When I say “self-care,” you say…?

Last night, I did it. I went OUT. I went out to a real restaurant and drank a real beer and enjoyed the company of friends other adult friends as we watched my husband perform stand-up comedy. We weren’t even gathered together because it was a kid’s birthday party, or we were getting together for a foster mother support group. We went out to be adults, having a good time. After the show, my husband and I even went to a local bar (not downtown, we’d absolutely be the creepy old people with a bunch of college kids in that scene) and had a few drinks and enjoyed one another’s company without interruptions from one or both of the kids. And dare I say it……. I had a damn good time.

I’ve noticed this movement lately on social media, calling for “self-care.” At first glance, I figure self-care is drinking enough water in a day, going for a walk, sticking your face in front of an essential oil diffuser, whatever gets your gears grinding. It seemed a little silly to me, because a) who has time in the day to meditate when there’s laundry to be done, and b) child care isn’t going to wait when your two-year-old has turned into a nudist and is constantly removing her diaper at the blink of an eye. If you miss that, child care turns into floor care, and then there sure as heck isn’t any time for self-anything. But…..

But.

Maybe there is something to be said about this whole “self-care” notion. Last night was FUN. Last night, we weren’t foster parents, trying to think of ways to reform a broken system, and we weren’t on-call when the kids needed to brush their teeth. We enjoyed one another as people, and I left feeling like someone else other than just Mom. “Mom” is such an all-encompassing word these days, a catch-all for planner, accountant, secretary, housekeeper, baby shark soloist, you name it. I love being Mom. I’m going to go out on a limb and say that I’m a damn good mom. Not perfect by any stretch, but damn good at what I do. But let me just say that it was nice being just Sarah again last night, for those few hours. I felt valued by my husband and my friends as a person, not just a Mom. For me, I feel like THAT is the kind of self-care that’s going to keep the energy and motivation flowing for me.

This crazy foster life that we lead…..always changing, always in a state of flux and unknown, it can bring about an odd form of daily stress that’s difficult to explain unless you’ve experienced it. The roller coaster of emotions coincides with the roller coasters of case plans that your kids are going through right now. You find yourself wanting to fix everything for them, when in reality the most you can do is hold your breath with them while you hold their hand. With a forever child, plans for longevity are normal and expected. With a foster child, you measure longevity by milestones and accomplishments. There is a certain stress that comes along with that, never knowing if the next milestone will be met. Let me tell you, that can wear on you. I feel like my stress compressor has a little bit more wear and tear on it these days, but it’s still chugging along. It just needs moments like last night, and it needs to be given a reminder that there still is an all-encompassing, multifaceted human underneath it all. Foster parenting does have the ability to become an identity for some of us, just like parenthood in general can be an identity for others. My tip tonight: find your whole self. Let that be your self-care, because that “self” deserves it. And apparently, if you look hard enough, there are ways to make it work where you can find time to step away (this is my usual excuse). There’s that simple saying floating around now: “Just do you.” No, seriously. Do you. You deserve it. We all need to remind ourselves that we’re human sometimes.

Life’s little accidents… and reporting them.

I’m sure it’s this way with traditional parenting, but one thing I have noticed is that with foster parenting, it’s easy to become even more fearful of accidents or missteps. Little Girl took a spill yesterday that left a scratch below her eye. Little Guy had a scratch on his arm from the playground last week. Which one did I stress more over? Little Girl, of course, because she is our foster child, and Little Guy is our adopted child. Adopted child = no more incident reports, or social workers raising an eyebrow. No visits where the kid shows up with a mark on them, causing bio parents to make accusations.

Little Girl has entered quite a rough-and-tumble toddler phase. We joke that she’s going to grow up to be a cage fighter, but honestly….I’m not sure how much of that is a joke and how much of that is actually truth. There’s comedy in the fact that she is fearless enough to hurl her tiny body at my husband when they are playing tag, and the fact that she’s a climber lets us know that she’s learning independence, but with all that, of course, comes bumps and bruises. It’s natural. Should we be fearful of reporting this to our agency when it happens? They tell us no, but of course, in the back of your mind, it’s always there: they’ll think I wasn’t supervising well enough / they’ll think I’m negligent / they’ll think, they’ll think, they’ll think……

In reality, they DO “think” because they, too, have to cover themselves and investigate when necessary. Chances are, and my logical side understands this, isolated incidents are a bigger worry for us as the parents than them as the agency, but you can’t help but to feel like you FAILED somehow. For me, I think I feel the need to be such a role model parent, that I take it personally when an accident happens.

