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Let’s Stay Together: Lessons on adoption and foster parenting

October 10, 2014

A couple of weeks ago, we adopted our foster son: the boy formerly known as Batman. He made his social media debut and we officially became a court-ordained family.

We get a lot of questions about foster parenting. It makes sense that people would be curious about the process. Several years ago, most of what I knew about foster care and adoption was based on 80’s television.

Punky taught me about CPR, too, and about the danger of playing in abandoned refrigerators.

Punky taught me about CPR, too, and about the danger of playing in abandoned refrigerators.

Mr. Drummond, you're pretty swell for a rich white dude and all, but that tie...

Mr. Drummond, you’re pretty swell for a rich white dude and all, but that tie…

As much as I loved those stories growing up, one can’t base her life on sitcoms (though I try so hard).

Most of the questions we get are loaded with misconceptions. I’ve toyed with the idea of addressing those foster care FAQs as a blog series, but there are so many mom/parent blogs about adoption, I’ve been reluctant to get into it. So for the last few years, I’ve avoided blogging about life as a foster parent and instead sat myself down in front of adoptees and listened.

This is not easy to do. Adoptees have amazing things to say. A lot of it is hard to hear, particularly if you’re coming to the audience with a “save ALL the babieeeeees!!” attitude. It’s difficult to check that rescuer attitude when so much of the recruitment materials for foster care and adoption emphasize the number of children living in unsafe situations.

Data presented by federal government source, Child Welfare Information Gateway

Data presented by federal government source, Child Welfare Information Gateway

Homepage of Adopt US Kids, a website that features children waiting for adoption

Homepage of Adopt US Kids, a website that features children waiting for adoption

I see those numbers and I want to fix it. I want to rescue all those kids. But it doesn’t work like that. There are two primary ideas I’ve been rehearsing as a foster parent since we first went through training, and they still resonate with me now (and of course, I’m tying them to titles of Tina Turner songs because I can’t help myself).

We don’t need another hero.

As we learned in our county-based training, the process is about finding families for children, not children for families. Coming to adoption or foster care with a savior mentality opens wide the potential for all kinds of ethical problems. It also places unrealistic expectations of gratitude upon children who deserve basic human rights.

When we come to foster care or adoption looking for a kid to fit our lifestyle, we’re already placing our needs or desires ahead of the child’s. There will be times when the system, agencies entrusted with meeting the needs of the foster child, will fail the child, and we will need to be their advocates. We will need to bend our lives and our families around the needs of a hurting child, lest we continue to hurt them. This takes effort, personal sacrifice, and a community of support. Going in, you may think you have a supportive community and the right motives, but in ways that differ from other forms of parenting, your motives will be tested. Your loyalties will be tested. If you go into it looking to add a kid and stir, you’re already doing it wrong. Your family as it exists before you foster or adopt will need to be flexible and open to (sometimes intense) adjustment in service to the needs of the foster or adoptive child.

Having birthed two children before we became foster parents, I can say I’ve had many of the same doubts and fears that I had as a new birth parent. You come home from the hospital and you say, “What have I done?? Why did they just let me take this baby home?! I am incompetent to do any of this!!” I’ve had those moments as a foster/adoptive parent: “Can I do this?”

I’ve had times when I was outwardly on board with our fostering plan, vocally advocating for the birth family or for my son, but inwardly I confess I had moments where I hoped it would all fall apart so he could stay with us. I simultaneously wanted him to be reunified with his birth family, and I can say it’s possible to survive that tension while advocating for your child, or his parents, but it’s certainly not easy. There were times when the case was in limbo, when I had to fight to stay in the game because everything in me wanted to emotionally pull away from a potentially painful situation. I don’t like big swings of feeling. Okay, maybe rage is fun, but generally I’m not big on heartbreak. It’s not romantic to me. But foster and adoptive parents have all these feelings, and if you don’t have the stomach for that kind of roller coaster in service to the child, it’s probably not for you.

We’ve had to keep our focus on what our son needs at all times. We’ve had to make choices about how to balance that with the needs of our birth children and our marriage. We’ve done it wrong a lot. And though there are lots of families in our community and our church serving children in this way, because there is so much mystery and misconception around it, it can feel like a lonely vocation. People in your periphery will look at you like you’re a hero, but you’re not, you’re a willing parent. Because you’re a person with ego and not in fact, the Savior of humanity, you will have to remind yourself of that from time to time.

