6 Sure-Fire Things You Can Expect When You’re A Foster Parent.

Foster parenting has the ability to warm your heart and turn your life upside down all in one. How do you navigate the ups and downs, plus prepare for the unexpected? In our 8 year journey in the system, we learned several lessons.

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I stand on the other side of 8 years, grateful. If it weren’t for foster care, I wouldn’t have the priviledge of being the father to 6 of my 8 children. We’ve said it before, and we’ll say it for the rest of our lives…we couldn’t have scripted life any better. Foster parenting enriched our lives in ways we cannot begin to count. This blog exists, partly, from that experience. For my children, and the opportunity to reach hundreds of thousands of parents around the globe every month…I’m forever grateful.

The Rollercoaster Ride of Your Life.

It was an exciting adventure. No doubt about it. It also had its fair share of trials. To be honest, our years in the system were some of the most difficult of our entire parenting career. It was like boarding a rollercoaster with so many twists, turns, and loops that you feel it’s never coming to an end. Nor will you never be normal again. But maybe that’s exactly what it’s supposed to be.

As I look back, across the canyon, I can say this without hesitation- We learned a lot. We grew more than we thought we would. We became wiser human beings. We also walked away passionate to teach and reach people who are currently, or soon will be, serving as foster parents. In our years, we gained enough first hand experience to write a book on foster parenting. Before anyone begins this journey, expect the challenge to be great for several different reasons!

  1. You Will Become Attached. It won’t take long for this to happen. In fact, in 2004, when we welcomed our first 2 foster children into our home, I fortified my heart for this very reason. I believed it would make it easier for me to detach from them when the time came for them to return home. I’d been told that it was nearly impossible not to love the children you were caring for, as if they were your biological children. “Watch me,” I thought. But a few weeks into fostering, I was hooked. Truth is, you will become attached and that’s not a bad thing.
  2. You’ll seldom receive accurate (or timely) information. Most of us live in a world where we receive updated information in a timely manner within a few hours of inquiring. From co-workers, or from the internet, it’s something we’re accustomed to. Not the case with foster care. You may go days without seeing a reply to your email. You may never receive a call back. Remember, you are dealing with a system that is back logged. It has a very high turnover rate, where most employees are overworked and underpaid. You also deal with a court system that is buried under mountains of files and thousands of cases. You have to wait in line. It’s infuriating at times but it’s a reality.
  3. You’ll be tempted to spill. And by spill, I mean gossip. Don’t. That’s the best advice I can give you. Don’t engage in the gossip over your child’s birth parent, their difficult history, the diagnosis you received from his or her pediatrician, or anything regarding the children in your care. People will dig for information. Especially if they aren’t involved in the foster care system. It’s typical human behavior. For the sake of the innocent children you’re caring for, don’t give in to the temptation to spill private information. It’s no one else’s business but yours and your children.
  4. You will be exhausted. If you’re a regular reader of this site, you’ve heard us talk openly about the exhaustion you face as a foster parent. In fact, we wrote an entire book on how to escape it. Most of this could be attributed to our years as foster parents. We burned the midnight oil on more occasions than we can remember. Plan for exhaustion (if there’s any way to do that!). And, plan to take breaks. You’re going to need them for your own health. Our advice would be to take advantage of respite care your family services department permits. Respite is basically provided care for the children in your care, from other licensed foster parents. Don’t get the idea that you can handle everything and never take a breather. You will crash!
  5. You will learn about special needs you never knew existed. I had heard of Fetal Alcohol Syndrome (FAS), Reative Attachment Disorder (RAD) and several others, a few times, back in my high school and college days. Heck, I think we even had a guest teacher in one of my high school science classes talk about FAS. But I never really knew how real it was. Nor did I know anything about trauma. Two of my kids suffer from FASD (Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder), and several we’ve cared for have dealt with trauma. These are very real needs and very difficult to manage at times. These needs, and many more like them, run rampant in foster care. The likelihood of caring for a child that suffers one or more of these special needs is likely. Once again, it’s the reality of caring for children through foster care.
  6. You will discover how great the need is. This is the most important point I can make in this entire post. If you’ve captured nothing else I’ve said, capture this: Beyond the frustrations, the lack of information, the exhaustion, or the difficult special needs you could encounter, there’s an overwhelming need for loving people to step up to the plate. There are unexpected blessings if you do! Foster care is hard. It can take the life out of you. But, it can also fill you with life if you open your heart up! We’re eternally grateful we chose to be foster parents for the 8 years we did. It blessed us with the family we have today. We wouldn’t change a thing. You may be just a few steps away from experiencing something amazing and life-changing yourself.

The Great Depth of Your Heart.

Back to what I said in the beginning of this post- you will become attached and that’s not bad. After all, we’re human beings, created with a great capacity to love. It’s what makes us human. It’s in our DNA. Your heart will break for the children in your care, and it should! You won’t want them to leave. You’ll grieve if or when they do. To not do so would make you non-human.

