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adoption, family

The Non-Argument: Adventures in Battling Trauma

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It’s been a year since Sean left. He’s 15 now. Marcus left in August of last year and he will be 19 next month. I can go whole days without thinking about them. The bone-deep grief that brought me to my knees is subsiding. But foster kids leave. Pre-adoptive placements disrupt. It happens all the time. Or so they say.

I’ve been dreaming about the teens all week. It’s usually about Sean. I dream that I’ve forgotten to pick Sean up somewhere. In this dream I try desperately to remember where he is before it becomes dark. And then I wake up to find that the angry, traumatized teens have moved on. Have I?

Mary has been having a difficult transition back to school. Her feelings are jumbled about most things lately. Her 9-year-old emotional roller coaster is on the fast track. She will cycle from maniacal laughter to gut-wrenching sobs within minutes. My husband and I are on high-alert for that intense “happy” reaction that is just a shade too bright, too intense. This is our signal that she is on the brink of losing control over her emotions.

Mary is disappointed over her own reactions.  Her perception is that others are disappointed with her as well. That fear bubbles over into her interactions with me. She has to share this intense discomfort somewhere. This leads to having what I call the “non-argument.” For example:

Mary: Mom? You’re going to be disappointed. I spilled my drink

Me: That’s ok, honey. Accidents happen. Just grab the cleaner under the sink.

Mary: I can’t clean this!

Me: We can clean it together.

Mary: (dumping the bottle of cleaner) I’m sorry! I spilled it all! It was an accident! I know you’re mad I’m sorry I’m sorry I’m sorry! Please believe me! Why are you mad? Do you still love me????

Me: (gathering her into a hug) I am going to hug you for 30 full seconds and then we will clean together.

Another example:

Mary: Mom! Why won’t you look at me? You’re mad at me?

Me: I’m just tying my shoe.

Mary: I made that noise you don’t like, didn’t I? I’m so sorry! I’m sorry! I’m really sorry, Mommy! Don’t be mad!

Me: Honey I’m happy. Let’s have a happy hug.

Mary: Well what about this noise? How about this one?

And so on and so on. I’ve tried giving her extra attention to make her feel safe. I’ve been giving extra cuddles. Luke and I recorded our voices on a small device that she can play back whenever she needs to. We provide transitional objects. Both Carl and Mary pick out their clothes and  breakfast the night before school (like at a hotel!) so we can spend the mornings connecting.

But still she looks to fight, argue, then apologize. She cowers like I might hit her and cries. She begs fervently for my forgiveness so often I can’t get a word in edgewise. I have to admit something.  She asks me if I’m mad so often that it’s starting to make me mad. My logical brain knows it’s her anxiety and her fear. My tired brain wants a quiet room and some space.

I am supposed to be bigger, stronger, and always safe. My emotional regulation sets the tone for hers. I do show her my emotions but she is so terrified of her own feelings that mine send her into full panic. I won’t engage in her non-arguments. I offer love and support. I hold her until her breathing slows. Then I make her clean up the spills or do her chores or her homework. Because that’s life. I say, “It’s ok to feel your feelings. You can feel them while you take out the trash. I’ll be right here.”

She is testing that limit to see where I break. I know she is. I understand why. That doesn’t stop it from happening.

Out of nowhere:

Mary: “You didn’t love him enough!”

Me: “Who?”

Mary: “Sean.”

I try to explain that we will always love Sean. We respect his choice not to be with our family.  He will always be a part of us.

Mary: “You just should’ve let him quit school! You should have respected his choices when he didn’t want to shower or do his chores. You should have just given him electronics! You wouldn’t just forgive him and let him come home! Just because he did ONE LITTLE THING! He hurt you ONE time, Mommy and your bruises weren’t that big.  Now he’s gone!”

Mic drop.

Immediately she is crying and wailing that she is sorry she said it. She is such a bad kid and she’s so terrible that no one could ever love her. But by now I am crying, too. Uncontrollably and I miss my boy and I cannot stop. My grief hits me like a tidal wave and I am swept away in emotion so strong that I’ll surely drown.

The truth about Sean is very hard for me. It’s a bitter pill to swallow and I’m still not sure that I can process everything that has happened with him. We tried like hell to love him perfectly and be a good family for him. It was after he left that I saw the lying, manipulation, stealing, and damage he had done. Those were his survival skills.

