I started on my adoption journey more than a decade ago. I can raise my hand and say if I had to do it all over again, I would put self-care first! Self-care is one of the latest buzzwords we hear all the time, but what does it really mean in this context? Simply put, it means taking care of your mental and physical health, which is essential to sustaining you through the process and helping you be the best parent possible.
Every adoption story is different, yet we have some things in common. Most of us neglect ourselves while we are laser-focused on our adoption goal. So many of us care for others—sometimes, to our detriment. Taking care of the self is the first step toward being a good caregiver.
My Introduction to Self-Care
I am the adoptive parent of a special needs child. It is the greatest honor and most challenging blessing of my life. I am a familial caregiver. I chronicled my adoption journey in the article, My Journey from Infertility to Fostering to Adoption.
There was a point where I was running on empty; I had nothing left to give. How could I care for my child if I was barely making it? It was like God was trying to tell me something and I was not listening. Experience has shown me that if I do not listen, the messages will get louder and more obvious. Fast forward a few months and, during a physical examination, I found out that I was pre-diabetic! I had always been in great health, but my body was telling me that I needed to do some things differently. This was a major wake-up call for me.
It was easy for me to advise other people to put themselves first. Now it was time for me to take a dose of my own medicine. Taking care of my mental and physical health was the foundation of being my best self for my child and me. My goal was to gradually develop and cherish Carla 2.0! I say the process was gradual because, in my opinion, real change takes time.
Learn from the Experts
On the Reframing Parents’ Self Care episode of the podcast, “reFramed by the Gladney Center for Adoption,” Lindsay Garrett, LCSW-S, Post Adoption Specialist, spoke about the importance of seeking help for your child and for yourself when you see challenges with attachment, behaviors, trauma, or anything that doesn’t feel right. We really need to be intentional about taking care of ourselves.
As an adoptive parent of a child with extensive trauma, I suffered from secondary Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Lindsay discussed parents feeling anger, guilt, or sadness. I initially responded to secondary PTSD and my son’s PTSD by coddling him. Lindsay emphasized the importance of processing these feelings.
I connected with Alexander Youth Network (AYN) for my child to attend day treatment. At the time, they were using Trauma-Focused Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (TF-CBT) to help him process his trauma. I was engaged throughout the process. I was an active participant in the sessions I attended. Most recently, I engaged AYN for intensive in-home therapy as he enters full-on puberty.
Joining in on my son’s therapy helped me, but I knew there was more work to do to take care of myself. I went to therapy weekly. My therapist used EMDR, which has recently been popularized by Prince Harry. EMDR worked wonders for me; it gave me freedom from the trauma that I didn’t think was possible.
Ask for help before or when it starts to get hard—before it becomes a crisis. I connected with a great network of mental health advocates who gently guided me through. And I found someone who could have the tough conversations with me when I needed it as well.
There are different types of self-care. Remember to do what works for you!
- Bare minimum self-care: what is the tiniest thing you can do to feel a little better? You might try listening to music, having a cup of tea, or thinking of a happy time.
- Surface self-care: These are the fun activities that may make you feel good in the moment, but the effects are not long-lasting. Examples are getting a manicure/pedicure, going on an outing with friends, or having a spa day.
- Deep or maintenance self-care: This type is psychological; it is the oxygen mask we need to breathe. Examples include physical activity, taking a break, and meditating for 5–10 minutes.
You do not have to do these activities all at one time. Target what you can handle for now and build on it. I started with therapy and progressed into physical activities. If that is not what works for you, do something else!
An Adoption Adventure with Guest, Camille Major
I spoke with Camille Major, adoptive mom and author of Oh Baby Let’s Go!: An Adoption Adventure, about adoption and how self-care played an integral part along her path to motherhood. She initially wanted to foster to adopt as a single woman who was climbing the corporate ladder. Camille learned that fostering to adopt might not be the right way to proceed since separating from a foster child was highly likely. Knowing her heart, Camille decided instead to provide respite care, but unfortunately, she received no calls. What a disappointment.
