adoption, family, fostercare

Blogs From the Shower: Adventures in PTSD

I am naked. I am wet. I am soapy and I am blogging. At least I am alone. The shower is my refuge today. I feel that I’ve earned some alone time and this is the absolute last place of refuge where I can be alone. My kids are easily triggered when I spend any amount of time in the bathroom so I do not take this lightly. Little Carl is riding the PTSD symptom train at warp speed this week and I need a break. Don’t get me wrong, I’m relatively used to dealing with the symptoms of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder in our children. All four of the siblings we are adopting from foster care have this diagnosis. This particular DX is very common among kids in foster care. After all, they are usually in care for a reason. As far as foster moms blogging from the shower? I’m not entirely sure how common that is. But I highly recommend it!

Little Carl has been having flashbacks lately. They usually occur during mealtimes or in the kitchen. He will re-enact scenes from his early childhood of domestic abuse he witnessed in the home.It’s sort of like a soldier returning from war. He is reacting as if he is still in an unsafe and scary place. He is underweight and tiny for a 9-year-old boy, but when he yells he sounds like a grown man. “Your gonna learn it now! you’re gonna get it now!” he tells me. “I’m going to use full-force and I’m going to hurt you!” He will stop when my husband comes around. When I took him to the psychiatrist’s office yesterday he was absolutely silent. As we were leaving the office I took his little pencil box because he isn’t allowed to take it into the partial hospitalization program with him. He lost it. He grabbed me and pushed me and fought for that box like he was fighting for his life. Taking things away from our kids, no matter how inconsequential to us, can be a huge trigger for them. It triggers all of the feelings they experienced when there wasn’t enough food or supervision or heat. Basic resources that we take for granted can be trauma triggers.

Carl screamed at me, “I hate her! Everything is all HER FAULT!” It took a few staff members to separate him from me when dropped him off at his partial hospitalization placement. He was referencing his bio-mom but I’m not even sure what brought out those words. Often Carl struggles with family loyalty and insists that he bio-mom did everything she was supposed to in order to parent them. Deep down he remembers the domestic abuse, violence, and neglect that they experienced while living with their bio-mom. Unfortunately for me I happen to be the only mom in his immediate presence. This means that I bear the brunt of his anger towards her.

His therapist later called and reported that Carl had a tantrum at the PHP program. He ended up hiding behind a filing cabinet and refusing to come out. Carl often hides like this, particularly after having a rage incident. He claims to be afraid that someone is going to hurt him. It may sound ironic coming from the boy who just spent a good amount of effort hurting everyone and everything around him, but his fear is real. When he is in a heightened state of anger, I believe that he is truly afraid. He is remembering what happened to him and taking it out in those around him. He is flashing back to a time when he may have been physically hurt for acting out. No matter how safe he is here, he must feel it on an emotional level in order to let go of survival skills, like hiding, that no longer serve a purpose. It is maladaptive skill when it comes to, say, shopping in a crowded mall.

PTSD comes with nightmares, flashbacks, and fits of rage. It doesn’t take much to trigger Carl’s “fight or flight” response. He is also hypervigilent. He knows the location of every exit to every public place he’s ever been in. His fear response is on the alert to what everyone around him is doing. Large crowds are overwhelming for Carl because it’s impossible to monitor every adult and monitor for every possible danger in a large area. When Carl is overstimulated he becomes “hyper-aroused.” This looks a lot like ADHD. His eyes dart everywhere and he literally bounces off walls and runs around in every direction. In this way he is controlling his feelings of insecurity and danger-alert. It’s a survival mode for him.

Through the nightmares and the rages I can always see his fear and his hurt. It may sound counter-productive, but we do not give punitive consequences for fear-based behaviors. If he steals money and food, we offer understanding and love. We allow Carl to keep non-perishables in his room in order to feel safe. He no longer requires a huge amount, but a few granola bars can help him to believe that he will never “run out” of food. When we caught him stealing money, we sat him down and hugged him. We promised to love him forever and to provide for all of his needs. We brainstormed some ways to earn money and where he could keep it to feel it was “safe.” Together we came up with ways that Carl could repay the money. Here is the proof that our love is working; Carl didn’t hide from us. He trusted us enough to handle these conversations without running under his bed. He used to hide all the time behind doors, under blankets, and even in small cabinets or behind furniture. When we acknowledge his fear and his hurt, when we re-affirm his safety, we are building a place for him as our son. A safe place.

Today was just a day that he was able to express the fact that a lot of his fear is about his bio-mom. Even though he was grabbing me and pushing me in the moment, it was her that he was yelling at. He kept saying, “Stop leaving me! I hate you!” He screamed, “You take everything from me. I want my dogs back. I want my family. You can’t hurt me!”

Here’s the thing. I let him get his rage out. I stayed with him and encouraged him to let all of the “mad” out of his little body. I am proud of Carl. I’m not proud that my kid tried to hurt me today. I’m proud that he expressed his pain and rage about what has happened to him. I’m extra proud that he actually mentioned her, that other mom, in his rage.

A lot of times children in foster care will build up a fantasy about their bio-family. They will believe that this family was somehow wronged by a mistaken system. Carl has been like that for awhile. He would defend the fact that she was drunk or that she would leave them home alone. Today was one of the first days that Carl expressed his anger. He expressed his hurt that she didn’t fight to get them back.

When it was all over he sobbed in my arms. We held hands and said a prayer for her that she finds peace and makes better choices. We thought of three good memories that he can hold onto about her. And I also acknowledged that Carl’s anger and pain were justified. I assured him that Luke and I would always be there and that bio-mom can have a supervised visit when and if she is ever ready for one.

He was still upset at bedtime but he didn’t hide. Hiding is a survival skill that served Carl well in his bio-home where there was a lot of domestic violence.  It has taken a long time to convince him that I am the mommy that should find him to keep him safe.