What’s love got to do with it?

Here’s a factual statement I read years ago that, at the time, everything in me rebelled against: Love isn’t enough.

Adoption is amazing. But it’s not the only way. In some situations, it’s not even the best way. It’s always a safety net. In our state, the primary goal in every fostering case, where possible, is family preservation. Living with your birth family, when it’s safe and possible to do so, is always best. Adoptive families, no matter how wonderful and loving, cannot make up for the loss of being separated from your birth family. We can help children navigate that as they grow up, but that loss is a loss. And that loss will be felt at different times in different ways. Some of my adoptee friends felt grief most keenly when they had their own children. My own grandmother wrestled with things well into her later years of life. So it’s a lifelong journey. Kids need space to deal with that and, contrary to the happy endings of every adoption movie I’ve ever seen, these situations don’t tie up neatly. Adoptees and foster children don’t need the pressure of being perennially “grateful” getting in the way of their social and emotional health.

And to think, all it took to help you through your trauma, Annie, was a jillion war profits and a few musical numbers!

And to think, all it took to heal your trauma, Annie, was my love, a jillion dollars in war profits, and a few jaunty musical numbers!

An adopted family is going to have to be astutely aware of the needs of a fostered or an adopted child. You’ll have to develop ways to protect your child and family from those who are curious and make inappropriate remarks about your family or children’s race, often in front of your child. We took a trip to Ikea early on when Batman arrived (new placements may require hasty home remodeling) and as I was pushing him in our cart, a woman stopped to ask me, “Awww, is he yours? Where did you get him?” He’s not a sweater, he’s a person. I almost gave the woman a warehouse aisle number. “Right by those fourteen-dollar easels, but before you get to the futons.” She, herself, was an adoptive parent whose son was born in China, which in my mind made it worse that she felt comfortable expecting a stranger to disclose that kind of information to her.

As a foster parent, you’ll probably have some interaction with the birth family, but once an adoption is final, you may have to be creative in how you include the birth family in your life. You’re going to have to be open and honest with your child about the circumstances that brought them into your family, and you’re going to probably have those conversations way before you think your child will be able to understand them. You’re going to have to fail as a parent, and be open to correction.

We adopted transracially and we’re constantly challenged to check ourselves and meet the needs of our son instead of staying in all-white spaces that make us comfortable. Over time, those familiar spaces have become increasingly awkward for us; and, we are glad for it. We have to continually cultivate relationships with people that will hold our feet to the fire and keep us accountable to our commitment on this, because as generations before us proved, it is incredibly easy for well-intentioned white folks to abandon ship and default to what feels right to us. Some of the biggest adjustments you may be called upon to make won’t seem heroic to your family or friends. You might just seem weird or distant. You may become controversial over these choices. Again, your loyalties will be tested.

There are many things about foster parenting and adoptive parenting that are similar to parenting children born to you, but for me, it has raised the stakes on what I’m doing with all three of my children. I’m not just parenting an adopted child, I’m parenting the siblings of an adopted child, and so I have to help them understand and navigate all of this, too. I’m only confident in how I’m handling all this about 23% of the time, but I’m 100% committed to doing better than I did yesterday.

I may write about this more in the future, but I think the adoption and our impending return to service as foster parents has made me wonder if I’m doing enough to help people understand this. There are so many complicated issues around adoption and fostering, and what some of these kids go through is horrific. It’s understandable that we would want to cut right to a happy conclusion. But if we do that, we’re choosing palliation over empathy and apathy over action. These kids deserve better than that.

We’ve given our Batman a loving family to call home. He’s given us infinitely more love (and a toddler’s share of trouble) in return. There is a huge need for new foster families, but these children are vulnerable, and as rewarding as the work is, it is work. It takes effort, humility, and flexibility to be a foster or adoptive family. It’s not for everyone, but everyone can be aware of how it works, and find ways to be supportive of the children involved.

If you’re curious about adoption, here are three resources that have been helpful to me so far (does not include a link to our local foster parenting association, but that’s a great help. Our county has excellent trainings and workshops on parenting.):

Lost Daughters
Gazillion Voices
National Council for Adoption

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