The Ideal Foster Parent

Our first adoption ceremony 2006.

Recently I had the opportunity to speak at my local Kiwanis Club meeting about Riverside Community Outreach, the non-profit I run. The Kiwanis Club in my town is one of the most generous groups of people I have ever met, and I always enjoy the time I get to spend with them. At the end of my talk there was time for questions. A lady asked me what makes an ideal foster parent.  Wow! What a question. It seemed simple enough to answer except the woman asking the question had no idea my personal story or what was going on inside my head. The problem for me was all those lovely people in the room knew I had been a foster parent. If I described what an ideal foster parent looked like, they might think I was that person. In this season of my life, I feel less than ideal.

As I sit here and write this blog post, I have a teenage daughter who still is living away from home. If you follow my posts then you are already familiar with the story. If not, you can read more about it here and here. All of the interventions we have tried to help her have not succeeded. The most recent was the chance to live with family, but unfortunately she didn't choose to embrace the opportunity. She is staying with friends and working towards emancipation. Although the lines of communication are open and we are able to love her from a distance, she doesn't want to live with us. The heartbreak I have experienced watching someone I love reject being a part of my family has been brutal. The pain of watching my child run towards a life I have tried so hard to protect her from is gut wrenching.  I am in the middle of one of the most challenging seasons of my parenting life, and I dwell in a state of  the unknown.

When faced with the question of ideal, I cringed inside a bit. But then, I answered her question, and friends, I think the answer was good, and true, and is the parent I am striving to be. Although I am no longer an active foster mom because I have transitioned to being an adoptive mom, the ideals are still the same. In fact, I think it is what I am striving for as a mom in general to all my children regardless of how they came to be a part of the family. Here are the answers I gave to her and my thoughts about each one.

1) Be willing to love someone even if they don't love you back.

Oh boy, yep, we started with a big one. I know in my head that someday my children will be grown up and will find people to love and start their own families. I know someday I won't be the number one woman in my boy's lives. I am already starting to prepare my heart for that day. However, I was not prepared to be my child's second choice from the moment they entered my home. But here is the reality, I was not the first mom for some of my children. There is a deep love and loyalty to birth families which is how it should be. The family connection is strong. But it forces me to ask myself the question, "Can I truly love unconditionally?" If I am always in second place, or if I don't even make it on the platform, and I am never loved back, will I still give my all to be this child's mom for as long as they need me? If there are never warm and fuzzy feelings but only the strength of my commitment, will I still keep loving? It's a difficult question and one that is important to face with honesty because that may be what is required of you to be the parent your child needs.

2) Be willing to advocate, advocate, advocate and then advocate some more.

You are the voice for your child. When a child is in foster care they have a case worker and an attorney, but those people have a list of children they are providing services for. The child in your home is one of the children on a long list. This means they are relying on you to speak up for them to make sure they are receiving the services they need. This is heightened when you have a child with a higher level of special needs. The need to speak up and sometimes fight for your child doesn't end with adoption. You will always need to keep advocating for your children in a world that doesn't always understand trauma.

3) Be part of a community.

Being a parent is hard work. The responsibility of raising children to be healthy, successful, and productive adults is a huge task. When you add on the complexities of being a foster or adoptive parent it can be exhausting. Find your people. The reality is, people who haven't walked the road of fostering or adoption won't truly understand where you are coming from. The good news is you are not alone, there are others around you who are on the same journey. Find them! This doesn't mean you can't have a supportive group of family and friends in your life who aren't foster parents or who haven't adopted. There is just something about being able to really understand what someone else is going through. You want to have people you can call anytime and share your fears, frustrations, and victories. You want the other person on the end of the phone to know you need chocolate when you say, "Well, the honeymoon is over." And you want someone to jump up and down with you in excitement when your child finally uses the toilet instead of the corner of their bedroom. Get yourself into community!

Our second adoption ceremony 2015.

4) Stop caring what other people think.

If you engage in foster care and adoption your family will look and act different than others in your neighborhood. If you jump in to the deep end of parenting children who have survived trauma, have attachment disorders, mental health concerns, developmental delays, and sensory processing struggles your parenting will be different than others in your neighborhood. If you already have several biological children and then add more to your family through foster care or adoption your family will be bigger than others in your neighborhood. This means you need to stop worrying about what the neighborhood thinks. Not caring about what others think is often harder than it sounds. I have gone to Walmart with my children and people have actually pointed and counted out loud as we have walked by. I have carried a screaming child out of more places than I can remember. Multiple times people have thought my 15 passenger van was a shuttle or a daycare bus and tried to get in it. I have been asked over and over again if my children are all mine. And I have been instructed by friends, family members, and complete strangers how I could do a better job parenting my children. I have to choose not to let other people's opinions dictate my choices. It is a conscious decision I need to make every day. You can read more about this in the blog post.

5) Be willing to get your heart broken.

Once again we are back to a tough one. Remember earlier when I talked about unconditional love; am I willing to love someone who may never love me back? I also need to be willing to love someone who might leave. Foster care is meant to be temporary. The goal is reunification. This means I need to love, advocate, and care for a child who might leave. I have heard people say over and over again they could never be a foster parent because they would get too attached. Friends, is there really such a thing as getting "too attached?" What people are really saying is they don't want to get hurt. It's human instinct to protect ourselves from pain. It goes against our nature to willingly put ourselves in a position to get hurt. The truth is on the journey of foster care and adoption heartbreak is inevitable. I can't sit here and tell you it won't happen. I can't promise you a happy ending to each child's story who comes into your home. I have experienced the heartbreak of saying goodbye to children I loved deeply. You can read more about that here and here. What I can tell you is there are thousands of vulnerable children who need you to put your heart on the line for them. I read a quote once that really summed it up well for me. "I used to wonder if I was ready to be an adoptive parent, and then I realized a child is never ready to be an orphan."

Those five answers were the words I spoke just a few weeks ago. To be a foster parent is a high calling;  a labor of love. Friends, I am far from ideal. But I am in the game, all in. I am fighting and loving every day. These past few months I have been knocked down, and I don't know how this chapter in my life will end. I am dwelling in the unknown living  in the state of "okay" and "not okay." I make the best decisions I can at the time I need to make them with the information I have available.

But here is the most important thing I can tell you. I would do it again. I would love someone who might not love me back, advocate, build community, let go of what other people think, and be willing to get my heartbroken. Even now, when my heart is aching from rejection and I have been knocked down so hard it has caused me to doubt myself as a mom. Even now, when I don't know what the future holds. Even now, in the middle of the journey, I can tell you I would choose to become a foster and adoptive mom, again. The truth is the world doesn't need ideal, it needs willing. The thousands of vulnerable children don't need perfection, they need action.  They need the actions of ordinary people putting their hearts on the line and getting in the game, because children are worth it.

If this blog has inspired, encouraged, or challenged you to open your heart and home to vulnerable children please comment here or on our Facebook page and share.

Our third adoption ceremony 2017.