Book Review: Raising Other People’s Children by Debbie Ausburn

I don’t write a lot of book reviews on my blog, but every now and then, a publisher will send me a new title and ask me to write a review. And here’s a secret: I only review the books I can recommend. I don’t want to give real estate here on my blog to something I don’t think is worth people’s time. So from the start, if you see a book reviewed here, you can assume I think it’s worth your time.

Now here’s another secret: for a few years now, I have planned to someday write a book entitled, “Raising Other People’s Children.” I wanted to wait until all of my children were adults and able to give consent to me writing about our family. The title is so apropos to foster parenting, so emblematic of the spirit of what it means to be a foster parent, that it is the perfect title for a book about foster parenting.

I know now that it was a really good idea, because earlier this year, someone beat me to it, and Raising Other People’s Children: What Foster Parenting Taught Me About Bringing Together a Blended Family (Hatherleigh Press, 2021) came out. In it, author Debbie Ausburn captures some fundamental insights about foster parenting (as well as step-parenting). “In my years of raising other people’s children, I have become convinced that popular culture has lied to us: an intact biological family is not an outdated stereotype, but a need embedded deep within each child,” she writes in chapter one. “We… must acknowledge the bedrock truth that, no matter how wonderful a parent we are, we are not and never will be a non-biological child’s first choice. Fortunately, being another person’s Plan B can be pretty wonderful if we give our children time and space to accept the relationship.” I could not agree more, and in my years of foster parenting and, subsequently, adoption, I’ve come to believe that accepting this truth and not taking it personally will make all the difference when it comes to building trust and effectively raising other people’s children.

Before I go any further, I want to be clear: this book focuses on foster parenting and step-parenting. While there are certainly some aspects of what she writes that are true for adoptive parents as well, adoptive parents are not her primary audience. (There are wonderful parenting books out there that help adoptive parents bond and build attachments, and I recommend several of them on my Recommended Resources page.)

That said, there is one thing Ausburn emphasizes right out of the gate that, as an adoptive parent, I can attest to, and it’s this: whether they are our kids because of foster care, remarriage, or adoption, our kids need to know that we understand that we are not the people who are supposed to be there. In fact, that is the title of chapter one, in which Ausburn astutely points out, “Children who have lost an intact family feel deep in their bones that this is not the way the world is supposed to be.” Indeed, some of the most poignant moments I have had with some of my children were when I articulated this very thing to them. My love for them is not enough to make up for the fact that they carry the primal wound of separation from their mother “deep in their bones.” I am so grateful that my children feel safe telling me they miss their mom. Over the years, I have come to see that it has nothing to do with me, and I have learned not to take it personally. As I tell my kids, “it makes perfect sense that you miss her. This is not how it’s supposed to be, and even though I love you with my whole heart, and I love being your mom, I’d give anything to spare you the pain you live with because you can’t be with her.” I am so glad this is the focus of the first chapter, because it’s something every person who is raising a child not born to them needs to absorb and accept.

Another topic any book on parenting other people’s children must devote some important pages to is the effects of Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) on their children, and chapter two of this book does just that. In “Loss and Trauma Change Our Children,” Ausburn gives a concise explanation for what ACEs are and how they affect a child’s developing brain and capacity for emotional regulation and executive function. In fact, she shares a fantastic metaphor to explain this phenomenon: “Children’s difficulties in dealing with adverse experiences are a bit like a computer with a resource-intensive program running in the background. The program we are trying to work with on the screen will be slow, glitchy, and terribly annoying. Our children’s life experiences have a similar effect on them. Coping with their memories takes up much of their emotional energy. The process running in the background leaves them with few resources to deal with the more immediate problems of school and family chores. They tend to opt for the quickest and easiest way to make those problems go away so that they can continue working on the background program.” This is the best explanation for the effect of ACEs on a child I have ever heard (and I will be borrowing it a lot going forward). There is so much in this chapter that I wish I had known going in to foster parenting. This book will be a vital resource for anyone considering foster parenting for this chapter alone.

