parenting

Bra-gate: Puberty and Sibling Rivalry

My son is rolling around and whining on the floor, like a pained animal. All because he isn’t going bra shopping. Yup. He’s pretty upset. Mary is 10 now, and at the beginning stages of puberty. She needs bras. Badly. I can’t drive, so Nana and Papa are up. Aaaand now I’m home with a whining and moaning 11-year-old boy who doesn’t understand puberty (you can read about our sex talk here.) Carl is lucky he’s so darn cute!

He is consumed by his anger that his sister is doing something he is not. She is going somewhere without him. Clearly the world is a very harsh and unfair place. As he attempts to explain how very, very unfair this is, I try to explain a bit about girls and puberty.

Carl: OOOOohhhhhh. Why can’t it be ME?! Why can’t I be the one to go with Nana and Papa? Why do I have to be stuck here with you?!

Me: I love you too, honey. Mary needs new clothes. Fair isn’t everyone getting to do the same thing. Fair is getting what you need. And Mary needs to buy bras. She’s starting to grow breasts.

Carl: Well why did she have to do that? I want to!

Me: Honey, boys don’t usually grow new breasts.

Carl: That’s stupid. Why does she get new shirts?

Me: Again, she needs clothes to fit her changing body.

Carl: But she never changes! She is still annoying!

Me: No, it’s her body that’s changing. She needs bigger shirts now that she is growing breasts. You got new pants when you got taller during your growth spurt. Remember?

Carl: It’s still not fair. I want to do it.

OK. Well, if he really wants to go and buy some bras, then it’s fine. I lay a few of mine on the floor and ask him which style he would prefer? Just so we know what kind of bra to get him when Nana and Papa take him bra shopping. I explain sports bras, underwire, front clasp, halter style, etc. I say, “I support you, honey. I will always meet your needs. If you need to go bra shopping then you can.”

Carl freezes and a look of pure terror dawns on his face.

“GROSS!” he says,”Mom bras! Now I’m scarred for LIFE!”

And there ends the story of bra-gate. We collapsed into full-belly giggles and decided to watch TV instead. We laughed about it for the rest of the night. I hope Carl gained some insight about girls and puberty. I also hope he has less anxiety over his sister and their rivalry.  And would you believe that he never brought up bra shopping again?

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

 

 

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parenting

Murder and Attachment: Bonding Games to Play on a Snow Day

“You’re gonna poke someone’s eye out!” is one of my favorite quotes from the movie “A Christmas Story.” In an ill-advised burst burst of mom-creativity, I did not heed this advice. Instead, I suggested that our whole family have a nerf gun fight today. Because of my back injury, I had to sit in one stationary position whilst my family ran around firing. Guess who got hit directly in the eye? Yup, that would be me. Who knew murder and mayhem could actually be dangerous?!

The reason I was so motivated (read: desperate!) to schedule some family fun activities is because we are snowed in with 18 inches. No school. No work for Luke. Two beautiful children who usually freak out when their schedule changes. Don’t get me wrong, I love snow days. I love the pure  white powder covering our New England stone fences. I love the deep quiet blanketing the forest in which we live. The only colors are the green Douglas fir trees and the soft white of freshly fallen snow. Ahhh…the silence.

Oh-wait. I’m the mother of two children with early childhood trauma. Replace “silence” with “shouting, whining, crying” and also a weird wolf sound that comforts Carl and is a kind of cute.  Days spent stuck at home snuggling by the fire or playing in the snow can trigger one thing in them. Stuck. If their fight or flight instinct is triggered their only option is to fight because they feel TRAPPED. This can show itself as anger, fights between siblings, and battles for control.

So today, I strapped on my super-mom back brace, my stylish old-lady walker, and organized some activities. It was great to turn this day into a bonding experience with family. Playful activities are often a super way to create happy, oxytocin-inducing interactions with a family. Silliness is often the best weapon against fear.

Luckily for me, the rest of our games went much better than the nerf guns. We had a great time. After murdering each other (mostly mom!) with nerf guns, we switched over to a gentler game. I call this one “Throw a wish.” Everyone gets 5 pieces of paper to write a wish on. Some of ours were:

“Kiss my cheek”

“Give a sandwich hug”

“Smell my feet”

“Hug Carl’s stinky shoes.”

