought away as a “maybe one day.”
Fast forward about fifteen years, and my husband and I found ourselves being divinely nudged to consider foster care. It went from a thought on the back burner to a very real opportunity in front of us. We just had to decide whether or not to take the chance. We made a couple phone calls, hired a sitter for our three children (six, four, and just under a year old at the time), and began taking classes to embark on the long process of becoming foster parents.
We had a vision of what fostering would look like for our family. We quickly discovered that our vision was not reality, and we have been on a 2-year-long roller coaster ride ever since. On any given day, if you ask us about fostering, we will promptly respond, “It’s complete insanity – you should totally do it.” Here are some things that, in our experience, we have learned about the nature of being foster parents.
What being a foster parent is…
An Opportunity to Practice What You Preach
When my husband and I decided to foster, we were faced with the obvious reality that this would, undeniably, affect our children. Would they accept another child in our home? Would they become too attached? Would it take too much attention away from them? The answer to all these questions, we knew, was yes: They would become attached, and it would change our family dynamic. But we also knew that we wanted our children to understand and participate in the why of fostering. Simply stated: Our family was able to provide for a child who needed a safe and loving home. We tell our children to give to others, to share, to go out of their way to be kind, and to love freely. Fostering a child was an opportunity to truly live that, and we know (and hope and pray) that the positives of this endeavor will outweigh the negative impacts.
If you love adventure and unpredictability, fostering may be for you. I’ve never been a fan of unpredictability, so this aspect of being a foster parent has definitely forced me to let go of some of my controlling tendencies. As a foster parent, your phone may ring at any time of the day or night and someone might ask you to temporarily parent a child – or two or three. These children could come to you from the hospital, their home, school, or another foster home. How long they will be with you is often a mystery, as is the legal course that their cases may take while in foster care. Things may change rapidly in a child’s case, and things may drag on for many months. Being prepared for that unpredictability has become a way of life for our family.
A Serious Undertaking
If you imagine that becoming a foster parent is much like signing up to be the kids’ soccer coach, it is not. In the state of Virginia, a prospective foster parent must meet certain requirements, complete a weeks-long training course, undergo multiple home visits with a social worker, complete a significant stack of forms, and pass several background and safety checks. It is not a fast process, and it is also not over once you are approved to be foster parents. You will continue to have home visits, complete continuing education, and maintain certain records. While the process can be overwhelming at times, it is not wasted energy or effort. A child – who has already experienced some kind of trauma – is about to be placed in a stranger’s home who will then be responsible for this child’s safety. It’s kind of a big deal.
What being a foster parent is not…
There is a romanticized stereotype of foster care as “superhero” parents swooping in and plucking children from peril. In reality, a good foster parent is stepping into a child’s situation rather than sweeping them away from it. For our family, we have found that providing a safe home for a child is only half of the job. We are also willingly and purposefully trying to understand the child’s history, to know their family, to appreciate their world-view, and their experience to date. Sometimes, this may mean changing your routines to match the child’s. Sometimes, it may mean helping a foster child celebrate holidays and birthdays with their biological family members. Often times, it’s texting the child’s parents to check in, ask questions, and assure them that their child is loved and safe.
While there are some foster situations that are very clear and finite, most aren’t. They are gray and fuzzy. A foster parent who wants what is best for the foster child, knowing that the vast majority of children will return home or reunite with relatives, will be willing to step into that gray and fuzzy zone.
All Doom and Gloom
In foster care, there are stories of tragedy, pain, and trauma. Foster care can be sad. As a foster parent, you do hold some of that sadness and trauma. But there are also wonderful endings to many children’s stories. As a foster parent, you may get a first-hand view of another parent working through addiction, or overcoming obstacles and hurdles in life. You may even be a participant in helping them achieve these things. You may also be a part of helping a child find a loving forever home through adoption by a relative or another adoptive placement. You may foster an older child to be ready to launch into college or the workforce. Stories are often sad, but there can be great hope for foster parents in the endings to these stories.
Not everyone has the flexibility of schedules or the capacity of heart to take children into their home and then say goodbye. Practically, not everyone has an extra bedroom. That doesn’t mean you can’t be a cheerleader and helper in the life of a foster child. Volunteer as a court appointed special advocate (CASA) worker. Donate to local foster care organizations and charities. Do you know another foster family? Help them! Offer a helping hand, a meal, or a listening and non-judgmental ear. Being a good friend to a foster child or a foster parent is truly an invaluable contribution to the care and keeping of that child (trust me, I know!).
In our two years as foster parents, our family has experienced the awesome highs of milestones met, progress made, and relationships sealed. We have also experienced times of great frustration, cried many tears, and have endured hopeless seasons. Our course changes often. Our opinions flip-flop incessantly. We have learned to ride the wave of unpredictability and embrace that, in this moment, we are loving a child who needs a safe home. If you’re interested in becoming a foster parent, the Richmond area has a wealth of resources. Contact your department of social services for information.