It doesn’t matter. I miss him still. He’s made it clear he never wanted to see us again. Carl and Mary included. He’s changed so much I wouldn’t recognize the boy I knew. The boy I knew never existed. My logical brain knows this. But my emotional brain keeps dreaming about the son I’ve lost. The illusion of Sean is what I knew. The reality of my own emotions is what I have left.

And so Mary has found my Achilles heal. When I won’t engage in her non-argument she fights back. She’ll drop a comment that sounds as sweet as sugar but cuts deeper than a scalpel. I’ll be driving the car. “No mommy,” she’ll sigh. “You just don’t understand Sean. Sean is sweet.”

“Of course,” I’ll say calmly, “He is a sweet boy.”

I’ll be in the refrigerator. “You just don’t understand him,” she’ll say while ruefully shaking her head. I don’t argue. I won’t engage. I continue whatever it is I’m doing. The more she knows it bothers me, the more she will bring it up. The less reaction she gets, the less she’ll try this non-argument. But it cuts so deep. I plaster an innocuous look on my face while inside I’m bleeding out.

The more I agree we love Sean, the more open I am to discussing him, the more frustrated she becomes.  I wake up one day to find an 8×10 picture of him on the fridge. I offer to frame it for her. I ask if she wants it in her room, but of course she wants it where “everyone can see.” She looks pointedly at me. I nod in a noncommittal way and move on.

She pushes and prods and pokes at my tender spot all week. When I can’t take it anymore I retreat upstairs for a bubble bath. I leave Luke to serve dinner while Sean watches from the fridge. That’s when I realize something. It’s not Mary landing the blows. It’s her trauma pushing her into strong emotions. She doesn’t want to be alone in these feelings. It was Sean’s trauma that led him to do the things he did. It’s my trauma giving me bad dreams about my former son.

After my bath I snuggle up my little girl on the couch. She is wearing her pineapple  nightgown. We snuggle under a huge pineapple blanket her godmother made for her. She needs to know that she is not leaving no matter what she does. She needs to know she is safe in her forever home.  I’m going to love her through her fear. I will love her no matter what kind of fight trauma brings up. After all, someone has to retreat and it won’t be me.

 

**Names have been changed to protect the privacy of those involved.

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adoption, family

Roller Skating and Regulation: Handling the Meltdowns

This is beyond Mary’s ability to tolerate. We’ve been at the roller-skating rink for almost 2 hours and she has not yet  mastered the art of flawless skating. She is also skating in a rink without her parents. We have been meeting her on the sides and encouraging her as she clings to the edges and slides precariously around the floor. There is loud music. There are lots of people. It’s fun, but it’s also a lot of stimulation.

Luke and I have taken Mary and Carl out with  their godmother and her two stepsons. The 4 kids are a regular crew of pals and enjoy spending time together. We want to celebrate finishing the first week back to school, including me. Normally, I would put on skates and get out there. After my recent surgery, however, I have to be very careful not to fall. Instead I try to content myself with watching from the sidelines like the other grown-ups.

After about an hour of falling and then determinedly righting himself, Carl has the hang of this. He is still unsteady, but for the most part he is skating with purpose. He is on his skates more than he is on the ground. We cheer and clap for his persistence.  We cheer for more than just skating. This week is full of accomplishments for Carl. He has started 5th grade. He is trying his best on his football team, even though he is with older kids now. He is working hard at school, even though he misses us when summer ends. He is trying hard in therapy  even though that’s just plain hard all around. In short, he is persevering no matter the difficulty of the task. His hard work is paying off.

Traditionally, the start of the school year is hard. It’s a very big transition. The kids are spending less time with us and more time in school. As a teacher, I enjoy summers with my children and then return to work a few days before they return to school. This year is hard because I’ve been home with a back injury for some time now. The kids get nervous when they don’t exactly know where I am during the day. They wish I would just stay at home where they leave me. In their experience, mothers are a slippery thing to keep ahold of.

In addition, I have to go to physical therapy 3 times a week after work. Then the children have sports. Don’t get me wrong, they love to be on teams and it’s been good for them. It’s just that we normally have more time to connect after school and before football/cheerleading activities. Carl has come up with a solution. He asks to go to PT with me. He puts on his football pads and loads his gear into the car. As the therapist works on my back, he drapes himself over my head in an awkward, yet endearing, snuggle of sorts. Then, when I do my exercises, he performs them side-by-side with me.

