Fostering and Attachment: Riding the Line Between Enough and Too Much
So they tell you in your training to TREAT YOUR FOSTER KIDS AS YOU WOULD YOUR OWN. Okay. That sounds great in theory. I mean, why wouldn’t you? You are their legal guardian and, essentially, their parent for that time, especially if they’re young. To treat them like some kid you’re babysitting long-term would be unfair to them.
But if you treat them like your own child, won’t you get too attached? That is the most common excuse I hear from people who say they “could never be a foster parent.” “I would get too attached,” they say. Or “It would be too hard to let them go.” Or on the flip side, “I don’t know if I could be a mom to someone else’s kid.”
So HOW DO YOU GET ATTACHED ENOUGH BUT KEEP FROM GETTING TOO ATTACHED? I don’t have the answer. I don’t think anyone does. Each situation is completely different. All I can do is share my experiences. Being a foster parent three different times now, I’ve seen THE GOOD, THE BAD, and THE MESSY in regards to attachment, and I’ve learned so much!
In all three experiences I feel like there has been one common factor in determining how attached or not attached I became to my foster kids. And that is HOW TEMPORARY OR PERMANENT I VIEWED THEIR TIME WITH US TO BE.
Our first foster kid was 4 ½ years old, and we had him for only a month and a half. It being our first go-around and me not being used to having kids in the house, especially over summer break as a teacher, I felt like a babysitter who never had the privilege of going home. I’m ashamed to admit that when he finally did go home, I silently rejoiced and quickly settled back into my old normal life. The first placement is always the hardest, but knowing we were only going to have him for such a short time made it feel more like a temporary babysitting gig instead of being an actual mom.
Our second experience as foster parents was much better. We took in two siblings, two and three years old, for eight months. At first, when we thought they would only be with us for three months, it felt temporary again, like our watching these kids was just a little disruption in our normal lives. Then we found out their stay would be much longer. My reaction to that news was not what I expected. I’d been so stressed adjusting to being a mother of two toddlers that the thought of having them a lot longer should have made me feel overwhelmed or frustrated. But somehow, I felt better. I realized what had been making those first few months so stressful. I’D BEEN HOVERING ABOVE MY LIFE, WAITING FOR EVERYTHING TO GO BACK TO NORMAL. When we knew the situation would be a little more permanent, I could finally stop hovering. This life with two precious toddlers was no longer a temporary disruption but my new normal. Once I settled into that idea, life was better. Because I was no longer a babysitter, but a mom. Even if I wasn’t their real mom, I was their mom for that period in time. Real motherly attachment came much more easily at that point.
The faster you can ACCEPT the NEW NORMAL of your life, the faster you can ADJUST and ATTACH.
So that helped getting attached enough, but what about getting too attached? The main factor that helped with this was knowing the whole time they would be going home. WE KNEW IT WASN’T PERMANENT. The parents were doing what they needed to do to get them back and we could tell they loved them. I think when you know the kids won’t be staying with you permanently your mind erects a barrier in your heart that helps keep you from getting too attached. Like a self-preservation technique or something.
Was it still tough seeing them go? You betcha! I knew it was the right thing for those kids in that situation, which sadly doesn’t always happen, and that helped tremendously. But it was still hard, and I missed the heck out of those kids.
Then we got a two-month-old, and our world ended. Foster moms told me having a baby is different. They weren’t kidding. DEVELOPING A BOND WITH A BABY IS ALMOST INSTANTANEOUS. And I don’t even like babies. With babies, you are their entire world. They are solely dependent on you. But my attachment to this little girl didn’t stop there. It kept growing. With each new day. With every new first. With every smile and laugh. With every hug and cuddle. With every bedtime story and song. As she grew closer to me, I grew closer to her.
I told myself in the beginning I would try my best to guard my heart. Looking back now, I have to laugh at my naivety. There’s no guarding your heart from the natural love that develops between a mother and baby. WHEN YOU ARE HER WORLD, SHE BECOMES YOUR WORLD.
Still, it’s not impossible to keep a little healthy distance in your heart from a baby you’re caring for. I have a friend who was able to do that. Want to guess what the key ingredient was? She knew the whole time he was going home. Sadly, this time we did not get that luxury. Our baby’s case was up in the air as far as whether or not she’d go home. So, since there was always a chance her stay could be permanent, there was nothing to stop my attachment. She has become and is our little girl.
Without getting into too much detail (since legally I can’t), we may lose our little girl. As I write this, we’ve had her for fourteen months. We are all she truly knows. I will say if she does end up leaving us my heart will shatter into a million pieces, and I will never be the same. Only by God’s grace will I recover.
It’s not over yet. But I can say with certainty that no matter what happens, I don’t regret being her mommy for the time I was allowed. The love, joy, and pride I’ve experienced being her mother and knowing I’ve made a huge impact on her life was worth every tear, every anxious thought, every sleepless night, every gut-wrenching prayer, and every heartbroken “Why?” cried out to God. The bond we’ve shared was what she needed. But it was also what I needed. And I will forever be grateful to her for that.