Everyone says, “It takes a village to raise a child.” But I want to talk about how it takes a village to raise a foster parent! Alongside the more “typical” parenting struggles, the struggles that foster parents face are more complex, particularly because the nature of foster care is so isolating. Few people really know what you’re going through when you accept a new boy or girl into your home. Even fewer know what it’s like to pray over them, send them home, and be filled with joy and hope and grief and pain all at the same time. The process of raising them up and then sending them home is grueling, the nights are long, and the details of the case- which must remain confidential- weigh heavy on both the mind and the heart.
I am a passionate believer that more people should become foster parents. (Do you have questions about how to get licensed? Come talk to me!) However, for various reasons, maybe getting licensed right now just isn’t right for your family. And that’s okay! There are a lot of ways that you can help support foster families even if you’re not ready to get licensed yourself. The support that you provide a foster family helps keep them in it for the long haul. The simplest of gestures could be the difference between a family like mine being licensed for 1 year or 5 or 10 (or more).
This is a short list of ideas of how to wrap around a foster family in your community, inspired by the wonderful friends and family that have lifted us up as we became foster parents.
1. Feed them!
Okay, so our friends are REALLY good at this one. We had a friend who brought dinners to our house, a couple friends who gave us gift cards to restaurants (that I swear we’ll use for dates eventually!) and a particularly fabulous friend who repeatedly ding-dong-ditched us and left grocery bags full of easy snacks on our front step. She explained that she felt pressure to “entertain” after her little one was born, and that she wished someone would have just dropped food and ran, so that’s what she did!
2. Offer to pick things up at the grocery store for them.
They may not ask you to do a full grocery run for them. But if you’re close to them, it couldn’t hurt to call and ask how they are doing on necessities. Diapers? Laundry detergent? Toilet paper? Until you ask, they might not have noticed they only have 3 diapers left, and you saved them a run to Walmart at midnight.
3, Offer to watch or transport any other children in the home.
This was a non-issue for us, because we don’t have any other children in the home, but it made the list because I know so many people that this is beneficial for. New foster placements come with a lot of appointments, visits and court dates. If there are other children in the home, it can take a weight off of the parent to have that extra help after-school or during important appointments.
4. Get licensed to provide respite care for them.
This varies state to state. Our state adopted prudent parenting guidelines, which mean that a foster parent can use their own discretion when it comes to who is suitable childcare for a date night or after-school activities. Some states require any caregiver to go through licensure in order to babysit, while others (like ours) only require that for anyone watching the child for more than 72 hours or on a regular basis (e.g. every day while the foster parent works).
5. Tell them exactly how you’re prepared to help them.
When we got the call for Sweaty Spaghetti, we had one friend of ours say, “I’m the 2 AM ‘I need diapers’ friend. Call us anytime day or night and we’ll be there.” We had another friend say, “When I walk in the door, just tell me what needs to be done. Hold the baby? Scrub the toilets? Dishes? Just tell me.” This helped me know which friend was which, so to speak. Are you the food friend? The chores friend? Maybe you’re the “any of the above” friend. Delegating and asking for help is so much easier if you know what that person is comfortable with, and what their strengths are. Also, asking for help is hard. So remind them, maybe a couple of times, how you can help them. This was SO much more helpful than the people who said, “How can I help?” For some reason, even still, I draw a blank when someone asks me that. Offering to do specific tasks made that internal struggle a lot easier.
6. Don’t stop checking in on them.
This one goes along with the previous one. So maybe you offered to help, but they never took you up on it? Give them some time, and then offer again. Foster parents, with new placements in particular, will probably be too busy, or to proud, to ask for help. When Sweaty Spaghetti was placed with us, we were so busy figuring out how to parent, and how to be a foster parent on top of that, that delegating was the last thing on our minds. It definitely didn’t mean we didn’t want, need, or appreciate the offers. Each placement has brought about the same offers of help, and we’ve gotten better at taking people up on it.
7. Follow their lead.
In the adoption and fostering communities, there are a lot of varying opinions about “cocooning” (taking a break from busy life to insulate your family and get to know these children) versus going on about normal life and helping the children join in that. Each family will be different, and each child may require a different level of cocooning. With Sweaty Spaghetti, he came to church with us the same day we picked him up because, as a newborn he was happy as long as he was carried, and also because I had committed to sing for Easter. Sweet One came to us with some more complex needs and many appointments, which meant that on days we get to stay home, we really want and need that breather. Similarly, many older children come into foster care with complex trauma histories, which could be made better by routine, or worse by lots of crowds and activities. If we (or another family) don’t text back, pass up your offers to babysit for a date night, or politely say you can’t hold the baby, please don’t be offended. There are a lot of moving pieces when it comes to parenting, especially when children are affected by trauma. Trust that the foster parents are constantly taking the temperature of their family, so to speak, and follow their lead when it comes to how involved they are willing to be (or let you be).
All in all, caring for a foster family isn’t that different from caring for any other family going through a huge transition. Now might not be the right time for you to foster a child, but helping a foster child is easier than you think. When you help raise up a foster parent, you help give those children a stable and loving foundation, and a chance to see love and family in action.