It hasn’t been as easy for Mary. I try to lie down with her for a bit at night. We whisper and giggle in the dark. I spend time snuggling with her on the couch after she showers in the evenings. It’s never enough. She’s been like a colander this week. Every time I try to fill her up with love it just all leaks out and she is never fulfilled. She has become louder, more upset, more persistent, and more antagonistic of Carl. In these ways she seeks attention.  From time to time she throws hurtful words my way. I’m guessing that she is merely seeking the attention an argument will bring. Seeking to find out if I care enough to be wounded. I won’t argue with her, and I’m not mad. Just concerned.

So here we are at the rink. I’m taking pictures of the boys skating and Luke is on the other side with Mary. I don’t see my cell phone buzzing. I don’t realize that my husband is texting me an SOS. Mary is smacking the side of the rink with her fists and spewing vitriol at Luke, and everyone unlucky enough to be near.

“This is stupid!” she screams. Her face turns red and blotchy and her breathing gets shallow when she is angry like this.

“I hate this stupid place and all these stupid people! These skates are stupid! You have to come in here with me! Right now!!”

“Stop looking at me! LEAVE ME ALONE! LEAVE ME ALLOOOONNNNE!!!!!”

Someone else is clinging to the side nearby. She shoots him a look filled with daggers and screams, “Well if HE won’t move then I guess I’ll be stuck here FOREVER!! STUPID!!!”

Of course the man moves and my husband mutters a “Thank you.” This isn’t the first time we’ve gone down the path of Mary’s “big feelings.” Obviously we don’t want her pounding on things and screaming at strangers, but parenting a kid with trauma is a process. This has actually gotten a lot better over the years. At this point, Luke and I know how to handle the situation. Her anger is really a form of fear. We are fairly seasoned therapeutic parents.

When she is finished screaming and pounding her fists on the divider, she puts her head in her arms and cries. After a few minutes Luke is able to coax her out of the rink and she makes her way across the room to me. She is sobbing out-of-control and cannot catch her breath. It comes in huge, hiccupping hitches and her body shakes. When I see what is happening I gather her into my chest and squeeze. She collapses against me like a ragdoll and her words all come spilling out. She feels stupid. She is embarrassed that she isn’t good at skating. She didn’t get to spend enough time with anyone today. She fears that all of the people in the place have been laughing at her. All day.

Mary is afraid she has blown her only shot to see her friends and her godmother ever again. Ever. All because she is awful and stupid at skating. Also she is awful and stupid for yelling at Daddy. She believes that she has ruined the day with her stupid big feelings and now it will be over. Stupid, stupid, stupid!

Only, that isn’t at all true. She is brilliant. She has managed to hold on to her “big feelings,” and express them with her words. She has come to me for regulation when she was unable to regulate on her own. She hasn’t hurt anyone, hurt herself, or broken anything. She is coping. Amazing.

As I hold her chest against my own, we take deep breaths together. She shoves her face directly into my sternum and inhales. Instantly she is able to match her breathing to my own and we stay this way for a few minutes, just inhaling and exhaling. Finally she is calm. “Did I ruin it, Mommy?” She asks. “Did I ruin the playdate?”

“No, honey,” I tell her. “We are going to practice our coping skills until you’re calm again. Then we are going home with our friends for pizza. You’re doing a great job coping with your feelings.”

“Can I handle that?” she ventures.

“Yes,” I reply confidently. “I know that you can. And if not? I’m here.”

As her sniffles taper off, she looks up at me. “How do you always know what to do?” she asks. Despite the stupid place and the stupid skates, I am wise. I know the answer. My reply is simple,”That’s easy. Because I’m your mom.”

 

**Names have been changed to protect the privacy of those involved.

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family

Killing the Pineapple

YLAX

All of the Trauma Mamas out there hold a single truth in common: we set the achievement bar for our children squarely at the “progress” mark. Our kids are healing and dealing and coping with trauma. Any progress that they make is worth celebration. Maybe your child hasn’t hit anyone in a whole day. Congratulations! Perhaps your child maintained eye contact for a full 5 seconds. Hurray! Maybe you have turned that amazing corner where you no longer have to hover around your child watchfully lest they explode into an epic tantrum. From the bottom of my heart I commend you.

Other parents just seem to have different achievement standards. Maybe this is true or maybe it’s just an illusion I see created by Facebook and Instagram. I see pictures of kids who made the honor roll, or student of the month, or performed in a recital. Their parents beam with pride in these photos as if to say, “See? My parenting skills paid off!”

