You wouldn’t jump into the deep end of the pool if you didn’t know how to swim. Similarly, becoming a foster parent is not a decision you want to make a whim. It is a major decision that has the potential to significantly alter the course of your life—more than you can anticipate.
As amazing as it is to be a foster family, it comes with its throes and its woes. It is a monumental calling—an undertaking that will overwhelm you with exhaustion and frustration and joy. Willingly, you will inconvenience yourself by inviting the suffering of others into your heart and home. Like the hypertrophy of a muscle, your heart will be painfully stretched and ripped apart, but—as a result—it will be enlarged in ways you never thought possible. For a calling so daunting and exciting, it is essential that your family makes the appropriate preparations. Proverbs 24:3-4 says, “By wisdom a house is built, and by understanding it is established; by knowledge the rooms are filled with all precious and pleasant riches.” Your desires may be noble, but your expectations could be misguided.
I believe all families should at least consider foster care. The need is that great! There is no shame in eventually coming to realize it’s not for you. There are good reasons to say no. And we can all do something; we don’t all need to do the same thing. Your desire to be involved is admirable. Contrary to the grain of the American Dream, you desire to fill the rooms of your home with precious treasures of inestimable value. But you must pursue this calling with wisdom, understanding, and knowledge. There is another proverb which says, “Desire without knowledge is not good, and whoever makes haste with his feet misses his way” (Prov. 19:2). The hard work put into preparation on the forefront will serve you well in the long run. Rather than a 100 meter sprint, foster care is more like a long, arduous journey with an unclear destination.
Establish a Vision
First, you must determine the reason you desire to be a foster family and the goals that you have. Without a vision, you are setting your family up to struggle and potentially fail. Initially the why will be more vital than the what and the how. Do you desire to support families? Care for women and mothers? Reunify families? Serve the community? Are you trying to live out your pro-life ethic? Do you simply love children? Are you trying to adopt? What do you hope to have accomplished 5 years from now? To have adopted? To have cared for 5 different children? Or to simply have been faithful with what God has entrusted to you?
Maybe your answer includes many or all of these reasons and goals. Maybe you’re not exactly sure and you simply desire to serve in whatever way God will use you. But what is vital—at this point—is that you clarify why you are becoming a foster family. The potential variables you will face are innumerable. Vision is greater than sight. It will anchor you down—keeping your head straight, your emotions stable, and your goals clear—in the face of any storm.
In my home, we desired to adopt a little girl. That was our end goal. It wasn’t plan B for growing our family. It wasn’t that we were against reunification. Motivated to live out a holistic pro-life ethic, in a county that is notorious for being over-flooded, we simply desired to foster a newborn baby girl and to adopt her into our family if possible. Being realistic, we knew we probably wouldn’t adopt our first placement, but that was our vision and our mission. And that is what we communicated to our children, family members, and all those who asked us about our motivations. An overarching vision is essential to your involvement in foster care as it will serve as your stable foundation for the ensuing turbulent process. Yours will be different than ours, but you must have one.
Count the Cost
Rarely do our expectations line up with reality. Without experience, this is simply inevitable. When considering foster care, there is a tendency to lean into a careless romanticism or an over-analytical fatalism. You’ve talked to other foster families. You’ve heard incredible stories of beautiful, seemingly effortless adoptions. You’ve also heard stories that make you angry and sick to your stomach. But no two stories are identical. Every family, every child, every case, every adoption is different. Your experience will not be exactly as another’s—whether good or bad. You need to safeguard against the pull toward hyper-positivity and hyper-negativity.
After forming a vision, you must count the cost. There is a high cost and you must be realistic about it. You must consider all the possible scenarios. Your first placement could have intense behavioral issues. You could get involved with a difficult family. You could become attached to a child who will eventually be reunified with their parents. An adoption could take 4 years (as in my family’s case). You have no idea how it will go. Again, the variables are innumerable. You need to weigh the risks and take an inventory of potential problems and situations. How will you respond to each scenario? Let your vision guide your response and motivate you to press on in the midst of tempestuous circumstances.
