What Every Foster Parent Wants To Tell You (But Probably Never Will)

This is a guest post by our good friend, Rachel Lewis. She is a foster, adoptive and birth mom. After a 5-year battle with secondary infertility and recurrent pregnancy loss, she now has three children in her arms and a foster son in her heart. She is passionate about helping women feel heard and understood when building their family gets a little bit complicated. You can read her wonderful blog at The Lewis Note. She also offers a free resource, ‘Your BFF Guide to Miscarriage: 5 Ways to Comfort a Friend Through Pregnancy Loss’ here. Connect with Rachel on Facebook, or join her private Facebook group Brave Mamas — a support group for anyone who had to struggle to build their family. 

Ever find yourself banging your head against the wall as you try to gain understanding from outsiders? Ever wish someone could put into words everything you’re thinking as a foster parent? Thankfully, this post does just that.

For starters, we’re pretty tight-lipped. And not always by choice.

Foster parents have ALL the responsibility of being a “real” parent (hello 2 am feedings!) without any of the rights. And that includes the right to share our child’s story.

This particular limitation is to protect the privacy of our foster child. Which I absolutely understand. But it also means foster parents bear the brunt of our children’s stories, and have few people we can share them with. Are we freaked out about a visit because we *happen* to know that dad has a history of violent behavior? Probably. But all we can say is, “I’m nervous” and we can’t always share why. Are we dealing with the repercussions of a child who experienced starvation and neglect and are struggling to manage ALL the issues that come with food? Yep. And you might look at us and wonder why we are being so hypervigilant on the issue. Trust me, we wish we could tell you.

But we can’t. We often lean on each other as our support, doing our darndest to share without really sharing, and to stay within the confines of the state boundaries of privacy.

There is so much we wish we could tell you: About our fears, our hesitations, our love for these children, our inadequacies . . . but we don’t. We can’t. And even if we could, we know that if we were straight up honest about how hard this is, you just might not do it. And that keeps us pretty tight-lipped, for better or for worse.

Words cannot do this experience justice.

As a writer and speaker, I try so hard to wield my words like a wand — magically creating images and felt memories in your own mind, so real that you forget you didn’t experience it yourself. I try. But I have to say, when it comes to sharing about this crazy experience of loving a child who is NOT yours EXACTLY how you would love a child who IS yours — well, words just come up short.

I don’t know how to explain that no matter how often you remind yourself that this child is leaving, it does absolutely nothing to keep your heartstrings from winding around that child so thoroughly that them leaving feels like having open heart surgery without the anesthesia.

I have no idea how to explain the fear and dread and hypervigilance you feel when you have dedicated weeks, months, years to healing a child — and then that child is out from your protection and there is nothing you can do to make them safe.

I worry that if I tell you that yesterday, almost two years after our foster son returned home, my bio baby did something exactly the way our foster son did. And the sharp pang of that memory made me groan and shriek and wail in a way I haven’t in almost two years for the deep bone ache of missing him.

I try to sum up what it feels like to get a call and say yes, knowing your entire home, heart and soul will forever be touched by this child — and you only have hours (if that) to prepare.

I try to show you what it’s like to drop your child off, having him run after you, and you can’t run back, scoop him up and carry on with life. You leave him. You LEAVE him.

I try to explain what it’s like to grieve the child who left your home.

But I fall short. We all do. Just like you cannot understand the experience of childbirth by reading about contractions and dilation, you can’t know what it’s like to birth a family from children who are not your own.

There’s just too much to say.

Here’s what you often see:

Foster parent takes a kid in. Foster parent incorporates that child into their everyday life. Foster parent occasionally has something like court come up. Foster kid goes home. Foster parents carry on. New kid comes in. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat.

What you don’t see. 

