It’s 4 am and I can’t sleep. Tomorrow, our family will go back on the list. Tomorrow, or a day soon after, I will become a mom to a child that I’ve never met. I’ve been here before, tossing and turning, listing in my mind all the things I would be doing to prepare my home for a child if I had the luxury of knowing their age, gender, clothing size, favorite breakfast food…I’ve spent sleepless nights like this before every new placement.
My child, that I haven’t met yet, will have a story all their own and a history that I couldn’t possibly guess. And that day, tomorrow maybe, will be a day of excitement and nervousness for me and my husband, Peter. But for that child, tomorrow, could be one of the worst days of their lives. So I laid there for hours in my safe, warm and cozy bed and I asked myself where my child is right now. However, that is much too heavy a question so instead, I make a mental list of everything I need to add to my Amazon cart.
At least this time, I know that all these feelings are normal. I’m not panicking that I am equal parts exhausted and wired. Rather than mulling over things that I have no way of knowing yet, I’m going to focus on what I have learned in the last two years of being a foster parent. If you spend five minutes searching Pinterest, you will learn a ton about foster care, how to prepare and what to expect. That’s not this list. This list is the lessons I learned the hard way and what I need to remind myself of this time around.
Foster parent OCD is real.
In the months leading up to our first foster placement, I must have reorganized my Amazon lists about a hundred times. Before my second placement, I pulled every piece of clothing out of our kid’s closet and organized them into tubs by size and gender. This time I am scouring Facebook marketplace like a maniac for double strollers and extra car seats for my husband’s car.
Some may generously call this obsession: foster mom nesting. Some call it crazy town. But I’m telling you what I have come to understand, you can control very little when it comes to foster care. Because of that, every single foster parent I have ever spoken to has experienced varying degrees of obsessing over the things we CAN control. Foster Parent OCD. I wish someone would have told me that it’s so common. That I would wake up one day and decide for the first time in my life that there was a right and wrong way to put dirty dishes in the kitchen sink. Coincidently, that was about the same time that our foster daughters started having overnight visits with their bio family.
Foster care is a world where everyone is looking out for the best interest of a child. More often than not, all of these team members, (foster parents, biological parents, case managers, attorneys, CASAs, judges and more) have different ideas of what the best interest truly is. Things can change very quickly. You can hear “yes” and then tomorrow they are like, “yeah…nope.” If you find yourself reorganizing your spice cabinet the day before court, then congratulations, you’re a normal foster parent.
People will say things to you.
People are going to say kind things, rude things, dumb things, insensitive things, and every other kind of thing to you. I have realized that as a foster parent I am either put on a pedestal for being a saint or treated like a money-hungry scum bag that steals kids. Some people see a grocery cart full of kids and decide to tell you, “Tell your husband to get off of you.” Yes, that happened. And when you can’t stop the world for your colic suffering child, and you have the audacity to pick up your allergy medicine at the pharmacy, you may be subjected to a twenty-minute rant from the pharmacy tech. You can’t disclose that your children are in foster care, so you kind of have to take it. But on the other hand, the man that sees you struggling to manage your posse and decides to stop and tell you that your children are beautiful and you’re a great mom, he will restore your faith in humanity. Balance.
Foster care confuses people.
Some people are going to get it. They will treat your foster children like they are your children. (News flash, they are!) They will check in with you frequently. They won’t judge you or your child, on the hard days. They will celebrate the wins, no matter how small. However, some people will be super confused as to why you would want your foster child in the family portrait. I had a really sweet friend be so excited when she ran into me and my daughter one night.
The conversation went like this:
“I’m doing what you’re doing now!”
“What? You are? You’re a foster parent?”
“Well on a smaller level, but I’m actually a nanny now!”
I didn’t even bother correcting her; she meant well and she legitimately thought being a foster parent was like being a nanny! I think until you really open up your eyes to the needs of children in care, you couldn’t possibly grasp the full reality of foster care. Or the idea that a foster parent is just a parent. Very simply just meeting the needs of their children and keeping them safe. Then not as simply, navigating relationships with bio families, caseworkers, court, evaluations, appointments and the effect of trauma on a child that didn’t ask to be in this situation. You can try to educate every person you ever meet, or you can smile, nod and move on. I do a little bit of both if I’m honest!
Practice what you speak.
On day one of having our three girlies (the name we affectionately gave our first placement of three sisters age 6 months, 18 months and 3 1/2 years old) in our home, I blew it. I stepped right into one of Birdie’s biggest trigger words. I said the word “naughty”. That G-rated word sent my daughter into an R-rated rant that lasted a couple of hours. I have since removed that word from my vocabulary completely, along with about 100 more words like it.
Kids from hard places have likely heard their share of unkind things. You’re not going to be able to guess every land mine that will find it’s way into your home. But friend, you’re going to have to try. Maybe you’re on your way to being licensed for foster care or adoption. You’ve gotten cabinet locks and your first aid kit and all the other thing your home needs. But nothing, and I mean nothing, will better prepare your home than practicing to speak in a more gentle way. Practice on your spouse, your best friend, that annoying coworker you have to play nice with. Just practice.
Whether you mean to or not, you’re going to say the wrong thing at one point or another. Until I had a child, two inches from my face scream “NO,” at the top of their lungs over and over, I had not fully appreciated the gentleness of “No thank you”. If you say it now, you’ll say it then, so practice what you speak.