Last week I was at a cookout with my children. There was another couple there with their 10-year-old son. They seemed like nice, engaging people. They spoke a lot about their son and how their schedules revolved around his sporting events. His father was a football coach for his son’s team. They had recent;y turned down a wedding invitation for the wife’s sister. They weren’t going to attend because their son hadn’t been invited and there wouldn’t be any children at the wedding. It sounded like heaven to me, but they seemed highly offended.

Luke and I had actually just attended an “adults only” wedding the previous week. My parents took the littles overnight.  Luke and I got a hotel room and some invaluable alone time. I am not one to pass up grown-up time with my husband but hey, different strokes for different folks. If this couple wouldn’t go to events without their son, that’s fine. Good for them. Who am I to judge?

As we were talking the children were having a water balloon fight on the lawn. I was relishing the fact that I could sit with the grown ups and enjoy a glass of wine. I wasn’t worried that our kids would unexpectedly tantrum or hurt someone. They are doing so well and they have improved so much! I am triumphant in my repose. Victory is mine.

Mary approaches the little patio table between us. She sets down a “mama” and a “daddy” water balloon on a small towel. A few minutes later she comes back with tiny water balloons that the big balloons have adopted. She solemnly tells us all of their names and asks us to “keep them safe” while she goes back to the “war” area to save more balloons. I nod and play along, creating a makeshift towel shelter for the refugees. Next comes the “grandma” balloon that is “also a grandpa.” She tells us, “This balloon is both and grandma and a grandpa.” The transgender balloon also adopts a small balloon which is now the sister to the mom balloon and an aunt to the original adopted balloons. So far I am still following the family tree of refugee water balloons. How creative!

That’s when I glance up at the other couple. They have gone very quiet. They have a rather puzzled look on their faces about all of the balloon genealogy. “So…there’s a transgender balloon??? And what about all of these adoptions???? Huh.” I am laughing and having a good time. I love my daughter’s imagination.Their son is filling up water balloons and throwing them in the traditional way at other children. My daughter is saving them and constructing a family. I think both kids’ choices are fun and harmless.

That’s when things take a turn. Mary abruptly grabs the “parent” water balloons and smashes them on the driveway. She looks up from her water balloon carnage and mater-of-factly states, “It was nice knowing you, but you had to die.” Then she reaches over and plops one of the adopted balloon-young into her mouth and begins chewing. I calmly yet firmly make her spit out the “baby” balloon. At the same time that the other mom shouts, “Oh no! Don’t put that in your mouth!”

The other couple looks at each other in horror as my daughter gleefully kills off the family she has made. I’m not shocked by this at all. Mary vacillates between cooing softly and tucking in the balloons, and smashing them. My father has recently died and Mary is trying to make sense of death in her own way. This is very different than the time she was having homicidal ideations about killing us. During that time she was also having more than a few delusions and PTSD panic attacks. It was years ago. Now she is happily playing while I talk to grown ups. I feel proud.

I decide to tell them the story of Burton the pineapple to sort of ease their minds. “Our daughter is rather eccentric,” I tell them. “She once had a pineapple as a pet.”It’s true. She loves pineapples. Mary has pineapple shirts, pineapple dresses, a pineapple headband and a pineapple nightgown. We are still searching for the elusive pineapple flip-flops. Mary is pineapple obsessed.

One day, my husband made the mistake of buying her a pineapple at the grocery store. She instantly pulled it into the cradle of her arms and named it “Burton.” She snuggled Burton. She slept with Burton. She talked to Burton. Now, if you are going to cuddle a fruit, I would recommend something soft like, say, a kiwi. Pineapples are prickly and sharp. They are not an easy fruit to cuddle. But Mary is tenacious and she doesn’t give up. Her pineapple wears dresses and sits at the dinner table. Once it was next to me on my pillow when I woke up in the morning.

All pineapples must come to an end. Luke and I gently explain to Mary that we will soon have to eat her new pet. We show her the Dole tag that came with Burton. It shows how to twist off his “crown” and slice him open to get the fruit inside. She seems shocked at first. I imagine us battling over rotting fruit that she refuses to quit sleeping with.

“Pineapples are meant for cuddling!” she tells us with conviction.

Then it happens. I get home from work on a random day and Mary and Carl are sitting at the kitchen table eating pineapple chunks. My husband is looking smug. He did it!

