adoption, family

Late Night Texting With the Patchwork Kid

In typical Marcus fashion I got a late-night text message. My phone chirped with the image of a certificate. Clicking on the “Student of the Month” award picture with Marcus’ name on it made the late-hour text worthwhile. This was the first time he’d ever received the accolade. His childhood was spent missing out on, well, being a child.

When our kids were in their biological home they only attended about half of the school days. Even if they went to school there was often no one to get them off of the bus at the end of the day. They were all behind in academic subjects when they entered foster care. Mary wouldn’t speak in school at all. She would sit with her head down, her arms limp at her sides and her eyes averted for most of the day.

Carl and Marcus got into trouble often. They had physical altercations, tantrums and suspensions. Carl once famously (infamously?) told a teacher he couldn’t participate in reading because the “kids were ugly.” Marcus was more likely to get arrested in high school than go to a school dance. In fact, I know the former happened but I’m pretty sure the latter never did.

Carl couldn’t read when he came to us. He was at a Kindergarten level going into third grade. I worked with him all summer before school and he flourished. By the end of that year he was right on track. Now he’s made honor roll for two semesters. This coming semester he’s trying for high honors!

Mary struggles with her behavior in class. She is behind but it’s hard to keep her on track when her mental health prevents it. Now that she is in a great residential school for complex trauma, she’s making progress. Both Mary and Carl have received the “Student of the Month” award a few times.

For Marcus, it’s a huge deal. It took him until he was 21, and in Job Corps, to engage in academics. It’s suddenly very important to him that he does well. Seeing his younger siblings achieve accolades through the school years has been so difficult. Marcus never got the same support in elementary school.

So last night I made a HUGE deal about it. I posted his certificate on Facebook. Luke and Nana praised him. I sent him every celebration emoji in my phone! Go team Marcus!!!

Even though he’s older it  feels like he needs that approval. Marcus still has so many milestones yet to be experienced. His maturity is like a patchwork quilt that is continuously being made. Piece by piece we are filling in the missing patches.

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

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adoption, family

Naked Mom and the Zombie-Pickle Holiday Plumbing

My children really do not get the whole Christmas concept. In the 5 years they’ve been home we’ve never been successful in getting wish lists for gifts. I totally understand where they didn’t get into Santa. I am a bit of a Scrooge about that guy. I mean, where does he get off breaking into our house at night while we’re sleeping? Why is he always watching and judging us?! That guy is a total creep. We fully disclosed that particular myth almost immediately because Mary was so terrified of him.

Over time the kids started to come around to the idea that they would get presents at Christmas time. In foster care one child got presents while another child would got one or two items per year from the Child Services stipend.  Poor Marcus bounced around so much he went without the holiday more often than not.

In fact, every Christmas since he was 16 has been a surprise for Marcus. He’d open one gift in shock saying things like, “Really?? You guys got something for me???”

Yeah, kid. We did. It gets a bit repetitive when he’s still confused after opening the first four packages. Imagine that multiplied by 5 Christmases.

This left Luke and I to explain a lot over the years as we forged our own traditions. Marcus’ first foster home had a custom where they would hide a fake pickle in the tree. We continue this tradition (I think it’s German) and hide a plastic singing pickle. The kids find it and re-hide it over and over until Christmas morning. Whoever finds it then gets a prize.

Luke and I have always had very zombie-themed Christmases. There are zombies in the nativity set and zombie caution tape as garland on our tree. Our living room boasts a happy skeleton with mistletoe in his mouth. Our children acclimated to the zombie theme more easily than the presents portion. They’d get absolutely rabid about trying to find out if they were getting gifts (at all) each year.

Since our children can be masterminds at sniffing out food, presents, and other items in the middle of the night we needed a covert op. If we didn’t hide the evidence all the presents would go missing weeks before the actual holiday.

Luke and I made elaborate stories like, “These packages are for a plumbing project in the attic. We just had to purchase lots of PVC piping. Don’t open them because the parts are very sharp.”

