What It’s Like to Be a Foster Parent, by Modern Foster Family

Forever.

It was never going to be forever. When we started the journey of becoming foster parents, it was not with the hope or goal of adoption. We became foster parents because we wanted to help children in need, and support families during tough times. The DHS knew this, we knew this, the bio-parents of the children who have been in our home knew this. Even the kids coming in to our home knew this, as over time we therapeutically explained our role to them. No matter how much you remind yourself of this, and talk to those around you about your role, and tell the DHS your boundaries, it doesn’t make a kiddo transitioning away from your home any easier.

When people learn that we are foster parents, they often say nice things to us, like “what you guys are doing is so amazing”, or “I am so glad there are people like you in the world”, then follow it up with some awkward statements, and finally end with the following:

“I could never do foster care because I would get too attached and would want to adopt them.”

OR

“I can’t do foster care because it would hurt too much to see the children leave.”

These statements unintentionally assume that we don’t get attached or that it doesn’t hurt when kiddos transition from our home. Let us dispel the myths here: We get attached. You have to become attached to your kiddos. These are children, beautiful children who want love, need love, and there is no way not to get attached. Attachment, love, and support of a child does not mean that you have to adopt.

Being a foster parent hurts, and it should hurt. Just thinking about the possibility of a child being in foster care should hurt. There is a lot of hurt involved in being a foster parent. It is important to remind yourself that it is nothing compared to the hurt of being a child in foster care. Foster care is not something children should experience.  No matter how you became a foster parent, at one point, you said “yes”… that is rarely true for children in foster care. Often, they do not have a choice. Hurting when a child leaves should signify that you are doing foster care right. It means you care, you love, and you support the children you’ve had the opportunity to care for.

All this being said, it still hurts like hell when a kiddo leaves your home. Even when you know that when they are placed with you, adoption is not an option, it is heart wrenching when they actually leave. Even in the best circumstances, with the best laid plans, and the best intentions, you can’t help but ache with grief when a child transitions from your home. Our daughter, Ariel, recently transitioned from our home after nearly 18-months of being part of our family. The transition was very well planned out, and is hopefully a transition to her forever home. It is something that she wanted, and occurred under some of the best circumstances you could hope for as a foster parent.  That doesn’t mean that it isn’t painful, that we are not grieving the “loss” of a child, or that we are not wracked with guilt. With these emotions so fresh in our being, we felt it would be good to have an honest and open post about transitions.

Losing a Child

One thing we have learned since we have become foster parents is how easy it is to love a child unconditionally. Whether they are with you for a couple hours, a few days, many months, or numerous years, it is difficult not to have a fierce love for kiddos in your home.  When you see their face, when you learn about their trauma, when you see them smile, hear them cry, or talk to them about their hopes and dreams, it is nearly impossible not to have a connection. You instantly want to care for them, love them, nurture them, and support them through this difficult time, but also a time when they are part of your family.

We will not pretend though, that the bond doesn’t strengthen, and the pain amplify, the longer a child is with you.  Ariel was with us for nearly 18-months. She was eight when she arrived, and nine-and-a-half when she left. A child changes and grows a lot during that time. We had so many “firsts” with her. Some are mentioned in our Letter to Ariel*, but a few that jump out to us are the first Christmas we had together—which was also the first Christmas we had kids in our home—as well as sitting bedside with her as she had surgery, and teaching her to read. For 18-months, we raised her with every ounce of energy and love we had. It was exhausting, it was rewarding, and it was difficult, if not devastating to pack her belongings up and move her out of our home.

Our home did not feel the same after Ariel left. The new “normal” did not feel real. It truly felt like we had lost our child. There were no more unintentionally hilarious statements made by Ariel, no more moments of frustration when she could not follow directions, and a lot less exhaustion, since she required  nearly 24/7 supervision. Instead, all of these missing components created a void.  It is extremely hard to see a child who you love and have cared for so intensely for 18-months, leave your home forever.

Feeling Like You Failed

By all accounts and metrics, when Ariel left our home, we had achieved our goal as foster parents. When we began our fostering journey, our goal was to provide a safe, loving home for children in foster care, until they can be reunited with their family (if that is an option), or until a long term or adoptive placement can be secured by DHS.  So if we achieved our goals, and did what we believe was best for us and our kiddos… why does it feel so awful? Shouldn’t it feel like a “win” or a “success”, instead of a “loss” and a “failure”?

The easy response to these questions would be that “it hurts so much, because we did it right, and loved the children in our home like they were our own, because for the moment, they were”.  But that doesn’t truly answer the question, or really help ease the pain and grief. That is because deep down inside, the grief and pain we are feeling is very closely related to doubt.  Doubt about our goals and approach to being foster parents, as there are so many children in need in the world, and we are helping so few, and those that we care for, are not with us forever.

