family

The State of Our Union

For over a decade Luke and I have made this journey together. This week was my 11-year wedding anniversary.  I was in my mid-twenties when I met him. It’s supposed to be a bad idea to date your boss but I guess I’ve never followed convention well.

Luke and I were married at town hall a year to the day of our first date. I stood there in a strapless black gown long enough to hide my signature flip-flops. Luke wore a matching suit. We said “I do” in front of six friends and celebrated with a river of champagne.

The next day we “illegally” bribed the DMV to issue a license with my new name before I’d even filed for a new social security card. Waiting has never been our thing. After all these years he’s still my best partner in crime.

It started out just the two of us in a shoe box-sized apartment in the city. Our view consisted of buildings upon buildings crammed into grid-lines of perfectly strait roads. Gun fire resounded like popcorn in the streets nearly every day. Luke never let me walk alone there. When we moved to the country the sound of hunting rifles echoed through the trees but never frightened me.

The road to our house winds through hills and thick forest. Our home is nestled in the middle of deep dark woods and green grass. Neighbors are few and far between.  Not every road is even paved. It can be hard to see sharp turns through the towering oaks.  We spread out here and grew into this house. Then we filled it with lots of children. Sean didn’t stay but the rest did.

We adopted three siblings. Sean’s disrupted adoption still haunts me. Marcus’ adoption eventually came full circle to finalize in adulthood. I lost one pregnancy in such a scary way I was too terrified to try again. I gained two great step-kids. Luke lost a job when Mary was too dangerous to be alone with Carl and me. I’ve had three back surgeries. Luke’s had several major eye surgeries. We both developed a serious addiction to caffeine.

Our marriage sometimes feels like Luke and I huddled down in a foxhole. We certainly didn’t pick an easy road. I like to think we chose the road most worthwhile. Adopting three children with significant complex developmental trauma has been challenging to say the least. Beyond a doubt our life together could never be considered boring.

This week we settled in to celebrate with a bottle of Prosecco on a wintry New England night. There are no streetlights in our forest. Here in the dark we can see every star.

There isn’t anyone I’d rather take this journey with. Here’s to the next decade of adventure. Perhaps the rockiest roads are the ones with the most scenery.

**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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Seriously, Please Leave

She drives me crazy. I have no idea why her opinions affect me at all but they do. Every time our children’s older biological sister  M is around, my back teeth ache. Her invasive questioning and snide comments put me over the edge. It takes all that I have not to seriously lash out at her.

Unfortunately, M was the one transporting Marcus to and from school after the holiday. Luke was fresh off of eye surgery and not able to drive. I’m not cleared to drive yet either. It is probably good to give Carl some contact with his older sister. At least that’s what I try to keep telling myself. Foster care took so much from my kids. I never wanted their adoption to mean we were taking more.

It’s odd to me that M gets under my skin this way. My family often makes a spectacle in public and by now I’m fine with it. I think M reminds me a lot of Sean. I can see her calculated moves a mile away. Although she appears sweet there is always the underlying fact that she doesn’t believe we should have adopted her siblings.

From the second she entered my home the other day she began looking through things (bedrooms, photo albums) and digging for information. For whatever reason she selectively remembers what happened in their biological home. She champions her biological mother as a victim. It would seem Luke and I are the villains here (but mostly me.)

I know that Mary and Carl both exhibited rages in their biological home. I know they were both significantly underweight there. I know that Mary didn’t speak and her pediatrician was concerned. He suggested multiple times that she needed to be evaluated for developmental delays.

I know Carl didn’t start Kindergarten until he was 6 years old. I know they missed over 80 days of school that year. After the adoption we ordered copies of all their previous medical and school records. According to M it’s a completely different story.

Just because I know these things doesn’t mean that strangers do. When my kids are panicking in public and begging me not to get drunk I know it’s not about me personally. Past trauma causes my children to be afraid that moms get drunk or violent.

Past trauma also causes my children to fear showers, bedtime, Halloween masks and mothers. All of them share these fears (even Sean) so there is clearly a history there. Because I know about their trauma I don’t really mind when strangers make ignorant comments. They simply don’t know what it’s like.

With M it’s a different story. She absolutely knows what happened. She was there. For whatever reason her denial permeates every conversation. She acts shocked that Mary needs to be in a residential school. M does not believe in therapy.

She demands to know why the service dog didn’t go with Mary to her school. She demands to know why Mary didn’t come home for Christmas. She demands to know Mary’s psychiatric diagnosis which I will not share. It is Mary’s private business for her to share as she wishes. She demands and demands and demands.

I told M firmly that Mary has a very difficult time during the holidays. Therefore we relieve pressure by bringing Christmas to her. M’s face was the portrait of pure shock.

“Really?!?! Why???”

At this point I was done with the prying questions. I was done hearing about how well Sean was doing now that he’s out of our home and about to age out of foster care. I could not take any more of M’s questions.

I told her about how Mary only slept for 45 minutes at a time when she first came home. I told M that Mary was terrified and would wake up screaming for the entire first year. I told her about all of the things we did to help her feel safe.

Then I got a little bit catty. I told her Sean had the same exact problem and I got up with him every night, too. I was sorely tempted to tell her that he also sobbed before every bath at age 15. It was hard not to tell her I sat outside the bathroom while Sean was in the tub to sing him silly songs. Every. Single. Time.

For once M was speechless. She stammered that it must have been hard. I countered back with the fact that it wasn’t (it was) and that we didn’t mind (we did) because it wasn’t their fault. Luke and I would do anything for these chickens.

Undoubtedly she feels that Mary only has these problems because of us and our parenting. She’s basically continued to hint that things used to be fine and she doesn’t understand why Mary needs all this treatment. She doesn’t believe in therapy anyway.

Why do I even care?? I sat through the rest of the visit listening to M talk about how the shelter she stays at is giving her $8,000 and helping her find subsidized housing. She had another baby 6 months ago. The shelter bought both of her children all of their Christmas gifts. Her baby’s dad hasn’t gotten his cell phone back from the police after they took it as evidence in a case against him. Blah blah blah.

It’s really uncharitable for me to have these thoughts. Logically I know it’s good that the shelter is helping her. My angry jealous side is mad that Luke and I put in tons of work and still get blamed for things. No one is chipping in for our kids’ gifts or offering us $8,000.

I should have more grace. She was never adopted. She doesn’t have a family, really. I don’t even know if she’s in contact with bio-mom.

In the end I was happy to hug Marcus good-bye and wave him off in M’s car. By the time her van pulled out of the driveway I was shaking. It was a relief to get her out of the house.

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

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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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Naked Mom and the Zombie-Pickle Holiday Plumbing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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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