As we consider foster parenting this month, one rarely-discussed problem is how lonely the challenge can be. Raising another person’s child carries unique obligations. Your friends who have not dealt with the complex needs of foster children and the nightmare of trying to deal with a bureaucracy don’t quite understand what you’re going through. When you become a foster parent, you join your child’s story in progress. Even worse, you know it may be only temporary. Your friends with biological, or even blended, families don’t have comparable experiences. Your family will be nothing like theirs, and that emotional loneliness is hard. It can be even harder to admit that you need emotional support. Fortunately, there are some tried and true techniques that will help you deal with that loneliness while still taking care of your family.
• Admit That Loneliness Exists. I love movies about foster care, such as Instant Family, but Hollywood certainly can set up unrealistic expectations for foster parents. Even if I could solve problems in only two hours, I could never display a movie heroine’s wisdom and patience. Real life can never match the movies, but it’s very easy to buy into expectations (ours and other people’s) that we will be the perfect foster parents. The first step to dealing with reality is to admit that we are not movie characters and that being a foster parent is incredibly challenging.
It also can be hard to respond to well-intended but clueless comments. I have always been uncomfortable with friends who referred to me as a cross between Mother Teresa and Dr. Phil. I understood what my friends intended, but I am neither a saint nor a therapist. I actually am proof that even a left-brained, empathy-challenged, impatient lawyer can learn how to parent children with trauma. I tried to explain to my friends that being a foster parent doesn’t require extraordinary virtues. Minimal patience combined with a willingness to learn skills are enough to get us started.
I also often heard how lucky my children were to be living with me. I always had to find a tactful way to say that no, they aren’t lucky. If they were fortunate, they wouldn’t know me. They would still be living with their biological parents in a functional family. I was simply an adequate second-best.
At the other end of the spectrum, your foster kids may reject you because they reject their situation. There may be nothing you can do except give them time to accept your love and care for them. Being caught between your kids’ rejection and your friends’ idealization can be a very lonely place to be.
Admitting that you are lonely doesn’t mean that you are blaming anyone. The risk of loneliness is simply built into the foster family dynamic. Some level of misunderstanding is inevitable when you become part of a child’s story. It’s not anyone’s fault; it’s just the way the world works. Of course, being rejected still hurts and you still need to deal with the loneliness. But it helps if you realize that, as difficult as the situation is, it's not unusual. Try not to take the situation personally and to see it as simply one of those unavoidable realities like gravity or tooth decay. It exists, in spite of everyone’s best efforts, but you can lessen its effects. Even better, you can work within the bounds of that reality to fashion unique and strong family bonds.
• Build A Strong Foundation. Once you recognize that loneliness is a common problem, recognize that dealing with it requires a solid foundation for the family. Building that foundation requires that, first, you have a way to renew your own emotional and physical resources. Then, concentrate on making your marriage as strong as possible. Last (but not least), do what’s within your control to build up your relationships with the rest of the family.
º Renew Your Resources. The first step, taking care of yourself, can feel like you’re being selfish. Certainly, concentrating on yourself can tip into self-centeredness, but I’m not talking about getting a manicure instead of taking your foster child to therapy. I’m advocating that you carve out enough space for the essential things that renew your emotional and physical resources. Self-care at its heart is making sure that you have what you need to take care of the important people in your life.
Paying attention to your physical health is an obvious example, since good health enables you to care for the rest of your family. Physical exercise also has the benefit of elevating your mood and supporting your emotional health. Emotional health tends to work the same way. If you are an introvert like me, be sure that you build into your schedule some alone time to spend with your books or crafts or garden or whatever you need to fill up your emotional gas tank. If you are an extrovert, build in time to visit with friends and family who can help replenish your resources. And maybe throw in a manicure once in a while. Taking care of yourself is an essential part of taking care of your family.
º Prioritize Your Marriage. The next step is to concentrate on your marriage. As I’ve written before, adult relationships are the foundation of a healthy and functioning family. Perhaps the most important thing you can show your foster children is how to keep adult relationships together. You may be the only model your foster children have for how healthy adult relationships work. If you are in their life, it's because they lost their intact biological family. They need to see how adults can make marriages last for the long run.
You and your spouse have to work together on building this foundation. Each partner has to feel that the other is making the marriage a priority. If you have trouble discussing these problem areas, then find a mutual friend or good counselor (by good, I mean one experienced with trauma and some exposure to foster families) to help you work through them.
There are many different ways to communicate and be sure that you are staying on the same page. The best way for most couples is to carve aside quality time for just the two of you. Whether that’s a date night or a weekend away once in a while, you need to be able to concentrate on each other. Other couples find some alone time every day or touch base by telephone or text. There are any number of good ways to ensure a good relationship. The important thing is to make that relationship a priority and find ways that work for you.
º Put Your Kids in Third Place. I’m not saying that kids are not important, but we simply won’t have the resources to have a relationship with them if we don’t take care of ourselves and our marriages first. Of course, being a foster parent involves sacrifice, but it doesn’t require emotional suicide. If you put a solid foundation in place, you will be better able to take care of your children.
Putting the other two steps in place also will help you keep the foster parent-child relationship in perspective. You can’t replace their biological parents, but you can create your own special relationship with them. Also, relationships with children always take time. Give your foster kids time to adjust to the disruption in their lives and the space to determine what sort of relationship they want with you.
• Find Your People. A final way to deal with loneliness is to find a support system. This task is more challenging than it sounds because you need not only people who care about you but people who understand the challenges of being a foster parent. Friends raising a biological family may care about you, but they simply cannot understand what it’s like to step into a child’s ongoing story. They don’t get the challenges of building your schedule around therapy and school conferences and bio-parent visits. They usually have never had to deal with a sluggish agency or figure out how to help someone else’s child through the effects of trauma. Their advice is always well-meant, often not helpful, and sometimes actively bad.
Of course, these friends may be able to help with some of the pieces of being a parent. An experienced parent of teens, for example, can remind you that rejecting your advice is part of the job description for teenagers. Or friends whose biological children have rejected them may be in a similar situation to those with antagonistic foster children. But they likely will not understand the entire context of being lonely while trying to parent a child with trauma.
Certainly, hang on to those friends, but at the same time, find a support network that understands all of the challenges that you face. Cultivate friendships with people you know who are foster parents. Find your local and state foster parent association, and join their conferences and other activities. The Internet and social media offer any number of online groups, many of which will allow you to post anonymously. Of course, the advice you get often will be anonymous as well, and you will have to be wary of accepting everything that you hear. But just seeing fact situations similar to yours can be a reassuring reminder that your situation is not unique and that you are not alone.
Joining a traumatized child’s journey is always a challenge. There is no magic formula for making it easy or staving off the unavoidable bouts of loneliness. The good news is that you can shorten those lonely times or limit their effects. Concentrate on what you need to maintain your resources to take care of your family. Prioritize your marriage, work on communication, and find time alone to concentrate on each other. Give your foster children enough time and space to figure out what relationship they want. Finally, build your support group of experienced foster parents who can help you navigate the foster care system and the foster family dynamic. Being a foster parent will be challenging, but if you can put a solid foundation in place, these relationships also can be the most wonderful that you will ever experience.