There is a stigma that foster parents must have feelings of undying love and warm fuzzies towards their foster children. That’s not always the case when you first accept a placement, and I believe the pressure to feel those butterflies is one of the biggest disservices to new foster parents. It’s the kind of thing that pushes parents to disrupt placements when they feel they’re doing something wrong and everyone else is experiencing some magical and emotional connection that they aren’t.
I’ve been teaching for 7 years. When I was in college, one of my education professors (who had taught in the public school system for years but was still relatively young) told us that we’ll always have favorites; our job is to make sure it doesn’t show. As soon as I heard that, it stuck with me and festered. I resolved that I would not be that teacher. I reasoned that it had to be a choice, and my goal as a teacher was to never have a favorite. I wanted to treat each student as if our interaction was the singular best encounter of my day.
Before the first day of school I would worry that I might not connect with that new batch of students. And each year I rediscovered the fact that even the toughest kids can be reached; I just had to be intentional. There were things that still made my blood boil: the time someone dropped my favorite personal possession in my classroom, a glass cloche bell jar, and it shattered into the carpet (yes, it was done with a lot of force for it to break on carpet), the nastygrams from parents, and the interruptions in the middle of a heartfelt lesson. Some students took longer to form bonds with than others, and the level of involvement they wanted from me differed from student to student. Some kids sought me out during free time, and those relationships were effortless whereas other students were hard to crack. Each relationship looked different, but in my 7 years, I was true to my goal and can say with a clear conscience that my feelings towards my students were equal and that I genuinely cared for each one of them. My instinct in college proved true: it was a choice.
When it comes to foster children, we naturally put them into the same category as our biological children. They are our foster sons and daughters. We assume there will be a natural bond. We beat ourselves up if we’re not feeling a connection. We can’t admit that some days the kids drive us crazy (maybe there are days we don’t even think we like them). When placements are disrupted because we think there’s something horribly wrong when we’re not feeling it, that’s a failure in the emphasis we’re placing on emotion.
I’m here to encourage you to let go of how you think you’re suppose to feel. You already know it’s going to be hard, but also know that there may not be fireworks. It’s actually very normal to have a rocky start, and by rocky I’m not talking 2 weeks of contentious interactions until it all fades out into perfect bliss. It can take a very long time to bond. Let me repeat this for you: it can take a very long time to bond. When you’re not worried about feeling a certain way, it can be very freeing and allow the connection to unfold organically.
I’ve had people voice the concern that the weeks or months it takes until they bond with the child is time that could be better spent with a family that feels it right away. To those people I would say fake it until you make it. What these kids need is loving action. And I can guarantee that if you love them with your actions, they will never know that your feelings didn’t line up. They will look back and remember the things you did for them, the time you spent investing in their lives, and the words you said to build them up and affirm them. If you can do that, it doesn’t matter how you felt or how many times you cried in the bathroom. You did love them. You loved them tangibly.
Of course things are easier when we’re fueled with warm fuzzies. The good Lord created us to bond. Without an emotional connection, I’d probably have ripped off my husband’s head by now. If you want to cultivate an emotional connection, I’d encourage you to find something special you can do with your foster children. What are their likes? What are their hobbies? Can you go camping together or out to a movie? Can you find something that will relax you both and get you laughing? Can you cook dinner or try a new restaurant neither of you have been to before? Work at joining them in their interests, bringing them along for the things you enjoy, and forging new memories together.
Just remember that those other foster parents you see that seem to have it figured out aren’t always feeling it either. Remove the pressure to fall in love with these kids and make it a choice to love them. Decide each morning you get up that you are going to love on the kids no matter how how many times they hurt your feelings, wear you out, or make your blood boil. And sooner or later you’ll find that your emotions will follow.