"Why did you decide to do foster care?" the case worker asked me on the Monday after our first weekend with a child in our home.
"Well, we have room in our home and love in our hearts" is the answer that I gave that day, and it's the answer that I give today if most people ask. It's easy, and it's fairly honest.
But about a million times a day, I have to keep coming back to the rest of the story, the other unspoken reasons for why we are foster parents. Because about a million times a day, I question if we made the right decision. I've done some hard things in my nearly three decades of life, and this is the hardest. It's tough in all of the ways that I imagined it would be, plus a hundred more. If people knew all of the ins and outs of this broken system, no one would willingly sign up for the job.
So why do it? Why do we give up our time, our budget, our comforts, and our very lives for this little girl, and for any others who may come through our doors in the next months or years? I can think of a few reasons, though I'm sure that there are more than the ones I'm going to list here.
1. God tells us to do it. As Christians, we use the Bible to guide our lives, and God tells His people over and over to care for widows and orphans. Though I don't believe that everyone is called to be a foster family, I believe that caring for vulnerable children in some way is a calling on the lives of all followers of Jesus. Sometimes I wish this wasn't our calling. I want my life to be easy, and foster care is anything but that. However, I have so clearly experienced God giving His strength and presence to those whom He has called to do His work. He tells us to rise and say "yes" to His plans each day, so we choose (not always joyfully) to listen and obey.- for our good and His glory.
2. It's needed. I realize that not everyone reading this blog is a Christian. For you, the Bible does not provide a valid reason to participate in foster care. Maybe statistics do, though. There are nearly 10,000 children in Oklahoma alone who are currently placed in DHS custody. When you woke up this morning in your own home, there were approximately 428,000 kids across the country who did not. Those numbers are on the rise. The number of safe, loving homes for those children is not. Clearly, this is a problem.
3. Being pro-life is not simply a matter of opposing abortion. I could say a lot on this point, but ALL lives matter. It is unacceptable to fight for the rights of unborn children while doing nothing about the children already living among us in unsafe and abusive situations.
4. Foster care is not only about the child, but about the birth family, too. We have a unique opportunity to invest in K's mom as the temporary caregivers of her daughter. Our job is not to say, "This is how you raise kids correctly," but to come alongside her in her desire to be a good mother. I don't think that she has had many people in her life say, "We love you and we are on your team," and we get to do that. We don't only want a happy life for K; we want true joy for her mother, as well. Apart from grace, I might find myself in exactly her position, and I would hope that my child's foster family would treat me with humility and compassion. I would also hope that they would let me participate in my child's life as much as is appropriate.
5. We get to provide and be part of many of her "firsts". Though she is barely three and would be experiencing lots of "firsts" regardless of her placement in foster care, we have the privilege of giving her more. She first said her name in our car and first used a toothbrush in our bathroom. She had her first real birthday party last weekend and her first experience with "school" last week. We don't do these things to try to prove that we are great parents. We do them because, for the next week or month or year, she is part of our family, and this is what we do with our own children. While these "firsts" sometimes seem tedious or expensive, I feel blessed that we get to see them and sad that her mother does not.
6. Foster care can help to break cycles of abuse, incarceration, and addiction. The more I learn of K's story, the better I understand why she is the way she is. She faces many of the same issues that her mom does, as do her grandmother, great-grandmother, aunts, and uncles. Ideally, K's mom can get the help she needs and bring K back into a safe and loving home, thus giving K a better life than the one she had and breaking a generational cycle. If not, perhaps we can humbly show K that although her birth family will always be her family, she does not have to continue in some of the destructive patterns that she has perceived to be "normal".
7. We do it for our kids. Sometimes people ask us if foster care affects our own children, and it definitely does. It affects all of us, but probably not in the negative ways that others envision. Do our girls have to learn to share some of their things and give up some of their comforts? Yes. Do they receive a little less of our attention with the addition of this third child? Yes. Do they, like us, have to show patience and kindness when K doesn't follow the rules of our home because she has been raised differently for nearly three years? Absolutely. These are difficult lessons for our whole family, but they are good lessons that need to be learned. Though our girls are two and four, they can do hard things. I truly believe that, while they are being stretched, our kids are also being molded into more gracious children, as we are being stretched and hopefully being molded into more loving parents. There have been numerous days when I have felt that they are more sacrificial and understanding than we are.
8. She's changing, but really I am the one who is. I can easily become frustrated that our foster daughter does not use manners, go to the bathroom, or comprehend the unspoken rules of our family. The longer she stays with us, the more she grows in those and other areas and "fits in" with us. She is changing. But I'm changing more. My heart and attitude are still so gross, but she is teaching me lessons which could not be learned in any other way or with any other human. I am a far cry from "patient," "loving," "joyful," "gentle," and "generous," but every day that I choose to say "yes" again to this hard calling, God is putting more of those qualities into me, slowly but surely.
This is a bumpy road that we're on, but I know that it is leading to somewhere beautiful beyond where I can currently see. Fostering isn't only about taking in a child; it is about giving hope. He knows the plans He has for us.