adoption, family

Home Again: the Prodigal Son Returns

He’s home. He’s finally home. If I peek into his room I can barely make out his sleeping form beneath the covers and beneath the dog. The huge sense of relief I feel overwhelms me even now. I am not even sure where to begin with this post.

 Marcus, our “prodigal” son will turn 20 next week. Some of you may remember when he disrupted from our home after a tumultuous few months prior to what would have been his adoption. (Thank you, by the way, for all of your kind emails and comments.)

This happened rather suddenly. He’d just been to see us for a visit on his brother Carl’s birthday. I think it reminded him what being in a family looks like. I believe that in this trip we somehow managed to show Marcus we were really there for him. Despite the fact that we never officially adopted him, we are here in all the ways that really count.

It happened during a workshop I attended. There was a panel of former foster youth speaking about what they wished foster/adoptive parents knew. I will never forget the one young man who had moved “home” at 25 after the death of his biological mother. He affectionately referred to the couple next to him as his parents. He had no hesitation about belonging to more than one family.

I’m embarrassed to say that I started tearing up as he told his story. I mean, how on earth did they convince him that it was OK to love two families? How was he so well-adjusted? Did it come with time? Would we ever get there with Marcus? Because honestly? Dropping him off and leaving was the hardest thing to do.

Right in the middle of the panel I got a message from him: “I need a place to stay. Can you please pick me up?” Life is full of strange coincidences. I know it wasn’t ideal for him to get kicked out of the place he was staying. I know he can only manage a few months of love and family at a time. I know this may not Work out well at all. I know he is on his way to Job Corps as soon as his medical clears.  I’m happy about it all the same. Because I am not perfect.  Because I am selfish. Because I missed my son.

 

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

Advertisements
Standard
family

Monster Feet in the Night

The force is strong with Carl tonight. He is trudging up the stairs into our bedroom about every hour or so. I hear a quiet, “Mommy? Daddy?” and squint my eyes open. There is Carl standing in the doorway in Star Wars Pajamas and monster-feet slippers. Yes, the force is strong. The force of wakefulness.

All manner of emergencies happen. He has a stomach ache. He needs to blow his nose. He had a bad dream while he was awake  and he cannot fall asleep. I know exactly what this means. Mary has been gone for a week straight now. I believe that Carl is afraid because he was separated from his sister for so long in foster care. The 11-year-old boy who is a fierce athlete by day, has become a frightened child with monster-feet slippers at night.

What he really needs right now is a little nurture. What I really need right now is a little sleep. He asks to sleep with the cardigan I wore that day. I hand it over while realizing I’m missing about 8 cardigans because the children like to sleep with the smell of mom. I’m either going to have to go shopping, or go digging around under their beds. But first, I really need to sleep.

“Do you feel safe now? Do you have everything you need?” I hear Luke say this as he escorts Carl back to bed for the 6th time. And it’s only 1:00 AM. I do not know how people with infants do this! Luke then asks Carl to please stop coming up the stairs and knocking on our door. He explains that we all need to sleep. If Carl can’t sleep he can do one of his crossword puzzle books or read for a bit. Carl agrees in a sincere and determined voice.

2:00 AM rolls around. I am woken by something. Carl is standing at the bottom of the stairs (not going up) and whisper-yelling, “Mommy? Mommy!” Well at least he isn’t banging on the door to our room. He has a headache this time. I administer tylenol and take him back to bed. Hey, he attempted to follow Dad’s directions.

3:30 AM comes and, believe it or not, I am woken again by a little whisper-shout from the bottom of the stairs. “OK, Kid.” I say, “You’re scared. Grab the nesting materials from our closet and set up a place to sleep on the floor near our bed.” He agrees with palpable relief.

It’s that little high-pitched voice that gets me. Soon it will change and deepen. He will only be my little guy in Star Wars PJs for a little longer. Carl rustles up a soft bed made from a large down-feather quilt and several different kinds of “nesting” pillows we keep on hand for the kids. It’s usually used for watching movies. We don’t co-sleep, but whatever. Did I mention the part about 3:30 AM?

