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3 Heart-Rending Things About Foster Care: Dreams Clash with Reality

Russ Schulte and his wife are foster parents, along with raising three biological children.

My wife and I have been licensed foster parents more than three years. We’ve welcomed two foster children into our family, which includes three biological children.

While not “veterans,” we now have wounds, scars and a sobering clarity from being on this battlefield. And there is a point where the dream about foster parenting crashes into reality.

Let me clearly state: I’m pro-foster care. That being said, I’m convinced that “wanting” to foster doesn’t mean a person is cut out for it. Whether you're considering foster parenting, are already foster parenting or simply want to know more to help support foster parents, this article is for you.

The need is great (see the chart below), but so is the need to think clearly about being a foster parent.

As a licensed counselor for more than 15 years, I’ve laughed and cried with incredible people who are foster parents. Witnessing their sacrifice has inspired my own foster-parenting journey. But their powerful stories still couldn’t prepare my wife and me as we launched forth.

Becoming a foster family is like entering into a sort of "special forces" unit. A lot of people seem drawn to a romantic notion of "saving a child," but not everyone has what it takes to be pushed to your limits and beyond. This isn’t a holier-than-thou proclamation. It’s just a reality.

Do you aspire to “enlist”? If so, maybe this piece will help clarify if foster parenting is for you.

Have you already enlisted and you are now feeling beat up? Perhaps you'll read on and feel less alone or abnormal.

Do you have friends or family who are foster parents? If so, please read on so you can gain some empathy and insight for them and for how you can support them.

1) No matter how prepared you think you are to be a foster parent, you aren’t and you won’t be.

It’s one thing to see a presentation or a movie about fostering. Today college students and young couples often view these at concerts, churches or elsewhere. It’s a completely different monster when you take the plunge and enter into a foster child’s broken life.

I can’t properly tell you how overwhelming it is. I can’t list every dilemma you'll face. I can’t convey all of the ugliness and messiness that invades your world.

Right off the bat you'll be given a mixed bag of details about a needy child and asked, “Do you want to take this child in?” That’s easy to answer, right? I mean that’s why you joined the cause.

But it’s not that easy. Other than the child’s abundantly evident needs, a potential foster parent tangles with other realities.

—Perhaps the child has severe sexual trauma and acts out sexually towards other children, and you already have children; or maybe you don’t have children, but the foster child is known to make sexual advances towards adults. Can you risk exposing yourself or your other children to this inevitable struggle?

—Be ready to be asked constantly at church, the grocery store or anywhere, “How are things going?” A sincere inquirer is smiling, anticipating you’ll say something like, “Things are so good! The little guy is such a blessing and God is so faithful. Thanks for asking.” Instead you actually would like to say, “I’m hanging on by a thread! I feel like a total failure. I’m not even sure God is real or how to trust Him at this point. And I feel completely alone in this.”

—A foster child harbors great pain and desolation that you must address. He or she is not a blank slate. I still tear up recalling many nights at bedtime when our little guy cried himself to sleep. At other times he’d curl up in my lap, weeping at how he missed his mama. I’ve felt a sense of raw powerlessness that’s heartbreaking in such moments.

2. Your dreams won’t be enough to change a child, and it's actually your task to help your child dream again.

Watching those videos at concerts, churches or online, an entire foster family is shown smiling and laughing—holding hands on a beach or jogging in a tall grassy field—all of this playing out in slow motion accompanied by light, happy music. Rescuing a needy child can seem like a “happily-ever-after” dream.

But such promotional videos don’t show how much pain, hardship and time is consumed by such a foster family to produce just a few moments of on-screen joy. Such videos leave out the tantrums, daily sabotage and/or the mood swings.

Here’s the reality: No matter how much you give, how much you love and how many times you say, “It’s okay, I love you anyway” to a foster child, it won’t be enough. A foster child will still believe that his or her family’s troubles are his or her fault. The child’s resulting bad behaviors will still leave him or her feeling unloveable.

Still, you’ll be tempted to believe, “If I just love this child enough, I’ll convince him or her that he or she can be ‘normal’.” Surely your love will rescue the child from pain, confusion and heartache. By bringing them into your home, protecting them and filling them up with your love, you might “give them a chance” to be what you want them to become.

This is what you’ll dream. But a foster parent’s personal dreams for how a foster child will respond to his or love—how that child will go on to new heights or meet our aspirations—just aren't possible for the child to achieve. Such expectations aren't realistic.

It will be hard to accept that your dreams can't change the child and actually won’t matter at all to the child. Your hopes and dreams are about you, and they do serve a purpose: to help you press on and stay motivated to keep loving and giving to help them.

Foster parents must be focused on other dreams—those of the foster child. So much of fostering is about helping your child recover his or her own ability to dream again. You are there to help them in this process. This can often be forgotten during the day-to-day grind.

3. You’ll be the bridge for your child’s past, present and future—so get ready to be walked on.

A foster child has conflicting feelings and can’t understand how to process painful previous experiences. He or she will need you to provide an opportunity to work through this. Foster children need a bridge from their past into their future.

Our little guy missed his mama but also knew he didn’t always feel safe or loved when he was with her. Additionally, he was told he couldn’t return to her anyway. Of course, this confused him and led to anger outbursts, opposition and wild mood swings. (If the child’s biological family is allowed by the state to be involved rather than separated from the child, things become all the more complicated.)

My wife and I became targets for our foster child’s hurt and anger—for the pain that someone else had inflicted. That felt extremely unfair, unjust and difficult, but it was the only way forward for the little guy.

To have a future, the child needs to make sense of his or her reality. To do so, you’ll be called upon to be a bridge. And bridges are walked on.

So is this for you?

Hopefully these thoughts will help lead you into deeper discussions with your spouse about whether foster parenting is for you. As you think through this, include you support network of friends and family. Also include others who are already “on the front lines” of orphan care.

Don’t be afraid to ask questions and to be honest with yourself, whether it's saying yes or no to foster parenting.

If you become a foster parent, surround yourself with supportive people, and love your child recklessly and whole-heartedly.

If, however, you decide you’re not cut out for foster parenting, remember that’s nothing to be ashamed of.

Russ is a licensed professional counselor and co-owner of Watershed Counseling Associates,

PLLC in Jackson, where he practices.

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