Congratulations! This is an amazing calling!
Before I took my first placement, another single foster mom told me, “It is the hardest and best thing I have ever done.” That has proven true. It is one of my greatest joys and an amazing honor, but it is also unspeakably difficult.
If you’ve told anybody about your desire to be a single foster mom or dad, I know you’re getting some interesting feedback right now. So I’m going to go ahead and tell you, no, you’re not crazy. No, you’re not alone.
There’s not a whole lot of information out there about what it’s like to be a single foster parent. What do you need to know to be a single foster parent? How do you prepare to be a single foster parent?
A lot of the institutional and legal things will vary state to state, so I’m not going to address that here, but here’s a bit of advice from someone who is just a few steps ahead of you in the journey.
Have a plan…
Start learning now. Get your hands on resources about parenting kids from hard places. Read blogs. Talk to foster parents. Go to seminars. You need to know what challenges you may face, so that when they happen, you’re not surprised. Know about RAD and FAS and PTSD and attachment parenting. Arm yourself with knowledge and tools now, before you’re too tired to go looking for them.
…But be flexible.
The first 10—maybe even 20—rules of foster parenting are “be flexible.” You may have to drop everything to confront a tantrum or a trigger or a fear. I spent a good deal of this Saturday on “the raccoons are not going to kill you.” (Very long, very true story.) That wasn’t in the plan.
Everyone said be ready for kids to cycle through your home. That’s normal. My first placement has been with me for well over a year. That’s normal. Be ready for anything.
And just when you think you have a firm footing and things are stable with your kid, your case plan, or even your kid will change on you. My easy sleeper has recently transformed into a bedtime kangaroo—hopping up every 10 minutes or so for an hour.
Be prepared to sacrifice.
I first trained to be a foster parent in Alabama. I was excited to get started, but then I realized something. The career that I had—the career that I loved and worked hard to establish—was not going to allow me to be a single parent. I worked long hours, nights, weekends. I had to make a change. Not only did I change jobs, I moved states to find the right job, and I had to start my foster training over. (As a rookie parent, taking the training twice was probably a good thing.)
Sacrifice will be a theme throughout your foster journey. I don’t live the carefree single life I once had. Instead of using my vacation days for fun trips, I use them for court dates. (And speaking of dates, I’ve been to a lot more court dates than actual dates since becoming a parent.) I don’t go out in the evenings with friends. I don’t often see movies that aren’t animated.
Not everyone will need to make the same changes. Look at your life and honestly ask yourself, what do I need to change? What do I need to give up?
Understand that this may not be the journey to parenting you imagined.
A few weeks ago, several of my coworkers were comparing notes on the birth of their first child. “We only got to stay in the hospital two nights.” “Oh, yeah? We were out after one night.” I looked at them and said, “They dropped him off on my doorstep and said ‘Good luck.’” (Kind of an exaggeration, but you get the idea.)
What I’m about to say is not meant to be a criticism of anyone, it’s just that people aren’t aware of things outside the range of what is considered normal. The showers before baby and weeks of meals after bringing baby home, you might not get that. Instead of excitement and celebration, you may be met with judgement and skepticism from some corners. What you’re embarking on is not “normal,” and some people won’t get it. And that’s okay.
Be aware that this is not a direct replacement for biological kids.
I’m going to tread very carefully here, because I know it’s hard. I know some of you are not single by choice. Maybe you long for marriage. Maybe you have always dreamed of having biological children, but please hear me with all the love and grace and compassion in my heart—foster care is not a direct replacement for biological children. Your journey to become a foster parent may indeed start from your longing for biological children, but it can’t end there. If you’re expecting your kid to interact with you and the world in the same way your biological kid would, you’re going to be disappointed. Even if you foster babies, they are trauma babies, and they are carrying baggage that most of us can hardly imagine. It is undoubtedly worth it, but it is not the same.
Know how you react to stress, and prepare for it.
When I am under extreme stress, I have a hard time eating. When L. came to live with me, I didn’t eat a solid meal for several days. But I knew that about myself, so I was prepared with smoothies and chocolate milk. When you receive your first placement, it will rock your world and turn everything upside down. Be ready.
