There are about as many kids in foster care as there are people in Atlanta, Georgia. That means almost half a million vulnerable kids need loving families. Maybe you want to help, but you’re wondering what to expect if you do.
Foster parenting is truly a front row seat to God’s work in the lives of kids who need it most. It’s a gift and an honor to step into the role of story reader, grape halver, tear wiper, bandaid applier, boundary giver. There is nothing quite like being a bystander while your heart falls in love with a child. Beautiful, hard, and worth it. That’s foster parenting.
We probably wouldn’t hesitate to call it a worthy endeavor, but a few days ago I was thinking, “What would I tell myself when we started the foster parenting process about two years ago?” Not the stuff they tell you in classes. The real-life, note-to-self stuff.
I asked a dozen foster mom friends the same question. Below you will find our unfiltered tips. To protect the stories of foster kids/parents I know and love, I have used fake names in every story. But please know that I’ve curated these stories and tips from lovely and real women who I know personally.
1.) “Getting too attached” will not be the hardest part. At least not in the beginning. I know this is a favorite excuse of well-intending people for why they don’t foster. “I could never be a foster parent, I would get too attached!” That’s like saying, “I’m so amazing that I’m simply not able to help orphans. I’m just too virtuous!” Sometimes the actual hardest parts of foster parenting include being called four-letter words by a toddler in the checkout line at the Babies R Us bankruptcy sale. That’s what happened to Sally. And as her foster child continued to spew expletives, a stranger stopped to weigh in. The stranger told Sally that she could never be a foster parent–because she’d get too attached. Sally smiled and nodded, but also wondered if the stranger might want to get her hearing checked. Needless to say, Sally’s attachment to this child was not the hardest part of foster parenting. Frustration, exhaustion, stress–expect these feelings to prove more difficult than excessive attachment, at least in the beginning.
2.) Pick one or two things to work on at a time. Pam was thrilled to play a part in transforming the life of a wounded child. Pre-placement, she imagined starring in her own Annie movie. Move over, Daddy Warbucks, Pam is here with organic fruit and an annual zoo pass! Her idealism didn’t last long. Pam’s first foster son ran the opposite direction when she called his name. This child kicked, bit and pushed Pam’s biological children. Pam was overwhelmed and had to readjust her expectations, starting with smaller, more manageable goals. So she picked two basic life skills to hone at a time: 1.) No running into oncoming traffic. 2.) No biting the bio kids. Once they mastered those things, she picked two new ones. Pam cries remembering those early days, because it reminds her of the unbelievable growth in her child that can only be attributable to divine intervention. A year after wading through biting and running away, her foster son’s new goals look like finishing vegetables at dinner and remembering to say please and thank you. Pam’s attachment to this child has grown along the way. And that attachment is not a problem, it’s a gift.
3.) Expect an emotional breakdown. One mama snapped around day nine of a new placement. Another snapped on day four. Maybe you have nerves of steel and can function just fine on three hours’ sleep, so it might take a whole month for you to crack. At some point, adrenaline wears off and you turn into Jessi Spano. (“I’m so excited! I’m so. . . scared!”) Compassion fatigue is real, sister. Your chore list will gather dust while you put out fires everywhere. (Mostly figurative fires, but possibly literal ones.) You look like death, you’ve maintained a steady diet of Chewy bars for a week and you just snap. It’s ok. We’ve all been there. But just know that an emotional breakdown is coming. Which leads us to our next tip:
4.) Get your support system in order before your first placement. My foster mama friends’ most popular tip for newbies was to have a plan for self care. You cannot be a foster parent by yourself. Sorry to break it to you, but your own strength and capacity is not enough to care for a child from trauma. It’s better to know now than to find out three days after placement, when your husband comes home from work to find you and all the children crying, still wearing last night’s pajamas. You need a support system and a plan. Does your church host a foster care or adoption support ministry? Notify them when you get a placement. Accept any help that is offered. Maybe you live near family who can come by once or twice a week to give you a break. Hire a babysitter. Nap, go to lunch with your husband, or just sit quietly in a room by yourself staring at the wall in fetal position. It’ll be so great. You, your husband and your kids will all be absorbing the trauma of a tiny precious child who came from a hard place. It is not easy. You will need to take breaks. Make a plan!
5.) Expect failure. One of the most difficult aspects of foster parenting is learning your own limitations. Brooke shared, “It will be too much. It will rule your schedule . . . it will overwhelm your emotions, it will make you question the person you thought you were. . . You are not enough for these kids. If you were, they would not need Jesus and neither would you!”
As it turns out, you are not anyone’s savior. You cannot fix a child’s life. You will grow weary. You will run out of patience. It won’t take long to realize that you need a kind of grace that is not your own. All you can do is obey God’s call to care for these little ones and release the rest to Him. It will be the most refining, humbling experience of your life. Hard? Yes. Worth it? Unquestionably.
6.) God loves this child more than you do. You have been called to play a role in the life of this little one. Maybe for a few days, maybe forever. I believe in a God who loves this precious child more than you or I ever could. And He does not leave the outcome of her life to chance. He will work everything out, even when it looks messy and feels impossible. When you feel out of control of a placement or situation, your feelings are right! You don’t have control over much. But a loving and powerful God does. So rest assured in His long-term plans. For you, and for this little one.
7.) Maybe you are meant to care for the biological family as much as for the child. Diane was afraid of her first foster child’s biological parents, so she made no effort to build a relationship with them. In retrospect, she missed an opportunity to love them and to be a bigger part of their support system. Your foster child may reunify with his or her biological family. Investing in that family might be your greater purpose in this process.
At the end of another difficult day, take solace in knowing that however impossible and clumsy the execution–you’re doing it. You’re doing the hard, obedient, messy and beautiful work of loving His little ones. Lean on the One who loves you and these babies more than we could fathom. And watch how much He grows you in the process.
Are you a foster mom? What would you tell yourself before taking your first placement?