10 Lessons You Learn While Being a Foster Parent
It is 11:43 p.m. on Thursday and you are snuggled under the covers keeping the autumn chill away. While in deep slumber, you hear the phone ring, or at least you believe you do. You reluctantly open your eyes as you roll to the side. It is then that that you see a pulsing light interrupting the darkness that surrounds you. Your heart quickens and your breath deepens, both to an uncomfortable level. “Who would be calling at this time of night?” you think to yourself. “What’s wrong? Did something happen to someone I love?” With mild hesitation, you pick up your phone and place it to your ear. “Hello?”
“Hi, is Suzanne available?” speaks the soft voice on the other end of the line.
In a garbled and groggy speech you reply, “This is she.”
Her voice continues speaking without much pause. “We are looking for a placement for a sibling strip of three. Their ages are 7, 4, and 6 months. Would you be interested in taking them?”
In an attempt to disguise your tiredness, you clear your throat and rub your eyes several times. Then, following a deep sigh, you question. “Three kids? Really?”
“Yes, two boys and a girl,” recounts the worker. “Would you be interested?”
“Possibly,” slips off your tongue and past your lips. In an effort to garner more information about the potential placement, you then proceed to ramble off your list of prepared questions. “What are their behaviors? Where do they go to school? Do they have any medical needs? How much trauma have they experienced? Why are they coming into care?” You hope that with each question answered you can gain more confidence in saying yes to taking them in.
The worker does her best to respond. As the children just came into care, information regarding their needs are limited and, at times, the worker informs you, there is no information available at all, leaving many of her answers are vague or incomplete. Regardless, the responses she provides are sufficient enough to tug on your heartstrings a bit and you feel obligated to say yes. You want to do something, anything really to help, and knowing that you have the beds available, you make the decision. “Yes, please bring them over.”
Now in a frenzy, you spend the next 30 minutes running around your home in preparation, all while questioning yourself and your decision. “Did I make the right choice? Can I manage three kids? What if they have needs greater than I can handle? Am I in over my head? Can I really do this?”
For most adults, the transition to becoming a parent takes months, nine months more precisely. In foster care though you are taking in children, sometimes in the dark of night, with no real time for preparation and with no real understanding of their true needs. Children with behaviors, physical disabilities, and mental health issues enter your front door and shortly thereafter enter your heart too.
Though foster care can be very fulfilling, at times there is also anger, frustration, and pain that comes with the process too. Through all these emotions, you discover lessons that impact your life daily, lessons of love, lessons of acceptance, and lessons of forgiveness, and grace. Here are just a few of the lessons that I have learned so far from the foster care system.
Being a Foster Parent Gave Me Wisdom
Lesson one – Love is what defines a family. Regardless of how a family is created, it is love that is the bond that holds them together; not a birth certificate, an adoption decree, or placement papers.
Lesson two – We are all one decision away from losing it all. With each choice that we make, action that we perform, or thought that crosses our minds, we are all at risk for losing the people and possessions that we love and care for most deeply. Because of this, do not judge a biological parent based solely on the reason their child came into care. They are people too and deserve compassion and grace, just the same as you do.
Lesson three – Life changes rapidly and you are not always afforded the time to fully prepare for what is to come. Be patient with yourself as you adjust to a new normal with each placement. No one expects perfection. Remember that you will never be put in a situation that is too great for you to handle. You got this and there are supports available to help when you need.
Lesson four – Be respectful to the biological family of the children in your care, especially those in the role of mom and dad. These individuals created the living being that you are holding. Showing respect to them demonstrates respect to their child as well. You are also taking the opportunity to raise the child to be a more confident and accepting individual, without shame or embarrassment of their upbringing while they are in your care.
Lesson five – A parent is a parent no matter how they assume the role. A foster mom, step-mom, biological mom or adoptive mom is simply put, a mom and a dad is simply put, a dad. You do not have to be defined by any labels greater than these.
Lesson six – The trauma that you experience in saying goodbye to a child when they leave your home forever, is nothing in comparison to the trauma a child experiences when saying goodbye to their family. Foster children experience profound grief as they transition in and out of a home. Do not let the pain that you experience as a foster parent be a reason to stop fostering. These children need caring homes and you can offer them just that. You will learn in time that your heart truly is strong enough to handle this hurt.
Lesson seven – Although you may not always agree with others on how to parent a child, we all can agree that we want the best for a child. This should be the driving force in working together to benefit a child in foster care. Have open and honest communications with the bio-parents and realize that the different perspectives we bring to the table can do so much more to help a child than if we rely on our own perspective alone.
Lesson eight – Foster care is not for everyone, however supporting foster care should be. Offer respite, provide a means to assist the family with transportation, or just offer a lending ear. Foster parents cannot do what they do without having a strong support network of family and dear friends to encourage and assist them. It really takes a community to raise a child. Offer to be that community to someone you know who fosters.
Lesson nine – Friendships can come from the most unexpected of places. With foster care, there are many people who are brought into your life that are different than you. People with different backgrounds, experiences, and struggles. Find a common interest and go from there. Creating a friendship with a biological mom or dad, for example, can result in a lifelong connection allowing you to remain in a child’s life forever.
Lesson ten – Loving a child is easy, but loving their behaviors is not. Do not define a child by how they act now. Instead, see their possibilities and realize their potential. Your ability to see beyond their past can open so many doors for them in their future. Be the one to encourage them to find the right one.
Foster parents, this list by no means represents all of the knowledge and experience gained from being a part of the foster care system as a licensed foster home. It is meant to show you the impact of your choice to be a foster parent and to encourage you to press on when things get difficult. Realize that your decision to take in children will change lives. It will change your life, the life of the children who you care for, and the family and friends that surround you on this journey. Continue doing what you do. The love, support, and encouragement that you provide is essential for improving the quality of life for so many and that should be recognized and praised. Good job.
Join us during our CHI Health Parent Education Support Group meetings to learn more about the life of a foster parent.
Tracy Glantz, MS, is an Educational Therapist at CHI Health.