Whenever I have an opportunity to offer advice to new foster parents, I find myself coming back to the same thing: be intentional about taking care of yourself.It is so easy to get wrapped up in the challenges of foster parenting and suddenly find yourself empty, stressed out, exhausted, and at the mercy of many factors that are completely out of your control. As we have heard many times, you can’t give what you don’t have. You can’t pour from an empty bucket. Put your own oxygen mask on before helping others. Or, as Sufi philosopher and poet Rumi is often quoted, “Never give from the depths of your well, but from your overflow.” Sadly, too many foster parents are just barely surviving the day. Especially new foster parents find themselves crushed under the weight of trauma-related behaviors, unreturned calls to social workers, misinformation, no information, abrupt placement changes, lack of resources, and—hardest of all—lack of community with people who understand the often surreal experience of being a foster parent.
As we finish up 2019 and head into 2020, I invite you in to my year-end process of reflection and planning for personal flourishing in the midst of what is promised to be a chaotic and stressful path. Looking back on the year behind us is a good thing—what went well? What was hard? What, with the benefit of hindsight, could I have done differently? What lessons have I learned for next time? It’s good to sit with some of those reflections.
Looking at the year ahead is also important. While we can’t possibly know what tomorrow holds, if we are foster parents, we can be nearly certain that there are going to be a lot of ups and downs, they will often come without warning, and no one is going to fight for our personal well-being as much as we can.
One area of planning I am doing—and want to encourage you to do—is to create an intentional and robust Self-Care Plan.
This is not about pampering yourself—this is about planning to flourish in the midst of what is sure to be a very, very challenging home life if you are a foster parent. Even with a child who does not struggle with hard behaviors, there are all the outside stressors involved with foster parenting. There’s no way around it: foster parenting, under the best of circumstances, is stressful. We need to plan for how we will flourish despite that.
Toward the end of 2019, I hosted a live Coaching Call for foster parents entitled, “New Year, New Self Care Plan.” In that call, I talked through six “Fields of Flourishing” I’ve recognized as areas of my life that require regular attention if I am going to stay strong and avoid burnout. These areas include:
Heart | Soul | Mind | Intentions
Physical Rhythms of Exertion & Rest
Supports | Systems | Simplifiers
If you would like to download the little guide I use to create a robust and intentional self-care plan, in which I offer some questions to reflect on to help guide your plan, here it is! My gift to you 🙂
There are going to be some really hard times in the year ahead. I hope you have a community of people you connect with regularly who understand the unique challenges you face as a foster parent. It is so important to know you’re not walking this path alone! There are also going to be some wins! It’s important to share those too! No one understands the victories of foster parenting like other foster parents!
I am excited about this new year and how we can help one another grow and stay encouraged as we walk this road that is so needed in our world. I wish foster parents weren’t necessary—but we are, and as long as there are kids in foster care, there will be foster parents who need to keep sharpening our tools and finding encouragement from one another.
Here’s to a wonderful new year. Thank you for reading and following A Fostered Life. I hope to connect with more of you in 2020!
I love the rhythm of life we enjoy, with church, school and extracurricular activities forming a framework around which we build in waking, sleeping, play time and down time.
My kids thrive when we have a routine. I thrive when we have a routine. The house runs (pretty) smoothly thanks to these rhythms and routines.
Which is why Spring Break can be so very challenging.
Winter is over (at least chronologically if not meteorologically), and the end of the school year is in sight. Excitement is in the air and we don’t always know what to do with our Big Feelings. And in the middle of it all, we have a full week off from school. Not long enough to establish new routines, but too long for the “let’s just play it by ear” we can sometimes get away with on Saturdays.
(Who am I kidding? Even our Saturdays have to follow a routine, starting with Dad making pancakes. But Dad goes to work on Monday! He is not here to make pancakes during the week of Spring Break!)
Its taken me some time, but I have learned a few things that can make or break a week off from school. If you work outside the home, you have likely already arranged childcare. But if your kids are home with you all week, here are a few ways to own spring break—before spring break owns you!
