adoption, family

When the Grass is Greener: Residential Treatment

That old adage about the first year of marriage “being the hardest” is a myth. When I married Luke ten years ago, I had no idea what it would really be like. It was a whirlwind of anticipation. At the time, I wondered what the grass really looked like on the other side.

The first year of marriage wasn’t hard. The first year was delightful. It was filled with blustery New England storms. They’re called “Nor’Easters” and I love them.

Luke and I would curl up together in front of our apartment’s floor-to-ceiling windows. We listened to the wind howl as a soft white blanket covered the world. We’d sip hot, exotically flavored, coffee Luke would brew. I’d clutch my mug of “almond toffee” or “coco-mocha” and tuck my feet underneath my new husband’s lap. My hands and toes would warm me into a languid, dreamy state of contentment.

Old folk sayings never do these things justice.

“Everything happens for a reason.”

Then why did all of these terrible things happen to our children before we knew them?? Why weren’t we there at the beginning?

“The grass isn’t always greener on the other side”

It is greener. Being married to Luke is sooo much better than before-Luke. Our daughter’s residential treatment center is sooo much better than the psychiatric treatment facility where she was. 

I didn’t realize how effective the residential school would be. I didn’t realize how much good they would do for our daughter. I didn’t realize how supportive they would be to our whole family. I didn’t know how much it would hurt. They are doing what we could not.

Mary is finally in a place that truly understands developmental trauma. The non-profit that runs this residential school specializes in adoption-related difficulties. They know complex trauma inside and out. They use effective, evidence-based treatment models. They all communicate. The staff are all well trained and on the same page. Mary is being kept safe.

I’ve never heard her take ownership of any part of her treatment. Lately she’s been talking about what she can do to reach goals that she has set for herself. She’s responding to the structure and boundaries of this place. Hugs are for families, not staff. Mary cannot call any of the staff “mom” or “dad.” She doesn’t sit in laps or snuggle the staff. They gently remind her about what her family is there for.

She isn’t allowed to call me between 10 and 30 times per day to scream at me when she is unhappy. Instead, she is encouraged to build better family relationships. She may call once a day and she is explicitly taught about how to speak to her parents respectfully.

The best/worst part is that it is all working. We are having pleasant visits. We enjoy our phone calls with Mary. She is making connections about what they are trying to teach her. I know we are only at the very beginning of residential treatment but I have such newfound hope. So far it’s everything we weren’t able to help her with and more. The grass is so very green here.

“Jealousy is a green-eyed monster.”

I am so jealous. I am this monster. Why couldn’t we have accomplished this at home?

Their program is nearly identical to what the kind of therapeutic parenting we practice. The relational model we use is the same. We don’t have their staffing. We didn’t get their results. It hurts.

This first year of RTC is shaping up to be so successful. Will it be the hardest? I don’t know.

“Hindsight is 20/20”

What I do know is that ten years into marriage, I can look back and laugh at my worries. Perhaps, when she’s been safely at home for ten years, I will look back and see the same. Until then I will curl up with Luke while the wind is howling. I still have a warm place to tuck in my feet while we wait out the storm.

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

adoption, family

Wherein I Suck

Here is where I suck. I want to be therapeutic as a mom. I want to help my children. Being a parent is a huge part of my identity.

But sometimes? I suck at it. I just want to have some fun and enjoy my family. Having kids with trauma, kids with teenage hormone changes, kids with psychiatric conditions or basically just human children prevents that. I can’t have the fun Mom experiences I feel like everyone else (but me) is having.

Marcus had been in a great mood since starting his new job. He is making friends, feeling good. So I’ve done what no sane mother would do here. I’ve avoided him. I didn’t even realize I was doing it until it occurred to me I hadn’t seen Marcus in three days. I skipped our nightly Phase 10 game with him. I took a bath, instead.

I think I’m scared that Marcus’ pattern will continue. I’m protecting myself when I should be connecting with him. He’s older and he needs more connection experiences to feel grounded and safe. And I, apparently, need another bubble bath.

Carl has been waking us up in the middle of every. Single. Night. He’s also been having meltdowns over nothing. If something goes wrong, like when he broke the third can opener, he yells at me. It’s clearly my fault. If he isn’t drinking enough water for his lacrosse practice it’s my fault. Did I mention he threw a plastic cup filled with water because of this? Also my fault. I’m not sure you can hydrate your body via carpet, but, whatever. His choice.

The next morning Carl yelled and snapped at me all morning. I refused to engage. He kept at it. I quit helping him. He kept at it. I stated that we would discuss his restitution later when we were both more calm. He did the eye-roll-snap-at-mom-for-being-stupid combo.

So I did what any sane mom getting sucked into a pre-pubescent argument would do. I yelled back.

“You’re grounded!”

“FINE!!” he screamed back as he got on the bus for school.

Those were the last words we said to each other as he walked out the door. Great. It’s been a theme this week. I’m fairly certain I need another bubble bath with my Eucalyptus aromatherapy suds.