The cost will come in many forms—financial, mental, spiritual, emotional, physical. You may lose your savings, your sleep, your schedule, your freedom, your sanity, your comfort, your privacy, your life as you know it. When you become a foster family, these costs will be borne by your whole family—your spouse, your children, your extended family, and friends. But so will the joys. All good things come at a cost. And oftentimes the greater the good, the greater the cost. Don’t consider foster care with romantic or fatalistic assumptions, but with a realistic optimism. Attempt great things; expect great things. Risk is a necessary to accomplish your vision. The rewards may not be as straightforward as you think. You don’t get to decide. And there are no guarantees. As you begin your training, you will be warned not to have any expectations. But you can expect there to be high cost. And you can expect it to be worth it.
With a clear vision and realistic expectations, you must attempt to build unity within your family. The hardships you will face have the potential to bring conflict into your home—to pit the members of your family against each other. Your husband may not feel comfortable with a certain situation you are excited about. Your wife might be overwhelmed with the busywork and the constant visits from social workers while you’re at work. Your children may not want to share their toys, their room, or their parents any more. Your extended family might think you are making a big mistake. All of this and more will cause division and be a temptation to give up.
If your family is going to even attempt to carry out your mission, you must all understand what’s at stake and all be bought into the vision. If a stranger asked you why you decided to be a foster parent, what would you say? If a friend asked your child why they are a foster family, how would they respond? Would your answers line up? Are you on the same page—the same wavelength? You should be. This is a necessary step you cannot afford to bypass.
As a family, you must have the same values and commitments. In order to be an effective foster family, you must have a shared vision and a common mission. The only way to get here is to communicate and over-communicate that vision. Then talk to seasoned foster families and those who have adopted. Listen to their stories. Sit down with a social worker from a Foster Family Agency. Walk your family through various positive and negative scenarios. Talk about trials you’ll face and your plan to push through them. My children were young (6, 5, and 4) when we began the process. But had you asked them our why, they each would have answered, “Because we want to care for a baby girl.”
Commit to Grit
Commitment is the key to longterm success. In foster care, you do not have the luxury of expectations. Again, there are no guarantees. Bringing another person—especially an unknown child and all their trauma—into your home is always risky and comes at a high cost. Caring for them requires empathy, vulnerability, sacrifice, and resolve. The costs are monumental, but not detrimental. The task is formidable, but not insurmountable. As the trials begin to tower over you, you must resolve not to cower in their presence. The trauma you will experience will not compare with that of the abused child. Others who have gone before you have been where you are going. Your heart is adaptable. Little by little, you too will grow in your ability to persevere and will trudge through the difficulty with joy knowing it is worth it.
You may care for the most difficult child. You may have to deal with the most unreasonable parent. You may be separated from a child you have grown attached to—who has grown attached to you. You might help a struggling family reunify. You might adopt. You might deal with long-term developmental and behavioral issues after adoption. Regardless of the outcome, you may very well be on the path to the most daunting experience your family has ever been through. I’ve moved my young family of 5 across the country from NH to CA. We’ve been through the rigorous seminary life together while I worked nights and had a very low income in an expensive area. But foster care has been harder than both of these. And it has been more rewarding.
To be effective—in order to serve the community, support families, care for children, help them overcome various developmental setbacks, and/or adopt a child into your family—you must be willing to suffer and suffer long. If you haven’t formed a vision, counted the cost, and fostered unity, you will be tempted to throw in the towel when things get hard. But if you have done these things, you and your family will be ready to meet all challenges head on. You will be prepared to make a difference in the world, one life at a time.
Just as you wouldn’t jump into the deep end of the pool untrained, you don’t want to pursue foster care naïve and underprepared. Preparing your family well—with wisdom and understanding and knowledge—will preserve you from hastily getting yourself into a bad situation. Foster care is as exhausting as treading water but you should safeguard against drowning in the deep end. Slow down and take the time to prepare yourself and your family.
This is the second installment in a series about foster care and adoption. Check out the first post What Is the Purpose of Foster Care?