Navigating the Challenges of Marriage as Foster and Adoptive Parents
Parenting is a lot of work- adoptive and foster parenting is A LOT of work. How do you nurture your relationships- especially your relationship with your spouse or partner- while parenting kids from hard places? It’s a question many foster parents find themselves asking and we are going to try to help answer it on this #FosterFridayLive.
Jon and Heidi are familiar with the balancing act of being in a committed relationship, raising kids, and juggling the challenges of being involved in foster care. We know foster care is hard and when you’re entering with a partner, or you have any type of relationships in your life, foster care is going to impact that.
Jon and Heidi both say that the best thing you can do for your marriage in foster care is “to listen to each other.”’
Jon and Heidi moved to South Carolina about five years ago specifically to get involved in foster care. They had talked about foster care and adoption from even before they were married. They found an opportunity to come do foster care as a “full-time ministry” as Family Teachers at Thornwell in one of the residential cottages. Through the two-and-a-half years there they cared for 67 kids in the foster care system. They acknowledge their experience is unique as they did foster care in a residential context rather than inside their own home. Still, they found they really loved doing foster care together.
They moved out of Thornwell when they decided to adopt two boys out of foster care that they met through their work as Family Teachers. Recently they accepted a fictive kinship care placement- children placed with someone the family already knows and trusts. The children were with Jon and Heidi for about 16 months before being reunified with their family. Heidi says, “it’s been interesting with our boys who were in foster care. They have been able to experience foster care from the other side, being able to help care for a family.” Now, they are in a new season as a family where they do not have current foster kids in their home. They are still actively involved in foster care as Jon is a Foster Care Recruiter with Thornwell and they both do foster ministry with their church.
What do you do when you want to foster but your spouse isn’t on board?
Foster care has been a big part of Jon and Heidi’s life and relationship for about 5 years. They had talked about it for about one year prior to jumping into it as a couple. For them, as it is for may other couples, Heidi brought up the idea of getting involved in foster care- she found the “house parent” or Family Teacher role. She was very enthusiastic about jumping in. Jon jokes, “she is the gas and I’m the breaks.” She is always ready to go and Jon prefers to talk things through. This is a common theme with many couples. It wasn’t that they were totally on different pages, but moving at different paces.
The way that they worked through that, and most of the big decisions in their life, started with a “What If” question. Heidi offered, “what if we were house parents?” “What if we moved and did this full time?” Jon had a lot of questions. Starting with the “what if” question, they were able to address some of Jon’s concerns and go through scenarios so that both got to a place of being comfortable with the decision to move forward.
That “what if” question has to go for both sides though- for any couple entering foster care together. Heidi was so excited about the opportunity to jump into foster care, but still she had to consider, “what if he doesn’t say yes?” “What if he’s not on board with me?” “What if we get here and it doesn’t go as planned?” The “what if” question became a balance for them as a couple- helping to gauge where they were at, communicate with each other what they were feeling, and sit with the “what ifs,” allowing them to say “okay, that wouldn’t be terrible. Let’s take the next step.”
Of course, we are talking about this in the context of marriage, but that doesn’t mean you have to be married to foster. There are so many amazing single foster parents.
Once you get started, how does foster care impact your relationship?
Heidi says that 67 kids later, “the main thing that we didn’t know [when we started fostering], that we would have to work through, was grief.” That is a major deterrent of couples considering foster care- kids leaving our home, having to say goodbye, processing the trauma of the kids in your care. “You can’t fully know the impact until you’re in that situation sometimes.” Jon grieves and deals with grief and processing trauma very differently than Heidi. They didn’t identify the grief at first- it was just the hard work of being a foster parent, juggling so many things just to keep daily life moving, but at the same time they were trying to process the internal emotions. When they finally identified it, sat down and talked about it, it came down to grief. They had to change their expectations- which as Heidi puts it, “comes down to grief. We were grieving something that didn’t turn out the way we expected.”
Heidi is a very outward or extroverted person in the way she processes emotions. Jon is more introverted. So they had to learn that about each other as they also learned their new role as foster parents (house parents). Jon and Heidi started their role at Thornwell on their two year anniversary- they celebrated by getting 10 kids. They didn’t fully know each other yet- Heidi says, “two years isn’t a lot of time even though at the time it felt like a lot.” They were having to learn their relationship, their marriage, this other person as they were also learning this whole new world of foster care as well.
However, one of the cool things that brought them closer together was just that – the shared experience of learning together. Shared experiences can be super powerful in building relationships. As they were building the foundation of their marriage relationship, they were able to share a lot of difficult, stressful, and emotional situations that forced them to learn a lot about themselves and each other and how they work together.
Their first experience- the first group of kids- helped them to learn and grow together. It confirmed for them that foster care was something they were supposed to be doing, something they were passionate about. Jon says after being thrown into the fire, “if we could get through those 10 kids, we could get through anything.” Those 10 kids were all successfully reunified with their birth families. Jon and Heidi were able to work with the birth families a little bit and help each child transition home.
“It’s really cool to see that we work together well,” Heidi says. Opposites in a lot of ways, Heidi found that foster care was really helpful in showing her how their “forever” was going to go. They became a true team- working together to get kids to bed, transport to visits, cook meals, and all of the things of daily life. They were encouraged to see how things fell into place.
If you had advice for other couples trying to reconcile how foster care has impacted their relationships, what would you share with them?
Constant communication and listening is key- you may process things differently. The way you grieve and the way you look at things may be different. It is easy to look at your partner, and say “why are you doing it that way?” It is harder to try to understand that people are different and you and your spouse will have different ways of dealing with things- then moving past just understanding to really appreciating those things about them.
Sometimes the things you need and the things you’re feeling will change rapidly throughout the day- especially if you have a new placement or something happens with the kids. There will be tension if you wait to talk about what you need until it’s so built up. Just be honest with your partner about what you need so that they don’t have to guess.
What are some practical ways that you stay connected as a couple in foster care?
Continue learning- we really enjoy education and learning more to be better equipped to parent our kids from difficult places and difficult behaviors; of course, we want to nurture our relationship through those hard things as well.Jon
At Thornwell’s Foster Care Conference on September 14, 2019 there is going to be a great session on managing your relationships in the midst of foster care and adoption. That is among a ton of great sessions.
Watch the full interview with Jon and Heidi on Youtube.
I think we can all agree that our relationships (with our spouse, or our family, or our friends) are crucial. Not just because we love them, but because in foster care and adoption we need a great support system. What do you do to maintain healthy relationships?