If you’re a seasoned a foster parent or even just starting the process, you’ve probably heard, “I could never do that.”
“I’d get too attached.”
“I couldn’t go through the heartache of loving them and having them leave.”
The first person to say it to me was a cashier at my local grocery store just days after our first placement. I was in the store by myself for a few precious minutes of solitude and to make my first WIC purchase. The cashier asked about my kids. I hesitated, Cheerios in hand over the conveyor belt, in a brief moment of crisis of what to tell him. Do I tell this stranger, that I’m sure I will never see again, he’s my son? That seems like a lie. Can I lie to a stranger, that I’m sure I will never see again? Novice me decided I could not, and I set the Cheerios down on the belt while mumbling, “I have a 3 year old son and a one year old foster son.” To which he responded, “Oh, that’s cool. I’ve always wanted to be a foster parent, but I think I’d get too attached to the kids.”
After the cashier, I heard that same sentiment repeated several times in the next few months. And if you’ve frequented any foster parent communities, you’ll know that foster parents absolutely hate hearing it.
When a foster parent hears, “I’d get too attached,” the wheels start turning. Are you implying that I don’t? Do you think this takes a callous person who’s okay with saying goodbye? Because you, person who has never tried this, have no idea what it’s actually like. You are absolutely correct that it’s painful. When a child goes home that you’ve scooped up into a bear hug hundreds of times, shared in all the milestones, and consoled at each heartache great and small, you grieve the loss. While you can hypothesize what that might feel like, we know loss from firsthand experience, and yet we’re still here. I see a lot of foster parents getting offended by this comment, and I know where they’re coming from. This remark, however well intentioned, is interpreted with a thick layer of disdain in the foster parent’s mind, “It’s great that you’re doing it, but I can’t because I’m the kind of person that would actually get attached.”
I also know where that other person is coming from too. I don’t believe that people were intended to endure great and repeated loss. And loss is at the heart of foster care. We hear it so often that I think it’s safe to say it’s a natural response. It’s an honest emotional reaction to perceived pain. Let’s imagine someone told you that you could have a really great romantic relationship with someone. You will love the person deeply while it lasts, but you also know it’ll end in a few months and you will never see that person again (and we’re talking absolutely, 100%, no finding each other later in life to rekindle the romance final). Would you still do it? If you’re one of those who wouldn’t jump into a doomed relationship, you’re not alone.
Foster parents, we need to be more accepting of where these comments are coming from and the thinking behind them. It’s a very natural thing to want to protect oneself. After all, these are hypothetical children they don’t know and haven’t built an emotional connection with yet, and the only thing that seems sure about the process is that it’s temporary. It’s okay to be at this stage. It’s okay to never move past it as well because not everyone is going to be cut out for the arduous journey of taking in hurting children. But, if you want to see more foster parents in your community, then you need to put aside how tired you are of hearing it and how much you really want to not get into a conversation with a stranger in the middle of the grocery store and start educating.
As much as we hurt, it’s worth it for the sake of those children who need love and stability more than you need to avoid the risk of experiencing loss. One of the greatest gifts you can give these children is to simply come to terms with the fact that they’re worth it. I read a quote once that said, “I am not afraid to grieve. I am afraid of what will happen to these children if no one took the risk to love them.”
The truth is I do worry about attachment. I worry that my 1 year old foster son who has been in 5 different homes isn’t going to learn healthy attachment skills. I worry when I see him cling onto a nursery worker who he’s met half an hour ago and has to be pried off, crying to stay in that stranger’s arms that it might be a sign of attachment disorder. I worry that the instability he’s faced at this early stage of development will impact him down the road. Yes, attachment is a big issue, but their attachment is much more crucial, more at risk. When we focus inward, we are blind to the greater needs of others.
Foster parents can’t begin to engage in the sarcastic, tired, or defensive responses to “I’d get too attached” that I hear too often or the silent stare until the person asking the question walks away. This is our opportunity to acknowledge that natural reaction and to advocate for taking the risk for the sake of hurting kids. Anything less will not help create new foster parents. So if you’re in the recruiting business, remember to take a deep breath before flying off the rail and educate instead.