The outcome of my shower time is simple. I get a few minutes alone to blog and process the day. Luke gets the kids ready for bed while I’m getting clean. I don’t even  realize what a significant breakthrough this is for Carl until it’s my bedtime. It’s been a long day and I have a crashing migraine. Luke has tuck-in duty for the little kids so I can  lie down in the dark.

Carl sneaks into our bedroom and I feel something cold and wet. He’s placed a damp wash cloth on my forehead. Then he tiptoes out of the room and returns to his own bed. He doesn’t say a word to me or try to take credit. He doesn’t wish to be acknowledged. He only wants to help.

It’s moments like this when I can see him allowing himself to love me. No matter how many scary and traumatic “mom” memories he has to overcome, Carl is trying. He is trying to show me that he can love a mom. He is trying to trust a mom. He is trying me. And how lucky am I? The more he faces those scary memories, the more he will be able to live in a world where it is safe. The more he will be able to trust.

I am so lucky that I get to be the “post” part of his traumatic experiences. I can show him a new way to be in a family. I can enjoy a little time alone in the shower. I can enjoy the cold wash cloth on my forehead. Someday we will be finished with the PTSD symptoms. On that day Luke and I will still be left with our son. Our wonderful, resilient, amazing son. He is the survivor. We are the lucky ones!

 

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

**If you’ve ever considered fostering or adopting, I encourage you to get started on your own adventure!

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I Pierced It Myself: Adventures in Adopting a “Troubled Teen”

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Marcus is on the left, Sean is on the right.

“I Pierced It Myself. With a sewing needle. I did it while I was at The Program,” he mumbles. It’s a woman’s earring in his lower lip on the right side. He claims it gets stuck to his pillow at night when he sleeps. He is a 16-year-old Hispanic boy with curly black hair and a soft-spoken voice. His pants sag down below his hips.He gazes downward and only fleetingly makes eye contact. He is quite possibly the skinniest, tiniest teenager I’ve ever seen at barely 5 feet tall and about 90 pounds. His manners are impeccable and he thanks us several times for the meal we are providing for him at Friendly’s.

How could this tiny little thing have caused all of the trouble he’s been in? The “program” he refers to is a group home for teenaged boys in the foster care system who have serious behavioral issues. As he talks he continues to tell stories of fights he’s been in and arguments he’s had. One story centers around stealing a bike and another is about telling off a bus driver. He has recently been suspended for leaving class and  swearing at his principal.

This is the first time we are meeting Marcus. We requested this meeting through the many social workers involved in our case including the Intensive Foster agency that handles Marcus’ case. Marcus is the biological older brother of the sibling group we are adopting through DCF. We are bringing home Mary, 7, Carl, 8 and Sean, 13. They don’t often see Marcus and they haven’t lived with him since being in their bio home 3 years ago. And yet. And yet, there is something. Something that tells Luke and I to look further into this boy’s case. He has made it clear he doesn’t wish to be adopted. He has said so for years. His record reads like a laundry list of conduct disordered characteristics. And yet.

When we first started the process with our sibling group we learned that they had an older brother. He was described to us as “troubled.” He had been to Juvenile Hall for violating his probation. He was on probation for a B&E charge (breaking and entering) from robbing a local convenience store with friends. Marcus had a checkered placement history of bouncing from home to home. When we went to the disclosure meeting for the three kids we asked for information about Marcus. His social worker was hesitant because Marcus himself refused to participate in the adoption process and was very vocal about not being adopted.

We researched a bit and almost all sources will tell you that keeping sibling groups intact is the best thing for all parties. I had never thought of it before, but sibling relationships are usually the longest relationship you keep within a lifetime. For our children who had lost so much, shouldn’t they at least have each other? At first Marcus was in the group home when we started visiting with Mary, Carl, and Sean. I offered to visit him there. His worker laughed and assured me it wasn’t the best idea because Marcus wouldn’t want to meet us. And yet. I wouldn’t be deterred.

Luke and I petitioned to get DCF to set up a meeting. Just a visit between the siblings? We offered to take them all somewhere. At the very least, maybe this 16-year-old boy would come to accept us as a support or a resource. He was welcome to come for holidays or maybe stay for overnights. Even if he wanted to age out of the system, where would he go at Thanksgiving? At Christmas? Who did he have?

We felt like he needed us. We never bargained on how much we would need him.

On this day we took my mother, the three younger children, and Marcus to Friendly’s for lunch. After that we went to the zoo. The first thing we noticed were his many, many stories about being the strongest toughest kid around. Stories with highly inappropriate language usually followed by an “oops, sorry.” The second thing we noticed was that in every story, in every fight, every argument, every confrontation, Marcus felt that he was defending someone. He felt like he had to be the protector. This tiny little kid in a huge sweatshirt on a 78 degree day was apparently the champion of the world. And he would not take the sweatshirt off. I even offered to carry it for him!

After lunch, I pulled Luke aside. I was worried. Was this good for Sean? We certainly wouldn’t want Sean to pick up this kind of language or the idea that getting into trouble was a noble thing to do. Luke shrugged and said, “Marcus’ barely talking to us. Let’s see how it goes with the kids. Just wait.” I glanced over at Marcus who was taunting an exotic bird, telling the bird it was “ugly.”

I hate to admit it but I watched him out of the corner of my eye the whole time. I was nervous. I wasn’t sure what he would do or say. I couldn’t even tell if he was enjoying the trip. All I had to go off of was his simple, “Yeah, I’ll come. I like animals,” that he had given me on the phone immediately followed by, “Can I talk to my brother, please?”

Mary, Carl and Sean hadn’t seen Marcus in a little over two months. I later learned that before coming on this visit, they’d only seen him a few times that entire year. Marcus told his foster-mother that he was very nervous about coming because he hadn’t been around his siblings in so long, he didn’t know how to act. I think he was worried about how much they would remember him. What he found was that they looked up to him. Their love for Marcus was second nature.