Chapters three, four, and five of Raising Other People’s Children continue to capture some of what I consider to be the most important things for foster parents to understand. In “Our Children Are Not Perpetual Victims,” Ausburn pulls no punches in recognizing the dangers of treating children as if they are permanently broken. “Our society actively rewards victimhood,” she writes. “From educational institutions to media, from movies to books to social media, contemporary culture encourages our children to explore the many ways in which our society has been unfair to to groups in which they may belong. One very harmful result is that our children start focusing on where they fit on the scale of victims. To use my foster daughter’s phrase, they start collecting ‘victim points.'” Ausburn does not deny or ignore the very real trauma her children have faced, writing, “We must be honest about how hard it will be for them to move past being victims,” but she emphasizes that, “Although we have to start with empathy, it is incredibly important that we do not stop there. As one experienced caseworker said during my foster care training, ‘Sometimes the best thing you can say to a traumatized child is, I am very sorry you went through all that, and you still have to do the dishes.‘” Walking this line as you parent a child with a history of trauma requires a supernatural dose of grace and truth, along with a good therapist and plenty of positive parenting tools. That said, helping our children grow past their identity as victims is one of the things our children need most from us.

But it’s not the only thing. In my experience as a foster parent, one of the most important lessons in this book comes from chapter four, “Commitment is Stronger Than Love.” Here, Ausburn peels back the curtain on what it’s really like to raise other people’s children, acknowledging something that I agree with but have not heard anyone else admit: “Children need love from us, but more important, they need our commitment. We need to rediscover an ethic of following our promises rather than our emotions.” From the moment a new child enters my home, they have my commitment long before they have my feelings of love and affection. Love and affection take time; commitment is a choice. “All children need to be loved, and some of them will want love from you. Some of them may not be easy to love, and others will be even harder to like. Even when we do love them, that alone will not be enough to help heal their emotional scars. More than anything else, they need to know that, even on days when you do not love (or even like) them, you will follow through on your commitment to them.”

I cannot agree with this more, and I am so glad someone had the courage to write about it. I would be lying if I said it is easy to love every child in the same way. I wish I could just turn on my love faucet on demand, but I cannot. Love takes time, affection takes time, and making up for the lost years of bonding with a baby is not always possible. Feeling affection for a child you barely know who is oppositional or defiant, raging, screaming, hitting, lying, hoarding, etc. is a tall order. However, we can choose commitment no matter what, and some days, that it the most we can offer.

Still, our commitments have boundaries, and Ausburn does a good job of recognizing those boundaries. “Unconditional commitment” is a loaded term, and not always wise (or possible). For example, if a child is a danger to himself or others, that child might be safer in an institution set up to handle their extreme behaviors. I once affirmed a heartbroken foster parent’s decision to end a placement after their child tried setting their house on fire by holding a throw pillow up to the gas stove and setting it ablaze. This was after they had taken multiple trips to the E.R. because of suicidal ideations. In that case, this new foster parent was not equipped to handled the extent of his foster child’s mental health needs. He did the right thing when he ended that placement, though he struggled with a tremendous weight of guilt for “breaking his commitment” to that child.

Indeed, the demands of raising other people’s children require a careful balance of commitment to others and commitment to our own mental health and well-being. I created The Flourishing Foster Parent in 2019 because I had spent a few years trying to figure out how to thrive and flourish personally despite the tremendous stress of foster parenting. I had learned that I am not able to give my children my best when I am running on fumes, constantly in a state of reactivity, and trying to dip from an empty cup. Identifying what it means to practice true self care (which involves a lot more than herbal tea, bubble baths, and a weekly yoga class, though I recommend all of those things be part of your self-care plan), Ausburn takes it much deeper, advocating for focusing on your core values, building a support network, asking for help, and developing emotional safeguards. These are all integral to staying anchored when your house feels like a ship being tossed at sea.

