“Never trust your fears, they don’t know your strength.” Athena Singh
Fear is potent, strong, and healthy. It can keep us from making wrong decisions. It can also paralyze us and prevent us from making the right decisions. For many years, I allowed fear to run my life. The “what-if’s” were too big, too scary, too much to overcome. Then, one day I threw caution to the wind and dove in. Headfirst, unafraid, blissfully naïve.
What do I need to know to parent a foster child? Everything. Nothing. That sounds preposterous, right? And yet, it’s amazingly accurate. We are just now entering our fourth year of licensing to be foster parents, and I still don’t how to be a foster parent.
You need to know that the child’s needs come first. That means that you need to learn to love and support their biological families. No, it won’t be easy. It won’t always be safe. It will be scary. But it is imperative to raising healthy, happy kids. That won’t look the same for each family or each child. It means making, or supporting, a decision even when you feel it’s not right. I know how hard this is. We tried hard through our grief to not disparage our child’s biological mom. To only show love and support for our daughter and her biological mother even when we were heartbroken and angry. It was hard. Especially while we were actively grieving. But it’s imperative.
When our county decided to send our daughter back home to her biological mom we were devastated. She hadn’t been with us long, but we bonded immediately. We grew close, we loved her, and we didn’t expect that four short months later she would leave us. We tried to prepare her for leaving us. While we knew that she was attached to us as well, we were most concerned for her and our second son. They bonded immediately and became inseparable. Eventually, she went home, and we all grieved. We worried constantly about her emotional health and our son’s. We tried to talk about her and the triumph of her returning home while balancing the fear and worry.
You need to know that your heart will be broken. This will happen frequently. I don’t believe there’s any way to prepare for the heartache you will endure during the foster care process. I’m not only talking about the fact that this child will likely leave you, eventually. But the day-to-day heartbreak of the process is taxing and will leave you weary. But the moments of loving, holding, supporting this child will fill your heart completely and make the breaking worth the experience.
When our daughter left, we all grieved heavily. We went through all the stages of grief. My favorite became anger. Watching my sons grieve was the hardest of all. Trying to help them understand her loss while trying to process it myself was at best…a disaster. But we believe in living in the moment. We cried in their presence. Missed her like crazy and talked about her often so that they knew she was safe, healthy, and loved. Grieving someone who is alive and well is possibly the most difficult thing I’ve ever had to do.
You need to know that you’ll need support. You will need to know that your child—and you—will have very difficult days. And you will want and need someone to celebrate those milestones that parents of typical children don’t even recognize. A good support group, friends that truly understand, and any person that you can find as an ally will make this journey so much easier and richer. If you don’t have a support group for foster/adoptive families in your area, you can most likely find a group to fill your needs on any various social media platforms.
In those days following her return to her mom, I did not know who to turn to. No one in my life had been through this. I was a pioneer. It was during this process that I knew we needed to start a support group. To ease the pain, I started journaling our journey through loss. Some days, I filled page upon page. Other days, it was a simple statement. I miss her. Having someone to lean on who had been through this would have been a lifesaver. A few months later, I started a support group in our community for foster families and reached out to an online community.
You need to know that you will grow. I have grown in every way imaginable. I have failed miserably. But I have learned, listened, read, watched, and grown. I still don’t have half the answers for how to raise a child with a history of trauma, but this journey and these children have grown me. Every day, I feel stronger and more confident, less confident and weaker. I process life differently, relationships differently, and I wouldn’t change a single minute because the growth is the best thing that has ever happened to me.
I look back at the woman that started this journey with pity and envy. I am envious of her naïveté. The simple idea that she could avoid trauma. That she could parent children from hard places better than those who went before by simply avoiding substance abuse, or at the very least certain kinds of substance abuse, certain kinds of trauma. You know, the less damaging ones. Oh, she was blissfully ignorant. I pity her because her world will be rocked in every possible way. But she will rise, hopefully like a phoenix, and become her children’s biggest fan, fiercest ally, and hopefully the best mom possible.
You need to know that your own trauma will be exposed. That sometimes these children will trigger you as much as you trigger them. And that you’ll have to work hard to overcome the trauma that haunts you. It took me too long to realize that my second son was triggering me. I was too harsh, too strict, too tough when he first came home. Those choices still affect our relationship. We have worked through it, we have both grown, we have more good days than bad days, and we are both in therapy to confront our trauma.
