Foster Parents, Fight For Joy

Today I choose joy.

I have heard this phrase many times, and I know you have too. I have it on a tee-shirt. There are multiple books and Bible studies by that title. Coffee mugs, plaques, stickers, bracelets, and bookmarks can all serve as reminders, surrounding us at every turn, to choose joy.

It sounds so simple, doesn’t it? “Choose joy. Just do it. You know, make a choice that you’re going to have joy and then have joy.”

But it’s not simple at all. In fact, if you ask me, joy is often very elusive. In the midst of the pain and brokenness that many of us experience every day, is excruciatingly hard to come by.

But it is worth fighting for.

In fact, I think the saying should be “Today I fight for joy.” Because that is more accurate and a more helpful way to understand how joy comes to us. We fight for it.

There is a passage in the Bible that I memorized as a small child. Both of my grandmothers were very fond of Psalm 118:24 and recited it frequently.

This is the day the Lord has made;
We will rejoice and be glad in it.

Next to this verse, in the margin of my Bible, I have written the words, “BATTLE CRY.” That’s because, when it comes to “choosing” joy, that’s how I see it: something to fight for. When I say, “This is the day the Lord has made, I will rejoice and be glad in it,” I am planting my stake in the ground. I am throwing down the gauntlet. I am taking off the gloves. I am pulling out my earrings. I’m ready to fight.

But how? How do I fight for joy, really? Practically?

For starters, I get clear about what joy is—and what it’s not. Joy is not the same thing as happiness. Happiness is an emotion that always feels good. Joy is an emotion that sometimes comes with a deep ache. Happiness is getting what we wanted. Joy is knowing someone we love got what they wanted, often at great personal sacrifice to us. Happiness is getting out of the valley of the shadow of death unscathed. Joy is being in the valley of the shadow of death and knowing you’re not alone.

So why I am writing about this on a foster parenting blog?

Well, if you haven’t figured it out yet, being a foster parent is really, really hard, and if you’re not careful, you will lose your joy.

I have had many conversations over the past several weeks with foster parents (and people who have adopted via foster care), and the theme that came up over and over again was, this is freakin’ hard.

Parenting a child with a traumatic past is hard.

Bonding with a child you met as a teen is hard.

Knowing how to manage a child who is neuro-atypical because of early childhood trauma
and/or in-utero drug and alcohol exposure is hard.

Parting with the toddler you’ve had since birth is hard.

Realizing you’re not cut out to be a foster parent is hard.

Over the past month, I have connected with people in all of these scenarios. I met a woman who adopted four children via foster care. All of them have behavioral challenges, but two in particular are very hard to manage. Talking with her, I could sense her sorrow—not sorrow for having adopted children with challenges, but sorrow that she can’t do more to help them. There is definitely a feeling helplessness I encounter in my work with foster parents, and I often feel it myself. Foster parenting is everything regular parenting is, plus a whole lot more.

Also in the past month, I have watched a friend say goodbye to a toddler she has had since bringing him home from the hospital. Reunification happened very quickly, without much warning, and on heels of being asked to adopt the child, the mom started rehab and adoption, which had never been their plan in the first place, was ripped off the table. That roller coaster caused emotional whiplash, and my friend and her husband are now, in her words, “in a fog.” For seventeen months, every day began with tending to the baby: changing him, feeding him, cuddling him, playing with him. Now, with very little time to prepare, he is gone.

Another person I spoke with this month was a foster mom whose foster daughter just had “another” brain surgery for a traumatic brain injury she sustained before coming into foster care. The abuse she endured in her family of origin has left her permanently scarred, and this foster mom spends a lot of her time managing the child’s TBI-related special needs.

The stories I could share from the conversations I have on a monthly basis are endless—and I haven’t even mentioned any stories from my own family. Again, wading into the waters of foster parenting is very hard, and if you’re not careful, it will rob you of all joy.

That’s why you have to fight. But how?

Fighting for joy begins by recognizing that joy is worth fighting for. It is so easy to sink into the mire of sadness and helplessness when you face some of the challenges we face. But that only makes everything worse. We have to decide that we will fight. That’s the first step.

Next, practice true self care. I put together this “New Year, New Self Care Plan” for members of The Flourishing Foster Parent a few years ago, and it’s one way to gauge how you’re doing in terms of tending the garden of your own life and soul. It addresses getting adequate rest, nutrition and exercise, tending your relationships (especially with your spouse or partner), adding tools to your “parenting toolbox,” nurturing your soul, and finding ways to simplify your life. The more stressful life gets, the more vital it is that you attend to these six “fields of flourishing.”

