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Here’s  a quiz: see if you can figure out what kind of dad I am.

If you ask them, my children may very well tell you I am their “fake daddy”. My children are not biologically related to me, don’t share my last name, and they all don’t even currently live with me. But I can assure you, I’m a real dad when it counts: like at 3am when you’ve had a bad dream, when you skin your knee riding your bike, or when your real parents are having a bit of a problem.

Time’s up. Final answer?

I am a foster dad.

While our family was not created in the traditional way, my wife and I decided that we wanted to open our home to children who need us, whatever that reason may be. We currently have an adorable 5-month-old boy, but we have had toddlers and school-aged children too. In all, we’ve had five foster children pass through our home, and we anticipate having at least a few more.

To say being a foster parent presents unique challenges to establishing a stable family life is an understatement. One of the many challenges foster families face is the uncertainly of a placement. We rarely have more than a few hours’ notice before a child comes to our home, and there is not much more certainty once the child arrives. Some placements last only weeks, others are measured in years.  Foster care is a perpetual state of uncertainly for everyone involved.

Uncertainty is most easily handled on a case-by-case basis. My wife and I are both very lucky to have jobs which afford us ample flexibility to field doctor appointments, court dates, and the wide variety of meetings necessary for the administration of a foster care case to work its way through the county system.

In particular, my employer is very supportive of my role as a foster parent, and has been extremely understanding when unexpected troubles arise that necessitate my absence. But even with this uncommon flexibility, it is not an easy task. In addition to the garden variety emergencies that arise with any child, we have added  fallout from whatever family situation our child has come from, be it physical  or sexual abuse, the ravages of poverty, poor health, or simple neglect.  Each comes with its own set of challenges and solutions, many of which require additional time and attention.

When I get a phone call from daycare saying my son is ill, I simply walk out the door to go and retrieve him. I don’t worry about losing pay because I have paid sick time.  I don’t worry about finishing that report I was working on because I can work remotely from home later in the evening. I don’t even have to worry if someone has to stay home with him the next day, because my wife and I both have paid leave time and can trade off who stays home and who goes to work.

Thinking about all of these challenges enviably brings me back to one central question: if I am barely holding my life together, given the comparative luxury of a dependable, well-paid job, a solid education, good health, and a spouse who shares similarly advantageous circumstances, how are those with less – or none - of these advantages expected to make their families’ work? Paid sick leave, flex time, and the ability to work from home make my family life possible. Without them, I could not be a foster parent. The sad reality is that if many of the birth parents of my foster children were similarly situated, they quite likely would have had the flexibility necessary to overcome whatever obstacle caused their children to be taken into care in the first place.

I’m often surprised at the response I get from folks when they find out I’m a foster parent. Many praise me for my sacrifice, acknowledging how difficult it must be to part with the children when they eventually reunite with their birth parents. In fact, that is the best part of being a foster parent – being able to put back together a family that, for one reason or another, was torn apart. Yes, it can sometimes be difficult at first, but the reward inevitably follows. It’s not always fun, and it’s rarely easy, but you never know what you’re capable of until you try.

After all, isn’t that what being a parent is all about?

This post is part of the Fathers on Family Leave Blog Carnival.

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