I have been a foster parent for over seven years, and had dozens of children come through my home. I am amazed at the people I meet that say, “I could never do that” or “it would be too hard” or “how can you give them back” or “I can’t have my heart broken over and over.” All of those statements are true. But I also want to let you into a world you may not have ever had a key to before. I know words aren’t much, and some of what you will read will repulse you, some will make you cry, and some will make you laugh. But it is a reality, and one that a majority of foster parents live in everyday.
When I took my training for foster care, it was hard. It brought up some things I have never thought of before. But once the class was done, the expectation overrode the reality of how hard it would be.
The first children that came into my home were teenagers, at least in body. But their minds were not fully matured, and their spirits were even less mature. Behind the “I hate you” glare that we would receive whenever a confrontation had to take place was a child that would cry when they thought no one was listening. Behind every “tough guy” image was a child that would beam with pleasure whenever he or she was paid a compliment. But behind those smiles also hid a darkness… a constant weight of understanding that your parents do not have you and, unfortunately for some, would never work to get you back.
Despite all the progress and milestones lay the fact that one visit from a biological parent could tarnish years of progress. I remember one time we had a little boy years ago and he was playing out in the yard. These two people walked by and he ran over to the fence and just watched them walk by. The male waved and the little boy waved back, then went back to playing. I asked him who that was and he said, “Oh, that was my parents.” He had not seen them in over two years at that point. The next day, that boy defecated on the floor of his room and hid under the dining room table, rocking back and forth and back and forth, and would not come out.
Then there are the babies, the little ones that steal your heart immediately. We took one little baby that we just loved to death. But let me clue you in to how “getting a child” works. Someone whom you may or may not know shows up at your door, and hands you a child. The child, more often than not, comes with a small sack of clothes (if anything at all) and, more often than not, those clothes are not gender appropriate or size appropriate. You are not told anything about their situation. You are not told what allergies they have or what formula they are used to or any of a thousand others things that parents learn about their own baby within the first week of their life. You are handed a baby, with all its little baby needs and baby concerns and baby fears, and nothing else. You are not given medical records or immunization records or anything like that. You sign a piece of paper that may or may not have the child’s actual birthday on it, and the person whom you may or may not know leaves and you are on your own.
That being said, we took this little baby. And then the crying started. For two solid hours. My wife and I have raised babies. We are not naïve. But it was two hours of solid crying followed by two hours of sleeping followed by two hours of solid crying followed by two hours of sleeping followed by two hours of solid crying… and by crying, I mean screaming at the top of its little baby lungs. No amount of holding would do. No amount of comforting would do. And this went on for six weeks straight. We ended up moving all the children to hide-a-beds in the living room, as our house back then had no interior insulation. And my wife and that baby fought it out upstairs. I watched the tension in the home escalate to a level where all the children were on edge, my wife was a literal walking zombie, and I was a walking frustration bomb. After six weeks of our lives being completely turned upside down, my wife and I made the hardest decision of our lives: to give the child back to the social workers. When the social worker came over, and in spite of my wife’s tears, she said, “Well, since you don’t want her I am going to drive around town and hold her out the window by one leg and wait till someone takes her or till she falls.” And that, fellow readers, is the support one receives. We found out later that the little baby was a meth baby. Not only were my wife and I not prepared or equipped to handle such a situation, but trying to comfort a baby that cannot be comforted is one of the most frustrating things that you can do.
At one point in time, my wife and I had 11 foster children and 1 biological child. I was finishing my senior year of college, our son was homeschooled, and my wife was pregnant with triplets. It was during this time that some of the hardest years of my life occurred. We had an 18 month old (the same baby we have earlier that we had to return), two 3 year olds, a 4 year old, a five year old, a seven year old, 2 eight year olds, a nine year old, 2 ten year olds, and a 13 year old. I know what you are thinking… “Why didn’t you take a few more?” And we wondered that ourselves. We never planned on being in that situation. We never planned on having so many children that haircuts took all day; our food trips were 3-4 carts at Costco every week or ten days (and everyone staring at us all the time…), and when you were mad and called the wrong name it took you so long to get to the right name that you not only forgot why you were mad but who you were mad at to begin with!
Between the toddler still not sleeping all the way through the night, one of the children having such horrible night terrors that our computers wound up being the unfortunate “urinal” for that horrible nightmare, my wife being so sick that there were some days she actually looked green, there was all the other stuff… the “I am addicted to caffeine so I am stealing tea bags to suck on through the night, and therefore not sleeping” stuff to the “I stole your calcium chews without you knowing and was constipated for 7 days and the inevitable plugging of the toilet that occurred once everything worked again” to the “I broke my glasses, and his glasses, and her glasses” to the “I don’t want to use toilet paper because toilet paper is gross” to the “I am going to set the world record for the most lies told in a day… a week… a month…” to the “even though you saw me slam the dog on the floor and hurt her there isn’t anything you can do about it,” you know, the normal parent stuff. And then my wife and I found out that we lost two of our triplets… the two that were identical twins.
