Of all the questions about foster care, this one is numero uno. It’s the heartbreak question. The “how-do-you-do-that-when-you-know-you-could-lose-the-child” question.
I feel especially soft toward this question, as our foster child (we call him Baby Boy on the internet for privacy reasons) just left our care after living with us for about two months. We had him. We loved him. And now he’s not living here anymore. I was his temporary mom. And then I wasn’t anymore. I’m living out this question right now, sitting here, typing on this couch.
This question assumes a very clear and universal premise: parenting involves attachment.
Some foster parents will say they got attached immediately. Others say it took a long time. Some end up adopting a child they foster and others only have a child for a season. All of these situations, at their start, require serious heart-labor without any guarantees of permanency.
I’ve felt it before.
I could love you. I could give you my everything. I could offer you my all. I could invest, and teach, and bathe, and clean, and snuggle, and sing you to sleep. And one day, after all that, you could just leave. Just like I became a mama overnight, you could be gone overnight. And there’s nothing I could do about it.
The questions I thought I had to answer were these: Can I love with those odds? Can I really do this? Can I really offer my whole heart knowing it might wobble out the door in the arms of a social worker one random Wednesday morning?
As I said, those were the questions I thought I needed to answer. Until the Lord jolted me out of myself one night. We were at a foster-parent-small-group of sorts and everyone was sharing how they were doing. We were newbies, so we kept quiet and listened for the most part.
What struck me is that yes, these parents were talking about themselves a little bit. They were honest about the struggles. Tears came out. Frustrations were vented. But the majority of the time was spent talking about the kids themselves—one child had some medical issues and they asked for prayer. So-and-so’s mom had a visitation with the little one and it went well. Things like that.
I know it sounds elementary, but they were talking about the kids. The questions for the most part—about the kids. The stories—about the kids. The knee-slapping laughs—because a child did something funny.
They were gathered in this room because of the children. Yes, they needed support. Yes, they shared personal struggles. But the group was obviously others-centered, not self-centered.
And it hit me.
I know this question is harsh, but it was the real question I needed to ask myself in that moment:
Why do all my questions start with ‘I’?
There are children, who are daily being pulled out of all sorts of situations they cannot handle mentally, emotionally, or physically, and my questions about it have nothing to do with them everything to do with me. How can that be?
Why don’t any of my questions have to do with the child?
For example, what will happen to them if I say no? Will they find another home? Or do they go to a group home? How many families have open space in their house in our county? How many parents are already at max capacity and need other parents to step in? How many kids are in a group home right now because there’s no one saying yes?
These questions represent a perspective shift—on what foster care means for the child instead of me.
And here’s a big one that stuck with me. What kinds of resources do these kids have for the trauma they are going through?
I got the answer to my question, and it hit me like a ton of bricks.
You want to know the best thing a child can get while going through trauma? I’m talking about the one-thing, the big-factor that gives them the chance to develop emotionally, mentally, and academically. I’m talking about the thing child-development experts say divides those who continue forward normally and those who have (usually) irreversible damage to their coping skills, life choices, social interaction, and mental abilities.
The one thing I’m terrified to give is the one thing they desperately need to survive. And I’m not using the word “need” lightly. According to mountains of research, children require relational attachment for their brains to develop (foster children even more so). Adults already have fully-developed brains, and while attachment is helpful for them, it’s not necessary in the same ways it is for a child.
I sit here, with a healthy marriage, a wonderful support system in my church, an extended family, access to a small group of other foster parents, and a job.
I have all the things necessary for a person to deal with loss. I have the resources I need if I have to face grief over losing a little one.
And then I think of the child.
They sit there, in a situation that looks nothing like mine, in need of attachment to simply make it.
I weighed it all out in my mind that night.
Both of us—me and the child—are facing the potential of attachment. If the child loses attachment, or worse, never gets it, they are seriously compromised. If I lose the attachment, I’ll be heartbroken for a season, with all the resources necessary to deal with that loss.
So who wins? Who has the best resources to make it through loss?
If the lot is going to fall on one of us, and don’t kid yourself—it will fall on either you or the child, I’d rather the potential of loss fall on me. Why? God has given me the ability to manage it in this season. I have everything I need to process that, hard as it may be. The child does not, and he’s already going through a level of loss he can’t handle.
Why would I tell a child going through the loss of a home that he can’t come in mine because I’m scared? Do I think I’m more scared than he is? He’s already been deprived of the home he knows, why would I deprive him of the one thing he needs to survive that loss?
Is my fear more important than his need of attachment right now?
One helpful reminder is this: there’s no such thing as parenting without heartbreak. You could be a natural parent, an adoptive parent, or a foster parent, but none of us get through this thing unscathed or unaffected by complex emotions. None of us is promised a perfect situation tomorrow, are we?
As much as we all hate thinking about it, honestly, we all run the risk of losing a child after years of investment, don’t we? Of course the warm and joyful moments make it incomparably worth it, but the truth is, we could lose them.
They could run away. They could hate us and end up estranged. They could, God forbid, have a short life. We could die unexpectedly, and they could end up in the home of one of our family members. Again, we don’t dwell on these things often, but they are true.
On top of these things, one of the main goals of parenting is eventually letting go. Whether it sending them to college or giving them away in marriage, successful parenting involves some sort of “letting go” experience. That should be no surprise to any of us.