Sadly, the vague and unlikely attic-plumbing made more sense to Carl last year than hidden packages of Christmas gifts. In fact, I ran out of excuses for disappearing into the master bedroom with the door locked to wrap presents. Unfortunately, it’s a big trauma trigger for Carl when he can’t find me.

He’d bang on my bedroom door shouting, “Mom? MOM!!! What are you doing???? WHY ARE YOU LOCKING ME OUT???!!!”

Last year he was 12 and still buying into the whole December home-improvement mystery. I had to come up with an excuse so I’d usually say, “Don’t come in. I’m naked right now!”

This worked like a charm. It worked so well that an exasperated Carl outed me in the middle of a busy CVS holiday crowd.

He burst out with, “You never spend time with me! You’re always upstairs naked in your room!!!”

The stares were priceless.  This kind of thing happens to me a LOT. 

This year he’s 13 and he’s figured it out. He knows we have presents up here but he isn’t confiscating them ahead of time. Marcus is planning to spend Christmas here with his GF and her baby. He actually texted me some things he’d like as gifts. At 21, he is finally able to give me a wish list. Mary knows we will be visiting her on Christmas at her residential school.

This may be the first year that everyone is on board for the holiday process. I no longer need the naked attic-plumbing ruse! Everyone seems ready for a merry zombie-pickle-fully-clothed-mother holiday!!!

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

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adoption, family

Math Lessons in Ramen Noodles

At about 3:00AM my cell phone comes to life with a string of beeps. Who is texting me at 3:00AM?!

“MMMOOOMMM!!!”

“MOM??”

MOOMMM I’M RUNNING LOW ON NOODLES!!!!”

The texts devolve into a series of shocked and presumably dying or close-to-death emojis.

Hi, Marcus.

He’s still at Job Corps. He’s been there for two months and 3 care packages. When he first got to his dorm he didn’t want to bring any of this own things, even toiletries. Years spent in the foster care system taught him some unfortunate lessons.

In typical Marcus fashion he keeps his personal items scattered across several houses with different relatives or friends. He’s always done this. It allows him to move locations frequently and easily. It also guarantees that if he blows out of a home in a rage, he won’t lose the entirety of his belongings. I guess it’s his way of diversifying assets.

Due to this process, he went into his dorm without much. Marcus had honestly never heard the term “care package” until I explained it to him. When I was in college my mom sent me goodies in the mail. It kept me going and made me feel loved. It connected me to the woman who took care of me even when I wasn’t physically with her.

Marcus was flabbergasted. “Srsly?!” He texted me when I explained the concept, “That’s a real thing? Like Nana really did that? Do other people do it???”

Yes, Marcus.

Now here we are at 3:00 AM. He seems to have gotten a good grasp on the care package concept. I’d like to think he’s gotten a handle on the trust concept also. When you need food, go to mom!

However, his math skills are suspect. It was exactly 6 days ago that I Amazon Primed him 48 packages of Ramen noodles. Even if he eats 2 per day it should last him over 3 weeks!

Perhaps the next lesson for Marcus will be a math lesson about the consumption of Ramen noodles.

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

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adoption, family

The Pressures of “Adulting” Like a Supermom

The term “adult” has shifted from a noun into a verb in today’s nomenclature. The act of “adulting” means to behave as a grownup is expected to. Being a grownup myself, one might assume I could accomplish this so-called “adulting” like a pro. After all, I’m only a handful of years short of forty!

When parenting children who have experienced complex developmental trauma, things tend to get turned upside down. Probably, parenting is a process that can get the best of anyone.  Adopting older children continues to be a strange and (at times) confusing journey for me.

My children come from a background of fighting for survival, fighting as a way of communication and fighting as the tool to get their needs met. In other words, Carl is masterful at drawing people into an argument and/or shouting match. He is good at the power struggles. He’ll make a great lawyer or reality TV star someday.

In therapeutic parenting the point is to stop struggling for power. You and your child are supposed to work together to find solutions. Its the two of you vs. past trauma as opposed to parent vs. child. In order to do this one must be proficient at “adulting.”

I’ve written before about Carl’s struggles with food insecurity. This comes in the form of hoarding food or binge eating high-value “junk” foods that we don’t usually keep in the house. Luke bought frozen pizza roles at the grocery store and it’s been a struggle every day since then. Carl wakes up in the night to eat them (even still frozen) or begs to have them at breakfast. He will stomp, scream and shout to try and get access to them. It’s our job to teach him that these behaviors will not earn anything for him.

Part of the therapeutic approach of Trust Based Relational Intervention (TBRI) is making compromises. If your child is asking for something rather than demanding it, then you should try for a compromise or some form of “yes.” In theory it fosters connection and teaches good interpersonal skills.

I wish I could say that I “adulted” through the latest pizza role drama like a pro. Usually I do. Last night, on the seemingly 35th consecutive day of nonstop pizza role negotiation, I snapped. I pretty much had a mom-tantrum.

The pizza role struggle looked like this:

Carl: Demands pizza roles 10 minutes before dinner.

Me: Reminds him to ask instead of tell. Offers to discuss this after dinner.

Carl: Tries to bargain from 20 then 17 then 10 pizza roles.

Me: Begins to grow a burning hatred for said pizza roles. Evilly fantasizes about throwing the entire stupid jumbo bag into the outside trash bin.

Carl: Eats dinner by shoveling an entire plate into his face in under 5 minutes. Does not gag. Politely requests 10 pizza roles.

Me: Ignores growing hatred for pizza roles. Asks for a compromise. 5 pizza roles to start with after Carl showers. If he is still hungry in 1 hour he can have another 5. In between he should try fruits and vegetables which are always readily available. Pats self-on-back for using a compromise like an awesome therapeutic adult. Score 1 for Supermom.

Carl: Follows compromise with the exception of doubling the amount of pizza roles and attempting to shove them all in his mouth at once to avoid detection. Ends up with burns inside his mouth.

Me: ???!!!

Carl: Yells at me for noticing this but not the other times he has stolen food. Yells at me for starving him and never letting him eat. Yells at me because his mouth now hurts from being burnt.

Me: Loses all semblance of adulthood and therapeutic calm. Yells at Carl that he better complete his chore (empty litter box) right away.

Carl: Shouts, “Why do you have to get mad at me every single day?!”

Me: Shouts, “Why do you feel the need to lie to me every single day?!”

Carl: Corrects me by retorting, “That’s not lying that’s cheating! I didn’t lie I cheated!”

Me: Begins a disturbing descent into madness.

Carl: Cleans litter box while yelling. Accuses me of getting mad over food. Turns red and continues yelling about how much I suck as a mom. I should be mad about cheating instead of lying.  Refuses to put trash bag of litter into outside trash bin. Reiterates that I suck as a mom.

Me: Proceeds to suck as a mom. Raises voice about lying and breaking compromises. Threatens to revoke television privileges.

Carl: Runs into his room (forgetting new plate of pizza rolls) and locks the door behind him.

Me: Grabs litter trash, forgotten plate of pizza roles and entire jumbo bag of pizza roles from the freezer. Storms outside and dumps them into the trash bin.

Carl: Turns on his SMART TV in the safety of his room.

Me: Unplugs the internet router, effectively ending Carl’s TV time.

This was not very adult of me at all. I gave myself a time-out. I went to my room with my adult coloring book with some gel pens. It’s actually a very soothing activity. I gave myself the remainder of the evening off. Carl eventually apologized to me over the walkie-talkie. My only response was a weary, “copy.”

It took me a few hours to regain composure. Eventually he radioed in an “I love you. Goodnight.” I was finally able to swallow my burning hatred of pizza-rolls to blurt a half-hearted, “I’m sorry too, kiddo” over the walkie.

For the rest of the night this “adult” colored and watched Hallmark movies about nice families who do not fight to death over a stupid pizza rolls!!

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

***I am not affiliated with, nor do I represent,  TBRI or Sasha O’Hara coloring books in any way. Click on the links above for more info.

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adoption, family

Paying for His Mistakes?

There is no middle ground when it comes to Marcus. He’s either in or he’s out with his perception about family. He can be up or he can be down with his emotions. He’s either with us in rural Connecticut or on the streets of a city slum in his old neighborhood. Marcus can be in a place where he makes a series of good decisions or a string of bad decisions. He is caught between his biological and his adoptive families. It doesn’t matter how often we try to get him to accept both.

When he came home from Job Corps for Thanksgiving it was great. He helped us with chores around the house.  He spent the weekend replacing light-bulbs and breaking down Carl’s bunk bed to replace it with a stand-alone frame. He hauled up the Christmas decorations from the basement so we could trim the tree and set up our annual zombie nativity scene (yes, really). Acts of service like this are the way Marcus shows us he cares.

Carl pretended to push Marcus off the ladder while he affixed the angel at the top of the tree. We played about 47 games of Phase 10 and Scattergories. Our house was filled with activity and laughter the entire week. It was wonderful.

Now Marcus is back at Job Corps. I’ve sent him a care package of Ramen noodles via Amazon Prime. He has what he needs and he’s in a place that is safe. He passed his return drug test so he’ll be able to go off-grounds for weekends (as opposed to Holidays only) starting this week. His life seems to be progressing in the right direction. I can feel good about the choices he’s making.

Except…except…I’m not confident he’ll continue to make them. When we discussed Christmas break he mentioned going back to the city to stay with a friend. He’ll be back in the thick of the drama that got him jumped in the first place. It’s so easy to slip into old habits in that environment. He’s 21, but when it comes to thinking choices through he’s developmentally around 6.

He sent me a message last night asking if we could cover a court fee for $50. When I pressed him as to why he said it was from driving with a suspended license. He claimed not to remember when or why his license was suspended, only that it was now reinstated. He sent me a pic of the re-reinstatement paperwork. Although he says he’s not able to cover the cost, I think he can. I know Job Corps gives him a little over this amount each month.

Honestly, I don’t want to pay it. When he left home the last time to live in his car and return to less-than-legal employment in the city, he got in trouble. He got stopped while driving an unregistered vehicle. His car insurance lapsed. He popped a tire doing donuts in a parking lot because he lives life like a Fast and the Furious movie.

I just can’t bring myself to feel like this is my problem. Luke and I did have his car towed to bio-dad’s house after it was impounded. He won’t give us the real reason why his license was suspended other than “it was the cop’s fault, man!” These are the natural consequences of his very bad choices. Part of me thinks when he leaves for winter break he will get sucked back into the city and skip out on Job Corps.

I don’t want to pay it. I don’t want to support his bad decisions. What I want to do is say, “I TOLD you so!!” However, I know it will cause a rift in our family. I really just don’t know what the right move is here.

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

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adoption, family

Death and Changes

Nothing reminds us of the sanctity of life as much as the finality of death. Luke and I went to a memorial service today. I didn’t actually know the woman who died. We might have met a total of two times.

Her husband is the one we are friends with. He volunteers with Luke as an EMT here in our little town. He’s a captain named K. Our relationship with K began before Luke ever volunteered at EMS.

My husband didn’t have time for any of that in the summer of 2014. We had just brought home 3 (4 when Marcus visited) foster children with plans to adopt them. That summer was filled with a series of crisis. Mary was having out-of-control violent episodes on a daily basis. They’d last for hours and leave a swath of broken furniture, broken walls, and a bruised up mother in their wake. Sometimes there was blood.

When it got too dangerous for us to manage we’d have to call for backup. The mobile crisis team would send out a therapist. Often Mary was much too violent for them to manage. The police and ambulance would soon follow.

Every time we had to bring Mary in for a psychiatric hospital stay I felt like such a failure. Why wasn’t she getting any better? Was our love breaking her in some way? Why couldn’t our family be enough to help Mary stabilize?

Here is where K came in. After the third or fourth hospitalization he began to show up first on scene after a 9-1-1 call. Luke was at work and I was on my own. K never judged me. He never judged Mary. K had a similar experience with a family member suffering from a mental illness.

Mary was terrified to be alone with men back then. She wouldn’t let anyone touch her. The only way to get her to the ER was if I rode in the back of the ambulance with her. When Luke was working I couldn’t ride with her. I’d end up without a way home from the ER. I couldn’t leave the other kids with neighbors overnight again and again as I stayed at the hospital.

