Is it OK to get attached to a foster child?

August 27, 2018

“How can you get so attached to foster children when you could lose them?’ Of all the foster care questions, this is by far the most common. This question assumes a very clear and universal premise: parenting involves attachment. And when it comes to foster care, parenting requires serious heart-labor without any guarantees of permanency.

I feel especially soft toward this question, as two different foster children have come and gone through our home over the past two years. I was their temporary mom. I’ve thought, “I could love you. I could invest, and teach, and bathe, and clean, and snuggle, and sing you to sleep. And one day, after all that, you could just leave. And there’s nothing I could do about it. These questions once swirled in my mind: “Can I love with those odds? Can I really do this? Can I offer my whole heart knowing it might wobble out the door in the custody of a social worker one morning?”

A change in perspective

I thought I needed to answer these questions, until the Lord showed me otherwise. My husband and I were at a foster-parent-small-group of sorts. What struck me was that, while these parents were talking about themselves a little bit—their struggles, tears, and frustrations—the majority of the time was spent talking about the kids and their families. The group was obviously about others, not self.

And it hit me: There are children who are daily being pulled out of all sorts of situations they cannot handle, and my questions about it have nothing to do with them and everything to do with me. If I say I want to live considering others’ interests as more important than my own, why don’t any of my questions have to do with the child? For example, “What will happen to them if I say no?” I had a perspective shift on what foster care means for the child instead of me. I started asking, “What’s the biggest thing these kids need during the trauma they face?”

Understanding attachment

The best thing a child can get while going through trauma—the big factor that gives them the chance to develop emotionally, spiritually, physically, mentally, and academically—is attachment. It’s the thing child development experts say divides those who continue forward normally and those who have (usually) irreversible damage to their coping skills, life choices, social interactions, emotional stability, and mental health. The one thing I’m terrified to give is, ironically, the one thing they desperately need to survive.

I have the resources I need if I have to face grief over losing a little one—a healthy marriage, a church support system, an extended family, access to other foster parents, proximity to good counselors, and a job. But a potential foster child is most likely in a situation that looks nothing like mine. So, who has the best resources to make it through loss? Why would I deprive a child of the one thing she needs to survive that loss?

What to do with the heartbreak

The reality is that there’s no such thing as parenting without heartbreak. Natural, adoptive, or foster parent, none of us get through this thing unscathed. As much as everyone hates thinking about it, we all run the risk of losing a child after years of investment. They could run away. They could hate us and end up estranged. They could, God forbid, have a short life. We could die unexpectedly, and they could end up in the home of one of our family members.

On top of that, we end up letting them go eventually anyway—whether that means they leave the nest for college or a job or marriage. All moms and dads put their heart on the line without guarantees. Foster parents simply choose which type of heartbreak they face. Not even God gets through parenting without pain. Often his children bring him sorrow and grief in the Scriptures. So why do I think I’m exempt?

A holy heartache

After a season with us, one of our foster kids left us to live with his aunt and other siblings. I knew it was very good thing for him, but some days I found myself crib-side, bawling like the little one who used to be in it. Loving that little boy (and the little girl who came after him) ripped me in half, and God is still mending the tear.

Since we became friends with his aunt and uncle, we got to visit him in his new home. We got to see him reunited and playing with his sisters. They were dancing, playing, laughing, and reading books together. They were all entirely different children because they were finally reunited. And I watched this baby boy, now wobbling around on his own two feet, bouncing up and down to music and holding the book I used to read to him every day.

My mind put a fragmented, flurry of thoughts together on our way out the door. He’s happy here. The time he spent with us was important. And his family is almost at the point of reuniting with him fully. God is doing a work in their family to bring them back together, because God is always in the business of redemption. I suppose he had to go somewhere for that time. He ended up with us; and now, somehow, he’s where a child should be at his age.

All of this was because we got attached. No matter what his life holds in the future, I can deal with the crib-side tears now because I know he got what he needed—mind, body, and spirit— in that little season of his life. In fact, the sorrow brings me a strange joy. The tears are my confirmation, my proof, that he got the bonds he needed to grow. I rejoice knowing that my holy heartache has a purpose, and all that investment made a developmental difference in his life.

The gospel and the God who got attached

In a very real sense, my loss was his gain. I know it sounds cliché, but because of foster care, I understand Jesus more than I ever have before—the one who willingly chose unimaginable pain and loss so we could have life. Jesus faced a cross because our attachment to him was more important to him than the fear of pain. He could certainly live without attachment to us, but, just like a foster child, we could not make it without attachment to him.

Remember, attachment is how we enter the Divine family and develop as his children. Union with Christ, or attachment in a sense, is how we are reconciled to the Father and brought into his family (John 1:12; 2 Cor. 5:17; 1 Cor. 6:17; 1 Pet. 3:18). Staying attached to the Vine is how we continue to grow (John 15:5; Gal. 2:20). It’s crucial to our development. Attachment, for us, is everything, too.

Counting the cost  

You will have to count the cost of becoming a foster parent. It will cost you—your heart, time, and fears. But because we are the people of the cross, who consider the interests of others as more important than our own, the most significant cost we can count is that of the child’s. What they might gain or lose should be our main concern.

I’m not saying any of it is easy. Fear and loss are an unavoidable part of all parenting, and life. So, if you’re considering foster care, I’m asking you to choose to love the children. Offer them the very thing that Christ offered you. And instead of fearing what you will lose after you bond with them, allow what they would lose without your care to frighten you more.

Join the ERLC in Dallas on October 11-13 for the Cross-Shaped Family. This conference is designed to equip families to see that all of our family stories are shaped by the ultimate story of our lives, the gospel. Speakers include Russell Moore, Jen Wilkin, Matt Chandler, Eric Mason, Ray Ortlund, Beth Moore, Jamie Ivey, and many more. Use discount code B21 at checkout to save $30 off your ticket price. Our last National Conference sold out ahead of time so register to attend today!