The same goes for negative behaviors that kids develop while in your care. Our son came to us as a quiet, passive two-year-old and as he got more comfortable with us and with his routine, began to show out in a big way: yell, scream, kick walls during punishments…. It was difficult to grasp that WE weren’t causing this, and only after some discussions with other parents and a knowledge-filled child therapist was I able to understand that my husband and I weren’t doing wrong by him and that these behaviors weren’t a result of our bad parenting, and that we should instead help him through this transition and behavior experimentation by enforcing different coping mechanisms. A perfect parent would never get frustrated and glide through this phase, but guess what? None of us are perfect parents. I can think of a handful of times at LEAST where I responded with a short fuse, frustration, or a harsh criticism during these moments, and promptly felt like crap afterwards. At the end of the day, does that make me unfit to parent my son? No, it makes me human. We have to forgive ourselves for our parenting mistakes sometimes. Did I tell his therapist about these missteps of mine? No. Of course not. I couldn’t admit that I was anything other than the perfect foster parent for him. Looking back, I wish I would have spoken up. I’m sure I’d have learned a whole lot more had I done so.

I don’t have answers for the overall fear that occurs when having to report life’s little accidents to our respective agencies, but I’d love to hear how others have dealt with the guilt that comes with it.

Reflections…

Now and again, I find little blurbs that I have written and tucked away in journals and notebooks, or little notes saved on my desktop, written when a mood or a memory struck me. Whenever I find them and re-read them, I can remember the exact moment of what happened, what was taking place, and my desperation to either get through it, survive it, or remember it forever. This morning, I found this little blurb, written during a particularly tough morning at work, a few days after our first little was reunited with her mother:

My heart is changed. It’s learned the stress and ache that can come from loving someone so much without reciprocation. I never knew what one-sided love was like – I was born into a loving family and my husband loves me as I love him. The fierceness that drives the level of love that you have for these kids who don’t know you, and therefore don’t love you right off the bat is such a wild experience. You have to earn their trust and help form that love without expectation that you’ll ever feel any benefit in return, and look for small milestones instead. The moment when she let me bathe her without crying. The night when his arms wrapped around my neck for the first time. Watching them gain their footing and feel secure enough in our home to explore it for the first time and get into things like toddlers do. It’s those things that tell me that love is there, and my heart has learned to downright bask in it. I’ve tried to train my heart time and time again to remind myself that these are not my children, but it rarely listens. Instead, it has said, “For today, she is.” Except now, today she isn’t. None of my senses comprehend this. My ears are listening for her babble in the monitor, my eyes are looking for her in her crib, my nose is craving the smell of shampoo on her hair after her bath, and my arms want to wrap around her for one of her one-second hugs before she busied herself onto her next activity. My heart knows how much she loved us though, because of how much she trusted us to allow her to progress into the wild, happy, curious kid that she is. That will have to be good enough.

I have learned to accept that it was enough.

You’ve GOT This, Mama. Or Maybe You Don’t.

I’m a self-admitted control freak. I have routines and when they get thrown off….if I come home and the dog has gotten into the trash, or if I forget to thaw the chicken for dinner….it can send me right into a rather grumpy orbit. It’s the perfect trait to have if you’re a foster parent, if you ask me, because foster life is certainly NEVER going to throw off your routines. It’s not like living in a state of flux is your new normal or anything.

 Note: Hi, I'm Sarah and I can get rather sarcastic sometimes. I should probably highlight my sarcasm in a different color or a cynical-looking font to note my intentions, but if you're wondering if something is sarcastic or not, with me, it probably is. 

But really, learning how to adapt has been something I have struggled with since the beginning of this journey (and for the past 34 years of my life, recognizing that the first year I didn’t have much control over anything, right down to my bladder). Whenever a new child has joined our home, and as their plans change over time, I’ve had to adjust everything. I live off of schedules, so that means that transportation schedules, morning dressing routine schedules, laundry schedules, sleep schedules, social worker visit and bio parent visit schedules, all of that changes, and then comes the stress from trying to develop new routines and keep up with them. Each time, my husband has had to remind me: “You’ve GOT this.”