If there is any part of this book that is going to give someone in the world of trauma-informed parenting trouble, it will be in chapters six through eight. Here, Ausburn wades into some of the practical ins and outs of parenting children with a history of trauma, many of whom come into your home with their values, expectations, behaviors, and sense of morality already formed. This section of the book is where some people might take issue with her approach, which is part Love and Logic and part Positive Parenting Solutions. For people who are adherents of trauma-informed connected parenting, some of the suggestions Ausburn gives for handling certain situations will be problematic, such as her retelling of how she and her husband tried to reinforce the importance of trust when they discovered their son had been lying to them. For a child in foster care who has learned all the wrong things about trust, expecting them to understand what trust even is, let alone how to rebuild it through showing himself to be trustworthy, might be an insurmountable task. Indeed, there is a wide spectrum of opinion when it comes to the merits of using natural consequences, logical consequences, or any consequences at all to teach a child with a history of trauma. Ausburn definitely advocates for heavy use of natural or logical consequences (she even has a chapter entitled “Engineer Logical Consequences of a Child’s Decisions”), which might be problematic for some readers.

That said, I agree with her approach for children who have grown up in your home, have a healthy understanding of commitment and trust in you, and have been formed by your house rules, values, and expectations. I have said many times that I am a proponent and affiliate of Positive Parenting Solutions. I utilize natural and logical consequences heavily in my own home with my five children who are all adopted through foster care. However, for children who might be new to your home, who come with a full set of emotional and parental baggage, and/or who have bounced from household to household (and set of house rules/expectations to set of house rules/expectations), I would look to a book like Beyond Consequence, Logic and Control: A Love-Based Approach to Helping Attachment-Challenged Children with Severe Behaviors (Heather T Forbes, B. Bryan Post). This book would be a corrective companion to some of the consequence-driven responses mentioned here for children who have not had an opportunity to learn what you expect from them, or to unlearn what has been instilled in them through their formative years regarding trust, safety, and survival.

That said, Ausburn hits it out of the ballpark in chapter eight of Raising Other People’s Children, when she explores the idea that “Resilience Requires Structure and Connection.” This is at the very heart of effectively parenting a child who comes into your home with a history of trauma, and she does a beautiful job of articulating how to empower and connect with a child through routines, responsibilities, and opportunities for decision-making. (For more on this, see my video Empowerment and Agency for Youth in Foster Care.) I cannot emphasize enough how important these aspects of home life—routines, responsibilities, and a decision-rich environment—are for building resilience in kids and helping them grow out of victimhood and into confident inter-dependence. This chapter alone is worth the price of the book.

Another area of life that any book on foster parenting must address is dynamics with a child’s family of origin, which Ausburn does in chapter nine, “Dealing With the People Who Are Supposed to Be There.” Again, she does not mince words or dance around the fact that it is very hard to watch a child pine for a parent who has effectively abandoned them. When you treasure a child born to another woman and have to sit back and watch that child’s heart break over and over when Mom does not show up for visits, or abruptly cuts a visit short, or shows up an hour and a half late for a two-hour scheduled visit, it is very hard to maintain a positive attitude toward her.

Still, we must try. Ausburn astutely differentiates between honoring a child’s love for their parents and equipping that child to “separate their problems from their parents’. When a biological parent does not follow through on promises… we have to help our children process the disappointment in a way that does not disparage the parent but makes clear that the situation is not the child’s responsibility.” This is a skill everyone raising another person’s child needs to hone.

In summary, I am really glad Debbie Ausburn wrote Raising Other People’s Children, and I have added it to my list of Must-Reads on my web site. In it, Ausburn shares her years-worth of wisdom for foster parents, and everyone considering entering into he world of foster parenting would do well to heed her insights. Her experiences echo my own, and I stand by everything she wrote (with the caveats already noted.) While foster parenting was not my Plan B—my husband and I always planned to foster and never planned to have biological children—I am certainly my children’s Plan B. Given the choice, their biological families would have been safe and stable, and they would have never been separated from their families of origin.

In an ideal world, I would not be my children’s mother.

But, as Ausburn says in her final chapter, “Plan B is not a consolation prize,” and “being someone else’s Plan B (can be) pretty wonderful.” I did not choose my children’s path, but, as I tell them often, I am committed to doing all I can to give them a beautiful life. I am their Plan B, for sure, but our Plan B life is filled with love, laughter, and opportunity. I can’t change what has happened, but I can do my best to shape what’s to come and ensure they have what they need to build a future filled with hope.

Raising Other People’s Children is a great resource for anyone seeking to do just that.

