So your friend has become a foster mom or maybe you just met a new friend and it turns out she’s a foster mom. You like this woman. You want to be close and be a support. You want to understand what this whole “foster mom” business means. But where to start? How can you be a good friend to a foster mom?
Recognize that Foster Moms are mostly just moms. She’s not a saint, she’s not a monster. She’s a mom to kids who need her right now. She isn’t made of different stuff than you, able to turn off her emotions when she needs to or with an unending supply of patience. She’s just passionate about these kids and families and she wants to help, but many of her motherhood struggles are exactly like yours. The fostering part is a unique aspect of her motherhood, but dirty diapers and making dinner and school drop-off lines are all the same no matter how you got into this gig. Building a relationship with a foster mom can begin with focusing on what you have in common as women, as parents. Affirming that she is a mother and that you are doing the same motherhood work is important. She wants her kids to be invited to VBS and she wants to come to your MOPS group and your zoo playdates. Let her know that you see her unique family as just that– a family.
Give her room to talk, but don’t push for details. We know foster care brings out everybody’s curiosity. Is this that toddler we heard about on the news? Are the parents in jail? Does she call you Mommy? Does he have behavioral problems? There are some questions we can answer and some we just can’t. Or at least, we shouldn’t. We are the guardians of these kids’ stories and we need to protect them. As much as we’d like to explain to you why this child is acting like he is or why reunification isn’t happening or why none of us are getting much sleep at night, we may not be able to without compromising this child’s privacy. We don’t want him to become the subject of gossip in the neighborhood or at church or school. We may desperately need to talk to someone about our own struggles, so please don’t feel like you can’t talk to us about foster care or how things are going, just know that when it comes to the stories of these children, we may be guarded or vague.
Let her vent. We need friends who will let us complain a bit about foster care. Okay, we need friends who will let us complain A LOT about foster care. Foster care can be absolutely ridiculous. No one knows that better than foster parents and we’re also the ones who need to be absolute diplomats within the system. We shouldn’t be complaining to the families, to the caseworkers, to the lawyers (unless we’re doing it in a formal complaint kind of way because it’s gotten that bad), so we NEED friends we can voice our frustrations to. If you want to be the kind of friend we trust with our venting, we need to know you can hear us out, ask us questions, and be an encouragement. If we sense that you think we’re crazy to keep doing this with as frustrating as it is, we won’t keep telling you about it. We need to get it out of our system so we can dive back in. Let us vent without feeling like you have to help us solve anything. The problems may not be solvable, but your support may make them more bearable.
Don’t tell her to quit. Let your friends be frustrated, be heartbroken, be upset. If they say they want to quit, ask them questions and be a support. Recognize that those feelings may be intense, but fleeting. If you think your friend really is being damaged by foster care or isn’t capable of safely caring for foster kids, I think this is a conversation you can lovingly have. But if it’s just that she needs a safe place to complain, don’t turn that conversation into the reasons why she should be done. I bet she’s complained about her husband before, but you probably didn’t advocate divorce. Give lots of grace in those frustrating moments.
Be mindful that traditional parenting techniques may not work. As you do life alongside a fostering friend, you may notice that she doesn’t parent the way other people do. That’s okay. She’s dealing with healing wounds she didn’t create and that takes a unique kind of parenting. She may feel like a failure for not being able to help this child the way she wishes she could. She may be exhausted from having to explain why she’s making the parenting choices she is. She may be hyper aware of how people judge her parenting without understanding why this child is acting like she is– it isn’t a problem she caused, but now she has to work to solve it. She needs a good friend who can love her, support her, ask her questions and listen to why she’s doing what she’s doing. Kids who have been abandoned may not be able to do time-out. Kids who have been screamed at may respond very negatively to a mother who yells across the park, even if it’s just to tell them they have five more minutes to play. Children who have been starving may not be able to skip a snack as a consequence. Realizing there are reasons behind the choices she’s making may help you give her the grace she needs to parent differently and in a way that is healing to these children.
Ask about respite needs. There are lots of ways you can offer practical support to a foster family, but one of the most pressing needs is for respite help. Respite is when you provide care for a foster child so the foster parents can get some time away. If there’s a wedding or funeral out of town, the child may not be able to go. If the foster parents want to do a anniversary trip, they need specialized help. Even just getting a babysitter for date night can be a major hassle if you’ve got to have them background checked and approved ahead of time. That’s where you come in. If you want to help your friend, consider going through the process to become a respite family. There is no more practical way to communicate to your friend that you support what she’s doing than to stick your toes in that water, too.
Love her kids. I can’t tell you how important this one is. If you can see past the struggles and to the heart of this child, you will forever win a place in this mom’s heart. Can you take the time to get down on his level and smile at him and ask how he’s doing? Can you invite her over for a playdate even if you know tantrums will be involved? Can you drop by some ice-cream for the family? Can you be one more adult in this child’s life that helps reinforce the message that he is worth loving? If a foster mom sees you genuinely loving her foster child (and seeking to understand that healthy boundaries are part of that process), she’s going to love you all the more.
Foster care is hard work, but it is made easier with the loving support of good friends. For those of you who function as a support structure for the families doing the work of foster care, we thank you. We can’t do this well without your help.
If you’re interested in more information about foster parenting, contact Christian Heritage.