“You signed yourself up for this.”
“I don’t know how you do it, I could never give them back.”
“My heart is too sensitive to do anything like foster care.”well-meaning sympathizers of foster parents.
These are all just some of the lines that I think most foster parents hear from time to time. While I’m sure they are well-intentioned, I think it comes down to the fact that most of us just don’t or didn’t know what to expect until we started living the life of foster care. Timelines are measured by shorter milestones (“If _______ is here for Halloween, she should be a cat!” or “If ________ is still here for this vacation, it would be a great time for him to learn to swim.”), and permanency is rarely discussed. We found out early on that discussions of “if _________ stays forever, we’ll do x, y, & z” are futile and lead to unnecessary daydreaming. For most cases in foster care, that permanency is not the goal, and we have to remind ourselves of that. It’s a different way of life, and expecting others to understand it when they aren’t living it is a recipe for added stress and resentment.
When our first foster child, M, was scheduled to go home after a year and a half with us, the build-up to that day was almost as agonizing as saying goodbye. During that week, I was reminded several times by several people that we had, in fact, signed ourselves up for this. My husband and I were also both recipients of several variations of the same phrase: “I don’t know how you do it, I could never give them back.”
Look. I get it. Most of us reading this get it: we KNOW we signed up for this. We knew when we took the classes, prepared our homes and our families, bought the extra bedding and toothbrushes, that we were volunteering for inevitable heartbreak. My go-to response to statements like these used to be “my adult heart can handle the heartbreak better than their pure child heart can handle feeling unloved.” I was proud of that response too – it sounded crafted from a poetic foster care book, and it probably was. I’m not sure what I was looking to gain by responding with that statement…did I want to sting back with something prophetic? Did I want to spread the word about foster care? I have no idea. These days, I just shrug and acknowledge the fact that yes, yes we did sign up for this. Now and again, I’ll make a smartassed quip like “Well apparently the law says we have to,” when someone tells us that they could never give the kids back (it’s true though, am I right?). I guess defending my decisions was my own way of defending myself and rationalizing the goings on, putting it in a language my heart could understand.
After M was reunified with her family, after the few days that went by where I could look at her picture without breaking down in tears, I found myself subconsciously making the shift in who I turned to for support. My family is beyond blessed to have such a wonderful support network: our parents love these kids like their own grandchildren, extended family invests time and interest into them, friends love on them and offer sitter services…. We couldn’t have asked for a better response from our loved ones when we told them we had decided to open our home to foster care. However, in times like family reunification, I’ve found that they just don’t GET it. The sympathy and the empathy is there, but it’s so difficult to rationalize to people who are missing the children that you brought into their lives solely because they are now a part of your life. When M left, I almost felt the need to apologize to my parents, because I knew they missed her just as much as we did. The guilt was tremendous. I’ve spoken with other foster parents whose families have begged them not to take another placement because of the agony it caused when the last one left. And yet……we do it. Hopefully, our loved ones get that we have our reasons for pressing on. I’ve learned that venting and turning to them for support is one thing, but having a group of people in this non-traditional boat with you is a make-or-break situation. A daily group text message with other foster moms who I have met through a local foster mother support group has been my saving grace. They GET it. In ways that our extended family and friends can’t these women just understood without having to say a thing. We’ve celebrated together, we’ve cried together, we’ve released frustrations through margaritas and queso dip together. Finding and connecting with other foster parents who have shared similar situations is highest recommendation I can have when it comes to dealing with the emotions of foster care.
Because remember…..after all, we signed up for this.