Three ways foster parenting is harder than traditional parenting

Confession: Sometimes I write about foster parenting to save my sanity. When I’m not actively fostering, I long for it – and when I am, I remember why I hate it. I both love it and hate it; it’s hard for me in ways that traditional parenting is not. Here’s how.

(But just FYI in case it sounds like I’m putting it way up there in the hard-and-holy realm: tomorrow I’m talking about ways it’s easier!)

  1. Powerlessness

When you are a birth parent, you have enormous influence over the way your children are raised: how they’re dressed, fed, taught, disciplined, doctored, schooled.

Parenting was created to be an experience shared by two people who are lovingly committed to each other for life. When you are a foster parent, you are parenting as part of a large team of people you may not know well, agree with, or even like. There are the bio parents and/or grandparents, the caseworker, the supervisor, the juvenile master, the guardian ad litem, the in-home counselor, the TSS, and more. Three to five (or more) different people may need to be contacted for every decision, even one as simple as getting a haircut. And the answer may be no.

Your foster children may receive several large sugary drinks from one set of parents and be sent home to urinate on the bedsheets of the other set. They may be given gifts you do not allow in your home. They may be enrolled in educational programs with ethics and policies you disagree with. They may be required to receive vaccines you wouldn’t choose. They may spend the night in situations you deem unsafe. They may need a spanking, but you can’t give it. They may return to homes where you know they’re being hurt.

You have a voice, technically, but whether that voice is heard depends a great deal on the other people on your team. Some will value your input highly; some will not.

In the end, you don’t have a lot of control. You’re doing 90% of the parenting with 10% of the say-so. And it’s hard.

  1. Painful emotions

Emotions are part of all parenting, but the emotional roller coaster of foster parenting is particularly difficult, for all of the reasons I mentioned above, and then some.

Will you keep this child for now? Will you keep him forever? Oh wait, never mind – we found a kinship home for him. Actually, that fell through. Will you adopt him? Okay, Mom is getting things together but if the child can’t return home, we’ll count on you.

Every day you are faced with the dilemma of whose team you are on, and whether someone else’s success or failure makes you cry or cheer. It’s revealing, and sometimes it’s ugly.

Besides this, there are the emotions you feel toward the children. You can’t control these feelings, or turn them on and off with a switch. Just when you need to release the children, you may find you cannot live without them. Just when you most need your happy and affectionate feelings toward them, you may find those feelings clean gone, dried up, without a trace. There might be days when you walk near the edge of sanity and (temporarily) cannot stand your foster children, or what they have done to your home.

God created mothers with a special tolerance for the disgusting and foolish aspects of their own progeny: the fluids, the hissy fits, the endless questions, the wakefulness in the wee hours, the bad habits and immaturity, the nasty smells, the annoying sounds. Oh, it’s a mercy, a sanity saver! You might not think you have the tolerance I am talking about, but just imagine mothering your neighbor kiddos! Now do you know what I mean? In foster parenting, you are winging it without built-in tolerance. I hate to say it, but these kids are not your kids. And your emotions know it.

(Except that at some level, they are your kids – and that’s a whole book’s worth of emotional confusion.)

Every time I think I’m really bonded to my foster children, somebody gets sick and starts unloading body fluids on me. It’s a level of gross that’s hard to get used to. Several years ago, just when I needed extra love for my drooling and smelly special needs foster child, I discovered that the queasy feeling in my tummy was morning sickness. And then I lost my snowflake-sized baby, and needed to care for my foster son through the bitterness of my grief. Later that year, just when I thought I was really getting the hang of loving other people’s children like my own, I gave birth to a newborn who became, briefly, my whole world. Loving my annoying, runny-nosed, precious foster toddlers through that season of postpartum hormones and baby-worship became one of the hardest sections of my fostering story, second only to losing those kiddos eight months later.

But I did it.

But I couldn’t feel the right things all the time.

  1. Isolation

In traditional parenting, there is usually someone to empathize with you. Their situation is similar to yours, or they went through your stage already, or their children are spaced like yours. Their daughter is too hyper to sit still too, or they miscarried a baby, or their sons fight all the time, or their child has special needs. Sibling rivalry, feeding schedules, naptime struggles, school requirements… other people face what you face. No situation is identical, and it doesn’t take away the pain, but at least they know how to love you, what will help and what will hurt.

In many communities, foster parenting empathy is harder to find. My church has been blessed with an unusually large team of foster/adoptive families. My non-fostering friends have done an amazing job at loving, supporting, and accepting our family as well – but sometimes they feel tongue-tied because they have not been there.