A Foster Parent’s “Wish List” for Case Managers

If I could summarize what foster parents want more than anything from their case managers, it would be this:

Communication.

This is what I learned from a survey I put out via my various social media channels back in August. (If you participated in that survey, thank you!) Granted, my sample size is small, and my audience is skewed toward people who already engage with my content, presumably in an effort to become more informed and equipped as a foster parent. Still, the results offer a helpful look at what this group of foster parents experience. In response to the question, “What are some ways your case managers have helped support you as a foster parent?” more than half of the 136 foster parents who responded named clear, honest, and timely communication as thing they appreciated most about their case managers. By the same token, an overwhelming majority of respondents said the thing that was most frustrating about their case managers was lack of communication.

Foster parents come into a case completely blind to the circumstances and details of the case. However, and I cannot stress this enough, from Day One of a placement, the foster parents and everyone living in their household are intimately involved and affected by those unknown details. Many social workers cite confidentiality as the reason they cannot disclose details of a case, but those details often have a direct effect on the foster home and the success of that placement. The case managers who get that and go out of their way to ensure foster parents are equipped with relevant information are empowering those foster parents for success in the placement. When a case manager fails to disclose certain details, they are setting those foster parents up for failure.

Case in point: one foster parent who responded said that their case worker told them the child they were considering “was good with dogs and kids.” However, “after incidents while in our care, we found out (the child) was removed from two other homes for hurting dogs and kids.” Another person said their case worker did not inform them that a child in their care had been accused of sexual abuse prior to being placed with them. They only learned about it when that child sexually abused someone in their home. In both cases, the children had to be removed from that home and placed elsewhere, compounding their trauma and causing additional trauma to existing children in the foster home. Transparency between the case manager and prospective foster parents would have made all the difference in both cases.

However, and I really want to stress this, these two cases represent a small fraction of the stories I heard. In my experience—and this survey confirmed it—most children in foster care are not dangerous to animals or other children. Those cases, though they represent an unfortunate and unjust stigma attached to children in foster care, are outliers. Instead, the communication foster parents benefit from most has to do with much more mundane aspects of daily life.

Things like scheduling, for instance. In fact, the most common issue I saw over and over as I read through the comments in my survey had to do with lack of communication around scheduling— specifically family visitation, health and safety visits, and court hearings. Being a no-show to monthly appointments and not communicating when visitation schedules were changed at the last minute came up several times. Not responding to phone calls, texts, or email messages, and not communicating about court dates were the biggest sources of frustration for the foster parents who responded to my survey. It may seem incidental, but the daily interruptions and adjustments foster families make to a accommodate last minute scheduling changes can take a toll. When a case manager at least attempts to mitigate those interruptions, or acknowledges them, foster parents feel seen and valued.

But it goes beyond that. Communication about the status of the case is another thing that is huge for foster parents. And it’s understandable, right? For the duration of their time as a child’s foster parent, much of life revolves around meeting that child’s needs and being a team player in the overall plan of permanency for that child—be it through reunification (ideally) or adoption. Foster parents are deeply invested in the children in their care, and keeping them informed about the status of the case, even when the status is uncertain or nebulous, is an important factor in helping a foster parent feel like part of “the team.” In fact, several respondents referred to being treated “like a team player” as one way they either felt supported, or felt a lack of support, by their case managers. One foster parent wrote that the thing they appreciated most about their case manager was that she “treated me like a parent and not a babysitter,” while five others said some version of “treating me like a glorified babysitter” as the thing they found most frustrating. Communicating as much as possible about the case can make all the difference in whether a foster parent feels empowered and energized to continue or deflated and disillusioned with being a foster parent.

Communicating as much as possible about the case can make all the difference in whether a foster parent feels empowered and energized to continue or deflated and disillusioned with being a foster parent.

But it is not only the foster parent who needs to be kept apprised of the status of their placement. Children in foster care are desperate for information about their case, because they, too, need time to prepare for their future outcomes. Too often, foster youth, along with their foster parents, are left in the dark, adding to their sense of insecurity and instability. Good communication from the case manager can make all the difference for them, too.

