“I could never do what you do.” I could not even begin to imagine how many times I’ve heard this, said this, and felt this. It is the single most-used line in conversations surrounding foster care adoption. It is real. It’s called fear. Doubt. But you can do it. It is possible. If you choose not to, that’s fine. It’s possible that foster care adoption is not your calling. For us, it was basic. We wanted more children. Our oldest son was approaching an age that we felt we needed to have more children soon or consider the possibility of him being an only child.
I knew going into foster care adoption that it wouldn’t be easy. I sat on the sidelines and watched my friends parent children from foster care. I had judged them quietly when they shared their struggles with me, and I had vowed that I would NEVER put our family in that situation. Man, I was naïve, rude, and sad. A few years later, we jumped in feet first, ill-prepared, and oblivious to the heartache it would bring us. At this point, you may be wondering why anyone would sign up for heartache. Let me tell you why. It’s pure and simple. The joy. I often tell people that our second son’s adoption happened quickly, but the love and the bonding took a lot more time. With our daughter, who arrived 367 days later, the opposite was true. The bond and love were much quicker, the adoption took an eternity.
After our second child came home, we were asked daily, “How’s it going?” Some days the answer was, “It’s great” and other days it was simply, “It’s hard.” When I would answer in the latter, I was met with the looks of pity, and the, “I’m sorry.” Why? There are many things in life that are hard. For some people, simply getting out of bed in the morning is hard. That’s for real. Seriously. To be serious for a moment, things can be hard and good. There’s a cultural expectation that in order to be good it must not cause stress, or heartache, or be “hard” in any way. That’s categorically wrong. Foster care adoption is hard. It’s hard for the parents losing their children, it’s hard for the adopting parents, it’s hard for the families of both sets of parents, but mostly, it is really hard for the child.
So, let’s address this. Foster care adoption can be extremely difficult. It can be hard when you bond with and love a child and that child is reunified with her parents. That can be life-changing and wonderful for that child and biological parent. It can also be wonderful for you. Perhaps you expanded the love of that child, or children, to include their biological parents. So many times, these parents have not been shown the love they needed, they have not been taught what real love and family looks like. They have been pawned off on anyone that would take them. They suffer from chemical addiction or mental illness. Love them. Show them grace, respect, and love. It will most definitely change you and will also very likely change them.
I once feared our children’s first parents. I did. In my mind, they were evil people who hurt their children in ways I could not imagine. What I came to realize through our foster care adoptions is that they are damaged. When you feel unloved, disposable, and of little worth, it’s hard to love anyone else, including your own child. That does not make things right. But simply removing children from these parents doesn’t solve the issue. I know, firsthand, how resistant some of these parents are to help and change. It certainly doesn’t make things easier. But I also know that by reaching out, even though we were told not to, we changed the trajectory of one of our birth mother’s lives. Does that mean she doesn’t still struggle? Nope. She struggles a lot. But now, she also succeeds. And that is where we know that relationship and support matter.
Don’t get me wrong. Relationships with biological parents take time. It’s not always easy, and it is not always a good or safe choice. Listen to their history, listen to their social workers/therapists, and listen to your gut. But in our situation, it has proven to be a blessing. By knowing their biology, at least a portion of it, I better understand my children, I can parent them more effectively, and they can feel loved by both of their families. Birth and adoptive. I feel it has helped them heal. As with anything, any relationship, it is based solely on the mental and emotional health of our children. In the future, they may choose to take a break from those relationships. That will be their choice. All we can do is provide them love, acceptance, and therapy. A safe place to process the loss and pain that goes along with adoption. As my children age, the relationships they have with their first mothers will change. My only goal is to help them advocate for themselves and to process how they want that relationship to look in a healthy capacity.
Foster care adoption has changed our family in many ways. Besides the obvious growth in the number of people, it has changed how we travel, where we travel, and how many nights we spend away from home. The fact is, we can’t be as flexible as we once were. If we have to choose between being together or being home, we choose together as often as possible. The biggest changes have come in myself. I parent completely differently than I was taught. We have learned to pick our battles, that love and bonding far outweighs consequences and being right. I didn’t learn this overnight, and I don’t do everything perfectly every day, but I’m blessed to be surrounded by a large group of mothers who have gone before me. They have lived it; they are loving and firm; sweet and bonded. They have fought battles before us so that we don’t have to fight them.
