It’s arguably the single biggest barrier that keeps people from fostering - the fear of “getting too attached”. It’s an inherent tension in this entirely awkward and broken and beautiful foster care arrangement that never fully goes away - you just kind of learn how to embrace it, live in it and love through it…despite the inevitable.
This fear is real, deeply emotional and extremely powerful. It’s not one to be taken lightly or treated flippantly. It’s nuanced and complicated…and it’s winning. It’s keeping a lot of good people away from A LOT of great kids. So, let’s take a harder look at it - in order to, a) help those considering fostering (or not considering fostering because of this very fear) have a more productive conversation with themselves about it, and b) help those who are fostering have more effective and helpful conversations with those who express this fear to them.
Here’s five things to know about the “fear of getting too attached”:
1) IT’S ROOTED IN A FLAWED UNDERSTANDING OF WHAT FOSTER CARE IS
Foster care is less about getting a child for your family and more about giving your family for a child. That’s the goal - to help provide safe permanence for kids. And permanence for them might not mean permanence with us. But if your motivation is to simply “get a child for your family”, then of course the primary fear that will keep you from doing it will be the fear of not getting what you want. The very real possibility of loving a child you might (and will likely) have to let go will be enough for you to simply say no. This fear - as real and deep as it is - is ultimately born out of a flawed understanding of what foster care really is all about - giving, not getting. It doesn’t mean we won’t get attached, but it does mean we will no longer let the fear of loving a child who might leave deter us; but instead let the fear of a child never knowing our love drive us.
2) IT’S EXACTLY WHAT THESE KIDS NEED
This is the greatest of all ironies - the quality in themselves people want exposed the least is the very one these kids need the most. That tendency you’re most attuned to - that vulnerable and yet strong part of your soul that causes you to deeply care and emotionally invest in things of consequence - it’s not a liability; it’s one of your greatest assets. Don’t speak of it as if it disqualifies you; it perhaps is what qualifies you the most. In other words, you’re afraid of getting too attached? Good, then you should do it.
3) IT’S NOT ABOUT US
Early in our journey I shared this fear with a foster dad friend. His response both challenged and settled me. It exposed how corrupted my concerns were, centered on how I might feel rather than on how these kids do feel. He said he and his wife had resolved to experience the pain of loving a child they might let go if it meant a child who has had so much taken from them could experience the gain of their love. A profound concept for me - one filled with a purity and simplicity that forced me away from what I stand to lose and towards what a child might stand to gain. How could I fight so hard to avoid struggle and pain at the expense of a child who’s become the innocent victim of these very things? Wow. In the end I discovered the most complex simplicity in all of this - it’s about these kids, not me.
4) IT’S NOT AN ACCUSATION AGAINST CURRENT FOSTER PARENTS
Here’s how it plays out: Someone says to a foster parent, “I could never do what you do, I’m afraid I would get too attached.” Foster parent then takes it personally, as if that person were suggesting to them that certainly the only way they’re able to do it is by being a cold, heartless, insensitive robot that does not have feelings or emotions and definitely doesn’t love or get attached to these kids. But wait…maybe that’s not what they’re saying? Perhaps they just don’t have the benefit of seeing it from the inside like you do. They’re doing their best to piece together and make sense of what they’re seeing and feeling and thinking. They’re not accusing you of anything, they’re just trying to figure out how to protect themselves from the whole thing. We can be helpful in that space. We don’t have to be angry or offended. Instead, tell them you understand, you’ve been there before and sometimes still find yourself back there, but here’s some ideas and perspectives that have helped you navigate through it and around it.
5) IT’S ACTUALLY ABOUT GRIEF, NOT ATTACHMENT
I’ve found the fear of “getting too attached” is actually a surface symptom of a deeper root fear, which is not about attachment at all. It’s about grief. While we may say we’re afraid of getting too attached - I don’t think we actually are. As Winnie the Pooh once said, “How lucky I am to have something that makes saying goodbye so hard.” We have what it takes to love deeply and fiercely like that, we do it all the time. But I think what we’re really afraid of is not having what it takes to grieve well through those hard goodbyes. It hurts deeply, and it’s hard - and we simply can’t imagine on the front end how we’d ever be able to heal from that on the backend. That’s real and raw, and so is the pain. It’s a wound that never quite closes but in the end somehow feels worth it. So let’s address this fear where the real fear lies - not in our willingness to attach to a child but in our belief that we don’t have what it takes to hurt with purpose and still be okay in the end. (read more here)
By no means do I diminish the very real and raw stories of families who have loved someone else's child as their own and after eight days or even 18 months had to say some excruciatingly hard goodbyes. Through sobbing we have felt that pain deeply along with you - a pain that will always feel raw when revisited, and will never fully go away. It’s a particular pain now forever seared into the conscious of our family - one that requires no explanation for those who have walked through it as well. It's gut-wrenching, frustrating, devastating and yet never without meaning and purpose. Because of that it’s valid and real and worthy to be recognized and affirmed.
Yet despite all of that, over and over I've found the remarkable stories of those who also have this pain branded into their souls all consistently on some level sound the same - the goodbye was devastating and the grief is hard.
But so, so worth it.
No question. These kids are worth it.