By Mary C. Cox
In June 2020 our local agency called, asking if we had room for a 2-year-old boy. That’s when Liam, whose name has been changed to protect his identity, came to us. Liam was silent that first week. When he began speaking, he often used expletives. Walking, and eating solid foods was difficult for Liam.
And, at the height of the pandemic, Liam needed therapy. Virtual therapy, scheduled for Friday afternoons, was draining for everyone. I’d traditionally set aside Fridays — between 3:30 and 5:30 p.m. — for some self-care but with Liam’s arrival, those few precious hours transitioned into stress-filled afternoons.
Parenting is stressful. Foster parenting brings with it added stressors. Stress activates the sympathetic nervous system (fight or flight) and when the threat is prolonged, the body releases the steroid hormone cortisol. Cortisol increases glucose in bloodstream providing energy for fighting or fleeing.
For those facing daily stress, this otherwise life-saving hormone undermines health and contributes to a litany of life-threatening diseases, including certain cancers. Research has shown, people in higher stress environments carry an increased disease burden. It’s easy to extrapolate from the data that everyone involved in child social welfare places themselves at risk for an increased disease burden.
In my eight years of practicing medicine, rarely have I seen a patient choose to be unhealthy. However, I often find time and money limit healthy habits. If your family is on this unique parenting journey as we are, relieving stress and practicing self-care are vital to your emotional and physical health.
Below are some simple self-care techniques my family practices, saving both time and money.
Primary care providers (PCP) should be renamed self-care specialists. Cars run better with routine care and maintenance. The same is true of your body. You will be better and can serve children in your care better with routine preventative care. Your primary care provider cannot only diagnose and treat common diseases but can warn you of potential life-threatening health concerns. The two hours spent in your PCP’s office annually is time well spent on self-care and future care.
Farm, Not Factory
On a recent radio show, a doctor suggested eating food from farms, not factories. That’s the most simple “diet” rule I’ve heard! Although I’m only discussing YOUR self-care, not the eating habits of the child in your care, I do acknowledge children in care often have food anxieties that make meal time difficult.
One suggestion is to have something at every meal/snack that looks like it came straight from the farm.
Beware of pre-packaged meals with hidden ingredients and avoid hiding farm foods in casseroles of factory foods. You don’t have to spend time mixing, seasoning, dredging and frying if your goal is to make your plate look like a farm. If you’re lucky enough to live near farms or a community with a farmer’s market, ask if there are any deals for resource families.
Americans love perfectly shaped fruits and veggies found in the grocery stores, and farmers often donate tasty but imperfect produce or “misfits” to local agencies. This is a great way to save money on farm fresh foods and support local businesses.
When my husband and I were newlyweds, life was simple. We’d spend hours at the gym. After our first son was born, we kept our gym membership and our son enjoyed the mobile pack-n-play during the hour we exercised.
Shortly after our son’s birth, we welcomed our first child through foster care. We continued to work out, but found it harder to keep the 3-year-old entertained while we exercised.
With each additional kid, gym time was further limited. In 2007, the phrase “exercise snacks” was introduced by Dr. Howard Hartley in Newsweek.
The idea of a daily recommended 30 minutes of exercise, divided into 5-10 minute increments throughout the day was cautiously received.
Since then, exercise snacks have been proven beneficial. Some simple exercise snacks include a brisk walk around the parking lot while waiting for a doctor appointment, walking up and down the stairs during commercial breaks or having a dance party in the kitchen while cooking dinner. These free and quick heart-rate raising exercises might not do much for weight control but they can decrease stress, elevate your mood and reduce insomnia. And for an added bonus: exercising with your family can increase family bonding and trust.
Highs and Lows
In 2020, the pandemic affected everybody. We not only lost family members and friends to COVID but also came face-to-face with diseases of isolation including anxiety, depression, and other mental illnesses. Mental illness is a disease like diabetes, hypertension, asthma and cancer.
Just as we would encourage someone to seek medical support for these diseases, we should also encourage them to seek support for mental illness. If you’re feeling anxious or depressed, it’s vital you speak to your primary care provider.
You can also reach out for immediate help by dialing 988 or going to 988lifeline.org. This is a 24-hour suicide and crisis lifeline. Medical support doesn’t always include pharmaceuticals. Distinguishing stress from mental diseases like depression and anxiety can be hard.
Monitoring your emotional health is paramount on this unique journey. I have found journaling to be significantly cathartic — just a quick one-sentence description of my ultimate highs and lows for the day helps me be more aware of my mental temperature. Be alert to possible mental illness if it is difficult to identify your ultimate high.
Creating the Village
It takes a village to raise a child. This African proverb was written for neuro-typical children. How much more true is it for the neuro-atypical child and for the parents who care for them?
Finding a village is the only way to survive past the first year of foster parenting. There are studies revealing half of all new resource parents don’t survive the first year! Although it’s admittedly not their fault given the time and money limitations they face, agencies do a poor job developing foster villages.
Our church is a great model of a foster village. Respite and mentor families nurture and support resource families. Respite families are agency-approved families who do not accept long-term placements but can accept children for extended overnight visits.
If you’re not a member of a church which offers this type of support, you can find approved resource families through other organizations, such as your local Foster Adoptive Parent Association (FAPA) chapter. If you are taking a break from fostering and want to serve another resource family in a respite role, reach out to your church or FAPA chapter.
If you’ve ever said, “Oh, I wish I could foster but I just don’t think my husband would be OK with it” or “I would love to foster, I just don’t have the space,” you might make a perfect mentor family.
Mentor families support resource families in daily activities. Thanks to The Reasonable and Prudent Parenting Standards that were included in the 2014 federal Sex Trafficking and Strengthening Families Act, mentor families can occasionally babysit or take the kids on outings — to the park, the movies, even for a haircut. Not everyone can be a resource parent, but nearly anyone can mentor a child in foster care.
During our time with Liam, our church blanketed us with a supportive village that provided transportation, respite and meals. Highs were celebrated with pictures of smiles and lows were acknowledged in a small support group of resource parents. We enjoyed our fair share of chicken nugget meals, along with broccoli and apple slices.
Around the same time, I had my annual check-up with my PCP and I am grateful I was healthy enough to offer Liam a safe and stable home while also experiencing a healthy pregnancy and the delivery of my third child.
Self-care is not the responsibility of your agency, nor is it a luxury.
Self-care is a necessity to ensure safe and stable placements. It’s also not a cookie-cutter formula but a dynamic, evolving experiment where you get to determine what works best for you. •
Mary C. Cox is an urgent care physician associate in Marietta, Georgia. She earned a bachelor’s degree from the Georgia Institute of Technology and a master’s degree in physician assistant studies from the University of Pittsburgh. She and her husband Nathan met while attending Georgia Tech. The proud parents of three boys, the couple have been resource parents for seven years and are in the process of adopting a daughter. The family attends Woodstock City Church and has experienced unending love and support through their church’s vision in foster care. Cox’s favorite exercise snacks are kitchen dance parties and she admits to not being a great cook who loves fresh Georgia-grown fruits and veggies.