My partner and I sort of fell into being foster parents, so you could say a whole lot surprised us about the entire experience. We really didn't stop to think about the fact that being a foster parent meant someone could show up at our door at 9:00 p.m. and, in so many ways, turn our lives upside down. In fact, my world changed when I became a foster mom, essentially and forever changing who I am as a person.
Most of us have a vague, stereotypical knowledge about the foster care system, so I didn't know the majority of the details or realities of being a foster mom until I was sitting with a malnourished baby on my lap, trying to figure out what she could wear since everything she arrived with was filthy and reeked of cigarette smoke. It didn't take long before I realized I had no idea what foster care was really like — in both good and difficult ways.
The first foster baby my partner and I had was only in our home for a week or two before she moved on to a different, long-term foster family. My partner and I were up with her each night, trying to fatten her up and responding to her every cry or cough until she left our home. We still cried with joy when she turned 1, and we cried with sadness when her biological parents' rights were terminated. The biggest surprise of being a foster mom is how quickly and deeply you feel like a mom to a child, no matter how short their time in your home is. So with that in mind, here's how foster parenting changed my life, and my world, forever:
I Realized I Don't Know It All
Before I became a foster mom I had no idea how little I would know about my foster children's cases. Sometimes I knew a lot, and sometimes I didn't know basic information a parent would need in order to raise a child safely. Because foster care is an overworked and imperfect system you just aren't the first person anyone tells when something changes in the case, despite how integral you are to the care of the child.
I Realized Most People Don't Understand Foster Parenting
None of my immediate family members have been foster parents. I don't think you can truly understand what it feels like unless you've been in the same position. My family and friends were sympathetic, to be sure, but they didn't understand how intense and all-consuming being a foster mom was in the best possible way. I still don't think most of my family and friends understand, but I believe it was the most transformative thing I've ever done.
I Realized How Much I Need My Tribe
Until I became a foster parent, I hadn't ever felt like I needed "people who got me." Then I did. I needed a group of people who knew the system from the inside out, like I did. I needed a group of people whose hearts were broken for the children in their homes and the biological families who were heartbroken to be missing their children's lives, or who were so broken themselves that they couldn't give their child what they needed..
I Realized How Quickly Life Can Change
We had a case that started with Child Protective Services (CPS) asking us to be ready to adopt a baby, and ending with CPS telling us we had 48 hours to relinquish the baby, all in the span of a week. Foster care circumstances can change at the drop of a hat or the ruling of a judge.
I Realized I'd Want To Parent Adults, Too
This isn't true in every case, but I was surprised at how much my heart broke for the (often young) parents who were the product of the foster care system themselves, or weren't parented when they really needed it. More often than not the parents of foster children aren't inherently cruel humans, they just weren't in a position to raise a child for a variety of valid reasons. Even when we met my daughter's birth mom for the first time, almost two years after adopting her, part of me just wanted to bring her home and take care of her, too.
In many, many foster care cases, parents are unable to parent because the system has failed them somewhere along the way, and that breaks my heart.
I Realized How Hard Some Families Struggle
You read about it in the news and you hear horror stories, but the vast majority of foster care cases involve brokenness that is beyond comprehension and has cycled through generations. And, of course, that reminds you of the incredible privilege of a reasonably safe and stable upbringing.
I Realized There's No "Right" Answer In Life
Foster care brings you much closer to the child and family services arena than most of us ever get, and man, is it tough. In many cases, the right answer isn't clear at all, which makes it even harder to watch. And while the "right answer" might be to terminate parental rights, that's also something truly awful for the people involved.
I Realized I'm So, So Brave
The most common (and most annoying) thing non-foster parents say to foster parents is that they couldn't possibly foster because they would fall in love and hate to say goodbye. I understand that's scary, but I was surprised to have that exact thing happen several times over, and I lived to tell the tale. In fact, not only did I survive saying goodbye to children I fell in love with, I was made stronger than I was before. Those babies, and foster parenting, made me better, and that can never, ever, be taken away from me.