An unexpected calling for sudden grandmas, grandpas, aunts, uncles, and cousins

When my husband and I were planning to become foster parents, we thought about many things. Bedrooms. Clearances. Applications. Agencies. Safety checks. Car inspections. 

While we passed on some good tips and dutifully dialogued the extended-family-conversation starters from our pre-placement training, I never really stopped to ask, “I wonder what my parents will think when they meet these sudden grandsons?” or, “I wonder what my sister-in-law will feel the first time she holds a niece she didn’t know was on the way?” This oversight reveals one of my great underestimations of the planning process, and it gives immediate family a whole new meaning. 

Fortunately, our families have been very supportive through these years. They’ve learned a lot, too. As they near a decade of experience as foster grandparents and foster aunts or uncles, they could appear unflappable in the face of the consistent changes, ups and downs, and endless unknowns. But the truth is, no one loves a child and grows numb to these losses. 

Foster mama Jamie Finn writes, “I could be sitting on the sidelines, in blissful ignorance of the brokenness that surrounds me, enjoying the whole-ness of a sweet and sheltered life. Missing out on the beauty of breaking off pieces of my heart and my life to make another whole. Missing out on the joy of offering those broken pieces in worship to my Savior.” 

Over the years, we have offered these broken pieces, as a family, in worship together.

In the words of our extended foster family…

What did you first think when we told you we were going to become foster parents?

We were thrilled at the thought of more grandchildren! I had always thought that I would have loved to adopt children, but the opportunity never presented itself. This would be a way to be a part of that as a grandparent.

I thought it would be wonderful that a child will have a loving family with both a mommy and a daddy and brothers. I knew it was a huge commitment of time and energy but shows you put ‘care’ for children into action.

What perceptions did you have that later turned out to be incorrect?

Being a foster aunt turned everything I thought I knew about foster care and adoption on its head! 

I incorrectly assumed that foster care was quick and smooth. I thought there would be so many children in need that we would have a perfect match in our arms in days. The process for the parents turned out to be intense and the entire process took a lot more time than I had anticipated.

I thought there would be no contact with the biological parents. It was so hard to learn bits and pieces about [our foster grandson’s] biological mom and her situation. I feared his future was laden with unprovided needs.

My perceptions of attachment were wrong. I thought maybe I could guard my heart and not become attached in the same way as to my biological nieces and nephews, just as selfish protection against the hurt of a child eventually leaving. I quickly learned this isn’t possible; they steal your heart no matter what! 

I thought foster care situations were usually in one-parent households and not from intact families as many of your placements have been. 

What perceptions did you have that were proven to be correct?  

I loved being a grandparent to every child who has come into our life. There is an abundance of love in a grandparent’s heart! Not knowing if they would be permanent made it easy to be available without any expectations. 

My son and daughter would rise to the occasion and do very well at accepting their foster children as their own and teaching, nurturing and valuing each life. I knew they would treasure the children.

I was concerned it could be heartbreaking with the strong bonds and love attachment that forms, and it was.

Our son and daughter-in-law made the right choice to foster children, and we as a family have been blessed as a result. The love we shared even for the children that did not become permanently placed with us will always have an impact on their growth and development. The early years are so critical… brain growth occurs and must be nurtured.

What is one thing you wish someone would have told you before this journey started?

I never realized how much I would process a child’s reunification [and leaving us] like the grief of death. 

I remember hearing a Christian speaker say, “Each gift is God’s for his time.” That is so necessary to know when grandparenting both foster, adoptive or biological grandchildren. It’s not easy, but it’s a reality that is part of life.

I wish someone had told me my heart would be broken when a child I considered my grandchild left us. I was surprised how many times I had dreams about him calling out “grandma” and reaching for me. 

What is one piece of advice you would give to someone else about to become a foster grandma, grandpa, aunt or uncle?

My piece of advice to aunts and uncles would be “go all in.” Don’t try to guard your heart. The relationship you have with this child (however short or long) and the light they will bring to your life so far outweighs any worrisome feelings about an unknown future. 

The toughest times in life do not break us – they make us stronger as we lean on Jesus, our solid rock.

Love and accept the child. Esteem the child and validate the child as worth much in your eyes and in the eyes of God. Pray for your sons and daughters as they embark on this journey. Enjoy the children and attempt to fit into their lives whenever you can do so.

Pray, pray, pray… cover the foster parents in prayer, the child who is being fostered, siblings, and most of all the biological parents. Pray that the Lord’s will be done, and trust that whatever happens is his will—especially when it doesn’t align with what you think is right, good, or best for this child. 

Offer to watch kids, make meals, and just be there. Most of all, be a good listener. You don’t need to try to offer solutions or “fix” things when they are hard—and they will be! 

Open your heart to this child and do not hold back because of the fear of saying goodbye. Every child needs love and acceptance, and grandparents have plenty of unconditional love! 

In foster care and adoption, there are no ‘ideal’ outcomes; someone always experiences a loss. The calling to be foster parents is a unique one, and by saying ‘yes,’ we roped everyone in our family into this unpredictable cycle. The immediate aunt, the instant uncle, the sudden grandma, and the overnight grandpa are part of the whole picture of foster care that isn’t always noticed. 

This is my public ‘thank you’ to my family, and to the countless extended foster families out there. Moms, Dads, Sisters, Brothers, Cousins—I’ve seen your joy, I’ve heard your prayers, and I’ve watched you find more love when you thought your heart was broken. Thank you for going all in.

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