I recently stumbled on this blog that I wrote at the beginning of 2016 when we were still a licensed foster home and the vision for Foster Village was starting to come to life. It still rings true today as we have the opportunity to walk alongside hundreds of foster families echoing the same things.
The complex dynamics of foster care and adoption look different in every family, but there are common themes we all struggle with. Most people don’t understand these struggles because they don’t have to deal with them every day. Yet foster and adoptive parents rarely have the opportunity to explain these challenges in an honest, tactful, and sensitive way.
Opening up the lines of communication between traditional and non-traditional families is perhaps the best way to stay informed and compassionate. In doing so, we can protect the little hearts who often overhear grown up conversations that can have a huge impact on their developing identities and self-worth.
So here are some of the most common things most foster and adoptive parents wish everyone around us knew.
- We are not saints. When well-meaning folks shower us with praise and paint a picture of us being heroes for fostering and/or adopting, it only reminds us of just how very not heroic and saint-like we are. As it turns out, there are few things as humbling and pride-crushing as foster care and adoption. They have a way of showing us all of the areas where we fall short. So when others put us on a pedestal, we feel like frauds. In reality, we are simply broken people who answered a call God put on our life. We’re just doing the hard work one day at a time — some days limping and some days nailing it.
- Our children aren’t “lucky”. Our children are precious and treasured gifts God so intentionally and lovingly created and entrusted to us. They have experienced trauma — whether at birth or later in life, separation from families of origin is traumatic regardless of the circumstances. When they hear people say they are “lucky” to have landed in our homes, it sends the message they should feel grateful and indebted to us. Instead, they need to hear they have always been loved and valued, and we are lucky for having them in our lives.
- Your words matter. It can be hard to know what is and isn’t offensive to say when talking to foster and adoptive families. It’s our responsibility to assume people have the best intentions and don’t mean to offend. However, when people say things like “what happened to his real mom?” and “where did you get her from?”, it can undermine and confuse everything we are trying to instill in these tender little hearts. It is so helpful when people educate themselves on sensitive wording and speak with an empathetic filter. Tactfully ask foster and adoptive parents about the language they use in their homes, read articles and books about it, and be cognizant of the words you use when talking about tricky subjects like birth families and a child’s history. Also, keep in mind that some details of our children’s stories simply aren’t ours to share. Probing for juicy tidbits threatens the dignity and privacy of these children we are working to make feel safe and protected.
- We feel alone. Foster care and adoption can feel extremely isolating. We walk through muddy, uncharted water most days, and it can be hard to relate in most social settings. The differences in how we came to be a family set us all apart, and at home, we deal with a revolving door of visitors, unpredictable expectations, and hard behaviors because of our children’s trauma history. While we’re so thankful for the opportunity to love them, we always need to put ourselves in our child’s shoes in every new situation. Our hearts are in a fierce game of emotional ping-pong as we sort through the mourning, rejoicing, exhaustion, confusion, gratitude, and grief that come with the territory of foster care and adoption. When friends and family are willing to sit in the discomfort alongside us, it is the most encouraging and empowering gift.
- Our parenting may look different (for good reasons). It may seem like we’re giving in, being too strict, or not discipling our children enough, but we’re working hard at establishing trust and connection with them, which matters so much more than being “well behaved”. Without trust and connection, our children cannot thrive. Having a well-disciplined child who cannot relate, connect, or bond with others would be tragic.
Our parenting style may not make sense through the lens of raising children who haven’t experienced trauma, but research teaches us that children who come to families through adoption and foster care have different needs than their peers. When folks recognize this without judgement, it creates a safe space for us to be the best parent our little ones need, no matter how backward our approach seems.
While foster care and adoption are not for everyone, we all have a responsibility to be a part of the village for the next generation. If our culture has a better understanding and willingness to learn, we are one step closer to being that united village for all our children.