adoption, family

What Are We Teaching Them?

“Wait–what do you mean? My glasses prescription can expire?!?!! That doesn’t make sense!”

Sorry, Marcus. You have to go to the eye doctor every year. You also need a yearly checkup with your primary care physician. And the dentist? Yeah, that is every six months.

This week Marcus was texting me in a panic that he had lost his glasses and was having headaches. He wanted me to look for his prescription so that he could get new glasses. Sometimes I am still caught off guard by the things my children do not know. Looking back, it makes sense.

Marcus went from 2014 until 2016 without a doctor’s appointment in foster care. He never went to the dentist. For whatever reason the state he was in somehow claimed to change insurance based from town to town. Marcus bounced around continuously. Therefore he pretty much never had health insurance.

His last placement (after the Juvenile Detention Center) was with something called “intensive foster care.” This meant that a specialized agency was contracted by child services to care for him. A worker met with him weekly and a highly trained foster parent provided a home. In theory it looked great. The program was supposed to provide skills for older teens who would soon age out of the system. They had strict regulations and monitored each worker intensely.

In practice, it was pretty awful. His intensive case worker changed every few months. Marcus never saw a therapist. He never saw a psychiatrist even though he was prescribed psychotropic medication.

His foster parent was not supposed to take him to medical appointments or attend the case review meetings. She really wasn’t required to do much except feed him. She couldn’t even give him Tylenol without calling the agency for approval first. That just meant no medication was available if he spiked a fever after business hours. Maybe the lesson was not to get sick on the weekends?

When Marcus came to us we were required to drive him back to his home state each week to meet with his worker. Marcus was 17, so his case worker had a limited amount of time to impart the all-important “life skills.” A frantic worker would meet my husband and Marcus at Panera Bread every week for lunch. He spent three weeks focusing on reviewing a module in his binder called, “water safety.” Yes, they worked on pool safety while eating lunch (that my husband payed for) at a restaurant on dry land. Luke used to joke with Marcus to “try not to drown in the drive home.”

In the meantime we had to fight to get Marcus his driver’s permit. We were willing to teach him but technically the DMV requires a legal guardian. I doubt many caseworkers are headed to the long lines at the DMV with their teens. They also require an original birth certificate which child services refused to release to Marcus. Don’t worry, after lots of advocating we got it all figured out.

However, here I sit explaining to my 21-year-old how medical care works. Sometimes I think we’ve missed so much time to instruct Marcus he may never catch up. Have we really prepared him for the world? What else have we missed or lost along the way?

So the question remains. What are we teaching teens in foster care to prepare them for the world? If they age out without a family to turn to, how will they learn?

In this, Luke and I are lucky. Marcus knows he can turn to us if he needs to. I thank my stars that our son can come to us. If we have taught him nothing else, I know we have taught him this.

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


Spring Changes

As a child I would often joyfully make myself dizzy to the point of collapse. I would fling my arms out wide and spin in a circle faster and faster and faster. I’d keep my eyes up to the blue sky, laughing in that carefree way that only children do. I would spin until the world tilted up to greet me and then collapse in a heap of giggles. As the earth seemingly continued to rock I would stare up st the clouds and revel in the sensation of utter abandon. I was so happy. I was so free. I was so young.

These days I admire the sky from a much slower pace. I can appreciate the crazy tilting of this roller coaster world without ever taking a step. I may have fast-forwarded to the part where I lie spread-eagle in the grass and lift up my laughter to the blue expanse of sky.

Spring is here. The sky is a a soft robin’s egg blue. Plants are sprouting green buds. Puffy white clouds turn grey and heavy with rain at times. I dread the spring showers as much as I love the sunshine.  The rainy days bring a deep pain and swelling in my hip joints. For these last few years Springtime has been a dichotomy of both joy and pain.

I used to dread the spring entirely because this is the season that Carl’s trauma would make itself known. No matter what Luke and I did to prepare, Carl would always get caught in the sharp relentless teeth of his past terrors. There would be screaming and smashing and anger that stretched the never-ending span of the season.

