Dear Foster Mom: It’s OK To Struggle Bonding With Your Child

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Preparing For Foster Care

“When we started fostering eight months ago, I had all these intentions of writing weekly posts and giving the messy, behind-the-scenes look into foster care. But not long into our first placement, every time I went to write, I’d just stare at a blank screen, beginning sentences just to erase them a second later.

And it didn’t take long for me to just fall silent and completely stop sharing all that was happening inside the walls of our home.

But it wasn’t because fostering was worse than I thought it would be. It’s that I was different from how I thought I would be. Before getting licensed, I spent months scouring through resources from other foster parents. I read blogs and books, listened to countless podcasts, and interviewed different foster parents I knew personally.

Over and over, there was one theme that seemed to be every foster parent’s main struggle—the art of attaching and loving deeply…but having to grieve and let go when it was time to say goodbye.

I kept waiting for parenting through trauma behaviors or struggling to connect with each child to be at the top of the list. But loving them ‘too much?’ That sounded pretty glorious to me.

Foster couple hugging and smiling at the beach
Courtesy of Emily Creswell

I’m the kind of person who loves holding two strong emotions at once (hello, fellow Enneagram fours). So, deep love with the risk of immense loss? Yeah, I could do that. In fact, I could revel in the mission and beauty of that.

I was so ready to jump in and attach well. And I was more than willing to grieve and surrender the hard goodbye. But the night we received the call for a 3-year-old little boy, all my cute expectations of the type of foster mom I’d be crumbled to the ground.

Our First Foster Care Placement

First, I really pictured us being placed with an older girl. I guess in my mind, a girl was the perfect candidate to work my ‘4 magic’ on. I had these imaginings of us sitting on the bed together and working through all her messy emotions. Bonding, connecting, and getting attached.

But alas, the door opened, and in rushed a mini whirlwind of a toddler, bounding through our house like it was Disneyland.

Within seconds, he had touched almost everything within reach, had thrown books off the shelves, and was chasing our dog around the couch, screaming. Honestly, as I watched this little creature jump around the living room, hollering with wild excitement, my first thought was, ‘Well, this is not going to work…’

Where was the quiet, shy, terrified child who was supposed to be crying in the corner the first night of placement? Where was my connecting moment of offering a hug, or showing them where the snacks were kept, or where their room was?

This child wouldn’t even stop to breathe…he’d already injured himself twice from running headfirst into the countertop.

As I sat at the kitchen table that night, signing papers with the caseworkers, I watched him ping pong loudly through the house. And suddenly, I started to get the feeling that my ‘super-power’ of being able to attach deeply and let go wouldn’t be the shining star in this story. In fact, I began to think, what if I couldn’t attach to this child at all?

The months passed, and we slowly found our rhythm with ‘Little Tigger’ (as we came to call him). We started seeing lots of healing take place in his heart, allowing him to also make strides where he had been lacking developmentally. It really was amazing and humbling to be a part of. And I really wanted the story to end there.

Foster mom hugging foster child
Courtesy of Emily Creswell

Struggling To Connect With Our Foster Child

After months of working through trauma behaviors and learning how to parent him, I was ready for the neatly wrapped up ending. Something like, ‘…he just continued to grow and heal, and we grew to love him more and more…’ But that didn’t happen.

In fact, as he stabilized and grew into his ‘true self,’ I found myself struggling more and more to connect and attach to him.

To be completely blunt, many of his behaviors completely drove me up a wall and spiked my stress levels constantly. I could write an entirely different post on all the factors that made connecting with him so challenging for me, but I won’t.

I’ll just say that a lot of it had to do with the differences in how his brain was/is wired (there were layers of challenging ‘stuff’ that went way beyond trauma).

Countless mornings, I’d lay in bed, hearing him in the kitchen with Cory, and a heavy, crushing dread would overwhelm me. I’d slowly go through my morning routine, begging the Lord for strength…knowing full well the battles I’d be stepping into once I was alone with him.

As the months passed, anger became my default emotion. I was angry at our messy life, at how I couldn’t fully help him (or myself), and by the constant stress we had grown accustomed to. But I was angry at myself most of all.

How could I have absolutely no ‘natural’ love towards this child? And why was each moment of the day spent with such a war inside my heart?

Around this time, we also found out I was pregnant. And suddenly, what was hard before became near to impossible. At once, I realized I had an instant bond with a child I hadn’t even met…and absolutely no bond with the one I was actually parenting.

I could go on and give more details of all that season entailed. But I’ll wrap things up and say this: It took a lot of counseling and prayer to break into the mess I became entangled in.

foster dad smiling while holding foster child
Courtesy of Emily Creswell

I’d love to say that the Lord changed my heart towards Tigger in a way that made my days a whole lot easier. After all, parenting out of overflowing love and connection makes the journey way more ‘enjoyable.’ But I was taught (and am still being taught) something deeper than that type of love.

I also learned a little of what it looks like to love through actions instead of feelings. I, of course, never did this perfectly or consistently. I’d have good days and bad ones, where I’d swing from depending on the Holy Spirit for patience and endurance. But it’s made me that much more thankful.

Loving Unconditionally

Finally, I’ve come to see that it is okay to have no natural bond/attachment as a foster parent. But that doesn’t mean we stop fighting for it. We all know that love is not a feeling but an action and a decision to put another person above ourselves. And we, as fallen humans, have to learn that in probably every relationship we’re in.

But I have never had to put it into practice more than this past season as a foster mom. I think fostering is one of the most unnatural things we could ever do.

After all, we were created as moms (and dads) to try to attach to our child from the moment we first see two lines on a pregnancy test. As moms, we then have nine months of preparing for, bonding, and loving the baby that’s being knit inside of us. And every sleepless night, every snuggle, every tiny moment spent nurturing that baby after it’s born continues to knit our hearts together in a supernatural way.

Foster parents holding adoptive daughter at the beach
Courtesy of Emily Creswell

It’s from there, we slowly grow into the more demanding parts of parenthood…when that baby grows into an independent toddler who pushes boundaries. Or when the four-year-old morphs into a master manipulator. When the teen rebels.

Whatever challenges each stage of growing up brings, we as parents have the foundation of connection to help motivate ourselves to keep loving and to keep giving.

I’m by no means saying it is easy. Parenting is a high calling and one of the most self-sacrificial things we could do. But I think there’s a reason, God, in His grace, designed it the way He did, with years of pretty ‘easy love’ to get us started.

But for foster parents, the people who step in and attach to children who ‘didn’t come from them,’ who choose to love when it sometimes feels like the most impossible thing to do.

I’ve come to see that it is quite literally a supernatural act…that no amount of gifting or type of ‘super-power’ can get you through. But still, what a beautiful way to die to let God and faithfully love. No matter what.”

Adoptive parents sitting with their adoptive daughter while holding a foster license
Courtesy of Emily Creswell

This story was submitted to Love What Matters by Emily Creswell. You can follow her journey on Instagram and on her blog. Submit your own story here. 

Read more about foster care:

‘Going from no living children to 3 in 3 years was… a LOT. But I’m so grateful.’: Couple welcome rainbow babies, foster care adoption after heartbreaking loss

‘Placement needed after all, kids are on the way. We’ll be there in 20 minutes.’: Couple shares foster care journey with sibling sets, teens, reunifications

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