“Sing ‘I’m a little teapot’ with hand motions”

“Let mommy eat your brains for 30 seconds!” (Author’s note: this activity is NOT to be taken literally. Pretend only!)

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Section off a room into squares using painter’s tape and crumble the papers into little tossable balls. Everyone picks a section and then set a 2 minute timer. During that time throw as many balls out of your section and into someone else’s section as possible. (Author’s note: you WILL lose this game if you are sitting in a stationary chair due to back issues. Just saying…)

The loser has to perform all of the activities listed on the papers in their section. You must perform the activity for the original writer. For extra fun everyone can perform the “wishes” in their section. This is why I smelled Mary’s armpit, Luke performed the teapot song, and Carl had to hug his own stinky shoes for a full minute!

Our next game was the “Worry Web” (or any kind of web at all.) Again, we used the painting tape so Luke could create a giant web. Then we tossed objects at it to try for a “bullseye!” This is not to be confused with the actual eye of an animal that Carl worried we may have lying around somewhere.

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We launched papers covered with extra painter’s tape into the web. If your child has lots of worries they can write them down and crumble them into balls. Then the worries can be thrown into the spider’s web where they cannot bother anyone and will surely be eaten by a giant, fictitious, spider! (I may have seen this on pinterest somewhere. If I ever find a source I will be sure to cite it. Apologies!)

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We ended the day with a movie night, complete with snacks. The activities were distracting and fun. They cut down on any fear-based misbehaving because everything was kept light and silly.

So please, enjoy your very own snow day (or rainy day) in a way that brings your family closer together. Calm their fear of being trapped, changing schedule, or losing control.  Also, try not to get your eye poked out!!

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

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family, parenting

Why I Don’t Co-Sleep, and I Don’t Care If You Do

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I Lied. This entire post is about to be a lie! My husband and I always had a pact. We would be the only two people in our bed.

We would make time to spend with just each other, every night. Mom and Dad’s “Special Married Time” was sacred in our house. Yes, sometimes our kids would wake with nightmares, and we’d tuck them back into bed. But then Luke and I would return to bed. Alone. We like to spend time together and we like to have sex (and here’s how I had to explain it to my kids!) We both think it’s important to our marriage. So the bottom line is, “no kids allowed.”

But then we adopted kids. Traumatized kids who came from hard places. We did our best to maintain that boundary, until last night. It was our 9 year wedding anniversary. We’d been together for 10 years exactly (We got married on the first anniversary of our very first date.) After a decade together, we wanted to do something special. Since my recent back surgery, I haven’t been able to do much, though. The original “out-on-a-date” plan was replaced with a tentative plan to make very, very gentle love, then have chinese food and watch our new favorite zombie show in bed. I even put on make-up! (Carl’s comment was, “What happened to your face?!)

And so, we put our children to bed. Mary began to sob and cry. Her eyes weren’t even open but she was crying. She hasn’t been afraid of bedtime in almost 3 years. Ever since she got back from the hospital, and I had my back surgery, she’s been afraid again. We’ve done our best to soothe her fears. We use a soothing sounds noise machine, a sensory pillow, her blankie, essential oils, and her favorite cat. Carl even slept on the floor of his room one night so that she could see him across the narrow hallway and wouldn’t feel “alone.” He tired of that after about 3 nights of her waking up crying.

OK, I lied again. We attempted to put Mary to bed. First dad stayed with her. Then I awkwardly hobbled in on my walker to lie uncomfortably on her bed to hold her. She claimed she “couldn’t breathe” because she was so scared. I held her back against my chest as we breathed in and out together using a “belly breathing” technique to calm her. Then I rubbed her back in circles and whispered soothingly, “mommy’s here,” over and over again until she finally fell asleep. Then I clumsily angled of of her bed and back to my walker. Ouch! Definitely time for my pain medication.

Now, Luke and I knew she would wake up again at some point. She is really and truly scared, probably because she is triggered. It may be my back injury that makes her scared to be away from me. It may be that she has been away from us at the inpatient unit in the hospital. Either way, Luke and I knew our anniversary celebration was on a time schedule. So we got to it right away. And then we put our Pajamas back on and went to sleep.

