It’s been a year since Sean left. He’s 15 now. Marcus left in August of last year and he will be 19 next month. I can go whole days without thinking about them. The bone-deep grief that brought me to my knees is subsiding. But foster kids leave. Pre-adoptive placements disrupt. It happens all the time. Or so they say.
I’ve been dreaming about the teens all week. It’s usually about Sean. I dream that I’ve forgotten to pick Sean up somewhere. In this dream I try desperately to remember where he is before it becomes dark. And then I wake up to find that the angry, traumatized teens have moved on. Have I?
Mary has been having a difficult transition back to school. Her feelings are jumbled about most things lately. Her 9-year-old emotional roller coaster is on the fast track. She will cycle from maniacal laughter to gut-wrenching sobs within minutes. My husband and I are on high-alert for that intense “happy” reaction that is just a shade too bright, too intense. This is our signal that she is on the brink of losing control over her emotions.
Mary is disappointed over her own reactions. Her perception is that others are disappointed with her as well. That fear bubbles over into her interactions with me. She has to share this intense discomfort somewhere. This leads to having what I call the “non-argument.” For example:
Mary: Mom? You’re going to be disappointed. I spilled my drink
Me: That’s ok, honey. Accidents happen. Just grab the cleaner under the sink.
Mary: I can’t clean this!
Me: We can clean it together.
Mary: (dumping the bottle of cleaner) I’m sorry! I spilled it all! It was an accident! I know you’re mad I’m sorry I’m sorry I’m sorry! Please believe me! Why are you mad? Do you still love me????
Me: (gathering her into a hug) I am going to hug you for 30 full seconds and then we will clean together.
Mary: Mom! Why won’t you look at me? You’re mad at me?
Me: I’m just tying my shoe.
Mary: I made that noise you don’t like, didn’t I? I’m so sorry! I’m sorry! I’m really sorry, Mommy! Don’t be mad!
Me: Honey I’m happy. Let’s have a happy hug.
Mary: Well what about this noise? How about this one?
And so on and so on. I’ve tried giving her extra attention to make her feel safe. I’ve been giving extra cuddles. Luke and I recorded our voices on a small device that she can play back whenever she needs to. We provide transitional objects. Both Carl and Mary pick out their clothes and breakfast the night before school (like at a hotel!) so we can spend the mornings connecting.
But still she looks to fight, argue, then apologize. She cowers like I might hit her and cries. She begs fervently for my forgiveness so often I can’t get a word in edgewise. I have to admit something. She asks me if I’m mad so often that it’s starting to make me mad. My logical brain knows it’s her anxiety and her fear. My tired brain wants a quiet room and some space.
I am supposed to be bigger, stronger, and always safe. My emotional regulation sets the tone for hers. I do show her my emotions but she is so terrified of her own feelings that mine send her into full panic. I won’t engage in her non-arguments. I offer love and support. I hold her until her breathing slows. Then I make her clean up the spills or do her chores or her homework. Because that’s life. I say, “It’s ok to feel your feelings. You can feel them while you take out the trash. I’ll be right here.”
She is testing that limit to see where I break. I know she is. I understand why. That doesn’t stop it from happening.
Out of nowhere:
Mary: “You didn’t love him enough!”
I try to explain that we will always love Sean. We respect his choice not to be with our family. He will always be a part of us.
Mary: “You just should’ve let him quit school! You should have respected his choices when he didn’t want to shower or do his chores. You should have just given him electronics! You wouldn’t just forgive him and let him come home! Just because he did ONE LITTLE THING! He hurt you ONE time, Mommy and your bruises weren’t that big. Now he’s gone!”
Immediately she is crying and wailing that she is sorry she said it. She is such a bad kid and she’s so terrible that no one could ever love her. But by now I am crying, too. Uncontrollably and I miss my boy and I cannot stop. My grief hits me like a tidal wave and I am swept away in emotion so strong that I’ll surely drown.
The truth about Sean is very hard for me. It’s a bitter pill to swallow and I’m still not sure that I can process everything that has happened with him. We tried like hell to love him perfectly and be a good family for him. It was after he left that I saw the lying, manipulation, stealing, and damage he had done. Those were his survival skills.
It doesn’t matter. I miss him still. He’s made it clear he never wanted to see us again. Carl and Mary included. He’s changed so much I wouldn’t recognize the boy I knew. The boy I knew never existed. My logical brain knows this. But my emotional brain keeps dreaming about the son I’ve lost. The illusion of Sean is what I knew. The reality of my own emotions is what I have left.
And so Mary has found my Achilles heal. When I won’t engage in her non-argument she fights back. She’ll drop a comment that sounds as sweet as sugar but cuts deeper than a scalpel. I’ll be driving the car. “No mommy,” she’ll sigh. “You just don’t understand Sean. Sean is sweet.”
“Of course,” I’ll say calmly, “He is a sweet boy.”
I’ll be in the refrigerator. “You just don’t understand him,” she’ll say while ruefully shaking her head. I don’t argue. I won’t engage. I continue whatever it is I’m doing. The more she knows it bothers me, the more she will bring it up. The less reaction she gets, the less she’ll try this non-argument. But it cuts so deep. I plaster an innocuous look on my face while inside I’m bleeding out.
The more I agree we love Sean, the more open I am to discussing him, the more frustrated she becomes. I wake up one day to find an 8×10 picture of him on the fridge. I offer to frame it for her. I ask if she wants it in her room, but of course she wants it where “everyone can see.” She looks pointedly at me. I nod in a noncommittal way and move on.
She pushes and prods and pokes at my tender spot all week. When I can’t take it anymore I retreat upstairs for a bubble bath. I leave Luke to serve dinner while Sean watches from the fridge. That’s when I realize something. It’s not Mary landing the blows. It’s her trauma pushing her into strong emotions. She doesn’t want to be alone in these feelings. It was Sean’s trauma that led him to do the things he did. It’s my trauma giving me bad dreams about my former son.
After my bath I snuggle up my little girl on the couch. She is wearing her pineapple nightgown. We snuggle under a huge pineapple blanket her godmother made for her. She needs to know that she is not leaving no matter what she does. She needs to know she is safe in her forever home. I’m going to love her through her fear. I will love her no matter what kind of fight trauma brings up. After all, someone has to retreat and it won’t be me.
**Names have been changed to protect the privacy of those involved.