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.


The State of Our Union

For over a decade Luke and I have made this journey together. This week was my 11-year wedding anniversary.  I was in my mid-twenties when I met him. It’s supposed to be a bad idea to date your boss but I guess I’ve never followed convention well.

Luke and I were married at town hall a year to the day of our first date. I stood there in a strapless black gown long enough to hide my signature flip-flops. Luke wore a matching suit. We said “I do” in front of six friends and celebrated with a river of champagne.

The next day we “illegally” bribed the DMV to issue a license with my new name before I’d even filed for a new social security card. Waiting has never been our thing. After all these years he’s still my best partner in crime.

It started out just the two of us in a shoe box-sized apartment in the city. Our view consisted of buildings upon buildings crammed into grid-lines of perfectly strait roads. Gun fire resounded like popcorn in the streets nearly every day. Luke never let me walk alone there. When we moved to the country the sound of hunting rifles echoed through the trees but never frightened me.

The road to our house winds through hills and thick forest. Our home is nestled in the middle of deep dark woods and green grass. Neighbors are few and far between.  Not every road is even paved. It can be hard to see sharp turns through the towering oaks.  We spread out here and grew into this house. Then we filled it with lots of children. Sean didn’t stay but the rest did.

We adopted three siblings. Sean’s disrupted adoption still haunts me. Marcus’ adoption eventually came full circle to finalize in adulthood. I lost one pregnancy in such a scary way I was too terrified to try again. I gained two great step-kids. Luke lost a job when Mary was too dangerous to be alone with Carl and me. I’ve had three back surgeries. Luke’s had several major eye surgeries. We both developed a serious addiction to caffeine.

Our marriage sometimes feels like Luke and I huddled down in a foxhole. We certainly didn’t pick an easy road. I like to think we chose the road most worthwhile. Adopting three children with significant complex developmental trauma has been challenging to say the least. Beyond a doubt our life together could never be considered boring.

This week we settled in to celebrate with a bottle of Prosecco on a wintry New England night. There are no streetlights in our forest. Here in the dark we can see every star.

There isn’t anyone I’d rather take this journey with. Here’s to the next decade of adventure. Perhaps the rockiest roads are the ones with the most scenery.

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

adoption, family

Winter Storm

In the dark, he is afraid. Carl’s panicked voice calls out, “Dad? Mama?? Mama!!” sounding more like a toddler than a teenager. My children learned at an early age that monsters are all too real. Some lessons cannot be unlearned no matter how many years go by.

Today I woke up early and crept downstairs. The New England sky had already dumped seven inches of powdered snow outside. The ice storm portion hadn’t yet begun. In the darkness of the winter morning I brewed fresh coffee and listened to the howling wind. New England ice storms can be fierce in their fury. Ice will pelt the roof like gunfire, taking old down branches as collateral damage. The assault causes power outages more often than not. One can never avoid the winter storms, only prepare for them.

On this morning Carl calls out to me with his nervous, “Mama? Mama!? Mama!” He can’t hear my replies over his escalating calls. It’s no matter. I’m here, even when he can’t see me.

Finally he bolts into the kitchen and breathes a sigh of relief. Here I am in my kitty-cat fleece slippers, illuminated by the flickering fireplace. Carl relaxes once he sees me. In my pre-storm glow I allow him a slice of cake for breakfast. My largess is due to the enjoyment of family and electricity before the storm. With no school and no place to go, what does it matter? Let him eat cake!

Luke and I have weathered these storms a hundred times over. Preparation is key. We heat the house extra on days like this just in case. The forecast says the high for tomorrow is only 5 degrees with the windchill making it feel 25 below. If we lose power we will hemorrhage heat rapidly.

It’s best to gather what we can, while we can. Up here in the rural forest area everyone has four wheel drive. When we “batten down the hatches” we literally stop up drafty doorways with towels and close our insulating blinds against the cold. We shutter in tight to wait it all out. Still, I am content to enjoy my hazelnut coffee and prepare during the early morning darkness.

I am impressed with how well Carl is holding up these days. Mary was home for a visit on Friday. It was her longest home visit yet. Her therapist drove her and got her situated. Usually the therapist stays for the entire visit and structures it with activities. Friday was our first dry run. We were ready for anything.

Mary stayed for Papa’s birthday dinner. My parents came with spice cake and pork roast to celebrate. After dinner Luke cleaned up the kitchen while I took Mary and Carl outside to play some basketball. The air was thick with the frosty smell of coming snow. Soon the forest seem to promise.

The children laughed and frolicked while passing the ball. I can’t remember a recent time where I’ve seen them laugh together this way. For a few minutes I can forget all the damage trauma brought on this household. For a short time it’s as if we could be any other family enjoying the fading sunlight of a winter’s evening.

Up here, the world seems most welcoming before a major storm. The pre-blizzard trees sway merrily in the winter wind. Their branches wave a cheery hello to my happy little family. The glow from our front windows illuminates a lawn free of snow. The bite of frigid breeze only brings color to our cheeks. These memories of calm are the times I hold onto in the darkest storms. I have to take what I can, when I can.

The entire visit with Mary went off without a hitch. She was with us for close to 5 hours. No therapist needed! We drove her back to school before bed. Carl came along voluntarily and the siblings didn’t even fight in the car. I hold these Instagram-family moments dearly. They have been so few and far between over the last two years. Yet here were both of my babies, together in peace. There was not a cloud in the sky.

Today I can sit with my coffee and replay that happy evening in my mind. The wind picks up outside, moaning and rocking against the house. Yes, I know the storm is coming. It’s all worth it. I wouldn’t trade a piece of New England for all of Florida. Not even the storms.

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


All the Honors

When our children were still in foster care we began the process with a “disclosure meeting.” In this meeting the social workers gave us all the information they had about our children. Many people put a lot of stock in these meetings. Personally, I don’t. The system won’t know everything about your children. Lots of trauma gets “disclosed” by the children themselves once they have a safe and stable family.

Anyway, we knew Carl received Special Education services. He had an IEP and we got to see it. As a special education teacher I combed through the evaluations for information. I felt that we could surely help him. The IEP was for an emotional disturbance but he lagged in academics. He was ending the second grade at a Kindergarten reading level.

Honestly, this was all quite understandable. His level of trauma was compounded by the grief of being separated from his mother. Add to that the fact that his bio family did not enroll him in Kindergarten until he was 6 years old. In first grade he missed over 80 days of school by Springtime. The kid had a lot to overcome.

In the beginning we were working so hard on our children’s emotional wellbeing, everything else fell to the wayside. Luke and I battled their trauma, soothed their fears and weathered their rages. In between I worked with Carl so that he could learn to read.

He’s come a long way in five years. Today, Carl doesn’t need an IEP anymore. He doesn’t receive any special services. He’s flourishing at his grade level. I can’t tell you how proud he is of himself.

This school year he’s made honor roll every semester. He’s going for high honors in the upcoming term. Every time Carl shows us a test or paper he’s aced, he glows. He’s so proud of himself.

We are proud, too. He gets the honor roll while we get all of the real honor. After all, we get to be his parents!

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