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.

 

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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.

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adoption, family

What Are We Teaching Them?

“Wait–what do you mean? My glasses prescription can expire?!?!! That doesn’t make sense!”

Sorry, Marcus. You have to go to the eye doctor every year. You also need a yearly checkup with your primary care physician. And the dentist? Yeah, that is every six months.

This week Marcus was texting me in a panic that he had lost his glasses and was having headaches. He wanted me to look for his prescription so that he could get new glasses. Sometimes I am still caught off guard by the things my children do not know. Looking back, it makes sense.

Marcus went from 2014 until 2016 without a doctor’s appointment in foster care. He never went to the dentist. For whatever reason the state he was in somehow claimed to change insurance based from town to town. Marcus bounced around continuously. Therefore he pretty much never had health insurance.

His last placement (after the Juvenile Detention Center) was with something called “intensive foster care.” This meant that a specialized agency was contracted by child services to care for him. A worker met with him weekly and a highly trained foster parent provided a home. In theory it looked great. The program was supposed to provide skills for older teens who would soon age out of the system. They had strict regulations and monitored each worker intensely.

In practice, it was pretty awful. His intensive case worker changed every few months. Marcus never saw a therapist. He never saw a psychiatrist even though he was prescribed psychotropic medication.

His foster parent was not supposed to take him to medical appointments or attend the case review meetings. She really wasn’t required to do much except feed him. She couldn’t even give him Tylenol without calling the agency for approval first. That just meant no medication was available if he spiked a fever after business hours. Maybe the lesson was not to get sick on the weekends?

When Marcus came to us we were required to drive him back to his home state each week to meet with his worker. Marcus was 17, so his case worker had a limited amount of time to impart the all-important “life skills.” A frantic worker would meet my husband and Marcus at Panera Bread every week for lunch. He spent three weeks focusing on reviewing a module in his binder called, “water safety.” Yes, they worked on pool safety while eating lunch (that my husband payed for) at a restaurant on dry land. Luke used to joke with Marcus to “try not to drown in the drive home.”

In the meantime we had to fight to get Marcus his driver’s permit. We were willing to teach him but technically the DMV requires a legal guardian. I doubt many caseworkers are headed to the long lines at the DMV with their teens. They also require an original birth certificate which child services refused to release to Marcus. Don’t worry, after lots of advocating we got it all figured out.

However, here I sit explaining to my 21-year-old how medical care works. Sometimes I think we’ve missed so much time to instruct Marcus he may never catch up. Have we really prepared him for the world? What else have we missed or lost along the way?

So the question remains. What are we teaching teens in foster care to prepare them for the world? If they age out without a family to turn to, how will they learn?

In this, Luke and I are lucky. Marcus knows he can turn to us if he needs to. I thank my stars that our son can come to us. If we have taught him nothing else, I know we have taught him this.

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

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adoption, family

Dumb Mistake

I made the dumb mistake of attempting to clean out our memory drawer. For the last 5 years I’ve gathered a variety of mementos from my children. One drawer in our dining room buffet is stuffed with old school papers, art projects and letters. It has been bursting with treasures and trash for years.

I’ve been a little more mobile lately and thought I could sit down on the floor and sort through things. Some kind of cleaning bug has gotten into me this past week. I put away the Christmas decorations and now I can’t stop!

It was a dumb mistake. At first I lovingly sorted through birthday cards and letters that the kids made for us. I found some old photos and A+ tests. It was sweet to revisit how far these kiddos have come. My heart warmed when I saw a picture Marcus made for Mary during her first hospitalization in 2014.

Then I pulled out what felt like a deck of cards. It was actually a little book Sean made for me on Mother’s Day. The title is “52 Things I Love About You.” He took an entire deck of cards and glued printed statements on each one. The are connected with rings to make a flip-book.

I should have put it down but I didn’t. I read it. The book has boiler plate things to love such as “your smile” and “your hugs.” It also has some gems that are specific to me. “I love the way you sneeze twice and the second one is serious.” Some of it made me sad because he loved me for reasons like I provided food and bought his clothes.

I put it away but for whatever reason I couldn’t stop with that. There isn’t much of Sean left in this house. I reached behind the books in our bookcase to get the memory box we all made in 2015. I keep it hidden from myself.