Someone else, please take a peak around. Am I still a mother? Do I have to?? Because this week I really suck at it! This week I’d rather do something else, please. Are any positions open for a professional bubble bath aficionado?

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

adoption, family

Fragile Peace

There is a fragile peace that lies somewhere between contentment and heartbreak. Lately I’ve felt more at ease about Mary. She is in a top notch private residential school. They know all about complex, developmental trauma. They understand the deep attachment struggles. I think that if anyone can help her, maybe they can. This comforts me when missing her rips away at my insides and keeps me up at night.

In a fragile kind of truce, Marcus and I are existing. After having the outburst where he smashed a TV in the basement (it was his own, he was waiting to sell it) he went dark. First, he cleaned up the glass and the wreckage. Then Marcus holed up in his room and spoke to no one, only sending angry texts to me occasionally.

The drama was apparently related to a girl. He loves her. He loves her as much as I love Luke. He can’t stand to be away from her. I never even gave her a chance/believe him/acknowledge his feelings. He is trapped here like an animal. He is caged in. Or so he says…I refused to have the fight. I  let him know that I wasn’t arguing with him and that I loved him. I’ve had a lot of practice at not taking the bait.

On the fourth day I went into his room and sat down at the edge of his bed. The last text just said that I was the mom and he was supposed to be able to talk to his mom about his feelings. He was cloaked in darkness and speaking in the softest whisper. I wasn’t allowed to turn on the light. He told me all about the girl, his feelings, how deep his love was for her. I’m pretty sure he dumped her a year ago because he didn’t like her anymore. Marcus is always back and forth this way.

I did the thing that I do best. I held him while he cried. I told him that he must be very heartbroken. I acknowledged the love he claimed, the depression, the fate of star-crossed lovers everywhere. And then I faced the thing I did not want to face. His move-out pattern. I told him if he chose to move back to that other state, into the city with those old friends, then I would support his decision.

He isn’t trapped. He’s asked to be here. He’s a grown man. But I made it clear that he didn’t need to start a huge fight with me to do it. I wasn’t going to make it easy by participating in the, “I-hate-you-I’ll-never-speak-to-you-again.” ritual. If he wanted a fight he’d have to do it without me.

So now we wait. Everything seems quiet. Marcus started a new job. Since our non-argument, I haven’t heard about the girl. Maybe the storm has passed.

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

adoption, family

Kidnapping the Kid

Carl and I needed a day off. We needed a break from being at home, being around the Marcus-drama, and being swamped with responsibilities. Frankly, I also needed a parenting “win.” Out of all the children, Carl is the one I feel like I can really get through to. Connecting with me is somehow easier for him and, consequently, very rewarding for me.

He’s been having a hard time at home. Bursts of anger and tantrums we haven’t seen for a long time have come out. School is going well for Carl right now, and that’s a huge plus. However, he is showing fear about the bathroom and about bedtime again. Luke and I did the normal rounds with therapy and the psychiatrist.

Still, I felt like he could use a little one-on-one time to connect. Sunday was a perfect day, with low humidity (less back pain) and sunshine aplenty. So I surprised him with a trip to the zoo, just the two of us. Luke was working and Marcus was locked in his room, not speaking to anyone. It was time for some fun.

Carl absolutely loves animals so the trip was a hit. We saw zebras and elephants and giraffes. We learned about the zoo’s efforts to rescue animals that had been domesticated for unsavory purposes. Carl didn’t even mind my plentiful use of the benches. He just took off to see an exhibit, then reported back to me.

At 12, I feel his childhood slipping away. I try to grasp onto it while I still can. He’s almost my height now and he has a tiny mustache (which he completely denies!) On days like this I can still get him to begrudgingly let me kiss his cheeks or give him “squishes.”

It goes like this:

Me: Just let me kiss those adorable cheeks. Please please please please please!

Carl: (eye-roll) I don’t want to!

Me: But I’ll buy you that sweatshirt you want at the gift shop. Just two more kisses!!!

Bystanders: (lots of horrified stares)

By now I’m used to people staring at Carl and me when we are out. We certainly don’t look related. Out of our entire family I have the lightest skin and he has the darkest. It can lead to awkward exchanges explaining adoption. Sometimes people ask if I’m his tutor or his babysitter.

I sort of realized belatedly (read: when Carl told me) that the zoo patrons were under this very same impression. Only this time it seemed wildly inappropriate. They must have been thinking something along the lines of:

“What a pervy babysitter. Where are that boys parents?”

“Does he know the creepy lady that’s offering to buy him things if he lets her kiss his cheek?”

“Did that crazy white lady kidnap that poor Hispanic boy?!?!!”

Luckily we left before the police or park security showed up. Whew! I still got my parenting win.

I swear I didn’t kidnap him! No really, he’s my son!!

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

adoption, family

The Coming Storm

I’ve felt it coming. The oncoming of a storm settles itself deep into my lower back. The pelting rain and thunder is on its way. A real nor’easter is bearing down on us. The constant throbbing in my right hip repeats to me, “it’s coming, it’s coming.”