1) You must have a plan. Waking up on Monday morning, kissing my husband goodbye and facing multiple little faces looking at me and asking, “What are we doing now, Mom?” is not the time to think about what the week is going to look like. A few weeks or even days before the break, take time to do some planning. What camps are available and affordable? What discounts can you find? (Kids Bowl Free and Kids Skate Free are two wonderful resources!) What’s happening at your local library, museums, parks and rec, YMCA, etc? The weekend before the break, check the weather for the week. What days can you plan to be outside? What days do you need an inside plan? What groceries do you need for lunches?
2) Get outside! I make it a priority to get the kids out of the house for at least a few hours every day of a break, usually by 10:00 AM. Playgrounds, day hikes, the zoo, bowling, heading to the Seattle Aquarium (which offers free access to foster families), and going to the YMCA and running around on the track are a few of the things we’re doing this week. Kids need to move, and these are some great ways to engage their minds and bodies!
3) Make-ahead meals. I’m a big fan of cooking a few times a week and having things in the freezer that I can just heat up for dinner. This is especially important now that my family has gone almost-vegan (I’m not giving up my half-and-half!) In the past, I could just grab a rotisserie chicken and bagged salad if I didn’t have time to cook, but now I have to be more intentional. I keep vegan stews and soups in the freezer, along with vegan “meatballs” and sandwich patties for last-minute meals. The witching hour is always a challenging time to make dinner. It’s twice as hard when the kids have already been together all day and are tired, cranky and at each other’s throats right around the time I’m making dinner.
4) Give breaks from one another. My kids are each others’ primary playmates. They are just always together, which can be really sweet—and can also mean “too much of a good thing.” For the sake of pacing, I try to find ways to give my kids space from one another during the day. One way we do that is to go to the YMCA, where they are able to play with other kids. Another thing we do each day is 30-minutes of reading/looking at books on their beds. Each child gets 15-30 minutes of “Special Time” (one-on-one time with a parent, which Positive Parenting Solutions calls “Mind/Body/Soul Time”) each day as well. One child gets his Special Time first thing in the morning, as he is almost always the first one awake. Another child always gets her Special Time at bedtime. However you can make it happen, it makes a huge difference to your kids!
5) Coordinate with other caregivers. I am not always able to make this happen, but when I can, it’s great. I coordinate with another mom or two to take turns having each other’s kids over for playdates so that we can each get a little time alone. Sometimes that means I split my kids up and one goes to one friend while the others go to another friend, but however we can make it work, it helps!
6) Involve your spouse if possible. I understand this is not always possible—either you don’t have a spouse or partner, or that person doesn’t have a flexible work schedule. But if you can, talk with your spouse/partner and ask them when they might be able to give you a little extra support. For me, this means my husband goes to work a little later than usual (sometimes an hour later) and he handles all of the morning activities (getting dressed, eating, etc.) before 8:00 AM. It also means that he is “on call” to take a child who is acting out and needs to be separated from the flock for a little reset. (This doesn’t happen often, but we need options when one of our kids is ruining it for everyone else. Sometimes it’s just necessary, unfortunately.) If you’re the one who prepares dinner each night, maybe you could ask your partner to take the lead on one or two dinners this week.
7) Guard some personal time. Guard it as if it were the Holy Grail. You simply cannot expect to burn the candle at both ends and be surrounded by little people who need things from you all the time and not lose your mind. Whether it’s staying in bed reading a little longer than usual while your partner takes care of the morning routine, taking the kids to the YMCA and hitting the track or a yoga class, or putting a movie on for them so you can sit and enjoy a cup of herbal tea, you need to carve out space for yourself to refresh.
