There are a lot of well-meaning comments about our journey through foster care from well-intentioned friends and family that really rub me the wrong way.
I don’t know how you do it; my heart couldn’t take it.
You’re such an angel.
That baby is so lucky to have you.
These statements make me uncomfortable because they put me on a pedestal I don’t deserve, that I only appear to have earned by making a choice to help a child. How did that become a path to sainthood? To me, there’s no way to look into the eyes of a baby who has no one else in the world to care for her, and then just look away. This baby isn’t lucky to have me. This baby shouldn’t have to have me.
These kinds of comments also create a mythicalness to foster care, making it seem out of reach to families who might be great at it, but are made to feel the experience couldn’t possibly be for them. After all, who considers themselves an angel? And the truth is, more often than not, we are lucky to have these children. They bring smiles and laughter and sweetness to our lives, and they teach us about compassion and empathy. We should all be so lucky to have foster children in our families.
But there is one type of comment that really gets under my skin and stabs at my heart…
So often when foster parents talk about the foster care process, particularly when they are hoping to adopt, those around them assure them that “the system” – all those social workers, judges, and lawyers – will see what a loving family they provide and therefore “allow” this child to stay. On its face, these seem like perfectly supportive comments, and I understand they are made with love.
Don’t worry, dear. One look at the two of you together and no judge would take her away.
It’s clear to see how happy and loved he is with you; nobody would take him from you and send him back to his birth parents.
They’ll see what great parents you are and keep you all together.
To say that a judge would never send a child away from great foster parents is to fail to appreciate the stress and uncertainty that foster parents experience. Because ultimately it doesn’t matter whether a child is well-cared for and loved in her foster family. Children are supposed to be well-cared for and loved in foster care. These well-meaning words miss the point completely.
More fundamentally, these comments make me incredibly sad and frustrated because they assume a competition that doesn’t exist. Foster care isn’t about who can do more things with their child, who has more patience or more kindness, who has more capacity to be a parent. And it certainly isn’t about who has more money to provide more enriching experiences for a child. In other words, it isn’t about who is better.
Most birth parents have endured a lifetime of social neglect, poverty, and a lack of opportunities that would otherwise position them to be the best parents they can be. On the other hand, many foster parents are accomplished, successful, educated people with access to nutritious food, adequate shelter, and social safety nets, in the way of supportive friends and family. Most birth parents have failed their children by their actions and capacity. But with rare exception, they love their kids and want them to be happy and safe. They are not bad people.
But beyond this, the comments that assume this comparison game always leave me feeling icky. Not just because it is unfair to compare birth parents often struggling through the worst time of their lives to a foster parent who has been hand-selected for their capacity, ability, and willingness. But because if we’re comparing, why not keep going….
I’ll never measure up to the family up the street. My three young boys are loud and silly enough that sometimes stuff breaks without them intending it. My neighbors have polished children who are calm, quiet, and I’m pretty sure haven’t accidentally put holes in the walls. My kids don’t always get bathed every night, sometimes I make frozen food for dinner, my patience wears thin, and we have never gone on an extended family vacation because money is always tight. Their home is cared for by an army of hired help, both inside and out, they travel to exotic destinations every year, and I’ve never heard them raise a voice to their children. Anyone examining them would think what better home for a child?
Fortunately for me, we don’t decide whether someone is fit to raise their children by comparing them to more affluent and better-equipped counterparts. And fortunately for those birth parents who are trying their best to get themselves into a situation where their children can be safely returned, the question isn’t whether they’re as good as the foster family who is caring for those children in the meantime.
Don’t get me wrong… I’ve been in that position, hoping desperately that a child I’ve fallen in love with will be mine forever. But I never wished for his birth parents to fail. And I never paraded myself in front of a judge or social worker in a way that purposely made his birth parents look bad. I’m not sure I could look my child in the eye had I done that.
It is the job of a foster parent to love and care for their foster children, ensuring they thrive while they’re with them. And, despite the excruciating heartbreak – especially if they were hoping this foster child might become a forever child – it’s also a foster parent’s job to support and celebrate successful reunifications between birth parents and their children when they’re able to happen.
To best support the foster families going through this emotional process, our communities need to understand that the decision to reunite birth parent and child has little, if anything, to do with the love and attention that child receives while in foster care. The decision is strictly based on the birth parents’ ability to change the circumstances that brought their child into foster care.
So, next time, how about a response like this:
I’m so glad this little one is getting the love and care she needs right now.
And I hope that’s always true for her.