Vol. 19, No. 2 • May 2015

Taking Care of Yourself While Engaging in Shared Parenting

by Donna Foster

By now you should know that I'm a big fan of shared parenting. In past issues of Fostering Perspectives I've worked hard to explain why I think this practice is good for children, good for birth families, and good for foster parents.

I believe this with all my heart, based on my own experience and the experiences other people have shared with me. That's why I'm so committed to sharing suggestions and insights that can make shared parenting go more smoothly.

But I'd be lying if I said shared parenting was easy, or that it comes naturally to everyone. In this article I'd like to offer some suggestions for taking care of yourself in the face the challenges that can come your way when you engage in shared parenting with birth families.

Step One: Pat Yourself on the Back!
There are so many terrific things you probably do on a daily basis to support shared parenting. They may include:

  • Sharing photos of the child with the birth parent
  • Creating rules and discipline ideas with the birth parent
  • Talking positively in front of/to the child about the birth parent
  • Going to school events with the birth parent

There are many other examples. These are wonderful things to do!

Recognizing your own efforts is a way to find joy in shared parenting and your role as a caregiver. So when you catch yourself doing these things, pat yourself on the back! Don't wait for someone else to notice.

In fact, take it one step further. Why not document what you do to support children's connections with their families and share it with your social worker? These are things social workers--and the birth parents--want to hear! Your worker will put what you share in your family's file for relicensing, and in the child's file.

Managing First Meetings
Before meeting the birth parents of the first child we fostered, I felt uneasy and apprehensive. How do I start a conversation with someone who may dislike me for being the foster parent of their child? How do I convince them I am here to care for their child and not to take their child? I spent hours going over the right words to use.

After years of fostering and talking to others, here are some suggestions for handling the natural anxiety you will feel before first meeting the birth parents.

  • Center yourself. When I prepared to meet a birth parent I would take deep breaths, say a prayer, and remind myself that this parent feels alone and frightened. My anxiety lessened and my empathy for them grew stronger.
  • Be sure in your heart that your job is to first help children go back home.
  • Meet the birth parents as soon as you can. The more time passes before this meeting, the more upset parents feel and the harder it is for them to trust you.
  • Be yourself. How do you greet someone you don't know? Remember the birth parent is anxious to meet you, too. Can you imagine the power of comfort behind words such as, "Hi. My name is Donna. I know you must be worried about your child. She misses you. How do you want me to take care of her until she comes home to you?" If you can use words like these--and mean them--parents will see you more as an ally and less as the enemy.
  • If parents are angry, don't take what they say or do personally. Their anger is not at you. It is at their situation. Being calm and understanding will change the birth parent's defensiveness.
  • Parents involved with the child welfare system are people with struggles. We aren't here to punish them, but to support them in parenting their children.

Coping with Co-Parenting
When fostering the children in my home, I had to remind myself daily that they were someone else's children and were going back home. I needed to be careful not to change the children's lifestyle. I didn't want them to have any trouble fitting back with their family when they reunified.

Of course, acknowledging that didn't make it easier for me. I was parenting my birth children at this same time. Life can be confusing when everyone is under the same roof!

Co-parenting can be hard. Can you be open to the birth parent's suggestions on how they would like to have their children parented?

You needn't do everything they suggest. But when you do even some of the things, pat yourself on the back. Telling the child his mother wanted you to make boxed macaroni and cheese will give comfort to the child and build higher self-esteem for the parent.

Debbie Gallimore, a foster and adoptive parent, has said, "We are here to support the birth parents, not fix them." If you do this, both child and parent will trust you more and parenting will be easier for you.

Grappling with Grief
If you foster, you will grieve. You may grieve when a birth parent misses visits and the child is upset. You may grieve because the child wants his mom and dad to become healthy but they won't accept the help they're offered. Your whole family may grieve because you love the child and they are moving from your home and maybe from your life.

Knowing you will grieve at times, how do you prepare yourself and your family? It helps to let everyone talk about their feelings. Let each one share what they need to move through the grief. Sometimes taking a break from fostering or meeting with a therapist to talk through the feelings can help.

Caring for children who need a home is an honorable thing to do. Knowing you are making this world a better place can help you through the sad times. Pat yourself on the back!

Tips for Taking Care of Yourself

  1. Have a life outside of foster care or adoption. Schedule time with your spouse/partner and friends. You deserve to laugh with adults and share hopes and dreams.
  2. Maintain your spiritual life. It will get you through the happiest and toughest times. You won't feel alone.
  3. If birth parent visits with their children can be held outside of the agency's office, try to meet in parks or other family-friendly locations. This can be relaxing for everyone.
  4. If you need a break, take it. Use the respite program in your agency. If they don't have one, lobby for one.
  5. Create healthy boundaries when working with birth families. If they want to call their child, let them know the best times for their child to talk. Don't lend them money. Lending money starts a bad habit you will regret.
  6. Keep the social worker involved. For example, if the birth parent needs housing, let the social worker handle this. You can be encouraging without doing the work for the birth parent.
  7. Remember what you are doing is very important for children and families. Adults outside of foster care and adoption may not understand why you are doing this or what it takes to do this job. Surround yourself with people who are doing what you are doing so you can support each other.
  8. Allow yourself to grieve when a child goes home or moves into adoption.
  9. Create a life book for your family with photos and stories. It can be comforting to look at your memories.
  10. Always remember to pat yourself on the back. You deserve it!

Donna Foster is an author, national trainer, and consultant who lives in Marshville, NC.

~ Family and Children's Resource Program, UNC-CH School of Social Work ~