Carl sympathetically comments, “I’m sorry we had to eat your friend. Burton does taste really good.”

Mary replies in a low and ominous voice, “DON’T say his name!” Then she promptly bites another chunk. Some of the juice is running down her chin and her eyes are closed in the sheer enjoyment of flavor. She is still enjoying Burton.

So here I am, relaying the story of Burton to the dismayed couple. I think it’s a quirky story that showcases the awesome strangeness of our family. The couple I’m speaking to look at me as though my child is deranged and quite possibly contagious. “Oh…weird…” is all they have to say. Now and again I catch them glancing at her nervously.

In the end, I’m sure they thought all kinds of things about my kid. The one obsessed with adoption, transgender water balloons, pineapples, and death. That’s OK. I’m not really sure I understand everything about their family either. I’m the mom with the kid who talks incessantly about death. I’m the mom who tucked my child into bed with a pineapple. I’m the mom who jumps at the chance to have a night alone with her husband, no kids. I’m the mom who is proud of this family.

I can’t say that I spoke to the other couple much that day. Later on my son and some of the other children complained to me about their son. He got mad during the water balloon fight and threw a lacrosse stick at some of the other children. Honestly, my kids have done worse. It’s normal for children to act like this from time to time. Secretly, I was bizarrely happy about this. A small part of me, an evil and vengeful part of me, delighted in the fact that it wasn’t my “weird” kids causing the mayhem this time.

Who knows? Maybe they never judged my child. Maybe I was the one passing judgement. It still felt good. I smugly rounded up my well-behaved children into the car to go home. We waved goodbye as their son was yelling at them. I had a calm sense of accomplishment warming me from the inside.

My self-satisfaction lasted all the way to the highway. Once we hit the on ramp, Carl started melting down about the unfairness of bedtimes. How can moms and dads get to stay up later?! He whined and yelled and cried and kind of lost it. But that’s a story for another day.

boots

 

**Names have been changed to protect the privacy of those involved.

 

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8thdance
adoption, family

Mom Shopping

pancakes

Another football season begins again. Carl is an intrepid linebacker, even if he is in the 20th percentile for height.He never gives up.  Mary is cheerleading her heart out. Each night we parents sit for 2 hours watching our children practice. For the entire month of August they practice for all 5 weeknights. No exceptions. So here I sit, faithfully waiting for my children as they practice and learn.

But today I am reminded of Sean. It has been almost a year since he left our home. I miss him terribly. He never played a sport or joined a club. He only wanted to sit at home on the couch watching TV. He especially loved doing this when no one else was home. During those times he would rifle through our things, steal what he wanted, and gorge on food. When he left we found hidden stashes of molded frosting tubs, cream cheese, and half-eaten uncooked pasta with salsa. I imagine he also enjoyed the quiet of being alone, but I will never know.

As a family we attended sports games, awards ceremonies, or activities that we’re featuring any member. I would beg, cajole, plead, offer rewards or remove privileges to entice Sean to participate. Still he stiff idly refused to support anyone by participating in their events. He attended his own field trips and  academic achievement ceremonies. For anyone else he refused. Instead he would try to order fast food from us. “Pick it up on your way home. How hard could it be?” I always refused. If he wanted a treat then he’s have to come, too.

This brought on whining, crying, and general tantruming as though he were 4 and not 14. Not the run-of-the-mill angry teen stuff but a high pitched baby whine of “why? WHY! WHYWHYWHYWHYWHYYYYYY” that could last hours. He kicked his legs, banged on his bed, and rolled around on the floor. Eventually he wasn’t even making intelligible sounds anymore at all.

Other times he would snuggle and lean his head on my shoulder. I’d make him blue pancakes (his favorite color) with chocolate chips. “I love you, mom” he’d say. When he was scared of the shower I ran him baths instead. I got bubble bath and little bath toys and I waited outside. He cried the whole time. He didn’t want to wash unless I was in the hallway. I read out loud to him so that he’d know I was still outside the door, waiting faithfully.

He wanted me to stay with him at other times, too. He couldn’t fathom how I might leave him to go the gym. I had a high intensity interval class I really loved. When the kids came I cut down to once a week. Lifting heavy weights and killing it in class always made me feel like a total rockstar. I loved doing this as dearly as I loved the Christmas holiday. Sean didn’t love it. At all. He would cling to me and beg me not go. He would tear up and claim that it hurt him every time he was away from me. I tried to take him with me. I tried to go every other week. Eventually I quit. It was a simple choice. He was my son and he needed me.