Camille restarted the process after relocating to Houston, Texas. Again, she faced more hurdles ranging from botched home visits, international business travel (which was not allowed for foster parents), and administrative mishaps. She felt like maybe adoption wasn’t in the cards for her.
Camille celebrated a milestone birthday and finally began to accept that she would live life as a single woman with no children. Just when she gave up her dream of becoming a mom, Camille spoke with a birth mom that wanted to offer her baby for adoption. Here goes Camille; in two weeks she rushed to get a home study and find attorneys in each state to handle the adoption.
Here are Highlights from Our Fireside Chat…
Carla: Hi Camille, thank you for meeting with me to discuss your adoption adventure. Let’s start off with why you chose to adopt.
Camille: Thank you for having me, Carla. I chose to adopt because I had enough love and resources to give to a child.
I know a little bit about your adoption adventure. It took 15 years for your dream to come to fruition. How do you describe self-care through your 15-year path to motherhood?
It looked like a rollercoaster! At my best self-care moment, I used vitamins/supplements, I joined a gym, I got massages, and I had a personal trainer. The focus on my physical health helped me with other aspects of my life like setting boundaries—I had to meet my trainer at a certain time, which made me stop working on time! I was no longer working outrageous hours and neglecting my health. I had accountability.
Focusing on my physical health improved my mental health. I only did 20 minutes on the treadmill, but I DID 20 MINUTES ON THE TREADMILL! I had so much doubt in my physical abilities, yet training helped me with confidence and self-esteem.
My lowest self-care moment was when I let go of training. I was stressed out and the best I could do was take medication prescribed by my doctor. Unfortunately, I neglected everything else.
I imagine that over the 15 years, you hit a few bumps in the road. Do you mind sharing one of the bumps you experienced during your 15-year journey?
Being 100% transparent, I tied motherhood to my own self-worth. When it wasn’t happening, I didn’t isolate my feelings to adoption. I felt like I could not be a mom, so what does that say about me? Not being a mom attacked my self-worth even though I was a loving daughter, friend, and colleague.
We talked about some false starts, trying to foster to adopt twice in two different cities. How did you take care of yourself during these times?
I didn’t think I needed to take care of myself because I dealt with it on an engineering level. I used my checklist. When I didn’t get a call, I reevaluated my checklist. I didn’t internalize it because I saw what I owned and what the agency owned.
It sounds like you went into the taskmaster role. It sounds like a type of self-care.
Yes, you could say that.
Bringing Baby Home
My son was an easy baby, so taking care of him was easy. I simply wasn’t prepared for the emotional journey. There were two key areas that surprised me.
First, parenting my son made me think about my younger years. I was seeing the Emotional Assistance Program (EAP) counselor for new moms and she helped normalize my feelings and validate that I was doing the right things for my son.
The past came back to the forefront. I thought I had solved all of the challenges I faced from my youth. Imagine being a new mom and revisiting the old childhood stuff at the same time. As an engineer, I’m used to using logic; but babies are the opposite of that. Getting counseling helped me process so much.
I felt like the babysitter at first, not his mom. I felt like he was only her son. I wanted that warm fuzzy feeling that goes with being a mom. I was afraid about the birth mom changing her mind and I was simply concerned about her. She was so young. I even got a counselor to talk to her. But the young lady was firm in her conviction for me to adopt this beautiful baby boy.
I shared my concerns. I talked to a neighbor who was an adoptive mom with older children. She helped me through some tough emotional times. One of the moms recommended a book that was enlightening. Saving the Dream by Vanessa Gilmore is a fictional novel that tells the story of a young woman and her decision about whether to place her baby for adoption. The book explores the life her son would live with his birth mother and the life he might have lived with his adoptive mother. The book showed me that one was not better than the other; they are just different. It convinced me that the birth mom would really be okay.
Second, I was not 100% sure the adoption would be finalized. In Texas, you have to be a guardian for six months before you can legally adopt. Social workers visited my home for six long months. And a new attorney was involved. I had to get permission to do anything. I had to have legal approval to leave the state where he was born to enter another state to pick up my mom and finally to enter our home state…to bring him home.