We once had an eleven-year-old boy who spent several nights in a safe house before coming to our home. It was his second time in foster care, so he knew the drill. His shelter care hearing was postponed twice, so instead of knowing whether he would be going home or reentering long-term foster care, he waited in limbo. I will never forget the conversation I had with him while we walked through IKEA. He asked me when the shelter care hearing would be. “I know as much as you do, buddy,” I said. “But you have my word, as soon as I hear something, you’ll hear something. I will tell you everything I know.” I had the same conversation with a nine-year-old boy who came to us under the same circumstances. It was his second time in foster care, and he wanted to know the details of his case. Would he be moving to a new school? Would he move back to his old foster parents? How long this time? Communication matters to children in foster care. While writing this article, I asked my daughter, who spent several years in foster care before we adopted her at age seventeen, what she needed most from her case managers. “Brutal honesty,” was her reply. “It is so traumatizing when you’re told one thing and then the exact opposite thing happens. It can take years to get over that, if ever.”

Foster parents who have time to prepare for reunification are much more likely to continue fostering than those who had the harsh experience of a last-minute surprise reunification.

This is also huge when it comes time for reunification. Foster parents who have time to prepare for reunification are much more likely to continue fostering than those who had the harsh experience of a last-minute surprise reunification. “Support through reunification” made all the difference to one foster parent, who continued fostering after that placement ended, while the case manager who “reunified the kids and gave us two hours to get their stuff packed and say goodbye” destroyed another. A foster parent once shared with me that she sent her foster children to school one day and never saw them again. The trauma that caused took her out as a foster parent. Another foster caregiver shared that two months after being asked to adopt the toddler she had since birth, she learned from the child’s therapist that plans were being made for reunification. It was the therapist, and not the case manager, who let that foster parent know of plans to move the child “home” to his mother in a rehab facility with childcare the following week. Thanks to the therapist, that foster couple had a week to prepare their two elementary school-aged sons (and themselves) to say goodbye to the child who had been with them for seventeen months. Had it been up to the case manager, they would have had two or three days.

The jury is out on whether that foster couple, who was one of the best I’ve ever known, will continue fostering.

Back in August, I heard from a community engagement specialist at Indiana’s Department of Child Services who is working to address foster parent retention. Citing poor communication as the primary reason foster parents close out their license and quit fostering, she was interested in exploring how best to support good communication between case managers and foster parents. To that end, I offer the following suggestions for case managers from the feedback I got in my survey.

“Foster Parent Wish List For Case Managers”

Treat your foster parents like part of the team. One foster parent wrote, “We are, or should be, all on the same team. We all want what’d best for the kids. We are not the enemy. A little respect and communication goes a long way. We see the kids day in and day out, you see them a couple hours a month. We know their needs.” Wrote another, “They have listened to our concerns and advocated for the children based on what we shared.” Many others echoed this sentiment, with several specifically mentioning that they appreciate when a case manager takes their concerns, observations, and suggestions about a child’s physical health, mental health, and emotional needs seriously and respond/advocate accordingly.

Make sure foster parents know when court hearings are scheduled. Attending court hearings is the best way for foster parents to get the full picture of where a case is at without a case manager breaking confidentiality. This also helps foster parents keep the kids in their home apprised of their case’s status. Give them enough time to prepare a statement and arrange for child care if necessary so they can be present. (See The Adoption and Safe Families Act of 1997 or “Applying the Notice and Right to be Heard” from Virginia’s Juvenile and Domestic Relations District Courts for more information.)

Be candid and transparent about a child’s history. If a child has a history of troubling behaviors, including physical aggression toward others, suicidal ideations, property destruction, and acting out sexually, be up front with the foster parents so they know what they’re taking on. This is especially crucial with new and inexperienced foster parents or homes with other children. Not communicating about known concerns like these is setting the placement up for failure.

Make an effort to involve the foster parent when it comes to scheduling visitation. Take into consideration that the visit schedule will affect the entire household, from meals to school behaviors to extracurricular activities to sleep schedules. While the visits absolutely need to work for the child’s parents above all, make an effort to also make them work for the foster family, who will manage the fallout when visits don’t go well (or don’t happen at all).