8) Put on a movie, for heaven’s sake! We limit screen time in our house. Generally speaking, our kids don’t watch TV on school days. They each get a bit of screen time (ABC Mouse, Friv4School, or PBS Kids Games) at night, if they are all ready for bed before a certain time. But otherwise, we just try really hard to provide other options for them. (They fight us hard on this, FYI. It’s not easy. They are obsessed with screen time and limiting it is a daily battle.) But I believe we are doing them a service by placing strong boundaries around their minds and what goes into them, especially those who are in elementary school. I also believe we are helping them by insisting that they learn how to entertain themselves without screens! (I recommend the book The Tech-Wise Family: Everyday Steps for Putting Technology in Its Proper Place by Andy Crouch, by the way.)
That said… Spring Break is one of the few times in the year when my kids watch a movie pretty much every day. In the afternoons, around 3:00 or so, when we have been on the go having picnics and zoo adventures and bike rides and the like, everyone (including me) needs some down time. I try to time it so that the movie will end around the time when dinner is ready. The point is, buy yourself some down time. Extra screen time during Spring Break is part of what makes it so fun!
9) Keep to your sleep/wake schedule. I know plenty of families in which breaks from school mean kids can stay up late, sleep in late, and just generally roll with things. While I can totally see why a parent would allow that, I’ve come to learn that it simply doesn’t work with my kids. We need to maintain our same night time and morning routines. The kids each have checklists, and they do them whether we are on a break from school or not. If we don’t, it doesn’t take long for the wheels to fall off and the family wagon to go completely off the rails. Again, kids—especially kids who have experienced trauma in their past—thrive when they have regular routines. This is especially true when it comes to sleep schedules!
10) Stay connected with your kids and focus on having FUN! If you have more than one child, finding time for one-on-one connection can be pretty challenging. But it is something that is so very important! When a parent is intentional about giving one-on-one time to each child on a regular basis, sibling strife can be reduced. For a child in foster care or adoption, connecting with their caregiver is so vital. Anything else that might happen in the context of family flows from this connection. Without it, there is no ground for attachment, trust or respect between the child and their caregiver.
For me, this means finding time for each child to have at least fifteen, if not thirty, minutes of one-on-one time every day, even during Spring Break, even when we are all already together most of the day. Reading books together, playing a board game, letting my daughter do my makeup, and playing chase are just some of the things my children choose for “Special Time.” I find that when I don’t make time for this, the sibling rivalry and power struggles between my kids and each other and my kids and me are worse.
There is no way to plan a perfect Spring Break. The kids will fight, your patience will be tested, and everyone will experience some disappointment and exhaustion at some point during the week. The house will never be tidy enough, you’ll feel like you’re going from one mess to the next, and forget about taking on any big projects that week. (I had a few things I had hoped to accomplish during Spring Break this year. I realized on Monday that I had to put that little list in my desk drawer, to be revisited when the kids are back in school.)
That said, these tips are a big part of how we can not merely survive the day, but how we can really find our way to flourishing, even in the strange season of Spring Break.
After all, we need to take measures to own spring break before spring break owns us!
How about you? Do you find Spring Break challenging? What are some ways you are able to make it a positive vacation time?
Alarm goes off, I think about staying in bed but know that I really need my Alone Time before the kids get up, so I roll out of bed, put on my robe and slippers, and pad down to the kitchen.
Often, my husband has already made coffee, but sometimes I get there first and I do it.
Either way, a few minutes later I’m sitting in the living room with my coffee, enjoying a bit of silence before the alarms go off in the kids’ rooms. (For some of the kids, the alarm wakes them up. For others, the radio going on lets them know they’re allowed to come out of their room.) Sometimes I read, sometimes my husband joins me and we have a chance to have some actual meaningful conversation instead of the business we usually conduct (who needs to be where when and who is taking whom there—whew!)
Last week, I had an hour between dropping my kids at preschool and needing to be back to chaperone a field trip. Not enough time to get home and get stuff done, but too much time to sit outside the school and wait.
So, I took advantage of the time and for one of my favorite hobbies: thrift store shopping. I showed up just after my neighborhood Goodwill opened and headed first to children’s shoes (where I picked up a pair of like-new pink Keens for my daughter) and then over to kitchen wares.
