About three years ago now, I began the path to foster care certification. I had a passion for helping preteen and teenage girls especially, and I was excited to open my home and heart to those in care.

Imagine my surprise when, shortly before my certification would have been finalized, I was asked by a woman who was still pregnant if I would take her baby. A week later, my daughter was born on the same day as my final foster care certification class.

Life is funny like that.

I wound up completing my certification requirements, but in the haze of caring for a newborn as a single mom, most of my plans for foster care were put on hold. I still have a passion for helping older children in care, but now recognize that pursuing that passion will probably have to wait until my daughter is a bit older.

Still, I learned a lot in those days spent working towards my first foster care placement. And I continue to have so much love and respect for anyone considering becoming a foster parent.

According to the United States Department of Health and Human Services, there are approximately 415,000 children in foster care at any given time. In 2014, that number was actually 600,000.

The system is full of kids who need love and support. But what do you need to know if you’re about to enter that world for the first time yourself?

The training guidelines for foster care parents vary from state to state, but almost all of those guidelines require you to attend some sort of certification course. For me, those courses spanned over several weeks, and the information I took away from them was invaluable.

Don’t treat those courses like something you just have to get through. Pay attention to the panels, take notes, and ask questions. If you’re wondering about something, you can almost guarantee someone else in the class is too. So speak up, because the answers may not be as readily available once you are in the thick of foster parenting just a few months down the line.

Most people get into foster care because they genuinely want to help. But it’s important to recognize your own limitations. Every child in care has faced some level of trauma and neglect. How they respond to that trauma and neglect varies widely and the behaviors you may come across won’t all be the same.

Social workers try hard to establish what every child is struggling with, and to fairly communicate those issues to potential foster parents. You will be asked what you can handle at several points along the way. Are you up for caring for a child with fire starting tendencies? Or chronic masturbation? Or a child who may not be safe to have around other children?

It’s OK to admit there are some issues you don’t feel equipped to handle. And in fact, being honest with yourself and the social workers now will always be what is best for the children in your care in the future.

Look around at the other faces in attendance at your foster care orientation and classes. These people have the potential to be your very best resources in the years to come. They may become the only people you know who can relate to what you’re dealing with, and they will also be on a very short list of people who can legally provide respite care to the children you have been entrusted with.

So make friends. Take down phone numbers. Get together and solidify those bonds. These aren’t people you want to lose track of.

The main goal of foster care is always reunification. Most children are in foster care, on average, for about two years. The hope is that after that, they will return to their biological families.

Adoption through foster care is the exception, not the rule. But even when you feel like you know that, the goodbyes can be hard. Do your best to prepare yourself for the end of those relationships, but know that it’s going to be difficult no matter what.

Some days are going to be better than others. And some children will fight you more than the rest. Trust that you are doing the very best you can, and reach out to your social workers when you need help.

But most of all, remember to take each day as it comes. Sometimes, and for some kids, improvement begins just when you think they may have pushed you to your breaking point.

The more you understand the system, the better you will be able to advocate for the children in your care. So make friends with your social workers, attend meetings and hearings on your foster children’s behalf, and know what resources are available to you.

There is so much in being a foster parent that you can’t control. Embracing what you can control may just be your saving grace.

Being a foster parent is hard. Yes, it’s also rewarding and admirable and absolutely worthwhile. But most of all, it’s hard.

The days ahead are going to be exhausting and emotionally draining, so you need to have a plan in place for recharging yourself every now and again. Have friends and family you can talk to. Take time to do the things you love. And don’t beat yourself up when it turns out you can’t save every child.

Just remember that for the ones you do help, you are making a difference that will last a lifetime.