I am honored to be included in a foster parent panel tonight. There is so much I would love to say. I am working on putting my thoughts in some resemblance of order. These pretty well summarize my takeaways after 5 years on this adventure:
- This is a life changing journey: Once you are involved in this world, you cannot un-see or un-hear things. Both my husband and I were surprised by the amount of neglect and abuse we were suddenly aware of and had previously not encountered. The need is real and it is huge. On the days that I am emotional, stressed out, upset about how a case is going etc, it is the knowledge of the kiddos who need a safe place and love that keeps us going. I don’t think I will be a foster parent forever, but I don’t foresee a time in which I am not involved in some way. Nearly every aspect of your life will change in ways you can expect but also in ways you don’t.
- Your bio/adopted kiddos WILL be affected by this: Sometimes that will be hard as a parent knowing you have made the choice to expose them to this world. But they will also grow up with more empathy and compassion then the average child would. There are life lessons here for them that are invaluable.
Support System: You will quickly learn that no one understands what is truly happening in your world except other foster parents. Your friends and family will try and be supportive, but there is a limit on what you can tell them. We have found they almost always immediate assume the bio parents are horrible people who should never parent again. They will feel that they are supporting you by voicing this opinion. While that is true in some cases, it is not true in all and hearing that response over and over will not help you keep your mind and heart where it needs to be. There is a support system of foster parents both locally here as well as nationally. Get involved and use these resources as a sounding board, knowledge base, and sanity check when you need them (and you will need them!). Other foster parents may have faced very similar situations and have thoughts on what you can try!
- A fellow foster mom and I joke that we foster parents are not saints or angels (which nearly everyone tells you over and over). Instead, we are a special kind of crazy on our way to a special kind of padded room at the end of this journey. 🙂 But you know what? Crazy understands crazy. We totally understand the struggles that the other is facing on a daily basis and that mutual support means so much!
- If you are religious, ask for prayer and ask for it often! Accept the natural support system that is created by those you go to church with. I truly believe that this is God’s mission for my life at the moment and we are only here and still doing this because of His strength.
- Others want to help, so voice what you need! “I need boy clothes in 2T or I need meals that can be easily thawed and heated up on our crazy days.” Etc. People do not know what they can do to help unless you ask. We have learned that allowing others to help us is allowing them to be a part of the process. Blessing us in these ways allows them to make a difference in a way that they feel that they can. As an example, we have been blessed to need to buy very little clothing in 5 years’ time. So many wonderful friends have given us boxes and totes full of clothes their kiddos have outgrown. You will start hoarding clothes and toys. That is natural! Invest in plastic totes!!
- Fight for your marriage: The statistics for marriages that survive long term foster parenting are not that great. It is important to remember that you are a married couple first and foremost. You are a married couple who happen to be foster parents, and not foster parents who happen to be married. Communication and attention to each other are going to be even more important when on this journey.
- Your Heart: Every new foster parent is concerned about heartbreak. It will happen – guaranteed (and there are not many guarantees in foster care, but this is one). You will grieve for every child that leaves your house, even if they leave for good reasons or because you wanted them to. It is simply the cost of love. Every child will always have a place in your heart, but I have learned over the years that your ability to love is not limited. Your “heart” and capacity to love on these kiddos will continue to grow. You are not cosmically limited to only having enough love for X amount of children! Another helpful thing I have learned when it comes to the thought of protecting your heart: try your hardest to not think in terms of forever until the adoption papers are signed in front of you. Even when DHHS says you are the permanency plan, plans can change for a ton of reasons. Keep thinking of yourself in terms of being a loving way station or in the terms we use with our 4 year old, the kiddos are “for a while kids” and not “forever kids”.
- Self-Care: this is another lesson learned over time, and I am still working on it. Foster parenting uses a lot of energy. If you are continually depleting your “tank” without doing something to fill it back up, you will be useless to everyone and probably end up quite sick. Find what self-care things work for you, and make them a priority. Massage, manicure, 8 hours sleep (oh God we wish!), working out, etc.
- Consider counseling: I started counseling after our first placement passed away. We also started marriage counseling shortly after. My personal counselor used to be a DHHS case worker so she knows the system. I call her my ace in the pocket. She has helped me so much manage the tides of emotions and thoughts. Marriage counseling goes with my “Fight for your marriage” point. Marriage is hard. Foster parenting is hard. That counselor helps Hubby and I communicate through the hard parts and help us make sure we are on the same page.
- Be prepared for the dichotomy of thoughts and emotions: The phrase “bitter sweet” will take on new meaning. It amazes me how many times you can feel two polar opposites at the same time. I find myself saying things like “I love this kiddo with everything in me and would love to adopt them, but I would also love to see their parents heal and the family survive this.” And “I am excited to experience this kiddo’s first Christmas, but am heartbroken that somewhere there is a Mom looking at a Christmas tree and wishing she could have this with him.”
- Know your boundaries: I suck at this one, but my husband and caseworkers are great at it. I have learned to bounce ideas off them so they can help me know when I am giving too much or when I am putting more effort into a bio parent connection then the bio parent is.
- Empathy will be a huge strength: Cultivate it whenever you can. You will be a better partner in these cases if you can remember that the bio parent is human and has both strengths and weaknesses. You don’t want to make excuses for them. Remember that the vast majority of them would rather not be in this situation. They love their child and want to be good parents, but their issues have overtaken them. When in doubt (and there will be a lot of it), I try and choose to believe the best in the person on the other side of the table.
- Find a balance: Embrace the saying “not my circus and not my monkeys”. I find that, in some of these cases, the drama can be overwhelming. Sometimes an entire day is lost to my thinking through what is happening and the emotional reactions to a court date or FTM. As you do this, you will need to find that balance. Remember that you cannot change anything about the bio parent’s situation and that it is their circus, not yours. Learn what is happening so that you can best support the kiddos in your care, but do not let the drama overtake you.
- Pain and Brokenness in Foster Care
- My Stress Relief