Foster Parenting Means Being Ready To Say Goodbye

And other things foster moms want you to know.

by Julie Kling
Ariela Basson/Scary Mommy; Getty Images, Shutterstock

Last year, a close friend decided to forego yet another round of unsuccessful IVF to become a foster parent. After a lengthy certification and training process, she only had a few days’ notice before welcoming a two-week old girl into her home (quickly followed by what is likely the largest single order of baby supplies Amazon Prime has ever seen.) My biological daughter was born that same week, and as my friend and I exchanged late night texts and exasperated photos from the trenches of motherhood, I was constantly in awe that she would endure something this friggin' exhausting and emotionally wrenching, knowing that the baby would almost certainly be gone by toddlerhood.

Over the last decade, the foster care entry rate for infants (defined as children under one) has grown faster in the U.S. than for children of all other ages, with infants now accounting for 7% of the total foster population. I couldn’t stop thinking about how I rarely see this form of mothering in the public conversation, and subsequently reached out to a group of foster moms to learn more.

Here’s what they want you to know about negotiating the complex, sometimes heartbreaking, worthwhile process of fostering infants.

As a foster parent, you need resilience and patience to care for infants with trauma

On their third date, Samantha from upstate New York violated absolutely every dating rule by confessing to her now-husband how much she wanted to foster. “The minute it came out of my mouth I said, what are you doing? But he looked right at me and said ‘Really? In high school my friends and I talked all the time about how we wanted to foster or adopt.’ I immediately called my mom and said ‘I’m going to marry him.’” A few years later, the couple became first-time foster parents to 5-day-old Cashew, who was born addicted to narcotics. “When you’re pregnant you have nine months to prepare, but in a weekend, we were thrown into parenting a withdrawing baby.”

Kristi and Melissa from Minnesota shared a similar caution:

“Our son came to us in March at nine months old, and the first time he fell asleep on me was in July — it took him four months to be comfortable enough. Parenting these kids is not typical parenting.”

Attachment issues, physical ailments such as in-utero drug exposure, and major health conditions can be common in foster infants. When Elizabeth in New York City got the call about a little boy in the hospital, she was surprised the case worker suggested she meet him before committing to fostering. “It was unusual, because usually they only give you the briefest of demographic details (age, gender), and oftentimes those details are completely wrong,” she told me. However the infant, Jordan, was in the system for medical neglect and had just undergone a heart transplant — he couldn’t go to just any foster home. The potential foster parents needed training in how to administer medications, use a feeding tube, and be ready to make weekly hospital visits. “I work in sales and my partner is an artist, but we thought ‘oh, the big medical thing happened already, how hard could it be?” she said. “It’s so embarrassing now that we thought that!”

Kristi notes that it can be hard when the placement is temporary to decide what really matters and what doesn’t. For instance, “with a kid who hasn’t historically had enough food on the table you aren’t going to push ‘healthy foods’ in the same way you might with your biological or permanent adopted child.”

For Gina from Los Angeles, fostering meant frequent sessions with a mental health therapist who specializes in teaching infants how to attach to a caregiver. “At first I was like, a baby therapist — what is this?! But it helped so much. My 3-month-old foster son didn’t have a crib before he was in care; he was left for hours alone laying on a floor inside staring at the ceiling, so we did all of these exercises outdoors where he felt comfortable. We’d stand up and wait for him to make eye contact, step a couple of feet away and make sure he followed us… showing him that if we walked away we were always coming back and we could be relied upon.”

As a solo foster parent, Gina admits it’s daunting at times to do this alone. “The key is finding your resources, having serious talks with the people in your ‘village’... for example my good friends were willing to get background checks in case they were going to be babysitters on a consistent basis. You will need help, and you can’t be afraid to honestly assess your strengths and weaknesses. For instance, cleaning is not one of mine.” (Same here lady, same here.)

You need empathy — not only for foster children, but for the birth families, and your own.

Foster infants often have older siblings already in care. Baby Cashew, for instance, has three siblings placed with relatives, and right from outset, Samantha chose to pursue a relationship with them. “I don’t ever want her to feel like an island; on the flip side, if she’s reunified, I don't want her to feel like she’s going to strangers,” she explained. During one recent visit, Cashew was cranky and would only calm down when Samantha held her. “Cashew’s grandmother turned to me and said ‘you’re her safe place.’ To hear that coming from her biological family, that they felt comfortable with that role for me — I just started crying because it meant so much.” Samantha also acknowledges how hard fostering can be on her own parents:

“We signed up for this, but they did not, and that’s kind of a hard pill to swallow when you see your mom crying because she’s worried about what’s going to happen to the baby.”

Stay pragmatic, and embrace the bigger purpose when it’s time for reunification

The goal of foster care is reunification with the birth family, and this is exactly what happens for the majority of placements.

“The little baby we had for five months, who we always knew was going to be adopted by a member of her birth family — that was the hardest for us,” Melissa shared. “We were just looking at pictures of her the other day, and I love that baby so much. You could spend hours and hours imagining different scenarios, but you learn to not do that to yourself.”

When coping with feelings about reunification, Elizabeth believes the pain is worth it. “Giving a child a chance to know a family and be loved at the most traumatic point of his life…yes, it’s going to hurt, but you’re a grown up and you’ll live.” Moreover she sees fostering as an opportunity to change the world: “If more people did it I think society would change. For all of those people who think you should pull yourself up by your bootstraps, or that race doesn’t matter, once you foster, once you see the cycle of poverty and how these families get stuck — it’s impossible to believe that.”

Research suggests that trauma during infancy is the most critical period for impacting long-term healthy development and attachment. Whenever Samantha starts to feel upset by the uncertainty of reunification, “my husband reminds me that we just gave her those months. And when she’s a stable teenager, we will have been a major part of that success. That’s what I hold onto.”

After speaking with these women, I still feel admiration and awe. But I’ve also learned to stop seeing foster moms as some kind of Mother Teresa meets Joan of Arc saintly mash-up. To put foster parents on a pedestal discounts the complex human motivations people have for fostering, and exempts others from seriously considering that they too can foster.

Julie Kling lives in the suburbs of New York, where she fantasizes about all of the free time she had before becoming a mother of two. She has written for HuffPost, Salon, Slackjaw, the Upright Citizens Brigade, and formerly worked as an Admission Officer for both New York University and her alma mater Washington University in St. Louis. In addition to writing, Julie runs Global Girls Prep, an organization helping women-identified international students attend college in the U.S.