What Foster Parents Aren't
We are not baby sitters. I am not a nanny, a childcare worker, or an in home daycare. For one, those are all paid positions. Foster parents do receive some money from social services which is intended to cover the expenses associated with caring for a child. If I were to consider this income a wage it would work out to about 90 cents per hour, considering we get no weekends off and I am on duty 24 hours a day.
We are not hired babysitters. We are parents. There is no clocking out at the end of the day. We parent children, sometimes for a long time and sometimes for a short time. Too often "the system" can treat foster parents like they are contracted staff, and children are put on ice until they can come up with a game plan. But then pesky emotions and deep relationships get in the way of policy and bullet points...and that complicates things. Some social workers appreciate that complicated reality, some don't.
We are not immune to heart break.
"I could never do that"
"I would get too attached"
Those are the most common response I hear when fostering comes up. I understand it's meant as a compliment but it also assumes that somehow we are a different sort of human. Getting attached is what we do. It means that we have loved this child well. Kids in the foster system deserve nothing less. There is a difference between a strong love for a child (that can be just as deep as the love we have for the children born from our bodies) and unrealistic expectations. We expect loss and grief. We constantly push ourselves forward knowing that just around the corner the little world of safety we've created for this child might come crashing down. Again. We do it because they're worth it. Choosing to love and pour myself out completely for a child who may never remember me, who may never love me back or who even resents my role, has given me a much more tangible view of Christ's love for me. We aren't stoic saints or calloused robots. We love, we hurt, we love again.
We are not neglecting our "own" kids. In all honesty one of the biggest fears I had about fostering is how it would affect my own children. We are a foster family, not just foster parents with other kids. We are in this together, the excitement of getting a phone call for a new placement, the anticipation of shuffling to make room for the new arrival, the adjusting everyone's lives to accomodate a small stranger, the learning to love and the walking through loss.
This touches every one of my kids. I would be foolish not to tenderly consider and assess their own hearts every time we say "yes". In fact the thing that breaks me the most when facing a child leaving or a "transition" to a new home is knowing it will hurt my kids. Watching their little hearts break is worse than having my own torn to shreds. I carry that heavy burden with each step we take as foster parents. We have been fostering, typically one infant at a time, for 8 years now. From this vantage point I can see that this thing we do as a family, this ministering to tiny vulnerable humans, has not ruined my kids. I sense no resentment from them at all at this point. Right now one of my children is displaced from an actual bedroom because a baby with horrible sleep habits moved in a year and half ago. He sleeps on a camping mat, last night it was located on the living room floor. Sometimes it's in the toy closet. Yet, he loves her fiercely and doesn't complain (or at least rarely complains about the arragmements). Their lives are disrupted in every possible way, and yet these disruptions have the potential to forge character.
I see how they each have a deep sibling bond and love for their little foster sister. All five of them have their own unique and very sweet relationship with her. Having little ones around has brought virtues out in my big kids that I'm not sure would have been this developed otherwise. Watching a 12 year old boy nurture and tenderly care for an infant or toddler is precious site. By being a foster family they have had ongoing practical life lessons in flexibility, responsibility, compassion, empathy, sacrifice, patience, generosity, and gentleness. No, it's not always easy. Siblings are siblings. But if fostering has changed my kids it is for the better. If it has ruined them, its for a superficial and selfishly lived life.
We are not the enemy. Fostering drops us into the middle of someone else's nightmare. We are thrust into stories of heartache, brokenness, failures, and loss. Our role is to help pick up the pieces for a child who has become collateral damage in a family's crises. Sometimes that crises has gone on for generations, other times it might be a brief bump in the road.
By nature this role puts us in an awkward position. As we strive to advocate for and protect the child in our care, this can potentially put us at odds with some biological family members (It can also put as at odds with social services). This is not our desire or intention. In fact, I find that with each new foster baby I welcome into our home, my heart is broken with compassion and expands with love for this child's birth family. Even in their addictions, brokenness, illness, and poor choices their biological family starts to feel like an extension of our own. Even if they don't have a relationship with or visit the child they are never far from our prayers and thoughts. We want success for them. We want healing and transformation in their lives. We long for that, we pray for that, even once the option of custody has long since passed.
Foster parents see the worst of what broken adults can do to children (and what this broken world can do to adults), we know all too well that reunification attempts can be a disaster and the a child's best interest is not always put first.