By the time we got into the petting section of the zoo I was feeling a bit more comfortable. Maybe Marcus wasn’t fond of me or my husband, but he very clearly loved his brothers and sister. Mary started to fuss over all of the walking so Marcus just picked her up. Never mind that she was half his size and that he was already sweating profusely underneath that massive sweatshirt, he just scooped her up and carried her. Mary lay her head down on his shoulder and calmed down instantly. It was beautiful. It was what we had wanted for them.

There were tiny goats and baby sheep inside a petting area. If you put quarters in a machine, you could get pellets to feed the animals by hand. Carl’s eyes lit up and he ran over shouting, “Can I feed them oh please, please, please.” I stared at the machine and unsuccessfully tried to find the swiping strip for debit cards. “I’m so sorry Carl, but I didn’t bring any cash or coins. Maybe next time,” I told him. I turned away and continued on, only to realize that Carl and Marcus weren’t with me. Marcus was pouring quarters into that machine and giving food to Carl and Mary so they could feed the baby animals. They were delighted. Then he spent his last few dollars buying them ice cream and water bottles. Mary and Carl clung to Marcus and begged him to carry them and take pictures with them. He patiently acquiesced to every request no matter how odd. At one point Carl yelled, “I need to walk on your feet!” Throughout that entire trip, Marcus spoke softly and calmly to his siblings. I guess he saved all of that noise and vitriol for the “ugly” bird!

Over the next months we took him on regular day trips with the family. He began to thaw little by little. If I asked him to come somewhere his response was always, “I wouldn’t mind it.” One day I saw him sitting on the floor with Mary playing pop-up-Disney-princess. Another time he let her put a headband in his hair. Marcus spent an entire Saturday afternoon organizing some sort of Lego tournament between all 4 siblings. It was a day that I was exhausted and worn out. I sat on the couch and soaked up the silence while they Lego-battled in the basement.

The best part was watching Marcus and Sean come together and build a relationship they hadn’t had for the last 3 years. They spent more hours laughing and joking than anything else the first year. Marcus became a regular staple during family outings and activities. He visited every Saturday, then every Sunday, and eventually stayed for overnight visits every weekend and school vacation. Little by little he began leaving personal items at our house. A pair of shoes or an unidentified toothbrush would show up. Tentative little pieces of Marcus.

With teenagers I always mourned the “firsts” that I would miss. First steps, first day of Kindergarten, first school dance, first school concert.  With Marcus, everything was new. Everything seemed like a first. We took the family to an aquarium and he was fascinated by the beluga whales. His whole face lit up. “Look! There’s freakin’ whales EVERYWHERE! Oops. Sorry.”

Marcus wanted to play the piano so my mother taught him the notes for, “You Are My Sunshine.” He had never heard it before. We started to see more of his personality. He was energetic and loud.He enthusiastically accompanied us to the zoo or children’s museums. Each activity was new and exciting for him, just like a little kid. He cracked jokes and did impressions for us. He filled every event with his laughter and boisterous charm.

He began to express his feelings about our family in small ways. He duct-taped the rear light on our car when it broke. He replaced light bulbs and mowed the lawn at our house. Every once in awhile if I was rubbing Sean’s shoulders her would say, “My shoulders hurt a little bit,” and I would rub his, too. One day he brought me his report card and let me put it on the fridge. Sometimes he slipped and called me “mom.”

I was always surprised by how much time he wanted to spend with Luke and I. Marcus was especially close to Luke. He watched movies with us on Saturday nights when everyone else went to bed. He worked on anything Luke worked on around the house. He started calling Luke, “Old Man.” He wanted us to watch him performing card tricks. He completed puzzles and art projects and played board games with us. And he laughed. All the time.

We started to slowly bring up the topic of Marcus moving in. Would he want to come? One day he called me crying. He wanted to come “home.” He wanted a mom and a dad. I jumped at the chance to assure him we wanted him. He told me he was scared that we would give up on him.

A few months later he cut off contact with us. The TPR (termination of parental rights) trial loomed ahead this month. Marcus was back in contact with his bio-mom and older sisters. He was so angry with us and I could not fathom why. It was as if the bottom dropped out of my world. He began to insist he would live with his bio-family. He told his mentor and his lawyer and his social worker that he wanted to live with her.

He stated that I have too many hugs and made the children complete summer reading and clean their rooms. He couldn’t stand that I talked so much about family values, yet made the kids “do stuff.” It took a few weeks for me to realize that the part that really hurt him was  my love. My parenting. It was too much for him to take. He never got upset with Luke, though. It was me he just couldn’t accept while he was still in contact with her. For 8 weeks we heard nothing. No contact. The trial came and went. Parental rights were terminated. DCF retained permanent custody of Marcus and began to plan for him on an “independent living” track.

I mourned the loss of Marcus. I thought about him nonstop for the two months he was gone. How would he live independently? He didn’t even clip his own nails without my help! And then, finally, we got a call. He wanted to have a day visit with his siblings. He only wanted to talk to Luke, not me. My husband picked him up and explained that he had to be respectful no matter what. Marcus was cautious and quiet, but he came.

Then he began coming back for weekend day visits. Then overnights. Then we threw him a 17th birthday party with balloons and a cake and a present. He was surprised we would do all of that for him. He seemed completely baffled by the fact that we hadn’t given up on him despite the fact he tried so hard to push us away.

Soon things returned to their normal rhythm. Weekend visits, home improvement projects, day trips etc. Their bio-mom relapsed into old behavior problems. She wouldn’t visit with Marcus. She went back to Puerto Rico and left her new baby behind. Marcus finally began asking to come and live with us.

