Originally published on Romper and republished here with permission.
Beyond the extra faces to wipe and diapers to change, being a foster mom often means playing defense and keeping your foster kids from hearing questions or statements from friends and strangers that will add unnecessary hurt to their already difficult lives.
Wherever you go, you’ll be fielding outrageous questions or hearing things people feel fine saying to foster moms that, honestly, they wouldn’t dream of saying to, or about, biological moms.
For several months, we’ve been fostering a baby girl, who was just ten weeks younger than our eight-month-old daughter. They were the same size, but looked completely different. Our daughter was dark and a little scrawny, and our foster babe was fair and had thighs for days.
Even a trip to the grocery store evoked so many questions from strangers about why I was pushing around a double stroller with these clearly unrelated babies.
The first time my husband joined me on an excursion, he couldn’t believe how brazen perfect strangers could be, and we both expressed our gratitude that this foster baby was too young to understand what was being asked about her.
A foster mom friend, who’s a foster parent to two sisters in addition to her four girls, recently told me she couldn’t believe how often people ask her in front of her three-year-old foster daughter whether they were going to adopt her.
For a child who already has anxiety about where she is and who she belongs to, this would set her (and her foster mom) off on a days-long discussion about where she belonged, simply because a stranger, or friend, or even family member didn’t have the wherewithal to keep their mouth shut and wait for a more appropriate time to ask the question.
The best rule of talking about foster kids to foster moms is to refrain from asking or commenting about the situation in front of the kids.
And, if you can, try to imagine that they’re just like my biological kids, because it’s my goal to treat them that way, too.
1. ‘They’re So Lucky to Have You’
First of all, there is nothing “lucky” about their situation.
If they were really lucky, they’d be with parents in a stable, loving home. People may mean well in saying this, but this is at the top of most foster parents’ lists of what gets under their skin.
2. ‘Their Parents Must Be [Insert Any Rude Remark Here]’
Addicts, mentally ill, in prison? Maybe. Maybe they’re developmentally delayed because of major trauma when they were foster children.
Maybe they’ve chosen to enter rehab so that they can better parent their children. Maybe they never had a single example of a caring parent in all of their formative years.
You don’t know.
And making a judgment on them does no one any good, especially if you do it in front of their kids. You can assume their parents must not be currently equipped to care for them in the best way, but their family drama isn’t your business or your entertainment.
3. ‘What’s Wrong with Them?’
Would you ask that about my other kids?
I’d hope not – at least not that bluntly. Start with this fact: There is nothing wrong with my foster child that is in any way their fault.
There may be things that are very wrong that they experienced or that happened to them, but there’s nothing inherently wrong with them.
Trauma – from a very early age – may result in behavior issues later, or being bounced from home to home can make them act out. But don’t assume there’s something “wrong” with them or that they’re broken.
4. ‘You Must Be Scared for Your Other Kids’
Some foster kids do come with issues that need careful attention, but there are specific rules about what kind of homes children with certain issues can be placed in.
So no, I’m not scared for the safety of my other kids, and most foster kids don’t come with issues that would pose a threat to my child. Most need extra attention, extra love, and to be consistently reassured that they’re valuable and important.
5. ‘I Could Never Do That’
This is actually the most common reaction I’ve gotten when I explain that we’ve chosen to foster.
The first ten times I heard it, I responded with a very heartfelt “Oh, you absolutely could!” and tried to explain the joy we get from it and the fact that sharing our family’s abundance of love feels like a natural way for us to live our life.
Honestly, the part that you’re talking about you could never do – the returning a child to their families – is the part that breaks our hearts the most, too.
But we all do hard things, and we often wrestle with difficult decisions. Is it my favorite thing about fostering? Not a chance. However, it’s a sacrifice I’m willing to make and one that maybe you could stop harping on if you’re not going to put yourself be in my shoes.
6. ‘Wow, They’re So Well-Behaved’
A lovely euphemism for “I thought all foster children were rotten,” which doesn’t go unnoticed.
7. ‘Are You Going to Adopt Them?’
This is an understandable question when asked in private, away from foster children, but that’s not usually where the question is asked.
It gets asked in the grocery store parking lot in front of a fragile three-year-old who understands what “forever” and “mommy” mean when you put them together in a sentence.
8. ‘Maybe You Should Just Give Her Back’
I know it can be hard to understand if you’ve never been in the position of caring for children you didn’t give birth to as though you did, but my general mantra for fostering is that I expect everyone to treat my foster children as though they are my “real” children.
If you wouldn’t say it to me about my biological children, please refrain from chiming in.
There are times when foster children may not be a perfect fit for a family, and they do need to consider the safety and wellbeing of everyone involved. But an off-hand “Maybe you should just give her back” comment isn’t the answer.
“Giving back” is a phrase used for a pen you borrowed. Children deserve more respect, even if this is a conversation that needs to be discussed with a close friend.
9. ‘It Must Be Hard to Split Time with Your Real Kids’
When we first started fostering, our daughter was only four months old.
I drove to a creepy McDonald’s at 9pm on a Wednesday night to collect the tiniest six-week-old whose every belonging reeked of smoke. My biggest fear was that my daughter was going to miss out on time with just me. She was, after all, our first child, and we had waited years for her to join our family.
But we made a decision that one of the lessons we would put into practice in our family was a willingness to open our home in a real way to people in need.
I wanted her to know from an early age that this is something our family does.
Not every family has to, and there will be seasons when we won’t be able to either. But I wanted her to know that given the opportunity, we all make sacrifices for those in need.
Now, when anyone brings up how much time my daughter gets with me, I simply explain that she knows she’s loved, but she also knows that this is how our family loves others.
Emily Westbrooks is freelance writer and blogger from Maine, previously in Dublin, now in Houston. Emily is wife to an Irishman and mama to Maya.
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