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The Hardest Part of Being a Foster Dad: Learning to Let Go

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Thirty years in the future, I imagine myself walking down a busy street. All my children are now grown, perhaps with children of their own, and my wife and I are alone at home.

In this vision, I see myself on a business trip halfway across the country. As I make my way out of my hotel towards my destination, I lock eyes on a stranger—but something about him looks familiar. We exchange glances, but proceed with our busy lives. Yet I know I’ve seen those eyes before.

Being a foster parent means journeying on a challenging path. Besides all the normal tribulations of taking care of a child are the added burdens that each foster child carries with them. Given that most foster children are emerging from traumatic experiences of neglect and/or abuse during their early lives, it’s a delicate task simply to offer unconditional love and support.

But besides these known challenges lie the challenges of the unknown: the unenviable task of learning how to detach after you’ve worked so hard to attach.

If you feel called to provide care to a foster child, you treat that child like he or she is your biological child. You pour out all or your love, all your patience, all your care. But then, at a moment’s notice, this child—a defenseless being—can be compelled by outside institutional forces to leave, hopefully to reunite with a biological family member. This is the goal, but also a foster parent’s agony: We feel bonded and connected with a child whom we may hope to love forever.

And, in the passing of a moment, the child is gone.

Of course, the intended goal of fostering is usually reuniting biological family members with their children. Foster parents should, of course, be rooting for the success of the biological parents and hoping that they can fulfill the court’s requirements to have their child return home. Nevertheless, there is a further level of pain if you feel the court’s decision to return the child to its family was a premature decision, or worse.

In my family’s experience, one of our foster children moved into a drug rehab facility. As wonderful as it was that the mother had gotten clean, it was hard to imagine the child living in that institution. I still grasp for answers, though they never seem to appear.

In my own experiences, I have not mastered the full spiritual art of learning to attach and detach from the children I have been fortunate to foster. But I have certainly grown.

The wisdom from Thích Nhất Hạnh, a Buddhist Zen master and peace activist, has been helpful. Looking at a pile of orphan photographs for a charity project, he meditates until, “I no longer see an ‘I’ who translates the sheets to help each child, I no longer see a child who received love and help. The child and I are one: no one pities; no one asks for help; no one helps. There is no task, no social work to be done, no compassion, no special wisdom.”

Big questions reside in the practice of fostering a child: Am I the child’s savior or simply her caregiver? Am I this child’s salvation or only his temporary steward?

Not seeing myself as the savior of this child is vital. Rather, these children always remain a part of my soul, whether they remain with me and my family or whether they return.

From my own Jewish tradition, there is a lot of wisdom around two concepts of faith and trust, emunah and bitachon. It is not a blind faith when we let the child go, nor is it a complete trust in the case plan. Instead, it is a cautious faith, a tentative trust. We never know for sure what is best for the child, but we try our hardest to place infinite trust in the process. We learn to let go. The love stays in our heart even though the child is no longer in our home. Rather than let go of such love, the task is to channel it toward our other children or a new foster child that arrives.

The truth is that in life we will always have to let go. Whether it is dropping off a child at college, or moving far away from a sibling, or sitting at a loved one’s deathbed, there are valuable and difficult moments during our lives when we have to let our hearts be open even when we don’t see someone as often as we’d like. It is a struggle to make yourself vulnerable. But “to love is to be vulnerable,” as C.S. Lewis wrote. “Love anything and your heart will be wrung and possibly broken.”

Indeed, we see our foster child, and we let him see us. Should anyone of us be blessed to welcome a foster child into our home, may he or she come to love us and we come to love them. “’Tis better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all,” as Alfred, Lord Tennyson once famously wrote. Indeed, when the moments call for us to lay down our spiritual armor, all we can do is open our hearts and keep on serving.

And perhaps one day, I will pass a man in the street. Giving each other gentle smiles one gives a stranger, neither of us will recognize one another. For the brief moment, our eyes lock. And I know I’ve seen these eyes before. And then, through a process that is not understood by the mundane mind, our souls will connect. Our souls will know that we once lay on the floor singing the alphabet together. That we enjoyed cuddling and exploring the vastness of the backyard. That we shared tears and laughter. That we shared happy times with kisses and hugs. This truth will be enough. And I pray every day that this will be enough. In this passing moment, this stranger and I will be one. We will have led different lives, but we will have a shared past. We may have forgotten each other’s faces, but never each other’s spirit. This love shall always endure.

 

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