Finally, we sleep. The next morning I stumble downstairs like a bleary-eyed zombie. My face feels puffy. Carl is industriously putting his things in his backpack and getting ready for the day. I can’t seem to manage actual words so I grunt and mumble my way over to the couch. That’s when Carl hands me a fresh cup of coffee. Just the way I like it. My little big guy is now dressed in Nike sports gear and operating kitchen appliances.

Soon the days of monster-feet and the little voice will be gone. He is growing so quickly. Adopting kids from hard places is a long, difficult journey. But it’s amazing. It’s moments like these where It’s nighttime again, once more. These are the moments I can reflect and write about our lives. It’s all worth it. He has learned to show empathy. He has learned to trust. He has–wait…is he up? AGAIN?! Yes, he’s up.

What I meant to say was:

Please send coffee!!!!

 

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

Standard
adoption

Scars and Secrets: Memories of Child Abuse

17425007_10203326896008915_3872773225619522777_n

They kept so many secrets in foster care. So many. My son has three tiny round scars on his top left shoulder. They have spread apart and faded as he has grown and his shoulders have broadened. Those scars are not his fault. They are from the metal end of a belt buckle. He was beaten with it in his biological home by “everyone,” he says. His biological mother, his biological father, and many other men that passed through the house.

When his skin browns deeper in the summer sun, they stare at me in accusation. I wasn’t there to protect him. In the winter months they are easier to overlook. Easier to lose sight of, at least for me. Carl never forgets.

Other memories he has of his biological parents are fun. His biological father let him steer the car while driving drunk. Bio-dad had Carl “help” when he worked on cars. He bought Carl little toy Hot Wheels for a collection.  Once, when their biological father was drunk and left a $100 bill under Mary’s pillow for the toothfairy.

But Carl was left alone a lot. When his biological parents were drunk or high, they often left 5-year-old Carl to care for his younger sister, Mary. They would find their own food  in the cabinets while their mother slept and the older kids went to school. Soon after Bio-Dad left, a string of men were in and out of the house. When Bio-Mom wasn’t high and sleeping, locked in her room, she was drinking and partying with anyone and everyone.

These are stories that I have heard from our children and their older biological siblings. Obviously, I wasn’t there, but I believe my kids. I believe their siblings. I know these things happened. Yet, I also know that their Bio-Dad loves these children and his feelings for them are real. Once we started contact with their biological father, things changed a bit.

Our littles both got cards and pictures from Bio-Dad for Christmas. Mary got a birthday card. He promised to send Carl a birthday card as well, only if I told him when Carl’s birthday was. We have decided to let the kids respond if they want to.I continue to send updates and photos.

Carl looked at Bio-Dad’s Christmas card, tossed it aside, and continued playing a card game with Luke. Later on he put it under the coffee table and hasn’t looked at it since then. Mary kept both of her cards in a memory box and seemed really happy to have gotten them.

But their views are very different. Carl remembers being beaten. He remembers more because he is older. Mary was younger. Most of what she remembers came from the many boyfriends mom had after bio-dad. The difficult part with having siblings adopted from the same traumatic background, is that they hold different memories.

Mary has begun insisting that their Bio-Dad never hurt them, it was only their bio-mom. She has begun to build up this fantasy around him (similar to what I did when I was younger.) Both children got into an argument about their bio-dad the other day. Mary insisted he never hurt her, so whatever Carl did must have gotten him hit. His face crumbled as she implied that the abuse was somehow his fault. I corrected her immediately and ended the conversation.

I spoke to them each separately about how different the things they might remember are. Everyone sees things from their own viewpoint. I stressed to Mary that she must never, ever, ever invalidate her brother’s feelings.

With Carl I explained that his memories were his and all of his feelings were OK. He and Mary might feel differently, but she will not be allowed to invalidate his experience. No one should ever be abused physically. It was never Carl’s fault. Bio-dad probably just had no idea what to do as a parent.

Later at dinner that night, Mary started counting all of the “moms” she had. She came up with 4 or 5. Carl scoffed at her and said, “Well I only have one mom!” His feelings may change on the subject but for now he refuses to contact Bio-Dad. That’s OK.

Beyond that, it is up to them if they decide to write to their Bio-Dad. So far, neither one has. I’ve put a moratorium on discussing their bio-home together until we get to the therapist’s office. Until that time they can talk to Mom or Dad alone about their first parents. Good and bad memories are OK. Mixed feelings are OK. Love and anger are OK, even at the same time.

