“How did you and your husband decide to become foster parents?” It’s a question people frequently ask me when they discover we foster-adopted our two children. Most often, their tone indicates that we have done something extraordinary, even heroic.
In reality, no hand from heaven came down to deliver a special invitation to us. No angel materialized on our doorstep, kids in tow. Instead, God used our natural desires to have a family; a series of doors presented themselves to us, which we tested one at a time until we found the one that had our children behind it.
Door One: Acknowledge Any Grief and Fear
From the beginning, we knew that it would be highly unlikely that the ordinary path to parenthood was in store for us. A fertility specialist confirmed that my medical history and our ages made it unlikely that we would conceive without assistance. And yet, we were sure of two things: (1) If God wanted us to become parents, it would happen in His way, in His time; (2) We refused to let infertility wreak havoc on our marriage, as it had preoccupied and even destroyed the marriages of other couples we knew. We remained open and trusting, simply taking life one day at a time.
I was very fortunate in that Craig and I always seemed to be on the same page where these decisions were concerned. I knew couples where one — usually the woman — longs to enlarge their family, while the other is content just as things are. One is eager to adopt … while the other holds back because of the expense, or the inconvenience, or out of fear of what adding an “unknown quantity” might do to the existing family dynamic.
Door Two: Gather Information
In situations like this, it’s important to arrive at a mutual decision based not on fears, but facts. Talk with other adoptive and foster parents to find out the names of reputable agencies in your area — then go to an information meeting or two. Online sources are also available; websites like adoption.com or tools like the “Adoption Guide Planner” (http://www.theadoptionguide.com/tools/planner/matrix) can help you decide which kind of adoption or foster plan is best suited to your family situation.
Adoption need not be expensive, especially if you consider foster care or foster-adoption. You do not even need to own your own home, and a wide variety of resources are available to assist couples with more heart than money. In the state of Michigan, for example, children adopted out of the foster care system continue to receive the monthly subsidy and medical insurance benefits that they received while they were wards of the state; they are also eligible for a variety of benefits ranging from free hot lunches to free college tuition.
Neither is the age of a couple necessarily a barrier. Remember that no two children are the same or do they have the same level of need. Couples who feel too old to do the “diaper brigade” may be a godsend for a grade-school child or teenager whose opportunities for a real home diminish with each passing year. Those who long for a baby — but who are willing to open their hearts a little wider, to include the infant’s older brothers or sisters — can find the blessings multiply with the challenges. In many cases, families willing to consider a child with special needs (both temporary, due to trauma, and long-term due to physical and developmental needs) or a biracial child often discover that love comes in all shapes, sizes and colors.
Door Three: Prepare Yourself
So what do you need to be a good foster or adoptive parent?
- Patience. Whether dealing with bureaucratic red tape, a toddler who hides food in the closet, or a boy-crazy teen, you will have ample opportunity to practice virtue.
- Support. Even experienced parents will quickly discover that adoption and foster care is an “extended family affair.” When extended family lives too far away to be of practical assistance, it becomes that much more important to cultivate a support network — even if you have to pay for it temporarily. (In the beginning, a large chunk of our subsidy checks were spent on babysitters and housekeepers.)
- Faith. Adoptive and foster parenting is not for wimps, or for those with an over-inflated sense of self-reliance. Extraordinary parenting (investing yourself in the life of a child you did not bring into the world yourself) requires spiritual strength, cultivated through prayer and the sacraments.
- Time. A child who comes to you through adoption and foster care will often require special attention, especially in the first months that he or she joins the family. Especially for the first six months or so, the child needs one primary caregiver to assist with the bonding process. Depending on how he came to you, he may also have physical and emotional problems that may not immediately present themselves. Remember … parenting is a marathon, not a sprint!
Door Four: Make a Choice
As you gather the information you need, continue to ask the Holy Spirit to make your way clear to you. Remember that while God calls us to take up certain challenges in life, ultimately the choice is ours to make. Adoption and foster care are adventures for the whole family … and yet, timing is very important. For example, you may decide to postpone adding to your family until your youngest child is in school, or even wait until all your children are fully grown. Or you may decide that a younger sibling is just what you and your children need to grow in virtue!
If, after gathering the information you need to make your decision together, you conclude that adoption and foster care are not appropriate at that time, there are other ways to make a difference in the life of a child. You can volunteer as a tutor or mentor through your local school or “Big Brother/Big Sister” program. Become a CASA volunteer, who befriends and advocates for foster children currently in the system. Volunteer as a respite worker for foster or single parents. Host a fundraiser to assist families from your church who are pursuing international adoption, or organize a toy drive for your local foster agency or children’s home. Befriend a family with special needs children, and offer them practical support — even sitting with the child while they go to Mass for an hour of uninterrupted prayer.
If you have a heart for kids … there are always children who need you!