Meditate on why foster care exists and what your role is as a foster parent. There are children in your community who need a safe place to be cared for and nurtured and loved until they can go home or find a permanent home. As a foster parent, you are serving vulnerable children, sometimes through great personal sacrifice to you, and with little personal gain. While you cannot “fix” everything that’s broken in their world, you can give them love and safety and a nurturing environment in the meantime. Happiness would be everything working out for their good. Joy is knowing you’re doing your part.

Give yourself permission to grieve. Foster parenting comes with a lot of grief. You will grieve for what your children have gone through. You will grieve for your child’s pain. You will grieve what the decision to be a foster parent has cost you. You will grieve over unmet expectations of what parenting would look like. And, of course, you will grieve when a child you have grown “too attached” to goes home. Learn how to grieve in a healthy way, and make space to do so. Denying your grief or trying to move on too quickly will make life so much harder, and it will surely rob you of every last ounce of joy.

Laugh with someone who gets it. I find such joy in being with other people who “get it.” Talking with other foster parents and those who have adopted via foster care, sharing our experiences, empathizing with one another, sharing the painful laugh of recognition when you can say to someone, “You too?”

Lastly, love those babies as well as you can. Whether they are newborns or teens, love them well for as long as they are with you. Even when they are lashing out, even when they are suspended from school, even when they lie, even when the Beauty becomes the Beast. Love and keep loving them. I can attest to this: I have never felt joy from failing my kids, but I have experienced great joy in knowing I have loved them well, even though I know my love is not enough. Foster parenting is love + therapy, love + structure, love + positive discipline, love + consistency, etc.

I don’t know who (besides me) needed this today. But I needed to write it.

My world has been challenging lately. My family is experiencing serious illness, mental health crises, school disciplinary actions, and relational strain. There are days my head feels like it’s going to explode, as I seek to juggle therapy appointments and calls with the school and implementing the latest behavioral crisis plan. (And this is on top of normal stressors, like cooking and cleaning and chauffeuring my family around.) I can go days before I realize that I can’t remember the last time I laughed.

I don’t want that for myself.

And I don’t want it for you.

If you are a foster parent, let me urge you to fight for joy.

The fact is, foster parenting (and raising children adopted via foster care) is hard. There is no way to avoid the pain and heartache it involves. But I know for a fact that, even with all that this life can entail, it is possible to have joy.

You just have to be willing to fight for it.

Photo by Melinda Gimpel on Unsplash

How Do We Decide to Say “Yes” When the Placement Desk Calls?

We are licensed directly through our state, not with a private agency. This means that we receive the daily email distribution listing briefs on every child in our county (and sometimes beyond) in need of a foster home. We also receive frequent phone calls from the placement desk (and after-hours placement) asking if we can take a(nother) child, “even just for the night.”

As you may guess, we want to say “yes” to them all! But obviously that’s not possible. A couple of years ago, I came up with a simple rubric to help us decide whether we can say “yes” (or whether we need to say “no”) when the placement desk calls.

To get the full scoop, watch this sixteen-minute video. If you don’t have time for that, here’s the gist of what we take into consideration when deciding whether to add another child to our home when those sweet social workers call:

  1. Are we licensed for a child or children that age? This may seem like a ‘no-brainer,’ but it’s not! We’ve said ‘yes’ to the placement desk and taken a child who was older than what we are licensed for. (We got in some trouble for that!)
  2. How are we (my husband and me) doing? How is our health? How is our emotional well-being? How is our relationship?
  3. How are our kids doing? Is it the right season of life for our kids to have the disruption of another child added to the mix? Are our kids in a place emotionally where they can handle our attention being even more divided than usual?
  4. What do we know about that child? Do we have good reason to think that bringing them into our home will not put our own kids in any kind of risk? Does the child have any fear of dogs (we have a big, loud dog!) What do we know about how they will fit in with our own children?
  5. What does our gut say? This might be the most important thing of all! We have gone with our gut every single time except one, and that one turned out to not be a good fit for us. (He moved to a single foster parent with no other children and has absolutely thrived in her care! He is now reunified with his mom, but his foster mom remains a significant presence in his life and he sees her often.)

If you are a foster parent, I’d love to know how you decide whether or not to say “yes” when you get “the call.” Please share your thoughts below!