I will continue to casually mention that sending a letter or picture would be nice, but the contact is up to them. So far I haven’t gotten any takers, but I am determined to leave that door open and respect my children’s wishes. Only time will tell what happens next.

17361703_10203326896688932_9079597076135239351_n(1)

Mary happy with Daddy Luke

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

 

Standard
adoption, family

The Go Bag: Adventures in Emergency Coping Skills

Gillette2

My husband has a “jump bag.” It’s filled with life-saving tools that paramedics use. He keeps it with him because he volunteers for the service in town, and may have to go at a moments notice. I’m pretty sure he even carries an oxygen tank in there. Basically, anywhere he is in the town, he  is only a phone call away from saving a life. He is a prepared paramedic.

Our family needs first responders, too. We need to be able to respond to a child’s out-of-control or spiraling emotions in a flash. We need tools to help soothe sensory overload, or satiate sensory seeking behavior. We need things to help us be proactive, rather than reactive to our children’s emotional needs. And they have plenty of emotional needs!

Recently, we took a trip to visit Gillette castle here in Connecticut. For long day trips, we always plan ahead. We talk to both children about the long car ride. We role play and practice responses to possible frustrating scenarios. We brainstorm coping skills ahead of time. I ask the Littles, “Where can you sit in the car to make the car ride easier?” I guide them into thinking about sitting in separate rows so as not to attack each other on the ride. We carefully plan out what we can bring with us. Would Mary like to bring her blankie, her doll, or both? We give choices.

And then, we have the coping skills bag. I bring it on trips both short and long. I bring it to church. I bring it to events. Just having the bag helps Mary feel like she is prepared to handle her emotions.

Our Emergency Coping Skills Bag includes the following:

  1. An iPod with extra headphones. Music is soothing and it can drown out the annoyance of your siblings.
  2. An adult coloring book with colored pencils. This is a soothing activity that you can take anywhere.
  3. Sludge (or another gooey substance.) This is a fun sensory activity that is calming and keeps hands busy.
  4. A stuffed animal, blankie, or another transitional object (such as Dad’s dirty shirt) for hugging, squishing, and soothing.
  5. Snacks
  6. Word search or activity book. This gives them something to think about other than murder plots for siblings.

Having the emotional “jump bag” made our day trip possible. Two hours in the car and no one was physically assaulted. No one tried to climb out of the vehicle. No one collapsed from boredom. Not one meltdown! And the best part? We all got to enjoy our trip to the castle.

Apparently William Gillette wrote in his will that he did not want his castle to fall into the hands of a “blithering sap-head.” Although our kids didn’t necessarily retain all of the historical information from this trip, they remembered that phrase. I am proud to say that they both declared they would not be calling each other “blithering sap-heads” because it wouldn’t be nice. Hey, any day without a blithering sap-head is progress to me!

castle

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

*Photographs courtesy of my awesome husband, Luke!

Standard
adoption, family

Friend or Foe?: Sibling Relationships After Adoption

siblings

She’d just as soon stab me in the back as smile in my face. Who could blame her? I’m the mom enjoying the kids she raised in their early years, despite being a child herself. Her relationship with us has been tumultuous at best and downright preditory at its worst. For the purpose of this blog, I will call her M.

She is one of their older biological sisters. She has a child of her own and is on an “independent living track” in DCF care. M was never adopted. She is 19 years old, with a 4-year old son. We have pictures of her, from her Facebook page, that we added to the children’s lifebooks. She has my children’s beautiful eyes.

When the biological mother lost parental rights to our kids, the older siblings lost by proxy. How could this possibly be fair to a sibling group of 7 children? The two adult sisters, who attempted to raise our little chickens through chaos and strife, have lost so much. To lose their siblings because of their mother’s mistakes as well? They already lost their own childhoods to that. It’s beyond imagining.

These waters are very murky for adoptive parents to navigate. How can we honor and maintain these connections? To complicate matters further, DCF had not been maintaining visits between the siblings in the group. At all. In fact, the older girls were not even aware that their siblings had been placed in a pre-adoptive home out of state. By the time my husband and I entered the picture, damage had been done.

