Some parents sign up just to do foster care, not desiring a long term commitment like adoption. Other parents are primarily interested in children who are available for adoption. Still others are willing to do both foster care and adoption. Whether you're taking in foster children with the idea of a short term or a lifelong commitment, you're probably going to have the experience of feeling sad when a child has to go home. On the flip side, you may have trouble at times creating attachments to some children who come in to your home. Understanding some things about attachment can help you make sense out of your emotions and get through them more easily.
One of the first foster care placements that we had was a little 6 week old infant named Brandon. My husband I had a biological daughter already, but we had had a stillborn boy a little less than a year after my daughter had been born. This little foster baby, of course, made me revisit the idea of our stillborn child in full force. I attached to the little guy immediately and wanted to keep him forever. Around the same time, a long lost friend who shares (by coincidence) my name and my birthday contacted me out of the blue. She had just had a baby boy (he too was 6 weeks old) and guess what she and her husband named him? Brandon. It was another odd coincidence and I set up a date to see my friend a few weeks later.
Unfortunately, two weeks later, Brandon had gone back home. I wept uncontrollably for about an hour after he left. It wasn't the kind of pain that I felt when we had a stillbirth, but losing Brandon after having him for a little over 10 days was still a little turbulent. I had to go and visit my friend who still had her baby and recognize the fact that our Brandon had gone back to his birth mommy. It was during this placement that I realized the true complexities surrounding foster care. It was important that I treat the children in our care as though they are my own, but I need to be prepared to let go of them at the same time. With very young children, they may not even remember you years later or know that you ever cared for them. This can be a hard pill to swallow, but it's a part of what's involved in being a foster parent and it's part of what makes foster parenting such a big opportunity for learning.
As a foster parent, there may be children who come into your home with problems that make it difficult for you to attach. You may find yourself feeling a distance between yourself and a foster child without knowing why. A lot of it may have to do with your own attachment style. Attachment is a word that's really important to child psychologists. It's hard to understand anything about the psychology of children without having some idea what attachment is and how it works. Essentially, children develop an attachment “style” based off of parent-child transactions that take place from a child's earliest days. Are parents consistent with feedings and changings? Are parents warm and loving or cold and uncaring? Do parents feed baby when baby isn't hungry or neglect baby when she is? All of the transactions between parents and children add up to an attachment style that children have by the time they end up in foster care. Even young infants, like the 6 week old infant had an attachment style that had an effect on our lives.
Foster parents have an attachment style too. How your parents interacted with you plays a role in how you interact with others and whether you form strong bonds with people, whether you're wary, or ambivalent when you form relationships. Your attachment style can conflict with a foster child's attachment style sometimes. It may be uncomfortable, but if you realize this is happening, you can override your own attachment inclinations and still bond with your foster child.
Understanding your own way of attaching to the foster children you care for will also help you endure the pain of separation when foster children go back to their birth families. If you develop very strong bonds with children the first moment you lay eyes on them, you may have a lot of trouble letting go of them later. If you can endure the pain of separation and work with it, then your tendency to form strong attachments will help children feel safe enough to attach to you as well. But if you have trouble letting go, you may want to stick with placements that will primarily lead to adoption.
If you tend to be stand-offish when you first meet people, including foster children, you're probably going to have to override this. Give foster children hugs even when you don't feel like it. Chances are, after you get past the first few days, you'll start to attach. But be aware that if this is your attachment style, you may feel angry or embittered after your foster children go back to their birth home. Try to keep this in check because it won't bring the foster children back and it isn't good for your health to carry around extra anger that isn't necessary.
Whatever your attachment style, you're probably going to feel a little sad when your foster children go back to birth parents. Do what you can to stay in touch with your foster children when this happens, but, if it isn't possible, try to work with the pain of separation as an opportunity to learn something about yourself. Take deep breaths and cry when necessary. The pain doesn't last forever. Foster parents who have experience dealing with their own losses will only be better equipped to help new foster children deal with theirs.