10 Things I Wish I Knew Before Becoming a Foster Parent

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I’ve been a foster parent since 2019. I’m currently a wife to Heather and a mom to our 2 and 5-year-old sons, who are currently heading towards adoption and a permanent place in our home. We are currently still licensed and open in our state where we often have respite placements. Respite is short-term care, usually lasting 1 to 10 days. Normally respite happens over a weekend or during the week when another foster family has engagements where their foster children cannot attend. Think work trips or short notice out-of-state travel!

Since opening our home, we have cared for roughly a dozen kids, ages 1-17, and periods of time ranging from one night to 18 months! In our journey to open our home and our hearts, I failed to find true, honest, and comforting resources to show me what I could expect for our future. Every site I came across offered me outdated or inaccurate information. On top of that, it was hard to find foster parents to answer my deep questions. So here I am, closing the information gap and lifting the veil into what daily life is like for us.

1. There is never a perfect time to start your journey.

You can always find an excuse. You can always find an obstacle to change your mind. We were waiting for more savings, a bigger home, a bigger car, etc. Let me help you with this one. Children in foster care can’t wait for a convenient time to enter the system. The perfect time frame doesn’t exist for them or for you. No matter how prepared you think you are, it will never be enough. We prepared for MONTHS to take in teen boys and that is exactly what we did. Teen boys and more teen boys and more teen boys. We had basketballs, footballs, mountains of deodorant and other teen-centered hygiene items, extra teen clothes, and a gym membership. Then late one night, we got a call for two toddlers and our life was truly turned upside down. And that brings me to my next point.

2. What you think you want and what you decide to take on will be VASTLY DIFFERENT.

When my wife and I dove into foster care, we made a list of the things we were looking for in a potential placement. No, we didn’t sit and make a wish list of things like blue eyes and brown hair. More like… 13 to 17, in our geographical area, attending public school, okay with having dogs for pets. Teen boys are grossly underserved in foster care and we wanted to help where we were going to be most needed. I also loved the idea of having self-sufficient kids who could communicate with us and participate in our family dynamic. However, there were different plans for us, and a few months in, we were contacted about taking our sons as a permanent placement and our list went completely out the window to make allowances for our toddlers. Enter copious amounts of baby toys, toddler books, and cribs. It was a culture shock and nothing could’ve prepared us for it.

3. You will quickly realize NOTHING you learn in training can prepare you for battles in the trenches and you will need more professionals than you realize.

A few months after we accepted the placement of our two toddlers, I called our caseworker in tears. I was overwhelmed and exhausted. I felt like I couldn’t be everything my children needed me to be. I felt like I was failing them and myself. There was no peace in our house. Nothing I did made them happy and I just needed someone to tell me things were going to be fine. And she did. We immediately started play therapy and learned coping skills, de-escalation strategies, and emotion management. I, alongside my 3-year-old son, attended every therapy session together, and there is where we built a bridge to understanding. I didn’t learn how to help him in training classes but I was willing to put in the extra work. A willingness to do the hard things and to keep persevering when it feels impossible is needed when becoming a foster parent. We attended weekly play therapy sessions, tri-weekly in-home therapy, and had multiple services outside our home for the first 6 months. Our schedule was very busy. However, that time was a crucial part of mending our boys and bringing peace to our family.

4. Children in foster care aren’t broken.

They aren’t unfixable. They are just kids. Kids who are sometimes dealing with unimaginable circumstances. They face insurmountable circumstances at times and with that comes great responsibility from us as parents. Responsibility to protect them, to teach them boundaries, to respect their individuality, to be compassionate, to listen when they speak, and to nurture their gifts. You will be called to advocate for them in court, at school, and sometimes, in their community. This can be difficult because hurt kids can face challenges with putting trust into you because many times, adults have failed them and they come to expect less of the parental figures in their lives. Do you know what they need in moments like these? Compassion and time. Showing up on the hard days. Taking them for Taco Bell when they break curfew by 20 minutes instead of sending them to their room, grounded. Letting them experience love and normalcy in the chaos.

