Self-care is all the rage these days. Everyone is talking about it, but it actually took me awhile to grasp the fact that there’s good reason. As it turns out, taking care of yourself is an integral element of taking care of someone else, just like how flight attendants instruct you to put on your own oxygen mask before helping your child with theirs. This is true even if you consider yourself a big, strong, potentially hairy foster dad, because the fact is, we’re all immensely limited human beings. Your car needs a little tune-up every once in awhile, and so do foster dads. Actually, we require our tune-ups even more often than a car does. Depending on how persnickety (some might say “responsible”) you are with your car, you might get it worked on every few weeks or so. But we foster dads need time for self-care pretty much every day if we want to sustain our longevity in this endeavor.
It’s crucial to recognize, however, that the goal of self-care is not to escape from our kids (that’s sometimes a facet, not the primary aim), but rather to reinvigorate ourselves specifically so that we can fully engage with our kids. When my son sleeps over at Grandma and Grandpa’s to give his mother and me a break, I’ve been known to dread picking him up the next day–not because I don’t love him and don’t want to spend time with him, but because I love my downtime. That’s me doing self-care wrong. The point is to do self-care that prepares me to spend quality, meaningful time with my child, not that makes me long for more self-care time. The kids may not be around for it, but the kids are the motivation for our self-care.
In this post, I will outline a few tips I’ve found to be effective in helping me cultivate my own self-care habits. Now, be ye advised: I’ve only been at the foster/adoptive dad lifestyle for ten months at the time of writing, so I am certainly no glorious self-care virtuoso. However, in the fashion of the typical blogger, I will persist in pontificating regardless. I suppose that’s fair though; you probably wouldn’t be reading this if you weren’t at least marginally interested in what I have to say on the subject at hand.
Give up being productive every once in a while.
I hardly ever listen to music because I don’t see the point of it. What do I gain from it? After all, it’s not like I learn anything by listening to music like I would by listening to a podcast or an audiobook. That utilitarian perspective extends to the rest of my life too. If I’m going to read a book, it should be about adoption or theology, something that is actually meaningful, unlike fiction which is basically just brain candy. If I’m going to watch TV, I should at least be doing something productive like washing dishes or folding laundry while I do it. In general, I hate slowing down and doing something merely for the sake of doing it. But that makes it really difficult to do self-care tasks effectively.
If you’re like me, you may need to give up your need to be productive in order to take care of yourself. Remember, you’re doing this self-care stuff so that you can keep on being a great foster/adoptive dad. It really will be okay if the yard work or the dishes sit there another day, but you might not be okay if you sit there another day without a little dad-pampering. So let’s both agree to do something that isn’t productive at all specifically because it’ll help us stay strong in dad life.
Of course, there will be some times when you can’t afford to just sit around with your feet up, which is the reason for this next tip….
Multitask whenever possible.
The life of a foster dad is inescapably busy and there’s never going to be an overwhelming deluge of downtime. Figuring out ways to pursue my interests simultaneously with my responsibilities has been a critical component of my own self-care. It certainly helps that my interests can often be engaged audibly, namely through audiobooks and podcasts. If I’m driving, mowing the lawn, doing dishes, or even taking a shower or going to sleep, I can still listen to something that will entertain or educate. For me, this is a great way to get my mind off the stress of parenting and focus on something else that I like, such as college football, theology, or absurdist humor.
Depending on your interests, you may find it more difficult to identify ways to multitask effectively. Thankfully it’s not my job to tell you exactly what you should do, so you’re going to have to do the heavy-lifting on this one (although I would definitely recommend podcasts). Surely there must be some way to inject some self-care into the stuff you already have to do; like parenting, it might just require some creativity on your end.
Lose your pride and trust someone else to help.
It’s really easy to believe that you’re the only one who can handle your kid’s particular behaviors or needs, and therefore not allow anyone else to help you out. That’s pride, my dude. You’re a fantastic dad, but you’re also not the only person in the world who can deal with a difficult child.