Foster parent takes 30 hours of classes. Foster parent follows their state guidelines to keep their home in compliance. This mandates everything from where medicine and alcohol is stored, to the temperature of their hot water heater, to the required square footage of living space per person in the home, to the huge fire extinguishers that have to be hung or placed in a very certain way, to fire drill logs, to keeping licenser up to date on vaccine logs and car insurance info, to vehicle inspections, and on and on and on. No one could memorize what we have to do, so we get emails on our WACs (as they are called here in Washington State.) I dare you to take a peak.

This is all before a child even enters the home. And when they do, there are mandatory social worker visits within 24 hours of placement (how would YOU like to have a home inspection 24 hours after bringing home a baby?!?). There’s the mandatory twice-weekly visits with bio parents that you MUST schedule around, but parents can opt out at any point, meaning your two-hour “free time to get work done” can mean nothing but an interrupted schedule for everyone when a parent does not show. It means trying to figure out the root cause of challenging behavior. It means managing meltdowns after visits, or when visits don’t occur. It means twice-weekly baths after said visits to wash off the smoke that your child now reeks of. It means scheduling trips MONTHS in advance so you can get court-approval to leave the state with your foster child. It means keeping up on emails. It’s not enough to attend an appointment with your child, you must now chronicle the entire visit and doctor’s orders to your child’s case team. It means advocating for your child’s needs, but not so much so that they social workers, lawyers or judges get the idea that you are against their case plan. It means dressing up for court, addressing the judge, and then sitting helplessly by as they make their decisions, knowing nothing — nothing — you do or say will have an effect on the outcome.

Here’s the thing — that whole paragraph you just read? I barely scratched the surface. I didn’t talk about IEPs, or counseling, or PT visits in your home, or speech therapy. I didn’t mention secondary trauma to your own kids, or dealing with behaviors that before you only thought horrible parents dealt with. I haven’t touched food hoarding, or fits brought on by triggers you can’t see. I haven’t talked about the overwhelming joy when your child makes a breakthrough.

Sometimes we don’t speak up because once we do, there’s just too much to say.

We’re judged when we do.

A foster parent is struggling, or a child is leaving devastating a family, and some well-meaning know-it-all, bless-her-hearter says “You signed up for this.” Well, yes I did, thank you for that super unhelpful reminder. Before any of you start to ever say this to anyone might I remind you that we all sign up for hard stuff.

When your husband loses his job, you are facing foreclosure, and you don’t know where you’ll live next month — I *could* remind you that you signed up for this when you agreed to “for better or worse.”

When your child has a nasty flu, they’ve been puking for days and you are spending the night in the ER — I *could* remind you that you signed up for this when you birthed that baby from your womb.

When your husband is deployed missing your 5-year-old’s birthday, the same kindergartner who is having panic attacks at school for missing his dad — I *could* tell you you signed up for this when you agreed to be a military family.

Except, I never EVER would. Because we have ALL signed up to live, and living is beautiful and deeply painful, and we all are dealt some pretty crappy cards — even cards that we thought we wanted. Even cards we would pick up again. Cause chances are — you would STILL marry that loving husband who lost his job, you would STILL birth and parent that beautiful baby, and you would STILL dedicate your life and family to a cause that is bigger than you. And we are STILL signed up as foster parents because we still believe that the good we can accomplish in a vulnerable child’s life is still somehow worth the heartache of getting there.

Just because you chose something, doesn’t make you immune to the hard in it. And it shouldn’t make you immune to other’s empathy and compassion either.

So if you see a foster parent whose having a rough go of it, stop reminding them they “signed up for this,” stop asking us if “we’re sure we want to be foster parents,” and stop saying, “we knew what we were getting into.” (**Heads up** We had NO idea.) And instead begin showing love, compassion and empathy for our situation. All we ask is that you would treat us in our hardship the same way we would treat you in yours.

Foster parenting is hard. And the only people who truly understand are the ones who have been there, done that. But even if you can’t understand the experience, even if the words we can speak fall flat — we hope you do understand one thing:

It is worth it.

Question: What about you? Would you add anything to this post? Share with us in the comment section below. You can leave a comment by clicking here.

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