My friend Joanna is currently grieving the loss of a foster sibling group of three. Three! Who in our community knows what a home is like when three children are suddenly gone? We love, we care, we pray, but in the end, she is carrying pain that the rest of us have never felt.

In foster care, the drama never ends. The story keeps getting wilder and more infuriating and more heartbreaking. Sometimes it’s difficult to be honest about the hard things, for fear of shocking a community that has never experienced them.

And then there are privacy laws to protect the bio family! which mean no matter how guarded you are, you always carry the fear of saying too much. And in the end, there’s a lot you just can’t say at all…

Powerlessness, painful emotions, isolation. I don’t have a neat ending for this post; there is no easy resolution. Many days I don’t remember why I do what I do, but I imagine life is like that for most people who do difficult things – i.e. all of us.

God have mercy on his children, and give us grace.

This post is meant to encourage foster parents who know what I’m talking about, and to give non-foster parents a window in. It does not answer the tough question – What can be done to help? Maybe you can share an idea in your comment.

Next time: Three Ways Foster Parenting is Easier Than Traditional Parenting

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Christina Zimmerman
5 years ago

Ah Shari you touched a cord in my heart, just now we are in the transitioning stage of a 18 month old who has been with us almost a year. He leaves for good on the 15th to a kinship placement. He has been such a blessing to us and take a piece of our hearts with him.
We just came home from a foster adoption seminar at Penn valley retreat. It was such and encouraging weekend.there are other people who feel our pain.
Thanks for your inspiration. Christina Z

5 years ago

ha, the body fluids… those first months I frantically tell myself over n over at every diaper change, puke , etc… that every output is from things I fed him and i mentally yell at myself, ITS THE SAME AS MY OWN CHILDRENS!! I try to forget all the snacks pulled from dirty bags and purses that are fed him in the family visits.
My husband and I pray nearly every morning God would give patience and love during the frustrating times of each day… and there is something so heart melting when I stop to think of the child’s history, trauma, and the utter dependence this child has on me to give him everything he needs, including mother -love..

5 years ago

I have several friends that are fostering, and this was so valuable for me to read!! My children usually ask me, when I’m reading one of your blog posts, ‘what is so funny, Mom?’ I seldom read one without my funny bone being tickled ?

5 years ago

You made me smile. “God created mothers with a special tolerance for the foolish and disgusting aspects of their own progeny.” Maybe that’s why I watch my sisters with their children and wonder how they don’t get grossed out!! During some of my recent health issues, I realized my mom still has a tolerance for my upchuck and other bodily stuff, and I’m 30! God bless moms everywhere!

5 years ago

As a foster/adoptive mom I hungrily read all you write about this subject and find it soothing and strengthening to identify with someone else. I’m not alone! My husband is more squeamish about germs than I am, much more so when a child has recently entered our home or returns from a visit, but I totally understand this feeling! Sometimes I wonder how much fostering has skewered the mom I would’ve been if I had a”typical” motherhood journey rather than the foster care drama. I believe much of the impact has been positive but some of it is just plain hard. In many ways I have a super supportive community, but there have definitely been times when I felt alone. I’m eager to read part 2!

Regina S
5 years ago

What I think would be hard for foster parents whose foster child(ren) have special needs are unsympathetic neighbors. Our friends have taken in sweet autistic children, children with severe detachment disorders. Some of these children only communicate by screaming which upsets the neighbors so they call CPS. Of course CPS is familiar with the cases but that doesn’t take away the frustration of knowing your neighbors don’t like your foster children.

I admire you Christian foster moms for being Jesus with skin on to so many children. God bless you Shari and the other fosters represented here.

Trenda Yoder
5 years ago

Beautiful, comforting words. Thanks.

5 years ago

Bless you, my brave and courageous friend!! I believe that Jesus is pouring special grace into your life as you foster these little people. I find the challenges of “traditional parenting” alone to consume 100% of my emotional/physical/spiritual capacity.

Martha Hershberger
5 years ago

I so appreciate the description of the raw/ authentic reality of fostering.. it’s not been our experience to foster in our home, but it does touch a cord in my heart to be more prayerful for foster/ adoptive parent/ parents. It takes a special kind of parents to take in children , especially those with special needs .
I believe there are also special rewards.. Thanks for writing this article for encouragement and for awareness for we who need it.. God bless you!

5 years ago

Yes, yes, yes, and yes.

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