Survival is the name of the game in that first year. I remember our first year quite well. My husband and I were exhilarated and overjoyed to bring our little chickens home. Parenting was a beautiful experience we got to share for the first time. We were also exhausted, overwhelmed, and alone.
What foster and adoptive parents are not told are how many supports they are apt to lose in the process of parenting a traumatized child. Especially in that first year home. It never stopped amazing me the lengths my children went to in order to scare people away from our home. And it worked. Our loyal and steadfast group of friends stopped coming over. In the beginning, the children weren’t safe enough in the car to go a lot of places. Staying close to home in a familiar and safe environment was the best thing for them. But for us? It was isolating. I just wanted to have a cup of coffee with my girlfriend while the children played, even 15 minutes would have been great!
Our traumatized children could not stand to share our attention. The thought that they might “lose” a parent to another person becomes a real threat to their very survival. At least, in their minds. Our son and daughter would fist fight, scream, and put holes in the walls when we took phone calls. Their rages were legendary and could last for hours. If families came to visit, they would threaten our friends’ children or steal their toys. When someone would pull into the driveway they would panic, “who is that?!” To our guests they would say, “When are you leaving?” Mary spent an hour and 45 minutes slamming her feet against a door and threatening to kill me once when a girlfriend stopped by to use our printer. Carl and Mary would crawl all over my lap and shout in my face while I tried to carry on a conversation. They would punch each other relentlessly. They were scared to lose my attention even for a second. After all, they were survivors. They finally had a mama and they didn’t want to lose her.
I tried to nurture my friendships with “built-in supports” after the children went to bed. The first year that they were home, I hoped to have a girlfriend come by and have wine with me at 8:00. Unbeknownst to me, my hyper-vigilant children had already heard me on the phone. They knew this was coming and were fearful about an interloper in our home. Bedtime came with a series of epic tantrums. They destroyed their bedrooms, screamed for hours, and refused to sleep. She left, of course.
Eventually, friends trickled away little by little. The first year that our children were home was just too intense and our friends had no idea what to do or say. My husband and I were consumed with keeping our little family afloat. Our ship had sprung too many holes. We were too busy bailing out water to remember what it meant to have friends.
Eventually, I had a friend who couldn’t be scared away. By the second month my kids were home, we were in full-on survival mode. Our lives were filled with mobile crisis services, trips to pediatric in-patient psychiatric hospitals and intensive outpatient therapy. I was home with our new family additions for the summer. My husband was working long hours and I was often alone.
She and I had met in foster parent training. Even though DCF had never trained us for anything close to what we were experiencing, she felt prepared. She was planning to adopt from foster care and was not scared away by the kids’ behavior. We presented it to the kids that she was coming to visit them. She met us at parks and played basketball with us. She braided my daughter’s hair in a French braid. She was always excited to see them and never visibly flinched at anything they did or said.
Some days, when I was absolutely sure I couldn’t make it through dinner on my own, I would call her in tears. “Can you please come after work?” I would beg, “I can’t do dinner with them alone.” She came every time. I think she saved me that summer. Some day I hope I can repay the favor.
In those early days, our chickens were so fiercely protective of finally having a mama, they’d do anything to hold onto me. Literally and figuratively. They only slept for 45 minutes at a time. They sobbed when I went to the bathroom. They growled at the mailman when he tried to say hello to me. I never slept. To put it simply, they were so starved for “mom” that they couldn’t bear to share me. That summer was so isolating. I missed my friends. I envied them their parenting “struggles” that amazingly left them without bruises all over their bodies.
Other than this one friend, people backed away. We had to scramble during hospitalizations, because our dearest friends didn’t feel safe enough to watch the other kids. My mother-in-law cut a visit short once because she was afraid that the children could hurt her. My husband and I were essentially trapped in a house that now had every single closet door broken from it’s hinges. All of the rooms had damaged drywall. Therapists came to our house because transporting the children together by vehicle wasn’t safe. And. We. Never. Slept.
When vacation bible school came I signed the Littles up with a desperation that probably scared the church. The first night I cautiously drove them right down the street to the church. I was praying we made it inside. Once they were engaged in an art project I stealthily slipped into the parking lot, sat in my car, and cried. I was so isolated and alone. That period of time just seems like my husband and I were down in a foxhole together weathering a storm.
Thankfully things changed. The kids got better and began to feel more secure. A combination of intense therapy, medication management and therapeutic parenting led us to a better place. It’s not perfect, but it’s better. My parents moved halfway across the country to live in our town. Now we have Nana and Papa as backup. We started to be able to take some time to ourselves. The children were OK if Mom and Dad went on a date. They began to believe that we would always come back. Finally, we weren’t surviving anymore. We were thriving as a family.
It took a solid year. Suddenly Luke and I are sort of on an isolated island looking around and wondering what happened to all of our friendships. All of the un-returned phone calls and the visits where our friends fled in terror have caught up to us. We have emerged from the trenches but now our friendships have vanished along with afternoon naps and disposable income.
I can look back now and feel absolute amazement at how far we’ve come. We survived the first year. Now, Luke and I are trying to rebuild our support system and nourish those other relationships that fell by the wayside. Not all of them can be repaired. In this year, friends lost jobs, had babies, moved away, and even divorced. We missed all of it. Even as we reach out now we acknowledge that not all of these relationships can be repaired. It’s OK. Not everyone even understands the type of parenting we are doing. It’s OK. We have our little family. We survived. Things will never be exactly the same but it was worth it. I’m done looking back. I’m ready to look ahead.
We survived and you can, too! #AdoptionTalkLinkUp
**Names have been changed to protect the privacy of those involved.
*If you have ever thought about foster or adoptive care, I encourage you to start your own adventure.