What actual good are we doing? What benefit, in the grand scheme of things, are we providing to society and kids in care? Are these transitions, and temporary placements in our family actually causing more trauma for children? If this is what “achieving our goals” feels like, is it worth continuing? These are all thoughts that are triggered by grief, but they are real thoughts, they have validity, and they should be contemplated.

Should We Have Adopted

One simple solution to many of the doubts pertaining to the idea of transitions as failures is to simply adopt. Ariel was with us for 18 months, we loved her, she loved us, and she would have stayed with us forever in heart beat… if it were an option. We, on the other hand, wrestled and struggled with the long term plan, and permanency for Ariel. We eventually decided, that given all of the variables (too many to list here), that we were not the best forever home for her. That was an extremely tough realization to come to.

We made it work for 18-months, why couldn’t we make it work for 18+years**? If we love her, and she loves us, then why wouldn’t we adopt her? There are so many questions that we had to answer, as the transition became a reality. Most of them were internal questions, although there was also the perceived judgement from others.

Through it all, we did our best to stay true to our mission. We began this journey to love and support children in foster care, and to do our best to help families during tough times, if possible. Ariel’s family did not provide the opportunity for us to help them, instead we focused our energy on caring for her.  If we would have adopted Ariel, it would have meant that we would no longer be able to bring other children into our home (foster or bio), as her needs were significant.  Ariel is an amazing person, and in our hearts and minds, we knew that there was a family out there who was looking for her. Although it was painful for us, when the DHS found a potential adoptive resource for Ariel, we were extremely happy for her. We still had our doubts about the work that we do, but we were excited for her and her new forever home.

Judgement

As can probably be inferred from this post, we harbor a lot of self doubt and self-judgement. Being a foster parent, just like being a bio-parent, is a huge responsibility. There are many instances where you may doubt yourself, judge yourself, or even feel judged by others.  Everybody parents differently, and nobody has perfected parenting. There are countless books about parenting, and in comparison, there are relatively few books on being a foster parent. Being a foster parent can be a lonely journey at times, and for those who do not understand the journey you are on, it can often feel like they are judging you.

For us, we have experienced two reoccurring types of judgement:

Judgement from strangers. Judgement from friends, family, and acquaintances.

“Judgement” may be too harsh of a term. The “judgement” we experience may be more of our interpretation of general curiosity, commentary, misunderstanding, or a genuine attempt to help.  This is probably the case, but communication is a two-way street, and there is always the “intent” and the “impact”. During emotionally challenging times, like a transition, the “impact” that a comment or action may have on us, may be significantly different than the “intent”.  We are often in a fragile state.

As we have quickly learned, although many kids experience foster care, they far outnumber the adults and parents who have experience with fostering. These comments, that we often interpret as judgement, come more from lack of understanding than judgement, but when you feel like you have “lost” a child, it is easy to misinterpret comments. Often, it is easy to feel like their ask of “you are going to keep them, right?!?” to be a moral judgement against you if you are “just” fostering. Perceived judgement from strangers, or acquaintances, is often uninformed, and does not come with an understanding of the day to day struggle or the long-term plan, and therefore easier to dismiss. Comments or perceived judgement from family and friends, however, can be a lot harder to handle.

One thing we have tried to be cognizant of, as we deal with the often difficult emotions of a transition, is that our friends and family, who have also supported us and our kiddos, are grieving too. It has been important for us to realize that often, when people distance themselves from our family, or provide unneeded or unwanted feedback during a transition, it may be their way of grieving and processing.  When a kiddo leaves our home, we make it very clear that we would like to be a part of the child’s life going forward; a support for the child, a resource for the family.  Depending on the situation, it is not always clear what that would look like, or if that is even possible. At the minimum, we hope to remain in contact with the family and child, and receive updates, but hopefully we can see them on a regular basis.

The important thing for us to realize here, is that our contact with our former kiddo, does not always equate to contact with our friends and family, who also deeply care for these kids. The transition also affects others in our support circle who love our kids, and they are also grieving the “loss” of a cousin, niece, grandson, or friend, and they know that they may never see them again. So, as they are grieving, they may make statements that come across as judgements, like “I thought you were going to keep them”, or ” that is so sad that they are leaving you, they really loved you”, and “are you sure this is the best option?” These statements hurt, a lot, coming from people who you love and trust, but we now realize that they are coming from a place of love first and grief second. They may feel like judgement, but that is our interpretation, and not necessarily the intended impact.

They Gained a Family

When we take a step back, there is a sense of accomplishment, and a tiny feeling of joy.  Whether or not people outside of us, our kiddo, and the family she is moving to (bio or adoptive) understand the achievement of attaining a forever home, deep down inside, we are so happy for the child and the family. Children need permanency, so whether it is reunification or adoption, both come with struggles and hardship, but both can be and should be better than the perpetual unknown of foster care.

