Maintaining Solid Marriages
When Foster Parenting
by John DeGarmo, Ed.D.
Sadly, many marriages suffer during the foster process. When you are putting much of your energies and time into your foster child, you may be so drained and exhausted that you soon neglect your spouse. Further complicating this, some foster children are skilled at pitting one parent against the other, bringing some heated and unproductive arguments to your home. Without a doubt, there are many obstacles that can challenge a healthy marriage when becoming a foster parent. To be sure, being a foster parent will change your life, in so many ways. Therefore, it will be absolutely necessary that you take steps to protect your marriage from any of the slings and arrows that might threaten your foster parenting, and your marriage.
Commitment from your family. As we saw earlier, it is most important that you and your spouse are both in agreement when it comes to being a foster parent. There will be times when you will rely upon your spouse for help, strength and decision making. Furthermore, if you have other biological and adopted children of your own living with you, you will also need them to be supportive and on board with your decision to care for foster children. Your children may have concerns. Perhaps they are worried that they will have to share you with their new foster sibling. They may resent that there is a new person joining their family. Ask them to share their feelings with you, and listen to what they have to say. Reassure your own children that you will always be there for them. You will also want to plan on setting aside some special time for just you and your own children, as they will need time alone with you during your fostering.
Time for your marriage. All marriages need both partners to put work into it, in order for the marriage to be a healthy one. Therefore, it is necessary that you spend some alone time with your spouse as often as possible. Perhaps schedule a date night once every two weeks, or once a month. If you are like my wife and I, and it is simply not possible, perhaps a lunch together, a walk in the neighborhood with the two of you, or another activity that allows the two of you to have some private time together would work. This time alone is important, as you can share your concerns, desires, hopes and wants, not only as a foster parent, but as a married couple. Another way to spend time together is by closing the bedroom door once a week, grabbing some snacks and food, and watching a movie in bed together. Work to make your marriage the cornerstone of your home, and work to make it a productive and happy one.
Take time for yourself. Don’t neglect who you are and what makes you special. After all, your spouse fell in love with you for who you are. Try to engage in your hobbies and interests as often as you can. Go out to lunch with friends. Read some books for enjoyment or for self-help. Don’t forget some personal quiet time, as well. For me, I often find this as I drive to and from work. I am amazed how lovely silence sounds when I turn off the radio, and allow my thoughts to wander. I also use this time for prayers, as well. If you keep yourself happy and in a good mood, it will help to ensure that you are in a better mood and spirits for your foster child, spouse and others.
Communication is key! Any good marriage is built on strong communication. In fact, many experts say it is the most important tool you can use for your marriage. Be open and honest about your feelings with your spouse, and do not hide things from your partner. If something is bothering you, share this concern with your loved one. When your spouse is sharing his or her concerns with you, be sure to listen; simply listen. For women, this is much easier. I have found that I have to work on my listening skills with my wife, as I am like most men. I want to be able to fix her problem as soon as she tells me. I have learned that this is not always what she wants. Instead, she simply wants me to listen to her.
When you are having an open and honest conversation with your spouse, make sure there are no distractions around. Turn the TV, radio, computer and phone off. Try to find some place where you will be uninterrupted by children. Perhaps behind locked doors in your bedroom. In my home, we have had plenty of little foster children simply walk in our room unannounced. Also, ensure that you are giving your spouse eye contact during the conversation. Make sure that you never ridicule or become defensive by what your spouse has to say. Instead, remain patient and compassionate, even if the conversation is a difficult one. Furthermore, try to make sure that you are more positive than negative in your comments. As noted earlier, try to create alone time as often as you can with your spouse, as this will help greatly in your communication.
Work together to be in agreement. I was pleasantly surprised just a few weeks ago when my 14-year-old foster son said to my wife and me, “You two are the nicest people I have ever met. You never raise your voice at each other, and never argue.” Despite the fact that he had been living with us for more than a year, he was incorrect on one thing; my wife and I do argue on occasion. It’s normal for married couples to argue once in awhile. When we do, we make sure that it is never in front of the children, and that we ensure that our disagreements are not personal, mean spirited or offensive. Furthermore, we both try to make sure that our arguments are relevant to the conversation and to the issue at hand, and that they are temporary, instead of being drawn out over time. When it comes to issues of child rearing, discipline and other issues that relate to our foster parenting, it is necessary that you and your spouse try to be in agreement with these issues. Be willing to be flexible, and overlook small and minor disagreements.
