Parenthood is stressful. We love the little darlings, but they can put a major strain on the marriage. This is especially true if our child has special challenges from being exposed to alcohol or drugs during pregnancy or was adopted at an older age and carries the baggage of abuse and neglect. What’s the trick to staying happily married when adopting or fostering children from hard places.
An all too typical pattern in adoption (and in marriage in general) is for one parent to take the lead in becoming educated about adoption, the challenges, and the type of parenting these children respond to best. Often this same parent has been the “pusher” or “moving force” behind the adoption. Often this parent is the mother. This doesn’t bode well when the challenges of adopting or fostering hit.
It’s not helpful at this point to say that the non-educated, non-pusher parent (usually the father) needs to have been educated and supported before you reach this point. That ship has already sailed. So what to do when you feel your marriage fraying under the pressure of adopting or fostering a child that has experienced trauma?
I asked this question to Dr. Karyn Purvis, author of The Connected Child, and the founder and Director of the TCU Institute of Child Development on a Creating a Family Radio show about Raising and Healing Abused and Neglected Kids. In typical Dr. Purvis fashion she had some very specific and practical advice, with a few comments of my own thrown in for good measure.
Tips For Staying Happily Married When Adopting/Fostering
- Make time for each other. It is crucial to nurture your marriage while parenting. Nurturance takes time and it takes intention. You must schedule time to be with your spouse as a spouse, rather than as a parent discussing the kids, the house, life’s problems. I believe a weekly “Date Night” may just have saved my marriage. It doesn’t have to be at night and it doesn’t have to cost money, but it does have to happen. Find time to do an activity you both enjoy and make a point to schedule time to do it on a regular basis. Dr. Purvis suggested taking a walk together regularly. Bottom line: find a way to have fun together again.
- Model what works. Rather than telling your partner how to do things, show him. If it works to improve your child’s behavior and lower his anxiety, your spouse will see it. Sometimes our words get in the way.
- Who should educate? You do have to talk about the kids, but often the not-as-involved parent feels ambushed by these conversations which are full of what needs to be done or how he isn’t doing things right. Is it possible that someone other than you would be better at helping to educate your spouse? Would he attend your child’s therapy session and hear from the therapist what works best? Would he listen to the many Creating a Family radio show/podcasts on parenting children who have been abused and neglected during his commute to work or while he works out?
- Double up on self-care. Parenting is hard work, and worrying about your marriage is even harder. You are under a lot of stress and stress makes many (all?) of us difficult to live with. You owe it to yourself and to your marriage to take care of yourself. What you need is individual to you, but for most of us includes regular exercise, enough sleep, and something to look forward to each day—a good book and time to read, a trip to Starbucks by yourself, an occasional massage, a small tub of Ben & Jerry’s Cherry Garcia, or a night out with your friends.
- Show some compassion. The biology of most mothers leads them to want to nurture their children and figure out how to meet their children’s needs. The biology of most fathers leads them to want to protect their family. The continual chaos that can happen when adopting or fostering a child who is struggling with the aftermath of abuse and neglect makes many dads feel powerless. Powerless is a lousy place to be, and many fathers just give up. Understanding the reasons why, goes a long way to lowering your frustration. [I struggled with the gender stereotyping in this piece of Dr. Purvis’s advice, but I have to admit that it rings true.]
Other Creating a Family Resources You Really Should Read:
- Do Adopted Kids Need to Be Treated with Kid Gloves
- Walking the Tightrope in Adoptive Parenting (is something an “adoption issue” or normal development?)
- Preparing for the Worst-The Problem with Adoption Education