Several times a year I can expect any one of my friends to reach out to me saying, “I have a friend that’s interested in foster care/adopting through foster care, is it okay if I put them in touch with you?” I always agree but tell them it comes with a disclaimer that our fost-adopt experience was atypical.
We knew we wanted to adopt only, thinking that fostering a child and having to say goodbye to them would be too difficult for the two biological children we already had (not to mention hard on ourselves, too). But we also knew that the State is NOT an adoption agency, meaning it is not in the business of placing available infants with waiting families. Armed with that knowledge and having been lucky enough to have already raised two infants, we decided we wouldn't request a newborn. But since we wanted to keep birth order intact, we said we were open to taking a child up to age 4 (my biological son’s age at the time). Additionally, we were willing to wait longer for a child who was already legally free for adopting. It does happen sometimes that a family that does not want to adopt fosters a child--so when they become legally free, a new family must be found.
We became licensed and settled in for what would surely be a long wait. Instead, we got a call within six weeks. There was an infant at the hospital waiting—might we be interested? Now, this baby was not legally free yet but the circumstances of his case led us to believe that he would be. We decided to take the chance knowing full well that a possibility existed that we were getting ourselves into the situation we wanted to avoid—loving and losing a baby. (I remember during our foster parent training one of the other potential foster parents asked, “How do you not get your heart broken?” And I will always remember the instructor’s response: “Quite frankly, if your heart doesn’t break, I’m not sure you’re cut out for this. These kids need a safe place to live and grow but what they need most is to know unconditional love.”)
Thus began our fostering career. There were some ups and downs, a few surprises, a couple of unexpected siblings that needed a home, but overall our fostering experience was easy: comparatively little drama and all three kids we fell in love with were eventually adopted by us.
Six years and three adoptions into our fostering career, we let our license expire. I verified with several workers that we would be called if there were ever another biological sibling that needed a home even if our license wasn’t current. They all replied in the affirmative. “Its so nice that State tries to keep siblings together!” people remark to me all the time. Personally I don’t think it’s so much the State being “nice” so much as them being lazy in a way—I think placing a child in a home can be hard sometimes and the chances of a family saying “yes” are greatly increased when the new child in question is biologically related to the ones they already have. Or maybe the State is just being nice and I’m just skeptical.
I was thrilled at the thought of being done with fostering. No more online training hours! No more monthly visits from case and resource workers! No more visits from the State Nurse every six months! No more yearly home inspections!
But then something began to happen: both my online foster/adoptive parents support group and my real life one began to grow exponentially. Finally when I was done with fostering I had a strong community of other foster parents to talk to! I still have plenty to discuss with them regarding adoption (particularly of the transracial variety) but I wished I had them when I still had all those State workers in my life.
Now my heart hurts for my friends whose hearts really are being broken by loving and then losing foster kids. I also get to celebrate children’s progress, successful reunifications with birth families or adoptions by foster families. I become filled with excitement for a family who accepts a new placement. I anxiously read about families desperately needed for a sibling group of three or infant twins. For a brief moment I think, “ME! ME! I can do it!” before I snap myself back into reality.
We JUST finished a costly and time-consuming addition to our house. Our car ONLY fits the number of people we have in our family now. I FINALLY have a few hours a week to myself to pursue my non-parenting interests. (I also have the fear that if we ever did relicense and take a child in we’d then get a call about a sibling to one of my adopted kids and might not be able to take her/him because of the other foster child. That can’t happen.) We CAN’T open up to other placements right now, we just can’t.
But my heart aches when I hear about these children that need a home. I encourage my foster friends to go ahead and take that placement! Yes, you should totally take those two autistic preschoolers!! Twin newborns when you already have twins that are not quite one year old? You should definitely take them!! Because I can’t!! And then I feel badly when I see these families going through the roller coaster of foster care, especially when it (often) is worse than anything we ever went through.
And then I realized: I think I have foster parent survivors’ guilt. Our experience, when all was said and done, was relatively easy and drama-free. We adopted three great kids (that came to us as infants) while my friends continue to ride the emotional roller coaster that is foster care. No, I can’t take another kid right now but there is something I can to assuage that guilt. I can answer practical questions for potential or current foster families (What was the training like? What happens at mediation?). I can support the local foster friends that I encouraged to potentially break their own hearts by gathering the necessities their new placements might be lacking. I can drop off dinner to a family that got an unexpected child that week. I can offer myself as emergency childcare for working foster families on snow days.
The bad news about foster parent survivor guilt is that it can strike anyone, not just former foster parents. When I held a holiday gift drive for local foster kids (yes, to remedy my ailment) the response was overwhelming. I've been involved in many different kinds of donation drives before and it's always wonderful to see how generous people can be. But in my experience, they are even more so when it comes to helping foster kids. Maybe they always thought they'd be a foster family and now find they aren't able to. Maybe they know they are lucky to have the resources to keep their own family together. Maybe their heart, like mine, hurts to hear about kids they can't take in.
The good news is that anyone suffering from this ailment can alleviate the symptoms the same way I can. Getting rid of kid stuff? Find the local foster family support group to see if there are any foster families that would like it. Looking to make a monetary donation? Look online to see what foster care support agencies in your state could use some help (there is one in New Jersey called "Fostering Wishes" that helps provide money to foster kids for "extras" like sports, camps or musical instrument lessons). Bring dinner to a foster family. If you have the time, look into becoming a Big Brother/Big Sister/mentor, CASA volunteer or respite care provider.
You, too, can help foster kids without fostering them. And together we can fight foster parent survivor's guilt.