Women We Admire I Tracy McMillan
We’re so happy to bring Tracy McMillan, successful relationship expert and award-winning writer, together with Pajama Program, a nonprofit whose mission it is to promote and support a comforting bedtime routine for all children.
Tracy overcame many challenges throughout childhood and shares her experiences in foster care candidly to empower others. Read on for Tracy’s story and perspective on self-care and the importance of a happy bedtime and good sleep, something Pajama Program endeavors to bring to children everywhere!
Baloo: You are very open about how you had a challenging childhood growing up in the foster care system, can you tell us a little bit about your background?
My mother was 20 years old when I was born. An alcoholic and a high-end call girl, she did not want a baby. My father did. But no amount of his pressure could turn her into a willing (or able) mother, and when I was three months old, I went into the foster care system for the first time. I was there until I was 18 months old. At that time I was returned to my dad, who was my primary caretaker until he went to prison when I was three. I went back into the system for the next four years.
After many placements, at age four and a half I was lucky enough to end up in the home of a Lutheran minister, his wife, and their five children. I lived with them until I was almost nine, when my dad got out of prison. You could say they really made the biggest difference in my life.
Baloo: As someone with firsthand knowledge of growing up in foster care, how important are rituals and routines for the kids there? What are some routines you still remember and practice today?
Routine is the foundation of secure attachment. Living in a situation where life is predictable, and there were rituals and routines, made me feel safe. It still does!
When I grew up and became a mother, I practiced a bedtime routine with my son that included teeth-brushing, then reading together, then meditative breathing until sleep. When he got older, we read together and he did the final stage on his own. He just graduated from college and I’m happy to say he is a good sleeper.
Baloo: What was bedtime like for you as a child, and how does this affect how you relate to it now?
In my best foster home, bedtime was early! I remember going to bed around 7 and later 7:30 -- sometimes when the sun was still up. I wasn’t always tired, and would often take a book and lay right near the door, reading by the light spilling in from the hallway. I can still recall hearing the sound of voices downstairs and the TV on. But what I remember most is emotional: knowing my family was downstairs and that I was safe.
Baloo: What are some of your most important, current nighttime rituals?
One of the most important parts of my nighttime ritual involves my actual bed -- I have really beautiful sheets! They are so far beyond anything I could have imagined growing up. And there is never a single night that I get into bed that I don’t say, YAYYYY! Then I read until the moment I get tired (usually about seven minutes) and boom -- I’m asleep.
Baloo: What does self-care mean to you now, and how do you maintain balance and personal well-being in your life?
Self-care is really about taking care of myself emotionally throughout the day. It’s about acknowledging feelings that surface -- all of them, even the really uncomfortable ones -- and soothing myself, or calling a friend and having them help reset my perspective.
“Part of self-care is knowing I’m not alone in the world the same way I was as a child, and being willing to reach out.”
Baloo: You talk a lot about relationships. In your experience, how important is the child-caregiver relationship? How did this relationship benefit you as an adult, or how can you continue to mimic that relationship and its benefits as an adult?
You cannot overstate the importance of the primary attachment relationship. As foster children, that is the thing we lost -- having one person in our lives who puts our well-being above all other considerations. It’s a staggering loss. And in adulthood, we have to create that in ourselves, for ourselves. It’s a tremendous amount of work -- years of work, really. In adulthood, your partner becomes the primary attachment figure. Things get complicated because adult relationships are often based on a template set up in childhood -- and if you had an abandoning or abuse primary attachment figure in childhood, you often are attracted to people who will reproduce that experience for you in adulthood. It’s a terrible cycle that requires a lot of emotional and psychological awareness to heal. But it can be done.
Baloo: Pajama Program says “Good nights for good days.” What happens when you don’t get a good night’s rest, and how do you recover and remedy that?
I’m a world-class napper! One of those people who can close my eyes and “sleep” for six or seven or twelve minutes. I let myself fall just below the level of consciousness -- then wake up, almost on cue. It’s like taking a shower for my brain. A total reset. I take a nap almost every day time permits me to take one. And for the record, that’s a lot of days… :)
Baloo: What are three things you know now, that you wish you had known when you were younger, and would share with anyone who is still trying to find their way?
Doing the work to heal your trauma -- and even people with “normal” childhoods have trauma -- is the single most important thing you can do to have a great life. The career you want, the partner you want, the happy, healthy children you want -- it all starts with your own inner emotional life. Because our lives tend to look on the outside how we feel on the inside.
“Be gentle with yourself. Discipline isn’t the same thing as punishment. Discipline is asking yourself to be faithful to your greater goals and to take actions consistently that are aligned with those goals.”
Second, be gentle with yourself. Discipline isn’t the same thing as punishment. Discipline is asking yourself to be faithful to your greater goals and to take actions consistently that are aligned with those goals. Punishment is being mean to yourself -- physically, verbally, or emotionally -- in order to make yourself be a certain way. It doesn’t work!
Third, it’s all about the journey. No one ever “arrives” anywhere! Even as I have accomplished the big life goals I wanted as a child -- my own home, a career that allows me some security, a happy child I’m able to take good care of -- I still have big things I am working on as a result of my childhood. This doesn’t mean I’ve failed or I’m “not there yet”. It means I’m engaged in the learning, growing life process! Learning is living. And being alive is great.
Written by Tracy McMillan
Tracy McMillan is a relationship expert, author and award-winning television writer. Books she’s authored include her memoir, I Love You and I’m Leaving You Anyway, and her debut novel, You’ll Know It When You See It. Writing credits include shows such as Mad Men and Necessary Roughness. She’s in front of the camera as a relationship expert on numerous shows including OWN’s Family or Fiancé and Oprah’s Super Soul Sunday, and is the author of The Huffington Post’s fourth most-read post of all time, Why You’re Not Married. Tracy grew up in foster care, and speaks openly about how it affected her life -- and what it took to overcome the many challenges it brought to her. Tracy shares her personal stories to empower others, often with a comedic spin; follow for more @tracymcmillan.
Pajama Program is a national 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization that supports a comforting bedtime routine for children to help them thrive. Since 2001, Pajama Program has provided over 6 million cozy pajamas and inspiring storybooks to children nationwide who are experiencing challenges beyond their control, as well as critical resources for caregivers to support children at bedtime. Through their network of 4,000 Community Partners, 60+ volunteer Chapter Presidents, and Reading Centers in New York and Atlanta, Pajama Program’s goal is to create “good nights for good days” for all children, everywhere.
Baloo Living is proud to support Pajama Program. Every time we receive a review or tag on social media (@balooliving) we contribute $5 to provide new pajamas and books for children.