5. You NEED other foster parents around you.

Dive deep into your foster parent training group. Make friends. Join Facebook groups. Meet for Zoom coffee. Ask questions. Get to know your training staff. Start a Parents-Night-Out group. Attend any event hosted by your foster agency or county DCS office. Do whatever you can to place yourself in a group of trusted people who understand what you’re going through. Traditional parents will not understand the nuances of foster care and sometimes you just need a good cry with someone who doesn’t need you to stop your story to explain TPR, CASA, GAL, CFTM, DCS, ICPC, NAS… etc. because they already know. You will need people who can help you sort your thoughts and keep you calm when you feel like your child is being marginalized or isn’t being advocated for. You will need other parents who practice Trauma-Informed Parenting and who understand who you aren’t taking screen time away from your child that just had a meltdown in the grocery store. They will just get it without judgment and that is an integral part of your network.

6. You will grieve and experience loss in ways you never would’ve imagined.

Whether you grieve your life before foster care or the children that come and go. Or maybe you grieve the children who will be with you for the long haul; you have to allow yourself to have space for those emotions. I’ve gone through many stages of grief for my sons and recently, as my oldest has turned 5, I often find myself staring at him as he sleeps. It is sometimes as if I’m watching the small window of toddlerhood I had with him slip through my fingers and that is a lot to emotionally manage. I’ve also experienced guilt in not being there for him and his brother sooner. I’ve experienced loss from placements that have left our home. It leaves you dumbfounded and the emotional whiplash is more than I ever thought I could manage. For the season they were with us, we were important and irreplaceable in their development. Sometimes placement isn’t designed to last forever. That brings me to a very important factor in foster care.

7. Reunification is the goal. Always.

Do adoptions happen? Absolutely. Are they a last resort? Absolutely. Children and families involved in the foster care system desperately need someone to stand in the gap while biological parents learn tools and skills to stand up and bring their family together. Biological parents are as much a part of this process as foster parents are. Building a solid foundation and supporting a biological parent in their reunification goal is a selfless act that all foster parents should be willing to participate in. Biological parents can and often do provide irreplaceable resources for foster families and creating a bond with them is something that can last long after kids exit care and return home. I’ve seen this play out on multiple occasions. Can you imagine being the reason a biological mom is able to provide a safe, loving, and secure home for her children? It’s a priceless gift surrounded by selflessness, gratitude, and compassion.

8. You will get VERY tired of a few phrases.

Number one: ‘I could never do that, I would get too attached.’ This one especially stings for me because I cannot imagine a circumstance in which I love my boys more than I already do. Becoming attached is the sole purpose of being a foster parent. What Kind of parent would I be if I weren’t?

Another personal favorite of mine? ‘You’re a superhero.’ Um, no ma’am. I’m just a mom that recognizes a need. I have space to offer help with that need. I’m a regular person, just like you. I get overwhelmed, I cry, I call my mom, I text caseworker, I get frustrated, sometimes I even raise my voice. This calling isn’t for heroes or special people. It’s for any of us willing to pull up a chair and listen to these kids long enough to do something for them.

9. These kids aren’t just their paperwork.

In my state, before accepting a placement, short or long term, you get forms with a little bit of background history. It lists ‘known behaviors’ and those behaviors often stick with kids through the duration of their time in care. That means if you punch your foster mom at 7 years old, that information is still part of your record at 13. Can you imagine how difficult that is? Papers hanging around your existence like a chain around your neck? The system at times is unfair, yet unwavering in its policies, thus creating an environment where kids are not trusted or generalized without even having the opportunity to be taken for face value. Do yourself a favor and ask questions about their history. Ask for dates. Ask for circumstances. Ask for information about RIGHT NOW. Some of our best kids have terrible paperwork and we have loved them like their paperwork didn’t exist.

10. This calling will be the hardest thing you ever answer, but you going to be the difference.

I often look at my small sons and wonder where they would be if I had listened to the doubt in my head back in 2019. I wonder if they would be as loved as they are. I wonder if our 2-year-old would still like mushrooms and if our 5-year-old would love crafts as much as he does. I wonder if they would have discovered their obsession with play-doh or if a different set of parents would have disrupted when things got really hard that first November. But I never have to ponder for long because right now they are sleeping safe and soundly in their beds simply because I said yes and jumped into the deep end to bring them home. There are days I ask myself if I’m good enough or patient enough or compassionate enough. But the truth is none of it matters because I LOVE THEM enough. And THAT makes the difference.

This story was submitted to Love What Matters by Sarah E. Fields from Cleveland, TN. You can follow their journey on Instagram. Do you have a similar experience? We’d like to hear your important journey. Submit your own story here. 

Read more from Sarah here:

‘His feet were bare and his toenails were broken on every single toe. He looked at me with tears in his eyes and said, ‘Mama?’: Couple fosters brothers, ‘I knew these were my sons’

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