The best advice I got before becoming a foster parent over a year ago was this: “Stay flexible and keep your sense of humor.” I could not have known just how wise this advice was until I was neck-deep in the ocean of challenges that face every foster parent (and foster child). Today I want to dig in a bit more to both of these bits of advice and help prospective foster parents have a better idea of just what to expect.
Stay flexible. So much of being a foster parent involves going with the flow and making last minute adjustments. Here are some examples of what I mean:
- Parents not showing up for visitation when you had planned to use that two or three hours to run errands, grocery shop, get a massage or haircut or whatever (which I talk a bit about more here)
- Getting a calls from the school principle to come and pick up your foster child, who has just gotten into another fight or who ran away from his classroom and has been on the playground for two hours, refusing to come back inside;
- Committing to bring home a newborn from the hospital after he finishes detox (whenever that might be), and having the timeline change from day to day, so you might have a newborn in the house in one week or three or five or…?
- Knowing how long a child will be in your home. Our first placement started out as a six-month placement, and they were still with us a year later.
- Being invited on an over-seas vacation next summer and not knowing whether you’ll be able to go, because you don’t know what kind of respite care options you’ll have for leaving the kids for two weeks.
Your schedule, both in the day-to-day and in the long term, becomes less predictable.
Are you ready to go with the flow?
Keep your sense of humor. I have had a lot of conversations with people who, upon learning that we are a foster family, become curious and want to know more about our experiences. I do my best to determine how much (or how little) is safe to share with that person, but in general, I’m pretty open (arguably, too open). I often laugh as I’m talking about some of the challenges we’ve faced, and the response I get is, “Wow, you sure have a positive attitude!” to which I usually reply, “I’m laughing, because if I don’t laugh, I’ll cry.”
Don’t get me wrong: I’ve done plenty of crying too. But I find that the more you can laugh about things, especially in hindsight, the more you can maintain a positive and hopeful attitude going forward. Spending time with others who have “been there and done that” helps too. I tend to laugh (and cry) most when I’m talking with other foster or adoptive parents who get it. That’s why I’m such a believer in support groups and being intentional about making friends with other foster parents.
Nine months after my husband and I became foster parents, we started marriage counseling. Our therapist commented that we were in good shape, because even though we were living in a very high-stress situation and our relationship was bearing the weight of it, we could laugh with each other about everything we had been through that year. And he was so right: being able to laugh with my husband about the craziness of our life has been, well, a life-saver.
At the end of the day, foster parents are people like everyone else. We have our good days and bad, we can be patient and impatient, we are at all times both saint and sinner.
But we are called to a specific and costly life of caring for some of our society’s most vulnerable children. In order to do that well, we have to do two things:
Stay flexible. And above all else, keep your sense of humor.