Like pretty much any new venture in life, I entered the foster care and adoption journey with a whole host of expectations for what the experience would be like. The tough thing about expectations, though, is that usually you don’t realize you have them until they go unmet. You’d have thought I would’ve learned that lesson from marriage, but I didn’t.
Recently my wife and I had a discussion about the need to crucify our expectations for our child because they were holding us back from parenting him the way he needs us to parent him. That’s the thing with expectations: they make you approach a situation the way you think it will or should be instead of the way it really is. So rather than parenting the child we think we should have, we need to parent the child we actually have.
I think that sometimes our expectations are so intrinsic that we aren’t even aware of them, and it’s pretty challenging to shirk them if you don’t know what they are. Therefore I had to identify and put words to my expectations for this lifestyle so I could subsequently obliterate them.
Here are a few of those expectations I had for foster care that I was flat-out wrong about:
1. My expectations won’t matter all that much.
That’s right. I had an expectation about my own expectations. I figured I would be able to adapt to my child and his unique needs with no problems, but, as it turns out, expectations are incredibly powerful. I believed I was prepared for any contingency; however I quickly discovered that I was unconsciously anticipating very specific circumstances. When my child didn’t live up to the expectations I’d held for some time, I was surprised, confused, and even a little hurt. Pretending like my expectations didn’t matter was a naive and irresponsible way to begin my life as a foster/adoptive dad. Instead, I should have acknowledged their existence and their significance so that I could effectively address them.
2. I will have an infinite capacity to love.
It sounds lousy to say, but there are times when loving my child is a grueling task. Going into this, I knew kids in foster care can exhibit some extreme behaviors, but I assumed I would be able to manage these behaviors and love my child just fine. But I’m human and remarkably limited in so many ways. This isn’t to say that I don’t love my child unconditionally; rather, it is to say that there are times when it’s difficult to act lovingly toward him, either because I’m stressed, or tired, or emotionally drained, or hurt, or furious, or even afraid. I’m learning to accept my own shortcomings as a human parent, and also that I regularly need to step back and take care of myself so that I can continue to be the father my child needs me to be.
3. My child will (and should) be grateful.
For some reason I believed that a child who endured trauma in his birth home, then was ripped away from the only family he ever knew, bounced around in the foster care system for years (where he endured more trauma), and then finally ended up in my house should be grateful to me. That’s horrible logic. Kids in foster care, even if they’ve eventually wound up in a wonderful home, should never be called lucky and can’t be expected to be grateful. The amount of grief and loss they’ve experienced in their short lives is just far too tremendous for that.
4. I will be able to take my child’s pain.
I didn’t hold this expectation explicitly, and so was shocked by how gut-wrenching it was when I realized that there was nothing I could do to take my child’s pain away. Love is a powerful thing, sure; however, it doesn’t change the past and it can’t make scars disappear. I can love my child in the midst of his hurt, but I can’t fix it for him. Thankfully it isn’t my job to.
5. I will automatically be seen as an authority figure.
Not all kids see adults as true authority figures, especially if they’ve been repeatedly let down by untrustworthy adults throughout their lives. As a result, sometimes oppositional behavior is born out of self-preservation against a perceived threat (even if the threat isn’t real) rather than the desire to get one’s own way. I knew this was the case, and yet I still expected my child to see me as an authority figure right off the bat, merely because a child placing agency had designated me as “parent”. Unfortunately, it’s not that simple. I’ve had to prove myself trustworthy to my child so that he believes that I have his best interest in mind when I have to function as an authority. This is something we’re still working on and may have to keep working on for years to come.
6. It will take some time to love this child as my own.
Let’s end on a high note: I’ve always known I would love my children. However, bringing in kids from foster care is a whole lot different than having a biological baby, so I expected the process of growing to love my foster child would take some time. After all, I had read many stories of adoptive parents who, in those first few months and years, had to labor to love their new children. That wasn’t the case for me. I loved my child right away, and I loved him intensely. I wasn’t prepared for just how much I would love this boy, how much my heart would ache for him, how easily I could cry over him, and how many things I was willing to do for him (including, but not limited to, scratching his nasty-ass bare feet every night at bedtime). I may not have raised my child from birth, but I love him just as much as if I did. If it’s even possible, I might love him even more so.