I look back at the life we lived before foster care and I almost don’t recognize it. I am so grateful for so many of the amazing things that we’ve gained from stepping into foster care. Fourteen children that have filled our home over the last two years with laughter and energy. A bond with my husband that could not have been formed without the hard conversations we’ve had to have; the way that we’ve had to rely on each other when things felt overwhelming. The memories of firsts with kids we grew to love – riding bikes, losing teeth, traveling on an airplane. Things that I’ll never forget like warm snuggles, happy after-school hugs, or the first time they say, “I love you.”
The thing that I am most grateful for is the people that we’ve met along the way. The people that have become integrated into our everyday lives. Friends that celebrate with us, cry with us, and commiserate with us when things are hard. These people that we have met through foster care trainings, Foster Parent Association meetings, and even some child welfare professionals have become true friends and are one of the great joys of fostering. I always tell people considering foster care that foster parents are my favorite people. They will jump to help you at a moment’s notice. They don’t judge or condemn or shame because they’ve been there too. They’ve had dark days and joyous days and everything in between. They understand waiting for a license to be approved, rearranging plans for a home visit that is cancelled at the last minute, disagreeing with a decision made in court. They also understand the nuances of foster care that are so hard to explain to someone who hasn’t experienced the wide range of emotions for themselves- how things can be beautiful and broken at the same time, heartbreaking and full of hope, how you can feel equally for and against a plan or decision made.
I heard once the recommendation that for every person considering foster care they would have to bring at least four people to the foster care orientation with them that would act as their support system, that could receive support training. If you couldn’t prove that you had a good local support system intact then you wouldn’t be able to foster because you wouldn’t have the support it takes to persist when things became hard. Foster care is hard. Period. You need a support system. While I completely understand the thought process, I would have been one of the families that did not have four people to bring to support training. I probably couldn’t even find one person that I would truly want to ask (beside my husband of course, but he would have to bring his own four people.) Both of our families were very supportive and encouraging, but they live 1000 miles away. We were still sort of new to the area, we were starting new jobs and weren’t totally established yet. We had friends, but certainly not anyone I would ask to attend a formal multiple-hours long training with me.
Of course it would have been great to have intentional support or a community that really understood what fostering was all about when we were first starting out. But it turns out that we didn’t really need it when we were in the licensing process. We needed it as we were actually walking the journey; we sought it out, created it, and committed to community along the way. Foster care became our world, our community, our life! The foster parents we met understood that in a lot of ways. Foster care created the community we had always needed. Life is simply better together! There is nothing like hearing, “me too” when you feel all alone in your burnout or your confusion or your challenges. There is nothing like someone sitting next to you and allowing you to feel your odd mixture of emotions about a child, a decision, or a goodbye because yes, they too have felt the waves of opposing feelings that foster care brings as things change day-to-day. It’s comforting to not have to defend your reason for continuing to foster in the face of adversity when others say, “maybe you should take a break.” Foster parents just get it. They can give you the perspective you need when you need it. And you can trust them because they are doing the hard work right alongside you.
We went from feeling like we didn’t belong in our community, outsiders in a small town where most people had lived their whole lives, to feeling deeply connected and committed to what is going on in our neighborhood. The opportunities and connections and friendships that we have developed because we said “yes” to foster care have changed us forever. I don’t know that the things we’ve gained could have been found any other way. Maybe, but we’ll never know now and I’m grateful for that.
Community didn’t happen overnight. In some ways, people showed up out of the blue when we got our first placements. Through the network of local foster parents we had clothes, diapers, formula, and an additional crib within hours. But the true, deep, meaningful connections took both time and effort. We committed to going to every local Foster Parent Association meeting that we could. We asked questions and reached out and scheduled playdates. In some ways we did it out of necessity. We didn’t know how to do so many of the things we needed to do since we jumped in blindly; we don’t have biological children – make a bottle, register for school, find a pediatrician. But some of it was out of the comfort and power that came from not feeling so alone any more. We joined a foster parent support group that meets weekly at a church that offers free child care. We make it a priority to offer respite and to accept respite from foster parents when it’s offered. We host gatherings at our house and seek out opportunities to meet new foster parents any chance we can get. We are connected through online groups like the #SHAREfostering communities on Facebook.
Whether you already have a tight-knit community or you feel like you are walking into fostering all alone, I promise that there is incredible potential for foster care to change the way you think and feel about having a support system. As you learn to let down your guard and rely on others, you will understand what I mean when I say that foster parents are my favorite people. Not perfect. Not exactly like you or like me. You won’t always agree or have the same motivations.
Foster care created our community, and I am so grateful. Grateful beyond measure for the diverse, deeply wise, astonishingly funny, insightful, and kind people that we’ve met along the way. These people that we never knew were right outside our front door have now become a favorite part of our everyday lives. It means so much to me to have a foster parent community that pulls me through no matter what life throws our way.
What has foster care community looked like for you? Share with us your best tips for new and current foster parents who just want to find “their people.” Tell us in the comments!