Becoming a parent of any kind requires planning, preparation, and a whole lot of flexibility along the way. But when that child comes to you with a past you have few details about, trauma you didn’t inflict, and zero socks or underwear, it turns your world on its side.
After our son, Ryan, was born, my husband and I knew we would eventually become foster parents. We wanted to give another child — or children — the safety and security of the sort of stable family we’d been lucky enough to be born into.
We knew that being the first among our family and friends to take the leap into fostering meant we had a pretty steep learning curve to overcome. We just didn’t know how steep until we were already climbing.
There are a handful of things in particular that I wish I’d known ahead of time.
You Need A Support System In Place Before Your First Placement Arrives
The key to surviving those initial hours/days/weeks of your first placement is having a supportive network of fellow foster parents around you who can answer questions, offer advice, and provide reassurance that “No, you’re not crazy for thinking you could do this,” and “Yes, it will get easier.”
See, I did this backward. After my first placement — a lively three-year-old boy — arrived, it clicked that this kind of parenting was vastly different from typical parenting.
As much as our friends and family were cheering us on, they couldn’t fully understand what it felt like to jump in and parent a child who was completely unknown to us and so terrified that he was hardly able to process anything we said.
I scrambled then to connect with foster parents in my area and join foster parenting groups on social media, but those early days would have felt much less isolating if we’d had a few foster friends already waiting in the wings.
It’s OK To Say 'No'
Now that you’ve decided to become a foster parent, every single story will tug at your heart. Even though you will carefully and thoughtfully outline the parameters of what you can — and are willing to — take on, there will be a moment when a social worker will ask you to drift outside those parameters. That’s the nature of a system that is always short on people, beds and time.
As brand new foster parents, we had decided to take only one child at a time in the two-to-six-year-old age range. Just a few weeks after our foster son arrived, we got a call about another boy. He was eight years old and needed a LOT of one-on-one attention.
I would have laughed if I hadn’t been fighting back tears. Putting aside the logistical issues (such as that we didn’t have a bed for him), I was already physically and mentally drained. I didn’t have any more to give.
The guilt of that “no” weighed heavily on me for months. If not me, then who? Were we his last option? Did my “no” effectively send him to a group home?
It took time for me to accept that stretching myself beyond my limits would have been detrimental both to him and to the two kids already in my home. I had to accept my own limitations for the good of all of us.
Nothing sparks more conversation in parent circles than sleep — whether to co-sleep, whether to sleep train, and why the F won't this kid sleep through the night? But even after you're past those stages and your child is racking for reasonably long stretches, there are still kids who wake up really freaking early.
Don’t Sweat the Revolving Door
There will be regular social worker visits, therapy appointments, and meetings with the child’s advocates. Your dining room will feel more like a conference room at times, as you work to accommodate all the necessary meetings.
And they’ll happen at the worst possible times — right after school when crankiness is at its highest, or just before dinner when you’re trying to discuss a recent behavioural issue at the same time that pots and pans really need to be hitting the stove.
Sometimes all the adults who come with the child will feel more stressful than the child himself. Remember that you aren’t there to impress anyone. You can’t possibly do a deep clean before each visit.
If they arrive to a living room covered in toys; well, you have kids and kids play with toys. If you’re in the middle of chopping vegetables while they dump their files on your kitchen table; then pat yourself on the back for 1) feeding the kids vegetables, and 2) having an empty space on the table.
The Only Thing Certain In Foster Care Is the Uncertainty Of It All
This is hard for those of us (ahem, me) who are Type A. Part of what makes me suited to foster parenthood is my organised and thorough nature. But “organised and thorough” also comes with a side of “needs to plan ahead”. Well, planning ahead is a bit of a pipe dream in foster care.
Our first foster child was with us for almost a year, but he could have left at virtually any time. We lived and planned by scheduled court dates, never knowing what the outcome would be or if we’d have to drop everything to pack him up. I planned his 4th birthday party at the last minute, because I didn’t want to get him excited about a party I might have to cancel.
Foster parenthood forces you to be content with — or at least tolerant of — living in the moment.
The Goodbyes Will Break Your Heart, But That’s OK
There’s a good chance the child will leave your home — after all, the main goal of foster care is to reunify the biological family. This is the part that scares many people off from becoming foster parents; the idea of having to let them go.
But here’s the thing: If that’s the part that scares you, it probably means you’d be an excellent foster parent.
What these kids need most is not someone who will simply go through the motions. They need someone who will embrace them during the scariest and most traumatic time of their little lives and provide them with a safe, nurturing, loving home.
When they leave, it should break your heart. And when it does, you’ll know it was worth it because you would do it all over again.