I know he wants to be with our family now. He can love me and still love her. She just isn’t capable of parenting and therefore she will never be able to take care for him. There is no need to choose, no competition. I just want permanency, stability, and happiness for all of these chickens

So here we are. He comes home (for good) tomorrow. His 2 hamsters have already moved in. This time, I’m the one who is nervous.  I’m not entirely sure I know if I can be the right kind of mother for him. Will I smother him? Disappoint him? Overwhelm him with my love? Probably. But after all, he’s not just a “troubled teen,” he’s also another one of our chickens. Probably the last. Welcome to our roost little chicken. I can’t wait for all of the new adventures (and misadventures) we are likely to experience.

Welcome home.

 

mscience

 

If you’ve ever considered fostering or adopting a teenager, I encourage you to start your own adventure!

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

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adoption, family, fostercare

“Ah-Ma”: Adventures in Regressive Behavior


“Ah-Ma!” She calls, “Ah-Ma help me! I need help!” She is calling to me in her littlest baby voice. My 8-year-old daughter, Mary is in the shower. It appears as though my new name is “Ah-Ma.” She cries and wails that someone must wash her hair and help her in the shower. She insists that her “Ah-Ma” must dress her after said shower. I assure her that I am there and I will sit outside the door while she puts her PJs on. She is on her own for help inside the shower but I promise to brush her hair when she is out. Then the sobbing starts. “I’m scared!” She yells, “I need you.” I reassure her of my presence, but I do not dispute her fear.  “You are scared, honey. Tell me about it,” I encourage her. She screams louder and louder and kicks her little feet against the plastic wall of the tub. So far, she isn’t kicking hard enough to endanger herself. I sit outside the bathroom door and continue to affirm her “big feelings.” I tell her she is scared and mad. I encourage her to scream louder, to let it all out. Finally she reaches that breaking point. Her sobs quiet into sniffles. I peek inside the bathroom. She’s reached one little hand outside of the shower curtain so I take it in mine and hold it. The shower curtain is between us but we are together in her hurts.

“Mary,” I tell her when she is quiet, “It sounds like you were afraid that you were all alone in the bathroom. It sounds like you were afraid and you needed mommy to take care of you. Why don’t you come out with your PJs on? I can dry your hair with the towel and brush it for you. Then I can hold you in your blankies.” She mumbles affirmation to my plan so I back out of the bathroom and wait. Through the door I can hear her muffled voice, “But what about my teeth?” I know that she is really asking me to brush them for her. I give her a choice. She can brush her teeth before holding or after holding. She chooses “after,” of course.

After I painstakingly dry and brush her hair, I wrap her up in her “blankies.” They are quite possibly the most intense-smelling pieces of fabric I’ve ever encountered. She hardly ever lets me wash them. They are two battered blankets chock full of holes and their colors range somewhere between taupe and puke-yellow. I’m pretty sure one of them was originally a dish towel. These “blankies” have followed her from her bio-home into a foster home, and now into her forever home. Our home.

As I hold her tightly I am reminded of a much younger child. She nestles into a warm little cocoon and becomes calmer. I rock her gently and hum meaningless tunes into her ear. She snuggles in closer and kisses my cheek. Mary begins to giggle and laugh as I tickle her neck. I place the palm of my hand on her cheek and whisper, ” My baby baby baby.”

In these moments I have all the warm fuzzy feelings that come from being “mom.” My heart is so full in these loving snuggle moments that it might burst! This is what every mother must feel like when soothing their infant or toddler. I feel strong in my ability to soothe her with my very presence. She is beginning to slowly trust that I will never leave.

When we first adopted “older” kids, friends were afraid we would miss all of the great “baby fun.” Like what? Diapers? No thanks. The thing about our kids, and many kids in foster care, is that they often didn’t get to experience a caregiver rocking and feeding them and taking care of their needs. At least, not all of the time. For example, our 8 and 9-year-olds thought they should make their own dinner when they first came to us. Mary got the stomach flu once and insisted on cleaning her own vomit until I forced her to accept that this was a “mom job” and she should go to bed. They just didn’t have enough of those basic bonding experiences. So once traumatized kids like ours start to feel secure with their primary caregivers, they begin to regress. This is, in fact, a good sign. Regression consists of exhibiting behaviors more typical for a younger child. Our kids are developmentally farther behind at least emotionally speaking. The more Luke and I are able to meet these basic needs, the more attached our children become to us. We meet them where they are developmentally and grow their little emotional states until they are ready for their chronological age. And if they never get there? Well, more cuddles for us.

Sean, at 14, loves to hang out with his mama. He gives more hugs than any teenager I’ve ever seen. He kisses me on the cheek and proudly shows off his art work. He wants me to follow certain TV shows that he is into. He wants to have a mom and kid book club with me. Trust me, I am not at all complaining. He even wanted me to chaperon his 8th grade dance. He told everyone (and I mean every kid there!) “Hey, my moms here.” He introduced his friends to me and stayed to help me clean up the dance. I think he was proud of me!

In the evenings, after Luke and I put the little chickens to bed, Sean flops belly down across my lap on the couch. Sean is roughly the size of the couch and I’m, well, not. Until he settles in I struggle to breathe but I hold him anyway, at least until my legs go numb. At 9 o’clock I tuck him into bed. I tuck the covers in around him and rub his back until he falls asleep. I lean in and whisper “My baby baby baby.” Sometimes he holds my hand against his cheek until he falls asleep.

Carl and Marcus are the tough ones in our family. They will argue and debate for hours. If you say left, they debate the merits of right. Once in awhile Carl loves to be wrapped up and rocked back and forth. I feed him from his water bottle and we play “baby” although he is 9. I’ve been told they will only regress for as long as they need it. I’m hoping Carl needs it for a very long time. I love to squish Carl up. I whisper to him, “My baby baby baby.” 17-year-old Marcus will leap into Luke’s arms saying, “Catch me Pops!” Marcus is never afraid of falling. Luke can catch us all. It’s hilariously funny but I suspect it’s also meaningful for Marcus. It’s probably a good thing he hasn’t reached 100 pounds yet.

