The Island of Foster Parenting, can be a lonely one.
I never knew this until recently.
I have been the the living room of dozens of foster parents for over a decade. But it wasn’t until recently I realized what a lonely world it can be.
Foster parents are typically viewed by the media and society in two categories. They are either praised or villainized. Praised as the extraordinary people who take in victimized children and love them as their own. Or made to be the villain when we hear horrific news stories of foster parents who harmed children worse than their natural parents.
I have been exposed to a different part of foster parenting. The part where a family opens their home to children, and then are left alone. Left by their friends, family and loved ones because we don’t understand this process. And by we, I mean that I was one of these people. And I write this today to hopefully open a window into the unknown struggle of losing friends and family while taking in these vulnerable children.
A few years ago, one of my closest friends and her husband decided to become foster parents. I thought this was wonderful because they weren’t sure if they could have their own children. I assumed they would foster and adopt babies and create this picture perfect family. Now, this is coming from a child welfare caseworker who has taken children of all ages and backgrounds to foster homes and left these children and families to just “figure it out”. My friend told me that for her first placement, she was taking in an almost 17 year old girl who had a story that was complicated enough for it’s own blog post. I thought she was insane. Shortly after this, she took in an infant, and then soon after that another teenager. While this obviously happened over a period of time, I as her friend had become accustomed to her life being one way. When these children came into her and her husband’s life I “assumed” a lot about the complications and responsibilities of what their life then entailed. They were much younger than me, and after a period of time I thought they were absolutely insane for taking in these children when they were so young. Months went by and I stopped asking her to come over. I stopped asking her to grab a drink. I stopped going over to visit as much. I assumed she couldn’t or wouldn’t come, or that her husband wouldn’t want to stay at home with a house full of children.
Months later, I had a birthday party for my son. They came with their three children and I introduced everyone to my family. I explained at that time which children were adopted and which were fostered. Later that day, my friend asked me to please not introduce this family in such a divided manner. While I thought nothing of this, she explained that the kids felt awkward and singled out. At the time I thought “well why wouldn’t I explain this when people ask?’ especially because they looked much to young to have teenagers. Shortly thereafter, we found ourselves going months without really speaking at all. And much of this was due to my friend reaching out about chaos and struggles she and her husband dealt with regarding the kids and I didn’t understand it. And really didn’t want to be a part of it. Because it didn’t fit with where I was in my life. Granted, I had spent an entire day at an amusement park with all the kiddos, and we had a blast. But in between the fun parts, there was day to day drama and chaos, which I didn’t understand. I rationalized that this was a “choice” they made. A choice I did not make, and assumed they would figure it out. (Note, there are a lot of assumptions in this post)
Fast forward about a year. Another set of foster parents who I became close with; I went over to visit and brought my son to play with their children. After an hour, they talked with me about how alienated they felt because their friends and family no longer call for nights out, or dinner, or play dates. This family took in special needs children. They didn’t understand why their friends and family quit coming around. They assume it’s because they don’t want to be bothered with the stress of their children needing their constant attention. Or they “assume” they cannot get a sitter and go have dinner. My heart broke.
I realized that I was that friend.
Recently, I have reached out to my first foster parent friends. I hate referring to them as that, because they are parents. Just like me. So moving forward that is what they are.
I owned up to my own selfish assumptions and apologized for not being there. I started to come back around to their house and got to really know their kids. And wow are they awesome kids. They are ABSOLUTELY full of chaos and drama. But what child or family isn’t?
I found myself out a few weeks ago, having dinner and a drink with my friend. A woman came up and we got to chatting about our careers and family. The woman observed my friend mentioning the ages of her children, while observing how young my friend is. She questioned this and my friend explained she was a “foster/adoptive parent”. She then said “do you have any real children?”. My response was a snappy defensive one: “As supposed to her fake children?”. I know it was snappy and defensive, but I found myself in a position where I loved this family for who they were. And I would no longer allow myself to isolate from them, or allow others to categorize them.
They are a family. And they have gone through a lot of crap to get where they are today.
I asked both my friends, what it was like being alone through all that. They honestly told me how lonely it was. Like they were put on an island of foster parents. They have been given connections to other foster families for support, but didn’t understand why their own families and friends wouldn’t learn or acclimate to their new family.
They have given up everything and love these children as their own. No matter what they break, or steal, or say. No matter how many sleepless nights they have, or how many fights over IEP’s or school transportation. No matter how many times they are singled out for being too young, or too old, to take on children in their homes. They continue every day to provide the best home they can for these children who need love and attention.
Now we talk about the fear of these children leaving their home to go back to their natural parents. The frustration of the adoption process. I have been to two adoptions and while they last only five minutes, I cried the entire time because that five minutes makes these children forever theirs. My son doesn’t know the difference between the adopted or fostered children. He loves them and plays with them without any prejudice or questions. I listen to the fear in their voices of what will the children’s future look like? The same questions I have about my own son. And now, there is no longer a differentiation between my son and their children. They are ALL our children.
Natural parents have nine months to prepare for the arrival of a child. Foster parents typically have 30 minutes to an hour to decide. Sometimes at 2 in the afternoon, sometimes at 2 in the morning. But they uproot their entire home for these children to have a place to feel safe and thrive.
I was the friend who alienated my foster parent friends. And I’m a social worker who should understand. I am continuing to work on learning how their families function, and blend mine in with theirs. It’s not always beautiful and easy. It’s scary, stressful and sometimes it’s really damn annoying. But parenting children no matter who gave birth to them is all of this. And we as parents and friends and loved ones should stop, and understand this.
Again, I am a child welfare caseworker. The one person most would think “she should understand all of this”. I know what backgrounds these children come from. I know and trust that our foster families will care for them beautifully. But I never really acclimated myself in the behind the scene family reality of foster parenting.
My point today is to recognize these beautiful strong people who take in these children. If you know one, take the time to ask them out for coffee, or to have a drink! (They probably need one!) Offer to meet them for dinner, or come over for a play date. Hey, offer to babysit! I bet they’ll take you up on the offer! Just because a single mom, couple, or single dad decides to open their home to children, doesn’t mean they change.
Well, actually it does. But the change is a bigger heart and a bigger home. Not the change us outsiders “assume”.
I am glad I’ve gotten passed the assumptions, and have become part of that change. Because foster parents are another version of super heroes. :o)