Foster care complicates the simple.
Hope used to be a pretty simple concept to me, but like many things I’ve encountered on this journey, it’s become of the most hard-won battle scars I’ve gained. Honestly, every day this is the thing that confuses and surprises me most: that foster care has stripped away my ability to look at hope as a simple thing.
My first encounter with foster families was through a job right out of college. I had the opportunity to work with kids who were in foster care, families whose children had been removed into foster care, and their case workers. Through this work, I had a very narrow perspective, only able to see things from the eyes of the bio family. I cried at my first reunification party. I empathized as birth parents tried to figure out how to support and love their children enough to bring them home. Now, about a decade later, I am on the other side. My husband and I are the home that these vulnerable kids are placed in, and we are seeing things through the eyes of the child, instead of their family, which has greatly changed what I hope for and how I hope.
I think, when we became foster parents, I would have said that we hope we will make a difference to some kid’s life; we hope that we will leave a legacy of love; and we hope that the Lord would teach us more about himself in the process. Now, 18 months into our first placement, we are in love with a child we have raised since his 8th day of life and who still has an uncertain future - which means, hope has become a much more dangerous concept.
Foster care is nothing if not a series of opposing emotions.
What I mean by that is, on most days, I hope and pray for one thing and then immediately hope and pray for the exact opposite. This is the most difficult thing to explain to people outside of the foster care system. In one day, often in the span of one minute, I can be furious at the lack of urgency to resolve something as important as the future of a rapidly growing infant - and then immediately experiencing unyielding empathy for the parents who have had all of the odds stacked against them for generations. You get into this work because the Lord calls you to be broken by the lives of the broken--it’s impossible to escape without developing this kind of tricky empathy.
As you might imagine, that is an excruciating experience--to constantly hold opposing desires, hopes, and opinions about the most important and precious thing that God has trusted us with. But as he does, the Lord answers. God has given me an answer for these moments. The moments when I cannot reconcile the pain of impending loss with the desire for redemption of broken families. A desire, I might add, with deep roots.
This is the account of Abraham, who the Lord promised would be the father of nations, the father of many many people, even though he was very old and his wife was barren. God says:
“‘I have made you the father of many nations’--in the presence of the God in whom he believed, who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist. In hope he believed against hope, that he should be the father of many nations, [...] No unbelief made him waver concerning the promise of God, but he grew strong in his faith as he gave glory to God, fully convinced that God was able to do what he had promised.” Romans 4 :7-18; 20-21 ESV (emphasis mine)
“Through him we have also obtained access by faith into this grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in hope of the glory of God. Not only that, but we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.” Romans 5: 2-5 ESV (emphasis mine)
This is where the danger of hope is reconciled. This is the God who calls me, a God who gives life to the dead and calls things into existence that do not exist!
Hope is high stakes. Hoping for a family to be so broken that your own family becomes more whole is an ugly thing to find within your heart--one that produces a fair amount of guilt. Hoping for a case outcome that minimizes your pain makes you vulnerable to a much greater fall. And finding hope in your heart that would result in the deepest loss you’ve ever felt is just downright confusing. But the conclusion that I come to, at the feet of God’s words, is that he has given us deep love, and our hopes are just that--hopes he has put in our hearts. Our opposing hopes are not shameful because hope does not make fools out of us. We can hold multitudes of hopes, even opposing ones, within ourselves because God can handle that. He has poured his love deep into our hearts from where that hope springs forth.
I would’ve never expected this to be the lesson that God taught me through foster care. It seems to me there are easier ways to learn what appears to be such a simple thing. But then I think about the other thing foster care is teaching me--that there are many layers under every surface. So for now, I will wear my hope like a badge of honor, as a mark of what we have been through and what has yet to come.
Eliza Jarvis is a foster mom, member of Ogletown Baptist Church, and a museum professional who specializes in youth learning and community work. She lives in Wilmington, Delaware with her husband, son, and cat. Her favorite things are nachos and going to bed early.