Published on September 10th, 2015 | by Dane Bauer Hassid8
5 Worst Things To Say To A New Foster Parent (And 5 Things They Really Need To Hear) by DANE BAUER HASSID
There are 400,000 kids in the 50 foster care systems across the US. That may seem like a huge pile of kids, but it’s fewer than the number of people who caught the midnight showing of the final Harry Potter movie. As a foster parent in training, who’s taking the required 10-week prep course before the licensure process, it’s not uncommon for me to be surrounded by people who don’t know a single person involved in the foster care system.
I’ve had enough of the same conversations in the few months since I came out as a prospective foster parent that I wanted to put together a guide for the Well Meaning, Supportive And Slightly Alarmed Foster-Adjacent Friends And Family. Here are the five worst things you can say to a new or prospective foster parent—and what we really need to hear.
1) Aren’t you worried? Those kids can be so tough. Let me tell you a story about a book I read about the foster care system and how I couldn’t stop crying about it for days.
What I Hear You Saying: I don’t trust that you’ve thought this through. This is one of the worst things you can say to a new foster parent-in-training. It undermines and dishonors the journey we’ve taken to come to this decision. Nobody becomes a foster parent by accident. We apply, take classes, and go through licensure. At each step of that process, we confront massive questions about ourselves and our lives. Did you have to fill out a 20-page questionnaire about your family history and parenting style before you tried to conceive a child?
What I Need To Hear: I’d love to know more about what led you to become a foster parent. This shows respect for the work I’ve done. If you listen to my story and then have follow up questions? Great. But chances are, I’m going to answer a lot of your questions before you ask them. Like, yes, I do plan to invest in some indestructible furniture, thanks for not asking.
2) I could never do what you’re doing. It’d be too hard for me.
What I Hear You Saying Option A: I’m going to back away slowly now and probably fade from your life. And you know what? That’s actually okay. If you can’t stomach my rants about The System, or learning a new name every so often, or watching me go through the heartbreak of transition—fade away. Find friends that resonate with your life, who make you feel supported, and I will, too.
What I Hear You Saying Option B: It’s too painful for me to think about. I don’t want to see you in pain. This is like answering someone’s “I’m pregnant!” announcement with “Oh but labor is SO PAINFUL.” This one often goes hand-in-hand with “I could never.” But, honestly? You have chosen to do painful things in your life. You’ve risked vulnerability for love. You’ve moved away from friends and family. You’ve played a sport you loved even though you now have a knee surgeon on speed dial. Humans do painful things all the time. Think of how you got through the last painful experience you had. Think of what your loved one said while they held your hand and fixed you sangria on top of a pile of ice cream.
What I Need To Hear: It sounds like there are going to be some rough times, but you can count on me. I might not know what to say, but I’m here for you. Do you think you’ll want sangria or ice cream when your heart is broken? Because we can do both.
3) I just think you’re missing out on the experiences of parenthood, like pregnancy and labor, and getting to name your child…
What I Hear You Saying: I am really afraid I won’t be able to relate to your experiences of parenthood unless we become parents the same way. Even if that’s not what you’re saying—even if really, you think drug-free labor is not to be missed—there is no other way these sentiments come across.
Look, I get it. The rhyme never said “First comes love / then comes marriage / then comes a lifelong entanglement with the child welfare system and a series of placements that will set your heart on a path of growing and breaking forever.” Unless we grew up in the foster care system, none of us were taught how to do this. But I’m taking a deep breath and going for it. Sure, there will be things I don’t experience. But my grandfather still thinks I’m leading an unfulfilled life because I refused to take any engineering classes in college, and I’m still breathing. And he and I are still able to have a rich and loving relationship despite our radically different careers. We can, too. I promise.
What I Need To Hear: What parts of parenthood are you looking forward to? Instead of assuming I’m going to miss out, recognize that there’s lots of experiences I’m going to get to have as a parent, and I’m excited for them!
4) You’re doing such a great thing, saving those poor kids.
What I Hear You Saying: You are better than those kids. There is nothing that gets under my skin like fire ants faster than the savior narrative of foster care. There are no heroes, and there are no villains – only the incredibly snarly, messy, complex and beautiful families and people that make up this system. And I include myself in that system, by the way. I am snarly, messy, complex and beautiful.
I am not saving anybody. I’m providing a safe and loving home for a child for as long as that child is with me. I’m going to school meetings and doctor’s appointments and soccer practice and kissing bruised knees and checking for monsters under the bed and sitting up until midnight doing her homework because what first grade teacher in their right mind assigns a child to do a scale model of the Eiffel tower out of toothpicks. None of this is heroic, unless it is heroic when you do it, too.
And yeah, kids who’ve been through significant trauma have a lot of healing to do. That’s the nature of the beast. But giving them a safe place to do the work is not an act of heroism. It’s an act of humanity. And if I get a medal for it, than so should you. And also your kid’s teacher. Possibly their doctor too, and that really great babysitter.
The children who come to me come whole, not broken. They come with trauma and baggage and very few belongings. But they also come with wholly formed personalities, senses of humor, survival skills, smarts and playfulness. There is nothing to fix, only to heal and continue to grow and thrive.
What I Need to Hear: Tell me about the kids you’ve cared for. Show me that you recognize my kids as individuals, as whole, sparkly fabulous people. And don’t forget—if you’re an experienced parent, I may need your advice, especially if I’m dealing with a situation I’ve never experienced before, like advocating for my kids in school, or choosing a piano teacher. Ask about how they make me laugh, how they push my buttons—and I’ll ask you right back.
5) It’s not really parenting / they’re not yours forever / it’s more like state-sponsored babysitting than parenting.
What I Hear You Saying: You are doing it wrong. You will never be a real parent. I do not respect what you are doing. I am also woefully ignorant about the child welfare system. To the speaker, these statements are hard truths that maybe the prospective foster parent hasn’t considered. To me, they’re a wholesale rejection of everything I’m working toward.
What I Need To Hear: Happy Mother’s Day. Happy Father’s Day. Happy Less Genderedly Problematic Parents’ Day. Because we’re there with you. Our kids may change, and we may have a lot more paperwork to do than you do, but we are just as up to our elbows in mud, poop, grinning, anticipation, heartbreak and exhaustion. And like you, we wouldn’t trade it for anything.