adoption, family

Death and Changes

Nothing reminds us of the sanctity of life as much as the finality of death. Luke and I went to a memorial service today. I didn’t actually know the woman who died. We might have met a total of two times.

Her husband is the one we are friends with. He volunteers with Luke as an EMT here in our little town. He’s a captain named K. Our relationship with K began before Luke ever volunteered at EMS.

My husband didn’t have time for any of that in the summer of 2014. We had just brought home 3 (4 when Marcus visited) foster children with plans to adopt them. That summer was filled with a series of crisis. Mary was having out-of-control violent episodes on a daily basis. They’d last for hours and leave a swath of broken furniture, broken walls, and a bruised up mother in their wake. Sometimes there was blood.

When it got too dangerous for us to manage we’d have to call for backup. The mobile crisis team would send out a therapist. Often Mary was much too violent for them to manage. The police and ambulance would soon follow.

Every time we had to bring Mary in for a psychiatric hospital stay I felt like such a failure. Why wasn’t she getting any better? Was our love breaking her in some way? Why couldn’t our family be enough to help Mary stabilize?

Here is where K came in. After the third or fourth hospitalization he began to show up first on scene after a 9-1-1 call. Luke was at work and I was on my own. K never judged me. He never judged Mary. K had a similar experience with a family member suffering from a mental illness.

Mary was terrified to be alone with men back then. She wouldn’t let anyone touch her. The only way to get her to the ER was if I rode in the back of the ambulance with her. When Luke was working I couldn’t ride with her. I’d end up without a way home from the ER. I couldn’t leave the other kids with neighbors overnight again and again as I stayed at the hospital.

On one of the worst days, K was there. Mary was heading back for an inpatient stay. Her violence was escalating. Marcus had called their oldest biological sister and their biological mother in a fit of rage. I don’t even recall why he was mad that day. My cell phone started blowing up with calls, threats, and comments about the terrible things we were doing to Mary who really just “needed her mother.”

At my wits end, I looked at K in despair. He gently asked me where my car keys were. That night he drove my car behind the ambulance to the hospital. I was able to go with Mary and still have a way to get home. I dare anyone to find an EMT that amazing.

Over the next few years Mary stabilized. We would see K around town and she’d run to hug him. Luke began volunteering at EMS as family life settled down. They became fast friends and K was always there for us.

At the service I brought him a brightly colored pink and purple bracelet made by Mary. I told him, “This may not be your style but you know who wanted you to have this.”

He put on his sparkly bracelet and wore it the rest of the service. When I glanced down at Luke’s hand I realized both of us were still decked out in our Mary-made jewelry, too. Luke never takes his off.

Sometimes things change. K’s wife died after a hard-fought battle with cancer. Mary went to a residential school after two years of relative stability here at home.

Some things never change. I know this each time I glance down at our wrists.

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

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adoption, family

When Your Parents are Falling Apart

All I can say about this week is, “OOPS!!” Yup, that’s right. It’s one big “oops” for the parents over here in the Herding Chickens household. Let’s start with Monday. For whatever reason reason I forgot it was Veteran’s day. This is really disrespectful and wrong. I also forgot there was no school and tried to wake Carl up before my physical therapy appointment. Oops.

Early Tuesday morning my mother took Luke in for his next eye surgery. Somehow we got our wires crossed and I thought they were making sure Carl was up for the bus. At 8:00 AM Carl knocked on my door and asked if he was going to school. It starts at 7:15 and I still can’t drive. Luckily my mom came back at 9:00 to trade a bandaged-up Luke for a frantic Carl. He made it to school for an extremely short day. Oops.

The next day brought parent-teacher conferences. I totally forgot to respond about this. I’ve never ever missed these for my kids unless we recently had a 504 and didn’t need the rerun version. Oops.

I was rather tardy sending out the email saying, “Hey neither of us can physically make it to conferences this term. We are always available by phone. We’ve been in contact a lot lately so I hope to keep the lines of communication open.” Oops.