Sure enough, Carl woke us up around 1:00 AM to tell us, “Mary is crying AGAIN!” Not being able to go up and down the stairs more than twice, a day I gave in. We ALL needed sleep after the last week of Mary waking to cry repeatedly through the night. “Send her up,”I said, defeatedly.

Mary came up, clutching her blankie, hiccuping and trying to stifle her sobs. “Climb in,” I told her. And she did with an instant sigh of relief. We all slept amazingly well after that. Mary was snuggly and warm. I typically snuggle Luke but this was even rather pleasant.

I realize that every family is different. Some people do this all of the time. Hey, I don’t judge that. If this is what works for a family, then why not? After last night I am able to see the appeal of holding your child close and helping them to feel safe. I just don’t personally want to do it all the time.

So I spoke to Mary about how we would need to address her new night fear with her therapists. She agreed. I explained in a gentle way that we love her and we want her to feel safe. We just don’t want her in our bed every night. I held my breath and waited for her to protest, or beg, or even cry.

Instead she nodded and said, “Yeah, I don’t want to hear Daddy snoring all night, either.” Well, there you have it!

 

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

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mental illness, parenting

Having a Child With Mental Ilness: Adventures in Living on a Prayer 

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I love this little girl all the way down to her little pinky toe. I love her to the moon and back. I love her like a jelly bean at Easter. These are the things I have to say to her over the phone. So far away. “I miss you major,” I tell her.

Unfortunately Mary is back at the inpatient unit in the psychiatric hospital.She only made it home for about a week. I am just home from 5 days in the hospital after having spinal fusion surgery. We had a few days together before it just got to be too much for her.

Maybe my surgery was a huge trigger. Maybe the onset of puberty is like a freight train running us all over. Maybe her medication just isn’t there yet. There are so many pieces to this complicated puzzle, that is part of our daughter.

Mary slept over at a friend’s house one night and told her friend’s mother she was too scared to sleep upstairs. She claimed she could see her biological parents waiting for her up there. Her visual delusions have been increasing.

Friday at school she had an outburst, yelling at a girl who was absent (presumably for being absent.) After school she has another tantrum at her Partial Hospitalization Program. She was screaming and kicking and generally unsafe.

When calm, Mary was able to tell them she hears more voices than she admits to anyone. The voices tell her to kill me and she is afraid of them. She has drawn and written a lot more about my death lately. She is so afraid her mommy will die. After all, her biological mother left. I am sure these are all fears pertaining to her trauma that are flooding back now to take control of Mary.

Over the weekend, she had another melt-down. Papa wouldn’t let her touch something dangerous in his workshop, she was defiant. When he raised his voice and repeated his direction, she lost control. She ran out of the house to the road. She wasn’t wearing shoes or a coat and it was winter. 

My husband was able to pick her up and bring her home.  I was locked in my room, my parents had Carl, and Luke was keeping Mary safe.I Face Timed her from my locked room to talk her down, and try our deep breathing together. Luke was able to give her a PRN to calm her. She fell asleep in her room still adamant that nothing was wrong and she didn’t need to wear shoes. Ever.

As Mary slept, the crisis worker gave us a safety evaluation. We reviewed the safety plan we had with him.  We explained why we locked up our knives, removed  sharps from her room, and activated the locked door plan when she was triggered. He looked at us for a long time, silently, and then asked us if we felt safe. Not, “Do you feel safe with the plan?” But just, “Do you feel safe?” 

The answer is no. We mulled it over until the next day, but truthfully, we weren’t safe. Mary has not been physically violent or disassociating since 2014. Her medication isn’t working anymore. Therapy is an ongoing process, but without the right medication, she is trapped inside this cycle. We made the decision to send her back to the inpatient  unit while her new medication continued to be titrated. We will not take chances with her safety. We cannot take chances with mine. This is nonnegotiable.

All of this happened as I lied helpless in bed. I felt like we were suddenly back in 2014, watching her fall apart all over again. To be honest, I felt a bit defeated. She’s had ups and downs but she hasn’t had these kind of meltdowns in years. She’s been living a relatively normal life (albeit with a the help of medication and therapy.) It’s very hard for me to admit that things have been spiraling with her for a short while now. It’s just that she’s overcome so much. She’s living such a full and happy childhood. For the last few years she’s been so in control of her moods.