Our kids were home for 6 months before we were even able to make contact. We asked the social workers for a visit. We asked them for a phone number. Our requests went unanswered. The department was hesitant about the oldest sister, K, for various safety reasons. We pointed out that M was a teenager. She was still in the care of DCF. She, at least, should have visits. The department maintained that visits were required for biological parents only. Since those visits were long gone, we were stuck.

I messaged both sisters on Facebook. I offered to provide pictures. I left a phone number. I heard nothing. During this time, the biological mother had her seventh baby. The child was born with drugs in her system. We stayed out of this case, as it was separate from that of our children. We hoped she was on the track to reunify with the infant. We kept a respectful distance.

We waited to hear from M or K. They were in contact with Marcus and Sean (we think) during this time, so I hoped they knew their siblings were safe and loved. Eventually, the reunification between the baby and the bio-mom failed. After about 6 weeks with the infant, her mother, for whatever reason, gave her to the previous foster home and left to Puerto Rico. She had been in contact with the older girls while she had the baby, so in essence, she left 3 daughters behind. That’s when we heard from M.

I was eager to re-establish the lost sibling connection. I felt guilty that it had been almost a year since the siblings had seen each other. I felt guilty that DCF had not maintained these important connections. By that time, the siblings had been estranged for nearly a year. I spoke to M on the phone and I was so encouraged by the conversation. Maybe I was too eager. Maybe I was naive. I scheduled a visit.

I loaded up the car with 6 kids and drove out of state. We met met M, her child, and her girlfriend, at a science center in her city. I bought everyone tickets and souvenirs. We looked at animals and played in fun exhibits. M spent most of her time talking to Sean and her girlfriend in a corner. I ran around and played in the toddler area with her son and my Littles.

At the end of the trip, she (jokingly?) told the Littles to get into her car. She motioned to the front seat, saying, “quick. Get in, no one’s looking!” They ran back to me, and Carl was laughing. Mary was not. Mary was hesitant to speak to M. She had massive tantrums on the way home, but we stopped frequently and helped her through the long drive home.

I honestly had no idea what was coming after that. I believe that M is a good person and is trying her best. She is grieving the loss of her siblings. While I was sending her pictures from the trip, and planning the next visit, she was talking to the social workers. Apparently she made claims that my husband and I locked the children in the basement for lengths of time. I have no idea why she would think or say this except that it did happen in their bio home. At any rate, no one took her seriously and we didn’t hear anything more about that.

Soon after this, communication with M became toxic. She encouraged Sean to run away. She talked about ways for Sean to get the Littles to her. She might have told him to hide Mary’s psychiatric medication because she didn’t believe that Mary was “crazy.” Poor M claimed that she had “heard voices” telling her to do things all through high school and that she was “just fine without all that therapy and medication.” Poor girl. It’s possible that Sean fabricated some of this, as he so often did. It’s equally possible that he fabricated stories about us to her. Who knows? My heart went out to her but I also felt the need to protect our family.

She tried to stop the adoption in any way she could. She sent me texts swearing at me and threatening me. Eventually I told her that I was willing to send pictures of the kids, but we should not communicate any further. The social worker asked us to stop attempting visits with her and we agreed.

The Littles didn’t notice her absence, but I did. I felt for this teenager who had never been adopted. Her mother had left her many times. Her siblings had left her. Even when she started speaking to them again they had been full of happy stories about their new “mommy” and “daddy.” That must have been awful for her.

After a time, she contacted me to apologize. I sent her pictures and videos right away.  We had a good conversation about boundaries. She gave us information and little stories about our children’s early childhoods. We will forever cherish these and share them with our children. M actually sent baby pictures to us so that the children could see themselves as babies. She also sent us her own baby pictures. I think she needed someone to tell her how cute and precious she had been. She wanted someone to cherish her baby pictures as well.

She was the only one who gave our kids this invaluable link to their past. For this, I am forever grateful.

I continued to send pictures and updates. I set up a few phone calls. I think the calls were awkward because Mary didn’t want to talk and Carl went on and on about all of the cool things he did with “his dad” and “his mom.” We started discussing another visit. And then things fell apart with Marcus and Sean.

We never heard from M again. The last update I sent was a picture of the Littles in front of the Christmas tree. She never responded. Since then, Sean ran away from his new foster home, presumably to follow the plans they had made.