After that it was my scheduled FaceTime with Mary. We do this three times a week. However, I couldn’t answer at all. I got stuck in the shower with muscle spasms. It doesn’t make it any better that the previous day I had removed my shower seat with the brazen, “I can stand on my own two feet” attitude. I wound up hunched on the floor frozen in a stiff fetal position. I was rendered useless while my spinal muscles performed their own macabre version of the Rumba. Oops.

I have handle bars in the shower but I still had to use my phone to call Luke.  My SOS went out for a muscle relaxer RIGHT NOW. However, Luke couldn’t see to read the medication labels. Carl had to read through the bottles and find my drugs. When you make your son a drug dealer it is an awesome mom-move. Yeah, I’m crushing it in the responsibility arena! Oops.

This morning Luke got up with Carl to make sure the “Go-to-school” part of the day happened. However, he really can’t see well in the morning light. That is how, on the first New England day of 21 degree weather, our son went to school in basketball shorts. And a t-shirt. We are knee-deep in our annual warm clothes and mitten-feud with Carl. Score 1 for the drug-dealing kid. Oops.

Some weeks are just like this. I made the fixes that I could. I emailed Carl’s teachers. I called Mary back but by that time it could only be a voice call. Then I visited with my mom on my bed while my back calmed down. Let’s not discuss how I may or may not have still smelled after that ill-fated shower! Oops.

I checked with my physical therapist and discovered I was only supposed to be doing 3 sets of strengthening exercises a day. I had misinterpreted that to be 3 sets done 3 times per day. This explained my body’s rebellion via Megladon-sized muscle spasms. Oops.

The last fix I made was to take all of Carl’s shorts upstairs into storage. In case he decided to hide some and out-fox the broken-mom/blind-dad combo, I made a backup plan. I called his school counselor and amazon-primed a warm pair of winter pants to the school. If he manages to somehow pull off a shorts heist his teachers will send him to change. I will win against this winter if it’s the last thing I do!!!! (Insert evil laugh here.)

There is some good news, though. In the past all of these things would have been huge triggers for our kids. Carl and Mary would fell abandoned or unsafe. If they felt we couldn’t care for them it might bring up memories of bad times from their first home.

It takes a long time for kids with as much trauma as ours to trust another set of parents. We are nearing our 5th Christmas together. They took this week in stride. I’ll take it as progress.

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

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adoption, family

Bruised Not Broken

My oldest child’s decisions are the equivalent of a Rubik’s cube to me. I find this ironic because Marcus can actually solve all types of physical Rubik’s cubes. He used to have me line up five of them in a row. He’s do the traditional cube, pyramid, star shape, 7X7 and circle. Then he’d try to beat his best time of solving them all in one minute.

He’s smart. He just doesn’t make smart decisions. We finally saw him two days ago. His new phone came in (thank you, insurance!) For some unknown reason Marcus’ car has been recovered from the robbery, is running, and appears fine??

Anyway, he showed up to the house to get his new phone. I’d also collected his mail and had a box of baby food for Mystery Baby. I didn’t know what to expect when he walked in. Marcus is able to be much more open and physical with Luke. He’ll give Dad a hug right away. With me, it’s always a little more cautious. Moms are a thing he has learned not to trust.

He let me approach him slowly and examine the bruising on his face, the cuts, and his broken nose. I carefully moved his hair and touched the swelling on his purple left cheekbone. He let me gently hug him (after I warned him first) because I just really needed to hold my son. I need to feel that he was solid, that he was really there, and that he was home in my kitchen.

After he sat down with Luke to call in and get the new phone set up, I asked about New Girlfriend. Apparently she was in the car with the baby in 30 degrees, just waiting. I had Marcus bring them in so I could meet them both. I made no mention of the mystery extra person still sitting in the car because I honestly thought it was Bad Associate drug dealer I wouldn’t allow into the house. He could freeze to death for all I cared.

Meeting New Girlfriend was not at all what I expected. I liked her. She was honest with me, answering questions directly about the night Marcus was hurt. Apparently it was a dispute with her ex-boyfriend, the baby’s father. Mystery solved! This is not Marcus’ baby.

At 37 I am NOT yet a grandmother! Whew!

I was sort of surprised that New Girlfriend had a restraining order against her ex. Going to the police is rather uncommon in that area. She seemed polite and intelligent. She appeared to be trying her best to be a good mom and to keep Marcus out of this ex-drama.

