adoption, family

Second Chances

Paper stars flutter to and fro in time to the rhythm of the air conditioning. A wall of black plastic sits beneath reams of masking tape and fluorescent post-it notes. It’s masquerading as the New York City skyline. This is Pinterest’s creation come to life. This is the middle school’s eight grade dance.

I set it up and now I wait for the children to arrive. I chaperoned this event for Sean when he was in eighth grade. At the time I sort of signed up illegally because only seventh grade parents chaperone the eighth grade “graduation” dance. Since we didn’t have him when he was in the seventh grade I never got the opportunity.

Of course after Sean’s umpteenth “Hey! That’s my mom!!” shout-out to friends I got caught. The teacher in charge gently but firmly chastised me for breaking with tradition. Oops.

At the time, getting caught as an illegal chaperone was my biggest embarrassment. It wasn’t until months later that I began to hear all of the things Sean had said about us around town. For that one night I felt confident enough as Sean’s mother to take the risk and stick it out at the dance.

Tonight was my chance to do it all over again. It was my second chance to follow the correct order of things. Carl is adopted: I’m officially his mom. I don’t have to explain what a foster parent is to the head teacher. Carl is in seventh grade so I officially qualify for chaperoning.

I even got here early enough that I helped the eighth-grade parents decorate. It wasn’t exactly clear to me who was qualified to decorate. It’s hard to keep up with the very specific roles around here!

Right now I’m checking over the streamers and refreshments. I’m admiring all of my handiwork when the head teacher comes in. It’s the same one from 5 years ago. The teacher looks flustered and out-of-breathe. She remarks that the ceremony is wrapping up too quickly and the kids will be here before the chaperones arrive.

I don’t think she recognizes me from 2014.

“It’s ok,” I say. “I’ll be here.”

Immediately I sense the change in her demeanor. She shakes her head and clucks in time to the air conditioner. “Oh no,” she shakes her head, “The eighth grade parents only do decorations. You can’t stay to chaperone. The seventh grade parents are the chaperones.”

I vaguely wonder what happens when someone parks in her favorite spot. How does she react if someone orders at the grocery deli without first taking the little paper ticket? Even when there’s no line at the deli? Life must be very frustrating.

“I’m a seventh-grade mom,” is my smooth reply, “I just showed up early to help.

She looks mildly bewildered that I would show up before my scheduled time. A wayward streamer sticks to her hair sprayed helmet as she rocks back on her heels to ponder me.

“Yes, that’s right!” She exclaims, “You ARE a seventh-grade parent. You belong to Carl!”

Well now that we’ve cleared that up…

I nod solemnly because I do belong to Carl. I am eternally proud to belong to him. I belong here.

This is my chance to get it right.

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

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adoption, family

Proven Wrong

I need to spend more time counting my blessings. Yesterday morning I was filled with dread over the impending Mother’s Day drama. I was expecting the pattern of trauma and dysregulation from the last few years to continue.

I have never been happier to say I WAS WRONG!!! Mary got up with me in the morning to go to church with my parents. It was a nice service and I actually found myself relaxed and happy. Mary wasn’t irritable or on edge. She was pleasant and sweet to me. Slowly my own irritability and edginess drained away. I went home to a spotless house that Luke had cleaned.

Later, we had a celebratory lunch at my parents’ house. Typically we go around the table and appreciate one person in the family for something at mealtimes. Carl almost always appreciates us for eating with him or giving him food. This time, I gave appreciation to my mom and sort of waited for things to get weird.

Mary and Carl both appreciated me. Carl appreciated the food (of course) but also the sports I take him to. Mary appreciated her family and adoption. Marcus shocked me the most. This is NOT his thing. He appreciated the holiday because he said he had “never been a ‘mom’ fan” but now he was. It was amazing.

When I drove Mary back to campus she was calm and centered. Only Bio Sister’s comments from the previous evening upset her. Mary teared up a bit and wanted to know why BS called her “chubby” and “sad looking.”

She asked me, “Do I look ok? I’m trying to eat healthy and not be chubby.”

Mary also expressed concern about BS knowing where she went to school. She didn’t want BS to know because she felt BS would judge the school. She felt her sister would blame us for sending her away.

Later on, when Bio Sister (BS) came (almost 2 hours late) to get Marcus, we had a conversation. It’s weird that she didn’t want us to meet her over the state line. It turns out her boyfriend was violating his probation by driving out of state so they had to take someone else’s car.

Luke is very good at this so he firmly but politely set a boundary for her conversations with the kids. He told her that some comments had been hurtful to Mary. I confirmed that Mary is sensitive and felt bad about being called chubby and being told she “didn’t want to go back to that school.”

Of course BS backtracked and claimed she didn’t mean it and that all Puerto Rican’s hate school and call each other fat. She looked at Luke to confirm this and he flatly disagreed. She asked again if Mary had learning disabilities and why she went to private school.

“Why can’t they help her in regular school?”

I explained that Mary has overcome a lot and is doing very well. She is so strong and so amazing. She has a lot going on and if she chooses to share her diagnosis or struggles someday it’s up to her. Until then we will be protective of her.

I gave BS some examples of supportive comments. I told her to be positive and and tell Mary she looks great, IF they were going to talk. BS quickly agreed. We told her regardless of her personal feelings about the school, she shouldn’t share them.

Even Marcus jumped in and said the school was amazing.

BS looked nervous, apologized, and left quickly. I’ll miss Marcus but I’m glad she’s gone.

All in all it was a great day. Victory!!!

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

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adoption, family

That Day

That day is here again. The one I dread with a visceral gut twist every single year. It’s Mother’s Day.

Here is the day where I leave the house and people congratulate me over and over again for being a mother. People ask my kids if they are celebrating me or doing something “nice” for me. Well, first people look at Carl and Marcus with puzzlement before checking that I am, in fact, their mother.

