Caring for our relationships as foster and adoptive parents

This Valentines Day, adoptive mum Lucy reflects on how we can care for some of our most important relationships.

Parenting is arguably one of the hardest jobs given to humans.

The responsibility for not only sustaining the growing person in your care, but also helping them to become an active citizen who makes a positive contribution to society, can become overwhelming.

Add early life trauma into the mix – whether your child is adopted or fostered – and the challenges start to mount up further. Life can become a series of routines, lists, appointments and schedules. In addition to the daily grind of what might be termed 'predictable' childcare-related tasks, children who've had a traumatic early start to life may exhibit challenging behaviours, struggle in school, require more attention, or need more supervision than their peers.

If we are parenting as a couple, all of this leaves little time to devote to one another. Yet just as we know that we must look after ourselves if we are to be in a fit state to look after our children, so we must also look after our relationships as parents, if we are to provide the stable, secure home that our children need.

Couples who have children with additional needs (which may include attachment disorder, trauma and additional needs of adopted and fostered children) are statistically more at risk of separation or divorce, according to Relate. Although the stats are hard to pin down, one study pegged it at an 81% increase in the possibility of divorce in parents of children with what it describes as ‘emotional disturbances’. The additional challenges presented by our children, the extra time they need and the heightened stress of having to cope with difficult situations may all conspire to pull us apart as couples.

Later this year, my husband and I will celebrate the 20th anniversary of meeting for the first time. I say 'celebrate', but I doubt we'll manage more than a glass of wine and falling asleep in front of Netflix.

Our relationship looks very different from the young, childless 20-somethings who went to gigs and enjoyed overseas holidays, with plenty of time to invest in their marriage. These days we are cash-strapped and time-poor, with nights out reserved for special occasions when we can justify a babysitter, and holidays spent chasing children on rainy British beaches.

And yet it's at this point in our lives, four children and lots of wrinkles later, that we need each other's support more than ever. We're raising kids who have experienced trauma. We're balancing jobs and finances with serving at church and volunteering at our children's school.

If we're not careful, we're going to suffer compassion fatigue, and our marriage will be under even more strain. I’m sure we’re not alone. So how do we prioritise our relationships when our children require so much from us? And if adoption or fostering is something we're considering in the future, what steps can we put in place now to give our relationships the best chance of staying strong? Looking at the five love languages is a good place to start.

Words of affirmation

When so much of our language in family life is directed towards our children, or to each other about our children, or to each other about the everyday, run-of-the-mill details which keep our household going, it can be all too easy to squeeze out words of affirmation.

As parents, we know that words of affirmation build up our children. But of course, they also build us up!

Building a habit of affirmation can take time, but an easy starting point is remembering to say 'thank you' to each other for the small tasks they do for the family, whether it's making dinner, playing with a child, or putting out the bins.

This can then grow towards statements which show your partner what you appreciate about them: "I love the way you always do the thankless tasks like putting out the bins" or "You're so good at playing with our child".

And this can extend to affirming each other's positive qualities which may be nothing to do with their role as a parent: "You're really great at listening to others" or "I love your servant-hearted attitude to your difficult boss right now".

Filling each other's emotional tanks in this way will better strengthen us to be the best people, and parents, we can be.

Physical touch

Studies show that physical touch is good for us. It lowers our heart rate, blood pressure and cortisol levels – with the knock-on effect that our immune systems are less compromised, so we're less likely to become ill, and therefore better able to care for our children.

We also have less fear, are more inclined to trust, and feel better connected to one another. And when we're better connected as a couple, it becomes easier to extend this strong connection to our children, focusing on their needs and building their trust in us.

As parents of adopted or fostered children, we are likely to have to make more difficult decisions, advocate more strongly, attend more meetings and schedule more appointments than our peers who are raising their birth children. The more we give and receive physical touch, the more united we will feel, and the better able we will be to meet the additional challenges facing our families.

God has also given us the gift of sex to unite and delight a couple who have committed themselves to one another. As we become vulnerable to each other, our connection continues to strengthen, improving our communication outside the bedroom as well.

There are plenty of health benefits to sex: it can be good exercise, relieve stress, and improve your overall sense of well-being – all things which our children will benefit from too.