Sean’s handwriting stared back at me on little colored scraps of paper. The things he enjoyed the first year home included, “The Worry Wall,” “The Cool-Down Corner,” “tuck-ins at bedtime,” “family dinner” and “being safe with big feelings.”

I crammed the pieces of paper back into the memory box through a haze of fresh tears. Still, I could not stop this car from wildly careening down memory lane. Urgently (and for no good reason) I went upstairs and dug into the filing cabinet until I pulled out Sean’s folder. It was a dumb mistake. Clearly I had no idea how much this would affect me.

There isn’t much there. A few report cards, a journal article he wrote about family titled, “The F Word,” and the report. The last thing I looked at was the meeting summary from his DCF report.

The horrible lies blurred on the paper as I cried. In it he accused me of abusing him physically and described never wanting to see us again. Those vile hurtful words swam in front of my eyes until I felt as if I couldn’t breathe. Had anything ever been real with him? How could the little book of love and those despicable statements have come from the same child?

I promptly ran into the bathroom and vomited the contents of my stomach.

Apparently this still hurts. Perhaps it always will.

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

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adoption, family

Seriously, Please Leave

She drives me crazy. I have no idea why her opinions affect me at all but they do. Every time our children’s older biological sister  M is around, my back teeth ache. Her invasive questioning and snide comments put me over the edge. It takes all that I have not to seriously lash out at her.

Unfortunately, M was the one transporting Marcus to and from school after the holiday. Luke was fresh off of eye surgery and not able to drive. I’m not cleared to drive yet either. It is probably good to give Carl some contact with his older sister. At least that’s what I try to keep telling myself. Foster care took so much from my kids. I never wanted their adoption to mean we were taking more.

It’s odd to me that M gets under my skin this way. My family often makes a spectacle in public and by now I’m fine with it. I think M reminds me a lot of Sean. I can see her calculated moves a mile away. Although she appears sweet there is always the underlying fact that she doesn’t believe we should have adopted her siblings.

From the second she entered my home the other day she began looking through things (bedrooms, photo albums) and digging for information. For whatever reason she selectively remembers what happened in their biological home. She champions her biological mother as a victim. It would seem Luke and I are the villains here (but mostly me.)

I know that Mary and Carl both exhibited rages in their biological home. I know they were both significantly underweight there. I know that Mary didn’t speak and her pediatrician was concerned. He suggested multiple times that she needed to be evaluated for developmental delays.

I know Carl didn’t start Kindergarten until he was 6 years old. I know they missed over 80 days of school that year. After the adoption we ordered copies of all their previous medical and school records. According to M it’s a completely different story.

Just because I know these things doesn’t mean that strangers do. When my kids are panicking in public and begging me not to get drunk I know it’s not about me personally. Past trauma causes my children to be afraid that moms get drunk or violent.

Past trauma also causes my children to fear showers, bedtime, Halloween masks and mothers. All of them share these fears (even Sean) so there is clearly a history there. Because I know about their trauma I don’t really mind when strangers make ignorant comments. They simply don’t know what it’s like.

With M it’s a different story. She absolutely knows what happened. She was there. For whatever reason her denial permeates every conversation. She acts shocked that Mary needs to be in a residential school. M does not believe in therapy.

She demands to know why the service dog didn’t go with Mary to her school. She demands to know why Mary didn’t come home for Christmas. She demands to know Mary’s psychiatric diagnosis which I will not share. It is Mary’s private business for her to share as she wishes. She demands and demands and demands.

I told M firmly that Mary has a very difficult time during the holidays. Therefore we relieve pressure by bringing Christmas to her. M’s face was the portrait of pure shock.

“Really?!?! Why???”

At this point I was done with the prying questions. I was done hearing about how well Sean was doing now that he’s out of our home and about to age out of foster care. I could not take any more of M’s questions.

I told her about how Mary only slept for 45 minutes at a time when she first came home. I told M that Mary was terrified and would wake up screaming for the entire first year. I told her about all of the things we did to help her feel safe.

Then I got a little bit catty. I told her Sean had the same exact problem and I got up with him every night, too. I was sorely tempted to tell her that he also sobbed before every bath at age 15. It was hard not to tell her I sat outside the bathroom while Sean was in the tub to sing him silly songs. Every. Single. Time.

