Shortly after our foster daughter came to live with us, one of my friends asked me a really good question that I didn’t know how to answer. “How should I refer to her?” he asked. “As your daughter? or your foster daughter? or just by her name?”
My response was pretty simple: “Probably as our foster daughter, because that’s the most accurate way.” And that’s true enough – maybe even the best, most succinct answer. But the real answer isn’t that straightforward – I need to work it out with more nuance.
Being “Mommy” and “Daddy”
Foster parenting is tough enough with all the quirks of the system, the emotions of a child being removed from their parents, the struggles of figuring out schools and childcare, and so on. I knew all of that going into it. But there was one thing I wasn’t expecting (I was so young, so naive) that has made foster parenting almost impossible.
Our foster daughter is in our home, and she calls us “Mommy” and “Daddy” most of the time. We didn’t ask her to do this, but from Day One she did it all by herself. The terms aren’t really sentimental ones for her – when she calls me Daddy, she’s not giving it any kind of deep, relational meaning – it’s just the term she knows for the adult male who lives in her house.
Recently, though, she’s begun asking me if she can call me Daddy, even though she’s been calling me that for almost two months now. I think she is doing this because she is wanting to give the word more relational depth, and she’s not sure if it’s okay to do that. We’ve had several conversations in the last few days about how she’s really lucky to have two mommies and two daddies who care for her and love her – her biological parents, and now her foster parents – and how it’s okay for her to love them both.
These conversations reveal a deeper truth (and a deeper tension) about parenting in the foster care system. As foster parents, Shannon and I carry the responsibility of caring for and loving this precious little girl as if she were our own daughter; at the same time, we are pouring ourselves into preparing her for reunification with her biological parents.
- We want to nurture the emotional attachment she needs for healthy relational development, but we don’t want her to attach so firmly to us that she is unable to attach to her parents when they regain custody.
- We want to provide the physical affection she needs for healthy neurological development, but we also want her to continue building her relationship with her parents, even though there are valid reasons she was removed from their care.
- We want her to experience the comfort and balance of a structured daily routine, but without directly criticizing her parents and the decisions they’ve made that have resulted in her current difficulties.
I’m not searching for suggestions on how to find this balance (we have lots of support and resources), but these are examples of the tension we feel as we try to care for this little girl. There is a challenge in parenting and loving her well with the continual recognition that the goal is for her to return to her biological parents.
“In, Not of” as Foster Parents
Every time I feel this tension, I have a tendency to think about it in terms of opposites, as if I can either be the parent she needs or I can prepare her for reunification, but not both. I’m learning, though, that one of the best ways I can prepare her for reunification is to be the parent she needs. It’s not about choosing between two different options, but about the understanding that helping her develop these bonds with me and Shannon will build her capacity to build those same bonds with her parents.
We are not “of” her family, but for this moment of time, Shannon and I have been dropped “in” as a part of her family as we try to bring healing and wholeness into her life. We’re here for a time and for a reason. We’re here because we’re needed and we have something important we can give. And even as we give – as we love this little girl – we remember that we are not “of” and we are not replacements for the parents who birthed her and raised her.
She loves her parents. She misses them, even as she’s starting to understand the mistakes they’ve made and the traumas they’ve brought her. And the truth is that she needs them. She needs them to become the parents they need to be so she can return to their care. She needs their hugs and their affection. She needs their presence as strong, positive role models in her life.
If things go well, there will come a time when she will return to the care of her biological parents. Until that time comes, Shannon and I will continue to love her the way she needs us to. And I’m learning that, when that time does come, the two of us will no doubt go through our own period of mourning and emotional trauma – as happy as we’ll be for her, it will be more difficult for us than I can even imagine right now – even more difficult than it’s been to take her in during this pandemic.
Every day that we invest in her life, we give her pieces of ourselves that will remain with her forever (we hope); when she leaves and takes those pieces with her, we will have wounds that can only heal as sad, beautiful scars. For Shannon and I, foster parenting isn’t about adding a missing piece into our lives, but about giving out of our abundance to help make this child’s broken life a little more whole.
So is this little girl our daughter, or is she our foster daughter? I think the answer is “yes.” We are her foster parents, and part of that identity means that, for a season, she is our daughter.