family

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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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

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

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

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

I Am the Bionic Woman

OK, I know, I get it, not everyone wants to look at my skeleton. X-ray pictures might seem gross to some but they totally fascinate me. In these pics my spine looks so super-strong that nothing could topple it. Of course some of that is due to the fact that this time around the surgeon used extra large screws made of a special material. This was in order to prevent the reaction I had last time.

The first time around my body didn’t respond well at all to the stainless steel hardware. Rather than grow bone material (called fusing) I grew an excessive amount of scar tissue. During this time my entire body was left without support due to the instability of my spine.

Some of the problem was obvious in the form of a hard outward lump the size of a ping-pong ball. It made all kinds of doctors (even an allergist) say things like, “Wow, come look at this! I’ve never seen anything like this!” They also said, “Hey can I write about this in a medical journal? This condition is really rare.”

The pain I felt in my nerves and in my spine was obvious to anyone who looked at the outward mass of scar tissue. It didn’t show everything that was going on inside, but it gave an indication. Clearly, something needed to be done. I needed help.

My kids are like this sometimes. We cannot see all the ways that early trauma, foster care and adoption have affected them deep inside. One or two angry interactions show us that they are experiencing some kind of emotional pain. We’ll never really know how deep that scar tissue has formed. We can’t truly understand how it affects their ability to navigate in the world.

Marcus is this way. He will blow up, become angry, break things, yell, rant, really try anything to push us away. His last leaving was like this. So was the one before and the one before that. Like my medical-journal-level scar tissue, these are the outward signs of his problem. I cannot say how much I wish that I had my surgeon’s specially formulated tools and extra-long screws coated in healing solution. I want so badly to fix these internal wounds for him.

I can’t. Obviously, I cannot heal for him but what I can do is try to weather the storm. He called this week and asked to come home for family dinner. After I missed his visit the day of my surgery I was jumping for joy (metaphorically) and shouting, “YES!!” I gave him the obvious news that this wouldn’t be one of those family dinners where I baked homemade bread and his favorite cookies for dessert. I’m recovering, Luke is rather blind at the moment, so pizza ordering is our dinner go-to.

He messaged back a bit later that he was on his way and I shouldn’t be over-doing it in the kitchen. The very fact that he is thinking about what might be best for me is progress from his sulky teens. He was stuck in survival-mode we met almost five years ago. When he thinks beyond his own needs it truly is progress.

However, he informed me that he “had someone we needed to meet.” It’s a girl. It’s always a girl. I agreed just so long as it wasn’t Toxic Ex-Girlfriend. Marcus let me know this was someone new. Then he also let me know she had a baby. Could she bring her baby? Said baby was already in the car.

Have you ever watched a horror movie where the clearly-about-to-be-dead character slowly opens the basement door to go and “check things out?” That’s the way I felt as I attempted composure while asking if this was Marcus’ baby. He took his time  responding while I sat clutching phone thinking, “Why did I have to check in the creepy basement?”

In the end, Marcus denied the child was his. It belongs to his girlfriend, but they also have “something to tell us.” I checked her out on social media. She looks young. She poses with her middle finger up or her backside out towards the camera. I suppose everyone looks young to me. Marcus is about to be 21 so presumably (hopefully) she is around that age as well. It is taking every super-power I have not to pre-judge this situation and start heavily disliking this baby. I mean, it’s just a baby for heaven’s sake. I need to get it together!

In the end, Marcus cancelled dinner. He asked to reschedule in a few days because he “got called into work.” A part of his pattern is to get close and then rapidly retreat so I’m not all that surprised. This will give me a little more time to work on my “what a cute baby!” as opposed to “Leave that in the car!” greeting statement. I should also work on holding in comments like, “Marcus you aren’t emotionally stable enough to be hanging out with babies. That’s a huge responsibility. Please start taking care of MY baby (Marcus) first!”

Luke is wiser and more patient than I am. He says we have to understand that our son will make choices we may not agree with. We have to guide him as best we can while continuing to support him. Without us, Marcus wouldn’t have the support network he so clearly needs. Luke is also blind at the moment, so no matter what I’m probably going to tell him it’s not a very cute baby. I am a horrible person.

So here I wait. I summon all the strength I can from my newly bionic spine. My prayer goes something like this:

Please let me stand tall no matter what my son might be facing.

Please let me be less judgmental. (Because I am on a SERIOUS path of prejudgment right now and it’s not a good look.)

Please do not let me be a grandmother right now.

Please let me lend the support that is needed.

Please help me to stand tall and strong like the bionic woman I am.

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

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adoption, family

It’s Time

I’ve spent this past week tying up all of the loose ends I can find before my surgery.  I wonder if I’m ready. No matter how much I’ve prepared I can’t be sure that I’m ready. Also, my mother-in-law is coming to help out for a week so this should get very interesting.

I do love my MIL. She isn’t one to show affection with hugs and kisses. She will make me a cup of tea when I’m stressed. When she visits she cleans everything and cooks dinner for us. I absolutely love it. She fills our house with the savory smell of Spanish rice mixed with lavender Fabuloso cleaner. However, she has a great deal of anxiety and is scared to be out here in the countryside. Once she asked me fearfully if the deer ever came into the house!

When we first brought the children home my mother-in-law came to visit. It was great to have someone to help with household tasks because the kids were desperate for my attention. If foster care had taught them anything it was to be afraid that moms were actively trying to escape. The house was in turmoil and the kids raged, tantrummed, fought with each other and generally did whatever they could to hold my attention. They were so afraid then that their new mom would get away somehow.

My MIL was scared of them. While they were terrified of the world around them she was terrified of their violence. She didn’t want to be alone with them. She slept with her bedroom door locked. When Mary would begin to rage she’d run to her room and lock herself in. Her anxiety was pushed to the limits. She really didn’t understand why we would want to grow our family this way.

At one point she told me that foster care had “better kids” than these and that we needed to “send them back.” It wasn’t spoken with malice. She was afraid of what our lives would be like with these children. My MIL told me a story about someone who adopted troubled kids and ended up divorced.

After this, Luke jumped in to gently, yet firmly, establish some boundaries. She was only trying to protect us but it wasn’t helping. Over the years she eventually became very close to Carl. He loves her Spanish cooking which is truly the way to my MIL’s heart. When she talks about our family these days, it’s with respect. She brags about how far the children have come.

Now that she is coming I feel like things can run smoothly while I’m in the hospital. The only thing she fears at our house currently are those pesky deer! Under our kitchen sink I have organized the cleaners and miscellany so she can find her cleaning supplied. I’ve purchased her favorite cleaning gloves and a bottle of her signature Fabuloso. She has two boxes of her favorite cereal available.

The SUV just had an oil change and it’s burnt out bulbs replaced. I’ve prepared and frozen a few casseroles just in case. Luke and I rounded up three dead vacuum cleaners and other useless stuff from the basement to make a dump run. I can guarantee my MIL will still clean the basement, but at least this way she can get around.

Carl’s appointment with the in-home therapist is all scheduled and his rides for football practice are arranged. In short. there isn’t much else I can do. Is it enough? Have I prepared my family?

All I know is that it’s time.

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

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