It was also this time that the looks started. The “whispers” in certain circles started. And we understood that the hardest part of doing foster care would be the misunderstanding and judgment of others. We tried as hard as we could to be great parents to broken, hurting, independently dependent children. We took the brunt of their hatred, their accusations, their anger at life and their real parents that could only be expressed to those who were there, which happened to be us. We took the lying and the stealing and the manipulation. We took the poor grades and the “you’re not my mom/dad” to the cheating and fights at school. We took the expulsions, the tears, the throw up, and the frustration. But the hardest thing to take was walking somewhere with all our kids in tow and seeing the scales in peoples’ eyes. And we knew that we were found wanting. We knew that we weren’t perfect parents, and that most of the time, we weren’t even good parents. We knew that each of those children deserved their own parents, their own room, their own clothes, their own toys, and their own happiness. Of all the people that weighed us against some idea of what parents should be, my wife and I were the best. We knew every time we failed. We knew every time that we put so much hope into trying something new to make our children happy or trying something new to alleviate this issue or that issue and it failed… we knew. We knew it in the added frustration we felt. We knew it in the eyes of the children that knew we had tried something again that failed miserably.
And we knew it in the eyes of the social workers when again, we had to let them know that we had too many children and that it was just too much.
And we knew it when the safety of our children was compromised by a child in the home. A situation that was never even thought of, never even considered, became an immediate, horrible reality. And once again, we wore that failure and that shame.
It is easy to look at a mother with five children in tow, whose hair might be messed up and whose clothes might be a little too big or two small and judge her. It is easy to see a child who has a dirty face and look at the mom or the dad and think, “I did better with my kids.”
I do not write any of this to somehow make our experiences out to be the worst out there… they are not even close. I have heard stories from other foster parents and know that we have been spared much in our endeavors. And I am not naïve enough to think that parents tell the worst of the stories they have; they don’t. Which means that as bad as the worst of it is that I have heard, it is even worse in reality. I just write this to let people know how it really is.
My wife and I are still doing foster care. But there isn’t a day that goes by that we don’t wish we could have a majority of the last seven years back to “do it better” than we did that day. And the day before that, and the day before that.
There are the days when an old picture will surface of children from years past, and if the tears don’t fall, the silence does. A silence that begs the questions, “Where are they now? Are they safe? I wonder if they look the same? I wonder if they even remember me at all?”
I have learned so much in the last seven years, but so much of it is not “nice and pretty” but “messy and gross.” I learned that anytime you get involved in the life of someone else, it is gonna be a mess, especially when you get involved to help broken people. And that is okay. I learned that all the standards that are set before an adventure begins should never be the deciding factor on whether that endeavor is a success of a failure. A smile, as normal as it might be for some, could be the only sign of success in the life of a foster child. A day where a child looks you in the eyes could be a sign of success. Or maybe, just knowing that they were fed, clothed, and that you loved them that day when no one else did is a success.
I do not write this for pity or for sympathy. No one made me become a foster parent and no one is making me stay a foster parent. I write this for all the foster parents that wonder if what they are doing is worth it, and for those that try and try and try and seem to fall further and further and further from the expectations they had when they started. I write this for the foster parents that have children that do not respond to anything you do or try, and simply offer these words: the fact that you are trying is enough.
I write this to all the foster parents that feel ashamed and unworthy and that don’t measure up to other people’s standards. I simply say this: you are not doing what other people are doing.
I write this to the husband and wife that are fighting each other in the midst of helping others, even though it is the last thing they want to do: you are better together and the love shown to each other from each other will be seen by those who need to see what true love is.
And I write this to all the foster parents out there that have seen the looks and felt the failure in the eyes of others: your reward is not in the eyes of others, but in the eyes of our Heavenly Father; when Jesus ate with sinners, He was judged… but He was also doing the will of His Father.
I cannot say that the last seven years of my life have been full of awesomeness and amazement. But they have been where grace met brokenness, in all the mess that it entailed. I can say that it is where two people trying to heal broken children became broken children in the arms of their Father. And I can say that it is where I realized that helping others always comes with a price… and that price is always worth it.
To all you out there that might read this and become foster parents or already are foster parents, you are my heroes. You are my inspiration.
Heavenly Father, as you look upon Your children, I pray that You would reach into the hearts, minds, and spirits of all the foster parents that are out there, and that Your grace and Your Spirit would fall upon them. I pray for renewed strength, vision, and empowerment. I pray that You would meet every need, not only for the foster parents but for their children as well. And I pray that you would allow these heroes, these who are helping the least of us, and these who are being Your hands and feet to be seen by others with Your eyes. In Jesus’ name, I pray. Amen.
Keep on keeping on! You might just be changing the world; and if you aren’t, you are changing a child’s world… and that is pretty much the same thing.
This is a brief overview of our time doing foster care. One day I may write a book… but I have never seen a twenty-thousand page book. So, I don’t know…