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Foster parenting is letting love break your heart over and over
September 5, 2005

Foster Care ImageMy husband, daughter, and I have been a foster family for the past three and a half years. We have shared our home and our hearts with 14 children so far, some for a couple of days, others for a couple of months. Twice it has been for a year or more.

Every time we tell anyone that we are a foster family, the first thing they usually say is something like, "Wow! That's great!" or "I have thought of doing that, but just never did." The first question they ask is always the same, "Isn't it hard?"

"Hard" is an understatement. The second question they always ask is, "How do you do it, especially when they leave?" For that, there is no easy answer.

Maybe I'm starting in the wrong place--let me tell you what's not hard first. It's not hard to fall in love with these kids from the minute they arrive. It's not hard to make them a part of your family in every way. It's not hard to forget that they aren't your biological children, even if they have a different ethnic background from yours.

What is hard? It's hard to take them to visits, especially when you know that they are going to be "difficult" for the rest of the day afterward, and maybe for the next day (or week, or month) as they deal with the grief and loss they are experiencing. It's hard to understand why our kids' birth parents just don't show up for scheduled visits when we know that we would have started walking the night before if that was what it would take to see our child.

It's hard to call every pediatrician's office in the phone book to find one who will not only take Medicaid but will see your new foster child before you get the actual Medicaid card in your hot little hand because your child is sick now and the card won't arrive for another month or so. It's hard to look into the eyes of a 4-year-old little girl and try to find an answer to "Why haven't I seen my other Mommy in a long time?" when the truth is that it's because the other Mommy can't stay clean even though it means a suspension of the visits. Hard is wanting so desperately to help our kids' birth parents and facing the reality that you can't help someone who doesn't want to change.

All of that is hard, and it's just the tip of the "hard" iceberg, but it's not the hardest part of being a foster family.

No, the hardest by far is having the children we have come to love as though they are our own leave our home. As a parent you want to keep your kids safe, and once they leave your home, it's all out of your control. You feel the loss in so many ways. You keep their bedroom door closed so you don't have to see their empty bed. You take their car seat out of the van right away so you don't have to look into the rear view mirror and be reminded that they aren't there. You try to hide your tears from your daughter when you are sitting at the dinner table and you look at the empty chair where your foster child was just the day before.

The loss doesn't just affect us, our own little family. It includes Grandma and Grandpa who have attended the birthday parties and the program at the end of vacation Bible school to see their foster grandchildren singing their hearts out. It affects the aunts and uncles who have proudly introduced your foster children as their niece or nephew to their neighbors or friends when you stopped by for a visit.

It's hard for your daughter's best friend who always includes your foster children on the invitation to her birthday party. It's hard for your best friend who always remembers to bring a Christmas gift for your foster children when she stops by to bring a gift to her goddaughter, even if it means she had to stop at Wal-Mart on the way to your house because the newest child just arrived the night before.

How do we do it? I wish I could give you some easy answer, some words of wisdom that could describe exactly how to get through the days and weeks that follow a foster child leaving your home. Some step by step guide.

Unfortunately, there is no easy answer, no words of wisdom, no guide. You just get through it because you have to. You comfort yourself with the knowledge that you provided a loving and safe home for your foster children for however long they were in your care. You gave them unconditional love, structure, family. You know that what you are doing s important. Every time a child has left our home, we question whether or not we can keep doing it, keep putting our hearts out there for them to just be broken in the end, but we all know the answer. Each of the three of us knows that what we do really makes a difference.

Being a foster family isn't something you do, it is something that you become. It is a part of who you are.

We hope and pray for children who will stay forever, children to adopt, but until that time we will continue. We will go on being a foster family. Our daughter is only 7 years old, but she is wise beyond her years. One day we were listening to a song by Carly Simon titled "Coming Around Again" and she said, "This is our foster family song":

I know nothing stays the same,
but if you're willing to play the game
it's coming around again.
So, don't mind if I fall apart,
there's more room in a broken heart,

And I believe in love. What else can I do?

ROBIN HOSMER lives in Spotsylvania County.