As I hobble around in my walker, or lie prone in my bed, I get a sense of helplessness. I need to recover. I need to be strong enough to be the mom she needs. Lying helpless in bed behind a locked door is all I can physically do for now. So here is where I pray.

“Please,” my prayer starts, “Please let the medication help her. Please don’t send us back to the starting line. And please, please, let me be strong enough to be the mom she needs.”

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

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mental illness, parenting

In-Patient For the Holiday

hospital

I was so prepared this year. I was ready for anything. My husband and I had every therapeutic parenting technique we could think of at our disposal. Coping skills, body checks, sensory diet, check-ins, time-ins, you name it. We had our game faces on. Why? Because it was Christmas time. The worst time of year for many children from foster care. The worst time of year for our daughter.

We were so determined.We had it all figured out. We were on fire with new and wonderful connected parenting skills. I was even feeling a bit cocky, and posting things like, “Looking forward to our first Christmas with no in-patient stays!” on my parenting group. I was so very prepared this year. I was so very wrong.

Here is the hard truth about raising children with trauma and mental health concerns. Sometimes, it all goes wrong. Sometimes bad things happen anyway.  For several months we were working closely with Mary’s trauma team to adjust/change medications, increase therapy sessions, work on therapeutic techniques, etc.

Mary would be laughing one minute, then crying, then screaming. She claimed to hear what other people were thinking. She was lying more often, which is a pretty strong indicator of feeling deep anxiety and fear. Her emotions were spinning around faster than a tilt-a-whirl at the carnival.  She began telling us that she “felt like she was in a different world” at school. She heard voices that told her to hurt me and she didn’t want to. Welcome to the Christmas season.

Luke and I had contingency plans. We kept to a very regimented schedule, with no huge changes in the day to day routines. In order to alleviate anxiety we lightened the mood by having theme nights. One day the children came home and did their homework in a parisian cafe, while drinking “coffee” (mocha-flavored hot cocoa.) We all spoke in french accents while doing math.

Another night, our son yelled, “I wish everyone would stop talking to me.” So we did. We all sang our feelings rock-opera style. For an entire night. He had an air guitar solo, which he totally rocked, and Mary added some dance moves. I couldn’t talk the next day but he had gone from shouting to singing and laughing hysterically. We were having fun.

When Mary came home crying hysterically and told us she didn’t know where her sad feeling was coming from, we rolled with it. We set her up with sensory coping skills in her safe place. I stayed close until she was calm. Then my husband and I snuck into the kitchen to apply fake mustaches, turn on Frank Sinatra, and invite the children to a pasta dinner in our “Italian Bistro.” With accents, of course!

Typically, our daughter’s intense feelings can be acknowledged, named, and coped with. Mindfulness techniques and sensory tools work well for her. Then, as we lighten the mood and get playful, she can come back from the edge and her emotion will flip. It just isn’t always enough.

She began to rage on the evening of the 23rd and continued into the next morning. She claimed she could see people from her past that no one else could see. She screamed, she kicked, she beat her door. She writhed on the floor and yelled at us. She spoke to people that only she could hear. She lifted up her queen-sized bed and dumped it. She smashed everything in her room, or threw it.

All that work, all those skills, and she still had to go in-patient to be kept safe. She went into the psychiatric hospital the 24th and came home on the 26th. We are now referred back to a partial hospitalization program and Intensive In-home Psychiatric Child Services for her. We’ve done these a million times, rinse-repeat. It seems like starting over.

In the end I realize one thing. Our daughter isn’t a renovation project. We will never “fix” her or “cure” her. Mary is perfect because she is Mary. We want to help her heal but we also just want to be her parents.

When she grows up she won’t look back and remember magical parents that swooped in with all the answers and saved her. She will remember parents who cared. Parents who did the one thing that I believe really helped her. Parents that stayed with her. And if I’m being honest, I really hope she remembers the mustaches.

mustache

 

 

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

 

 

 

 

 

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parenting

Manipulation, Melt-Downs, and Meeting Them With Love

Not everyone can be nice all of the time. Not even me. It’s true, although I am loath to admit it. Our daughter Mary has been going through a phase again that is tough to take. I always see her as my loving, sweet, and talented little girl. Despite the fact that I am her doting mom, I can also see the not-so-loving and not-so-sweet actions she has been taking recently.