Something different is happening this year. Yes, Carl is irritable. Yes, he’s quick to anger. However, so far he’s been able to handle his feelings. He hasn’t had a single rage at all.

Last Spring he was hospitalized for his uncontrollable outbursts. Two months ago the intensive in-home psychiatric team finally called to follow up. They were here to help Carl with his “crisis.” How ridiculous. An intensive team designed to keep children out of the hospital and/or residential treatment is available a mere 9 months after the actual crisis?! All I can do is shake my head. This is the quintessential example of ineffective bureaucracy. We told them we didn’t need them this year.

This season, Carl has had a scant few instances where he’s yelled at us. It’s only occurred when he is hungry or tired. Without fail he always apologizes afterwards and is able to repair his message. Luke and I are starting to relax and enjoy the flow of the first peaceful Spring season we’ve had in 5 years.

Meanwhile, Carl fills his days practicing with his lacrosse team. At school he’s making the honor roll each term with ease. At home he helps me with chores and bakes cookies for the family. This Spring is like a dream so far.

Perhaps I don’t need to spin myself anymore. Life has done the spinning for me. I think I’ll just skip to the good part. Let me lie down and revel in the view of these clouds for awhile.

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

adoption, family, infertility

Stop Making Your Brother’s Bed

Mary is on some kind of audition. Each weekend she comes home from her residential school for a visit. She stays from Saturday morning through Sunday evening. Mary is trying out for the position of Youngest Chicken Family Member. Her efforts are nothing short of herculean.

She makes me coffee when she wakes up on Sunday morning. She asks to do chores like cleaning the cats’ litter box or taking out the trash. She helps me cook and then sets the table. Mary hugs everyone and professes her love constantly throughout the visit.

This weekend I noticed that she was spending more time with Carl. He was emerging from his designated “no fly zone” (his room) and hanging out with her. They were watching YouTube videos and playing basketball together. I heard him ask her for a drink or snack a few times. Each time she complied and brought him whatever he asked for.

“You don’t need to do that, Mary,” I told her. “He has legs.”

Her reply each time was, “I want to.”

The oddest part came when I walked past his room and noticed that his bed was made. This never ever EVER happens. For a minute I was certain that I must be looking at a mirage. When I questioned Carl, he explained that Mary had done it. It took me by surprise that he’d even granted her entrance into his “no fly zone.” I went into a spiel about how he couldn’t treat his sister like a servant and she wasn’t his maid etc.

Mary came rushing over to defend him.

“He didn’t ask me to do it!” she proclaimed. Looking slightly panicked she rushed her words out. “I just wanted to! I promise!!”

It is a very sweet gesture on her part. I can tell that she carries guilt for the physical attacks and the murder plan and all of the things that occurred when she wasn’t stable. That all happened several years ago. There really isn’t a way to make up for it. She doesn’t even truly remember every scary thing she did during periods of psychosis.

It probably sounds weird but I want them to argue. I want her to become upset. We all really need to see if we can actually handle conflict in a healthy way. Mary may not realize it yet but this would be an important step in our healing.  Trusting a family to meet her needs doesn’t come easily for Mary. I want so much for her to see that our family is different from her biological family in this way. I don’t want her to fold my laundry. I just want her to be my daughter.

We need to test our ability to work together and weather a storm. All families fight. I want her to feel safe enough with her feelings to let them show. Could we all be safe if she got upset? She would have to get upset first in order to find out. She’d have to stop apologizing for every perceived error. She’d have to stop making her brother’s bed. She would have to trust that our love is unconditional.

Honestly, I just want to tell her there is no need to audition. It’s not necessary. She’s already got the part.

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

adoption, family

Getting Antsy

If there is one thing the foster care system has taught my children it would be leaving. An internal alarm will alert them not to feel safe with permanency. Unfortunately, the very nature of foster care perpetuates this. Are you comfortable here? Do you love these people?  Are you happy in this school? It’s time to go. It’s time for another placement.

Ostensibly, it’s affected Marcus the most. He’s been through the greatest number of placements. Even an amazing foster home like the one Sean and Mary had is still not their birth home. They’ve all been moved. After awhile kids can get rather used to this. It’s taken years to assure them we are a forever family. Carl gets it. Mary still sometimes asks if she needs to go to another family.