All it does is remind all of us that there was an original mom in this picture who really messed up. Her loss has been my gain and it isn’t comfortable in any way. This day reminds my children of grief.

Being a daughter myself means that I have my own mother to celebrate. I love her dearly but it does prohibit me from hiding in the closet and ignoring the entire thing altogether.

Someone traditionally has a meltdown every year around this day. It’s just too hard. My money is on ME this year. I am pretty sure I’ll be the one to lose it and stomp off.

Today we have to return Marcus to Bio Sister and Mary to campus. We had planned to meet BS at a halfway point. She doesn’t want to do that. Instead she is driving TO MY HOUSE.

Last night Marcus hands his phone to Mary and it’s BS on FaceTime again. Her first words are, “You look sad. Why do you look so sad?” Then she said stuff in Spanish while Mary stared at the screen thoroughly confused. Insert my eye roll here.

Doesn’t Bio Sister have her own kids to worry about? She’s pregnant again.

Please wish me luck as I bravely (reluctantly) embark on That Day again. At the end of it I can snuggle up with Luke and watch the penultimate episode of Game of Thrones.

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

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adoption, family

The Prodigal Returns (Again)

Marcus is home. We finally convinced him to come home, at least for a little while. He’s here so that we can take him to get a new driver’s license at the DMV. He can’t get a job without it.

He’s also here because he needed me to help him write his appeal letter to Job Corps. As much as he wanted to leave there previously, he now wants to stay. He’s depressed and mad at himself for the way he reacted to the girl that threatened him.

Marcus is an odd duck this way. He always wants what he doesn’t have. He knows he gets triggered and that his reactions are extreme. He understands it’s not ok to react with rage and violence. At the same time he often feels as though it’s someone else’s fault.

Tonight he’s trying to explain that he’s been thinking of self-harming. He claims to have two separate people inside him that want different things. He wants to do well but a part of him wants to mess everything up. He does honestly believe he has someone else inside of him.

I wish Marcus could see that the thing he is fighting is trauma. To that end I’ve scheduled an emergency appointment with L, our local super-hero trauma therapist. She’s the only one he’ll see anyway. His comments about wishing himself to die or to hurt are something I take seriously.

Hopefully he stays at home for awhile. We can focus on his mental health in a way his sister won’t. He certainly won’t face these issues on his own.

Please stay this time, Marcus. Please put in the work. Trust me, you’re worth it.

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

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adoption, family

The Lion’s Den

The sound of her voice sets my teeth on edge. The children’s older biological sister, M, is difficult for me to stomach. I am caught between my instinct to get her away from my children and the idea that I should try to maintain their original sibling bonds. It’s hard for me to do.

Contact with her is something the children are entitled to. She isn’t a danger to them. She’s just…herself. I know that if I keep them from her they will only seek her out all the more as they get older. Forbidden fruit is always sweeter.

Still, it’s hard for me to see the upside of this contact. She’s always pushing the limits just enough to set off my internal warning system. Her compliments are backhanded. Her questions are all masking hidden intentions. I know she is poking around the edges of our relationship, looking for a soft spot.

When M comes to the house it’s usually to pick up Marcus. Without fail she immediately requests to use the bathroom and then proceeds to the younger children’s rooms. She goes through their things rapidly asking questions about what clothes or shoes might fit her and what her children would like. If I could describe her in one word it would be “hungry.”

Then she tears through picture albums and other personal effects. All the while she’s asking a million questions about what we think is “wrong” with Mary and why. I never answer these. It’s Mary’s business to share if and when she wants to.

The last contact with M came just as I was bringing Mary home for the weekend. Marcus handed Mary the phone the second Mary and I walk in. It’s a FaceTime call from M. She wanted to grill Mary about the private boarding school where we “sent her away.” M does not believe that Mary has any problems that need addressing.  I suppose living with Mary for the first 3 years of her life has made M an expert.

She puts on a pouty face and comments, “I bet you don’t want to go back there. I bet you wished you could stay at your mom’s house. Right? Right, Mary???”

A confused Mary shrugs and says, “Sure.”

Her “mom’s house” really?? This is obviously Mary’s home, too! Also, this is a two parent household. For whatever reason, M has always treated Luke as an afterthought. She sees me as the parent and Luke as some sort of family-adjacent variable. It’s insulting, really. He’s an excellent father and as it just so happens: homeowner!

I glance at the screen and notice that M is surrounded by scattered trash and maybe 6 black trash bags littering the floor. She’s changing her youngest child directly on the carpet next to some old McDonald’s wrappers and what looks like a banana peel. Her face appears drawn and tired. She’s gained about 20 pounds since I saw her at Christmas time.

Mary becomes quiet and awkward. She asks after the baby. M begins to rapid fire questions one after the other while my daughter tries to keep up. Mary answers either “yes” or “no” as M demands to know what clothes she has, what is in her room and if she misses “having friends.” Mary doesn’t even know how to respond to the last question. She scrunches up her brow in confusion and glances at me.

Rather than answer M what size her Nike shoes are, I wish Mary would describe her riding lessons, gymnastics or on-campus therapeutic rope course. I wish she’d fill M in about her dorm room in the elite wing with TV, DVD player an iPod. She’s doing quite well at her amazing school but it doesn’t come up.

Instead M ends the call with, “Wow you look chubby! You’re getting chubby just like me!” Then she says she has to go and cuts off the call.

No matter how I feel, M is a part of my children’s lives. I’ve just got to suck it up and smile unless she were to do something obviously inappropriate. Until then I feign happiness that she’s in touch and swallow my own hurt pride.

As of this moment Marcus is staying with her in the city. I can’t help but feel that my oldest child has just walked into the Lion’s den.

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

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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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