My fiercest allies are the moms who have gone before me. The moms who have fought for services, diagnosis before there were any, and have known that methods, practices, and “expert” advice were wrong. The experience and expertise of those that have crossed paths, advocated for their children, and are willing and able to pass that information along to me, they are who have saved my relationships with my children. With my husband. With the world. They have allowed me to see that there are deficits left by the trauma my children have endured. They have recommended therapists, testing, books, doctors, and plain old parenting and bonding methods. I have experienced their care, their concern, and sometimes their tough love.
Foster care adoption has led me to be a fierce advocate of adoption, foster care, birth parent relationships, and open adoption. My heart has gone through immense change. I no longer issue the blanket statement that “kids are resilient.” I know the mark that trauma leaves. But I also want to say this, trauma is not a reason to write these kids off. They deserve someone who loves them fiercely, who fights for their love, and fights to love them. It won’t be easy. And yet again, maybe it will. Maybe it will be easy because they are kids. Maybe it’ll be easy because of those who continue to fight for better services, better lives for these kids. Maybe it’ll be easy because they are easy to love, and it will be worth it. Maybe it’ll be the best thing you do despite the negatives. Doesn’t everyone deserve a family?
I don’t share this information to scare you or discourage you from doing foster care or from adopting. But the real side of foster care adoption is this: love is not enough. It’s a great start. A wonderful baseline and building block. It will not, however, leave them. That doesn’t mean that they won’t heal with proper guidance, therapy, and positive parenting skills. It doesn’t mean that they won’t love you or be a part of your family. It might mean that your family looks different than you might have planned and that you may not live in the same home as your child because that might not be the safest option for your child. It does not mean that your child won’t be successful. Your idea of success may change. Your ideals and goals will likely be challenged.
If you are considering foster care adoption, educate yourself. Learn. Devour any information that you can about trauma and its effects on a child’s brain. There are many good books available. Get to know families who are living the life you hope to live. Soak in the information and experience that only they are able to give. Find a support group in your area. People who you can meet with, commiserate with, have playdates with. They will become your closest confidants. I would also encourage an online support group. Crisis doesn’t seem to happen at convenient times. In an online support group, you’ll not only always have someone available, day or night, but you’ll have a plethora of education and experience at your fingertips. Invaluable information when you need it the most. Use social media and type in “(your state) adoption support group” in the search bar. It should give you a list of options in your state. Ask an experienced foster adoption parent where they go for support.
Know your limits. This may be the absolute most important piece of advice you get. Ask hard questions before you even meet the child. Dig deep. Learn the language that agencies use to give information about a child. Know what an out-of-home placement means for a child, about a child, and what that would mean for your family. Seek resources and support in your area that coincide with the anticipated needs of the child/children you are considering for adoption. Every family’s capabilities, every person’s capabilities are vastly different. If you have unresolved trauma in your past, you’ll want to consider therapy before jumping headlong into foster care adoption. You will know. Trust your gut, don’t let the social workers downplay the reality you know to be true. Stand firm, ask to speak to current foster parents and past homes.
Visit the schools in your area. Talk to them about trauma-informed schooling. Discuss IEP’s and 504s. Learn their practices and training. We have been blessed to be in a trauma-informed school. It’s our local public school, but the care and thought they have put into their teaching styles, continuing education and training is impressive. They incorporate sensory techniques to help all their children transition smoothly. They use thought-filled, committee-based class assignments. The prior year’s teacher meets with the teachers for the next school year. Together, they decide on the best teacher for each child. This has proven to be immensely successful for many children in our area.
Foster care adoption is a wonderful option for building your family. I sincerely believe that if you go into this endeavor with your eyes wide open and heeding the advice of those before you, you will find that it is a worthy and worthwhile adventure. It most certainly will have a honeymoon period. There will be peaks and valleys, there will be days that you will want to quit. But you won’t. Because that is the day that your child will fall, wholly and completely, into you, and you will feel the depth of their love for you. You will see their shoulders fall to a typical position, they won’t bristle against you when you hug them, they will cry for you to soothe their hurts and dry their tears.
It is a process. Let go of how you think it may be. Adjust your expectations as your reality becomes a new reality. Learn to love in new and safer ways. Realize that structure, stability, and predictability go together. That all these things lead to healing and love. And know that you can. You most certainly can love these kids. That you can withstand the potential hurt and pain to provide a safe, loving home for a child. Even if that home is temporary, they will know their worth and their value. They will know that safety and love exist. That will know they are treasured. And you will heal. Move on. And open the door once again.