Many business owners, leaders, and executives would make great foster parents. But, of course, there are always concerns, like "Do I have time to be a foster parent?" or "Could I give a child in foster care what they actually need?" 

Those are important questions to ask. Raising a child in foster care is different than raising a birth child. But most people aren't quite sure what those differences are.  

Mark Wahlberg's new movie, "Instant Family," has brought some much needed attention to the foster care system. While many people wonder what it would be like to be a foster parent, the process is mostly a mystery for those who haven't gone through it.  

I was a foster parent for about 10 years. And even though I was a psychotherapist who often worked with children in foster care in my office, becoming a foster parent was a whole new world. Here's what my experience was like. 

The Licensing Process

The home study process took several months. It involved a case worker coming to our home and interviewing us over the course of several weeks. The case worker wanted to know everything from how much money we made to what type of families we came from.

The home study also included safety inspections of our home. A fire marshal determined the bedroom windows needed to be larger. Putting larger windows in the bedrooms was expensive and it delayed the licensing process. 

But we were able to start our training in the meantime. Foster parent training covers the many rules foster parents must abide by, such as locking up medication, completing paperwork, and not taking a child out of state without permission.

We decided to become therapeutic foster parents, which meant we'd take kids with emotional and behavioral issues. Since I was a therapist, I thought we would be up for the challenge but it required a bit more work to become a therapeutic foster parent--mainly teaming up with an agency who specializes in therapeutic foster care.

Welcoming Kids Into Our Home

Once we had our foster care license in hand, we were ready to go.  We decided to start with short-term respite care. That meant we'd mostly be taking kids in for the day or the weekend so their foster parents could have a break.

At that time, there were strict rules about "babysitters." Foster children could only be cared for by licensed day cares or other foster parents. So many of them were eager to find other foster parents who could watch a child when they needed to attend an out-of-state wedding or they needed an afternoon to themselves.

Respite care was fun--and pretty easy. When kids were just staying for the day or the weekend, we did lots of fun things with them and sort of got to be more like grandparents who didn't have to worry about homework, chores, or other day-to-day issues. Instead, we mostly just played together.

Then, we received a call asking if we could take in one of the teenage girls who had been to our home for respite care. Her current foster parents were overwhelmed with her behavior and she needed a place to go--that same evening. We talked it over and decided to do it and she became our first official foster child.

That sort of thing happened often--calls from caseworkers at any given time saying, "Can you take this child right now?" We never knew if they'd be in our home for a few days, a few weeks, or perhaps even years.

Since we were therapeutic foster parents, most of the children who came to our home were in need of short-term placements while their emotional and behavioral needs were being managed. While the plan was for some of them to return home with their birth parents, others were being adopted by extended family members.

Parenting a Foster Child

The toughest part about being a foster parent is the uncertainty. We never knew how long a child would be in our home and we never knew for certain where a child would go next.

And while I didn't like that feeling of uncertainty, it was clearly much worse for the child. Having to say to a 6-year-old, "I'm not sure if you're going to live with your mom again," or "I don't know who you'll live with next," is gut-wrenching.

In addition to tolerance to uncertainty, raising foster children also required flexibility in our schedules. Children in foster care have lots of family visits, therapy appointments, and meetings with caseworkers and many of those things are scheduled for the middle of the day.

There were moments when I'd think this is too hard. But then I'd remember what I felt was nothing in comparison to how a child must feel. I can't imagine what it would feel like to be a 6-year-old kid who gets dropped off a stranger's house with a small trash bag of clothes and only being able to see my mom for an hour a week.

The best part about foster parenting was seeing a child get to be a kid. When they laughed really hard at something silly or when they went to summer camp, they got to experience a few of moments of a childhood joy, even though they'd been robbed of a normal childhood.

There are almost a half million children in foster care in the United States at any given time. And often, there aren't enough local foster families to support them. Finding a home close by can allow a child to continue attending the same school--having the same teachers and keeping your same friends can be important when everything else in their lives have been turned upside down.

If you've thought about becoming a foster parent, learn more about the process. You might decide it's not right for you. Or maybe, you see that it isn't the right fit for you right now. But you also might discover that you're up to the challenge.

Published on: Nov 19, 2018
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.