4 things I wish I’d known about foster parenting

"Foster parenting has shaped us in ways I never could have imagined. But there are still things I wish I had known that would have made things a little easier."

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When my husband and I decided to become foster parents, we knew one thing for certain: It would be a challenge. We knew it’d be hard to love kids and then let them go. We wondered how our children would react to sharing their parents and their home. We expected that there would be a lot of people who wouldn’t understand our decision. But we also believed that opening our home to children who needed love and security would be rewarding and worthwhile. I have to say that, over these past four years, I haven’t once regretted our decision. It has shaped us in ways I never could have imagined.

There are still things I wish I had known that would have made things a little easier. If we were sitting down, having a heart-to-heart before you took the leap into fostering children, here’s what I would tell you.

A brother and sister hugging outdoors
How foster parenting changed the kind of mom I am

1. Find a support network
Foster parenting can be an isolating experience. Not many people understand what it’s like to welcome new children into your home, to parent alongside a biological parent who is a virtual stranger and to work so closely with Children’s Aid. Most of your friends won’t have experience with parenting through trauma or loving a child who leaves. Most of them won’t understand the very specific stressful situations that can arise as part of being a foster parent (a child leaving your home suddenly, an unexpected court ruling, an injured child). And, because of privacy and confidentiality, you can’t share this with them because these children’s stories are not yours to tell.

The only people who truly understand what you’re going through are other foster parents. Finding a support network is invaluable—it will save your life. I know because it saved mine. When you connect with other foster parents, you’ll have people who can answer questions and offer insight into child behaviours or challenges you might be having with a child’s birth parent. You’ll have friends who won’t blink when your toddler throws the most epic tantrum or when you have a baby who won’t stop screaming. They know because they’ve been there—in fact, they’re probably there right now.

When you’re starting out, make the effort to attend the training sessions offered by your agency. You’ll learn about things like caring for kids with special needs, court proceedings for foster children and self-care for foster families and—perhaps more importantly—you’ll connect with other foster parents. Attend special events offered by your agency and get to know other families. I met some of my closest foster-parent friends when we connected through respite: One of us was taking the other’s foster children for a short period of time and we exchanged numbers and stayed in touch. You’ll need the support and friendship, so don’t be afraid to seek it out. 

2. Don’t underestimate the importance of biological parents
You’ll spend most of your time before—and even after—becoming a foster parent thinking about how you’ll best love the children in your care. And that’s exactly the way it should be—these kids need support, stability and lots of love—but don’t forget about their parents.

Your foster children’s birth parents/family aren’t bad people. In most cases, they have made some bad choices or are struggling with something outside of their control and need help and time. They want to parent their children well. They want their families intact. They love their kids and their kids love them, and this is a relationship you want to support. After all, the primary goal of foster parenting is reunification: to send children home to their families.

My husband and I foster babies and toddlers, so we communicate with their birth families regularly—the kids we take care of can’t speak for themselves. I invest a lot of time in building a relationship with the biological family because it benefits everyone involved.

Understand that you’re a stranger. You know how much you love these children and how well you care for them. But, especially at first, these kids have a very nervous parent who doesn’t know where their children are or if they’re safe, and that’s scary. Respect these emotions. Answer questions. Provide details about how you’re spending your days with their kids. Don’t take things personally.

In most cases, this relationship can be a positive one. I’ve watched parents turn their lives around for their kids and seen families get put back together. I’ve been able to offer support and encouragement from a unique perspective. It’s a reward I wasn’t expecting when I started this journey, but it has become one of my favourites.

It doesn’t always work out this way, though. Some relationships will be challenging, and that won’t change. But my advice is to remain kind and supportive, to respect the biological parent’s place in your foster child’s life and to remember that this isn’t about you. This is a hard time in their lives, and they’re probably doing the best they can.

3. Real life is different from training
Foster parents get a lot of training. There’s PRIDE training before you’re approved, interviews and home studies. Your agency will provide you with plenty of training opportunities once you’ve started as a foster parent. These workshops and lectures are incredibly helpful, but I’ve learned that, no matter how great the material, the theoretical nature of a training session can’t compare to the practical, real-life experience of parenting a foster child.

Every child who enters your home is dealing with trauma. They’ve been removed from their families or moved from another foster home, but either way, they’ve been uprooted from somewhere familiar and moved somewhere strange. That’s traumatizing and scary, and it takes time to get to know this little person who has moved into your home and become part of your family and for him to get to know you and how things work in your home (it’s probably very different from life in his family). There’s a lot of trial and error and learning on the fly.

There’s no real way to prepare yourself for toddlers, preschoolers, kids or teens who are dealing with significant trauma. They’re carrying a heavy load, and the emotional fallout from that can be overwhelming for them and for you. There will be screaming, tantrums, aggression and unexpected emotional outbursts. I’ve sat up late into the night with a three-year-old who didn’t understand where her mom was and why she couldn’t see her. I’ve dodged toy cars and toddler fists during hour-long tantrums. I’ve felt devastation when a visit with family has been cancelled. (And this is all in addition to the big feelings that come with typical toddlers and preschoolers.)

It’s eye-opening to see how much pain little people can hold, and it takes patience and commitment to help them walk through it. It’s the most difficult part of this work but also the greatest privilege. There has been no greater reward than seeing the progress that can happen in a child’s life when she is loved, safe and secure. And that leads to the final point….

4. Foster parenting is both easier and harder than you think
I often describe my experience with foster parenting as “hard but good.” It’s the kind of thing that stretches you and changes you—it’s painful but in that hurts-so-good way. Foster parenting has made me a better parent, but it’s happened through frustrating days, long nights and more than a few tears over how to best love and support the children in my care.

Our family has sacrificed some freedoms and spontaneity that we used to take for granted, and it can be challenging to live a life that is different from most families. But it has expanded my kids’ world and given them greater compassion and understanding for people. They’ve freely opened their hearts to the kids who come into this home, loving them without boundaries or questions.

It really only takes a moment to fall in love with a child who needs you, who comes into your home desperate for love and acceptance, scared and unsure of what’s happening in his life. There are good and bad days, but it’s easier than I ever could have imagined to love another person’s child.

And, yes, it’s so hard to say goodbye. It’s the question I get asked more than anything else: “Don’t you get attached? Isn’t it hard when they leave?” Yes, and of course. But that’s one of those hard-but-good things. Opening your heart and loving a child you know is leaving is hard, but loving a child who desperately needs it is something I will never regret. And being a part of helping a family come back together is such a beautiful thing. As we’re getting ready to say goodbye to one of our foster kids, I usually tell my kids that “we’re sad for us but happy for them” because when it’s healthy, there’s no better place for a child to be than with his parent and family.

So that’s what I tell new foster parents: It’s hard but good. It’s messy, chaotic and unpredictable, but it’s also redemptive, rewarding and beautiful. And I wouldn’t change a thing.

Read more:
Elliot: A new kids’ book about the foster system
How adoption made our family complete

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