I’ve learned that Mary has been targeting another little girl on her bus. This little girl is prone to crying easily and is very sensitive. When Mary feels dysregulated, she eases her own feelings by using hurtful words to get a reaction out of this other child. She’s gotten two “bus tickets” for her behavior recently.

At school, Mary is going to talk to her social worker often, but no one is quite sure what exactly is bothering her. She has come up with many different reasons. She has anxiety about friends, about recess, about her biological family. She feels that she can hear the thoughts of the other girls in her class and they all hate her. She typically has these big feelings during math time. This is also the time when she suddenly needs the nurse or the bathroom.

Lately she has been locked in a homework struggle with us. When she completes her work, she crumples it up in her bag and hides it from her teacher. Then she hides her assignment sheet from us and gives a great big story about having to hand in the assignment sheet to the teacher. “No worries,” I tell her gently, “I will take a look in your backpack. Moms have great finding skills.” This is where I find hidden assignments she doesn’t want to do. I also find the elusive assignment sheet. Most baffling of all is that I find several completed assignments that are perfectly well done (She’s VERY good at math.) She cannot explain why she won’t hand them in.

She’s been markedly more irritable. Mary is having meltdowns over the smallest things. She is also inciting as many fights as she can with her brother. She feigns injury when he walks by as though he has punched her. She tries to bait him into fights. When he won’t respond she ends up screaming and yelling and tearing out bits of her hair. I’m not sure that random-pattern baldness is the answer to sibling rivalry, but who am I to give advice? “You don’t understand my body!” she shouts at me. Agreed. I have no idea.

Last night she had a tantrum in therapy. While in the waiting room she destroyed her homework papers by ripping them and stabbing them with her pencil. She screamed and kicked on the floor and told my husband that she hated him and wished she could live anywhere else. I heard this all from the other therapy room where I was with Carl in session.

My husband Luke is a simple man when it comes to family. He just plain loves us. Family is his first priority come hell or high water. He calmly but firmly took the pencil from her and told her in no uncertain terms to stop attacking the furniture in the waiting room. She wasn’t having an out-of-control episode. We know her by now and he could see that she was calculating how far she could go in order to show her displeasure. She stopped, but not before saying some deeply hateful things to Luke. Bless the man, he didn’t respond in kind. He firmly sent her into her therapist’s office where her mood changed to silly, happy giggling, crying, and then back to irritation.

I’m not proud of this, but I didn’t say our special “goodnight” to her at tuck-in. Luke did it instead. I’m so used to my sweet girl that it’s hard for me to see her act with calculated cruelty.  It’s easier when it’s  targeted at me. It is so much harder when she targets the emotionally fragile girl on the bus, her brother, and even worse, my husband.

I know that it comes from a place of pain.  She is hurting, so she hurts others. I know I must respond with love and kindness. After some deep breaths I am able to try again. A panicky feeling sets in when I realize this is the only night I haven’t done our special tuck-in since she came home two-and-a-half years ago.

I gently wake her out of slumber and touch her face in the rhythm we have established. It goes: forehead, cheek, cheek, nose, chin. I whisper the words that match the rythm, “I Love you forever, no matter what, and I am so (tap) glad (tap) you’re (tap) home (tap then lip-pop)” She smiles sweetly in her half awake state and gives a muffled lip-pop back. Then Mary mumbles, “Mommy.” That’s right, kiddo. Mommy’s here. Always.

apologyletter

 

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

 

 

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parenting

Anger at Biological Parents: Adventures in My Own Humanity

carlosmeltdown

Carl facedown on his “fainting couch”

I’m not even sure where the anger comes from. All I can see is red in this moment. I’m not proud of it.  I am tired, I am frustrated, and I am DONE with this whole conversation.

It’s early in the morning. The children are getting ready for school. Carl wakes up angry, as he so often does. He is arguing with me from the moment he opens his eyes.

“Carl, please get off of the floor. Your sister needs to walk through there.”

