Friday, February 13, 2015

Compassion Fatigue

The cherubs have been here long enough that it's time for my obligatory post on compassion fatigue.
Studies confirm that caregivers play host to a high level of compassion fatigue. Day in, day out, workers struggle to function in care giving environments that constantly present heart wrenching, emotional challenges. Affecting positive change in society, a mission so vital to those passionate about caring for others, is perceived as elusive, if not impossible. This painful reality, coupled with first-hand knowledge of society's flagrant disregard for the safety and well being of the feeble and frail, takes its toll on everyone from full time employees to part time volunteers. Eventually, negative attitudes prevail.
I hit a brick wall on week two. I showed up at church last Sunday, saw that Daisy was still listed as a family member in the computer there, and just about lost my shit. I sat in the back of the auditorium and cried.

I was mad that I had already asked the staff at church to remove her twice and her name was still on our family list. I was triggered because I remember what it felt like to ask the church to remove Dude and Dolly after they left. And I was exhausted from caring for the three new ones that needed to be added.

I don't care how much I feel "called" to do this thing called foster still drains me terrifically. It is no easy task to invite strangers into your home and have them wear out their welcome. I'm wiping the butts of children that I barely know. I'm tending to crying in the middle of the night because these strangers are confused, upset and miss their mommy and their other siblings. I feel physical pain when I try and process in my own mind the horrors my newest cherubs have seen and experienced.

When Daisy came there were things to "fix". Daisy needed to see all her specialists. She needed therapies and medications. I could physically do things to help her get better. The weight of her story was crippling to bear. But in some twisted way it was a little easier because Daisy's brain was so mixed up when she came, that she had no idea what was going on around her.

My new cherubs know. They know they aren't at home. They know everything is new and different. New foods. New rules. Bedtimes. Vegetables. Less TV. More books. Everything is different. I don't have anything tangible to fix. 

Sometimes it feels like the weight of their story is three times as hard to bear. Not only are there three new cherubs in my home, but I can't "do" anything to help make them better. I can only love them and safely care for them.

It hurts.

It physically hurts.

When Tinkerbell is crying in the middle of the night because she is very obviously looking for someone...and that someone isn't there...I cry. I cry for all she has lost. We cry together in the dark.

When Pirate is crying mournfully for his mommy I want to badly to scream, "She is gone! She really f'd this whole thing up. She didn't keep you safe!!" Instead I have to validate him and hold him while he cries. 

When Captain is turning the corners of his mouth down and his eyes get all glassy because something didn't go his way, I have to tell him it's OK to be mad. It's OK to be sad. I have to give him words for what he's feeling. I have to tell him it's OK to not want to be here. 

All this pain is hard for me to handle. I can only imagine how my cherubs are feeling. But this post is about me. I'm writing this post to help other foster parents recognize what they're feeling. It's more than just physical pain and fatigue. It's deeper than that.

Because I can love on these kids. And I do love on these kids. And I'm glad they're here and they're safe.

But it takes a toll on me. 

I'm tired. Physically tired from the increase in demands on me. I hurt. My chest hurts sometimes when I think about everything (literal physical pain). My mind gets foggy. I feel myself not wanting to interact with everyone. I long for solitude. I worry that I'm not giving enough attention to my forever kids and my husband.

Oh the worry.

All the professionals will tell you to "take care of yourself".

What exactly does that look like though?!

I mean really...I just added THREE young children to my family. That makes SIX kids total. Take care of myself?! How?! My shower lasts a whopping 5 minutes if I take a long one because these new cherubs wake up before the butt crack of dawn. I can't pee alone anymore without hearing my name half a dozen times hollered out by the 3yo. And bedtime can drag out forever because of crying cherubs. I wouldn't dream of using respite or babysitting yet because these cherubs need to attach to me and my core family. I can only go out alone when Mr. Amazing is home to watch the brood.

I'm trying though. These are some of the things I have been doing:

First and foremost I'm clinging to my "word of the year". Before these cherubs came, I chose the word enough for this year. It couldn't be more appropriate. I am enough. I am a good enough mom. I am a good enough wife. When I worry that dinner isn't nice enough because I don't have a fruit and a vegetable, I remind myself that we have enough food and the meal is enough. When I worry because I didn't get some paperwork filled out instantaneously, I remind myself that I have done enough and I'll get to the paperwork eventually. It's not a cop out. It's a valid reminder that I am enough and I am doing enough. If the baby wants to hold her own bottle and lie on the couch, that doesn't make me a bad mom if I don't try and force her to cuddle. I wear her. I interact with her all day long. I do enough.

Second, I'm trying really hard to eat healthy and get enough sleep. I've been crashing out (or at least going to my quiet, dark bedroom) early every single night. I put the little ones to bed. I spend some time with the bigger ones and put them to bed. Then I go retreat to my room by myself. I've stopped watching a few TV shows with my husband (and that's OK because I am a good enough wife) because relaxation and sleep are important too.

Like always, I'm relying on my personal "therapist", My Genius Sister. She's awesome! She'll give me a pep talk when necessary. She'll just listen when I need that. Or, when it's called for, she'll tell me to put on my big girl panties and just get over it. It always bums me out that she lives 1255 miles away. But she always answers her phone for me and for that I'm incredibly grateful.

My blog and FB page are also a form of therapy for me. I do enjoy immediate feedback when I post about my day or my kids. Just knowing I'm not alone in this journey is helpful.

I'm not candy-coating anything when it comes to dealing with social workers or my agency. If I think something is wrong, I'm not keeping it to myself. That too is almost a form of therapy. It feels good to just be blunt and honest with everyone.