That being said, if a parent or close relative is stepping up and working hard toward gaining custody we will do all we can to help that transition to be a success even if our hearts are breaking from the personal loss. I can honestly say that I love nothing more than to have positive relationships with a child's family of origin. In some cases foster parents are co-parenting, even after a child has gone back to their family of birth. They become part of a birth parent's support network. Some former foster parents switch from the role of active parent, to being a loving Auntie and Uncle that gets to be involved in that child's life. It's not an "us" vs. "them mentality. It doesn't have to be. Birth parents, foster parents, and case workers are all part of a team that is trying to salvage a childhood, and build a positive future.
We are not trying to strip a child of his heritage.
In fact we try very hard to do the opposite.
This topic is pivotal and a focal point for social services in the area I live. In my opinion tragic actions of the past have triggered opposite over reactions of the present. Like a driver who hits ice and starts to slide off toward a steep ditch, who then over corrects by quickly turning the wheel in the opposite direction....which then puts the car into a dizzying out of control spin. The pendulum has swung from having no consideration for a child's ethnicity or culture of origin to making that the apex of decisions being made. Being moved to "their own culture" (even to live with a non relative and stranger) can trump things like current strong family bonds, permanency/adoption, a child's current community and support network, and a consideration for things like trauma and attachment. It's a very sensitive mine field that we walk as a multi-racial family. Policies of racial segregation are one of the biggest frustrations I have with status quo.
I believe that it is important for an adopted or foster child to grow up being connected to her roots, her culture and family of origin, and to have her ethnic background be part of her positive identity. I'm sure we won't get it right all the time, but we really do try. We make that effort and naturally incorporate those things into our family life. My husband and I are as white as Wonder Bread and we have children from four distinct ethnic makeups. Our home is a patchwork quilt of various cultures. Traditions that were passed onto us, ones we combined when we got married, some we create on our own, others we adopt into our unique family culture. So many things make us who we are and build our identity....our families, our values, our faith, our ethnicity, our experiences. These are all so much more nuanced and complex than the dividing lines of colour that the world likes to draw.
I love all the children that are cared for in my home. As such, we start to identify with and have a deep appreciation for all those various cultures of origin...in our own way. Our family is a eclectic mix of Canadian farmer, American city, Chinese, Métis, Saulteaux, English, Scottish, Scandinavian, ....and Mexican because we love Mexico and thoroughly appropriate their culture any chance we get. One of my blonde children actually convinced he was Mexican for quite a few years. We have family members and close friends from many more fascinating cultures. Anyway...you get the point. It's complicated. Colour coded dividing lines get blurry.
We are not strong. Don't get me wrong foster parents are a passionate breed. We love deeply and protect fiercely. We resist very intense Mama bear fight or flight impulses regularly. We get our hearts battered and bruised and then we are crazy enough to sign up to do it again, and again. Don't let that fool you though. We aren't always strong. Sometimes we just make it through each day. Sleep deprivation, toddler tantrums, various doctors appointments, visitation schedules, dealing with chronic behaviors stemming from damage that was done in utero, trauma, abuse or lack of healthy parental attachment at crucial points in development....they do take their toll. The stress of never knowing what's around the bend or what news the next phone call will bring can make a heart and body weary. I'm not strong but I lean hard on the One who is my strength. A God who rescues, pursues, and who binds up broken hearts.
Foster parents need community that "gets it", they need encouragement that what they are doing day in and day out actually matters. An image from a story in the Bible just came to mind. Joshua and other Israelite men went out to do battle with the Amalekites. Moses, Aaron and Hur stationed themselves up on a hill. As long as Moses had his arms raised with the the staff in hand, the battle was being won.
"But Moses’ hands grew weary, so they took a stone and put it under him, and he sat on it, while Aaron and Hur held up his hands, one on one side, and the other on the other side. So his hands were steady until the going down of the sun."
That is a fairly accurate depiction of why we need our brothers and sisters standing along side us. We are not doing "battle" against flesh and blood, but the battle is real just the same. Our arms grow weary as we stand in the gap for each child that enters our home. Exodus 17:12
We are not in control. I have very little say (none really) in what happens to any of the foster children that come into my home. I do not make the case plans nor do they need my approval or permission to move a child. I love these kids as my own but they are not my own. When you are fostering you have no option but to contend with the feeling of helplessness. Like a little boat tossed around in a big ocean. We just hold on for the ride. We are not in control but we are trusting a God who is.