It’s hard for me to fully imagine what it’s like to be hurting and alone without anyone to answer your cries. Since we brought our chickens home I sometimes have dreams that they leave us in some way or another. When this happens, I wake up with a start, somewhat panicked. Even in sleep, Luke can sense my discomfort. He wraps one strong arm around me and I am anchored in this reality. I’m home. After 8 years of marriage, turning to him is like breathing, it just comes naturally. I reflexively seek and get support. Luke gets the same from me, of course, and until now I almost didn’t realize how precious and valuable that is.  I’m not afraid of falling. Luke will always catch me.

Did we miss out on anything with older kids? In my opinion we lucked out. We are the luckiest. Go ahead and fall little chickens, we will catch you. Last night I drifted off on the couch snuggling with the chickens. I woke up to a gentle touch on my cheek. I heard a whispered, “My mama mama mama.” And I knew it was true.

If you’ve ever considered fostering or adopting I encourage you to get started on your adventure today!

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The Wrong Side Of Redemption: Adventures in Questioning Trauma and Loss

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“Who do you think was responsible for your removal from your bio-home?” This is the question our therapist raises to 9-year old Carl. He pauses for an impossibly long amount of time. He bows his head and says, “Mine. I used to be bad. It was all my fault.”  Never mind that they were removed during a drug raid when he was 5 years old. Never mind that he didn’t go quietly. He tried to physically fight his way through the police officers to get back into the home. To get to her.

This guilt is a weight that he carries always. It has been the permeating theme of all his subsequent relationships. He believes that he needs forgiveness. Redemption. He believes that he is not worth the love we give him. And we do give him love. Heaps and oodles and barrels full. It’s too much. He must react.

A full laundry basket flies at my face, hitting me in the lip. I’m not caught off-guard. I knew it was coming. It was the only thing left in his room to throw. Carl is yelling at me that he is bad. A bad kid. That he doesn’t need me. He doesn’t love me. I know better but I can’t say it in this moment. This is a moment I can’t help him in. I can stay with him and bear witness. I can attempt to prove my steadfast loyalty by standing with him through it all. Does he see this? Does he see me at all? Or is he still seeing her. The other one. The mom who came before me.

This week I visit him at the in-patient unit. He glances away and won’t meet my gaze. He is so tiny he looks like he is still 5. In a lot of ways he is still the 5-year-old boy who got off of his Kindergarten bus to a SWAT team outside his home. He is small and scared and this is what makes him fight. He fights against closeness. He fights against love. He fights against anything that tells him he is worth something. I want to tell him he is worth anything. He is worth the world! Unfortunately it triggers him.

During our visit I got to thinking about redemption. Carl has this equation all wrong. He is on the wrong side of it all. Carl doesn’t need to be redeemed. But she does. This case was riddled with severe neglect, physical abuse, and substance abuse. Our kids have been in care for 4 years now. Almost half of his life.

She had this time to seek her own redemption. She could have gotten clean, gone to her parenting class, and maintained employment. Sometimes she did. Lots of times she did not.  Instead she had another baby. She left this one behind as well. Right now she is refusing visits with our kids. These are not choices I myself would have made. I stay for the tantrums and the tears. I was there for the TPR. I stay for the spelling tests and the laundry and the stomach flu. I research books on attachment disorders and trauma. These are the choices I make.

So I have a question. Is she worth it? Is she worth redemption after all she has done to our broken little boy? The answer seems obvious to me. Of course she is. She has to be. And if she is worthy of redemption then it stands to reason that so am I. Mine is sought for different reasons. I seek redemption for feeling jealous of the attachment they still have for her. I want to be redeemed for all of the times I felt resentment at having to clean up her mess. And the anger comes for me too. When I see the damage she has done to my 4 little chickens I feel an incredible amount of anger. So it’s simple. She deserves redemption and so do I. Does Carl? Absolutely not. There is nothing from which to redeem him. He is an innocent.

And there are other things. The things I get to keep. I taught him “This Little Piggy Went To Market” and he squealed in delight as I tugged on each toe. I bundle him in a blanket sometimes and hold him close like a little baby. I kiss his boo-boos and give him band-aids. I tuck him into bed. I teach him to play “Go Fish!” like a bona-fide card shark. I get the small tiny art projects he makes that say, “I love you mom!” We get to dance in the kitchen and shake our booties to One Direction songs. What I’m trying to say is that I get all the good stuff. And I am glad.  I’m glad he is mine. I relish in it and live in these moments.

I seek redemption for this as well my satisfaction in being “mom.” If I could give it all back to them, I would. If I could turn back the clock and fix her into a good or a decent mom or even a mom who was present, I would. I believe that birth families belong together. Attachment disorders are something I wouldn’t wish upon my worst enemy. They are beyond awful to bear for these children. Unfortunately she couldn’t do it. But I could. I can. I am.

Redemption certainly isn’t for them. They don’t need it. But I do. And I am hoping I’m worth it. I believe she is.

*If you’ve ever considered fostering or adopting, I encourage you to start your own adventure today!

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

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“Did You Get To Pick?” Adventures In Explaining AdoptingThrough Foster Care

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Yes, as an adult, I get to pick my nose. It’s my “option” as my little chickens would say. I always try and do it in private, but it’s my option nonetheless.    I get asked this question a LOT!

However, the love a family should give to a child is not optional. In my personal opinion choice in foster care and adoption isn’t about choosing the right child to match your family. It’s about choosing the right thing to do. It’s about matching your family to children in need.

For instance, as parents, Luke and I have to make a conscious decision to be the right kind of parents for our children. We pick what resources we will use to help our family. We pick their pediatrician and their therapists. We sometimes pick out their clothes. However, we did not go shopping for them. They are not purchased items. They cannot be returned if they don’t “fit.”