And this past Sunday, when the emotions were overflowing and I felt like I was going to burst...I said something to my pastor. He took my number and had another staff member call me this week. Just spewing the burden of the cherubs' story to a safe person was a healthy release for me. She prayed with me and I've got a plan to set up a time to get together after visits start. (Lord knows visits aren't going to be easy and I'm going to need some extra support!)

I don't have the time or the money right now to go get a massage. I don't have a local friend I can drop everything and go out to lunch with. And my days are busy enough with homeschool and appointments that having someone just "pop in" to say hi to me might be too overwhelming. Self care can be as simple as making more eye contact. Preparing dinner at 2:00pm instead of 5:00pm. Playing my favorite music while I clean. Paying my kids extra to clean for me. Little things can make a difference.

I'm trying to do those little things so that the big stuff doesn't keep me down.

The heaviness of this case will eventually lighten to a manageable load. (Thank God!)

But in the meantime, I've got to take care of myself.

We foster parents carry the burden of our cherubs' stories. We smile and love on these kids during their darkest hours. It's not easy work. My faith is my rock. But that still doesn't keep me from feeling the compassion fatigue.

Take care of yourself. Recognize that this isn't easy and be easy on yourself.

Because in the end, foster care sucks. We're just here to make it just a little bit better.


VJ said...

I can't imagine trying to homeschool your own three and then adding three foster kids into the mix. There is no room for breaks! You are enough just by being a safe home. Anything you do on top of that is a wonderful bonus that will help these kiddos heal. I was always relieved when the county workers would ask "Are all their basic needs met in this home?" because I would be like, "Of course, they have plenty to eat and a warm bed and all their appointments made...I am just freaking out over how many grapes is too many in one day for a toddler, or how long I should let the baby cry before I pick her up, ten seconds or thirty seconds?" Seems silly when you compare to the bare minimum that is actually expected of foster parents.

Anonymous said...

Beautiful! You spoke the words that have been on my heart many times. We, as foster parents, are enough.

Cherub Mamma said...

Ah yes - the bare minimum. I can't imagine holding myself to that standard!

And just to clarify, I only HS two of my forevers. :) Herman is a senior at the high school across the street from my house. (Whew!) And TT and Bart do the same grade level work. (Double whew!)

M's Mommy said...

Thank you for sharing your heart felt thoughts, you have no idea how much you help me get through the crazy life I live in fosterland! You are making a difference in your little peoples lives, stay strong. Hugs from another Mommy

Anonymous said...

Hang in there. I'm in a situation that's so depressing and up in the air that sometimes it hard to just breathe. These kids are worthy of stability and love, and if your situation is anything like mine then you are their only option. It's true what you said about it being physically painful. Over and over. I know you're praying, I do too. I pray for strength. Emotional, physical, and spiritual. I'm going to pray for a God sent support person for you. Someone who has the gift of being able to support you without being invasive. There are so many of us, you're not alone. God bless you and your family.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for again helping children who so very much need help. For giving them words to define their emotions, for understanding their losses and confusions, for demonstrating that when things are terrible there can also be help.
Thank you also for writing the truth because otherwise it is ignored totally ... sharing a reality we as humans often want to not know or admit. I wish I could help you in concrete ways but that is not possible. So I say thank you.

girlfrog2003 said...

Thank you for posting this tonight. I needed to read this. We are nearing the end of our current placement and sending baby for longer and longer overnight visits. I worry so much about her, and it is painful when I think about it too much. Today after I dropped her off, all I wanted to do was sleep and I couldn't figure out why, but after reading your wonderful insight, I think it was just my body's way of taking a break.

Thank you for taking the time to share your stories with all of us on top of everything else on your plate.

Jessica Miller Kelley said...

Thank you for this. I needed this. I cried of shame earlier this week, feeling hateful and selfish for being upset that the special needs baby we've had for 18 months would not, in fact, be moving to her preadoptive home this weekend. The thought of keeping her till April, even after all this time, sent me over the edge. It was a wake up call to how much I needed a break, and she went to her future home for respite this weekend, so we are having some nice forever family time.

One More With Us said...

My heart hears you. I wish I could alleviate your pain. You are doing such a great job.
Foster care does take a lot out of a parent. This is truly, sincerely, honestly hard! I have only one hurt kiddo in my home (in addition to my 2 birth children), and I feel these things too. His struggles, the horror of this reality he's lived through, the times when I insert my own feelings in the mix... All of it does wear on us.
There are days when I can handle a ton. There are days when a father is too heavy.
Compassion fatigue is real. I hope you get good rest on the coming days (something miraculous, of course :) - Gloria R.

Annie said...

I think really, when they use the term "compassion fatigue" they use it to try and explain why some people refuse to give, turn their backs, don't care any longer. That is SO not you! Your fatigue is well-earned!

I HATE it when people say "take care of yourself". So easy to say....if they really wanted me to do that, they'd give me a gift card, bring a latte by, offer to do some dreary and time-consuming task here at work. By the grace of God there ARE people in my life who do those things!

But the people who click away on their heels, on their way to a country club event, chirping over their shoulder that I need to "take care of myself" really irk me sometimes. They don't have to say anything. The irksome part is that I really believe that they think by saying that they are actually doing a good deed in some way.

AW said...

I am not a foster momma. But I have been "foster curious" for sometime. I don't think our time to follow through with that is now, as my husband is not necessarily on the same page as I am. And if he were, not sure God's timing is now. But please know that I am continually inspired by your heart and viewpoint and you encourage me in my walk as a bio mother. Thank you for that and thank you for just allowing me to "not be there yet". :-)