“I’m NOT on the floor, Mommy!!” He yells from the floor. Then he heaves himself up with an elaborate sigh and an eye-roll. I can hear him muttering “stupid” under his breathe. To Carl’s credit this is a far cry from the “stupid b*tch,” he might’ve muttered at one time. He also used to threaten me with a fist or with a suggestion that he would physically show me or teach me a lesson. He no longer does these things. In fact, I should be saying to myself, “Progress! Look how far we’ve come!” Instead, I am stumbling to the coffeemaker with a murderous feeling blossoming in my tummy.

After my husband distributes meds, Carl flops down on the couch and feigns sleep. (As a side-note, he is an excellent flopper. Usually face down, in the middle of the floor, or on his “fainting couch” as we have now dubbed the oversized ottoman in the living room.)

“Carl, get up. You need to get ready for school.”

“I AM up! And it’s 6:22! I don’t HAVE TO be up now!!!” he yells from his prone position.

The fact that his alarm goes off at 6:25 is a moot point. Those 3 minutes are black and white to him. After I have banished him to the bathroom to brush his teeth he continues with a mix of yelling at me, saying nasty things to me and his sister, or singing and dancing. I give him reminders to brush his teeth. Mary needs to get in there, too. I remind him at 5 minutes, then 10 minutes, and then 15.

“I AM brushing them!” Carl shouts through a mouth unobstructed by toothpaste or toothbrush.

As I begin a final countdown for him to exit the bathroom he screams, “But I haven’t even brushed my teeth yet! You are the WORST!!” and slams a few things around. Then he shoves his sister in the hallway and I send him into his room. When he is this angry it is better to take a few minutes before having him come in close to me in order to practice respect towards family and emotional regulation. His engine is revving too high at this moment.

Once in his room, he slams things around, slams the door (Flexible particle-board doors never break. I swear! Always buy the cheap ones!) He screams at me the whole time. Part of his issue is that we will have a high of 32 degrees today. That means he must wear his coat and his gloves. He absolutely hates dressing for winter. Part of it is a control issue. Unfortunately for Carl, it’s a battle he cannot win. When he was small, in his biological home, at some point he suffered frostbite on his hands. That means he has 2 fingers on each hand that are extremely sensitive to cold.

Carl is different from other kids in the sense that he feels physical sensation differently. He is highly sensitive to sticky or wet substances. It takes a great deal of pressure or force to make him feel hard physical impact. For example, breaking his foot wasn’t nearly as bad as having tree sap stuck on his fingers. Many children from hard places have a smattering of sensory processing issues due to their past trauma.

In his biological home, he was beaten so badly, so many times, that physical impact doesn’t phase him. I believe he honestly doesn’t even feel the New England chill until it is too late. Until he comes inside screaming in abject pain and holding bright red, naked hands, out to me. They hurt him so much but he refuses help to keep them warm. It’s much easier to argue with mom.

Today, Carl yells at me from his room this morning that I will have to make his lunch because he can’t make it from his room. I sip my coffee and tell him that he can easily dip into his money jar and bring his own money to buy a school lunch. No worries.

I am mad at Carl this morning. Really, really angry. He is screaming and shouting horrible things at me. He shoved his sister. He sometimes reverts back to whatever mentality in his bio- home that taught him women were meant to be beaten, controlled, and dominated. He isn’t often like this anymore. He’s not physical with me but it sounds like his bunk bed is taking a solid beating.

It occurs to me that I might not be completely mad at Carl. I am mad that we have to worry about his frostbite because his first mom left him alone outside in the snow, under the age of 5. I am mad that no one bundled up my little boy and met his needs. I am mad that he was beaten so badly, and so often, that sensations rarely register with him. After all, nothing will ever hurt him as badly as his biological parents did. I’m mad. He’s my baby now and I wish I could have met those needs. But I wasn’t there. I am here now and instead of letting my pre-teen boy have a healthy parental rebellion, I’m stuck attempting to further protect him from damage that she has already done.

Realizing this softens me towards him. He hugs me and apologizes on his way out the door.Of course I squeeze him tight and wave good-bye.  I am left to wrestle with this anger I have towards her. I try to be understanding. I try to be forgiving. But I am only human. At this point in the day I am a very disheveled, under-caffeinated human. I guess grace and forgiveness will have to wait until I’ve at least had a good long shower.

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

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