faith, foster care, love in loss

Foster Care: What It Is and What It Is Not

I’m a foster mom. Weird.

I seriously had two kinds of images pop into my mind when I used to think of foster parents:

One: really saintly people who sew their own dresses and never lose their temper and have limitless amounts of energy to give to hurting children.

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Two: the kind of people who are in it to make a buck and don’t care about the kids at all, like Emma Swan’s foster homes in Once Upon a Time.

I don’t fit into either of those categories. I don’t think there’s any “type” of foster parent because the motivations for fostering, the types of cases in the system, and most importantly the KIDS being fostered are all COMPLETELY different from one another.

Through a bit of a domino effect, I found myself here.

About two years ago, I was pregnant with my son, Elliot. His was my fifth pregnancy, after two healthy girls born in 2012 and 2014, and two miscarried babies, both lost in 2016. Around this time, a good friend told me she and her husband were going to become foster parents. I remember thinking how awesome and admirable that was. It also struck me that, amazing as my friend is, she’s also a normal person, just a mom and wife like me. It put a little idea in my brain that maybe a person like me could foster, too.

But at that time, fostering was the furthest thing from my mind. All my heart and energy and hope were fixed on the belief that Elliot would break the tie in favor of being my third living child.

Instead, after I’d been on hospital bedrest for 50 days, Elliot was born alive, lived relatively stably in the NICU, and died suddenly on day 5 of his life.

I’d become a mommy with more children in heaven than on earth.

Most of the first nine months after Elliot died were a blur of PTSD, trauma therapy, and learning to live with grief and heavy loss. Somewhere in there, the sad unbrokenness of all those who suffer in the world really began to affect me. I’d think about how incredibly difficult it was to live in the wake of my son’s death, then find myself thinking of “worse” suffering happening simultaneously to the most vulnerable: children.

Adopting has been on my heart for a long time, and still is, as I contemplate the reality for orphans around the world who will not have a chance to grow up in a family without adoption. But, because of my friend’s example, and also seeing several other families around me step into the world of fostering, I wondered if that might be the next step for us.

I remember often staring into Elliot’s empty room, my heart breaking over and over, and realizing some child’s heart and world was breaking from abuse or neglect at the same moment. It’s not fair Elliot died. It’s not fair some children are abused by their own parents. But maybe in my brokenness, I could meet the needs of a child in his or her brokenness.

My husband was very interested in fostering, but scared to commit to it. That’s when, about ten months after Elliot died, we decided just to take each step toward becoming licensed foster parents, knowing we could pause or stop at any time.

And then, in August of 2018, we found ourselves licensed. Well, I actually didn’t know we were officially licensed. The first call that came was, “We have a two-year-old boy who needs a home.”

AHHHHHH!

That’s when C entered our lives. August 21, 2018 (which happens to be my first miscarried baby’s due date) was the WEIRDEST day. I got the call at about 2:00 pm. Got another confirmation call about 3:00 pm. Then C was dropped off at our house at about 5:00 pm. I don’t know why, but I just really thought our first placement was going to be a baby. So when we suddenly had a rambunctious, lively, into-everything two-year-old boy, I was more than a little overwhelmed.

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I haven’t shared a lot of C’s story because it’s not really mine to share. He’s living through so many transitions and confusing relationships, and I want to protect the privacy of his parents, who love him very much and are looking forward to reunification with him. But for our part, having C has been very challenging. We love absolutely love him, and we’ve seen great growth and changes in him. But he’s two! Along with whatever issues caused him to be removed from his home in the first place, being suddenly expected to fit into our home and family must’ve been stressful and overwhelming for him. And very often his behavior has reflected his big emotions. It’s taken a lot of energy to work with him and love him where he’s at.

But we’ve found a groove. And now that we’ve been doing this about five and a half months, it’s made me think about the presuppositions I think people might have about foster care, and what I think about foster care. From my VERY limited perspective, having fostered one child ever, these are some things I think foster care is and what it is not.

What Foster Care IS:

  • It is a chance to be a family in a different way. When C first came, I was worried his presence was going to be too much for us as it completely changed our family dynamic. I wondered if, after losing Elliot, we were all still too fragile to have the daily stress of a foster child who required a lot of attention. And there have been days we have felt too fragile. But, the truth is, C is a part of our family now. As the weeks and months progressed, the girls found their relationships with him, and Dustin and I found our relationships with him. He’s been incorporated into our culture, and we’ve been incorporated into his. We find ourselves quoting his cute little phrases, or knowing exactly what will make him excited, or more easily knowing how to defuse one of his tantrums. He’s family. And it will disrupt our family dynamic again when he leaves. His departure will likely be the hardest part of our foster journey with him. Now that we’re used to him, now that we know him, now that we have worked with him and built memories with him, I want him to stay. But he can’t stay, and we’ve known for a while he wouldn’t stay with us. But this is family. Families do not follow some predictable, linear path, as the death of my sweet baby boy proves. When C leaves, his imprint on our hearts will remain, similar to the way Elliot’s presence is always with us.
  • It is murky. It is impossible to predict what’s coming next in foster care. We could have NEVER predicted the way C’s case would go. It’s been like staring into a fog, literally not knowing what each day would bring. I feel sometimes like I’m trudging through a swamp and picking my boots up and down through sticky mud. And this is not totally about C, but all the stuff surrounding foster care. It’s the initial reasons a child is placed in care. It’s the relationships with bio families that are tricky and  awkward. It’s the awareness that I understand clearly what changes are about to rock this little guy’s world, but all he knows is we shuffle him from one visit to another. And then, because of all this chaos in the life of a toddler, he acts out in intense and sometimes very trying ways. After C has had one of these challenging episodes, and I think about my own grief and trauma and loss, I remember that I act out intensely in my own hurt. I’ve yelled, I’ve cussed, I’ve screamed into the sky and beat the ground with my fists. I’ve done crazy-looking things in moments I’ve felt lost and hurt and forgotten and confused. How much more understandable is it that a 2-year-old does these things? It doesn’t make it easy to deal with hard behaviors, but it does help me have more compassion. And it helps me deal with the frustration of the murkiness of foster care. I can endure a frustrating situation and system for the sake of an innocent child.
  • It is all I can do. It’s hard to explain this. Most people don’t want to foster, and that’s fine, but it can make it hard to explain my motivation for fostering. Sometimes I don’t even know how to articulate it to myself. The best I can say is: It’s just all I can do. I can’t raise Elliot. I can’t get pregnant and have another baby. I can’t do many good things I can imagine would help the world. So what can I do? For us, for this season, meeting the needs of a child who needed a home has been it. It’s all I can do. It’s all I can do for C, or for another foster child who may follow him. But it’s also all I can do for Elliot. I don’t know if Elliot has any awareness in heaven of what his mommy is doing, but I like to imagine he does. And there have been days that have been so, so hard with C that I’ve felt like giving up. But if I can take a deep breath and picture my little boy at Jesus’ side, both of them cheering me on, I can take one more step as a foster mom. I can know I am not only loving C in his broken places, I am loving Elliot from afar. It’s all I can do. That doesn’t mean fostering has fixed my grief; some days it has increased grief’s intensity. But I’d rather do something than nothing, and for me, for now, this happens to be it. It also is what I can do to express my faith right now. Going to church is hard, reading the Bible is hard, praying is hard, ALL the ways I used to express my faith are still somewhat forced and awkward for me, compared to what they once were. But in working through the challenging and sweet and weird and meaningful journey of fostering C, I’ve felt Jesus closer than in any time since Elliot died. It just reiterates to me that Jesus is found much more in doing the right thing than in merely believing the right thing.

What Foster Care Is NOT:

  • It’s not my “calling.” I mean, maybe it’s a calling, though the definition of that term is up for grabs. I just wouldn’t say it’s something I pursued because I felt particularly called by God to do it or because I have special gifts that uniquely qualify me to do it. I’m ESPECIALLY not called to do it because I have the superpower of easily loving and letting go. Okay, I’m going to tell you a phrase lots of foster parents hear but probably don’t really like: “I could never do that. I could never love a child then have to say goodbye.” I think when people say that, they mean it as a compliment, like, “Wow, you are really strong for doing something hard like loving and then letting go.” But the truth is, even if you say, “I could never do that,” you probably could do it. Don’t shake your head at me! Yeah, you could. You could love a child temporarily if you were the best or only option for that child to be safe. Imagine your best friend got ill and was hospitalized for six months and asked you to take her kids. You would do it. You could do it. More accurate perhaps than, “I could never do that,” would be, “I don’t want to do that!” And that’s fair. It’s stinkin’ hard. Often during those first weeks after C moved in with us, the thought crossed my mind, “I understand why most people don’t want to do this.” But it got better, more routine, more manageable. And though it will hurt when he leaves, and even though there have been very trying times since he’s been with us, I’m thankful he’s been part of our family for a time. We have all grown because of his presence with us, and I am thankful we have been a consistent, safe, and fun home where he could feel loving boundaries only a family can offer. I don’t think I could say it’s our “calling,” but I can say that for one little boy, and for our family, it has been a challenge worth undertaking.
  • It’s not glorified babysitting. The foster agency we are licensed with starts their philosophy of foster care with the presupposition that foster families will treat foster children like THEIR OWN. As long as C is living in my home, he is one of my children. I say that with some hesitation, because in our case, C has a lot of contact with his bio parents. C will probably leave in the next couple weeks to live with a bio parent. So I am well aware that I am not his “real” mom. But I am also not just a long-term babysitter. I try (and sometimes fail) to love him and treat him and include him as any other member of this family. The research into child development says this is best for kids, and the heart of Jesus says this is best for kids. During one of our foster trainings, the director of our agency made a statement that is beginning to resonate with me more: “Is it best for the kids that we love them like family while they’re with us? You bet. But does it hurt like hell when they leave? You bet.” It is going to hurt when C leaves. A lot. But, I figure, if it doesn’t hurt, I haven’t been doing it right.
  • It’s not something I have to do. I HATE that there are children languishing in “the system” right now. I hate that some of them are so hard to handle, it’s unlikely they will ever be adopted. I hate that today or tomorrow, another child will be “removed” from his biological parents and dropped into a place called a foster home. There need to be good foster homes. We’ve been one of those. But I realize that one of my misconceptions when I used to think about foster care was to think, “Once a foster parent, always a foster parent!” It just was an image in my head that foster parents just keep on fostering for eons or something. But the truth is, we do not retain a canopy of guilt and obligation that says we MUST keep fostering. We will take a break after C leaves. Our hearts will be heavy with losing him, and I expect I will grieve Elliot again within the process. We will assess what’s best for our family. Maybe we’ll foster again soon. Maybe we’ll foster again a few years down the road. Maybe never. No matter what, we have the freedom to do it and the freedom not to. Whatever we decide, our hearts will always be burdened to help children in vulnerable situations. Thanks to C and the influence he’s had on us, children in “the system” will not be abstractions to us ever again. C makes all of them real.