We spent at least an hour each night together after the littles had gone to bed. I read him stories. I rubbed his back. I listened as he told me all about his day, his complex feelings, his fears. We brainstormed solutions for school conflicts. I listened to him talk about his biological family. I always empathized with his feelings rather than passing judgement. I listened. He was never ready to go to bed. I tucked him in and rubbed his back. He wouldn’t sleep. He was scared for me to leave the room. With my heavy eyelids slipping shut, I waited with him faithfully until he finally fell asleep.

Sean often told me that I was the only mom who ever cared for him. He was amazed at his birthday when he got things we wanted. He explained that no one had ever given him a birthday before. No mom had ever given him a cake. When I asked his former foster mom about this she laughed. “He always had a birthday here,” she told me, “Sean just makes up these stories.”

At times, my husband Luke thought Sean was being lazy, selfish, or even manipulative. I was baffled. I believed that Sean was just scared. All he really needed was a mom who would faithfully stick with him. He just needed the right mom.  He needed me.

Sean beamed with pride at his eighth grade dance. I chaperoned it (at his request) and he introduced his friends to me. They were all adoring girls. They all called him “Shay.” The other chaperones were so jealous that my son was happy to see me. Their sons hid in embarrassment on the other side of the dance floor. I smiled and glowed and secretly thanked my lucky stars. I was so naive.

Eventually I got Sean to come to a football game with me. I felt triumphant. He was leaving the house because he felt safe with me. I was a super-mom! He was making so much progress!

Surprisingly, he left my side the second we got there. He was 14 so I didn’t mind if he walked around. I was impressed. Sean had probably seen some friends from school. He was being so independent! He almost never left my side. Especially if I had money in my pocket…

Later on I found him  with one of the other moms. She had gotten him something at the concession stand and they were sitting on a blanket she had brought. She had a daughter his age who was nowhere to be seen.  I caught his eye and he jumped up as if he’d been caught at something. Confused, I glanced around for friends his age. There were none. He ran over to me and rapidly ushered me away from the other mom. I always thought it was odd he’d chosen to hang out with another adult than with one of his friends. Still, I felt, this must be progress. I didn’t speak to Other Mom until a different game. She approached me and very solemnly pulled me aside. She let me know that my foster son was “very special” and just needed someone to “listen to him and REALLY try to understand him.” I was astonished. Just what, exactly, had I been doing all of this time?!

Later that year I took the kids to visit a former foster family of Marcus’s. The littles ran around and played with the family goats while Luke and I let Marcus show us around his old stomping grounds. I noticed that Sean spent a great deal of time in deep conversation with the foster mother. Occasionally another child would seek her attention and Sean would urgently spirit her away to a more private area in the home. He was speaking earnestly and rapidly. He seemed distraught. She put her hand on his back as if to comfort him so I hurried over to check on my son. He met me somewhere in the middle and steered me away from the foster mom. It wasn’t until later that she pulled me aside to explain that foster kids need a lot of understanding. They need someone to “really listen to them.” She mentioned that she had offered Sean to come and stay with her any time he “needed someone to talk to.” Again, I was astonished.

It didn’t take long to learn that there were many other “moms” for Sean. They all listened. They all comforted and cajoled him. They listened to his stories about how I didn’t throw him birthday parties. I didn’t buy him clothes. I never supported him. I didn’t spend time with him and, of course, I didn’t listen to him.

They all advised me about supporting him. Appreciating him. Listening to him. I’d never heard of “parent shopping” before Sean. Now I know. Kids with trauma histories have learned to hedge their bets. Much like the hidden stash of food in his room, Sean was collecting mothers. He had a secret stash. Just in case.

I’ve worried about Sean ever since he left our home a year ago. Since then he’s run away from a foster home. He was eventually reunited with his biological father. The last I heard he had disrupted that placement as well. Sean wanted out.  His biological father wanted out. He said Sean needed therapy and he “couldn’t parent him” like this. Part of me worries for Sean still.

At football practice today I saw Other Mom walk by. It reminded me of Sean and his parent shopping. I’m not so worried anymore. If anything, I learned that Sean will always land on his feet. He will always find another woman to feel special about meeting his needs. If nothing else, Sean is a consummate survivor. Somewhere in his back pocket, I’m sure he has another mom.