For once M was speechless. She stammered that it must have been hard. I countered back with the fact that it wasn’t (it was) and that we didn’t mind (we did) because it wasn’t their fault. Luke and I would do anything for these chickens.

Undoubtedly she feels that Mary only has these problems because of us and our parenting. She’s basically continued to hint that things used to be fine and she doesn’t understand why Mary needs all this treatment. She doesn’t believe in therapy anyway.

Why do I even care?? I sat through the rest of the visit listening to M talk about how the shelter she stays at is giving her $8,000 and helping her find subsidized housing. She had another baby 6 months ago. The shelter bought both of her children all of their Christmas gifts. Her baby’s dad hasn’t gotten his cell phone back from the police after they took it as evidence in a case against him. Blah blah blah.

It’s really uncharitable for me to have these thoughts. Logically I know it’s good that the shelter is helping her. My angry jealous side is mad that Luke and I put in tons of work and still get blamed for things. No one is chipping in for our kids’ gifts or offering us $8,000.

I should have more grace. She was never adopted. She doesn’t have a family, really. I don’t even know if she’s in contact with bio-mom.

In the end I was happy to hug Marcus good-bye and wave him off in M’s car. By the time her van pulled out of the driveway I was shaking. It was a relief to get her out of the house.

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

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Better Than Expected

I am pretty sure we just made it through our most successful Christmas season yet. I can’t say things went off without a hitch, but it was certainly better than I had hoped. Marcus arrived with Girlfriend and Baby in tow for three days.

I actually made it out to go to the bank and hit one store with Luke for last minute gifts. My back was hurting afterwards but at least I did it. We hadn’t realized the baby was coming without any presents so we stocked up on some extras. We also got a few additional things for Girlfriend because she isn’t on good terms with her mother. Without our Christmas she would have been alone. Even Nana and Papa got things for them.

Carl took having a baby in the house in stride. He was relaxed and calm for the duration of the visit. We managed to play some family card games and get Girlfriend to join in. The baby was the most mellow, laid-back baby I’ve ever seen. She’s a year old and she picks up her toys, listens if you say “no” and hardly ever fusses. Luke and I tried to help Girlfriend as much as possible so she could have a few minutes to herself.

On Christmas morning we went to visit Mary. Everyone handled the two-hour round trip car ride quite well. When we got there the kids were preparing for a gingerbread contest. Her residential school had even taken her shopping for some gifts for us.

I don’t think I’ve ever seen Mary so happy on Christmas. She seemed grounded in reality and relaxed. I didn’t observe even a fraction of that too-bright laughter that used to spiral into a screaming, violent rage. Her laugh was just…genuinely happy.

I was also amazed that Mary held it together around the baby. Typically she does not handle babies well. She gets rather anxious and jealous. She will start to speak in baby-talk and demand baby things. Sometimes she’s been unsafe in a baby’s space. Often times she’ll sort of commandeer the mother for herself. It can be difficult. To my surprise Mary just looked at the baby and said, “cute” before carrying on with her gifts. That was it.

It was a nothing short of a miracle that Carl voluntarily went with us to visit her. After that, he continued with Christmas day dinner at my parents’ house. It was Carl’s job to collect everyone’s coats when we got there. He was content to go along with the group activities or use his iPad.

The only drama this holiday had very little to do with our family. Girlfriend has an open case with DCF for the baby. She didn’t specify why but it had the restriction that the baby’s father was not allowed contact. On Christmas Eve he began sending threatening messages to Marcus and to Girlfriend. Then Girlfriend’s mother also began sending derogatory and threatening messages.

This led to Marcus staging a Marcus-style meltdown. He decided to mix a bunch of wine and bourbon (I threw it out) and storm outside leaving Girlfriend crying in my arms. Carl got scared that Marcus was mad at the family again. All he could hear was Marcus yelling outside while Girlfriend cried inside.

Girlfriend ended up having full panic attack. Luckily, this is the perfect house to have a panic attack. I showed Girlfriend her heart rate on the finger monitor. I showed her how to slow her breathing by blowing Jelly Belly bubbles.

