The complex dynamics of foster care and adoption look different in every family, but there does seem to be some unanimity in terms of several of the things we all struggle with. And, for the most part, the general population has no way of knowing these struggles since they aren’t walking out the same unique challenges each day. Yet foster and adoptive parents are rarely given opportunities to explain these tough things in an honest, tactful, and sensitive way. Opening up the lines of communication between traditional and non-traditional families is perhaps the best way to stay informed and compassionate. The main goal in opening up about these topics is to protect the little hearts who often overhear these big person conversations that can have such a huge impact on their developing identities and self worth.
So here are some of the most common things most foster and adoptive parents wish everyone around us knew.
- We are not saints. When well-meaning folks shower us with praise and paint a picture of us being heroes because of our decision to foster and/or adopt, it serves as a reminder of just how very not heroic and saint-like we are. As it turns out, there are few things as humbling and pride-crushing as foster care and adoption. It has a way of showing us all of the areas where we are in fact sinners. So when others put us on a pedestal, we feel like a fraud. In reality, we are simply broken people who answered a call God put on our life; and we’re just doing the hard work one day at a time, somedays limping and some days nailing it.
- Our children aren’t “lucky”. Our children are precious and treasured gifts that God so intentionally and lovingly created and entrusted to us. They have experienced trauma, whether at birth or later in life, separation from biological families is indeed traumatic. When they hear people around them say that they are “lucky” to have landed in our homes, it sends the message that they should feel grateful and indebted to us. Ideally, they’d instead hear words that send the message that they are loved, valued, and that we are the lucky ones for having them in our lives.
- Your words matter. It’s so hard to know what is and isn’t offensive wording and phrasing when talking to foster and adoptive families. It’s our responsibility to assume people have the best intentions and don’t mean to offend. However, when people say things like “what happened to his real mom?” and “where did you get her from?”, it can undermine and confuse everything we are trying to instill in these tender little hearts. It is so helpful when people take the time to educate themselves on sensitive wording and speak with an empathetic filter. Ask foster and adoptive parents about how they word things, read articles and books that talk about it, and be extra cognizant of the words we use when talking about tricky subjects like birth families and a child’s history. Also, keep in mind that some details of our children’s stories simply aren’t ours to share. Probing for juicy tidbits threatens the dignity and privacy of these children we are working to make feel safe and protected.
- We feel alone. Foster care and adoption can feel extremely isolating. We are walking through muddy, uncharted water most days and there is a general lack of relatability in most social settings. Most people don’t realize that our lives may look very different behind closed doors as we deal with hard behaviors due to our children’s traumas. There are glaring differences in how we came to be a family and, while we’re so thankful for the opportunity to love them, we’re also constantly needing to put ourselves in our child’s shoes in every new situation. Our hearts are in a fierce game of emotional ping-pong as we sort through the mourning, rejoicing, exhaustion, confusion, gratitude, and grief that comes with the territory. When friends and family come around with a willingness to sit in the discomfort alongside us, it is the most encouraging and empowering gift.
- Our parenting may look different (for good reasons). It may look like we’re “giving in” or not discipling our children enough or being too strict, but what many people don’t realize is that we’re working hard at establishing trust and connection with our kids. It matters so much more to us than ‘well behaved’. Because without trust and connection our children cannot thrive. A well-disciplined child who cannot relate, connect, or bond with other human beings would be tragic. Our parenting style may not make sense through the lens of raising children who haven’t experienced trauma, but all of the research teaches us that children who come to families through adoption and foster care will have different needs and hurdles than their peers. When folks around us recognize that without judgement, it creates a safe space for us to be the best parent that our little ones need, no matter how backwards our approach seems.
While foster care and adoption is not for everyone, everyone does have a responsibility to be a village to the next generation. If our culture has a better understanding and willingness to learn, we are one step closer to being that united village for all of our children.