“Six kids? You guys probably don’t get out much.” We hear that all the time.
Truthfully, no matter how many children are involved, parental self-care and relationship maintenance often fall by the wayside when seemingly “more urgent” life concerns intrude.
In our house, these concerns include the many responsibilities involved in raising half a dozen children, four of whom have significant emotional, behavioral, and developmental challenges due to a very unstable childhood characterized by neglect, homelessness, multiple caregivers, and a final traumatic entry into formal foster care when the oldest was nine and the youngest was two.
However, we brought these children into our home to give them a chance for stability and healing, and we want to provide that first of all with stable caregiving and healthy relationship modeling—showing adult connections that are loving, supportive, forgiving, and nurturing.
Staying with them, and staying together. Refusing to be divided. Refusing to give up on our love for each other. Refusing to put anything—or anyone, no matter how small, cute, angry, and needy—ahead of family well-being.
In her parenting guide Raising Adopted Children, Lois Ruskai Melina says it this way—“[If] the marital relationship is neglected, it will eventually need critical attention, leaving [parents] with little energy with which to nurture their child.”
Conversely, when parents care for themselves, everybody wins.
With that in mind—we do get out. Much.
Our family’s special needs require advance planning, tight routine, and intentionality with the budget, but my husband and I have made weekly date nights a non-negotiable priority from the moment our children moved in and initiated takeover proceedings.
There has been a learning curve, but by following these steps, our family has reached a point where our babysitters rarely encounter behavioral problems, making our date nights mostly stress-free.
#1. Find a regular sitter
Whenever possible, our children need structure and consistency from all their caregivers, including respite workers.
A regular babysitter learns the household routines, develops an understanding of each child and his/her triggers/hangups, and reduces anxiety-related behavior problems when the parents are away.
Look for a person with experience or training managing people with mental and emotional struggles, if possible—local universities are full of aspiring social workers, teachers, counselors, pastors, therapists… and all of them can use some extra cash.
If you can’t find a recommendation through a friend, coworker, or professor you trust, begin by using professional services that run background checks on their sitters (a requirement for sitters of foster children).
We used an online site called SitterCity to find and negotiate terms with our first sitter, who showed up like clockwork every Monday for more than a year while she finished her graduate degree in family therapy.
By the time she graduated and moved on to full-time work, our adoptions were finalized and we had found additional babysitter options from among our relational connections, although we still call her in a pinch.
Generally, we find family members (grandparents, aunts, cousins) to be well-intentioned but unreliable babysitters, because they have trouble accepting money from us and therefore feel free to cancel at any time.
Also, depending on your particular family dynamics, trying to “train” grandma and grandpa (or other relatives) to do things a certain way with your kids can introduce relationship complications and tension that you don’t need.
#2. Pay well
A healthy rate of compensation motivates your babysitter to return.
Even though it may take some time to iron out behavioral snags on date nights, a well-paid sitter will be willing to work with your family not just because of the money, but because by paying her well you express your appreciation for her trouble and acknowledge the difficulties of managing your children.
Remember that you budget for other things, and a regular date night is no less a priority than a buying a regular cup of coffee, ordering pizza, and shelling out for a new pair of boots—no less a priority, even, than buying groceries or gasoline.
With a tight budget, parents may opt to take a walk, play Scrabble in a coffee shop, or visit a friend’s house to help adjust for the actual babysitting fee.
Dates do not need to be expensive, but at least initially, babysitting may cost you.
Prioritize it anyway, even if it means following a strict budget throughout the week to make this happen.
It’s that important.
#3. Practice full disclosure, train thoroughly, emphasize confidentiality
While discretion is important when telling your children’s stories to those in your community, remember that what your babysitter doesn’t know can hurt her, and your children, in a care giving situation.
Choose a sitter who understands rules and takes them seriously, and who is not easily intimidated. You will need to be particularly open with her about the specific situations she may encounter when working with your kids, especially if your kids have emotional, behavioral, and developmental challenges like ours did, and you need someone who can take this information in stride.
Make sure your babysitter understands this is confidential information, and do not continue to use her services if you feel uncomfortable entrusting your kids’ stories to her.
If she encounters issues of a serious nature while acting as your children’s temporary caregiver, follow up quickly and proactively on the issues and let her know what steps you are taking to address them (particularly if they have legal or safety ramifications).
You want to make sure that any official reports (to police, social workers, or protective services) come from you as the caring, responsible parents, and not from your babysitter.
As a rule, we inform the sitter of any follow-up discipline related to the children’s behavior during date night, even if the behaviors did not raise serious concerns. Keeping her in the loop builds her confidence in our parenting decisions and helps her stay on-board with our rules and consequences, as well as preventing any child’s attempts at triangulation/divide-and-conquer while we are gone next time.
#4. Develop a straightforward routine
Our babysitter arrives at the same time on the same day every week (with a few exceptions for unavoidable meetings, etc.), and she always walks the children through the same routine with the same rewards for compliance and the same consequences for noncompliance.
We laid the groundwork for this by setting up family procedures for everyday functioning, and seldom deviate from the schedule by more than a few minutes.