I used to be afraid that if I left my son with my parents for awhile, he might give them such a hard time that they wouldn’t let him come back anymore. But guess what? That hasn’t happened, partially because kids tend to act like little angels whenever they’re with Grandma and Grandpa and partially because my parents have over thirty years of parenting experience and know how to handle kids’ crap. The times when my son has slept over at my parents’ house have been life-savers for my wife and me. They give us the time and space to do what we want or need to do as adults so that when he comes home we can focus our attention on him and his needs.
So find the people you know who can give you a break. They don’t have to be fellow foster parents or therapists or something. Use a little discernment obviously (a highly-trained monkey is not an appropriate babysitter), but if someone is trustworthy and capable and genuinely wants to provide you a break, let them! Not everyone’s call to foster or adopt, but everyone’s called to do something; however, that only works if we actually give those people an opportunity to help.
Take advantage of the seemingly insignificant moments.
My favorite time of day is 9:45 pm or so. By this time, my son is on his way to sleep (during the school year, at least), the dogs are settled down, my wife and I have said our good nights, and the house is dark and still. I’m laying in bed with earbuds in, listening to episodes of The Office I’ve seen a thousand times and simply existing. No one is asking me for things or arguing with me or jumping on me or biting me (this applies both to the puppy and my son). Sometimes this lasts only a few minutes before I fall asleep, other times closer to an hour. Either way, I don’t mind. I merely revel in the calm.
This moment may seem insignificant, but there are some nights when it’s the light at the end of the tunnel. If my son is driving me nuts (confession: he does), I’m able to muscle through the evening because I know that eventually he’ll fall asleep and I’ll have my few minutes of peace. It’s an insignificant moment, but it keeps me going. The same is true for going out with the dog or taking a shower. These are small but natural ways for me to get a bit of separation and are also usually the times when I do a good bit of my praying (interesting that I’m at my most spiritual when I’m picking up dog crap or naked in the shower).
What are the seemingly insignificant moments in your life that you can capitalize on for the sake of your own self-care? Maybe it’s your commute or the half-hour you spending waiting for your dilatory kid to come out of football practice or the time you spend reclining on the commode. Sure, it may not be a steamy getaway with your spouse or an evening of football and beer with your buddies, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be effective and meaningful.
The electronic babysitter isn’t always the enemy.
Before I actually became a parent, I was very idealistic about how I would raise my children. An example: I didn’t want my kids to play mature-rated video games, and any time they were going to play video games I wanted them to play with someone else so there was still that human connection. When my first child, a teenage son, came into my life, that lasted all of about two weeks. For one thing, the Venn diagram crossover between “video games that don’t suck” and “video games that aren’t rated M” and “video games that allow for more than one player” is incredibly small, and the level of “mature” content in M-rated games differs wildly anyway (Halo, while still rated M, is a very different game from Grand Theft Auto). For another thing, I hate video games and didn’t want to play with my son every time he wanted to get on the Xbox. So I began to change my tune a bit about the old electronic babysitter.
When my son plays Xbox, I know where he is, I know what he’s doing, and I can take that time to do what I need or want to do. And that’s okay! It can be difficult to be engaged with your child all day every day, and monitored screen time is a safe way to get some space. Of course, you should set necessary time and content limits to keep your child safe and healthy, but I don’t think you should feel bad about allowing the electronic babysitter to give you some time for self-care. The intention of this, though, should be to rejuvenate yourself enough to get back to being the involved, badass foster dad you already are.
Sleep like a man.
Finally: sleep. Everyone knows that sleep is important, so allow me to omit the brain science. Plain and simple, I am a worse dad when I don’t get enough sleep (which, annoyingly, is nine hours in my case). My guess is that you are too. The problem is, I don’t always like going to sleep at night (although I do like staying asleep in the morning). While I discussed above how I like to relax while listening to The Office until I fall asleep, there are some nights when I want to just read all night, or laugh with my wife, or even do housework. Those activities, in and of themselves, are wonderful for self-care. However, in my experience, they really don’t hold a candle to good old-fashioned sleep.
For myself–and I’m sure a great deal of other dads–sleep requires discipline. It means saying no to more fun or productive activities when bedtime comes, and that’s not always easy. But, no matter how cool or masculine or burly or strong a man may be, he still has to sleep. Sometimes I think God made us that way just to keep us grounded.
So be a man. Go to sleep.