Everyone knows foster care is hard. If you didn’t know it going in, you’d know it by the time you told the first person you were going to foster parent. We’ve all heard the responses or even said them ourselves. “I could never do that.” “How could you ever stand to give the child back?” “Those kids come with all kinds of problems.” “I’d never want to deal with those parents.” “You really want the government involved with your family?” “The system is SO messed up.”
While it’s discouraging to hear those responses, there’s a nugget of truth in each one. This IS a hard process. Parents, caseworkers, lawyers, “the system”, even the kids themselves can be difficult to deal with. We persevere because we believe caring for kids who need the love and consistency of a family is the right thing to do, not because this is an easy process. But that doesn’t mean we don’t need support.
Finding family members or a support network of friends who understand foster care can be a major challenge. Without a supportive community willing to walk this road with you, it is tough to find the strength to walk through it yourself. Sometimes it’s hard to find friends who are willing to invest in your foster child and come alongside you because they don’t understand the struggles you’re going through. And sometimes that’s our own fault.
I think foster parents often struggle with what I call “foster shame”. We go into this process hoping for the best, but knowing the worst is probably waiting for us. We hear the concerns of our friends and family that we’re bound to get our heart broken, but we continue on because we believe we’re called to help. But what happens when we DO get our hearts broken? Who can we turn to? It feels difficult to go to our friends who questioned our decision to do this in the first place because we feel this foster shame. We feel everyone is thinking, “You brought this on yourself, you know. If you’d just quit you wouldn’t be going through this.” How can you share your honest pains with someone when you think their solution might be for you to quit doing the thing you feel you’ve been called to do? Do we really feel we should only do the things that are easy?
We bring this pain on ourselves. It’s true. Which is what makes foster shame all the more inhibiting. I remember after five months of no visits, my child’s birthmom reentered the picture. We were close to filing the paperwork for adoption (in Nebraska 6 months of no contact means parental rights can be terminated) and had begun to transition in our hearts from being a temporary home for this child to being the forever family. When birthmom stepped back in services and visits had to be started up again, which was very emotional for me. After five months of being the only mom, I was back to strapping this child in a carseat and doing the drop offs for visits that served to remind me that I had no control in this situation. It was really upsetting, but I wasn’t sure who to turn to for comfort. I knew my supportive family would be as heart broken as I was by this new development and I wanted to be strong for them. I knew my professional team would tell me that this is just how it goes and we need to let it play out. I’m thankful for a friend who was willing to let me express my conflicted feelings—my disappointment that things weren’t going the way I’d anticipated mixed with my desire for birthmom to be in a healthy place for the sake of her child and herself. My friend validated that this was hard, but that we were doing the right thing to love this child. And a few months later my friend and her husband decided to get their foster license, too.
I’ve felt that same foster shame during our group home days when a kid would break my trust in a way that was very consistent with what everyone had told me would happen, but was still so sad to this mama’s heart who wanted to see change. I felt it when the worker hired to represent my foster child proved the naysayers right by not seeming to care much about the decisions supposedly being made in the child’s “best interest”. I’ve felt it when I’ve believed the word of a bio parent and then found them to be untrustworthy. These are all totally predictable emotions when you’re involved in foster care, but being predictable doesn’t mean they don’t hurt. They still need to be acknowledged and grieved when they happen.
For my fellow foster parents: It’s okay to feel frustrated. It’s okay to have moments of anger or sadness when you see the troubled system you’ve partnered with to try and help kids. That doesn’t mean you can sit in those emotions or act on them, but don’t tell yourself any lies about how you shouldn’t feel this way because you should have seen it coming. And don’t let that foster shame keep you from confiding your struggles in a few trusted friends. Cultivate relationships where honesty is expected and feelings are validated. Befriend other foster parents who will know exactly how you’re feeling.
For friends of foster parents: Resist the urge to fix their problems. Let them say what they need to about the people involved, but don’t let yourself speak negatively. The foster parent is likely to forgive the birthfamily/caseworker/lawyer as the case moves along, but they may find themselves remembering your negative words and feel less likely to share with you the next time if they think your assumptions are pessimistic. Ask them questions, validate that this is difficult, but speak words of encouragement to them about the value of what they’re doing even when it’s hard. Consider being licensed to provide respite care when the foster parents need a break so you can be a physical support to them along with being an emotional support.
This journey is difficult, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t worth doing. My hope is that if enough quality people get involved in all levels of the process, we will have the support we need and we’ll see change in the system. A girl can dream, can’t she?