I never could figure out how to allow her to be in the children’s lives in a way that was separate from her feelings about us as parents. I never could find a way to make her feel included. Friend or for? She was never truly a friend to the family. How could she be? She was never a foe, either, because how could we ever blame her? She was just a girl. A girl that got left behind in all the DCF shuffle.

I wish her well. We must proceed cautiously with her, should she ever contact us again. How do we keep that connection alive? How do we honor it? I don’t know but I am trying to learn.
*Names have been changed to protect the privacy of those involved.

**If you have ever considered foster care or adoption, I encourage you to start your own adventure.

 

Standard
family

Who Will Love Your Boogers? :Waiting For Permanency

“Will you still love me if I’m annoying? What about if I smelled bad?” This is from 8-year-old Mary. She is staring at me intently as we play the “Would you still love me” game. The point of the game is to show her that, yes, moms love their babies even “if”…

Some other questions that have come up with our chickens include;

“Why do we have a bedtime?”

“Why don’t you guys hit each other?”

“Why don’t you guys get drunk?”

“Why do you care if we get hurt?”

And the clincher, “Do you really love us or are you just lying?”

It’s simply too much time in the system. Too much time in the in-between places. Too much time without a family. Mary and Carl are learning about what a family means. They are learning about how a healthy family functions, and how to be a part of that. For Carl, it can be more difficult. He has had more placements. He has experienced moving homes due to his own behaviors being unsafe for other children in the home.

The clincher question is always Carl’s question. he really wants to know if we are lying about loving him. Despite my reassurances that I love him, he doubts this concept.”I even love your boogers! I love your stinky farts!” I proclaim. He collapses in giggles, but still, that doubt remains.

The little chickens are learning. They are beginning to trust in the concept of a “forever home.” Even Carl and his boogers. His many, many boogers that all end up in the shower for some reason! He has had rages in our home. He has been unsafe. But he is still here. Sometimes it’s a bit of a trial by fire because he will try and do this to sabotage his own placement or sabotage our love for him. It never works. We love him still.

The teen boys were not so lucky. The Littles are home with us. Forever. The teens are still in the system. Marcus came into care at age 13. He is now 18 years old. He has gone through 6 placements, including a stint in Juvenile Hall. He has learned to rotate in and out of peoples lives. He has learned to survive in “the system.” He has not learned enough about being in a family unit. He ultimately did not want to be in our family unit. Sometimes foster care only teaches teens about how to be in foster care. We still have contact with him, but it’s sporadic. My hope is that he always knows he has a place to go, people to turn to, if he needs us.

Sean, at 14, is not functioning so well. He too, did not wish to remain with our family. He’s now “in the wind,” after running away from his current placement. The department hasn’t done much for him. In all honesty, a government agency is not equipped to raise a child. Sean has been plagued with medical concerns as well as mental health concerns. When he chose to leave our family, and take his chances in foster care, he left behind his only advocates. Even if he were so inclined to complain about a complete lack of medical care for his asthma, it’s unlikely his concerns would be heard. He hasn’t had any therapy since leaving our home.

Since going into his current foster home, he has exhibited the same “behavioral problems” he had with us (a term used by the department.) The thing is, he is a 14-year-old boy. These aren’t his “behaviors” so much as they are his survival skills. He refuses to leave his bedroom and go to school. He refuses to shower. He doesn’t sleep at night. Probably, no one is loving his boogers.

In my opinion, he’s scared.  In my opinion, he’s only a boy.  In the opinion of the department, he is obstinate and “non-compliant.” All of the siblings have been scared of the shower, scared to go to school, and scared of the nighttime. He needs understanding and unconditional love. Unfortunately for Sean, unconditional love was the one thing he didn’t understand, the one thing he couldn’t get used to.

When he left our home, he was requesting to live with his biological father. After 4 years, bio-dad’s rights had not been terminated. The Department of Children and Families had something called “permanent guardianship” of Sean. When Sean became adamant about going to his biological father, we supported it. Although there is a long history of concerns with this man, none of them appeared to pose a direct threat to Sean. Also, Sean was 14 and this was his biological parent! If reunification was possible, if that’s what Sean wanted, we should absolutely support it. Right? At the very least, we shouldn’t stand in his way.