As far as Marcus is concerned everything and everyone has an expiration date. His relationships never last past 8 months. Neither do his homes. Even as an adult, he is constantly moving around, constantly seeking something better. At around the 6-month mark for anything he gets antsy. Marcus will start small arguments or come up with little reasons as to why things aren’t working. He’s building up to his “time to go” alarm.

At the 8-month mark he’s either already gone or he’s heading out the door. Marcus has always been a fan of the “ripping off the band-aid” school of thinking. When he feels the need to leave he will take extreme measures to make it happen. He’ll cause fights, take risks, and generally try to burn it all down. I’ve heard of people burning their bridges before but Marcus will set fire to his own life raft.

Having been on the receiving end of this several times, I am very familiar with the signs. When he’s doing well in a job/school/relationship he can only tolerate it for so long. Then Marcus chafes against some imagined confinement. He’ll eventually chew off his own leg to escape.

This weekend he came home early from Job Corps. He took Friday off because he “couldn’t take it.” Apparently he’d been written up for smoking in a non-designated area and giving staff a hard time. He had started or almost-started fights with a few kids. He was behind in some of his electrical work.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m glad Marcus chose to come home. This is much better than, say, starting a physical fight with a staff member. I am an advocate of walking away when you need to. I just really, really want him to walk back.

I see the signs. He is beginning to exhibit some reckless behaviors that could eventually get him terminated from the program. He smuggled alcohol onto campus by duct taping nips bottles to his waist. Then he lifted up his shirt so security could wave the metal detector over his belt like he had nothing to hide. Somehow he didn’t get caught. At least, he hasn’t been caught yet.

He has been at Job Corps for 5 months. He hasn’t completed his apprenticeship yet. He wants to leave next month. Marcus claims he absolutely cannot be there during the summer. He wants to get a job. He’s found a new car to buy. It would seem we are back to square one with car vs. real life!

Obviously, we have tried to persuade him to continue investing in his future. This opportunity dries up the moment he walks away. Marcus is getting too old for these programs to take him. He’s an adult and these are adult choices. I hope he makes the right one.

My mother says, “You can save people from a lot of things but you can’t save them from themselves.”

Her words ring true. There isn’t anything I can do here. Still, the whole thing makes me antsy.

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


This Weekend Almost Defeated Us

Tooth-jarring screeching sounds of metal scraping against metal emanated from the undercarriage of my Honda Pilot. A vague scent of smoke wafted in through the open windows. The more I hit the accelerator, the louder the noise got. I wish I could say that my horrible weekend started there but I’d be lying.

Friday started much differently. I finished my first week of work since spinal surgery. I’m only doing 3 hours a day but it’s a huge win for me. I was flying high and feeling invincible. Nothing could put a dent in my sunny, triumphant mood!! Saying I was wrong on this account is a vast understatement.

Upon getting home I checked my bank account. It was very, very low. Since Luke’s eye surgery we’ve been struggling. He only recently returned to work after months without pay. Worker’s comp covers a percentage of my salary, but it’s not much.

Add to that a series of emergencies (water pump died, washer/dryer died, roof needed repairs) and we had problems. We even had to borrow money from my parents (thanks, guys!)

So Friday comes around and I get a check from the insurance company that is maybe 1/5 of my normal check. Presumably I’ll be receiving a regular check from my job but it will come in the mail. Then I get a notification that Carl’s lunch money balance is low. Great.

Next, I start a small stovetop fire while making popcorn. I put it out right away things got a little crazy. Saturday rolls around and I’m watching for the mail like a hawk. I need that other paycheck to come through. As soon as it comes I send Carl out to retrieve it. I probably should have gone myself but my back was killing me.

Unfortunately, Carl was not as concerned as I was about the mail. He walked in with a package but no envelopes and insisted that’s all the mail we got. It wasn’t until the bank had already closed and we left to pick up Mary, that I double checked. Yup, there was my paycheck ready to do absolutely nothing until Tuesday. Sigh.

