“I could never be a foster parent. I could never love a child and then give them back. I’d get too attached…”
This has got to be the most common statement spoken to foster parents and it’s hard to know how to appropriately respond. There’s a good chance that many of you reading this have said those same words at some point.
While I know it’s not what you mean, when you say that what foster parents hear is that you somehow think we’re robots without hearts who are able to dive in to care for hurting children without putting our hearts on the line. I’m going to let you in on a little secret- we’re not heartless robots or able to magically guard our hearts from the pain of loving and letting go. Sometimes it hurts. A lot.
In saying yes to the calling of foster care, foster parents are saying yes to a rollercoaster of highs and lows and unexpected turns. They’re also saying yes to attaching to children they didn’t give birth to and who will likely leave their home to be reunified with their birth family in the future.
When a child comes into foster care and is placed in a foster home, the goal of the case is to reunify that child with their family of origin. From the very beginning foster parents know that if their goal is reached successfully, they will eventually say goodbye to the children they’ve been entrusted with.
The children who are placed in foster homes by caseworkers have all of the same needs as the children we’ve given birth to- they need to be fed, protected, loved, corrected, and nurtured. This is how bonds are formed and attachment starts. They have needs that we can meet. As we repeatedly show up and meet their needs they begin to attach to us…and as they look at us with those precious eyes, give us big squeezy hugs, or ask us for extra snuggles because they’re scared or having a hard time dealing with their emotions, we get attached too.
Attachment is fascinating and most people don’t realize how much of who they are and how they interact with the world around them is actually rooted in their ability to form healthy attachments. This isn’t some man made phenomenon or fad, it was designed by God. Humans were created by a relational God and were meant to live and thrive inside the context of relationships. Children were designed to be nurtured and mentored by safe and loving adults who can care for them, mentor them, and slowly teach them over the course of 18 years how to become responsible adults themselves.
We live in a fallen world and because of that sometimes people are so hurt that they cannot see past their own pain and problems in order to care for their children. The biological parents of the children in care aren’t bad people … more often than not they’re hurting adults who were once hurting kids. This is where foster parents come in to break that cycle. We step in to temporarily love on the children in our community who need us while a team wraps around the biological family to offer services they need to establish the safety and stability they need to be able to successfully parent their children.
While the parents are working on improving their lives, the foster parents go about the work of meeting the children where they are, feeding their little tummies, kissing their scraped knees, and assuring them that they’re safe. Getting attached is a GOOD thing! When adults tear down their emotional barriers and allow themselves to fully attach, that creates a safe place for the children in their care to learn to fully attach and be vulnerable with their little hurting hearts. This is where trust starts to grow. And where healing begins.
Several years ago when I was preparing our very first foster placement to go home, I was discussing the internal struggle that I was feeling with a friend at church. Then he looked at me and said something that forever changed the way I saw my role as a foster parent. “It’s like putting Baby Moses in a basket, placing that basket in the river, and taking a step back. These children are God’s children first, just like your biological children are. His plans for their little lives are good and He can be trusted to care for them. You’ve done the job you were called to do here.” Those words impacted my life in a huge way and I’ve never forgotten them.
This doesn’t mean that reunifying the children who have come through my home became easier over time. It simply means I understand that in this mission I’m called to a certain level of brokenness. My hurting heart (and the hurting hearts of my children) are a worthy sacrifice if it means that a child was shown complete unconditional love while they shared our home. Every tear we’ve cried as we said goodbye is counted and measured by a God who sees it all.
Caring for someone else’s children and working to support reunifying a family is an incredible honor and not something I take lightly. Attaching to sweet little hurting hearts so they can learn that adults can be trusted is an incredibly important lesson that plants seeds in their lives that we may never see the fruit from….but it doesn’t stop us from knowing that someone’s got to take on the pain and plant the seeds. That’s the only way cycles get broken.
By Ann Meythaler, Foster and adoptive parent, The CALL County Coordinator in Northwest Arkansas