Do not let the children’s behavior separate the two of you. As we noted earlier, there are those children who will test you and your relationship with your spouse. Some foster children, like all children, know how to manipulate one parent over the other. Remain united with your spouse, and make sure that you do not allow a foster child to come between you. Along with this, do not take your foster child’s behaviors personally. Keep in mind that his or her behavior is a learned one, probably from the environment that he or she came from previously. Your foster child is behaving the way he or she was taught and allowed before coming to live with you. Do not let the child’s behaviors affect you and your marriage.
Use resources and find help. If you are like me, you like the process of learning new things. I truly enjoy learning as much about a topic that I am interested in as possible, and seek out resources and information to help me better understand something I want to know more about. We all do the same with our personal interests and hobbies, as it makes us knowledgeable and proficient at something we enjoy. For foster parents, there is an explosion of information being released, each day it seems, related to foster care. New books, websites, articles and other resources are becoming available on a larger scale than ever before. When you seek out and locate help and resources about all things foster care, you become a stronger foster parent, and thus help to strengthen your marriage, as well.
Finding support in your support groups. Perhaps the best thing I did after going through my initial training as a foster parent was to join my local foster parent association. This group of foster parents, all living in my area, comes together each month for a number of reasons. To begin with, we have training each month, in order to keep our hours of foster parenting up to date in our state. Along with this, we offer each other support and resources, sharing with each other our wisdom from previous experiences as well as a listening ear. Finally, I believe the reason I enjoy the meetings the most is the fellowship that is offered at the meetings. No one really understands a foster parent like another foster parent. We can laugh and cry at stories, as well as look for guidance from others who have experienced similar situations.
Not only can you find support from a local foster parent association, but there are also great state-led organizations, as well. Along with this, the National Foster Parent Association is a wonderful nationwide support group of foster parents that brings together foster parents and advocates from across the country. There are also faith-based groups and organizations that support foster children and foster parents. A supportive group for your journey and work as a foster parent will help to relieve some of the stresses that threaten to overcome your marriage.
The opportunity of respite care. There are those times when we will all require a short-term break from a foster child. This break may be the result of the possibility of traveling on vacation outside of the state, a temporary move into a new home, or that our own birth children require some much needed time with us, their parents. Perhaps, you and your spouse simply need a little time to yourselves, before you become too burned out from exhaustion. Other foster parents are often used for respite, as they are officially licensed to look after foster children, and will be reimbursed for the interim that the foster child is placed in their home, during the short break. Respite is not often used by foster parents, yet it is a great opportunity for those foster parents who just need time away for a little bit. If your marriage is under duress, and you feel like you can’t continue much further, you might wish to consider this option.
If we do not take care of ourselves, you and I as foster parents, we may become filled with anxiety, grow weary and face burnout. To be sure, I have experienced those feelings, at times, as well. Just recently, we went through a one-year stretch of nine children in my own home, I grappled with my own burnout. Yet, when I took the steps discussed above, they helped to alleviate much of the stress and anxieties that were on the verge of overwhelming me. When we do take time for ourselves, for our marriage, and our own children, we not only help ourselves and our family, we also help the foster children living in our homes. May you all take time for yourselves, and may you all continue to care for children in need.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: John DeGarmo, Ed.D., has been a foster parent for 12 years, now, and he and his wife have had more than 45 children come through their home. He is a speaker and trainer on many topics about the foster care system, and travels around the nation delivering passionate, dynamic, energetic and informative presentations. He is also a foster parent coach, working with you and your family on a personal level. DeGarmo is the author of several books, including the new book “Keeping Foster Children Safe Online,” “The Foster Parenting Manual: A Practical Guide to Creating a Loving, Safe and Stable Home,” and the foster care children’s book “A Different Home: A New Foster Child’s Story.” DeGarmo is the host of the weekly radio program Foster Talk with Dr. John, He can be contacted at drjohndegarmo@gmail, through his Facebook page, Dr. John DeGarmo, or at his website, http://drjohndegarmofostercare.weebly.com.
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