I sat with my arm around my foster daughter as she tearfully recovered from an emotional meltdown. I knew that I should have seen the warning signs and helped head off the triggering event. The fact was, I had accepted this placement too soon after my previous placement had ended rather explosively. I hadn’t given myself enough time to recover my equilibrium and replenish my resources. But the need was urgent, and I simply hadn't faced that I had a severe case of compassion fatigue. The result was that I hadn’t really focused on my new child as much as I should. Oh, I hadn’t done anything terribly wrong. I just hadn’t done anything terribly right, either. We had several rocky episodes that I could have avoided if I had been paying attention and had been more emotionally available.
That episode taught me the importance of self-care in parenting foster children and stepchildren. Self-care is a very trendy topic, and people use it in a lot of different ways. What I’m talking about is the very basic task of making sure that we aren't trying to pour from an empty cup. For foster and stepparents, self-care means being certain that you have the resources you need to take care of your family.
• Get Past the Guilt
One of the hardest parts of self-care is realizing that it’s not a selfish impulse. Most of us are in our family situations because we are natural caregivers. Foster parents want to help children in a loving home. Stepparents want to help our families blend into strong relationships. We read blogs like this one because we want to be the best version of ourselves that we can be with our families. Taking care of ourselves can feel selfish — as though we are taking resources for ourselves that we should be spending on the rest of the family.
It’s also confusing because “taking care of yourself” has become trite. Hearing that simplistic mantra from well-meaning friends can be infuriating. “Right,” I always used to think, “I’ll just put that right on my list. I don’t have enough things to do on that list yet.” I finally realized that taking care of my own needs is not just another item for my to-do list. It’s actually the foundation of my ability to care for the rest of my family.
We should think of self-care in the same way that we manage our family bank accounts. We know that we have finite resources. We can’t spend and spend on our kids without getting into serious trouble. The fact that we have to set healthy boundaries on how we spend our money doesn’t mean we don’t care about our kids. It simply means that we have limits. We also have to find ways to replenish the account on a regular basis, so that we’ll continue to have resources
It works the same way with emotional and physical resources. Like money, we have to budget what we have. Recognizing limits doesn’t mean that we don’t care about our kids or that we are being selfish. Knowing that we have to find ways to replenish our stores isn’t ignoring our kids' basic needs; it is simply recognizing that we are bound by the laws of the universe just like everyone else. So, we shouldn’t feel guilty about accepting those facts and making sure we have the resources we need to parent our children effectively.
• Focus on the Basics
Using the analogy of family finances also helps us realize that self-care practices mean far more than splurging on ourselves. There’s nothing wrong with a daily bubble bath, but replenishing our resources usually requires much sustained hard work. Regular exercise, for example, can be hard to fit into our daily routine, but there’s no doubt that it has some of the biggest rewards. A brisk morning walk not only improves our physical health, but it elevates our mood and helps stave off depression. Exercise is not as glamorous as treating ourselves to a manicure, but it’s an essential form of self-care.
Other basics such as healthy eating, getting enough good sleep, and avoiding alcohol are just as unglamorous and just as important. We need to start thinking of those basics as not just good habits, but self-care resources. These building blocks are essential steps toward giving us the physical and mental resources that we need to be the kind of parents that we want to be. We need to think of these basics as an essential part of our self-care routine.
Also don’t forget the power of routine. A good routine can not only make our lives easier, but it can be an effective way to help our kids build good habits. For example, getting lunch together the night before will help kids learn to think ahead and reduce stress for you. Shove as many decisions as you can into family routines and let the power of habit work for you.
Finally, let yourself splurge once in a while. Having a spa day is not a bad thing, as long as we don’t expect it to substitute for exercise and sleep. Having someone else take care of your kids for a day while you visit the library or go to a movie can be a great way to give yourself a break. After you have the basic building blocks in place, by all means find time every once in a while to put pampering into your self-care plan.
• Prioritize Adult Relationships
Self-care also means taking care of our marriages. Our adult relationship needs to take priority, with the obvious exception for unsafe relationships. But assuming that our marriage is physically and emotionally healthy, it’s vital that we make that relationship our primary focus.
First, the parents’ relationship is the foundation of the family. That relationship sets the tone for every other relationship in the house. The mugs saying “If Mom’s not happy, then nobody’s happy” are popular because they speak to a universal truth that parents set the emotional tone in the home. If your relationship with your spouse is shaky, then there’s not a good foundation for the rest of the relationships within the family. Finding quality time for each other, whether it's a date night or a movie night, is essential care for the whole family.
Furthermore, our kids need to see how to keep a marriage together in the middle of all of the challenges of modern life. One disadvantage I had as a single foster parent was that I could not show my foster kids what a healthy relationship looked like. I don’t regret being a single parent, and I certainly don’t criticize anyone who chooses divorce. But it wasn’t until I married that I was able to model for my kids how to build and keep a healthy romantic relationship. If you are in a good relationship, it may be the only chance that your kids will have to see a healthy relationship from the inside.
Finally, it’s not good for our kids when we place too much importance on our relationships with them. It’s not good for kids to be the center of any adult’s world. If being at the center doesn’t make our kids feel entitled to everyone else’s attention, it will make them take too much responsibility for the relationship. They don’t have the emotional resources for either tendency. Parenting our kids should be a high priority, but it shouldn’t take higher priority than our adult relationships.
• Be Realistic About Stress
One important way to take care of ourselves is to manage our expectations. Recognize that some feelings of stress are inevitable. The situations our kids find themselves in are off-kilter, from their perspective, and they will have trouble adjusting to them. No matter how wonderful we are, our kids may reject the entire situation, including us. Don’t feel guilty that the stress is there, and don’t take it personally. Accepting that the situation is difficult and that it’s not your fault will be one of the best gifts that you can give yourself.
• Get Help When You Need It
Finally, don’t try to tough out difficult times. Your family may benefit from family counseling, or going by yourself to a therapist may be good self-care. Find friends or experienced parents to help walk you through the difficult times. We are not designed to be alone, and even introverts can benefit from a network. Find a foster or stepparent support group or online community that can offer advice and help you know that you are not in this by yourself.
Self-care is not a luxury, but an essential part of taking care of your family. Don’t feel guilty about having limits (everyone does) and concentrate on the essential and mundane basics. Concentrate on your marriage, manage your expectations, and get help when you need it. At the end of the day, taking care of yourself is the only way to keep going through all the challenges of modern parenting.