In the case of Ariel, being moved to a pre-adoptive home, it helped to keep in mind that as much as we may be hurting, the joy that this family is feeling is incredible.  They had wanted to adopt for years, became foster parents with the hope of adopting, but never had a placement that fit with their family. We were able to provide Ariel a safe and loving home for nearly 18-months, enroll her in school, take her to all of the intake appointments, establish routine care providers, and prepare her for adoption… but deep down we knew we were not adoptive parents. The joy in her eyes, after she had spent multiple weekends with them, and realized they were interested in adopting her was beautiful. It helped to know that for every ounce of pain we felt, she and her new family were feeling a pound of love. We felt a lot of pain, but that just meant they were experiencing a ton of love.

What Does Their Future Hold

This is probably what makes a transition so hard. When they are in your home, you generally know what the near future holds for them. You are involved in their life, day to day, and know what the next week, month or maybe even year entails. You know how you are going to parent them, and guide them to be the best they can be, and give them the best opportunities and experiences. When they leave your home, you lose control, which can be very scary.

We can still remember the first time we watched a bio-parent feed our former foster youth (FFY), at 1-year old, a Slurpee. To be fair, it was hot out, and a Slurpee sounded delicious, but that was not something we would have done.  As mentioned before, everybody parents differently, and nobody parents perfectly, but it can be hard to watch somebody parent a child you care for, drastically differently than you parented them. You can’t help but question how these changes in parenting styles, opportunity, resources, experiences and so much more, will affect their future.

The other unknown about the future, that weighs heavily on a transition, is the likelihood of the “plan” actually working out.  We love the saying, “When you make plans, God/the Universe is known to laugh.”  We have had numerous long term and emergency placements. For the long-term placements, we care for them until a permanent placement has been found, whether it be reunification with bio-parents, or placement with a potential adoptive family. Of these types of reunifications, a third have been successful, a third have failed and the child has been placed back in foster care, and for the remaining third we are still waiting to see what happens. These results are not great. They aren’t awful, but our hope is that every child that leaves our home, leaves to their forever home.

For emergency placements, which are kids that we take in for a few hours to a few weeks, to keep them out of hotels while the DHS searches for a long-term placement, the outcome has been even more frustrating. One child was placed back with his family after a safety plan was established, one child—hopefully—found a long-term placement, but all of the others have been moved from home to home, and even institutions, making us regret letting them leave our home, even though it was not feasible for them to stay with us long term.

One of the hardest parts of having a child leave your home, even under the best laid plans, is the uncertainty and lack of control over the future. You want the best for these children, you gave them the best when they were with you, and you hope that by letting them go, they will continue on a path that is the best path for them… but you have little control over that, and it may not work out as you had planned.

Are We Helping?

What good are we actually doing? What benefit are we providing these children?  Are we providing more positive experiences than negative by being foster parents, or are we just creating more trauma?

Only time will tell, but there are times when a kiddo leaves your home, as you feel judgement from those around you, or when you hear of a former kiddo who has come back into care, that you can’t help but think, “Did we do the right thing?”

When the emotions are removed, when the newness of the transition has subsided, or the moment hasn’t yet occurred, there are times where we are proud of what we are doing. We are providing a loving and safe home for children in need, and support to struggling families. In the moments surrounding a transition, it hurts, it is emotional, it is confusing. During those times, it is important to remind ourselves that “It was never going to be forever.” We play a role, it may not always be clear to the children, to strangers, to family and friends, or even ourselves at times, but we play a role.

All we can do is hope that what we are providing is helpful and meets a need…whatever that means. When we decided to foster, we knew that it would be hard. We knew that kiddos leaving our home would be painful, but we could never have known all the reasons why it would be painful, how exciting it could be, and how conflicting all of these emotions are. The struggle, pain, hurt, excitement, love, and purpose are all real, and at the end of it all, it is all worth it.

* All names of children have been changed.
**Circumstance indicated that Ariel would never be able to live independently.

 

Aaron and Jewell grew up, and currently live in Portland, Oregon. They met in high school, but now they both just turned 30 (don’t tell anyone), and have been married for almost eight years.  As a couple who both had careers, and with no bio-children, they began their journey as foster parents 2-years ago.  Since then, they have had long term placements, short term placements, and emergency placements from as short as a few hours to as long as 18-months.  Their youngest placement has been 11-months, and their oldest 16 years old.  They currently have one longterm kiddo, and also routinely say “yes” to emergency placements which last a few hours to a couple weeks. Jewell and Aaron are excited to welcome a baby girl together in July. They started ModFosterFam.com to document their journey as modern foster parents.

 

Connect with Aaron & Jewell

Website: ModFosterFam.com
Facebook: @ModernFosterFam
Twitter: @ModernFosterFam
Instagram: @ModernFosterFam

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