Know your limits.
I could not make it to all of the doctors’ appointments a medically fragile case would need. Maybe someday, but not today. I’m not equipped to take therapeutic cases. Maybe someday, but not today. Unplanned maternity leave isn’t really an option right now, so neither is a newborn. Maybe someday, but not today.
I know your heart breaks for every kid, every age, every ability, every sibling group of every size. Mine does, too. You must be honest with yourself and your case workers, though. If you take on more than you should, it may end in a disrupted placement. Sometimes, a disrupted placement is inevitable, and there’s no shame in that. (Though you will shame yourself and feel guilty, and others may not understand, so they may say hurtful things.) But knowing your limits can help you avoid it whenever possible. And along the same lines…
Don’t feel guilty about what you can’t do.
You cannot change the world for every child. You will want to. There are thousands of other kids in foster care in my state on any given day, but my greatest responsibility is to the child in my home right now, and right now is not our time to expand our family. Because of L.’s issues with loss, it would not be healthy for me to bring another child into the home—especially a child who may leave. Maybe someday, but not today.
Cut yourself some slack.
Get rid of your Pinterest boards. Seriously. Do it now. I’ll wait. You may have the best intentions of all organic meat and starting a vegetable plot in the back yard and beautifully organized play rooms and hand-made gifts and in-depth bible studies and family exercise plans and PTA and volunteering and coaching little league and educational games and magical birthday parties and play dates and…and…and… You cannot do all of them, and even if you could, your child probably won’t let you. Many kids in care will refuse to eat anything but peanut butter sandwiches and McNuggets. The first season I tried to get my kid to play a sport was torture, and he won’t even let me throw him a birthday party. Do your best. Know your capacity. And, most importantly, learn your kid’s capacity.
Be prepared to know hard things.
And be prepared to not share those hard things with anybody else. Nobody tells you that you will become the most amazing detective when you become a foster parent. Where the state said, “We don’t know anything about his family,” I countered with, “Here, let me give you his full family tree with all of the excruciatingly difficult details.” I have cried myself to sleep many nights, and lost sleep on others reading through his case files and checking in on his family on Facebook. It is one of the most difficult things, if not the most difficult thing, for me as a single foster parent—bearing the heavy burden of L.’s story, and not being able to share that with anyone.
Get ready for a fight.
I’ve been hit, bitten, kicked, choked, spit on, and screamed at on multiple occasions, but that’s not the what I’m talking about. I’m not talking about fighting the biological family, either, because whenever it’s possible, I want to be their ally. I’m saying that you need to be ready to fight for this child. With heavy caseloads and an insurmountable backlog, most social workers are given a job where they are set up to fail. Even the best of case workers can’t be as intimately acquainted with your child’s unique challenges and story as you will be. You will live that story with them every day. You must be this child’s biggest, loudest, and most stubborn advocate.
Take care of yourself.
I am the worst at this one. I can count the number of times I worked out last year on one hand. I wish I could tell you more about this one, but I’m still figuring it out myself. It is important though!
Build a good support system.
There is a couple who takes L. for two hours every Sunday evening. As an extreme introvert living with an extremely extroverted small person, this has saved my sanity. As a single woman with a son, there are men who have stepped in to be good masculine examples in L.’s life. My family has welcomed L. with open arms and treats him exactly the same as they would had he been born a Morgan. I cannot overestimate the importance of my praying parents. I could not do what I do without their spiritual support.
Make friends with people who are walking the same journey as you, too. They will understand what you’re going through when no one else does. That may be couples fostering, but I would also encourage you to find other singles fostering and/or adopting. There are a lot more of us than you would think. I personally know 10 single foster parents, and I’m a member of a single foster parent Facebook group with 433 members. (Some of whom gave me ideas for this list. Thanks, guys!)
Have any more questions? Just ask! Fellow single foster parents, did I miss anything?
Iron sharpens iron, and one man sharpens another. Proverbs 27:17