But….what happens when you DON’T “got this?” What happens when things start to change in one of your kiddos lives that you worry about or someone else makes a decision for the child you are caring for that you disagree with? I’m going to be completely honest here: it happens a lot. It happens, and when it does, it’s a quick reminder that you are NOT in control, no matter how hard you want to fight it. To be fair, we were warned of this in our MAPPS classes. Our instructors tried their best to prepare us for it while using their professional language all at the same time but what they couldn’t tell us, and what I can tell you is this: sometimes, you’ll feel like you’re standing in the middle of Times Square on New Year’s Eve, screaming to be heard. It’s just the nature of the situation, folks. It can be frustrating beyond belief, and you will try to rationalize with yourself: “But I know ________ better than anyone, I know what’s best for him!” “I’ve had ________ for the majority of her life, how could they (the elusive “they”…..more on that later) decide this without my input?!” Easy. “They” will decide what needs to be done because of laws that exist, and because it’s their job to be as neutral as possible and try to first and foremost reunify a family (“they” is an all-encompassing group of those who work for the agency you are with who have to follow these laws and guidelines because, well, they are laws and guidelines).

Don’t get me wrong, it’s not that I ever want to sabotage reunification for any of our kids. I also can’t assume that I’m a child and family expert. But I’m a parent. Biological parent or foster parent, we have a natural inclination to want to protect our kids and prevent any trauma, or any more trauma for these kids, from harming them. This is where I struggle; this is when it becomes out of my control. Having to throw your hands in the air and say ‘I tried my best’ is something I’ve had to learn to do, and I’m here to tell you: I still hate it every time. I hate the idea of there being nothing left that I can do, but as the foster parent, it’s not your job to “do” more than love the kid as your own, keep them safe and teach them what you can while they are with you. We DON’T know what’s best for these kids. We CAN’T predict the future.

Sometimes, it’s going to feel like everything is moving too fast, and that’s because we find our comfort levels in the stagnant times. Foster families are going to change. We’re meant to change. We’re meant to ebb and flow and be there for whoever needs us. Is it frustrating? Absolutely. I’m feeling it today. It’ll hit you out of nowhere sometimes, or it’ll smack you in the face when a decision is made that you don’t agree with. I guess, at the end of the day, remind yourself of this: your kiddo needs you. And so do “they.” It just won’t always be easy, but then again…..what matters of the heart are?

“I could never give them back.”

“You signed yourself up for this.”

“I don’t know how you do it, I could never give them back.”

“My heart is too sensitive to do anything like foster care.”

well-meaning sympathizers of foster parents.

These are all just some of the lines that I think most foster parents hear from time to time. While I’m sure they are well-intentioned, I think it comes down to the fact that most of us just don’t or didn’t know what to expect until we started living the life of foster care. Timelines are measured by shorter milestones (“If _______ is here for Halloween, she should be a cat!” or “If ________ is still here for this vacation, it would be a great time for him to learn to swim.”), and permanency is rarely discussed. We found out early on that discussions of “if _________ stays forever, we’ll do x, y, & z” are futile and lead to unnecessary daydreaming. For most cases in foster care, that permanency is not the goal, and we have to remind ourselves of that. It’s a different way of life, and expecting others to understand it when they aren’t living it is a recipe for added stress and resentment.

When our first foster child, M, was scheduled to go home after a year and a half with us, the build-up to that day was almost as agonizing as saying goodbye. During that week, I was reminded several times by several people that we had, in fact, signed ourselves up for this. My husband and I were also both recipients of several variations of the same phrase: “I don’t know how you do it, I could never give them back.”

Look. I get it. Most of us reading this get it: we KNOW we signed up for this. We knew when we took the classes, prepared our homes and our families, bought the extra bedding and toothbrushes, that we were volunteering for inevitable heartbreak. My go-to response to statements like these used to be “my adult heart can handle the heartbreak better than their pure child heart can handle feeling unloved.” I was proud of that response too – it sounded crafted from a poetic foster care book, and it probably was. I’m not sure what I was looking to gain by responding with that statement…did I want to sting back with something prophetic? Did I want to spread the word about foster care? I have no idea. These days, I just shrug and acknowledge the fact that yes, yes we did sign up for this. Now and again, I’ll make a smartassed quip like “Well apparently the law says we have to,” when someone tells us that they could never give the kids back (it’s true though, am I right?). I guess defending my decisions was my own way of defending myself and rationalizing the goings on, putting it in a language my heart could understand.

After M was reunified with her family, after the few days that went by where I could look at her picture without breaking down in tears, I found myself subconsciously making the shift in who I turned to for support. My family is beyond blessed to have such a wonderful support network: our parents love these kids like their own grandchildren, extended family invests time and interest into them, friends love on them and offer sitter services…. We couldn’t have asked for a better response from our loved ones when we told them we had decided to open our home to foster care. However, in times like family reunification, I’ve found that they just don’t GET it. The sympathy and the empathy is there, but it’s so difficult to rationalize to people who are missing the children that you brought into their lives solely because they are now a part of your life. When M left, I almost felt the need to apologize to my parents, because I knew they missed her just as much as we did. The guilt was tremendous. I’ve spoken with other foster parents whose families have begged them not to take another placement because of the agony it caused when the last one left. And yet……we do it. Hopefully, our loved ones get that we have our reasons for pressing on. I’ve learned that venting and turning to them for support is one thing, but having a group of people in this non-traditional boat with you is a make-or-break situation. A daily group text message with other foster moms who I have met through a local foster mother support group has been my saving grace. They GET it. In ways that our extended family and friends can’t these women just understood without having to say a thing. We’ve celebrated together, we’ve cried together, we’ve released frustrations through margaritas and queso dip together. Finding and connecting with other foster parents who have shared similar situations is highest recommendation I can have when it comes to dealing with the emotions of foster care.

Because remember…..after all, we signed up for this.

Raise Awareness Through Experience.

Her: She called me “mama.” It was music to my ears, because it took her so long to name me. I watched her serious self turn into a sassy, thrill-seeking toddler. I watched her seek out cuddles for love, instead of clinging to others for safety. She never watched me cry, because I hid my tears from her when it was time for her to go home to her family so it could be a celebration. I watched the reunification process heal a family. I watched us let her go, physically. I watch us still talk about her like she’s a part of our family, because she is. She was a year and a half of our lives.

Him: He calls me ‘mommy.’ I’ve watched him add words to his vocabulary every day. I’ve watched his once-timid self turn into a loud and boisterous little boy. I’ve watched him learn to trust people. I’ve watched him develop likes and dislikes, and watched in awe (among other emotions) when he attempts to reason and barter a deal like a pro. I watch his bond with my husband and absolutely love the relationship that the two of them have- the rest of us are second place, after his Daddy. I watched a biological mother make the ultimate sacrifice for the best interest of her child that she loved so much, and instead place all of her trust in us. I watched the adoption process take place, and watched him become our son.

Her: She calls all of us ‘daddy’ or ‘baby,’ and I’ve learned to embrace it. She is our smallest and youngest, and we’ve watched her grow into a spunky, energetic little toddler. We’ve watched the roller coaster of a case plan go through ups and down and right now, we’re watching ourselves prepare for the inevitable heartache that’s around the corner. We know it well…..we will watch ourselves let her go too. We will watch the healing process our hearts will undergo once again, knowing that it was all worth it. For her, learning the fundamentals, learning routine, and getting the medical attention she needed is solid enough proof of that.

1 adoption.
2 toddlers taking their first steps.
3 Christmases filled with laughter, visits with Santa, toys, and love.
4 Social Worker interactions, each different from the next.
5 Birthdays celebrated.
Countless tears, smiles, memories, all because of this foster care journey. I’ve been trying to detach myself from the foster care process, because that will bring nothing but stress and overwhelming emotion. Instead, I’m trying to focus on this kids. They’re what matter most….

…..Because he calls me ‘mommy.’ She called me ‘mama.’ She calls me ‘daddy’ or ‘baby.’ And I call them the center of my world. All because of foster care.
#fostercareawarenessmonth

A Rose-Colored Beginning.

When my husband and I decided to become foster parents, we pictured a much different journey for ourselves. Children would arrive at our doorstep, in need of love, and we’d nurture them back to life. We’d save their broken souls with a combination of teddy bears, warm baths, and new toothbrushes. We read the books, we took the classes, we answered the hundreds of questions asked to us by our agency…surely, we were ready. …..Right?

The answer to that question would be a very hard, very solid “no.” No, there was no way we could have ever been ready for the journey that we were about to go on. We had to learn for ourselves that most of foster parenting isn’t what is taught to you in your licensing classes. It’s about 75% intuition and 25% chance, and you’re going to make mistakes along the way. Following foster care motivation groups on Facebook and looking at fostering photos on Instagram pages made it look easy. It made it look fun and filled with hugs and unconditional, double-sided love. As we maneuvered our way through our journey, I started noting the comparisons through these filtered highlight reels of foster care experiences online and the real-life, nitty gritty experiences we were finding ourselves in. I craved for a place to share the real life stories. The heartache stories AND the stories of full hearts and minds. I see no reason to sugar coat the experiences my family has gone through, and see no need to stick a filter onto the lens looking into our intertwined lives. Hopefully, this blog will provide some insight and reflection, some funny moments and some tough times, that others also walking this journey can relate to. This is foster life: unfiltered.