I've been a foster parent for like fifteen years. During those years, I can not count how many people have said to me two things. One: "I don't know how you do it", and two: "It would just kill me to have a child come into my home, fall in love with them, and then send them back".
To answer both questions, I have no idea how I do it - seriously, it's God 'cause I am so woefully inadequate to be a parent. If I had to write up a resume (an honest one including my sordid past), you'd think so, too. So there's that grace factor, big time.
To answer the second...it does kill you.
I've had many children in my home over the years. Actually I don't know how many, because I've never counted them up, but it's more than a few and less than a ton. Let's say, a passel.
Some of them came and left abruptly. In the beginning of my illustrious professional mommyhood, I had a teenage girl, we'll call her Helen, who was in my house for less than 2 hours. We picked her up at the Juvenile detention center, drove by the MALL for something, and guess what? Helen leaped from the car, took off into an apartment complex, and was never seen again.
Some kids were only short term. They and their families needed a break, and then they go home to continue working things out. That's terrific, of course. Some kids come so angry and so damaged that no matter what you do, no matter how much of you you pour into their life, it isn't enough and they have to move on. Usually those moves are after several weeks and months of trying, and the reason for the move is to keep the other children safe (and me sane). Those moves are sad, too, because you want them desperately to "get it". To realize the hope you are trying to offer them - but all you can do is pray hard and realize that sometimes all we get to do is plant seeds. Even kids have the right to make bad choices.
Then you have the rip your heart out moves. My first one was early in my fostering "career". Kesley and Kris were around six and nine, and this beautiful little Native American/African American girl was placed in our home. She was maybe two, possibly almost three. Cute as anything, yet so serious and sad. She came to us suddenly, with a quick call and barely time to find out her history. The social worker breezed in with Chelsie, dropped off her and her tiny toy suitcase with her belongings, and left - saying over her shoulder, "You might think about adoption, we are planning to terminate parental rights".
Whoa. Well, of course, we promptly fell in love with this brooding little toddler. We got to work getting her to smile, helping her walk (because she wasn't yet), in general, investing into her little broken life trying to heal her with kindness, gentleness, stability, and love.
It was working. After the first two weeks or so, Chelsie smiled. Then, she laughed. Wow.
She would walk with the big kids and me down our long, dirt driveway every morning to wait for the school bus. Kelsey was completely smitten with this "baby sister". Kind of like a little doll that gave hugs and kisses. Chelsie loved Kelsey, too.
Then I got the call. Mom had enlisted the aid of the Tribal Council and they were taking over the case. Chelsie was being returned to her mom. The next day. No transition time, no warning, just back to mom. Boom. Kelsey still talks about it, remembers it, remembers Chelsie. I do, too.
Over the course of fifteen years, this type of sudden, painful moving of children happened several times. Again, I didn't keep count, but each time, whatever the reason, whoever was to "blame", it still hurt. It still needed grieving because these are little people we are talking about here. They wrap their little selves all around your heart and a chunk of yours goes with them when they leave.
So, here we are again. I've been fostering little Andrew since November of last year. He's four. He had and has anger issues. He is absolutely entitled to, he's been in eight homes in his short life. Never any warning to him, no preparation, just hop in the car with the social worker for an outing, and end up in a new bed that night. Try explaining that. Try understanding it. When you are four.
I loved on that little man thoroughly. Firm boundaries: "We don't say those words, Andrew. We don't throw shoes at people or windows or doors, Andrew. We don't spit, hit, slap, bite, scream...". From rages lasting hours at the beginning, he now can take a fairly decent little time-out in his room (four minutes on the timer, once he stops screaming). He gives hugs and kisses. He is a funny, sweet, caring little guy.
The only time he gets scared and shuts down is when he is seeing his mom. I don't need to go into any of it here - it doesn't matter anyway. Suffice it to say that mom has an attorney, and the state is now moving forward on Andrew returning home within 90 days. Mom's attorney wants it to go faster, but who knows?
Here we are again. It's hard to grieve well in these circumstances. I heard a foster mom just the other day say it's like being told your child has a terminal disease but they give you the exact date and time of his or her death. Yeah, it's like that. Add in being strong for the kiddo, not verbally or visibly worried about him going back to the situation that got him in your home in the first place and being strong for the rest of your children - they will be grieving too.
How do we do this well as a foster parent and a family? I have no freakin' idea.
Like I said, a chunk of my heart will go with Andrew too. I will always remember him, pray for him, love him. He is my son. But, she is his mommy. I will wrap him up in a blanket of love and place him in my Father's huge, amazing hands and trust - really trust - that He, Andrew's real Dad, has it under control.
And then, I will probably do it all again. Because everyone needs someone to love them.