His last few girlfriends would have relished these fights. She told me about future plans to apprentice as a tattoo artist and how she’d like to get an apartment of their own. She assured me she does not want any more children for at least four years.

Luke and I also saw that they had nothing. Absolutely nothing.  We fed the baby right away. She was a happy little thing who chugged around playing with books and petting the cats. The baby is only 11 months old so I was rather surprised when she picked her books off of the floor and placed them onto the coffee table when she was finished “reading.”

New Girlfriend wore a sleeveless top with no coat. She didn’t own one. I gave her one of mine to keep and she immediately put it on. After an hour of pleasant socializing Marcus mentioned the friend still in the car. At this point it was getting to be somewhere in the twenties temperature-wise. They mentioned it was not Bad Associate but the girl that had been travelling with them for an unknown length of time.

I invited her in and she wasn’t what I expected, either. She looked to be around 18, also with no coat. She was polite and grateful to be inside with the heat. Both girls looked so young, scared, and alone. While my stepdaughter, Catlyn, sat on the floor studying for science, these two passed around a baby and shivered in the October chill. They were all basically the same age.

Although adults, these girls were still teenagers who needed their families. Where were their mothers? The stories they told were heartbreaking in the lack of support and care they received from their own parents.

When I asked Marcus if his little family had everything they needed, New Girlfriend automatically said yes. She just wanted to meet us and wasn’t asking for anything else. Clearly they did not have much, so I turned to Extra Tag-Along Friend and demanded the truth. I used my calmest, firmest, most authoritative teacher voice. She admitted to me that they didn’t have clothes or groceries. She told me they baby needed food.

Luke and Marcus “took a ride” at this point. Marcus had no idea he was going to the local Big Y. I was home with Marcus’ little family, Catlyn  and Carl. We all chatted as a group and I gathered some supplies like Advil and medical tape for or Marcus’ injuries. I added in some medicated patches that can be applied like stickers over hurting muscles. Marcus had nothing and three broken ribs take time to heal.

During the outing Luke took our son to the grocery store. He filled a shopping cart with food and baby supplies like wipes, diapers, and Gerber food. All Marcus could do was begin to cry quietly and say thank you. He hadn’t expected this. After looking at him, though, how could we have done otherwise?

During this time Luke spoke to Marcus about his situation. It won’t get better unless Marcus makes changes. He didn’t deny that he was dealing but he did admit he wanted out of that job and out of that city. He’d prefer to come home to us but he knows we won’t take the whole family.

I think Marcus talked a good game about wanted to save up for an apartment here in town where they’d all be safe and they could be close to us. Is this an unexpected turn or just a repeat of Marcus’ typical cycle? I wish I knew. He’d be better off. He just feels strongly that after about a month of dating, New Girlfriend is “the one.” He can’t leave her.

Mostly Marcus just cried and thanked us. He let me tend his wounds and have two additional hugs. There was an awkward moment when we all stood in the kitchen clearly knowing the visit was over. I think they may have been expecting us to take them all in for the night. It was incredibly hard to remind everyone of the late hour and to get home so the baby could go to bed.

I teared up as Marcus was leaving. I told him we loved him and would always take care of him. Imagine my surprise when he caught me up in a big bear hug. Our relationship is certainly bruised but it is far from broken. I promised not to squeeze his ribs too hard as long as he didn’t dislodge my new robot-spine. We both laughed, wiped some tears away and said, “Goodbye.” Again.

I am forever saying goodbye to Marcus. Our mother-son dynamic is perpetually overshadowed by the relationship he had with his biological mother. We are tainted with the vestiges of that trauma. Sometimes it’s hard for me to know if he really believes I am a constant safe place for him.

As the girls were walking out the door I heard them say to each other, “Look at that. I wish I had a mom.”

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

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adoption, family

When the Chickens Don’t Come Home to Roost

I’ve heard that every night chickens come home to roost. Mine do not seem to have this homing instinct. Early trauma and adoption have taken such a toll on my kids that I’m not sure they understand the concept.