On one of the worst days, K was there. Mary was heading back for an inpatient stay. Her violence was escalating. Marcus had called their oldest biological sister and their biological mother in a fit of rage. I don’t even recall why he was mad that day. My cell phone started blowing up with calls, threats, and comments about the terrible things we were doing to Mary who really just “needed her mother.”

At my wits end, I looked at K in despair. He gently asked me where my car keys were. That night he drove my car behind the ambulance to the hospital. I was able to go with Mary and still have a way to get home. I dare anyone to find an EMT that amazing.

Over the next few years Mary stabilized. We would see K around town and she’d run to hug him. Luke began volunteering at EMS as family life settled down. They became fast friends and K was always there for us.

At the service I brought him a brightly colored pink and purple bracelet made by Mary. I told him, “This may not be your style but you know who wanted you to have this.”

He put on his sparkly bracelet and wore it the rest of the service. When I glanced down at Luke’s hand I realized both of us were still decked out in our Mary-made jewelry, too. Luke never takes his off.

Sometimes things change. K’s wife died after a hard-fought battle with cancer. Mary went to a residential school after two years of relative stability here at home.

Some things never change. I know this each time I glance down at our wrists.

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

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adoption, family

Home Visit!

Mary finally came home from her residential school for a an hour-long visit! Her therapist Q prepared her and came with her. This school is uses the research based “ARC” model to treat developmental trauma. It stands for Attachment Regulation and Competency.

The entire visit was about helping Mary acclimate into her home setting and strengthen her attachment to us. Q brought sensory tools, a coping plan and “body scan” strategies. Q also brought a series of activities to add structure to the visit. We prepped Carl with the same tools ahead of time. We gave him the option to participate or retreat into his room if he needed to. His room was the designated ” no-fly zone” where no one was allowed to enter his space.

The trip was a resounding success for Mary. She ate a Mediterranean salad made by Dad, which is obviously the best kind. We went into her room and chose some things she wanted to take back to her school. We sorted through a mountain of Barbies and put away the overflow of toys she brought back from the school.

Next I gave everyone some banana bread that Luke made. We created a stuffed avocado pillow from an art kit. Carl came home halfway through the visit and mumbled a quick “hello.” He turned down my offer for banana bread and snacks. Then he took off into his room rather quickly and remained in the safety of his “no-fly zone.”

Mary’s school therapist, Q, mentioned that they were considering Mary for a special program at the school. It would be a smaller residential setting within the school that was structured more like a group home. The students would have more freedom to move around on the campus and participate in the outside community. They would also have more of the responsibilities someone would have in a home as part of a family.

It’s a pilot program for 3 girls and 3 boys. Mary is a good candidate right now because of her improvements. The program is designed to teach independent skills for students who would be transitioning either out on their own or back to a family setting. I feel excited and a little scared about this prospect.

Will they have enough supervision to keep her (and the other kids) safe? Will this structure trigger her or will it help her adjust to feeling regulated in family situations? Growing up in hard place where her biological home was dangerous made Mary fear family settings. So much of her trauma impacts how much family-time she can tolerate without becoming disregulated. Will this help her?

After the hour was up my parents came to get Mary. We drove her back to the residential school together. I sat in the back seat and cuddled with Mary for the hour long trip. Once we dropped her off I realized how much of a toll the drive had taken on my body.

A muscle relaxer had me sleeping the entire ride back home. Luke ended up having to pry my stiffened body out of the back seat and into bed after the trip. I could barely move the entire next day. At least I am now aware that 2-hour car rides are not tolerable for me even with medication. Lesson learned.

With the exception of Carl, everyone was pleased with the results of the home visit. Q said she would be willing to set up a regular schedule to continue these home visits. When we have Mary’s treatment team meeting this week we will all discuss it.

In the meantime Luke and I are giving Carl some room to process. We don’t want to force any interaction with Mary on him. We want to give him some space and then gently feel out his response to this whole process. It’s complicated so I think we need to give him some time.

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

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