I was driving my oldest son to school a few mornings ago when he began to ask me questions about the first few months he lived with us. I began to reminisce with him. It was the summer of 2004, it was hot, I was busy working full-time, traveling a lot, and we had little to no clue what we were getting ourselves into. But we were excited.
“Dad, how old was I when I had to leave my birth mom’s house and come to yours?” my son asked. “You were 13 months old buddy,” I answered. “Did I sleep at night when I first came to live with you?” he followed with. “Not really, no,” I answered. “Was I filled with a lot of energy?” “Um, you could say that! The first thing you did when I put you down for the first time was make a bee-line for the top of the stairs. I had to reach out and snag you before you toppled down head over heels!” He laughed and then looked at me with that big cheesy grin he often looks at me with.
It was quiet for a moment. Only the hum of our truck’s engine could be heard. Then, he spoke again- “I bet you and mom were pretty frustrated back then.” I answered, “No, we weren’t frustrated, at least not with you or your sister.” His words got me thinking. I began to think back to that very first year and the numerous mistakes I made. Oh if I could’ve changed this, or done that differently, I thought to myself. I could fill up a book with that list, but here are some things I would have changed…
- I’d educate myself on trauma. I had no clue. I figured since he was just a baby that he didn’t understand what had happened to him. I was wrong. Looking back, the times he cried for seemingly no reason, the times he acted out, the numerous meltdowns, the lack of sleep, or the fear…they were reactions to a dark place in his mind that he couldn’t understand.
- I’d spend more time with other foster parents. Oh the great insight I learned later on down the road from others in the trenches. I needed that insight and wisdom when I first started out.
- I’d make sure date nights with my wife were top priority. We drilled down so heavily on our enormous task at hand that we neglected a lot of time for just us. We needed to put that at the top of the priority list.
- I’d be more intentional about spending time with my other children. It wasn’t until years into foster parenting that I realized my first-born daughter was right there, often waiting for us.
- I’d speak up more in hearings. Maybe I was intimidated by the whole court thing, but in hindsight, I wish I would have shared my honest thoughts and perspective on my children’s situation, and the decisions being made by DCS more than I did.
- I’d be more honest with case managers. We had a lot of great case managers. But we also had some who were demanding and difficult. They made many things sound final, and some were. But not all. By the time I realized this, we were almost to the end of our time in foster care. Looking back, I would be more upfront and honest.
- I’d take more time to learn about the children in my care. I’m not talking about what was listed in their file with the state. The hearings, visitations and more, gave me all I needed to know in regards to that. I’d spend time investing in them and hearing their hearts and perspectives on the world around them much more than I did.
- I’d stop waiting for the “end of the weekend.” I spent so much time counting down to the days when some of the children in our care would be reunified with their birth parents. In the process, I fortified my heart as a safeguard for their departure. I wish I would not have done that. I needed to let my heart do what it was created to do- love, invest, and care.
- I’d stop feeling weird and start embracing our differences. Call it a case of “suburbia-itis,” but back in that day, I was consumed with what other’s thought of me and our family. It wasn’t until years later that I embraced (and celebrated) just how weird our family was and is. It kept me from being myself for a long time. Today, I love being weird. I don’t even see the odd looks that people give us anymore.
- I’d laugh a lot more about a lot more stuff. I didn’t laugh nearly enough 12 years ago. I gave stress permission to set up residence in my heart. When the children in our care did something ridiculous, I overreacted instead of taking a deep breath and gaining a new perspective.
- I’d stop worrying that my foster children would “infect” my other children. I hate it when I hear people talk about their biological or adopted children being influenced or changed by their foster children. As if the children in their care carried some disease that was contagious. What an awful way to view a child. Yes, I had thoughts similar to this back in the day. They often dictated how I parented my daughter verses how I parented the two children in our care. I would change that in a heartbeat if I could.
- I’d share way less information with way less people. One of the biggest points of clarity I’ve received over the years is that there are a lot of well-intentioned people in your life that shouldn’t be trusted with any of your family’s information for as far as you can throw them. We met many people like this in the beginning. We overshared. Wish we wouldn’t have.
- I’d find out why the children in my care never meet a stranger. I had no idea that there was such a thing as attachment disorders 12 years ago. I had no idea why some of the children in our care would jump into the arms of a complete stranger. Looking back, however, I realize how abnormal that was. If I could, I’d go back in time, educate myself (similar to trauma) and create better boundaries.
- I’d have way more compassion. I just wasn’t as compassionate as I needed to be. I would change that instantly. What I’ve learned is this- The more compassionate you are, the fuller your life becomes!
- I’d celebrate my family’s beautiful story much more. It took me years to see how beautiful, amazing and perfectly imperfect our family’s story was. When I was in college I had this ideal image in my mind, but God was writing something more amazing than I could’ve imagined or dreamed. Looking back, I’d embrace that and celebrate it way more than I did!
The last thing I want to do is beat myself up for things I have no control over. So, I’m not going to do that. I can’t change the past, I can only learn from it and move forward into the future. But, maybe you can learn from my past mistakes? Maybe you are in year 1 and you’re struggling to find your way? I don’t want you to write a blog post or journal entry along the lines of, “If only I could’ve done that differently.”
Yes hindsight is 20/20! And the past can teach us a lot about the future. If my past experience can speak into the life of someone just starting out on the foster parenting journey, then everything I went through in year 1 wasn’t a mistake. It was valuable!
Current or former foster parent, what else would you add to this list?