Thursday, October 5, 2017

Avoiding Burnout

Last night I went to a foster care training which touched upon compassion fatigue.  Compassion Fatigue is a term that was initally coined in the 1950s after studying some of the occupational hazards unique to the nursing profession.  (That little fact wasn’t shared at the training, but since I am nerdy I googled some of the studies and research about compassion fatigue afterwards.)  Compassion fatigue can also be known as “burnout” and is related to secondary traumatic stress.   Here is an official Merriam-Webster definition of compassion fatigue:

Medical Definition of compassion fatigue


:the physical and mental exhaustion and emotional withdrawal experienced by those that care for sick or traumatized people over an extended period of time


  • Some researchers consider compassion fatigue to be similar to posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), except that it applies to those emotionally affected by the trauma of another (eg, client or family member) rather than by one's own trauma.
  •  —Michael K. Kearney et al.,  The Journal of the American Medical Association,  18 Mar. 2009


  • One of the most interesting facts I learned at the training was the risk factors contributing to compassion fatigue.  And since I’m in student mode right now, I jotted them down on paper.
    Our trainer sited these three risk factors for developing compassion fatigue:

    Being FEMALE.  (Females are more likely to develop compassion fatigue than their male counterparts.)

     -Being an EMPATH by nature.

    -  Having UNRESOLVED TRAUMA.

    I don’t know which particular study was the reference for these three risk factors (hence my aforementioned Googling), but they totally make sense to me.

    I’d like to briefly examine each of these factors. 

    As to the first risk factor:  The “being female” factor seems like a given.  At the risk of sounding sexist, it appears that certain helping professions- such as nursing and social work- seem to statistically have a lot more women than men employed.  Although I do admit I have had some great post-op nurses who were male.

    The majority of foster parents I know are also female- whether their marital status is single and they’re doing all of the fostering without a partner or spouse or if they are married, most times the female is the primary caregiver in providing foster care, which is why I have to have twelve hours of in-service training a year to renew my foster care license and my husband only has to complete four hours. 

    As to being empathetic by nature- totally makes sense.  What person is going to decide to go through the process of becoming a foster parent (or a social worker or a nurse) if they aren’t empathetic by nature?  It just seems like a logical fit; people choose those professions because they are natural helpers and they care about others.  Case in point: How many foster parents or social workers go into that line of service or work because they are motivated to make loads of money?  (That comment was both rhetorical and highly sarcastic).

    As for the third factor, having unresolved trauma, I ABSOLUTELY see how that could be a risk factor leading to increased burnout, especially in the case of fostering.  If someone had an abusive home life growing up or even if they had a relatively safe and stable home life but have had an experience of bullying or sexual assault it seems more than likely that having a child in their home who has been through similar victimization circumstances will bring up some triggers. 

    I think the keyword in the phrase “having unresolved trauma” is the word unresolved.  Because who hasn’t experienced trauma, right?  Very few people go through life unscathed.

    A large part of discussion at the training was, inevitably: What are we doing as foster parents to prevent burnout?  I think that answer can be summed up in two words: self-care.  And while self-care is going to look different to everyone- one person may use running or physical activity as their preferred form of self-care while another may prefer relaxing in a bubble bath, whatever works for you is necessary. 

    It’s also interesting to me as both a foster parent and a graduate student of social work that my professors- just one semester into our program- have continually stressed the importance of self-care as well as exploring and resolving, if necessary, any unresolved personal issues we may have in order to not get “triggered” when working with clients in similar circumstances.

    Another topic the training I attended last night touched upon was the impact that fostering can have on a marriage and also on the other children in the family.  This is a topic which could be worthy of a whole separate post or two! [I’m making a mental note of that].

    I guess the bottom line is that it is ESSENTIAL to take care of yourself first before you can take care of anybody else.  (Ironically, this counsel is coming from the woman who got her kids fed, bathed, and out the door for school by 8:30, but who still hasn’t taken a shower herself an hour later.)  But that’s totally okay, because for me, personally, writing (while wearing my sweats) is part of my self-care/unwinding/processing “me time” regimen.

    Thursday, September 14, 2017

    I Miss My Birth Mom

    I have learned that some of the absolute WORST things to hear when you are suffering and have attempted to share what you're feeling with someone is: "But you shouldn't feel that way." or anything to the effect of "But it's in the past, can't you just get over it?" (Even if it's not stated that way but implied).

    Such statements are entirely invalidating and not helpful in the least.  Plus, do you think that someone who hears those replies is going to be willing or even have the desire to confide in others in the future?

