Welcome to the fifth of my Self-Care Week posts. I’m revisiting this series of about the different aspects of self-care which I first published in early 2015. I’m using the hashtag #selfcareweek on Twitter and Instagram and would love it if you’d join me.
I am an only child, and I am an introvert. I need regular, lengthy doses of time on my own in order to feel balanced. Pete, who grew up in a family of extroverts, is the same. Thankfully we tolerate each other’s company really rather well.
Our children are extroverts. They thrive on being with others and think being alone is some kind of punishment. How much of this is due to having been neglected and how much is just their natural personality type I’m not sure, and in practice this distinction is irrelevant, because it just is. They need vast amounts of attention and jabber constantly about nothing in particular (to make sure I haven’t forgotten about them); I need vast amounts of silent headspace. This combination takes quite a bit of working out.
Solitude and self-care
For good mental health, we all need time away from our work. There is no doubt at all that parenting qualifies as work, and parenting children who have experienced trauma counts as really very hard work indeed.
For some, me included, self-care and solitude are definitely linked. For others, restful time away from parenting is more fun with other people involved. The important part is not so much the what or where as the how can I have some time for me? I read a lot of adopters’ blogs and tweets and a common refrain is that making time for ourselves as adoptive parents is really hard. Our children are not just ordinary-level demanding. Often, adopted children are bouncing-off-the-walls, need-constant-supervision, attention-needing levels of demanding, regardless of age-appropriateness. Add in enhanced levels of separation anxiety, or unwillingness to leave them with babysitters who don’t get it or might not handle an outburst … and time away from children can be really hard to arrange.
But it can be done. Enter the support network.
Six months ago, me and Pete were feeling really stuck in terms of childcare. His parents are older and do what they can for his sister’s family, and we are reluctant to make more demands of them. My parents are caring for my 90-year-old grandmother as well as having all kinds of commitments to friends (helping on a farm, taking neighbours to hospital appointments, fundraising for local charities, etc). They do a huge amount for us already, and we wanted to increase the number of people we asked to help in order to be fair to them.
So we sent up a distress flare.
By this I mean that we wrote to the leaders and pastoral care team at our church, with a little package including two books (Home for Good and No Matter What) and Home for Good‘s support booklet (available to read online here or by post here). I explained that despite having been members there for a year, we hadn’t managed to get to know people because we had to whisk the children outside to run about straight after the service rather than mingling merrily with a coffee and a smile as is expected in their middle-class utopia (OK, I might have phrased it slightly differently in my letter). Could they help us, I asked, by facilitating some friendships?
I felt so self-conscious doing this. Asking for help making friends felt a bit weird, like a child telling the teacher no one wants to play with them. We are supposed to be functional, responsible, sociable adults. But we were too mentally and emotionally exhausted to do it without help. Anyway. It worked. The church leaders actually read the books and talked to us about them. I was prepared to be fobbed off with claims of busyness, but no. People – including other adoptive parents I hadn’t known were there – started to talk to us as we milled about outside, watching the girls climb trees and roll in the mud. I started meeting up with one of the adoptive mums for a Friday morning coffee every few weeks, which is something we’re still doing. It’s great. But we also started to get offers of babysitting. Particularly from people who were involved in the children’s work at church and so knew the girls. Bingo! The holy grail.
Recently, we’ve been going out every Monday night, with a rota of five different babysitters who have happily (I think) come and put up with ten minutes of separation-anxiety-induced wailing from Joanna and then enjoyed three hours of quiet knitting/reading/TV-watching/biscuit-eating. The feeling of freedom as we walk away from the house, sans enfants, is really quite blissful. We’ve been doing The Marriage Course for a second time, not because anything is wrong, but as a preventative MOT-type check-up. (Also, there is good cake.) It’s lovely to have time set aside for the two of us, and doing the course means that we talk about us, not school or childcare or behavioural issues.[Update: Since writing the above, we have had a period of six months where we stopped going to church, and are now in another church. The babysitting arrangement lasted the duration of the course and then fizzled out. We found ourselves back at square one, where we needed to be so focussed on the children that building new friendships in those minutes before and after services became incredibly difficult. We are now trying again in our new church to build those sorts of relationships and start asking for help, but it is slow and difficult and we are tired and introverted and mainly want to run home and hide after a couple of hours’ public parenting.]
Why? How? When? Where?
All the above is great, and I am thankful for supportive friends and family. But I strongly believe that respite care should be part of a statutory package of post-adoption support that adoptive families can access whenever it’s needed. Foster carers are entitled to a certain amount of respite each year, in recognition of the challenges they face. Why not adopters? American adoption organisation AdoptUSKids facilitates respite care for adoptive families. In their booklet ‘Creating and sustaining effective respite services‘, they write:
‘In 2007, AdoptUSKids launched a targeted effort to increase adoptive, foster, and kinship families’ access to respite care. Respite care is defined as a program or service that enables adoptive, foster, and kinship parents to take a safe, rejuvenating break to energize and regroup from the often challenging task of parenting children who have experienced abuse, trauma, and neglect. In many cases, respite programs provide children with the chance to build relationships with other children in adoptive, foster, and kinship families, and to participate in meaningful activities that increase their skills and resources. Respite care is a key part of the post-placement services often needed by adoptive, foster, and kinship families to help support placement stability and permanency.
Research has demonstrated that respite services can:
- Reduce risk of maltreatment and risk of an out-of-home placement
- Achieve statistically significant reductions in reported stress levels of caregivers and improvements in the quality of their relationships
- Improve caregivers’ positive attitude toward their children
- Improve family functioning
- Help caregivers meet their children’s special needs
- Improve relationships between parents and children
- Decrease the risk of child abuse
- Prevent placement disruptions
- Increase families’ ability to provide care at home for children with disabilities’
The reality for most UK adoptive families, though, is that respite is not available as an official resource from post-adoption support, but has to be patched together by adopters with help from family and friends, perhaps with some paid childcare if the budget allows.
One of the UK organisations that ‘gets it’ is The Open Nest. They have a helpline staffed by people who listen and understand. But, crucially, they also offer respite breaks for families. With appropriate childcare. It all sounds amazing.
I wish I could tell you about others like them. I look forward (with naïve optimism?) to the day when I can re-write this post with a list of UK providers of respite care for adoptive families. Maybe the Adoption Support Fund will help. We’ll see.[Update: It hasn’t. But you probably knew that.]
What are your thoughts on the importance of making time for yourself to your own self-care? Is it something you’re managing well or struggling with? Do you have strategies that work well for you? Please share your comments below and join in the conversation on Twitter with the #selfcareweek hashtag. The next topic is spirituality – that is, the role of faith in self-care and what that means to different people. Please come back tomorrow and join in that discussion too.
Space: further reading
The Fringe Hours: Making Time for You by Jessica Turner
Where’s the post-adoption support for traumatised children? (Louise Tickle in The Guardian)
The Marriage Course
Space: further viewing
The Open Nest’s new animation – great for sharing with family and friends to help them know how to help.