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ten things I mostly know for sure about adoption and foster care

Being licensed foster parents for ten years and adoptive parents for eight of those years has taught us a few things. We frequently get asked to meet and talk with people who are interested in fostering or adopting. I’m usually uncertain where to start, and often I’m concerned about the balance I’m striking of idealism and truth. No matter people’s questions, these are the things we end up talking about in the end.

1) Love is the foundation and the fuel. Love wins. Love is not enough. When we started fostering, our philosophy could be boiled down to essentially this: these children need someone to love them because obviously no one loves them, and we’re going to be the people who love them and then they will love us and everything will happy and fine forever. Bless us. For real.

First off, we have yet to meet a child who didn’t have anyone who loved them.

Secondly, Bonnie Raitt is right: You can’t make someone love you if they don’t.

Thirdly, even if you love a child and they love you back, in no way does that make everything happy and fine. You need more than a good feeling in your hearts to help kids heal.

2) What do you think about “good” parenting? About addiction, abortion, poverty? Whatever you believe will inevitably turn out to be more complicated in reality. You might think addiction is wrong until you meet a functioning addict who parents his children well. You might be pro-life, but until you’ve parented a child whose mother “chose life” but also chose drugs and abuse, until you’ve met and loved that woman and heard her story and seen what happens to her children first-hand…well, chances are you’ll be more confused than when you started. Do you think poverty is a choice? A moral failing? The people you will meet and learn to love will change your mind.

3) This one deserves its own post, so it’s likely I’ll say just enough to make both sides upset. If you’re white, I don’t think you should be setting out with the express purpose of adopting transracially.

We began fostering with a checklist of ‘characteristics’ that we would not accept. We chose not to check any race and ethnicity boxes. It wasn’t important to us nor did we imagine it would matter. I was enamored with the idea of a multicultural family. I had literal dreams about it, down to a specific child’s name. It’s ok if you roll your eyes at that. I do too, now. I needed to learn some lessons. I needed to confront my white privilege. I’ve had to repent from both my complicity in a system designed to uphold white supremacy and my own racism (which, like most white people I know, I didn’t even think I had). Do I think it’s wrong if you have adopted transracially? Not by a long shot — we have two biracial daughters ourselves. Families are made in different ways. After eight years of being a multi-ethnic family, however, I know what happens when that charming picture is real life. This is not judgment on whether or not you, personally, should adopt transracially. This is an opportunity to investigate your motives. Is it because you like the idea of a transracial family? Have you done the work to be prepared for this? Is what you want worth a child’s well-being?

4) Fact: there are not enough good foster and adoptive families. A more important fact: you might not be the family who should foster or adopt. If you’re not prepared, if you’re not willing to be inconvenienced, if you’re not ready to hurt and grieve and put everything aside for the sake of a child that you do not know or love or even like, then you might not be that family. If you’ve ever said, “I don’t know how I could do that. I would just love them too much to let them go.”, then you’re definitely not right for this job. If any of these points so far have made you defensive, you might not be ready.

5) You will need your people. And then you will need some more people. Foster and adoptive parenting is incredibly isolating. You will need your family to be supportive and your friends to be helpful. Even with those people in place, you will still feel intensely alone at times. That’s when you need more people. The internet is your new best friend. Research. Reach out. Use Facebook, even if you hate it and morally disagree with everything it stands for. Go to conferences, even if you go alone. You will extend yourself in ways you did not anticipate and that make you uncomfortable, but the support you require will probably not just appear. You have to do the work to make it happen. You will need more like-minded friends than you anticipate, and they will be harder to find than you imagine. You can’t do this well alone.

6) Parenting kids who have experienced trauma is different than most of the parenting you have already experienced. It is almost without exception harder than parenting biological children. You will be stricter than you thought. You will be more lenient than you expected. You will turn all that traditional wisdom on its head. You will be more humiliated than you thought possible, and then you will stop caring what other people think at all. You will become proficient in neuroscience, psychology, sociology, biology, complex developmental trauma, TBRI, and above all, in the unique language of your child. This kind of parenting will exhaust and energize you simultaneously. It will make you question yourself daily, but when you see a kid you’ve been working with finally GET IT? There is nothing like it in the whole world.

7) You may reach levels of emotion you’ve never known you had the capacity to experience. It’s possible you might throw an actual piece of cake at your child one day in anger (ask me how I know). It’s possible you might do worse (maybe don’t ask me how I know). You might develop depression or anxiety. You might experience vicarious trauma or find yourself struggling with PTSD. You will grieve in ways you thought were reserved for actual death. This life is regular parenting on steroids. Children tend to expose our flaws and wounds in ways we didn’t expect, and some of the children you will meet will do that ten times over again. Which leads to the next point…

8) Everyone needs therapy. You will need therapy. Your spouse will need therapy. Your kids will need therapy. Not just your adoptive kids — your bio kids too. All of them. Everyone. Get used to it. Make friends with waiting rooms. Don’t assume everything is fine until it’s too late. Make no mistake: you’re all probably going to be fine. You’re not ruining your lives. You and your children are going to be better off for choosing this journey, but you do need tools. You need safe places to talk and cry and process that don’t involve other members of your family.

(Author’s note: I believe this about everybody, so even if you never foster or adopt - dude. Get some therapy.)

9) You can do hard things. This is hard work, but you — yes, YOU — can get up every single day and do the work it takes. I know this to be true, because I’ve done it for ten years now. It’s broken me in ways I did not expect. It’s wounded our family in ways that I would never have chosen. It’s been the best thing we’ve ever done in our whole lives. It’s made us strong and compassionate and taught us about love in a way that no other life path would have. Reuniting a child with a parent who has worked tirelessly to get them back makes those tear-jerker military homecomings pale in comparison. Sending a child home to be with their family even when you worry and question whether it’s the right choice and pray every day for them after they leave you is still worth it. Kids belong in their own families. But on the heartbreaking occasions where that can’t happen, the joy of enlarging your own family to include kids that you now get to call your own is its own incomparable joy. You can do this. You can be the person that helps a child heal, and you can do it well.

10) In case you’re like me and you get a little overzealous about this work, I offer you this final caution and nugget of encouragement: You do not save kids. You get to be a part of healing and restoration in this amazing life, but even so, you are not the one who saves these kids. You just get to be a part of their story, and sometimes we get real confused about how much of a part we play. I get to remind myself of this one on the regular: I am not my children’s savior. But there is one thing that I know that’s not a maybe. It’s a definitely, for sure: if you’re very lucky, you will meet and parent and love some kids who just might save you.

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