The lengths that Sean went to in order to sever ties with our family still astound me. We would’ve always supported his choices. He just didn’t know how to tell us what he wanted. The only skills he has learned in his 4 (now 5) years in foster care amount to manipulating the system in order to meet his needs. Who could blame him? He is surviving.He is the product of the “system.”

Now, his biological father has done something unknown to get into trouble, again. All we know is that the visits were stopped and the reunification process halted. The social worker didn’t even tell Sean. Being part of this system means never having access to the details that affect your life. His new foster mother was put in the position of telling him that the process had been stopped, visits were over, and she had no idea why. As far as plans for permanency for Sean? Now the department has none.

It isn’t OK that he tantrumed at his foster mom for a week. I’m not excusing the fights he had with Marcus in her home. It isn’t OK that he ran away and has been missing for 2 weeks, only communicating with his older biological sisters. It isn’t OK, but it isn’t surprising, either.

4 years? 5 years for the teens? It’s too long. I’m not sure what the answer is. In an ideal world, biological parents would get services and support. They would reunify quickly. In an ideal world, if this wasn’t possible, kinship placements would be found quickly. In an ideal world, even is this wasn’t possible, an adoptive home would be found quickly. We don’t live in an ideal world. We live in a world where 5 years go by and no decisions about permanency are made. We live in a world where childhoods are too often lost to a large bureaucracy. We live in a world where teenagers are too often lost to repeat this cycle of trauma and broken families.

All I can do is hold the little ones tight and count my blessings. All I can do is hope that Sean’s biological father can overcome whatever he is facing and parent this child. Because Sean needs a parent. Every child needs a parent. A government agency cannot be a parent. After all, what government agency would ever love a child’s boogers?

 

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

Standard
family

Turkey Tears :Adventures In Holiday Trauma Triggers

ornament

It always starts with a happy event. Well, at the very least, it starts with an event that I consider to be “happy.” Happy events are often triggers for the traumatized child.  Something we all enjoy will get them thinking about why their first family couldn’t have done the same. Sometimes happy things become almost too close for comfort. They become scared that it could all be taken away. Happy events, like holidays, can pose a virtual minefield of trauma triggers for the adopted child.

In our home, the littlest chickens go nuts over bringing Christmas ornaments up from the basement. They beg and cajole, and finally I just start decorating for Christmas the day before Thanksgiving. Basically it’s a half day of school and the chickens just spend that many hours sneaking down into the basement and mysteriously appearing covered in suspicious bits of tinsel. I might as well supervise the destruction of the storage packaging. The little chickens, in their holiday fervor, cluck and squawk and run around in circles picking up and promptly dropping each glittery item, in what can only be called a chicken frenzy. Here are some of the pitfalls and trauma triggers of the holiday season:

Naming the Holiday. For whatever reason, naming Thanksgiving is very tricky at our house. When we talk about turkey day, it’s like the holiday time bomb starts ticking. Carl and Mary can become very apprehensive around the holidays. They will alternately reminisce about life in their “bio-home” and then try and pretend they never lived in the aforementioned home. I’m not sure if they miss their first family around this time. They definitely miss former foster homes and so we visit as often as we can. I believe in preserving as much of their past connections as possible. Mentioning the holidays in relation to her biological family will cause Mary to shut down and quit talking. She will look at the ground, bow her head, and flop like a rag doll. She can remain in this unresponsive, catatonic state for almost an hour.

Bio family.  There will be no visits this year. Bio mom has not returned from Puerto Rico and has refused all contact with DCF. Bio dad did not show up to last year’s visit and had refuses all contact with DCF. Contact with an bio sister is really all we can do right now. We called her on Thanksgiving. Carl talked her ear off about “me and my dad” this and “my mommy” that. She was very gracious but I always worry if this contact is healthy for her. She was never adopted. Mary didn’t want to talk and only answered a few “yes” and “no” questions. She was very clingy and emotional for the rest if the day. She had a few minor meltdowns and a very difficult time getting in the shower. I think somehow the contact with a family member from her past reminded her of scary things from her past. So, of course, I sat outside the bathroom door and belted Christmas carols all through Mary’s Thanksgiving shower.

