How Nathan Hoag navigates scaling mountains, camping with toddlers, and the peaks and valleys of life as a foster dad.
Tell us about your family.
Right now, there are five of us. We have an always changing number due to foster care. Today, we have a 15-month-old foster baby, a 3-year-old biological daughter, and a 4-year-old adopted daughter. Just recently we said goodbye to a 12-year-old foster daughter who went on to live with her grandparents. My wife, Julie, and I have been married for almost 10 years.
When did you begin engaging in the foster care system?
Julie and I have always talked a lot about homelessness, broken families, and addictions. When we got married, international adoption was big. We knew friends who had adopted internationally. It was a really powerful experience for them. We began to ask the question: Are there kids in the United States who also need homes? I did a Google search on it and sure enough, I learned there are kids who need homes. They need stability and a place to live. That sent us down the trail of exploring the issue. Technically we don’t have orphanages in our country, but we do have group homes and we began to realize there’s an enormous need.
We began to realize the need for domestic adoption was high. But even bigger was the need for family restoration through foster care. About 75% of kids who go into foster care are reunified with family of some kind. What the system really needed, we learned, were families who took kids in temporarily while parents work on their own healing.
We believe in adoption–obviously! But, we have had 16 kids in our home. All but two of them have gone on to live with family.
What do you wish more people knew about this system?
I wish people knew how big the need is. We need 1,200 more foster homes in Colorado alone.
I also wish people knew more about the purpose and goal of foster care. People think, “Oh it’s a good thing kids aren’t in that situation anymore.” It’s frequently not that way. The kids often want to go home.
On the whole, the system is people doing the best they can with what they’ve got. There’s an assumption about foster homes that they are like puppy mills–people with bunk beds in every room of their house to make money off these kids. We get lumped in with those stories. That’s not our home and the stereotype is not what we’ve seen in any of the foster families we know.
The big question foster parents always get is something like, Isn’t it so hard to see kids leave your home? Don’t you get attached? How do you respond to those questions?
There are at least two reasons people say that, I think.
One is self-preservation. If people can think of a reason why they couldn’t do it, it helps them get off the hook, in a sense.
Another is that they’re missing the whole point: Foster care is all about attachment, actually. If someone says it would be hard for them because they would become attached to the kids, I typically say, “Well, then you’d probably be really good at foster care!”
The importance of connection to family and stability and a home is happening at a much earlier age than what we’ve realized. When kids don’t have healthy attachment, they find it somewhere. Even if you open your home and your family for a few months–the good, bad, and ugly!–it allows a kid to attach to a place, even if it’s temporary. There’s a ton of healing that comes with that.
Detachment is tough for us. There is pain in that. But it’s usually not the same for these kids. They want to go back to family. It’s hard for us to say goodbye, sure, but we’d rather experience that pain than have the kids experience it.
Attachment isn’t a disqualifier to becoming foster parents. It’s a qualifier.
Lastly, the truth is you don’t always get attached to kids. In reality, some kids are really difficult and hard to attach with. It’s not like you’re trying to get kids out of your house, but there can be relief when they move back to their homes. Attachment doesn’t just happen the day a kid shows up in your home.
How do you take care of yourself amid the fathering journey?
Time alone in the mountains is huge for me. I do a lot of running, climbing, cycling, and skiing. I have to do that regularly in order to feel refreshed. To be focused at home. My wife has a very different approach to self-care. She is a bit more introspective–still, quiet. My self-care is really active. The more physically fit I am, I’ve found, normally the more fit I am in other areas of life.
Open communication with my wife is important. I can’t expect her to support me in disappearing into the mountains unless I’m communicating why I need that–and making sure she knows I’m stewarding that time away well. Reciprocity is important too. Julie gets one night a week away where I take kids for dinner and bedtime. And, I try and give her 24-hours away from the kids regularly, where she gets time away to recharge.
We always ask: How has becoming a dad made you a better person?
I’ve become a lot more laid back about a lot more things. Since having kids, I’ve realized a lot of things don’t matter as much as I thought they did at one point in time.
I’ve also become more self-aware. Having kids strips away some of the facades we put up. The least-certain thing in your life now lives in your home. If your job or neighborhood or car is uncertain, that’s all stuff you can compartmentalize. When you have kids, that doesn’t exist anymore. You have no idea what’s going to happen next. It strips away some of the layers and masks we put on.
We always ask: What do you believe is your finest fathering skill?
My kids would say how high I can throw them in the air. Julie would say playfulness, I think. Being willing to take an afternoon or day to have fun with the kids. Get them out to do stuff. I try to instill that carefree nature in their lives. Especially with foster kids, during evenings and weekends we let them be kids, giving them space to just play and not worry about anything.
We always ask: What’s one thing you’ve learned from your father?
This originated with my grandfather and was passed through my dad: Most boundaries are perceived and not real. If you’re willing, a lot of time you can push past those artificial boundaries. That goes for physical limitations, but it also expands to imagination. I want to develop that in my kids. The ability to see beyond the tangible, the physical.
We always ask: What is your favorite activity to do with your kids?
Camping is my favorite thing to do with them. Being outside with them and without some of the limitations changes their demeanor and my demeanor. Don’t expect to sleep, though. You have to lower the bar on everything–sleeping, eating, everything. You have to start from ground zero.
And, let your kids lead the time while camping. Let them set the agenda. My kids are 3 and 4. I might give them ten options: We can take a nap in the tent, we can listen to music, we can throw rocks in the river, we can jump in the river, we can build a fire, we can hike, etc.–and they get to call the shots. That makes camping so much more fun for them and for me.
We love interviewing wise dads, and several of them are – like Nathan – adoptive dads: Kevin, Cory, and Andy. If you enjoy (or want to enjoy!) outdoor adventuring with your kids a la Nathan, remember to hike slowly.
Subscribe here for our (approximately) every-other-weekly newsletter.