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I get questions about fostering on a pretty regular basis. People are curious, or they’re thinking about it, or they are in it and wonder if they should be.

To be clear, I’m not an expert. I’ve not been a foster parent for as long as many people I know who have spent years and years and years providing foster care for dozens of children. I’m not a saint or a perfect parent or miraculously endowed with more patience than anyone else.

I’m an ordinary Jane who has three boys she loves to the moon, and who has spent some time caring for other people’s children through the foster system.

But people seem interested and fostering is an important part of my life, so here are a few things I’ve compiled. Since you asked.

1. Be prepared to say hello.

This might seem obvious, but it’s a curious experience to say hello to a child you will be taking into your home for an extended and usually uncertain period of time.

Sometimes, I pick kids up from a designated location, usually a government office. Sometimes a social worker brings a kid to my house. Regardless, I’m always surprised by the resilience of these little people. I’m amazed at how a child whose name I just learned and about whom I know next to nothing will look into my eyes and take my hand and walk out to my truck, without a second thought. Or, how a little one will show up on my doorstep and enter and ask what’s for supper, as if landing on strangers’ doorsteps with garbage bags full of their toys and clothes was the most common thing in the world.

The experience of meeting a new child always spins my head a bit.

To prepare, I try to have a room ready. A bed with clean sheets and an empty dresser waiting and if I know the name ahead of time, a little welcome sign on the wall. A happy  space, as much as possible, and some food for the belly, and that’s really about all I can do.

2. Be prepared to say goodbye.

Again, obvious, because most of the children who come into care will move on at some point. Back to mom or dad or grandma or the auntie that popped up on the radar.

I’ve had some good goodbyes (and by good I mean planned and thoughtful), and I’ve had some terrible goodbyes (and by terrible I mean last-minute and with no process in place to provide any kind of closure.)

The goodbyes are hard, no matter what. Occasionally, there is time to do it well. I had a little girl who left almost five years ago. Because we had notice, we had time to visit the coffee shop one last time, buy flowers for her teacher, say goodbye to the kids in her class. On the day she left, she and I walked around the farm, saying goodbye to the chickens and the kitties, and we packed her things together and we took some pictures.

It was still painful. She cried when they took her out of my arms and I could hear her sobbing as they drove out of my yard. It was still painful, but it was a clean kind of pain, because I knew I had done it the best way that I could.

Often, though, there isn’t much notice and little time. Those are the goodbyes that linger, unsettled, like a belly ache.

No matter the situation, the letting go is the hardest. It’s tough, knowing that this baby is headed out into a world in which I no longer have any control or influence.

But if we all shied away from the tough things, well, there wouldn’t be much left to do in this world.

3. Be prepared for some humiliation.

I don’t think I’d considered this, really, when I first started fostering, and it’s been a challenge for me, that’s for sure. But if you foster children, there will be some humiliation involved.

A kid will steal something, or run away, or swear in class, or say things about your family to strangers in the grocery store. And word might get out, and people might talk, and, surprise, not everyone will think fostering is a wonderful thing.

I was in a meeting one night, in a town forty minutes from my home, and I received a phone call from a strange woman saying she had picked up my foster daughter from the side of the road where she’d found her walking alone, late that night.

My boys had been babysitting and for some reason this little one got upset and left the house without anyone realizing. She was headed into town to find me(!) when this woman saw her and picked her up and took her to her house.

She said her brothers were beating her up, and she didn’t even know her phone number, the woman spat accusingly into the phone.

Of course she wouldn’t take my girl back to my house and of course she called the police. Thankfully, two of the social workers who’d been attending the meeting I’d been at came with me to the farm where my foster daughter was hanging out, happily eating ice cream and quite pleased about all the commotion she’d caused and the attention she was receiving.

I, however, was beyond humiliated. What would this woman say about us in our little community? What would she say about my boys? About my husband and I?

A little humiliation is part of the package. If you are going to foster, you need to be prepared for it.

4. Be prepared for people to think you are in it for the money.

People want to know what you make as a foster parent. Frankly, it’s about $.80 an hour. I figured it out, just for you. Unless you have a higher needs child who requires you to be involved in an above and beyond kind of way, like cleaning poo off your walls on a daily basis, or providing some kind of medically required intervention. If that’s the case, you might end up at about $1.30 an hour. Of course, this isn’t actually payment. It’s an amount out of which you buy the things the child needs, like food and clothes and maybe a pretty pink blanket for the new little one’s bed.