Some days I hit the thrift stores and don’t really find anything, but this was not one of those days. I hit the jackpot! A lovely vintage cape in fall colors marked half off, a beautiful travel tea mug with a built-in strainer for loose tea, and some adorable napkin rings for my mounting collection of mismatched fine china were just a few items I picked up.
But my favorite find of all was this glass French press.
For some reason, when I have my coffee in this vessel, it reminds me that aesthetics really do matter. The feel of it, the fact that I need to take a bit more care than when I’m pouring from a metal carafe, the look of it – such beauty in the shape and transparency and the curve of the handle. I take a moment to select the mug that I want for the day—a scripture mug? The charming clay mug that was a gift from a dear friend? One of the owl mugs my daughter insisted on getting my husband and me for Christmas last year? The mug from my mom that reads, Good morning, Christy—I’ll be handling all of your problems today. – God?
Taking a moment first thing in the morning to remind myself that my heart, my mind, and my aesthetic preferences matter before doing the daily deep dive into tending to others (school lunches made? backpacks ready? everyone dressed? breakfast on? shoes tied? got your coats? is today show-and-tell? did you remember your project? etc.) can make such a huge difference in my day.
Don’t get me wrong: I’m not above skipping the beautiful French press and slopping instant coffee into my mug. But those are not my best mornings. Those are survival mornings (and we all have those).
But I don’t want to make it a practice of just surviving the day.
I want to flourish. I want to thrive.
# # #
I recently took a trip with friends to Amsterdam. For 72 hours, I drank a lot of coffee in sunlit cafés and enjoyed long, lingering adult conversation. I walked along the canals and people-watched and danced to my favorite band.
It was such a gift.
But I can’t rely on those moments to sustain my sense of well-being. I need little gestures in my day-to-day life that remind me that I am not just a caregiver, not just a need-meeter, not just the shuttle driver (therapy! gymnastics! dance class! more therapy! swimming lessons! PTA! teacher conferences!), not just the mediator between squabbling siblings…
I am a woman who loves beautiful things and coffee and silence and solitude.
And sometimes a $7 French press from Goodwill makes all the difference in the world.
# # #
It took me a while after becoming a (foster) parent—a couple of years, in fact—to realize how important these little gestures would be for my sense of personal well-being. For a long time, I just gritted my teeth, put off those little moments and pushed through. We became parents of two children ages five years and five months overnight—there was a lot to do. I dug deep, wore clothes I could sleep in and go out in public in, cleaned compulsively in the middle of the night, and became an organizing fanatic—desperate for some sense of control in the midst of utter and complete chaos. I accomplished a lot that way, and I kept it together.
But I wasn’t flourishing.
And it wasn’t sustainable. Burnout was imminent if something didn’t change.
# # #
I’m working on a new program right now—a book and video series—that is called “The Flourishing Foster Parent.” It is born out of my struggles for the first few years, and the hard lessons I learned. I hope to have it ready by January—fingers crossed! It will be my best effort at helping new foster parents move past the season of surviving foster parenting and into the practice of thriving for the long haul. I am creating what I needed in that first year.
I pray it will help many. Too often we become satisfied by just getting through the day. But we weren’t made for that. We were not made to live in survival mode. And no one thrives and grows and flourishes when survival is the long-term goal.
# # #
Large, time-consuming, expensive opportunities for self-care are great and necessary every now and then. You need to plan for those and make them happen.
But they are not sustainable for the day-to-day.
Day-to-day flourishing lies in finding ways to fill your cup in small and sustainable things. For some it might mean getting to yoga a few times a week or showing up to a monthly support group come hell or high water. It might mean setting the alarm thirty minutes early so you can have some peace and quiet before things get cray-cray. It might mean seeing your doctor and being surprised when she suggests trying an antidepressant (and following her advice). It might mean hiring two babysitters for the evening, because that’s what it takes so you and your husband can go out on a date.
And it might mean treating yourself to a classy French press and making your morning coffee a more meaningful moment.