A lot of times I hear parents referring to their offspring as if they were accessories or reflections of themselves. Parents get into this as something they want.  They want to experience being a parent and they want to experience family love. That’s great. For us. But what about them? Do the kids in care really get to “pick?” Do they have choices that they feel will enhance their lives? The short answer is no. They have no choices to be in foster care and few options as to where they are placed.

In our adoption application we had to fill out a section about “what we would accept.” When you have birth children you don’t accept or not accept them. They just belong to you and you must fit your life to encompass them. You might end up giving birth to a child with a disability or a cognitive delay. You wouldn’t “return them.”

Our kids are a tapestry of traits, emotions, and characteristics. No piece of paper could ever define them. Luke and I spoke to what would be “acceptable ” to us when we had our adoption interview. We were open to children older than 5. Any legal conditions (legal risk), learning condition and almost any medical condition would be alright. We were particularly interested in sibling groups. We thought 2 would be fine of any gender.  We hesitated at the severe behavior and psychiatric conditions box. We did not check it because we didn’t think we could handle it. We didn’t think we could do it. Guess what? We got 4 siblings. We loved them right away. They all had significant behavioral and emotional problems. We did do it. We are doing it. We didn’t have a choice because we had to do what our children needed.

These attahment challenges didn’t present right away. Reactive attachment disorder is just that. It is a reaction to attaching or becoming emotionally close to anyone. This didn’t come out in foster care and therefore wasn’t listed in their paperwork. We didn’t hear about it at our disclosure meeting. It came out when they came home. And you know what? Love got us through it. We didn’t return them or send them back.

In our darkest hours, during the most violent tantrums you could imagine, during hospitalization and med changes, we stuck it out. And why wouldn’t we? Families stay together. Our love for these four chickens is unconditional. Luke and I worked together to walk with them through their rage and trauma. We sought to be the best parents for them. We educated ourselves through training a and research and support groups. We adjusted our lives to be what our children needed the most. After all, wouldn’t anyone?

Our children are not handbags. They are amazing human beings (even though I call them chickens!) We are the lucky ones. I didn’t expect it, but eventually I got the hugs and “I love you”s and all of the original fulfillment of being “mamma.” I never expected it, but I had hope.

We aren’t special people. We are just people. We just do the right thing for our kids. I’m nobody’s perfect mom. There is no such thing. There is no perfect child either. At least, we try and do the right things for our kids. We keep herding these chickens. That is why family is about. Families are imperfect by nature. Love itself is always perfect.

*If you have ever considered foster care or adoption, I encourage you to start your own adventure today!

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

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Trauma Mama: Adventures in Trauma-Informed Foster Parenting and Adoption

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Our closet door hangs by its hinges. Our ironing board lies on its side. The iron itself sits toppled underneath a window. There is some chipped paint on the window’s frame from having the iron thrown at it. My arms are bruised and I’m bleeding from somewhere on my leg.

I sit Indian style on the floor with my little 8-year-old Mary crumpled in my lap. She clings to me for all she’s worth and sobs huge heaving sobs that just about break my heart. Her fingers cling to me in such a tight little hug that her knuckles are turning white. She is gasping and begging, “Don’t send me back. Don’t give up on me. I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I’m scared!” Her hair is filled with bits of string, pencils, and miscellany from things she has thrown around. I hold her securely and whisper, “Mama’s here. You are safe. Mama’s here. It’s alright, Little Chicken.” I say this over and over again.

That was what bedtime looked like a year ago. Every night. And it wasn’t just Mary who panicked  and tantrumed at bedtime. So did Carl, at age 9. Sean, at 14, still has anxiety attacks and needs to be tucked in over and over at night.  They have nightmares and sleep disturbances and they are afraid of monsters.

They are siblings. These 4 chickens need each other. They need to be together to feel safe. They have been through experiences in their bio-home that I just can’t fathom. Marcus visits on the weekends and the other 3 sleep better when their oldest brother is home to “protect them.” Marcus, at 17, doesn’t like to go to bed unless Sean is there.

What most of us don’t know before we foster is that the monsters are real. For our kids, they are real. They have seen monsters in the night. They may have experienced things I never need to know unless they choose to tell me. The sibling group that we are adopting have had a checkered placement history. Some of them have been in more homes than others. Three of them have been in group homes. Marcus never had the opportunity to be placed with his siblings. In our home they are together again. In our home they are safe. In our home we are offering “forever.” They just don’t feel it yet.

Logically, they know they are safe. The unfortunate thing about trauma history is that the triggers overtake a child’s logical brain. They become ensnared in their past. Their bodies succumb to the classic fight-or-flight response. Sean will flee. Mary will fight. At nighttime, she will sometimes hide. I prefer this to having her fight for her life.

Carl experiences his trauma in a cyclical fashion. At times he seems more calm and settled. At times, he becomes fully panicked and reacts on impulse. These times are typically at the grocery store. He often becomes scared walking by the fridge where the beer is kept. For the first few months I didn’t catch on to what the trigger was. Every time we went to the grocery store he would start yelling, “Don’t make fist. You’re making a fist! Are you going to hit me? Please don’t hit me!” I was baffled. Then there was the time he dropped to the floor and shouted, “Don’t get drunk. I don’t want you to be drunk. You’re gonna leave the car keys in the fridge, fall down on the floor, and DIE!” Needless to say I have never, to my recollection, placed my keys in the refrigerator and died.

Some trauma triggers made more sense to me than others. My husband and I figured out early on that our kids were terrified of bedtime and the bathroom. They hoarded food in their rooms. They had difficulty separating from us. They got nervous if Luke or I seemed annoyed with each other. They would beg us not to hit each other, when all we were doing was holding hands. Some trauma triggers took longer to understand. For example, the pool table. I will never quite grasp why Sean hates pool tables so much. Once, Marcus suggested we get one for the basement. Sean froze and became quiet. Later that night he made me promise not to get a pool table. Anything but a pool table. I honestly don’t ever think either of us will ever figure out why that particular object is so evil for Sean.