As we left to pick Mary up at school the horrible scraping sound began. Luckily, we were only a few miles into our hour drive. I did what, presumably, any smart mom would do. I made Carl run alongside the car. I figured if it blew up (or if I started my second fire of the weekend) at least he’d be safe. When he suggested calling a tow truck I burst into tears. I couldn’t do that because I hadn’t deposited the check.

In a state of sheer panic I pulled into a nearby friend’s house to park. She wasn’t answering her phone. If she wasn’t home I could still leave the car there. The entire time I was calculating how far I could walk towards home before Carl would have to carry me.

How would I call Mary and cancel our overnight? I always come through for her. I NEVER let her down even though she always expects me to. What would happen if this time I followed through on plans like bio mom?

By the time I parked the car I felt like I was struggling to breathe. By some stroke of sheer luck my friend was actually home. As soon as I explained my situation she got her two kids and loaded them into her car. Without any questions she dropped everything and drove me the hour to get Mary. Thank heavens for ride-or-die friends!

We ended up having a fun yet overwhelming weekend. Luke was able to figure out the car problem and fix it within our minuscule/nonexistent budget. The kids cleaned the kitchen and ran the dishwasher while I took some downtime on the heating pad.

We filled our weekend with at-home budget friendly activities like board games and family dinner with Nana and Papa. By the time I took Mary home on Sunday night I was feeling a bit of that Friday high coming back. My belly was full of my mother’s famous pistachio cake and my little girl was riding shotgun.

The weekend had been stressful, crazy, and filled with financial ruin. Mary was back in her “fast” place. Her speech was so pressured she smooshed her words together and dropped almost all of her consonants. No one can really understand her vowel-speak but at least we were certain it was all very sweet. She wasn’t making violent or outlandish comments.

I had my family. I had my car back. I ended the weekend singing with my daughter and driving literally into the sunset. What more could I really ask for?

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

adoption, family

Swimming Upstream

I wonder how a salmon can continue to swim upstream fighting the flow of water every inch. It seems counter-intuitive but their instinct tells them to keep going. Just thinking about it makes me exhausted.

Recently, Marcus broke up with the girlfriend who had the baby. He and his friends were all over social media saying horrible things about her. The threads ranged in topic from disparaging comments about her vagina to the fact that she had a baby. The language used was awful.

I explained that these words were not OK. This is a form of abuse and harassment. I offered an alternative as to how to handle the situation. At 21, Marcus makes his own decisions and I’m not even sure I got through to him. The social media backlash did stop so maybe our conversation worked.

As a woman and a mother I want to raise strong men. I want my sons to internalize the same values I do. It is so important to me that they respect women in their words and actions. I don’t believe that a man should ever use physical strength to coerce or intimidate a woman under any circumstances.  I also believe that a woman’s sexuality is just as natural and sacred as a man’s. Words like, “c*nt, whore, slut, b*tch” etc. do not have any place in my value system.

In fact, the more shame that surrounds a woman’s sexual identity, the more vulnerable she is. Sexuality is a natural thing. If the taboos surrounding it disappeared so too would the silence. I believe it is easier for perpetrators to commit sexual crimes if they know victims will be too afraid to speak out. If we teach our girls to be ashamed of sexuality then we teach oppression. A strong man doesn’t wield this as a weapon. He doesn’t have to.

So how can I pass this on to my sons? The truth is that I can’t. At least, not entirely. Carl and Marcus grew up in a very different environment. An early model of domestic violence colors their views. Foul language disparaging a woman for her sexuality was simply common vernacular in their childhood home. The value that physical dominance makes a “man” permeated their early years.

Over time Carl has mostly shed these misconceptions. It’s Marcus I worry about. He doesn’t understand what is appropriate here and what is not. When he was 16, I found out that he was bullying a girl online by calling her a “slut” and other sex-shaming phrases. I tried to make him see how this was wrong no matter the circumstances. Utterly baffled, he defended his actions because, “she really is a slut!”