    I had an experience earlier this year in which my oldest daughter (10 years old) was triggered by something that led her to tell me, with tears in her eyes, "I miss my birth mom."  I have to admit that my first reaction was to think, "But how can you miss her when we don't even have a very open relationship with her?"  [What I mean by that is if a child has a very open relationship with their birth parents and sees them on occasion then it would make sense for them to say "I miss my birth mom or birth dad." But what about situations where the adoption is closed or only semi-open?  How can they "miss" someone if they don't even have a face-to-face, personal relationship with them?]

    I kept my thoughts to myself and consciously focused on my daughter's needs.  I recognized that this issue wasn't about me but about her.  


    Some of the things I could offer up my daughter as I listened to here were "I'm sorry you're feeling that way." and "You know, I've never been adopted so I don't know what it's like to feel what you're feeling- I bet it's hard."  Later, she used that line with me and said, "You've never been adopted so you don't know how I feel!"  I suppressed a smile and agreed wholeheartedly.

    I also admit that I have not always handled my reactions to my children's concerns as well as I would like.  Because who likes to see their kids suffering, right?  Sometimes it's not so much that I want to take away their suffering as that I want to "fix" the root of their suffering. So, since we're speaking about adoption related issues, I have on more than one occasion told my oldest daughter when she's expressed curiosity/loss about not knowing who her birth father is, "Well, at least you were adopted domestically and you know at least one of your birth parents.  Some kids who were adopted internationally or who were raised in an orphanage might not even know who either of there birth parents are!"  My intent in saying that was to get my daughter to look on the bright side and frame things in a positive way- but really, as helpful as my intentions could be, to tell any adoptee to "look on the bright side" could be very invalidating and translated to mean, "Your loss isn't that bad- it could be worse."  Again, not helpful to someone who is hurting.

    I listened to my daughter and let her own her feelings but I have to admit- I still kind of wanted to "fix" things and make them all better- or if not making things "all better" at least doing something proactive about the situation.  I did offer up a suggestion that she write a letter to her birth mother. She was very excited to do so but I did oversee her and looked over the letter to make sure it was fairly neutral with content about what she's been up to lately, how school is going, etc. rather than asking "Why did you place me for adoption?"   That is a delicate and complicated question which will inevitably come up, but it is best to wait for her birth mother and her to have that conversation together in the future.  

    Now here's the tricky thing about navigating open relationships with birth parents: As an adoptive mom I can invite and share with my children's first families all that I want (or conversely, restrict contact between my children and their birth families), but I can never FORCE a relationship.  In my oldest daughter's case, her birth mother has been very respectful of our boundaries and as the role my husband and I have as M's parents.  We don't feel threatened sharing a child with her or feel that we are any "less" M's parents because she has another mom.  However, sometimes for my daughter's sake I wish that our semi-open adoption were a bit more towards the open side- which is funny because a decade ago the thought of having to share a child with another set of parents really bugged me and kind of freaked me out!

    Long story short: M sent the letter to her birth mom (an actual old-fashioned letter mailed with a stamp- not just an email) and since the ball was in her birth mom's court now- so to speak- we just had to wait and see how things were reciprocated.  It was heartbreaking to witness M eagerly look forward to receiving a letter back in the mailbox day after day when none came.  The puzzling thing to me was that M's birth mom messaged me and told me how much she appreciated the letter and that she would be sending a reply.  But the reply was postponed and weeks turned into months.  Later, M's birth mom messaged me again and confessed that the reason she hadn't sent anything was because she was "struggling with the words to say".  Totally understandable!

    The good news is that M's birth mom did eventually send a letter including some beautiful pictures of her family.  (The resemblance between M and her biological half-sisters is always fascinating for me to see).  I don't need to go into more details because that is M's and her birth mother's story to share. Needless to say, I was very relieved for my oldest daughter that her contact with her birth mom was both welcome and reciprocated.  What a relief for me and what a blessing for my daughter.

    Friday, August 25, 2017

    Back to School

    I am perpetually behind in my blogging endeavors.  And the most frustrating part about this is that I constantly have three to four posts brewing in my mind at one time which I would love to write down.  But life tends to get busier rather than less busy.  Because of this, I must apologize in advanced because I do not know how much time I will be able to devote to this blog over the next three years as I am going BACK TO SCHOOL!

    My husband just (as in weeks ago) successfully finished completing his graduate studies over the past couple of years and now it's my turn!  I was delighted to be accepted into a graduate program of Social Work earlier this year.  I begin my coursework next week and two advantages to my particular program are that it is part-time and the campus is not far from my home so I will still be able to devote my time to being a mom to young children and, perhaps, to taking a foster placement or two.

