Apparently we have a black hole in our bathroom. Our house came complete with 2 full all-consuming, mommy-stealing annihilation machines. At least according to our children it did.
I know this because during the first week of placement I took a shower. It started like any other day. I woke up, I was ripe-smelling. I chose soap as the best way to address my armpit situation. Unlike any other day the walls began to shake. There was a howling screeching noise that filled the house and a pounding/ thumping sound from the other side of the wall. It turned out to be our daughter. She went into a massive tantrum as soon as I left her line of vision. I could hear my husband attempting to comfort her and calm the storm that was little Mary.
Let’s back up a bit. Mary is a tiny 8-year-old girl. She has light Hispanic skin and bright gray/green eyes. She has curly dirty blond hair and frequently painted nails. She favors pink and sparkles and princesses. She also loves bugs. Mary avoided eye contact with most adults when she first came to us. She was quiet around adults, particularly men. Mary spoke to her siblings and she spoke to us. For the most part she followed me around silently and held my hand. Quietly. Something was wrong.
This inhuman sound coming from outside the bathroom door? It was Mary. I came rushing out all soapy with my shirt on backwards and she ran at me, beating me with her tiny fists. “I didn’t think you’d come back!” She wailed. Later that night I pondered why one might not come back from the shower. Secret door? Magical vortex? Black hole?
As it turned out, every time I took a shower Mary tantrumed. She screamed and cried and pleaded for me. She threw things and knocked over furniture and made an unearthly sound until I came back out. And she was always puzzled when I came back. Keep in mind that I was home for the entire summer when our children transitioned to our family. The only times I was not within their line of vision were getting changed, in the bathroom, or the occasional jog.
Carl, her 9-year-old brother, panicked when I went to the basement with a load of laundry. “Don’t go! Please!” He would shout. Then he would proceed to cry on the floor, face down. When when I came back, he would say, “you’re here, mommy, you’re here!” But where did I go? Carl would cry and wail if I went for a morning run. “Please don’t go, I have to come with you, don’t leave me!” He would scream as I was leaving. Then apparently he would move on in his day and become absolutely flummoxed when I walked back through the door. He would greet me with an utterly surprised , “Mommy! You came back!”
And then there was the dreaded “#2.” That was a deal breaker for the 3 siblings. The oldest teen didn’t mind so much, but the youngest were terrified. They would sit outside the bathroom door demanding to know if I was going “#1 or #2?” If it was # 2 they would pound on the door and try to open it. All 3 siblings would beg me not to go. They would sit and attempt to talk to me and determine if I was still there. Of I took longer than they felt was necessary, they would shout, “You lied to me! You said you would only be doing a number 2. You left!”
Try as I might, I never did find the black hole or secret passage in our bathroom or in our basement. In fact, there were some days that if I had found it, I may have taken it as an escape route! We went on this way for months. I would disappear and then magically reappear from the bathroom or basement or a morning jog. The children were equally mystified each time I managed to reappear. At one point our then 13-year old Sean told me he was worried we had “moved out” whilst he was away. Up until that point I hadn’t even known that was an option! But I digress…the actual problem our children were having was with something called “object permanence.”
To put it simply, once they couldn’t see me anymore, I ceased to exist. According to Jean Piaget, infants believe that when an object disappears, it ceases to exist. Babies experience this with caregivers but then learn that a caregiver will come back over and over again. I’m not a developmental specialist, nor do I claim to be one. However, as the weeks went on it became more obvious that our children did not have a concept of “mom-permanence.” They believed that if I disappeared from sight, I would not come back. Never mind that there was only one way in and out of our bathroom, this was not a logical thought pattern. It was a thought pattern based on fear and experience. Most children in foster care experience trauma, loss and even neglect.Our children’s framework for “mom” included a disappearing act worthy of Houdini himself. They entered into a state of abject terror when I wasn’t in sight.
Luckily for everyone (because, really, showering is in EVERYONE’S best interest!) we got some help from our family therapist. She gave me some great tips for letting the children know I was still there. I am happy to report that these things helped us over time and nowadays I can enter the bathroom with relative confidence that our children can handle my personal hygiene!
The first trick was singing to my children. All. the. time. I would sing loudly and off-key about whatever I was doing. For example, “I’m washing the dishes and I love Mary. Carl and Sean like to eat from clean plates. I’m washing the dishes by turning on the dishwasher, la la la clean dishes are so great!” This seemed to put them at ease about what I was doing and why. When I would begin to sing, “I’m doing some laundry so I’ll pick up this heavy basket. La, la, la I will carry it down the stairs,” the kiddos would become tense and gather near the basement door. I would walk down the stairs belting out, “la la this basket is heavy. La la I’m going downstairs. La la, I hope I don’t fall on my fanny!” Then I would throw in some sound effects, like gross farting noises, for good measure. This started them giggling and laughing. They were already in a heightened emotional state from fear, so they rapidly switched into a nervous giggly state of emotion. I would continue warbling loudly the entire time I was hidden from view. I sand “I’m turning a knob. I’m loading the washer. I’m pouring detergent.La la la la la I’m washing daddy’s dirty undies!” All to the tune of the “Happy Birthday” song. Impressive, I know! It worked. They laughed, they cracked up, and then they teased my hubby about his dirty undies.
The second thing we did together was to play peek-a-boo. It sounds silly with kids who were 7, 8, 13, and 16 at the time, but it worked. With the younger ones I would literally play by hiding in a blanket on the couch while we cuddled. I would pop out and exclaim, “peek-a-boo, I love you!” Or I would hide and then reveal their favorite stuffed toys. I would say, “Well now, there’s Mr. Stuffy! I thought he was lost! That just shows you that in this family, we always come back.” With the 13 and 16-year-old I would sneak around a corner and pop back out yelling, “Boo! Scary mommy!” Those teens rolled their eyes but they laughed and then began to play the same trick on me. It was somewhat less amusing when they surprised me and I spilled coffee all over myself!
And then there was the bathroom. We talked about the bathroom. We toured it all together before I went in. My husband would testify on my behalf randomly throughout the day by saying things like, “Gee, I’ve been married to mom for a long time. I’ve seen her go into the bathroom lots of times. I’m so glad she always comes back. In our family, we always come back!” And then there was the singing. I sang in the shower. I sang on the toilet. I would play a Pandora station and change the lyrics to be all about our family or all about my kiddos. I sang about soap. I sang about washing my armpits. I sang about poop. Over several weeks, this began to soothe their worries. 2 months of fear was replaced by giggles in about 2 weeks. Soon, they would start singing to each other or singing in the car. There it was. “Mom-Permanence.” They had it!
I never did find a vortex or a mommy-sucking black hole in our bathroom. Not even a secret door leading to the land of adult TV, songs with inappropriate language and a glass of wine! Bummer! But I did find some peace for my children. I created a piece of permanence in the tumultuous world of foster care and adoption.
*If you’ve ever thought about adopting or fostering, I encourage you to get started on your own adventure!
**Names have been changed to protect the privacy of those involved.