When my partner and I began our adoption journey two years ago, we were terrified of fostering. We were scared of getting too attached and of having to give a child back. They're valid fears, especially if you've struggled to start your own family or don't yet have kids. However, 18 months later, we not only have a daughter who is ours and fully adopted, we've fostered four babies. You might be surprised to learn that fostering was just as big a blessing to our family as adoption. There are things no one tells you about being a foster parent, but I'm more than happy to.
When we took on our first foster baby (with our own infant daughter in the house), my biggest fear was falling in love with her and having to hand her back. That's exactly what happened, in the end, but I wouldn't change a minute of it. She needed our love for the time she was in our home, and we still feel proud of how we did our job as her foster parents; loving her as hard as we could for as long as she was with us. It taught an invaluable lesson about our capacity to love selflessly and without expecting any reward in return.
Is fostering right for every family in every season? Absolutely not. But are most parents much more capable of fostering than they think they are? That's a resounding yes. Fostering may not be for the faint of heart — and having to give a child you've loved as your own back to a family member or parent is certainly a very real and painful possibility — but you certainly don't have to be "supermom" or perfect parents to take it on. I hope the following things help demystify foster parenting and, perhaps, encourage a few of you to take it on (or encourage foster parents you know in their roles).
It Doesn't Take Supernatural Powers
One of the most frustrating things about being a foster parent isn't the extra laundry or extra paperwork or complicated dealings with child protective services. The most annoying thing a foster parent can hear is that you couldn't be a foster parent because you don't think you're "strong enough," and that it would be too hard to say goodbye. That is a harsh reality of foster parenting, but being a foster parent doesn't take supernatural powers.
Saying that you're not brave enough to be a foster parent also diminishes what you have to offer. You are brave enough, and many children across the country need your bravery. When we handed over Baby J, whom we'd had in our home for two months, I felt like I'd been hit by a truck. Packing away the baby gear for another day was hard. However, we can do hard things, and I wouldn't undo a single moment of those two months with her.
It's Complicated, But Not Rocket Science
In the first week we had what we thought was a temporary foster baby, all hell broke loose on her case. Every expectation we had when we took the initial call asking if we would take a 5-month-old baby girl went out the window. What I thought was a short-term foster turned into bringing her for a DNA test, meeting with her guardian ad litems, various meetings with CPS caseworkers and visits to the doctor because, at 5 months old, she hadn't seen a doctor since birth.
Being a foster parent does take extra time and energy. It takes a certain flexibility of schedule, and extra patience as you're often dealing with state run systems that aren't as efficient as those in comfortable middle-class situations would choose to pay for. But it's not certainly not rocket science. You'll quickly learn the terminology, systems, and important figures in your foster child's case and start to head off potential problems before they even occur.
It Involves A Lot Of Paperwork
There is paperwork. Sometimes there's a lot of paperwork. Sometimes, in the case of our daughter, who was a foster-to-adopt situation with parents who had relinquished their rights at birth, there was hardly any paperwork.
I'm not naturally organized with paperwork, so this was a learning curve for me. Find a binder and a safe spot for it, and keep everything related to your foster child in that binder. Make copies of everything and write down details that might be relevant to their case later.
Even when lawyers, caseworkers, and guardians are predicting the way a case will turn, get ready for the unpredictable. We once had a caseworker tell us they thought one of our foster babies would be one of the fastest CPS adoptions they'd ever seen. Two weeks later, a judge ordered the child be turned over to a family member.
Even foster placements are unpredictable; we probably received about ten phone calls about children who simply never materialized, before we had our first foster arrive at our door. It's best not to change your schedule or run around preparing until your caseworker says they are en route with the child.
Caseworkers Can Be Wonderful
Caseworkers with child protective services get a bad rap. Sometimes it's deserving (we've seen that, too), but other times it's definitely not.
I'll never forget one of our foster kids' caseworkers, Polly. She called me at late on a Friday night to apologize that she wouldn't be able to make it over to bring paperwork for us to sign that evening. She had been up all night the previous evening, getting ready for court the next day and at 7 p.m. on a Friday night, she still had another, more dire visit to make before heading home. So instead, she came on a Saturday afternoon. When I asked her about her long hours, she said, "Well, I wouldn't do it if I didn't love it."
It's Not Easy For Everyone To Understand
Not everyone in your life will understand what it is you've taken on, what daily life looks like, and how important it is to you and your family. In fact, I'd argue that unless you've had a direct experience with foster care — either as a foster parent or the child of foster parents or as a foster child yourself — you can't quite understand what it's like to live on the emotional roller coaster on a daily basis.
Foster Kids Often Arrive With Nothing
Nearly every foster child who has arrived in our home has come with the clothes on their back, a few bottles of soured formula, and a handful of outfits they've long outgrown. Some agencies provide a stipend for initial clothing, or daily for the child's expenses, but others don't.
We've worked with a private agency that doesn't pay foster families, but does help as much as possible to provide formula or clothing donated by families who care about foster care but might not be in a position to foster. My favorite trick is to find a thrift store in a fancy neighborhood (they have the best stuff!) and stock up on basics as soon as possible.
You Can't Instagram Your Foster Kids...
You can't show your foster child's face on social media. You'll get really clever in cropping their faces out of photos or sharing sweet photos of their feet or hands. Those annoying stickers in certain apps, in my opinion, come in awfully handy.
...And You Can't Cut Their Hair
At least without express permission. Time to get your foster child used to the idea of a man bun, my friends.
It Involves A New Set Of Vocabulary Words
Respite care, rescue foster, guardian ad litem, family based services, permanency goals; they're all part of the foster care vocabulary you'll start learning when you become a foster parent. Your first case will likely be an enormous learning curve in the way the system actually works, rather than what you've heard about the system. It's complicated and nuanced, but you'll get the hang of it quickly.
Not All Foster Parents Are Paid
Little known fact: some agencies do provide daily stipends for foster children, but some don't. It's best not to assume that foster parents are fostering for the financial benefit because, even if their agency provides a stipend, it sure isn't making anyone their millions. Trust me.