When One Person’s Honeymoon is Another Person’s Hell

Yesterday, I wrote about something that every foster parent I knew has experienced. We commonly refer to it as “the end of the honeymoon period.” When a child is first placed in a foster home, things look fine for a bit. The child is on his or her best behavior, as are the foster parents. But after a time—perhaps a few days, perhaps a week, even a bit longer—everyone settles in, starts to feel a bit comfortable, and stops trying so hard not to rock the boat. Kids begin to test boundaries or just let their big feelings out, parents grow irritable and impatient, and pretty soon, a storm is brewing.

Obviously, I write from the foster parent’s point-of-view; I’m a foster parent.

But what if we try to see things from the perspective of the child in foster care?

It occurred to me last night that calling this period of time “a honeymoon period” is a misnomer.

A real honeymoon involves two people who chose to be together. They want each other, and they decided to put their lives together. A honeymoon is positive, happy, and exciting. A honeymoon takes place in a special location both people in the relationship chose. A honeymoon refers to something fun, light, and hopeful—the start of something beautiful.

None of these describe the experience of a child in foster care during their first week or so in a new placement. They had no say in it, they did not choose these people to be with, they had no voice in the location of where they would be placed, and rather than being something hopeful, this experience is terrifying.

Calling their first week in a new foster home a “honeymoon period” is actually pretty insulting, the more I think about it. “Hell period” is more like it.

A child has been plucked from the only life they know, taken from the only parent(s) they know, and placed in a stranger’s home, where they will sleep in a strange bed, wear clothes that are not from their closet, and try to sleep despite the fact that they miss their mom more than words can express and they have no idea what might happen while they are lying in that strange bed.

This is the period of time when a child is on high alert, noticing every foreign sound, smell and texture. “Who are these people? Where is my mom? Why am I here? When am I going home? The food is different, they don’t let me watch my favorite shows on TV, I had to change schools, and I don’t even have any of my toys from home.” Fear, anger, confusion, and more swirl around in this child’s heart and mind. This is not a fun, positive time; this is a terrifyingly traumatic time.

This is a period of time when a child will be on his best behavior precisely because of how uncomfortable and scared he is. He has absolutely no idea what to expect from these people, and he doesn’t want to do anything that might set them off.

It ain’t no honeymoon, from the child’s perspective at least.

We need a new name for this period that is not so foster-parent-centric. We need a term that takes into account what this experience is like from the child’s perspective. We need a term that recognizes that, while from the foster parent’s perspective it’s a positive thing—we’ve been dreaming of this moment for years! We have our first foster child! We are so excited!—from the child’s perspective, it’s a nightmare.

While I will always see things first and foremost from the perspective of a foster parent, because that’s what I am and that’s my lived experience, I’m learning more and more how important it is to at least try to see things from other people’s points of view. As I’ve been reading over my recent post on how to get through the honeymoon period, it suddenly dawned on me how that might look from the perspective of the child living through it.

It dawned on me that one person’s honeymoon is another person’s hell.

Being a foster parent is hard sometimes.

Being a kid in foster care is infinitely harder.

And we foster parents probably need to spend a little bit more time thinking about that.

As one of my viewers who grew up in foster care  graciously pushed back on me, encouraging me to stop referring to children in my care as “placements,” I am now inclined to revisit much of my terminology and try to view it through the lens of a child in foster care (or an adult who grew up in foster care.)

“The Honeymoon Period” is one such term.

So going forward, I’m looking for a new way to frame that first week/month. I’m looking for a word or phrase that doesn’t insinuate something positive (honeymoon) for an experience that is decidedly not positive for everyone involved.

Transition Period? The Early Days? The Getting To Know You Time? The Settling In Period?

I’m still working on it.

I know I can’t change common foster parent parlance, and many—most!—will continue to refer to the first season of a child’s placement as “the honeymoon period.”

But I’d love to encourage all of us to revisit and re-frame how we are describing things so that we take into account the lived experience of the child in our care, not just how things look for us foster parents.

When it comes to “The Early Days” (see what I did there?), the very reason a child tends to be so cooperative is that they are in survival mode. As they emerge from “The Settling In Period,” they begin to relax and feel more comfortable, letting their true feelings show. And let us not forget, we want that. We want them to feel safe and let their true feelings show. We want that, even when it signifies that “The Getting-To-Know-You Period” is over and things are about to get pretty challenging for the foster parent (and for the child!)

I don’t know how many foster youth or former foster youth read this blog or follow A Fostered Life on Facebook, but I would sure love to hear from you.

What are some of the other terms foster parents tend to use that great on your last nerve?