Respond to your foster parents’ calls, texts, and email in a timely manner. Communicate at the start of a placement what the foster parent can expect in terms of communication. Let them know if you will respond within 24- or 48-hours, give them a back-up plan in the event that they don’t hear back from you (such as a supervisor’s contact info), and do your best not to leave them hanging. This alone has a huge influence on a foster parent’s decision to continue fostering.

Help foster parents get access to resources. New foster parents are often ignorant about how the public (i.e. Medicaid) health system works. Direct them to where they need to go for pediatricians, dentists, mental health evaluations, trauma-informed therapists, and IEP advocates. (Often, this is as simple as sending them the link to the Medicaid provider network.) Also, help with clothing vouchers, access to school supplies, etc. mean a lot to foster parents. As a new foster parent, I did not know where to go for these resources until a case manager told me about how to access them. Several foster parents also mentioned help with getting Christmas presents for their foster children as a way they felt supported. There are many organizations that offer gifts for foster youth during the holidays, but foster parents don’t always know about them or have time to research them.

Update foster parents about the status of the case. The best case workers we had were candid about how the case was going. When there were delays, or timelines had to be adjusted, they told us why. During one of our adoptions, a case manager had promised to complete her case note redactions by a certain date, but was delayed because of unexpected things in her caseload. She was honest about that and didn’t leave us wondering when it would be done. That made a big difference, especially to our child who knew they were on track to be adopted and wondered what was “taking so long.”

Show compassion when it’s time to reunify. One foster parent responded that their case manager’s “support through the reunification process and crying with us as we said our final goodbyes” meant a lot to them. Recognizing the bond between foster parents and the children in their care does not undermine the goal of reunification. It recognizes the humanity of the foster parent and the sacrifice they make so the children in their care can have a safe, stable, and loving family during their time in out-of-home care.

Recognizing the bond between foster parents and the children in their care does not undermine the goal of reunification. It recognizes the humanity of the foster parent and the sacrifice they make for children in foster care.

I know I’m probably forgetting something.

After combing through 136 survey responses and considering the stories I have heard as a foster parent mentor and coach for the past several years, I feel as though I have only scratched the surface. But I hope this gives thoughtful case managers a solid look at what they could do to help retain their foster parents.

It is no secret that there is a growing need for foster parents. The turnover rate for foster parents is huge. By taking good care of the ones who are already serving in this capacity, case managers not only reinforce their resolve to continue on, but also make it more likely that those foster parents will encourage others to foster as well.

If you are a foster parent, I would love to invite you to share your experiences in the comments below. What would you add to what I’ve shared here? How have you felt supported—or a lack of support—from your case managers?

I want to end on a personal note.

With only one exception, the case managers and social workers we worked with in the State of Washington Department of Children, Youth, and Family Services were exceptional. They fulfilled all of the items on my “Wish List” above. I can’t say enough good about them. They genuinely cared about the children on their case loads and worked tirelessly to advocate for them. They recognized the challenges of foster parenting and supported us as much as they could. And they went out of their way to communicate with the parents of the children in our care, connect me with members of our foster children’s families, and allowed us to work with them to maintain family connections and prepare for permanency, be that through reunification or adoption. And I credit this excellent treatment by our licensors and case workers for the six years my husband and I were foster parents. The only reason we stopped fostering was that, after fostering at least fifteen children and adopting our last two children, we felt that we needed to devote all of our attention to the needs of our five and try to maintain a stable home environment for their sake.

Source: A Fostered Life Survey (August 2021)

Sadly, as my survey attests, our experience was not the universal foster parent experience. In fact, 65.4% of the foster parents surveyed have considered quitting foster parenting because of frustration with their case managers, and as the feedback shows, those frustrations are primarily around communication.

In light of the massive need for foster parents, those seeking to address issues of recruitment and retention would do well to encourage and incentivize their case managers and social workers to make effective communication with foster parents a priority. I hope the specific suggestions I’ve offered here will help to that end.

More About The Survey Respondents:

Here is some additional relevant data on who responded to my survey:

Source: A Fostered Life Survey (August 2021)
Source: A Fostered Life (August 2021)

Photo by TienDat Nguyen on Unsplash

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