Yes, some people are in it for the money and their homes are overcrowded and there are kids in foster care who aren’t being loved or properly cared for. I’m sure that happens. If you are thinking about fostering, don’t do that. Seriously.

But if you are a friend of someone who fosters, please don’t assume that’s why they are doing it.

I once shared my excitement with a friend over receiving a bag of hand-me-down clothes for a foster child, and her response was along the lines of, but you get an allowance to buy them clothes, don’t you?

Yep, I do. But when I’m gifted with hand-me-downs, whether for one of my biological children or for a foster child, it helps me out.

People say lots of funny things, God love ’em. You gotta be prepared for that.

5. Be prepared for both full hearts and broken hearts.

Foster children might bless you with their love. They might hug your neck and whisper I love you in your ear and be sweet and adorable. Or they might not. Or they might, and then scream bloody murder when they can’t have ice cream for supper.

There might be sweet victories that warm your heart, and those are blessed moments. But the broken-ness in these little lives can be overwhelming, and as a foster parent you are the one who takes the brunt of it. Not the social worker, not the biological parent, and not the judge who’s making all those decisions that are affecting so many lives.

There was a film that popped up on social media a while ago. It was a beautiful film about a beautiful, blonde little girl who was apprehended and placed in a home with a woman whose patience and discernment eventually resulted in this young girl being reunited with her younger sibling. Lots of people sent me the link and asked what I thought about it.

Honestly, I wasn’t sure what I thought and I refrained from public comment at the time. Because, as I shared with one friend, I might wish to be as patient and wise and enduring as the foster mom in the movie, but the reality of it all, in my experience, is very different.

Most of my children have not been beautiful or blonde. Some of them have drooled or spit when they talked and some have had scars and more than one has had lice. And the reality is, I am not always patient and occasionally I struggle with discernment. And the other reality is, reunification with siblings can a hard thing. Often, siblings have different dads which means there are multiple families involved. It can be so complicated and there is so much dysfunction and unlike a movie, there is not always a happy ending.

6. Be prepared to struggle with your feelings.

Really. You will feel all the things. You will feel excitement, resignation, anger, disappointment, joy, concern, confusion. As much as you’d like to think otherwise, you will not love them like your own kids. You will love them differently, and you will learn that differently is not bad. And when that difficult child is moved, you will be shocked to feel a combination of sadness and relief.

7. Be prepared to take advantage of the “system” and be prepared to feel guilty when you do.

I have a little girl, barely three years old, right now. She is the most precious thing. I can hardly stop taking pictures of her, she is so beautiful and pink and sweet. I confess I’ve gone and fallen in love with her.

But one of the first things I did, after she arrived, was register her in PreK two mornings a week, and in daycare on those afternoons. I did that because I know I need that break. I need to know I have some time and space for myself and for my boys. And I feel guilty about that, but I am doing it anyway.

I’ve heard expressed, more than once, that foster parents are being paid to take care of these kids and they shouldn’t be plunking them into daycare. I always try to say, gently, that foster parents, unless they have some kind of support or respite, will burn out and leave the system.

If you are a foster parent, take advantage of whatever services are available to help you and your family stay healthy.

8. Be prepared to be an advocate.

These kids are vulnerable. They are part of a system that requires them to come and go, from home to home and from school to school, and they need someone on their side.

I’ve sat in meetings with school authorities and with social workers, advocating for what I felt was best for one of my kids. I’ve testified in court and I’ve sent emails to wherever you send emails when you disagree with a decision that has been made. Things don’t always work out like I’d like, but sometimes they do, and then the hassle is worth it.

9. Be prepared to both care about and dislike the biological family.

I’ve struggled with this, honestly. I am in the position of dealing with the fallout from these parents’ problems, and it impacts these kids I grow to love. I’ve always tried to be respectful when dealing with the moms and dads of the kids in my care. I’ve been angry with them, sure, but I’ve tried to be polite and respectful.

The truth is, their kids love them, and would choose them over me any day of the week.

10. Be prepared to wonder, often, if you are doing anything good or making any kind of difference.

I don’t know what to say, really. Time will tell.

Fostering is like most things, in that it is both a blessing and a burden. You can talk to people doing it, and read about it, and take the course the government makes you take, but you won’t really know how you’ll be with it all until you actually do it. If you are thinking about fostering and would like more information or if you have any questions, please leave a comment, or email me at janellerosss@yahoo.ca.

And if you are a foster parent, doing your very best today in the midst of hugs and kisses and tears and parent visits and paperwork… Bless you!

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