As a “Trauma Mamma” I’ve had to figure a few things out. Thank goodness I have to Luke for a partner.  The first thing was band-aids. We obviously needed to keep a stockpile of the stuff available for tantrums. The next part was help. We sought out a team of therapists and psychiatrists for our family. The final thing Luke and I did was to purposefully provide corrective experiences. Instead of avoiding ever having a glass of wine with dinner, because it triggered Carl,  I purposefully planned to have wine. I planned this at the advice of our therapist!

First, you figure out the trigger, and then you talk the experience, but with a happy ending. Then you reenact the experience with the happy ending. That’s right! I got to practice drinking wine! It went like this, I would say, “Carl, I’m thinking about having a glass of wine with dinner. It’s OK to have just one glass. I won’t get drunk.” Then my husband would vouch for me. He would testify, “Gee, I’ve been with mom for a long time. Sometimes she drinks a glass of wine at dinner. It’s only one glass and she never gets drunk. I know her pretty well and I know she won’t get drunk!” Then we would sit down to dinner and practice things that Carl could say to self-talk through my drinking. Things like, “It’s OK for grown-ups to have just one glass. My mom will still stay with me after dinner and tuck me in at night.” After the glass of wine Luke and I would make comments all night like, “I’ve had a glass of wine. But I’m still here and we’re all fine!” Ok, I’ll admit it. It was mostly me who was rhyming and chanting.

I knew it was working the night we went to Chili’s and I had a glass of wine. I pre-set Carl and said, “Honey. I’m going to have a glass of wine with dinner.” He rolled his eyes and said, “I know already. You won’t get drunk. Not this time.” I assured him matter-of-factly that I wouldn’t get drunk at any time. When our drinks came he panicked a little and started raising his voice, “Mommy, no! Mommy, no! You know what could happen if you drink that!” I took a calming breath and said soothingly, “Oh no, honey. This is practice. We are practicing how mommy is OK when she drinks only one glass of wine. I can drink wine and we will be fine!” He nodded and settled in, asking, “Mommy, why are the people all looking at us?” That’s when I saw the tables around us. Even the waitress was trying hard not to stare at us with her mouth hanging open! I laughed so hard about it with Luke later that night. It’s funny to us because I have never been carried drunkenly out of a restaurant and the very thought is hilarious. To our kids, however, that is what a “mom” does. Over time, this diminished.

That was a year ago. Now, I have wine with dinner sometimes. Hardly anyone looks twice.  I don’t need to “practice” anymore. Beer still makes everyone nervous, but only if I drink it. Luke seems to have a certain trauma-immunity. He lucked out because none of our kids seem to have much experience with a “dad” or what a “dad” might do. Bedtime is better, it’s not perfect, but it’s better. And the pool table? That still appears to be evil. We can allow that because it’s unrealistic for Luke and I to become wine drinking pool-sharks in order to correct whatever experience has Sean so adamant about pool tables.

Mary sleeps on a mattress outside of our bedroom now. She has her own bedroom but the hallway just feels safe for her right now, and that’s OK. Luke told her she can’t sleep outside our door anymore when she gets to high school. Mary promised to compromise and just sleep in our bed when she turns 13!

I tucked her in last night with hugs and kisses. Before I tuck her in I sometimes sit cross-legged on the floor and hold her to me. I whisper into her sweet-smelling hair, “Mama’s here, Mama’s here.” She sighs and giggles and says, “Can we whisper about the boys we like? You have to go first because you always pick the same one. Every time, it’s always Daddy!” We whisper and snuggle for a few minute while I tuck her in and rub her back. There is no crying, no screaming, no attempting to break out of the window via an iron. I lean in and whisper, “if you could have the superpower of either flight or invisibility, which you choose?” I often ask her questions like this to soothe her as part of our bedtime ritual. “Invisibility, of course!” She replies. “Why?” I ask. “Easy,” she says, “that way you and daddy can’t stop me when I sneak into your bed to sleep!” Ah well, some things never change. I really really hope we aren’t debating this around the time of her junior prom.

At the end of the day, it’s doable. They can heal. It’s ok if our kids release their fears when they know they are safe. Our chickens know they’ve come home to roost. If they are safe enough to express their hurts, their fears, their angers, then they must have some sense of safety. It’s all worth it. I may never have a pool table but I do have a houseful of love.

 

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

**If you’ve ever considered foster care or adoption, I encourage you to get started on your adventure!

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The Black Hole in our Bathroom: Adventures in Object Permanence 

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Apparently we have a black hole in our bathroom. Our house came complete with 2 full all-consuming, mommy-stealing annihilation machines.  At least according to our children it did.

I know this because during the first week of placement I took a shower. It started like any other day. I woke up, I was ripe-smelling. I chose soap as the best way to address my armpit situation.  Unlike any other day the walls began to shake. There was a howling screeching noise that filled the house and a pounding/ thumping sound from the other side of the wall. It turned out to be our daughter. She went into a massive tantrum as soon as I left her line of vision. I could hear my husband attempting to comfort her and calm the storm that was little Mary.

Let’s back up a bit. Mary is a tiny 8-year-old girl. She has light Hispanic skin and bright gray/green eyes. She has curly dirty blond hair and frequently painted nails. She favors pink and sparkles and princesses. She also loves bugs. Mary avoided eye contact with most adults when she first came to us. She was quiet around adults, particularly men.  Mary spoke to her siblings and she spoke to us. For the most part she followed me around silently and held my hand. Quietly. Something was wrong.

This inhuman sound coming from outside the bathroom door? It was Mary. I came rushing out all soapy with my shirt on backwards and she ran at me, beating me with her tiny fists. “I didn’t think you’d come back!” She wailed. Later that night I pondered why one might not come back from the shower.  Secret door? Magical vortex? Black hole?