My second son is a lot like his mother. We are both similar in so many ways, and yet different in many more ways. Some of his personality traits remind him so much of me, and that scares me. I know how that feels. And while it has caused me frustration and concern, it also helps me to understand him, to work harder to be the mom he needs. And right now, that means a trauma-informed therapist and a heavy dose of God’s word. In the moments where I fail and forget, it is God’s love that gets me through.
Growing up in a world where I didn’t feel loved has hurt and helped my relationship with my children. I don’t need to delve into the nitty-gritty details because we all have hurt, we all have trauma of some sort. What I would encourage you to do is confront it head-on, long before you think you need to. I thought I had worked through my “stuff.” I hadn’t. I am now. And it’s much, much harder to do with little people watching you. But I believe it’s healthy. It’s healthy for them to know that we are flawed, that we understand their imperfections so completely it hurts, and that we will always love them because we know these things.
You need to know that your “nevers” will become “yeses.” I had a lot of “nevers” before we decided to adopt. I could make you a very funny and long list of things that I was never going to do. Ranging from parenting skills to pets to things that I would or wouldn’t do. But with growth comes change and that change will lead you down paths that you thought you’d never see. But open the doors up wide and experience all the awesomeness that those “nevers” didn’t allow. It is a much more exciting existence.
When our oldest son was about 4, he became obsessed with bugs. Some things that you should know about me is that I’m terrified, TERRIFIED of bugs. Specifically, spiders and moths. But if I had the time, I could make a very long list. Then, I have this cute, spunky, and determined child who became obsessed with everything bugs and creatures. His room is now a bug emporium. We have live creatures, dead creatures, creature catchers, bug vacuums, and may have, at times, had various disappearing creatures. Did you know that fiddler crabs can crawl out of a fish tank? The horrors of that discovery still haunt me.
A few years later, when we discovered the depths of his anxiety, we had to adjust our “no pets” policy. Due to an incident that happened in our home, he suddenly became very anxious within the walls of our home. Eventually, that led us to adopt our cat. It turns out that she was the single best “never” we ever had, and she has been a wonderful and welcome addition to this crazy place we call home.
Life gets messy. Be prepared to do things differently. Be prepared to change your mind. And it will all become a lot easier if you can just roll with the punches, embrace the change, and find the joy in the chaos.
You will need to know that the love abounds. And while loving them isn’t always easy, it does happen, but it doesn’t always happen right away. Sometimes it just takes longer to grow. It’s neither here nor there, it doesn’t make you a monster, it makes you human. Love is an emotion, and it’s an action. And sometimes it’s hard to love these little people because they’ve been through a lot. They don’t trust, and they have behaviors that make bonding hard because it is for them and for you. Persevere. Keep doing the act of caring, loving, bonding. Read books and articles, and talk to friends. You will find that this happens in biological relationships, as well—that tiny piece of knowledge was a lifesaver for me.
I had a very difficult time bonding with our second child. He is a wonderful, funny, smart kid. He is. But he was hard. So stinking hard. Not in the ways that one would necessarily find as difficult. He was an excellent sleeper, he was a good eater, and he was obedient. But he cried. A lot. To be exact, he cried when I asked him to eat and when I asked for a hug, for no reason at all. And while I tried my hardest to understand the massive amount of pain and change this little being was going through, by month 6, month 9, month 11, I grew weary—bone tired. Eventually, the crying subsided and life got easier. We still had plenty of other behaviors to work through, but in truth, love and bonding would make those behaviors all but disappear. One day, we were driving along and I glanced in my rearview mirror and that’s when I felt it—love. Pure love. He was mine. At that moment, he looked like mine, felt like mine, and by law, was mine. But it felt so good to love him. To know that my heart, and his, grew.
Love will never be enough. It won’t be all that a foster child needs to be successful. But please know that your love will mean the most. Unconditional support, loving when they aren’t lovable and don’t want to be loved, it will make a difference. It is the most beautiful gift you can give. For me, fostering was scary. So scary. But once you take the fear and what-if’s out of it, you just do it. That doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t do the research. It means do all the things you should, then feel the fear that will likely come with it, and then dive in. Dive in with naïve exuberance. Embrace the world that is calling to you. It will change you. But as they say, change is good.
Karla King is a passionate open adoption advocate, adoptive mom, foster mom, wife, reader, avid creator of food, a stay-at-home mom, and Christian. She loves taking care of her family, supporting others on the adoption journey, and watching the world through her children’s eye.