The Hardest Things About Foster Care

by Liz Block
foster children
Imgorthand / iStock

Twenty-four hours after leaving my job to be able to say “yes” to foster kids, two handsome, healthy boys walked through our front door. Smart, athletic and fabulously funny, these brothers quickly earned our respect and a couple nicknames—introducing Big T (age 10) and Little T (age 8).

The first two days were about discovering. They found out where the good toys were kept and who threw a decent spiral. We learned what Takis are and which 7-Eleven carries the best flavors. (For the uninitiated, Takis are a snack akin to rolled up Doritos.) Together, we were figuring each other out.

What makes this new person smile? Where are their buttons? And how do they respond if I hit one? It’s tough living with someone you’ve never met before—unpredictable and scary.

And I’m the adult. I can’t imagine being the kid, in a new house, with different rules, with complete strangers who suddenly have control over what you eat, when you go to bed, and so much more.

These brave boys seemed unfazed our first weekend together. They found comfort in familiar places we visited and sought adventure in new experiences we tried. We all built with Legos, munched on Takis, and laughed about farts. We also tried avocados, jumped on the trampoline, and sang songs together as we made our way as an awkward new family of strangers.

We enjoyed the fun and games, but my husband and I also knew they would soon give way. Like many kids, these precious boys came into foster care because of a big trauma. Processing that trauma away from home brings more trauma. And then moving from one loving foster home to ours adds even more.

These little ones are forced to work through pain and problems most adults don’t face. In an unfamiliar place with unfamiliar people, they could only ignore the reality of all that was happening for so long. And so 48 hours later, it started to surface.

Little T squirmed and struggled to get comfortable in his own skin—all his emotions fighting inside his body. Big T shadow-boxed with real punches until tears won out—anxiety finally defeating anger. As my husband and I tried to calm these hurting souls, we felt lost. We looked at each other, searching for words or ways to help. I found myself repeating, “You’re OK,” to try to let them know they are safe and loved here, that it’s all right to have big feelings.

Then my eyes met my husband’s in a moment of truth. “But it’s not OK,” he mouthed. It was a reminder that no matter what we do, we can’t make things OK for these boys. We can’t make it right. It’s not OK to have suffered trauma. It’s not OK to have to celebrate your 10th birthday with strangers. It’s not OK. And sometimes, acknowledging that is the best thing we can do.

Over the next weeks and months, big court dates will come with big decisions. Will the brothers stay with us or be split up? Every option in foster care feels broken—full of heartache these boys did nothing to deserve, full of questions for their hearts to sort through forever.

The more I come to know foster care, the more my eyes are opened to the ugly shade of grey that covers so much of the world. I didn’t see it before. My options were rosy and my choices steeped in privilege. Which college to attend? What job to take? When to buy a house? They felt difficult at the time, but now they seem dreamy. I ache for these boys to have that lot rather than theirs, to not have to worry who will tuck them in at night or whether or not they will grow up with their own brother.

Slowly, I’m learning how to be with them here despite the discomfort. To stand with them between the rocks and hard places. To stay with them in the not OK.