But Carl and Mary have me. As I sit here faithfully waiting for practice to end, I cheer for them.  And I can say, without a doubt, that I’m a super mom for them.

 

**Names have been changed to protect the privacy of those involved.

 

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adoption, family

Down the Rabbit Hole: In Search of My Emotions

My grief has taken some strange twists and turns this past week. I feel like Alice chasing the white rabbit down a winding and elusive hole. It feels like I am falling and I have no idea where I will land.

My father’s death has brought up some strange reactions in me.  We weren’t exactly estranged. Our relationship was more like a distant veneer than the messy truth of human connections. When I remember simpler times from my childhood, I miss him. Many times, though, I forget about his death. It simply becomes lost in all the minutiae of the day. I’ll be fixing lunches, brushing my daughter’s hair, or matching socks from the laundry when I suddenly remember. Who forgets a parent’s death in a week? What kind of a person does this make me?

Other times I am bombarded with confusing and seemingly unrelated feelings. At my son’s football practice last night I got caught up watching the older team of kids. Adolescent boys (and one girl) grumbled and groaned and generally proclaimed their angst to their coach. They were made to run extra laps because of their argumentative nature. Two of them commiserated together in a sweaty huddle after the practice. As I watched these teenagers doing what teens do best, I felt an almost palpable kick to the stomach.

In that moment my longing for my teenage boys sucked the breath right out of my lungs. I missed them with a startling ferocity that unnerved me. All of the sudden I was reminded of washing sweaty practice clothes for Marcus. I could almost hear Sean whining and complaining about wanting chinese food for dinner. I was thinking of my foster sons. The foster sons I had hoped to adopt. One of the boys on the field started teasing his mother with that cracking adolescent voice so common for boys in the throes of puberty. That sound can be like nails on a chalkboard. It’s awful. And I missed it so badly!

With utter astonishment I realized that I had begun to cry behind my oversized sunglasses. I was staring at this mother-son interaction and crying for the boys I had lost. What was wrong with me? They moved out a year ago. They were long gone. It’s a loss I thought I had come to terms with months ago.

And the loss of my father? It is somehow eclipsed by this improbable longing for boys that gleefully tortured me and trampled my heart. Boys who itched to shed the uncomfortable skin of “family,” and try things on their own. Boys I thought I’d long since let go of.

Where is my traditional grief? Where are the tears for the parent I’ve lost? I’ve shed some, of course. But shouldn’t there be more? Where are the feelings I just cannot access? Am I so cold-hearted that they don’t exist? Are my emotions so confused that I am grieving the wrong person? Are my true feelings so far down the rabbit hole that they are lost in Wonderland?

 

**Names have been changed to protect the privacy of those involved.

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Love Notes: Adventures in Hypoarousal

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“She doesn’t speak,” is what they told me, 2 years ago. Her disclosure paperwork referred to past trauma that caused her not to speak outside of her foster home. Her social worker spoke to her through an older brother. “Very sad, confused, little girl” was the description in a letter from her teacher.”Selectively mute,” said the hospital therapists. She stared at the ground with her head turned away. She simply didn’t respond in public. Mary would fold into herself and become as small as possible. She would hide away behind her brothers, or in a corner, anywhere she felt she would remain unseen.

Hypoarousal is the term used to describe this condition. It’s one way that children respond to continued trauma in their developmental years. They shut down, try to block everything out. They make themselves so small they are almost no longer a part of the abuse that is taking place. And yet, they are still there. Trauma stays with them no matter how they try to shut it out.

It’s hard to remember the Mary of 2 years ago who silently stared at the floor while picking at her fingernails. She spoke to me on the first day that we met. It was only a few words but it was enough. The second time we met she stared intently into my eyes, as if to size me up. She fell headlong into this family. Mary opened up in a way that was unprecedented for her. She began to engage and talk and she wanted to be heard. She would be silent no more. Along with this flood of words came a flood of pent up emotions.

The trauma she had fought so hard to avoid, to ignore, came crashing back. Along with her words came her rages. All of those feelings of hurt, sadness, and fear twisted into rage. Those feelings were simply too much for a 7-year-old girl. The trauma was too much. At times she would scream for hours. She smashed everything in her room. She bashed her head into the wall. She stabbed me with pencils and bit me and clawed at me with her nails. She tried to break out of the windows in the car. All the while her mind would be in another time and place. She would think she was with another mom, in another home. She was expressing all the anger she never let herself feel.