You’ll be amazed at how deep your heart can go. Our advice…let it go as deep as you can. Let it love these precious children extravagantly. Let it grieve for them. But most of all…let it lead you to live a life of compassion and generosity!

Question: Current or former foster parents, what have we missed with this list? Share your thoughts with us. You can leave a comment by clicking here.

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  • Sarah

    Thanks so much for sharing your story. I have been a foster/adoptive parent for eight years
    and your journey always sounds so similar to mine – down to our children’s challenges.
    I always find myself nodding my head in agreement while reading your blogs or tweets! I have
    five children all with special needs and while parenting in general is hard,
    parenting children who have experienced trauma definitely adds a degree of difficulty. If you work with the system you add in a million more frustrations. Whenever asked the question “what made
    you get started,” my answer is always “I was called.” I believe I was called to foster and then adopt, I had a passion inside me. To be a foster or adoptive parent you have to have a passion because it isn’t easy and you will be tested every day. Recently we have had more behaviors and frustrations then the norm and my passion has dwindled. I believe I was called to do it and now feel like
    I am being called to let go; and that’s OKAY! I wish the system was easier to deal with, I wish the journey wasn’t so lonely at times, I wish I could control what comes from my children’s mouths, I wish I didn’t have to worry so much, I wish more people understood but; those are only wishes and
    grown because of this journey and have wider eyes on the world.

    My advice for newbies, if you considering or about to embark on the fostering journey hold on to the passion. You are about to enter the realm of Olympic athlete where you will need to work every single day to hone your skills. Don’t worry the kids, the system, the cops, the counselors, the schools they will all give you plenty of practice. Some days you’ll feel like you’re on top of the podium and they’re playing your anthem while other days you’ll feel like you lost it out the gate and your country has disowned you. Remember the passion, you choose to do this for some reason. It is hard, you will shed tears but, even though I have been through the wringer, I am still glad I answered the call and am better for having taken the journey.

    • Hey Sarah, thanks so much for your comment. Great advice and perspective. You are spot on- there needs to be a passion to do this. Sounds like you just gave me an idea for a follow up post..:-) Thanks again! Keep up the great work.

    • Gloria R.

      Sarah, I love your comment. Thank you.
      I have fostered our foster son for over a year now. He is the only placement we have had. Our Case Manager told us his case is indeed a tough one, in many ways and that many foster parents would have given up by now.
      We entered the system for the same reason as yours, passion, a calling from the Lord. For that first year, I seemed to have an unending drive to it. But now that is changing in me too. I have been feeling more fatigue over the system and the way they deal with things. I was telling our case manager just this morning that I wonder what God has for us next, once we adopt our son, because I don’t feel fostering more children is what we will do. Perhaps He called us for this one child only. Perhaps we will help in different ways. But I definitely feel as though this course is reaching an end.
      I am still not sure, but my heart is paying attention.
      Thanks for saying that’s okay 🙂

  • Gloria R.

    I personally like when you say that our eyes open to the reality of these children’s traumas. I read a lot about it before our placement. I saw children feel sad before. But when our son displayed those behaviors right before my eyes… Wow… Hard to believe.

    You suddenly find yourself in the eye of the hurricane, and you have to respond to it pronto. Quite surreal.

    I have been guilty of the “spilling” part. It takes time to adjust to it because at first everything is so intense. You “spill” it because you are trying to process it all yourself (though I know it doesn’t justify it). I think today I have more control over that impulse, praise the Lord.

    Talk about exhaustion… During the tough waves we run out of energy entirely. We have had to develop ways to cope, like learning how to relax during the storms. With Jesus’ help this is possible… But man, oh man, you learn quickly for the sheer need to do so!

    Love, loving freely, loving through, has taken a whole new level for me.

    • Gloria, we know exactly what you’ve gone through. Keep up the good fight and keep loving the children you are blessed to have. You are awesome!

  • Pingback: A Beautiful Adoption Story. | Confessions of a Parent()

  • Lee Hogan Holden

    so much of what he says is true, even in our situation. We have two young men who aged out of the foster care system when they were 21 and were not ready to live on their own (and may never be able to)

    When we first started doing At Risk Adult care 8 years ago, we did respite care for other providers. I was introduced to MANY different disabilities I knew nothing about like Aspergers (severe autism), emotional control issues, the stigma of dyslexia, etc.

    One thing I learned is how my reaction to the situation was the most important thing.

  • Allisonm

    I would add that the learning curve with seriously injured/disabled kids can seem like climbing a straight–sometimes concave–cliff without ropes or nets. Passion is essential to not giving up. There will be no shortage of people who will give permission and even encouragement to quit. It is important not to let my mind think in words that tell my inner self that I can’t keep going or that I don’t want my kids. It’s easy for a mind to go there when you realize that the Christmas tree you are assembling is dripping urine or when you are having the police help you transport your 11 year old to the hospital again, despite that the hospital really can’t help your child. Seeking God’s help to keep thinking on what is good and encouraging is vital for me. The words I use inside my own head have such a powerful effect on the way I respond to my kids and all of the systems they interact with.

    • Allison…totally agree. Thanks for sharing.