What is more natural than to love?
This is an important question, and one that makes being a foster parent seem a lot less radical than many in the general public perceive it to be. When I tell people that my wife and I have three grown daughters, all of whom came to us as teenagers in the foster care system, the most common response is some combination of wonder, awe and flattery. “What an amazing thing to do!” “What a tough job!”
Now I enjoy flattery as much as the next guy but I can’t accept this praise, at least not for the usual reasons. If you want to praise me for being a responsible parent, go ahead, and I’ll do the same in return if you are conscientious in raising your kids, however they came to be members of your family. The implication behind the praise that I get, though, is that the parenting I do is somehow above and beyond what other, “normal” parents do.
That’s why I politely refuse to accept that praise, because the unspoken suggestion is that when I agreed to parent my girls they were less desirable and harder to love than other young people. Not only is that false, but I refuse to believe that I live in a world where people genuinely believe this. And if they do believe it, there is no real basis other than inadequate exposure to the remarkable boys and girls who through no fault of their own wind up in the foster care system.
This is not to imply that the job is easy or that the issues that foster kids face in a family are identical to those of any other kid. Really, any parent, traditional or otherwise, knows that it’s the toughest job in the world and that each kid has different issues. Each of my girls has at times filled me with delight and at other times has filled me with stress. Each of them has shown incredible caring and sensitivity at times and at other times has pushed all of my buttons. I’ve woken up basking in pride and have spent sleepless nights worrying about them. It’s been humbling, exhausting and enlightening.
So why do I do it? Because they are my daughters and I love them. What more is there to say? I can’t go back in time and question my decision to be their parent any more than any biological parent can, and as their parent, my love is natural and unconditional. People don’t question the capacity to love their spouses or close friends or in some cases even celebrities and sports teams with whom there is no direct personal connection. Yet children who don’t have parents to care for them are somehow hard to love? Do you really want to live in a world in which that is true? I sure don’t.
When my wife and I began exploring parenting options, we dismissed the notions of fostering and of parenting older youth. Fostering means love them and give them back, right? We could never do that. And in talking to purportedly knowledgeable people, we learned that teenagers are too old, damaged and set in their ways for there to be any real hope for establishing a bond.
And then a funny thing happened. I’m not a big believer in fate or “God’s plan,” but I don’t have another explanation for how our first daughter was essentially thrust into our family. She needed a home, we had one and before we knew what had happened, we were family. We didn’t know if she’d bond, we didn’t know if she’d stay, and it didn’t matter because she needed to be loved and we were able to do that. Each of our girls has taken a different path into and within our family, but the conclusion has been the same.
Years later, I believe that most people in our situation would have done the same thing. Those who haven’t been touched by foster care may have a hard time believing this, but when I think about the people I know (most of whom have never fostered or adopted) I have a hard time imagining many of them turning away and saying “sorry, kid.” People hear our story and congratulate us for going above and beyond the call of duty. I just don’t see it that way – to me that IS the call of duty. We didn’t set out to save the world, we just saw a need and felt a genuine connection to a fellow human. Our capacity to love is not greater than anybody else’s. The universe simply called us to act on that capacity to love and we obeyed. I am optimistic that I will live to see the day when fostering children and teens is seen in such straightforward terms.