I want to tell you a secret about foster moms and dads. But first you should know that the reaction we hear most often when we tell people that we are foster parents is “Oh, I could never do that. Love a child and then give them up? My heart would break.” Well, yes. You could do that. You could decide that the pain and anxiety and stomach churning fear of the future are a worthy trade for keeping a kid safe and loved for however long you have them. Here’s the secret: even though we agree to these things, they are still unbearably hard. Foster parents don’t have some secret weapon against heartbreak.
At one of the kids’ therapeutic appointments recently, I was explaining our successes and struggles from the previous week. Every inch of self-love and good behavior for this child is hard won, and I count the smallest moments of joy that this kid experiences as major victories. The therapist offered a new framework for seeing foster care. She told me that this is a battle on multiple fronts. And with those words, the veil came down and I saw clearly every fight we were fighting. Every day we advocate for these kids to their schools, to the court, to the caseworkers. We fight to accrue resources and mental health providers for them. We fight their demons. We rock them for hours at night when the trauma is lurking just behind their eyelids. And then we sometimes are fighting with the kids themselves, especially fighting for them to see themselves and love themselves the way that we do.
Seeing this as a battle was helpful to me. It justified my feelings of physical and emotional exhaustion. It helped me visualize our therapeutic practices at home as weapons against the darkness; our team of caseworkers and therapists as allies in the fight. It helped me understand my own tension and occasionally grim outlook.
The problem is that when the battle is won and the dust clears, if we truly have a victory, our only reward will be heartbreak. The win will be if these children are able to return to a safe, nurturing and stable bio home. A loss would be the kids staying in my home where I could love them forever. Never has there been a more bitter victory or a sweeter loss, but that doesn’t mean I get to turn my coat and fight for the other side. My love and my heart are for these children, but my energy and my fight is for their whole family.
The reward for this work is heartbreak. Acknowledging this makes people uncomfortable. There is always an instant rush to identify intrinsic rewards: you’ll be happy knowing you helped a family, you’ll be satisfied having worked so hard for a worthy cause. I challenge you to think back to a time that you grieved and imagine when people tried to comfort you by saying that this person was lucky to have you. I always think, lucky to have me? I am blessed beyond words to have them. There is simply no intrinsic reward great enough to eclipse the searing pain of losing a a cherished child. Battles only have two possible outcomes: If we lose, we will mourn a broken up family and all of the heritage that will be lost with it. If we win, we will grieve the loss of children from our home who have our whole hearts.
As it turns out, the biggest fight in the foster care battle is the one that’s happening in my own heart.