    "So what do you plan on doing with a degree in social work?" some of you might be asking.  Great question!  One thing I can tell you without equivocation is this: I'm not entirely sure yet. 😉

    I have always had an interest in social work (although that technically wasn't the field of study I got my undergraduate degrees in) and although child welfare and foster care and adoption are obvious interests to me I have been surprised to learn from LCSWs and students of social work that a degree or license in social work is actually quite flexible.  So, hypothetically speaking, say I did start working in the field of child welfare and got burnt out after a couple of years (Foster parents understand the concept of burn-out- am I right?)- I wouldn't have to stay there forever.  I could switch over to hospital social work or counseling or even teaching, for example.  A generalist approach definitely has its advantages.

    I am excited to go back to school- not just to learn but to put into practice the skills I learn and to get some professional experience since part of my degree and licensure completion will certainly involve field work and practicum experience.
                                         Graduation GIF - Find & Share on GIPHY
    Me (Hopefully) Three Years From Now!

    Tuesday, April 25, 2017

    Sometimes It's Hard to Say No

    Today I got a phone call from our Resource Family Consultant (the caseworker in charge of working with foster parents to place children in their home).  He was asking me about a child who was a long-term placement possibility that needed a home as soon as possible.  I grabbed a pen and sheet of paper and started taking notes as he informed me of things like:

    -sex of the child, age of the child, reason for removal, if the case was headed towards adoption or reunification, how often visits with the child's birth parents would be and at which DCFS office, any previous histories the family has had with DCFS, any medical or behavioral issues with the child, if there are relatives who are possible kinship placements for the child, date of the next court hearing, etc.

    Sometimes when I get "the call" our RFC doesn't have a lot of information because the case is still so new or the CPS investigation is just getting started.  In this particular case, our caseworker actually had quite a bit of information on hand and I only had to ask a few clarifying questions for more information.  After I felt I had enough information I told him I'd get a hold of my husband to talk things over and then get back to him as soon as possible.

    As soon as possible- that's the crazy thing about fostering!  You volunteer to take a child into your home at a moment's notice- most of the time not knowing if this child will be staying with you for just a week until they can be placed with relatives or for several months or keeping in mind the possibility that this child could become a part of your family permanently if things don't work out with their family.  No pressure, right?

    I immediately called my husband, eager to pass on the information to him and get his feelings on the matter.  Of course I wasn't able to get a hold of him right away which just made me more antsy!  In the meantime, I was mentally planning which bedroom this child would sleep in, how I would work out carpool schedule for transporting them to their school, which days would work best for taking them to weekly visits and doctors appointments, etc. 

    Eventually I did get a hold of my husband and he gave me his input after I passed on what I knew about the case.  I contacted our RFC with another concern/question which was answered and then talked it over once again with my husband.

    An hour and five minutes after first answering the phone about a possible placement I called our RFC back and hesitantly told him "No."  And I felt guilty of course- and a little let down from the previous hour's adrenaline rush and possibilities.  Of course, our caseworker was fine with my answer which he needed right away so that he could move on and find another foster family.

    It's not that I can't say "no" to potential foster placements- [cue Ado Annie's I'm Just A Girl Who Cain't Say No for any musical theater fans out there] it's just that sometimes it's so hard to know that there is a child out there who needs a safe and loving home and we have the room but we have to turn them away.  I have said "no" before to placements for various reasons:

    -The timing isn't good for our family.  (It's not that anytime is a necessarily "convenient" time to have a foster child placed in your home, but sometimes life can be extra hectic and adding one more major change would not be wise)

    -The decision isn't unanimous.  I may feel alright about saying yes to a placement, but if my husband doesn't agree then I need to respect that the same as he would respect if I said "no" even if he felt good about a placement.

    -It just doesn't feel "right".   This reason is hard to explain because it's not logical- it's just a gut feeling that, for whatever reason, this placement just doesn't feel right for our family.

    -Sometimes we need time to focus on our own children's needs before bringing in any additional children into our home.   I would hate to risk somehow neglecting or overlooking the needs or desires of my own children by focusing so much on someone else's child.  What if one of my children became resentful?  Most of the time our oldest daughter is just fine or even excited about the prospect of taking another foster placement but each child in a family will have differing perspectives.

    -There might be a behavior in a potential foster placement that could clash with the needs or safety of our own children.   Pretty self-explanatory.

    So, as you can see, there are valid reasons for saying "no" to foster placements.  But it still doesn't make it easier!  My husband is always quick to remind me that if we say "no" there are other families available and that I can't "save them all" (his words).  I also know, deep down, that saying "no" is better than saying "yes" if it could result in a disrupted placement.

    Speaking of having a hard time saying "No"- I'm just curious to see if there are any other foster parents/carers out there who happen to be ISFJ's based on Myers Briggs personality inventory.  If so, these traits might seem familiar: