What I’ve Learned through Foster Care
He left this morning. I figured the judge would rule that way, so last night I packed up baby boy clothes, again. I boxed the formula. I set out the medication and extra diapers. It was all ready to go, and sure enough the call came, and we hadn’t finished breakfast before an appreciative social worker and an excited birth parent were in our family room.
“Thank you for all you have done. Thank you, thank you, thank you.” The birth parent is as excited as any parent with a new baby. And I’m happy for their excitement, but also a bit concerned, because even now there is so much about their baby that they don’t know how to care for.
I guess they will learn. There will be bumps on the road and I will not be there. Because in a moment Ben and I change from the parents who know more than anyone else how to care for this baby, to people in the past who may never see him again. The car backs out of the driveway, and where a minute before there was excitement and activity and boxes and bags, and a baby, in the family room, now there is only an empty bed. Again.
This time we only had the baby for just under two months, and I feel only concern, not real grief. But I keep remembering last time when my heart got torn out. And even now I feel my throat tighten at the emptiness in the house, at how in a moment, a case I’ve poured my heart and so much time into can just be—done.
It’s just a second that I feel this way, because we are in the middle of breakfast, and David is doing his math page, and I promised the kids we would make strawberry chocolate chip muffins if they were good. So I’m pulled back to this moment of being a busy mom in a busy house, and I know it will be awhile until I can pick up foster care again, and I think about what I have learned through it and how much it has changed me.
It’s Not About Me
One of the main lessons I’ve learned since stepping naively into the foster care world is that it is not about me. As a foster parent, I have been thanked and loved and appreciated and supported, but also a number of times falsely accused, ignored, used, manipulated, lied to, jerked around.
I knew going in that it wasn’t about me, but sometimes when I’m offended I need to remind myself of that. Any foster care case is not about filling my gaps, meeting my needs, or helping me feel better about how needed I am or what a great person I am. In foster care cases it really doesn’t matter what I think or how I feel. It just doesn’t matter, and the sooner I accept that the happier I am.
I’m grateful that my thoughts and feelings matter to the Lord, to my husband, and to my friends. But in the foster care world, my opinions and feelings are really not all that important, and I’m there primarily to love the child, to be an advocate, to reach out to their family.
One of the challenges of foster care is that we become aware of a lot that we cannot control. We learn about tragedies, about complicated drama, about decisions we don’t agree with. We learn about a lot of things, and most of them we can do nothing about.
So I’m finding that I need to fulfill what I am responsible for. Feed this baby. Love this baby. Reach out to the parent if I can. Call the caseworker and advocate for this baby. Pray for this case. And then it is out of my hands. And I cannot let my life be consumed with worry and frustration over what I cannot control. I can only do my job well and leave the rest. And really isn’t all of life that way?
I’m learning too how to reach out to dysfunctional people without letting their drama spill over into my life. I’m learning how far to go and when to say “enough.” I’m learning when to say, “Yes, I can help with that” and when to say, “Absolutely not.” Setting boundaries is a hard balance which I usually find by first overstepping on one side or the other, but slowly I’m learning.
Grief and Hope
This was my main journey of last year—learning what grief was really like and how to hope through it. I still don’t have a lot of words for what I learned but I know I am changed.
I’m learning that when we step out of our comfort zone and do ministry, it can get really messy. Things aren’t always black and white, and it’s hard to explain that to someone who sees the world that way. Things are complicated and answers are not easy.
I remember when a friend told me that I might find encouragement in Beth Moore’s story of loving and then having to give up her adoptive son. I made the mistake of googling this, and instead of finding an encouraging story, I stumbled upon a range of personal attacks from people who just did not understand what foster care and adoption was really like. “She refuses to say much about it.” Well, maybe that’s because it’s confidential. “She gave up her son.” Well, maybe because she or some authority made the hard choice that he should be with his birth family. And so forth.
This is not easy stuff, people. The moment you foster or adopt, you open your life to a tragedy, and often a series of tragedies, that happened. There are no quick fixes for these tragedies. There is often no one right answer. Everything is bittersweet and nuanced and complicated.
The baby’s leaving this morning was a triumph to his birth family and a testimony to how hard they worked to get him back, but at the same time it was a concerning transition and a loss for us. His coming into care in the first place was exciting for us, and a good change for him, but it happened because of wrong things that go way back. If things had gone differently and we had been able to adopt him, it would have been because of other tragedies that would have happened along the way.
Even the foster care system is messy. You hear from the cynical about how much the system is broken. The truth is there are a lot of wonderful people trying to make a difference, and a lot of laws that really make sense. There’s also a lot of mess and nonsense and red tape and things that make me feel like pulling my hair out. Hmm, why did I think ministry would be straightforward and easy?
Foster care has forever impacted my parenting by reminding me of what is truly important. It has taught me how significant and life altering it is to parent—one of the most important jobs a person can ever do—and all the more important for a child’s first few years of life. I believe that what I am doing as a foster mom, and just as a mom in general, really matters and really makes a difference, because that’s what the research shows.
When my first son was born, I worried way too much about sleep training and schedules and other silly things that were essentially my attempt to bring control to an area I knew nothing about. I’m still really fond of sleeping and having a good routine, but I’m learning not to sweat the small things, and to focus on what really matters. Does this child feel loved? Am I teaching this child how to attach?
I read this quote from a New York Times review of a foster care book: “Though foster parents understand that their parenting responsibilities are usually temporary, some can’t help falling for their foster kid….” And I thought, this reviewer totally does not get it. Not. At. All. Try it this way:
“Though foster parents understand that their parenting responsibilities are usually temporary, they are also trained to know the importance of attachment. They make a deliberate decision to bond with each foster kid, knowing that risking their own heartbreak is worth it to make a lasting difference in each kid’s life.”
There is a lot more I’ve learned since opening my life to this mess called foster care, and this bumpy journey we’ve been on. It has not turned out like I dreamed. I still want to adopt through foster care someday, but I also know we are gifted in reaching out to birth families and maybe adoption isn’t part of God’s calling for us. Whatever God’s calling is, I have a feeling it will not be predictable or easy.