I remember the moment. The four of us were all sitting on the kitchen counters eating cereal at ten p.m. (or it might have been ice-cream. . . we were young and stressed) debriefing about the events of the day. We were all recent college graduates in our early twenties who were responsible for the day-in and day-out love and nurture of 7 boys, mostly teens and preteens. Boys who had come from trauma. Boys who couldn’t safely live with their parents. Boys who brought their unhealthy coping skills and beautiful smiles into this house designed to be their home until they could be safely reunified with their families. . . which for many of them over the years never happened.
We were exhausted by our work. My husband and I were the houseparents and along with caring for the boys were also responsible for supervising the interns assigned to help us– interns that were our same age with our same level of experience (namely, not much). We worked together to design systems to help these kids and created nurturing rituals and loved them with every ounce of our beings and it was draining. I remember the moment when one of our interns said, “I don’t think it’s supposed to be this hard. It shouldn’t be this hard.” We saw other houseparents that made it look easier than what we were experiencing. Were we making this more difficult than it had to be? It’s a question that has continued to haunt me over the years of caring for kids from trauma and as we continue to advocate for them, their families, and the foster families that partner with them.
I remember answering her in the moment, “I think it IS supposed to be this hard, if you’re doing it right.” And that’s continued to be the answer that gives me peace.
If you’re doing foster care right, it may be the hardest thing you’ll ever do. You will witness behaviors that are startling and break your heart as you realize they used to serve a purpose in the life of this child. You’ll see physical wounds that are painful just to look at. You’ll read court reports that frighten you. You’ll spend your days and minutes and hours doing a thousand things to build trust, but the one time you respond in harshness, you’re back to square one. You will be up all night with a child who has nightmares, then be chastised by her mother for not having her dressed in the clothes mom prefers for the visit that day. There are days it will feel like beating your head against the wall and you’ll wonder why you ever willingly signed up for this. And that’s usually the day someone will make an offhanded comment about how foster parents are all in it for the money and you’ll have to do your best not to cry because you KNOW they aren’t paying you well enough to make it worth the pain.
If you’re looking for some kind of “ministry” opportunity where you can put in a minimum of effort and receive the maximum praise, this isn’t the thing for you. If you’re not willing to do something hard, don’t bother. But if you jump into this world and in those dark moments find yourself asking, “Is it supposed to be this hard?” just know there are many other foster parents with you, standing beside you, saying “Yes! It is! Because you’re doing it right!” We know the cost of doing foster care well and we validate the pain you’re experiencing and promise it isn’t in vain.
Foster kids need you to be all in for them. They need you to be willing to take on the hard so they can have a chance at healing, at chance at normalcy. Struggling through the pain of foster care is NOT a sign that you’re doing it wrong or that you shouldn’t be doing it at all. It is a sign you are seeing this child’s needs and you are fighting to be sure they are met. And the struggles of foster care aren’t the whole story.
Because the challenges are so intense, the pain is so deep, the joy is intense, too. There are moments of stunning beauty– the child who finally comes to you when they’re scared instead of hiding, the teenager who tells you how they’d protect you from any harm, the baby that learns to calm when you sing to them, the little girl who proudly brings you her school project, the little boy who shyly hands you a bouquet of dandelions. Reunifications with a mother who worked so hard. Adoptions by families who loved their children from the start.
In foster care you learn to not just seek joy in the happy endings, because they are the exceptions rather than the rule. You learn to find joy in the process. You seize these fleeting moments of peace because you know what a gift they are. You become a different person than you ever thought you could be as your heart stretches to love not just the helpless child in front of you, but the family that gave him life and is struggling to reclaim their own. Even the brokenness of “the system” and the frustrations of the foster care process become opportunities to find your voice as an advocate and fight for this child and the many other children stuck in legal limbo as wards of the state.
Could foster care be easier? Sure. If we weren’t so invested. If we didn’t love so hard, fight so strongly, feel so deeply. If we WERE just collecting a monthly reimbursement and walling ourselves off from these kids and their struggles. There is a way to do foster care more easily, but that involves these kids being denied a real chance at normalcy, stability and love. I know those kinds of foster homes exist and it breaks my heart. Easy isn’t my goal.
Even in the very hardest of days, foster care is the right thing to do. It isn’t right because the results go the way we want or we always feel appreciated and loved for our sacrifices or because this child and their family become functioning and healthy. Foster care is often hard because this work is messy and getting involved means you’re going to get messy, too. But that’s exactly how it’s supposed to be. It’s supposed to be this hard. And we’re supposed to keep at it because these kids are worth it.
For more information on foster care in Nebraska, contact Christian Heritage.