Every parent puts their heart on the line without guarantees. All moms and dads brave the possibility of loss. All parenting requires heartbreak at some point.
Foster parents simply choose which type of heartbreak they face.
And as controversial as it sounds, not even God gets through parenting without pain. Often his children bring him sorrow and grief in the Scriptures. Even Jesus wept at the reality of loss. Why do I think I’m exempt?
Baby Boy left us recently to live with his aunt and reunite with his other siblings. I know it’s a very good thing for him. However, as someone who doesn’t cry often, I sometimes find myself crib-side, bawling like the little one who used to be in it.
I won’t lie to you. Loving that little boy ripped me in half, and God is still mending the tear. There’s no sugar-coating that part, and I don’t try to hide the fact that life in this home isn’t the same without him.
I miss his smile in the morning and the noise he makes when he eats green beans. I miss the way his nose crunches up when he does that full-bodied laugh. I miss how he would light up when Cole crawled around on the rug with him. I miss all that stuff. That’s the stuff of parenting and once you’ve acquired the taste, it’s hard to un-crave it.
However, we get to visit Baby Boy often. We’ve been at his new home twice now and brought him a Christmas present. We are friends with his aunt and uncle, and we got to see him playing with his sisters.
You should have seen them.
They were dancing, playing, laughing, and reading books together. They were all entirely different children because they were finally all together.
And I watched Baby Boy, now wobbling around on his own two feet, bouncing up and down to music and holding the book I used to read to him everyday. He fell on his diaper and got right back up.
His aunt called from the kitchen. “You know he’s eating up a storm! And he loves that caterpillar book. He points at the stereo system and tries to figure it out everyday.”
photo by: Brett Seay
I smiled faintly. I finally understood. My mind put a fragmented, flurry of thoughts together on our way out the door. I looked back at him.
He’s happy here. And he knows that book. He can point out the caterpillar. And he’s stuttering some sounds, trying to make words. It took a little bit to get adjusted to us while he was with us, but he kept growing. He didn’t numb out mentally. He got to sleep and eat well. He can point to things and his laugh makes the girls giggle. Those two months were important, and he didn’t move backward in his development. I suppose he had to go somewhere for that time. And he ended up with us. And now, somehow, he’s where a child should be at 13 months.
Because we got attached.
I can deal with the crib-side tears because I know he got what he needed in that little season of his life. No matter what his life holds in the future, I can say with a clear conscience before the Lord that we gave him—mind, body, and spirit—what he needed to make it in those two short months.
In fact, the sorrow brings me joy. I know that sounds strange, but God has changed me all the way through in that regard. If I wasn’t bawling like a baby, then I probably didn’t give him the full attachment he needed to thrive. The tears are my confirmation, my proof, that he got the bonds he needed to grow. I rejoice knowing that my pain has a purpose, and all that investment is walking around in a little boy who lives a few minutes down the road now.
In a very real sense, my loss was his gain. As a Christian, it felt like the definition of the joy we talk about as we lay down our lives for the sake of another. I know it sounds cliché, but I understood Jesus more than I ever had before—the one who chose unimaginable loss so we could have life. Christianity is, boiled down, the story of the One who gave up life so we could gain it. He lost so that we could win. He died so we could live. He knew the cost of the exchange and chose it not only willingly, but joyfully.
This, all because our attachment to him was more important to him than the fear of pain. He could live without attachment to us, but, just like a foster child, we could not make it without attachment to him.
Remember, attachment is how we enter the Divine family and develop as his children. Union with Christ, or attachment in other words, is how we are reconciled to the Father and brought into his family (John 1:12, 2 Cor. 5:17, 1 Cor. 6:17, 1 Pet. 3:18). Staying attached to the Vine is how we continue to grow (John 15:5, Gal. 2:20). It’s crucial to our development. Attachment, for us, too, is everything.
We cannot forget. Despite all the costs to himself, Christ chose to attach for our sake.
I’m not saying you won’t count the cost if you are considering foster care. It will cost you—your heart, your time, your fears. What I am saying is that, especially as a Christian, we are supposed to consider the interests of others as more important than our own. The most important cost we can count is that of the child’s. When you look at it through their eyes, through what they might gain or lose, your fears settle down. They don’t go away. But they get a lot smaller.
I’m not saying fear leaves the equation. There’s no way around it.
I’m simply saying that the fear of heartbreak should be outweighed by the fear of what could happen to that child during the season they most need a stable home.
I’m saying that fear and loss is a part of life. I’m saying look at both those things in the face and love a child anyway.
Lay down your life so that another can live and grow.
Here’s the truth. Foster children are going to get pulled out of what they know as normal and they are going to go somewhere for a season, regardless of your fears. Even now, it’s happening. It may be two months. It may be just a weekend. It may be a year. It may be forever. But they are getting placed somewhere as we speak.
Why not your home? Why not your heart?
Brother, sister. Our Savior offered attachment so that we could live. Why would you be afraid of offering the very thing that saved us?
So now, when people ask the “but what if you get attached” question, I light up like a Christmas tree. “Oh hopefully you will!” I say. “It’s the best case scenario because it’s exactly what they need!”
“But aren’t you scared of getting so attached and losing them?” they say back.
“Oh, of course, yes. But what they might lose without the attachment scares me more.”
Follow Ashley and Cole’s Foster Journey: #overnightmama.
Read about the night they got placed with a foster child here.
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