Mary isn’t home. My little girl is flourishing in her residential therapeutic school. I am so glad she is making progress. I am also so heartsick that she couldn’t get better here in our home. It shouldn’t matter as long as she is healing, but somehow it still matters to me. I am grateful but I am also resentful.

It isn’t as if they are doing anything different than we ever did. It isn’t as if they are even using a different treatment model. It’s literally the same language, same sensory tools, and the same coping strategies. It’s just that when she’s removed from the pressure of a family structure, Mary is able to respond to treatment. I can’t even put into words how much that hurts me. Aside from this blog, I’ll never even try.

Marcus still hasn’t returned home for his visit. At this point he’s refusing. Now he’s got some kind of extra person he’ responsible for. He seems to be somehow taking care of his new girlfriend’s baby and one of her friends with no place to go.

I get the impression they are all living in his car or in motel rooms when they can afford it. He doesn’t even know these people and yet they are more to him than his real family right now.

At this time he’s refusing to visit us unless we allow this extra person into our home. I dug in my heals. I know how poorly he decides who to associate with. I am aware that he is dealing some low level drugs in his current city.

His last Toxic Girlfriend was an addict who stole, lied, and showed up unpredictably high anywhere. I cannot let people like this into my home. I cannot re-expose Carl to the scenes that comprised his early childhood.

Maybe I’ll except the girlfriend and the baby. I don’t know if I can but I will try. I won’t take the stray unpredictable new friend into my home. I’m trying to accept some of the people he associates with. I just know too much about some of the people he associates with.

We also have some hard and fast rules about no fire arms or drugs in the home. Older associates know this, at least the ones we allow here. I wonder how I would feel if my daughter someday brought home a person like Marcus as a date?

I tried to make a compromise. I offered that we could meet him at a neutral location halfway between the states. He could bring this random friend and girlfriend and baby and we’d buy everyone lunch. If anything inappropriate goes down or anyone is high we can take Carl and leave.

If all goes well we can celebrate our oldest son’s 21st birthday and give him his gift. He’s a survivalist. He’s coming for the gift. A large part of me just really wants to throw it at him.

The only consolation here is that my mom thinks this is a good compromise. She’s pretty good at this parenting stuff so if she approves my plan then it must be worth something.

I want to scream and yell at him that he should care about this family. Check on us. Come and see us. His real and actual family that has been through so very much recently!! But Marcus doesn’t really get family. He thinks he is protecting his “family.”

I try so hard but sometimes I don’t want to. It sucks and I hate every picture perfect Facebook family. Well, at least I hate them until I realize I post the same shiny family to the rest of the public.

I just want to give up sometimes. I really do.

However, I have to let the wayward chickens find their way home as they will. For now I should snuggle into this mostly empty nest and hope that Carl stays.

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

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On the Frontlines of Food Insecurity

I heard the most ridiculous thing at a training given by the Department of Children and Families. The session was about health and safety for kids in foster care. The speaker was a registered nurse whose job it was to approve all medical treatment for the foster children in her region. Don’t even get me started on the times she described vetoing a medical doctor’s recommendation based on her shoddy anecdotal evidence.

The comments that irked me into feelings of mild violence were her views on food insecurity. “Oh that’s not really a problem. I don’t why people come to me with this. Just offer a variety of foods at dinner time.” She called this a “food tour” and opined that it always worked.

Seriously?! Ummm…no.

All of our children, to some degree, suffer from food insecurity. Because they spent large amounts of time without food, without enough food, or without appropriate nutritional fare, they have food insecurities. Two of our children don’t even feel safe unless they have a stash of non perishables in their bedrooms.

When the kids first came home, Carl couldn’t handle family meal times. His behavior escalated to what seemed like bizarre levels. We would sit down to a meal and politely pass the food around from plates in the middle of the table. Carl would grab between 3 and 6 dinner rolls and then scream at anyone else who tried to take one.

“Stop it! There will be none left!!!”

Carl would sit on his feet in a crouch with his arms protectively over his plate. No amount of cajoling or reminding got him to sit on his bottom would last for more than 30 seconds before he hopped up and perched protectively over his plate again.

His pupils would dilate and his heart rate would pick up. His voice got louder and his words were more oppositional. It was like watching someone handle being the victim of a hostage situation. Pure panic.

