My husband John and I were foster parents almost nonstop for about 12 years, beginning within our first year of marriage. Somewhere in there we also had Clare, our biological daughter. Our son David, whom we adopted through the state of Missouri, came to live with us in March of 2003.
14 children from 4 days old to 16 years old came into and out of our home, and stayed as little time as 24 hours and as long as 5 years. Our oldest foster son is in his mid 30s now.
What did foster-parenting teach me? Here are 10 things.........
1. There is no more wonderful way to spend time that to read a child a bedtime story, sing a song, say a prayer and tuck them into a safe bed at night. Every child, every age, loved this ritual, which would always bring beauty to the day, no matter how difficult.
2. You can't fix people. And most importantly, don't try to fix people to avoid your own embarrassment (think tantrums in grocery stores). People are wounded and wacky, fearful and mysterious. You might be a part of their story of healing, but there are lots of parts to their story.
3. It's lonely on a pedestal. Foster parenting is one of those things that make people look at you and say "Oh my goodness, I could NEVER do anything like that! I don't know HOW you do it!" This is maybe meant to be a compliment, but just makes you feel lonely (and crazy). There are so many kids who need foster parents, and so many foster parents who need support, we gotta stop seeing it as an impossible thing, and realize that most things we say we could never do, we probably just don't want to do.
4. Sadness is part of the deal. Saying goodbye to a foster child is probably the most excruciating experience I've ever had. But sadness is not an enemy, and the sadness I have endured as a foster parent has no comparison to the sadness the children have endured, and the sadness their parents have endured, no matter how flawed they are. I lead a Bible study in a detention facility, and the women whose children are in foster care love their children as much as any other parent.
5. Say what you need. Someone will probably give it to you. I have had toys and beds and books and strollers and babysitters and clothes and birthday presents and counseling and car seats emerge seemingly out of nowhere just by saying the word. Generosity abounds when you don't struggle in silence. This reality may stem primarily from .........
6. A faithful church community can save a family. When you are the preacher and you have 4 children in tow on a Sunday morning, neither you nor the church members have any choice but to start taking kids by the hand and finding crayons and cheerios and children's Bibles and patient words and smiling encouragement. We never asked, it just happened. Some churches, thank God, have reached out to foster parents in their communities to offer such support proactively. I'm telling you, saving grace indeed!
7. We spend too much time punishing, rather than treating, people with drug addictions. A cynical social worker can see a mom whose children are in foster care as a waste of time and space. We spend a lot more on incarcerating people with drug problems than we do treating them. Let's change this.
8. Don't make a big deal about Mother's Day at church, unless you plan to acknowledge all the wounds associated with our relationships with mothers. Some mothers have really let their children down, brutalizing or humiliating them relentlessly. Some people long to be mothers and have never had the chance. Others have mothers who have died. I'm not opposed at all to making people sad in church. I'm opposed to behaving as if everyone has an uncomplicated mother-child relationship to be celebrated with a smile and a cute poem.
9. Give up on perfect. It will get you every time. I was not a perfect parent to foster children, nor am I a perfect parent to the children who have my name on their birth certificate. I've discovered that striving for perfection as a parent, a spouse, a colleague, a housekeeper, whatever, leaves damage in your wake. At minimum it just makes everyone around you nervous.
10. It's not important. It's amazing how you can be doing something REALLY important, but when someone calls you and says, "Can you go to the hospital and pick up a 4 day old baby girl who needs a home?" you almost can't even remember what you were doing that was so gosh darn "important." There are some great reasons to rearrange priorities. And believe me, you don't need that perfect pastel yellow paint with the smiling Noah's ark animals painted on the walls or the 400$ crib to welcome a child .............or anyone else, into your life.