On these mornings I am frozen in bed, my muscles locked up and uncooperative. Attempting to move causes my bones to crack. My sacroiliac joints groan in protest. I am like the tin man without his oil. A half hour on the heating pad and some Tylenol help me to get to a functioning level of chronic back pain. Each groan and crack is whispering to me, “No matter what you try you will always end up back in this place. Always.”

We are seven months into Marcus’ latest return. The old wounds are still there, but just like anything else, we are learning to work around them. To be more accurate, I am learning to work around them. I am learning to stay so quiet. I am hoping not to rock the boat.

Over the last few weeks I can see him getting closer to me. Like a drowning man, he seeks the comfort of my life raft. Tighter and tighter he clings.

What he doesn’t realize is that each time he climbs into this raft, we all capsize. He mistakenly believes it will help him weather the storm inside of him. I want to believe it, too. Survival. This is what he knows.

But I know things, too. I am familiar with Marcus’ storm. Like the cracking of thunder he begins to smash things in the basement. The punching bag coping skill just isn’t working this time. Our house shakes in time to the thunder. Marcus is slamming doors and shouting loud guttural cries that have no words.

I’ve said no to taking my car out to “visit a friend” in the storm. It seems another storm has now moved in. A mere nor’easter is nothing compared to the Marcus storm. I felt it coming in my bones long before now. “He’s too close. He’s too comfortable,” they told me. “Soon he will be gone.”

Part of me wonders how we got here. Part of me knows how. We’ve been coming to this point ever since adoption finalization. Part of me wonders when it all began. Part of me knows it began long before I was ever in the picture.

All of me wonders if tonight is the night. Will he stay?

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

adoption, family

The Quietest Mother


I have to approach so slowly, so cautiously. Marcus is crying. It’s rare for him to ever cry out loud. Instead he will sit with silent tears streaming, unchecked, down his face. He is a statue of sorrow.

The well of hurt and loss inside him runs so deep. He isn’t like his other siblings. He hasn’t had the benefits of good therapy. He hasn’t had the benefit of a stable family, a place to stay longer than a few months. Foster care has trained him to be an island.

He’s crying. He needs his mom. He needs me. Marcus hates needing a mom. In the past, every time we have gotten close, he’s run. He will put as much distance between us as possible. He is a young man now but we’ve done this dance for years.

Eventually, he always returns. Then we continue the dance all over again. Perhaps, this time, he won’t notice me. I will be so quiet he won’t even notice a mother has crept up on him.

I try not to say “I love you,” too much. Even after the adoption I still tread lightly. I try not to show those deep feelings that so often spook him. I hug him sparingly and only if I warn him first. Keep things light, I tell myself. Don’t scare him off. Try to keep him this time.

In this moment I am so very quiet. I say in my softest whisper, “I’m going to hug you now.” Quietly, so quietly, I place my arms around him. And then suddenly he’s crushing his face into my shoulder. His embrace is fierce and tight. My sweater soaks up all his tears.

I stay like this, completely still, while he cries it all out. Later, he may resent having exposed this much emotion to me. Still, I stay. My legs go numb and my back is on fire. He is crushing me. I say nothing. I just stay here. I am the quietest mother.

Please stay, Marcus. I want you to stay.

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

adoption, family

Portrait of Pain

It hurts. Pain is a slippery thing to define. Like grains of sand, the words seem to slip through my fingers. At the doctor’s office there is a scale with emojis in various stages of frowning. This is how I am supposed to measure my pain. A scale from 1-10. How can a number convey what this feels like?

It hurts. I choose words like throbbing, stabbing, constant ache. I mention hot electric shocks running down the back of my right leg. The muscle spasms in my right side are grabbing, squeezing, deep and unbearable. My hips feel so sore that when it rains I walk the tin man without his oil.

It hurts. My daughter isn’t here. She doesn’t want to talk to me on the phone. We didn’t buy her a live white tiger cub for her birthday so she has found a new mom. Mary hasn’t called us since her birthday. When I call her she proudly proclaims her new “valentine” is who she will be with now. She calls her godmother every single day. It is always a woman she chooses.

It hurts. I am glad she has her godparents. I feel lucky they are understanding about attachment disorders. They don’t believe her when she says that we don’t provide for her, love her, or meet her needs. She still says it, though. Manipulation is her survival skill.

It hurts. The new Residential Center where she is now living understands. We are having a meeting with clinicians today to discuss her phone calls and how to set appropriate boundaries. One of the reasons she is there is to learn how to handle relational models. You cannot beat someone physically until they buy something you want. You cannot trade moms in for newer models.

It hurts. I am back at work full time. I sit in a chair. I walk down the halls. I always feel like my lower half is on fire. Every step I take is one step closer to convincing me I need the revision surgery my doctor is recommending. A constant, burning ache engulfs my lower back. It engulfs my heart. It hurts.

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