Happy Family Moments. There are so many happy moments during the holiday season. We work hard to build traditions that the kids will remember. The happy moments are often overshadowed with fear and doubt from our kids. Sometimes they fear that they will lose everything they have gained. This fear causes them to react as soon as they experience too much happiness. One Christmas carol too many can cause a massive meltdown. After all, they have loved and lost a family before.

gingerbread

So what do we do about it? We move on. Of course we do. I refuse to let our children’s past control their future. We forge ahead and build new family experiences. There is something to be said for avoiding triggers, but realistically, our kids deserve a chance to experience what other children get to experience. If we can provide a piece of the magical holiday season to their childhood, darn-it, we are going to try! Corrective experiences about being with a functional family. We relish being together and cherish the good times, even if those good times are hard for the kids to handle. We honor their past family while building the foundation of this new family together. Here is what we do:

Decorating. We do it together. mostly. My teenage step-children sit on the sidelines looking somber and skeptical over all the fuss. In desperation I ask my 16-year-old stepson, Seth, if he would like to help. “Um, no,” he replies. We are making zombie-themed gingerbread houses complete with red licorice entrails and severed gingerbread man heads. There is candy and sugar and smeared frosting all over the dining room table, chairs, and faces of my youngest chickens! We also decorate a zombie nativity scene. The Littles speculate that the angel Gabriel will fly in and save the baby Jesus just before the hoard of hungry zombies attacks. Did I mention that our family is big on zombies? Eventually, I rope in the two oldest and now everyone is covered in sugary fun!

The Littles each have decorated Christmas trees in their rooms. Carl topped his with Darth Vader in order to be “just like daddy,” in his obsession with “the force.” When we all participate, we are making Christmas “our own.” Forget holiday expectations. Let’s stick to the Star Wars characters and the Zombie Genre that we love. After all, it isn’t about living up to anyone’s standards. It’s about being a family and making memories!

Being together. This year is particularly important to Mary because she spent most of the holiday season in and out of in-patient hospitalization last year. She ended up in a short-term residential placement following Christmas, but was able to come back successfully after that. She is panicked that she will miss out on something this year. She had been awakening at 5:00 AM each day in her fervor, shouting, “Is it Christmas yet? Is it time to do something fun? As a family? I’m doing it, too!!” I sleepily lift open one eyelid and nudge Luke in the side. It’s GOT to be his turn to explain the only thing our family should be doing at 5:00 AM is sleeping!

Visiting their former foster home.  We maintain connections. This is bitter sweet, for everyone. The wonderful foster couple that had Sean, and Mary for 2 years (and Carl for around 6 months) is always glad to see them. They can see how far the little chickens have come.  When we visit, the Littles are always happy to play with former foster siblings, and see their former foster parents. They refer to this couple as “Grandma” and “Grandpa.” They love this trip, but everyone has a hard time leaving, including me! Mary wailed on the way home, “Why can’t we just all live together?” We can’t. But we can stick together. We are all family now.

Happy family moments. Yes, happy family time can be a trigger. It is also necessary. Traumatized children need to experience PJ parties and family time. If we don’t provide the corrective experience about how families are supposed to spend time together, then they can never learn about it. By torturing them with family fun we are actually breaking a self-perpetuating cycle of trauma. After all, if you grow up believing families are supposed to fist-fight and make each other bleed, how will you then raise your family? So, yes, we teach our kids that moms and dads will wear matching PJs with you and dance in the kitchen. Christmas jammies are really Star Wars jammies in our home. We put them on, watch Christmas movies and, of course, the Holderness “Christmas Jammies” video in YouTube. Then we run our of milk and go to Big Y in matching jammies? Why? Because that is how this family rolls!

nativity

The holidays are not easy for children with complex trauma. Being adopted into a jammie-wearing-hug-giving-zombie-enthusiast family does not cure trauma. Love doesn’t even cure trauma. But it sure goes a long way in teaching these kids something new. I may be covered in baking flower (from making clay Christmas tree ornaments with the kids, which they subsequently tried to eat!) I may have a glow-in-the-dark zombie or two in my hair, and I may be wearing my matching family jammies. I may look like a mess. But I am also wearing a huge smile. A huge “isn’t-it-great-that-I-get-to-do-mom-stuff-because-I’m-their-mom?!?” smile. That’s me. Happy holidays!

 

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

*If you have ever considered fostering or adopting, I encourage you to start your own adventure.

Standard