As the children have aged and matured, their tolerance for flexibility has increased somewhat to include the occasional sports-related or social activity exception, but we still fall back on our schedule most days—dinner at 6 o’clock, evening chore charts afterwards, story/special activity at 7:20 for those who have completed their chores (early bedtime for those who have not), bedtime at 8 o’clock for younger kids, followed by quiet free time/homework time for older kids until their bedtime at 9.
Plan a routine that works for your family on a daily basis (you may need to either cut back or eliminate exceptional activities for as long as it takes to get the children used to the structure you have chosen).
For instance, one of us works until 3 o’clock some weekdays, but doesn’t get home until 6 on others, so we planned to eat dinner at 6 every night, including weekends, in order to provide consistent structure. We rewarded the children (marbles to fill their prize jars) for following the routine until they had mastered it and it became a habit from which we could sometimes deviate without descending into chaos.
A simple, habitual routine keeps things manageable for substitute caregivers as well.
#5 Prepare your kids to follow instructions
For safety reasons, we insist that our kids follow parental “house rules” in all situations, with the obvious exception involving an instruction to do something that is wrong, and the understanding that we provide opportunities for discussion/compromise/negotiation or a rule change if necessary.
We remind the children every time that their babysitter operates in loco parentis in our house and has our permission to be flexible and change expectations for specific occasions (although we do not recommend it), and we expect the children to follow her instructions without arguing, choosing instead to discuss it with us later if they have a meaningful objection.
Make sure your sitter is committed to resolving conflicts firmly, but amicably, so the children can continue to get along well with their babysitter while still respecting her authority.
#6. Plan meaningful consequences and rewards
When our children moved into the house, we budgeted a personal allowance for each of them. They could use this to buy movie theater refreshments, save up for more stylish basketball shoes—or, as we explained, for more boring purchases like hiring an additional babysitter to personally attend them on date night if they refused to comply with the babysitter we had hired for the family (or paying our babysitter a bonus for her extra trouble).
Other consequences for not following babysitter instructions could include early bedtime (we moved it up in five-minute increments per offense, and our babysitter usually found an activity they would regret missing if they got sent to bed early).
If the behavior was severe enough to merit a call from the babysitter which resulted in our early return home, they owed us an automatic date night redo that week, and anyone involved in the misbehavior footed the date night bill from their allowance.
Positive consequences also apply—children cooperate better when they feel positively engaged in the date night routine. For instance, “babysitter night” is one of the few times our family serves dessert.
For all parents – adoptive, biological, married, divorced, or single — taking regularly scheduled “no-kids” time for respite and renewal makes the difference between surviving and thriving. As easily-exhausted parents stay connected with their own interests, passions, and adult relationships, they find motivation to keep going under very trying circumstances, and their children reap the positive benefits of having a caregiver with enough energy and patience to stay affectionate and engaged in their lives.
Of equal importance, children can look to their parents as role models for the life balance, deep peer relationships, and healthy mental, physical, and spiritual self-care that we hope to see them achieve in their own adulthood.
As Foster Cline says in the book Love and Logic: “Wise parents… set the model by taking good care of themselves.”
The 2-Minute Action Plan for Fine Parents
Most parents struggle with the concept of personal relationship-care as an essential parenting strategy. Here are some questions you can ask yourself right now to help shift your mindset.
- How do you feel about your life balance right now? Try to view it from an outside perspective. What things do you most enjoy doing in life? Are you doing those things on a regular basis? If the answer is no, or if you have trouble thinking of anything you do for pure enjoyment, that is a sign that your life has become unbalanced. Try to think of some things you have enjoyed doing in the past (pre-parenting, if you have to go that far back), and imagine yourself doing them again. Would you like to do some of those things now? Think about why you stopped doing them, and what prevents you from pursuing those interests now.
- Think about your children learning from your example. If your child grows up and finds herself living as an adult exactly the way you do, feeling the way you do, would you feel happy or sad about that? What sort of advice would you give him? What sort of help might she need to feel more joy and find more personal balance? Every fine parent leads by example. Your child needs to see you living life with the kind of balance you want him to achieve in his own life.
The Ongoing Action Plan for Fine Parents
Don’t criticize yourself for having fallen into relationship/personal neglect. Instead, begin to slowly build a family culture of care and balance where each member understands that parents must spend time on their relationship as an essential part of family well-being.
- Sit down with the kids and tell them what you’ve been thinking. Asking them for suggestions and input about dates/outings for you and your partner can help them feel involved and begin thinking about what they might do in a similar situation as adults.
- Start setting yourself up for success. What would your ideal family routine look like? Work with your spouse or partner to brainstorm a better-structured home life in order to streamline the date night process. Then start to implement it, allowing yourself time and room to tweak it as needed.
- Just do it. Choose a day/evening in your weekly schedule that best lends itself to an evening out, call up a sitter, and go. Work to keep date-night nonnegotiable—meaning that it is as essential a part of your week as the kids’ sports activities or your parent-teacher meetings. Over time, be open to changing the days or times when necessary, but adjust your mindset so that you no longer see it as “optional.” Your emotional health needs to be at the top of your list, for the sake of you and your family.