family

This Weekend Almost Defeated Us

Tooth-jarring screeching sounds of metal scraping against metal emanated from the undercarriage of my Honda Pilot. A vague scent of smoke wafted in through the open windows. The more I hit the accelerator, the louder the noise got. I wish I could say that my horrible weekend started there but I’d be lying.

Friday started much differently. I finished my first week of work since spinal surgery. I’m only doing 3 hours a day but it’s a huge win for me. I was flying high and feeling invincible. Nothing could put a dent in my sunny, triumphant mood!! Saying I was wrong on this account is a vast understatement.

Upon getting home I checked my bank account. It was very, very low. Since Luke’s eye surgery we’ve been struggling. He only recently returned to work after months without pay. Worker’s comp covers a percentage of my salary, but it’s not much.

Add to that a series of emergencies (water pump died, washer/dryer died, roof needed repairs) and we had problems. We even had to borrow money from my parents (thanks, guys!)

So Friday comes around and I get a check from the insurance company that is maybe 1/5 of my normal check. Presumably I’ll be receiving a regular check from my job but it will come in the mail. Then I get a notification that Carl’s lunch money balance is low. Great.

Next, I start a small stovetop fire while making popcorn. I put it out right away things got a little crazy. Saturday rolls around and I’m watching for the mail like a hawk. I need that other paycheck to come through. As soon as it comes I send Carl out to retrieve it. I probably should have gone myself but my back was killing me.

Unfortunately, Carl was not as concerned as I was about the mail. He walked in with a package but no envelopes and insisted that’s all the mail we got. It wasn’t until the bank had already closed and we left to pick up Mary, that I double checked. Yup, there was my paycheck ready to do absolutely nothing until Tuesday. Sigh.

As we left to pick Mary up at school the horrible scraping sound began. Luckily, we were only a few miles into our hour drive. I did what, presumably, any smart mom would do. I made Carl run alongside the car. I figured if it blew up (or if I started my second fire of the weekend) at least he’d be safe. When he suggested calling a tow truck I burst into tears. I couldn’t do that because I hadn’t deposited the check.

In a state of sheer panic I pulled into a nearby friend’s house to park. She wasn’t answering her phone. If she wasn’t home I could still leave the car there. The entire time I was calculating how far I could walk towards home before Carl would have to carry me.

How would I call Mary and cancel our overnight? I always come through for her. I NEVER let her down even though she always expects me to. What would happen if this time I followed through on plans like bio mom?

By the time I parked the car I felt like I was struggling to breathe. By some stroke of sheer luck my friend was actually home. As soon as I explained my situation she got her two kids and loaded them into her car. Without any questions she dropped everything and drove me the hour to get Mary. Thank heavens for ride-or-die friends!

We ended up having a fun yet overwhelming weekend. Luke was able to figure out the car problem and fix it within our minuscule/nonexistent budget. The kids cleaned the kitchen and ran the dishwasher while I took some downtime on the heating pad.

We filled our weekend with at-home budget friendly activities like board games and family dinner with Nana and Papa. By the time I took Mary home on Sunday night I was feeling a bit of that Friday high coming back. My belly was full of my mother’s famous pistachio cake and my little girl was riding shotgun.

The weekend had been stressful, crazy, and filled with financial ruin. Mary was back in her “fast” place. Her speech was so pressured she smooshed her words together and dropped almost all of her consonants. No one can really understand her vowel-speak but at least we were certain it was all very sweet. She wasn’t making violent or outlandish comments.

I had my family. I had my car back. I ended the weekend singing with my daughter and driving literally into the sunset. What more could I really ask for?

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

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adoption, family

Swimming Upstream

I wonder how a salmon can continue to swim upstream fighting the flow of water every inch. It seems counter-intuitive but their instinct tells them to keep going. Just thinking about it makes me exhausted.

Recently, Marcus broke up with the girlfriend who had the baby. He and his friends were all over social media saying horrible things about her. The threads ranged in topic from disparaging comments about her vagina to the fact that she had a baby. The language used was awful.

I explained that these words were not OK. This is a form of abuse and harassment. I offered an alternative as to how to handle the situation. At 21, Marcus makes his own decisions and I’m not even sure I got through to him. The social media backlash did stop so maybe our conversation worked.

As a woman and a mother I want to raise strong men. I want my sons to internalize the same values I do. It is so important to me that they respect women in their words and actions. I don’t believe that a man should ever use physical strength to coerce or intimidate a woman under any circumstances.  I also believe that a woman’s sexuality is just as natural and sacred as a man’s. Words like, “c*nt, whore, slut, b*tch” etc. do not have any place in my value system.

In fact, the more shame that surrounds a woman’s sexual identity, the more vulnerable she is. Sexuality is a natural thing. If the taboos surrounding it disappeared so too would the silence. I believe it is easier for perpetrators to commit sexual crimes if they know victims will be too afraid to speak out. If we teach our girls to be ashamed of sexuality then we teach oppression. A strong man doesn’t wield this as a weapon. He doesn’t have to.

So how can I pass this on to my sons? The truth is that I can’t. At least, not entirely. Carl and Marcus grew up in a very different environment. An early model of domestic violence colors their views. Foul language disparaging a woman for her sexuality was simply common vernacular in their childhood home. The value that physical dominance makes a “man” permeated their early years.

Over time Carl has mostly shed these misconceptions. It’s Marcus I worry about. He doesn’t understand what is appropriate here and what is not. When he was 16, I found out that he was bullying a girl online by calling her a “slut” and other sex-shaming phrases. I tried to make him see how this was wrong no matter the circumstances. Utterly baffled, he defended his actions because, “she really is a slut!”

When discussing Chris Brown’s infamous 2009 attack on then-girlfriend Rihanna, Marcus took his side. “She deserved that!” The idea that no one should be physically punished was foreign to him. It’s taken a lot of years to get him to a place where he believes that physical violence between partners is not OK.

He’s got a new girlfriend now. Girlfriend L attends his Job Corps program. She seems nice, but like anyone getting emotionally close to Marcus she probably won’t last. He posted about her the other day. It went something along the lines of being lucky to have her in his life. I found it to be incredibly sweet. If he is able to verbally express his emotions then he’s maturing. This is new for him.

Unfortunately, his oldest biological sister and Sean weighed in. Both of them encouraged him to take down the post because it made him sound like a “little b*tch.” I have no idea why but this seems to be a persistent family value from long ago. Be a man. Don’t be “soft,” whatever that means.

I hope that Luke and I have influenced the way Marcus treats women. I’d like to think he’ll continue to grow to be more like Luke. Every step we take it seems that history is there to fight us. Marcus is caught between the values of our home and those he grew up with. Parenting Marcus is a lot like un-parenting his past. I am still fighting my way upstream.

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

 

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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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