Reflections from our foster care journey twelve months in

Reflections in waves

February 2016 marked twelve months since we were approved and took on our very first weekend respite placement as fresh foster carers. It seems like a good an opportunity as any to stop, take a breath, and reflect on what has transpired over the past year. Where we expected to be, where we are, and where we are heading.

During our first year we have cared for 19 children in 9 sibling groups during 28 weekend respite or short-term emergency placements through a total of 77 days. Thankfully I have not tracked amount of coffee consumed or hours of sleep lost. However I have also neglected to keep track of the number of high fives, hugs, smiles or laughs. Throughout the year there have been many challenges but these are outnumbered by the number of pleasant experiences and constant reminders that for the moment we are walking down the path which God intended for us.

Where did we expect to be by now?

“During our first year we have cared for 19 children in 9 sibling groups during 28 weekend respite or short-term emergency placements through a total of 77 days.

So what can I remember about where we expected to be after our first year? I think the best way to capture this is to make it as graceful of a transition as possible to minimise disruption to our lives. To take things slowly to allow us time to adjust without burning out and continue to balance our busy commitments as both my wife and I work full time plus I’m studying part time, plus church and other commitments. On top of this there is time with family, friends and of course a marriage to invest in as well. So the plan was to take things slow and reconsider after about a year whether this could work out, and whether we would consider some further commitment with longer term placements.

So how well did we stick to our original plan? Epic fail! Initially we planned for around 1 or 2 weekend respite placements a month. Initially it was difficult and exhausting adjusting to a very different weekend. However, over time as we started to build attachment with different sibling groups and better adjust to the chaotic weekends we got more comfortable with the changes and our calendar quickly changed from 1 or 2 placements a month to having all our regulars booked months in advance, with only the occasional weekend blacked out if we had certain commitments which might have been challenging with placements. Over Christmas we even got more adventurous taking on an emergency placement which at the time was completely next level of challenge for us, but I wouldn’t trade that experience for anything and grew stronger from the challenges and hold on to the pleasant memories.

“So how well did we stick to our original plan? Epic fail!”

Despite not sticking to our original plan (and it changing so much these days we use the word plan very loosely!) we still got by. We both maintained our full time working commitments, I have managed to continue studying part time and we have maintained our family relationships and friends as best we could just integrating them in with our dynamic family. Maybe one area that was sacrificed is deliberately taking time out to spend with each other as a married couple. There times we had chances but often so exhausted from all the other stuff going on we would default to screen time or sleep to recuperate. Having said that I’m happy to say our marriage is stronger than ever. Supporting each other through every challenge, encouraging each other, reflecting together on the difficult times and sharing the good memories have all been very positive bonding experiences for us and despite few ‘date night’ type experiences our strength is how we work together and support each other as a team through the difficult times.

What has surprised me the most?

As man in my mid-thirties with no biological children and learning how to care for kids, what has surprised me in my first year of doing foster care? The first thing that comes to mind is I completely underestimated how emotionally exhausting foster care is, especially during the first 3-6 months as we adjusted. I’ve been tired before, I’ve worked extended periods of time with little to no sleep so I knew what to expect with being physically tired. But transitioning into foster care just opened the flood gates of a range of new emotional experiences that I struggled to adjust to initially and that really exhausted me. Expect difficult times, reflect on things, talk it through with someone close to you who you are comfortable sharing with, maintain your “me time” and focus on having a strong support network. These are all things which will help you cope with the emotional exhaustion.

The second thing is just how quickly we fell in love with the kids in our care no matter what the challenges. It has really given me some practical insight into what “unconditional love” truly means. I had children in my life from family and friends some closer than others, but none with really close bonds. I thought through foster care I would really be trying hard to “put it on” and provide them with the love and care they needed despite maybe not necessarily feeling it deeply. Instead these kids just made such an impression on us so quickly I don’t think I’ve ever had to feel like I was “putting it on”. This doesn’t mean there aren’t times of frustration or sadness but still throughout that you have the underlying love to nurture and care for them. Maybe this is different for me than others, as I have no children of my own so I have never experienced that bonding and attachment process of a new born baby that is mine so I don’t have that to compare it to, this I am not sure of. However I believe this strongly ties in with the whole emotional exhaustion aspect I mentioned before because when you love a child unconditionally, you feel the pain when they are sad, when they are struggling, or when it is time for them to leave and say goodbye forever.

“Expect difficult times, reflect on things, talk it through with someone close to you who you are comfortable sharing with, maintain your “me time” and focus on having a strong support network. These are all things which will help you cope with the emotional exhaustion.”

Thirdly is just how well my wife and I have adapted to a different way of live. We have redefined the definition of our family, and despite some placements being temporary or children having moved on, we still hold them dearly in our hearts and view them all as part of our dynamic family. I’ve been surprised by how well I have coped with being flexible. My nature is I’m very organised, and while I don’t plan things to the minute, I like to know what’s coming up in the week, month etc so I can prepare myself for what is happening. This just had to change. We have had to be so flexible, and even when we have plans often having backup plans or being prepared to change them at a whim as needed. There have been times where challenges have been so great, we literally just focus on trying to get through the day we are in by doing our best and think about tomorrow later. If I told year-ago-me this he would have flipped out and said you have got to be kidding me. We are adapt, we adjust, sometimes it is hard and stressful but we do our best to cope with it and I’m okay with that.

The last surprise is just how passionate we have become about making the most of the opportunities in life becoming a foster carer has presented to my wife and I. We really take our role as an honour and have had so much insight into the enormous challenges the system faces and the struggles within our society that are so easy to ignore. When opportunities present themselves we educate our friends and families on some of the insights on foster care being respectful to how much they care to listen, and we take every opportunity to support potential or new foster carers as well. We have been genuinely amazed by the number of people in our immediate network of family and friends who have said they have maybe thought about foster caring at some point in the future and being able to share with them has been a privilege.

What next?

“If I told year-ago-me this he would have flipped out and said you have got to be kidding me. We are adapt, we adjust, sometimes it is hard and stressful but we do our best to cope with it and I’m okay with that.”

So one year later what are our “plans” now? Well, again I use the word “plan” loosely! Recently the placements of one of our regulars broke down suddenly and we agreed to take him on short-term while other long-term placement options are investigated. So at the moment our plans have again been thrown out the window and for the moment we are just living in the now getting through each day, and look forward to our next chapter in our foster care journey.

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