Mental health matters.
A couple of days or a week after you get a new placement, you will likely be visiting with Behavioral Health Services for an intake. Even if your child has never really had trauma before the day they were removed, they surely will once they leave the only environment they know. Mental health matters. Your kids deserve to have a safe place to express their feelings and work through their struggles. Guess what? You do too. Don’t shy away from finding healthy outlets for all the things you face as a foster parent. Talk to a professional. Don’t make the biggest mistake I made for so long: thinking that just because I knew a lot about these topics that I didn’t need to hear it from someone I trust. Its the oxygen mask thing at the beginning of a flight… place the oxygen mask on yourself before you place it on the child next to you. Listen to me, if you pass out from lack of “oxygen” then there is no one to help the helpless. You cannot pour from an empty cup. Learn what fills yours up and actively pursue the means to keep it flowing!
The miracle of a normal and boring life.
I always say that the best gift I can give my kids is the miracle of a normal and boring life. People hate it when I say that! “Dream big!” “Reach for the stars!” “You can do anything you set your mind to!” “You’re a princess/prince!” Wow, that’s nice! But what about the kid that goes to bed dreaming that there will be food to eat tomorrow? What about the kid that has heard they are bad or worthless their whole life? I’m all for big dreams and living a life full of possibilities. I hope every child feels special and valued. You know what though, kids from hard places don’t get the luxury of that sometimes. Sometimes, people they trust hurt them. Sometimes, they are forgotten about. Sometimes, all they want is to not stand out so much for being dirty in school and wearing the same clothes every day. Sometimes, the biggest dream they can imagine is a meal around a table with people that care about them. And sometimes, when they finally get the simplest of dreams met, they are more afraid than ever.
They don’t want to let their guard down and then have you turn out to be a monster. Maybe they only know the caregiver that hugs one minute and hits the next. Just because you are offering a child clothing, shelter, food, love, and support, doesn’t mean that they are going to want it from you. Even if it’s all they ever wanted. I hear all the time, “My foster child is so ungrateful!” If you’re expecting a thank you from a child that has been through the worst of it, then you need to check yourself. Sorry, it’s true.
Being told thank you out of trust is the best way to hear it. Thank you from fear, isn’t real, so don’t bother chasing it. Meet your child’s needs because YOU chose this path of foster care or adoption; they didn’t have a choice. Give them a home. One where they don’t have to move all the time, carrying around their prized possessions in garbage bags. Kids, safe and warm in their beds, with full bellies and peace reflected in their faces…that, to me, is the dream; the miracle of a normal and boring life.
Don’t set your kids up for failure.
There will be so many times that you can’t protect your child from something that will trigger them. So please, when you can avoid it, do. I have a rule, I don’t set my kids up for failure. The only appointment available is at nap time and sleep regulates your big feelings… sorry, we can’t make that time. You can’t stand having someone hold your hand because usually when they did that, they would yank you til your wrist turned purple…here’s the hem of my shirt, hold tight while we walk to where we are going. The sound of the blender reminds you of something so scary that you can’t even explain it…well, I guess we won’t make smoothies. I get it, you can’t give in to everything, boundaries are important, kids need to know limits that keep them safe and help them learn important lessons. Life will teach you hard lessons whether you ask for them or not. Shouldn’t we take the extra time to make sure our kids can succeed within the limits they have?
I’ll be honest, sometimes as a foster parent, I am resentful of the trauma. I never hurt you, so why are you making me pay for it? It serves me well to remember that I have the honor of helping my children work through their big hurts. If every time you hit me, I don’t hit back, then maybe you will slowly learn that not everyone wants to hurt you. If you can learn to trust me, then maybe you will learn that relationships with people you can trust are completely worth having. It’s not a cheesy line to say that one person can make a difference so great that it can change a child’s whole life. It has been proven to be true. You may not get forever with your kids, but you can change their life forever.
Love can arrive in an instant, with a child that you just met. The desire to protect them can overtake you like a tidal wave before you even drive out of the parking lot. The mutual understanding, the boundaries, the trust… it takes time. When you open up your life to a child, you have so much to learn about them and them of you. Some of the biggest challenges come in all the things that you have to UNLEARN. Each kid is different and one thing that worked like a charm for this kiddo may send another kiddo into a downward spiral. Habits these children have learned to survive may be completely inappropriate in your safe home. They have things to unlearn too.
I’m reminding myself of these things tonight. My heart is heavy as I think about all the children that need a safe home. I cannot do everything, but I can do something. I can’t take them all, but the ones I can take, deserve my all. It is my responsibility to show up for them, even when it’s hard. I chose this life of foster care, they did not. It’s not likely to be sunshine and rainbows, so I better learn how to see the beauty in the rain.
**A couple of hours after writing this, I packed up my daughter (Peter was at work) and we picked up a 3-year-old boy named Geo. Just like the children that came before him, we don’t know how long he will share our home, but he already has our hearts.
Liz is from Southern California, but has called Phoenix, Arizona, home since 2010. She and Peter, were married in 2016 and became foster parents exactly one year later. They’ve had the honor of parenting 5 children. They recently adopted their daughter Phoebe, whom they have had since she was two days old. Their extra “bed” is currently occupied by their first son, Geo. When not wrangling kiddos, you can find Liz sipping lattes from her home coffee bar and fantasizing about their next Disneyland vacation.