As it turned out, every time I took a shower Mary tantrumed. She screamed and cried and pleaded for me.  She threw things and knocked over furniture and made an unearthly sound until I came back out. And she was always puzzled when I came back. Keep in mind that I was home for the entire summer when our children transitioned to our family. The only times I was not within their line of vision were getting changed, in the bathroom, or the occasional jog.

Carl, her 9-year-old brother, panicked when I went to the basement with a load of laundry. “Don’t go! Please!” He would shout. Then he would proceed to cry on the floor, face down. When when I came back, he would say, “you’re here, mommy, you’re here!” But where did I go? Carl would cry and wail if I went for a morning run. “Please don’t go, I have to come with you, don’t leave me!” He would scream as I was leaving. Then apparently he would move on in his day and become absolutely flummoxed when I walked back through the door. He would greet me with an utterly surprised , “Mommy! You came back!”

And then there was the dreaded “#2.” That was a deal breaker for the 3 siblings. The oldest teen didn’t mind so much, but the youngest were terrified. They would sit outside the bathroom door demanding to know if I was going “#1 or #2?” If it was # 2 they would pound on the door and try to open it. All 3 siblings would beg me not to go. They would sit and attempt to talk to me and determine if I was still there.  Of I took longer than they felt was necessary, they would shout, “You lied to me! You said you would only be doing a number 2. You left!”

Try as I might, I never did find the black hole or secret passage in our bathroom or in our basement. In fact, there were some days that if I had found it, I may have taken it as an escape route! We went on this way for months. I would disappear and then magically reappear from the bathroom or basement or a morning jog. The children were equally mystified each time I managed to reappear. At one point our then 13-year old Sean told me he was worried we had “moved out” whilst he was away. Up until that point I hadn’t even known that was an option! But I digress…the actual problem our children were having was with something called “object permanence.”

To put it simply, once they couldn’t see me anymore, I ceased to exist. According to Jean Piaget, infants believe that when an object disappears, it ceases to exist. Babies experience this with caregivers but then learn that a caregiver will come back over and over again. I’m not a developmental specialist, nor do I claim to be one. However, as the weeks went on it became more obvious that our children did not have a concept of “mom-permanence.” They believed that if I disappeared from sight, I would not come back. Never mind that there was only one way in and out of our bathroom, this was not a logical thought pattern. It was a thought pattern based on fear and experience. Most children in foster care experience trauma, loss and even neglect.Our children’s framework for “mom” included a disappearing act worthy of Houdini himself. They entered into a state of abject terror when I wasn’t in sight.

Luckily for everyone (because, really, showering is in EVERYONE’S best interest!) we got some help from our family therapist. She gave me some great tips for letting the children know I was still there. I am happy to report that these things helped us over time and nowadays I can enter the bathroom with relative confidence that our children can handle my personal hygiene!

The first trick was singing to my children. All. the. time. I would sing loudly and off-key about whatever I was doing. For example, “I’m washing the dishes and I love Mary. Carl and Sean like to eat from clean plates. I’m washing the dishes by turning on the dishwasher, la la la clean dishes are so great!” This seemed to put them at ease about what I was doing and why. When I would begin to sing, “I’m doing some laundry so I’ll pick up this heavy basket. La, la, la I will carry it down the stairs,” the kiddos would become tense and gather near the basement door. I would walk down the stairs belting out, “la la this basket is heavy. La la I’m going downstairs. La la, I hope I don’t fall on my fanny!” Then I would throw in some sound effects, like gross farting noises, for good measure. This started them giggling and laughing. They were already in a heightened emotional state from fear, so they rapidly switched into a nervous giggly state of emotion. I would continue warbling loudly the entire time I was hidden from view. I sand “I’m turning a knob. I’m loading the washer. I’m pouring detergent.La la la la la I’m washing daddy’s dirty undies!” All to the tune of the “Happy Birthday” song. Impressive, I know! It worked. They laughed, they cracked up, and then they teased my hubby about his dirty undies.

The second thing we did together was to play peek-a-boo. It sounds silly with kids who were 7, 8, 13, and 16 at the time, but it worked. With the younger ones I would literally play by hiding in a blanket on the couch while we cuddled. I would pop out and exclaim, “peek-a-boo, I love you!” Or I would hide and then reveal their favorite stuffed toys. I would say, “Well now, there’s Mr. Stuffy! I thought he was lost! That just shows you that in this family, we always come back.” With the 13 and 16-year-old I would sneak around a corner and pop back out yelling, “Boo! Scary mommy!” Those teens rolled their eyes but they laughed and then began to play the same trick on me. It was somewhat less amusing when they surprised me and I spilled coffee all over myself!

And then there was the bathroom. We talked about the bathroom. We toured it all together before I went in. My husband would testify on my behalf randomly throughout the day by saying things like, “Gee, I’ve been married to mom for a long time. I’ve seen her go into the bathroom lots of times. I’m so glad she always comes back. In our family, we always come back!” And then there was the singing. I sang in the shower. I sang on the toilet. I would play a Pandora station and change the lyrics to be all about our family or all about my kiddos. I sang about soap. I sang about washing my armpits. I sang about poop. Over several weeks, this began to soothe their worries. 2 months of fear was replaced by giggles in about 2 weeks. Soon, they would start singing to each other or singing in the car. There it was. “Mom-Permanence.” They had it!

I never did find a vortex or a mommy-sucking black hole in our bathroom. Not even a secret door leading to the land of adult TV, songs with inappropriate language and a glass of wine! Bummer! But I did find some peace for my children. I created a piece of permanence in the tumultuous world of foster care and adoption.

*If you’ve ever thought about adopting or fostering, I encourage you to get started on your own adventure!
**Names have been changed to protect the privacy of those involved. 

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