Foster parents need to walk a lot of tightropes. One of the most challenging is striking a healthy balance between loving hard and letting go. While we are ‘loving hard’ and caring for kiddos in our homes, we are creating memories that (we hope) will last a lifetime for us and for the children. While we celebrate the joys of reunification among birth families, we are left with the ‘letting go’ part of the equation, so many foster parents create tangible memorabilia to preserve special times spent with children in our care.
Before my husband and I became licensed to foster, I volunteered in a local group foster home. I remember getting chills the first time I saw the mural painted in the hallway bearing the colorful handprints of every child who ever lived there. It’s a powerful remembrance. And I’ll never forget seeing a collage of photos in the nursery of another foster family, which prompted an idea that I would later replicate in my own home.
In addition to my collage and hanging other photos on the fridge and around our home, I also take lots of photos of children we have cared for, and keep scrapbooks with notes written about first words and other special memories. My bio tweens are big helpers with the scrapbooks, and I’m happy to have an easy way for them to stay involved in the process of documenting these precious memories we are creating with these special kids.
I also wear a bracelet with a charm representing each long-term placement we’ve had. I recently completed individual cross stitches showing each child’s likeness. They were originally planned as Christmas tree ornaments but, after all that work, I didn’t have the heart to pack them away until December so it seems I’ll be displaying them year round. Seeing each one brings a smile to my face: the orange beads in K’s long braids; O’s favorite striped shirt, M wearing her favorite pink jacket, brothers H & G standing side-by-side, and sweet L next to a little bird, which was her first word.
Just before the pandemic hit, we had a playdate with my friend Lauren and her foster children. I loved seeing the tree artwork they painted, onto which they add each foster child’s fingerprint. Seeing this beautiful keepsake stirred a curiosity about what other foster parents do to create special archives. So I asked around.
Heidi has tree artwork similar to Lauren’s, where each child’s fingerprint serves as one leaf among many. Heidi’s family also makes a handprint placemat with each child. “I laminate the placements and use them during holidays and other celebrations to remember all the children we’ve celebrated with before,” Heidi explains.
Suzanne has a board in the baby room with their pictures. She said, “I can see all their faces every time I change a diaper. It prompts memories and prayers for each child. I keep a journal where I write down every name that’s been through our home. I don’t ever want to forget their names.”
Melissa proudly wears a necklace bearing charms with each child’s first name and birthstone. Christie also has a locket on a necklace that contains birthstones for each of the children she has fostered. In addition, she keeps a memory book with handprints, pictures, names and nicknames for each child.
Kaley recently had a painting done showing all the kids she has fostered (so far!) in one large group. Future placements can be added to the artwork as times goes by. “We also do handprints of each child and mark their heights on a door frame in our home,” Kaley said.
Saying goodbye can be bitterly sweet, and it’s important for foster families to create tangible ways to remember each child and how they were unique and special in their own ways. When I’m feeling particularly sentimental about a past placement, I sit down with a scrapbook and spend time laughing, sometimes crying, yet always cherishing the time spent with these precious children.
The goal of foster care is always reunification. We celebrate each time a family gets to be together, of course. We’ve done the critical work of loving a child and standing in the gap for a family when it was needed. That part of goodbye is fulfilling, however there is also a very real part that grieves and feels loss at not seeing a child in person everyday, a person who was a treasured member of our family for a week, a month, or longer.
To the foster moms who are grieving right now, I understand. Please know that you are not alone. Let me or another friend bring over some chocolate and a bottle of wine. We can cry together, reflect on fond memories, or just sit together. We can brainstorm new ways to document those special memories. From someone who has been there, I understand the grief that comes with the goodbyes. Your heartbreak today is proof that you loved hard, and love does hard things.
If you’re considering foster care but not sure that you can handle the heartache that comes with goodbye, let me assure you: You Can Do It! It is so worth it. There is no such thing as getting too attached! The memories you create with a child (and possibly the relationship you build with his or her parents) will last a lifetime. The proof is right here in the cross stitches that I look at each day. Each child was precious and I will hold each in my heart forever. If foster parents are fortunate, we still get photos and updates via text on children we cared for in the past.
These tightropes we walk are so worth it! If you begin your fostering journey, you’ll find your balance along the way with help from the larger foster community, as well as the smaller foster mama tribe you develop. Please tell us (or even better, show us) in the comments how you remember all your favorite people.