When discussing Chris Brown’s infamous 2009 attack on then-girlfriend Rihanna, Marcus took his side. “She deserved that!” The idea that no one should be physically punished was foreign to him. It’s taken a lot of years to get him to a place where he believes that physical violence between partners is not OK.

He’s got a new girlfriend now. Girlfriend L attends his Job Corps program. She seems nice, but like anyone getting emotionally close to Marcus she probably won’t last. He posted about her the other day. It went something along the lines of being lucky to have her in his life. I found it to be incredibly sweet. If he is able to verbally express his emotions then he’s maturing. This is new for him.

Unfortunately, his oldest biological sister and Sean weighed in. Both of them encouraged him to take down the post because it made him sound like a “little b*tch.” I have no idea why but this seems to be a persistent family value from long ago. Be a man. Don’t be “soft,” whatever that means.

I hope that Luke and I have influenced the way Marcus treats women. I’d like to think he’ll continue to grow to be more like Luke. Every step we take it seems that history is there to fight us. Marcus is caught between the values of our home and those he grew up with. Parenting Marcus is a lot like un-parenting his past. I am still fighting my way upstream.

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



The Scars I Wear

I wear them proudly like so many medals. Three parallel scars span my lower back along the spine. They mark the three back surgeries I’ve had. I don’t think they’re ugly. I think they are a part of me.

The skin on my lower back is discolored. Three years of constant heating pad application has changed my skin from smooth cream to mottled marble. I don’t think this is ugly. I think it is a part of me.

Five years ago my body was black and blue from the bruises left by a violent daughter. I hid the marks with long sleeves and long pants. I politely insisted my husband wasn’t hurting me over several doctor’s visits. I avoided looking at myself in the mirror. I was ashamed then. I felt ugly.

Five years ago the children had so many tantrums that I didn’t have a minute to myself. They were so frantic about getting food that they would take mine and throw it on the floor. Sean and Mary woke up between 3 and 10,000 times every night. They rarely ran on the same schedule. All the not-sleeping and not-eating left me 30 pounds lighter.

My clothes hung on me like oversized drapes. My hip bones dug painfully into hard chairs. I could count each prominent rib. Huge sweaters hid my bones and bruises. It was ugly. It was scary. I was ashamed. Why couldn’t I control these kids? Why was it all so hard?

I no longer have these bruises. I am not bony and cold and tired. I have (thankfully) a new doctor who understands a bit about parenting children with mental illness.

When a door bursts open quickly or slams in the wind I flinch away. I still cringe a bit when I hear a toddler screaming at the store. It takes a minute to remember it’s someone else’s very small child. It’s not my daughter running at me with a knife. It’s not a person almost my height armed with whatever furniture is nearby.

Some scars have earned their place on me. None were anticipated. All of them are worn with pride. They tell me I am strong. They tell me I survive. They tell the story of me.

I am beautiful.

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


Birthday Wars

I can understand the impulse that Marcus has to punch walls. Sometimes I feel the same way. If I have ever given the impression that I am really good at all of this therapeutic parenting stuff, I’m sorry. Adopting children with developmental trauma is far from easy. If it ever seems like this doesn’t affect me then I’ve misled you. It can really, REALLY get to me. This ongoing war on trauma is draining all of my reserves.

Things can be going well and then BOOM, trauma launches a surprise attack. This past week Mary had her 12th birthday. She hit puberty right when she turned 11 and things have calmed down since then. Mary’s been doing excellent work in her therapeutic boarding school. We’ve been having great home visits. It’s all good, right? Not so much.

Luke and I usually do the same thing for every child’s birthday. They get a dinner of their choice.  We each go around the table and say a special “appreciation” about them. My mother typically bakes a cake. Then, usually that weekend, we throw a party. They can choose among a few venues and have either friends or family in attendance. We limit the number of guests in order to keep things low-key.

Mary in particular can be overwhelmed by large celebrations or breaks in her routine. Her birthday presents and party don’t mean that much to her. For the most part she obsesses about what foods she will have but she also enjoys shredding wrapping paper. The week leading up to her party she discusses food endlessly and checks several times to be sure she will have some.