Together we blocked Baby Daddy from her phone. I explained that without a custody agreement he couldn’t make her do anything. She agreed with me that she should just keep following DCF’s plan. I advised her to show the threats to her social worker but I’m not sure that she will. She is legitimately terrified of Baby Daddy.

Eventually Marcus came back inside to talk to me privately. It was mostly ranting/yelling about how he was going to “get” Baby Daddy whether or not he “had his Glock” (I don’t believe this actually exists!) Since Baby Daddy already jumped him and beat him up badly, Marcus is spoiling for a rematch. I let him wave his arms around and shout about how this affected him for about 5 minutes.

When he finally stopped to take a breathe, I told Marcus to grow up. His plan was really stupid. Who cares about being the toughest idiot on the streets?! He has younger siblings looking up to him. He has this little family with GF and Baby now. People depend on having him around rather than locked up.

Also, Marcus is safe at home and safe on campus. This other guy has no job, no money and no vehicle. It’s unlikely he’ll be near Marcus unless Marcus goes back to the city and confronts him on the streets.

I told him to get his act together because this was not about him at all. Then I instructed him to get downstairs and comfort Girlfriend. When someone is already struggling to breathe over their own terror no one should add more stress. I told him what to say and I had him start a hot shower for her. Under no circumstances was he to mention his issues to her in this moment.

Marcus has a long history of not taking advice. He usually does the exact opposite and then self-destructs in spectacular fashion. Not this time, however. I went downstairs to take the baby so Girlfriend could shower and calm down. You can imagine my surprise when I found him holding and comforting her. He was using the exact language I’ve used so many times to soothe his panic attacks.

Luke and I spoke to Carl and addressed his fears. He was OK once he realized Marcus wasn’t raging at the family. Eventually Girlfriend’s sobs quieted down. Luke and I put the baby to sleep. We were exhausted on Christmas morning but we still managed presents, a Mary visit, and then dinner with Nana and Papa. We did it! There was not one hospital visit!! I’m sure I’ll be mainlining Tylenol for a week but it was all worth it.

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

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adoption, family

Do You Get to See Her?!

It’s the second Christmas she won’t be home for. We will bring presents to her on Christmas Day along with some of the dinner. Mary is at a therapeutic residential school that specializes in complex trauma.

I’m glad. Every Christmas Mary experiences periods of psychosis and violence. This usually ends with an inpatient stay in the psychiatric hospital. Her command hallucinations are the worst at this time of year. Carl gets triggered in the Springtime and Mary gets triggered at Christmas time.

Last Christmas Marcus, Carl and my step-kids all got to have a regular drama-free holiday. Luke and I were not stressed out or sleep deprived.  This year will be the same except that Marcus is here his GF and her baby.

I’m not even sad Mary won’t be here on Christmas morning. Typically, even when she was relatively stable, she’d be in-patient at the psychiatric hospital this time of year. She’s been able to handle this holiday better now that she is in congregate care. Whatever trauma occurred in her biological home follows her into the holiday season with a vengeance. Something about being in a family situation at Christmas sets off her trauma triggers to a full blown decibel.

It’s strange to me that people ask if we “get to see her.” She’s not in another country or in jail. She’s at school. We see her all the time and we talk to her every day. The school bought a special staff phone so we can FaceTime 3 days per week. She didn’t leave the family when she left the house.

Truthfully, our relationship with Mary is better now. It’s easier to practice connected parenting when not worried about imminent danger. Without the violence,we can focus on fun. This is the best thing for us. I think people everywhere make the best decisions for their own families. In fact, for other cultures it can be normal to attend a boarding school at her age. Is it only in the U.S. we question if parents “sent their kids away” or “got rid of them?” I’m not sure.

I’ll not ashamed of this decision. I’m proud of Mary. I’m proud of all the hard work her treatment team puts in. I’m proud of the work she puts in. She does a lot of “body scans” to “check her energy level” now. This helps her determine if she is becoming dysregulated or getting triggered. I think it’s an amazing feet for an 11-year-old girl to be able to do this.

Like the little engine that could, our family just keeps on chugging. Someday we’ll get over that hill. Until then I’m satisfied with appreciating what we have right now.

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

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