I often hear questions from single people who are interested in being foster parents, but who are worried about whether a single parent can realistically foster. My experience is that single parents can be excellent foster parents. I started out as a single foster mom, and then after I married, I again fostered with my husband. Both being a single mom and fostering as part of a married couple had challenges, but both were rewarding. If you are a single person either thinking about becoming a foster parent or already started on the journey, here are some principles that I have found to be helpful.
Build Your Community
The most important thing you can do as a single foster parent is to develop a support system. The hardest part of being a single parent is being the only person available for school conferences, doctors’ visits, therapist appointments, meal planning, housekeeping, help with homework, and everything else involved in being a parent. It is very difficult, if not impossible, to keep up with everything.
Being the only adult in the foster home also can be a very lonely task. It’s hard for people who haven’t been there to understand your challenges and why you are taking on this mission. You will need a safe place to vent and experienced parents to learn from. It is essential that you have a community of people to provide practical help, emotional support, and advice.
The most obvious place to start building your community is extended family members. I was fortunate in my days of single foster parenting to have a lot of support from my siblings and extended family. Unfortunately, they all lived too far away to provide practical help, but their emotional support was invaluable.
I also was fortunate in having a strong network of friends, which is another good place to build community. None of my friends had any experience with fostering, but they were willing to help me with whatever wild scheme I had going. They were willing to try to understand and to help me and my kids. You may have to explain a lot to your friends, because few people understand the challenges of parenting children who have suffered trauma. For that matter, I didn’t understand the challenges until I faced them. If your friends are willing to learn along with you, that support can become an essential resource for you.
One of the more positive trends in recent years is how faith communities are willing to support foster families. Many religious groups have realized that, even if individual members can’t be foster parents, they can provide support for those who raise other people’s children. Look for churches, synagogues, or groups within your faith tradition that either have set up these support groups or are willing to learn how. You may not have time to organize a new group, but if you can find people willing to support foster parents, you certainly can educate them about what help foster families, including single foster parents, need.
Finally, don’t overlook whatever help your placement agency or local department of social services can provide. Private agencies usually have more resources to offer, but even government agencies can provide some help. Caseworkers are notoriously overworked and unresponsive, but a social worker often can steer you to resources that you might not know are available. Don’t depend on your agency, but don’t ignore the possibilities of what it can offer
Be Willing to Set Boundaries
Another hard part about being a single foster parent is knowing when to recognize our limits. We become foster parents because we care about kids. We will hear many sad stories, and caseworkers may ask us to help with kids whose experiences tug at our heart strings. But we have to know our resources and be willing to turn down placements that will be a bad match. For example, I have always worked well with older children and teenagers, but I have no skills with younger children. I would have been a very bad match for infants or toddlers. I’m much better at handling teenage problems, even runaways or court charges, than teething or potty training. Some foster carers can handle sibling groups or medical needs or other special needs better than others. We all need to know what placements will be workable for us, and which will require resources that we simply don’t have.
Also don’t be afraid to insist on resources that you need. Respite care, for example, can be essential. Everyone needs a break, and single people are no different. Similarly, your child probably will need some level of therapy for their mental health, and it will be easier for you to get it from your case manager before your placement starts than afterwards. Don’t be afraid to insist on the conditions you need in order to help your child.
If you are new to fostering, you may not have any idea what you need. This is a good time to reach out to your support network and learn from experienced foster parents. People who have been through the system will have some excellent suggestions and guidance for you.
Be Careful about Romantic Relationships
One topic that no one ever wants to discuss is romantic relationships for single foster parents. No one wants to tell adults how to live their lives, so we tend to avoid this very controversial topic. We do our kids a disservice, however, by ignoring how our decisions can affect them. Like single parents everywhere, single foster parents need to carefully balance their personal lives and how they care for their children.
The most helpful advice I have found is given to divorced parents, such as this article. First, wait a while and then wait a while longer. Don’t introduce your significant other to any of your children until the relationship has lasted at least 9-12 months. Your kids don’t need to get attached to an adult who may not be in their lives long. They have suffered enough of that type of trauma. Take your time before you move into the next steps of introducing your romantic partner to your foster children.
Your children also don’t need to be confused about who is the adult in charge. Don’t fall into the trap of letting your romantic partner set house rules or take on authority roles with your children. I know that it can be very tempting to relax and let someone else deal with the kids. However it is our job to provide a stable home environment, and we can’t offload that responsibility to someone else, no matter how much we trust them.
Finally, be very careful about overnight visits. In fact, the safest course is to not have any romantic partners stay over when your children are at home. I have defended several lawsuits against social service organizations where a tragedy happened while a single foster parent was spending the night with a romantic partner or vice versa. In all of the cases, the partner had cleared a criminal background check and wasn’t directly involved in the tragedy. Even so, the opposing attorney was able to argue that the foster parent was distracted by romance and wasn’t paying attention to the child’s needs. Being a foster parent is challenging enough; don’t fall into the trap of giving anyone a weapon to use against you.
Take Time for Yourself
In the midst of caring for other people, be sure that you find ways to recharge your batteries. Carve out time for yourself, particularly for important habits such as exercise. This need is one of the reasons I encourage respite care. It allows single foster parents to have some down time. Foster kids need a lot from us. In order to take care of them, we need to reserve some time for ourselves to renew our resources.
Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff
Finally, pick your battles. That principle is important for all foster parents, but it is essential for single parents. You simply don’t have enough time, energy, or emotional resources to fight every battle that your kids will bring to you. Focus on the important ones, and let go of everything else.
Experience will help you figure out which issues are important enough to spend your resources. Several years after I started fostering teenagers, I had a conversation with a friend that told me how much my perspective had changed. She was upset because her 17-year-old daughter had invited a group of friends over while my friend and her husband were traveling.
I commiserated and asked, “So were they drinking?”
She looked halfway offended, and responded, “No.”
“Of course not!”
“Not at all!”
“Neighbors complained about noise?”
“No,” she said impatiently. “Nothing terrible happened. It’s just the principle at stake!”
At that point, I finally shut up, realizing that our experiences were too different. I understood the principle that bothered her, but not why it was worth so much angst. By then my teenagers had challenged so many rules in so many creative ways that a bit of rebellion that didn’t involve illegal behavior or a police visit was a victory. I might have had a conversation to remind my kids of house rules, but I wouldn’t have spent a lot of emotional resources arguing about the incident.
When I first started fostering, I had never been a parent of any child, so I looked to more experienced parents for advice. At first, I felt obligated to worry about all the same things that my fellow parents worried about with their kids. It didn’t work very well at all. Then I heard the phrase “competitive parenting” and realized that standards for dealing with children had become the new way of chasing status. My married friends had far more resources for that competition than I did. More importantly, their rules didn’t work well for kids like mine who had suffered trauma. I had to concentrate on what my kids needed most, not what rules other parents could enforce.
Everyone’s foster parenting journey is a bit different, but all of them are both challenging and rewarding. If you are called to foster children, don’t let the challenges of being a single parent dissuade you. These five principles can give you a good start toward meeting those challenges and experiencing the rewards.