I could hear the flight attendant making the usual announcements as I was trying to get my two-year old daughter settled for a long flight to Portland. As a seasoned traveler, I tuned out the flight attendant. We documented our flight with a selfie.
“Ma’am,” I felt a tap on my shoulder and looked up. My face flushed red with heat as I realized it was the same flight attendant who moments earlier was making the announcements — the announcements that I just ignored.
“Yes, um…is everything okay?” I asked with an embarrassed look on my face.
“Ma’am, I just wanted to remind you that in case of an emergency, please put the oxygen mask on yourself before placing one on your daughter,” she firmly, but kindly reminded me.
“Oh, yeah, I know!” I said. I looked around and noticed I was the only parent who got the admonition. However, I think something about me must have screamed that I needed the extra reminder. It is so counter to what I would be inclined to do as Lydia’s mommy, that I whispered it to myself once more, “Mandy, put the oxygen mask on yourself first.” What caught me off guard even more than the tap on my shoulder, was the tears that began pouring down my face. Eyes swollen, the tears reminded me that in life, I was not putting the oxygen mask on myself first…or second…or even third. I was so tired.
Fast forward two weeks later, I rushed to teach a night class at the university looking less “put together” than typical (meaning I went to work with wet hair). That night, my students were presenting key lessons they learned during their mentoring experiences. I love how the Lord often uses my college students to teach me profound lessons. A student of mine stood in front of the class and told us about this conversation she had with a student she was mentoring. The student talked to the mentor about how self care should never be in the optional lane. I wrote that down. Mandy, self care should never be put in the optional lane. It sunk in. Self care wasn’t even in my optional lane, I had self care in the ditch.
Honestly, I think there are a lot of us who put self care in the ditch. We say, “Oh, yeah, I know I need to put the oxygen mask on myself first” but then our actions show otherwise. We are tuning out the flight attendant. Taking care of ourselves can feel selfish, but in order to serve, in order to disciple and shepherd our children with patience, nurture, and care, in order to make stressful decisions about medical care, in order to show that we are safe, trustworthy, and predictable, we must make self care a habit.
My family cocooned strictly for at least six months because our unique family situation needed it, and in fact, we still keep our life simple and our world small. Our adoption agency did a great job at teaching us all about attachment and bonding. But, there was one topic missing from the excellent training we received: the importance of self care and what that looks like when newly home and later. I think most parents (especially moms) need help with self-care, but, I think special needs adoption adds unique dynamics that make self care that much harder and important. Deborah Gray (2012), in her book Attaching in Adoption states, “If the parents get too tired to provide nurture, children cannot do well…Parents often implement a program of self-care when they are already too burned out” (p. 307).
When I get too tired, when I fail to take time to practice self care, I forget many of the important techniques I have learned from Dr. Purvis and other attachment experts, and revert to my stressed mommy mode. When people are under stress and tired, we often neglect to rely on important lessons we have learned. My stress mode magnifies aspects of my personality that I do not like. My voice gets strained. I sigh deep sighs that are absolutely unnecessary and quite annoying. I am not as patient as I know I need to be. I am not as patient as I want to be. When I am on “empty,” I cannot help my family move forward. I have learned that I do better, and my entire family does better when I say yes to taking care of myself on a weekly basis. It took time for me to realize that my need for sleep and time away was not a weakness, but part of me being human.
Recently I talked with my husband about making self care a priority, and he reminded me that even though I have one of the most rewarding roles in society, it is also really demanding. There are aspects of motherhood that are simply hard work and draining. In my professional work, when I need a break, I do not go to the office to rejuvenate. No, that’s more work. Because of this, I have carved out a little time each week where I go and do something that nourishes me. This appointment on my calendar is just as important as a doctor’s appointment or a client meeting. I often found myself canceling my “self care” time to do something for my family. Now, I ask myself, “If this same situation happened, would I cancel the appointment with one of Lydia’s specialists?” If the answer is “no,” then I keep my appointment for taking better care of Mandy. It is about my wellness and my family’s wellness too.
During the first few months home, we were all simply surviving. So I imagine that some of you who are just home are wondering how in the world you can implement ideas from this post when you are still in the trenches. For us, I could not take time away when my daughter was awake because of bonding and attachment. Talk to your social worker and see what he or she recommends. Below are some of the ideas I implemented:
- Took my daughter for long walks outside in the fresh air
- Went to late night movies with my dear friend after Lydia was in bed
- Dinner with my adoptive momma friends – no matter what I was processing, they were encouraging and receptive
- Napped when my daughter napped to catch up on sleep
- Asked trusted friends to help me by going grocery shopping for me – one even cleaned out my refrigerator
- Precious friends brought us nourishing meals for six weeks
- We brainstormed nighttime sleeping solutions with our international adoption doctor – these solutions helped all of us get more sleep
- Hired someone to clean my home each week
- Doing yoga with my two-year old daughter – we still do this several times a week and it adds so much laughter to my day and calms both of us.
In her book, Attaching in Adoption, Deborah Gray shares helpful ideas for self care that can be implemented at any time. One of the best ideas is called “fifty pleasures.” She encourages parents to create a list of fifty activities or things that bring pleasure. For example, my list included taking a hot bath with lavender, watching my favorite TV show, exercising, drinking iced soy lattes, eating Thai food, kissing my husband, walking on the trails in my small town, going to the farmers market, swimming in the pool, yoga, listening to the crickets chirp, drinking a glass of wine while sitting on the back porch with my husband, eating healthy, listening to classical music, drinking a cup of hot tea, reading a book, swinging with my daughter at the park, laying in my hammock, etc. Gray encourages the reader to place a check mark next to the item each time you do it every week (you can repeat items multiple times), and by the end of the week, you should have fifty checkmarks. This has been a really helpful exercise for me.
Now that we have been home almost a year, I take time each week to do something a bit indulgent for myself. Gray states that “indulging” yourself is “part of good self-care” (p. 309), and it is not narcissistic or selfish. We moms aren’t the best at indulging ourselves. So, I’ve given myself permission to enjoy activities I never would have without the guilt. I went to a Katy Perry concert with my sister (and we both wore pink wigs and danced like silly teenagers). I go see movies by myself or with a friend. I get acupuncture or a massage. I go to a coffee shop and read a book for pleasure. Next month, I am going to Created for Care, an adoptive and foster mom retreat. And each week, my husband and I get away for a date night.
When my daughter asks why she has to go to sleep, I often tell her it is because we make better choices when we are rested and it is easier to be gentle, kind, and patient. The same goes for parents. By taking time to practice self-care, we can model for our children healthy self-care and boundaries.
So imagine a flight attendant has tapped you on the shoulder. Are you putting the oxygen mask on yourself first? Have you put self-care in the optional lane or in the required lane? What are simple pleasures that you could incorporate each week? Are you treating time for self-care as important as a doctor’s appointment? When we are on empty, our families cannot move forward.