Dear foster parent extraordinaire,
My wife and I have been foster parents since March of 2016. We have experienced quite the journey and been through an eye opening experience. One which, having witnessed the depth of pain involved, I could never again feel true peace if we turned away from it. I am writing this open letter now though because lately I have been struggling to put words to my tumultuous emotions, and I don’t think I’m alone in them, despite the voice in my head saying that I am.
Since the spring of 2016 we have seen 16 kids come in and out of our home. Most of those stayed for a brief period of a few days to a few weeks. One set of them we took in full time and have been the subject of said emotional fluctuations. In this time I have been bit, spit on, spartan kicked in the chest, scratched, hit, punched, had things thrown at me, cussed out in such creative ways that I can’t help but give bonus points for creativity, and been left hanging onto the end of my rope more days than I can count. And to be transparent for a New York Minute, I no longer feel that I possess the strength, patience, or parental aptitude to adequately help these kids from hard places. I’m positive that I’m not alone in my internal struggles of feeling alone, incapable, and wondering if I’m even making a difference, so I wanted to write this open letter to foster parents to say a few things:
1. You are not alone
The ever present challenge for foster parents is fighting against feeling isolated in our struggles. So to be as clear as I can be: YOU ARE NOT ALONE. Every foster parent faces challenging behaviors. Every foster parent battles their own insecurity demons. Every foster parent needs to be encouraged, renewed, refreshed, and poured into. There are literally thousands of other foster parents who have willingly stepped into the line of fire, serving as a punching bag for an unseen enemy whose sole mission is to make you feel alone and detached from all support. In our isolation we grow weary. Know that on the hardest of days when you lack the strength to make it to bedtime, you are not alone.
2. What we are doing is incredibly hard
So here’s my dilemma: Now that I am aware of the familial cycles of self-harm, broken relationships, and dysfunctional systems that we see, I can’t ever stop fostering. I would not be able to rest at peace knowing that kids and families just down the road from me are eroding away like a poorly built bridge (I’m lookin’ at you Don Holt). I don’t have any plans to ever stop fostering yet I don’t feel equipped to do it consistently well. So where does that leave me? I’ll tell you where that leaves me. It leaves me in a very vulnerable place. It leaves me in the place where God needs me to be in order to use me. This place; where I recognize that my constitution, what makes me tick, does not have enough natural strength in it, is exactly the place where God can finally speak into. It’s exactly the place where He can say “it’s ok, let me give you what you lack.” This place? It stinks. It’s hard. It means I am constantly exposing my shortcomings and placing them on the curb in front of my house for everyone to see. I am perpetually reminded that I am not enough.
But the conclusion that I’ve come to? That’s ok. As a foster parent, I am not intended to be enough. All I can do is pour into, love on, and instruct these kiddos with everything that I have, and hope that my actions point them to who is enough. Foster parenting done right is exhausting for me for a season. Foster parenting done wrong is exhausting for these kids for a lifetime. Done right and we give them a glimpse of a perfect love. Done wrong and they are left searching for that love for their entire lives. Done right and I will have nothing left but worry that they will have a chance at life. Done wrong and they won’t have one. It’s hard to do it right and don’t ever doubt that. What we do is hard. Don’t let the voices in your head downplay the difficulty of what we’re doing.
3. What you’re doing is making a difference
The third thing that I find myself struggling with and becoming easily angry over is whether or not I am making a difference. For this I have to fall back on a story from a co-worker. When she was young her family fostered. There was a girl who stayed with them for a summer that was around her age and they quickly became good friends. After this girl returned home though, they lost contact. Fast forward 40-something years. My co-worker found her on Facebook and sent her a message asking “is this the girl that stayed with my family back in 1968?” And so began the rekindling of their 40 year old friendship. This girl began pouring her heart out telling my co-worker that she was recently in the hospital for suicidal ideation (considering suicide). In that moment she prayed to God that if someone out there loved her like that family did back in 1968, to let her know. Lo and behold, when she got out of the hospital, she had a Facebook message waiting for her that would change everything. What they did back in 1968 made a difference in 2012.
In Galatians chapter 6, verse 9, Paul writes:
So let’s not get tired of doing what is good. At just the right time we will reap a harvest of blessing if we don’t give up.
Do not lose hope when there doesn’t appear to be any difference being made. The end is not written and the God I serve loves to redeem a broken story. Maybe the child returns to a less-than-ideal situation and it makes you inconceivably angry. When tempers flare up and meltdowns grind the family to a screeching halt, do not lose sight of Paul’s words: Let us not get tired of doing what is good. At the right time, we will reap a harvest. You may or may not ever see the harvest, but know that your actions matter. The love and compassion you show on a daily basis will potentially serve to alter their family’s future forever. What you are doing is making a difference.
In conclusion, foster parenting is hard, it feels lonely, and the level of perpetually broken lives makes me feel incredibly angry. But I can’t let that stop me from continuing it, so what do I do now? I’m sure the answer is a little different for everyone, but here’s what Joy and I are working on:
- Exercise. I recently started exercising with a friend even though I fought it tooth and nail because, well, I hate to run. Much credit to Joy on this one because she hounded me to go exercise and direct some of my anger towards a goal. Exercising is a great way to help manage stress and anger, not to mention it leaves more room in your calorie counting for bacon. So find time to exercise and get some excess stress out of your system. If needed, reach out to other foster parents and see if anyone is interested in exercising together.
- Be Encouraged. Find someone who will pour into you. This is in-process for Joy and I, but it is so crucial that we are poured into and invested in if we ever hope to invest in others. An empty jar has nothing to give, so find someone you respect and has been where you are, and ask them to pour into you, encourage you, mentor you, and be a sounding board for you.
- In all things, Choose Love.