Finding time and energy for sex within our busy, non-stop weeks can be difficult. We have been sold a lie that sex needs to be spontaneous in order to be enjoyable, and this is pretty near impossible with children around. But when we intentionally prioritise sex – which might sometimes mean scheduling it, even though this may go against our instincts – we will find that we feel more connected and potentially better able to parent our children.

Gifts

Gifts have an important function in any relationship, but particularly for those of us facing the demands of trauma and attachment struggles in our children.

When our lives are dictated by the often unyielding routines our children require, receiving a bunch of flowers for no reason other than love, or having a surprise date (and childcare) organised by our partner helps us to know that we are valued over and above our childcare capabilities.

It is this 'breaking out' of routine which reminds us that we are adults, we can enjoy life and that we are deeply loved, rather than becoming bogged down by the limitations of our children.

The fact that our partner thought to buy us flowers when they were in the supermarket, rather than simply remember what the children needed, can do wonders for our self-esteem. And as we become more secure in our relationship with each other, we are better equipped to offer security and safety to our children.

Gifts don't have to be expensive or even frequent – in fact, I find that I appreciate them all the more because they can't happen very often. But it is worth the effort of treating each other now and again, helping you enjoy one another outside of the time you give to your children together.

Quality time

When we become parents, almost all our non-working time is shared with our children. But if our children are struggling because of a traumatic or unsettled early start to life, then we may find ourselves giving even more of our time to them in reassurance, supervision and attachment-building – not to mention school meetings or health appointments.

Prioritising quality time for each other, therefore, is vital, otherwise we may end up feeling as if all we're good for is caring for our children. We may end up resenting them and our partner because we feel undervalued.

Note that it is 'quality' that I mention here, rather than 'quantity'. It is certainly easy to begrudge the lack of time we have for each other now that we have children. But a small amount of protected, exclusive time for each other is far better than a large amount of time which is frequently interrupted. And because, as parents, we get used to doing everything in a much tighter time-frame, so it is with our times for each other: they may not be long, or frequent, but we can learn to make the most of them when they happen.

Increasingly, my husband and I find that we need to schedule in time together for it to happen! Now this might sound decidedly 'un-romantic' – but it is far better than it not happening at all.

We treat Fridays as our 'date night' – more often in than out, but with a focus on spending time together, playing a game or watching a film we enjoy. Protecting these times in our diaries means that however busy the week has been, we will still always have a few hours of exclusive time together.

This pattern won't necessarily work for you, but perhaps you can take a lunch break together while your children are at school, or even take the occasional half-day off to recharge together.

Sometimes, it will be a matter of looking at the diary and planning some protected time together, even though it could be weeks or months away. And if you're fortunate enough to have grandparents or others who can care for your children, it might be worth booking them in for a slot, to give you some uninterrupted time together as a couple.

Acts of Service

Building one another up with acts of service is an important part of expressing that we love each other, as well as our children. It is easy to perform acts of service for our children: we do that, unthinkingly, 24-7! But what does that look like for each other?

Like the other examples above, quality surpasses quantity. It might be as simple as making a cup of tea for your partner, or (my personal favourite) bringing them some chocolate after a long day.

Or it might be entertaining the children one Saturday afternoon so that they can put their feet up or go out with some friends. Often the acts of service we would like performed are not the same as our partner's, so it's worth asking (or taking hints about) what they could really do with right now.

It might be that a particular DIY job is stressing them out, and getting it completed, allowing them child-free time to complete it, or arranging for a professional to do it, will be the best way to show your partner love right now.

In this way, performing acts of service for each other – not just for our children – serves a dual purpose: it helps our partner feel loved, but it can also reduce stress or worry over that particular job or cause for concern.

Pray for, and with, each other

Above all, remember that God wants your relationship to work. Submit your desires, needs, fears and regrets to Him. Ask Him to draw the two of you together, and to give you time to devote to one another, away from your children.

You could also ask trusted friends or family members to remember you in prayer. Being open about our relationship with our church small group is a wonderful way to get others praying for us and seeing the joy of how God works within us to make us more like Him.

We will never get our relationships right 100% of the time. We – like our children – are flawed human beings, prone to selfishness, greed, laziness and pride. But as we express a desire to draw close to the one with whom we're raising our children, God will honour that desire and strengthen our imperfect union, building a firm foundation for our children to grow, and glorifying Him with our family lives.

Written for Home for Good by Lucy Rycroft.

Author:
Lucy Rycroft for Home for Good


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