When did you start feeling like the baby was your son?
After my mom left, we established our “normal” routines.
Camille, what did self-care look like after the adoption was final?
I tapped into the EAP at my company and met with the counselor assigned for new moms. She helped me work through my emotions about adopting a baby so quickly and being a good mom. I also joined a new mom’s group at work. We got together to provide emotional support, suggestions, and ideas for each other. It provided a sense of community and reminded me that I’m not alone. I still attend the sessions years later.
I eventually hired a housekeeper to help keep the house clean. At first, I felt a little guilty, but I quickly found benefit in taking some tasks off my plate.
When I put the baby in daycare, the director told me to bring the baby in…even when I was off work. The director said I should take time to take care of myself. I hadn’t thought of it that way, but I definitely followed her advice! In fact, I just left from dropping my son off at daycare and I’m off work today.
Do you practice self-care alone or with others?
I sing to my son at night. It soothes both of us. We both calm down; it is almost like meditation. My son has helped with some of my healthy self-care. He wants fruits and vegetables, so I eat fruits and vegetables. He wants to play outside, so I play too.
Do you have a relationship with the birth mom now?
I started off by sharing photos and emails on a regular basis. I suggested we transition to me sending photos once a year, and she agreed. I haven’t heard from her in a few years, but I still send the emails annually. It is no longer about the birth mom; rather, I want to be able to show my son that I kept that connection going for his sake. When he is 18 years old, I will show him that I really did my best to honor the biological family.
If you had a few days’ break from your son, what would you do?
Clean up my house and sleep!
Reframing the question, if you had a clean house, what would you do?
I would go to an all-inclusive spa that provides food and has massages and all the ingredients of a great self-care retreat. They would feed me, there is a beach, and I don’t have to clean up. This would be to decompress.
What would you share with a prospective adoptive parent in terms of self-care? When you think about your 15-year journey—before and post-adoption.
I would say to use the time to prepare; not just the tactical items like putting up a crib and pictures on the wall. Do the emotional work. For example, if you are triggered by a color, work through that because your child will likely love that color. Work on whatever you need to work on to be the best person you can be. Once the baby comes, you will be so focused on his health and wellbeing that you want self-care to be a habit already formed.
What led you to write your book?
I catch the metro bus to work. It came to me on the bus one day. I am spiritual and I felt it was divine. I quickly wrote it down that morning before I started working. I intended to write it just for my son and then a friend recommended I share it with others, so I did.
My son is very literal; the adoption books we read were either sad or involved animals and he just did not get it. I read our story to him. I wanted to share a happy story that normalizes adoption. It should not be a taboo word since adoption is so common and is an important path to parenthood.
Is there anything else you would like to share?
For those that are spiritual, this is a good time to lean on your faith. If you are not spiritual, lean on whatever higher power or yourself to gain strength. When it is time for you, it will happen. If it has not happened, it’s not your time yet. I was ready to give up after hitting an age milestone and boom, it happened in two weeks. It will be divine!
Thank you Camille for your candor and insight.
You are quite welcome.
In closing, I would like to share a few thoughts about self-care and adoption:
- Give yourself permission to need help. We cannot be all things to our children all of the time (or any of the time, for that matter). We have to refuel or we will suffer. Eventually, our emptiness will negatively impact our health and our children as well.
- Start small. You can start with just 10 minutes a day that you take for yourself to pray, meditate, read, or do whatever will help you feel better.
- Self-care is not just a catchphrase. Self-care is a necessary part of life. As much as we want to believe we are “caregivers extraordinaire,” the truth is that we all have moments. Building up deposits in your self-care piggy bank will certainly help you when you need it most.
Prospective adoptive parents, you deserve to be healthy mentally and physically, and it is important to model self-care to your children! If you are an adoptive parent, it is never too late to incorporate self-care practices into your daily routine. You deserve it, and it will help you to be the best parent possible.Considering adoption? Let us help you on your journey to creating your forever family. Visit Adoption.org or call 1-800-ADOPT-98.