During those early days I questioned a lot. Maybe she didn’t like this family. Maybe she was unhappy living with her brother Carl again. Maybe taking her out of her foster home was a big mistake. Maybe she would never attach. Maybe she could never really love us.

In those times of doubt I would look at her sketch book. I would see her school art projects hanging on the fridge. In every single one she drew her family or wrote her full name with our last name. She drew the words “mom & dad” in curly cue letters all over each project and picture she made. She would leave elaborately painted flowers and mermaids with the caption, “Mommy” for me to find. They were love notes. Despite her unleashed feelings of rage, she was also experiencing great big feelings of love for her family.

Now, 2 years later, I can look back and see. I know she had to go through those early stages in order to trust in this family. She had to believe. She had to learn that she was stronger than her feelings, stronger than her past. Mary is 9-years-old now. She’s had 1 violent meltdown in the last 12 months, and it didn’t last very long. She is still learning to regulate her feelings, but she is winning against her trauma.

Today, Mary is a cheerleader on a team. That once-silent little girl shouts and jumps and leads the group in chants. People watch her and she loves the attention. Our daughter, who once wished to be invisible, is now the focus of the crowd. I am so proud of this little warrior.

Tonight I tucked Mary into her bed, and looked around. She has her artwork from the past few years displayed on the walls. I spotted an old rainbow etching she made me in those first months home. It said, “I love you mommy,” at the bottom. A love note. A love note from the time when those words were so hard to say. A love note from my daughter to me.

I love you too, honey. I’m so proud of you. This is my love note.

 

**Names have been changed to protect the privacy of those involved.

 

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The Call

Our oldest, Marcus, once told me he was certain that his biological mom had overdosed. After he had moved out of our home, and in with his girlfriend, he reached out to her. He tried again and again through several channels to try and get in touch. He was convinced that she had died this time and that he had simply missed it. All of his panic turned out to be unfounded. She was still alive in Puerto Rico but was keeping her contact information relatively secret. She didn’t want to hear from or be reminded about her children after losing parental rights. Marcus was mad, but I remember so clearly his panic. He was worried she was dead. He was worried he had missed it.

I got the call while driving back from vacation. Luke and I and the kids were driving home from Virginia. I had just reconnected with my brother after 15 years. Luke and I were about halfway home to Connecticut when I got the call that my father was drastically ill and in Intensive Care at the hospital. This was an urgent situation. I needed to go to him right away before it was too late.

I got what information I could from his girlfriend and her children. At 90-years-old he had sepsis, gall stones, problems regulating sugar, bed sores that wouldn’t heal, and possibly dementia. Up until about a week ago he had been staying in a rehab facility for a broken leg. He had been functioning fairly well. I didn’t realize he had quit eating weeks ago. I thought he was healing his leg and getting ready to leave the rehabilitation facility. Then one of his girlfriend’s daughter’s sent me a picture. I gasped to see my once strong, tall, and commanding father. He was now a frail 85 pounds, no longer 6 feet tall. He lay limp in a hospital bed.

How ironic is it that I just had this conversation with my brother, Ed? Now Dad was in crisis and I had to act. Only this time, I was not alone. Luke and I scrambled to try and make plans to get me out to California. We weren’t even back in Connecticut yet. Should he drop me off at JFK so that I could get a standby flight to CA? Would I make it in time?

As we were frantically trying to find flights, hotels, and get information from the hospital, Ed came through. He bought me a round trip ticket for the next day from CT to CA. That was half the battle. Booking.com took care of my hotel, and my mom made plans to come. Luke had work but managed to figure out childcare while I was gone between my step-dad and some friends. I was going to make it to see my Dad. I worried that I wouldn’t make it in time but I knew that I was going.

I remembered Marcus. I could feel the same panic in myself, only I was able to take steps to see my dad. I was able to get information. I wasn’t shut out. What would happen with Mary and Carl someday? Would they know when their biological mom was close to the end? Would they be able to be there? Would they want to?

All I can say is that there is comfort in family. In times of crisis it is comforting not to be alone. My brother came through on our recent conversation. He bought me the ticket. My mom didn’t hesitate to go with me even though she had been divorced from my father for over 30 years. Will I do the same for my kids? Will I want to? I hope so.

 

**Names have been changed to protect the privacy of those involved.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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