I got a survey from Department of Human Services recently that asked me to rate lots of parts of my fostering experience. One of the questions was: “Would you recommend fostering to someone else?” My choices were: Yes. No. I don’t know. Uhhh…if they’d left me a space that said “Other”, maybe I would’ve said something like this:

OTHER: Recommend fostering?! Are you crazy? Like I’d recommend a good movie or a book? How could I “recommend” it? Like, “Hey! Do you want to drive all over creation and fill out paperwork and clean up the emotional scars of a traumatized child? Then fostering is for you!” Bah ha ha! (Crazy overwhelmed foster mom cackle) “Recommend fostering??” Uh, I don’t think so….
But…recommend fostering? Well, yeah. I mean, how would any of us feel if, through some unimaginable circumstance, our own child was taken from us and put in someone else’s home? Can you imagine how scared, confused, and angry your child might be? What kind of home and family would you want your child to have? A home to be patient through the tantrums. A home to wrap arms around your child, reassuring safety. A home where they’d make your child laugh and help him have fun and SOME sort of “normal” life. These foster kids are no different from your children, from my children. Being a foster parent takes more work and commitment than any full-time job, requires you to give your heart away in a very vulnerable way, and leaves you feeling rather unappreciated by all the various cogs in “the system.” But, when C has looked up at me and said, “I love you, Mom Heidi,” and I can see in his eyes at that moment he feels absolutely safe, yes, I’d recommend it. In a heartbeat.

Life will not pass any of us by without tragedy or brokenness. Foster care, for all it is and all it is not, brings brokenness right into your home. But it also brings beauty, meaning, and a nearness to Jesus that can’t be found by protecting your heart from pain. Foster care IS messy. But these children deserve to be loved through the messes they did not cause yet are paying the price for. I’ll always be grateful for C, I’ll always love him, I’ll always be rooting for him and praying for him. In my heart, he’ll always be one of my kids.

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3 thoughts on “Foster Care: What It Is and What It Is Not”

  1. I understand everything you said. We fostered for 7 years as you know. If the child required lots of energy and lots of trauma it was pure relief for all of us. We took time to breathe, get family dynamics back, most important took a little trip to help transition. Eventually the phone rang again and off we would go on another journey. If it was a good experience (we had 2 yr old twins we absolutely loved) then we dealt with some sorrow and then made new happy memories as a fam of 4. MY children experienced their own experiences. Foster boy left so am I leaving? Grief. Sorrow. Relief. For whatever reason their experiences left them firmly against becoming foster as adults. Did bad come out.of it? Yes. You know that. Did good come out of it? YES YES YES I’ve seen my 2 give compassion and patience that other kids didn’t have. I remember L giving up his own ski experience to help a shyer boy learn to ski and become social. Best friends today!!! My A became an interpreter for the deaf. Talk about compassion and patience. We know that God can and does take our bad and make it the most wonderful thing we never imagined. Heidi Jim and I love you and you family. You are doing great. Our listening ears are available if needed. Sorry I always write so much.

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    1. Thank you for this, Karen! Your words always show me how deep your empathy is. You definitely walked a difficult road, but also one of love and giving. I think your kids sure turned out great. 😉 Thank you for always being a voice of compassion and friendship.

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