family

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.

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family

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.

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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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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.

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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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Fruit Fight!

Recently Carl was arguing with Luke about snacks. He really wanted something unreasonable like popcorn dipped in frosting or Doritos in ice cream. Who knows. Luke was trying to convince him to eat fruit. It went like this:

Carl: Can I have–

Luke: Fruit?

Carl: No, I want–

Luke: Fruit?

Carl: Dad! Listen! I want to eat–

Luke: Fruit?

Carl (exasperated) NO! Listen to me!! Can I please just talk?

Luke: Fruit?

Carl: Aaarg!! Let me say one word!!!

Luke: OK. (Looks expectantly at Carl)

Carl: FRUIT!! (Looks shocked, slaps forehead)

Poor little guy has fruit on his brain now!!

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

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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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