This year was a bit different because she’s at a residential school. They had two separate celebrations at the school for her. She went off-grounds early in the week with her “advocate” which is a staff member each child is assigned as a primary caregiver. Mary chose her favorite, the Chinese buffet.

She also picked the day of her birth for a school party. We all had to refuse the Chinese buffet on this day because of the number of guests from school. Her final party was to be her family party with us.

At her school, birthdays always start with the child waking up to a special personalized poster the art teacher crafts just for them. A floor supervisor sneaks in at night and hangs it up in the child’s room. This year Mary got a pineapple in her favorite colors. After a special breakfast followed by classes, the staff threw her a party with school friends. They had karaoke, dancing and served her requested dinner of shrimp scampi. Her gifts were clothes, jewelry and new Adidas sneakers.

The family party was on a full day pass where we would once again go to the Chinese buffet, followed by a movie. Our present was a portable DVD player for her dorm room and several DVDs. As a general rule we only provide those crazy-expensive brand name sneakers at Christmas time once a child reaches the teen years. We try not to buy into the designer label thing, but once the kids get to middle school we accept it.

This year we spent many a FaceTime or a phone call discussing Mary’s three upcoming celebrations. We planned out every detail but mostly the food. She sounded excited and even appreciative. She appeared to be handling the elaborate birthday week well.

When things seem to be going well it always fools me. Unbeknownst to me Mary had begun calling all of the other people on her call list to beg for a third trip to the Chinese buffet. She can be really convincing when she persuades people that Luke and I don’t take care of her. This year she told people no one was celebrating with her at all.

I started to get calls and text messages from multiple people asking if they could pick her up on her birthday so she wouldn’t be “alone.” Never mind the fact that she requested a school party with friends, now she wanted to skip it for Chinese food. The worst part for me was that Mary stressed to people how her family doesn’t do anything for her.

She told them we wouldn’t be visiting her, we wouldn’t get her presents, and we never call her. Most everyone knows this isn’t true but it still really hurts. Luke and I got a reputation around town about not really putting an effort into these “adopted kids” thanks to Sean. Now it chills me to the bone that Mary is starting to do the exact same thing.

We planned the three birthday celebrations to her own specifications and she seemed delighted. Now she turns around and laments her misfortune to other people. What in the actual heck?!?

Logically I know she does this as part of her developmental trauma. The impulse to survive is strong with her. I suppose in her mind Chinese food equates survival and she’ll get that third meal any way she can. Regardless, it cuts me deeply when she straight up lies about us in regards to the things we work really hard at.

It’s horrible to hear she’s told people we don’t communicate with her. Telling others she won’t get presents is also hurtful. Because the school provided expensive gifts, she got double what her siblings did this birthday. She also got every single item she requested (which we generally don’t do.) It eviscerates me that she can beg others to save her. All of our elaborate planning and now she claims no one is celebrating her birthday. We worked really, really hard on all of this!

If she could tell people actual things we do that she doesn’t like it would be so much better. Making up these lies just pours vinegar into an open wound. I don’t know what else to say except that it hurts me beyond physical pain. After five years she’s still more interested in food than in her family. Mary is growing to be more and more like Sean.

I was able to discuss it with her. I firmly reiterated the plans we’d all agreed to. No matter what she said we would be following the schedule already set. I told her that it’s wrong and hurtful to make up stories about her family. She just sighed and said, “OK, mommy.” I could practically hear her eye-roll through the phone.

By the time I showed up for her day pass I was ready to spit nails. I am so sick of being portrayed as a mother who doesn’t care. Someone who didn’t want to adopt. Someone who exerts little to no effort. Someone who doesn’t try. In fact, by the time I signed her out for the day I honestly didn’t care if she liked her party or not. Either way she was going to say it never happened, right?

Then Mary pulled out a little bag. Inside there was one present for every member of our family. She told me that she had taken on extra chores to earn money. She did it to buy us all gifts for her birthday. I was floored. It says something about her that she wants us all to feel included in celebrating her special day. Perhaps there is hope after all.

I suppose we can’t win all of the battles but we might just win this war.

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