Inevitably the dinner stress would be too much for Carl. He would start by complaining he hated the food and would never eat it. This would progress to trying to grab all of the remaining food on the table. ALL of it. At some point after that he would throw his plate/cup/meal directly at me and run away screaming that we were starving him. Sometimes he would punch me.

At the same time, Sean would gobble huge amounts of food as if it were a race while Marcus and Mary sat turned away from the table, staring at the floor. They would not respond in any way, even if spoken to. It was as if they weren’t even there.

After everyone left, Mary would take her plate underneath the table, or to the floor, and finally eat her dinner. Marcus would eat whatever was left over when he awoke in the middle of the night.

None of it made any sense to me at the time. We did everything we could think of to manage this behavior. We put limits on the amount of ___ the kids could put on their plate at one time. We proactively switched over to paper plates and disposable plastic cutlery. My apologies to the environment but experience has literally shown me it’s better to have a plastic knife hit you in the face than a steak knife. After Carl’s outbursts he’d have to finish eating in his room. I didn’t know at the time that he felt much safer eating there.

Eventually we learned that our kiddos had a past history of stressful mealtimes. We already knew they spent a lot of time fending for themselves as toddlers and young children. Hence, Mary developed a taste for dog food and would sneak it whenever no one was watching. Apparently when bio mom was manic she’d begin cooking at 2 or 3 AM. Then she’d wake the kids up and insist they eat. Other times they existed on the Monster energy drinks and Jolly Ranchers they stole at the local corner store.

To this day, when Carl is feeling stress or anxiety it flares up. He will binge eat in the middle of the night. There is a far off, unfocused look that comes over him while he stuffs huge amounts of food into his mouth at an alarming rate. He’s often crying at the same time.

Have you ever seen a hamster stuff it’s cheeks full of food? This is sort of what it looks like. Carl will swallow without chewing. His cheeks swell to an unusual size yet still he keeps going. He stuffs more and more food into his mouth even before he swallows what’s already in there. This leads to choking and vomiting. As soon as Carl finishes puking, he immediately resumes guzzling food. Then he vomits more and eats more and so on. He chokes a lot when he gets like this because he forgets to breathe.

Last spring he suffered scratches to his esophagus because of the sharp edges of un-chewed food (think crackers or nuts.) He had also vomited so much that the acid was eroding soft tissue in his esophagus and stomach. He threw up so many times a day that eventually he was vomiting blood. The wait to see a specialist for pediatric GI took forever. We ended up in the emergency room at the children’s hospital four times in one month.

In the meantime we would wake up in the morning to find vomit, blood, and food wrappers of one kind or another all over the house. It was terrifying. This is when we got combination locks for the fridge. Our cabinets were already locked overnight to keep Mary out of the cutlery. Finally we got him in to do a series of tests, including an endoscopy.

The specialist concluded that Carl was reacting to his past, so it couldn’t be medically treated.  He asked me, completely straight-faced if we’d ever considered Cognitive Behavior Therapy. He told me that sometimes children who were traumatized need therapy. I burst out laughing. Yes, we’d been working on that for 4 years.

After the first winter together, the snow melted and revealed a surprise. Carl had buried all of his school snacks in the snow. Every day at school he would tell the teacher we refused to give him snacks. Meanwhile, he built up a stock in case he ever ran out of food again.

Carl would ask strangers for food at the store, at parks, at the lake, basically anywhere. While I stood behind him with a rescue-bag of goldfish in my hand I would hear him beg strangers desperately.  “Please,” he’d urgently whisper, ” Can I have some of that? My parents NEVER feed me. I’m starving!!!”

Once a well-meaning older lady kindly explained to me that children cannot go for long periods of time without eating. She kindly suggested that I consider snacks for the children. In response I pulled gently on Carl’s outside coat pocket. Imagine her surprise when three granola bars and a bag of almonds fell out!

Some things have helped. We developed a calm dinner routine where we take turns appreciating one person at the table for something they did that day.  Our goal was for Carl to feel safe at mealtimes. His therapist, L, helped him develop a self-talk manta. It goes, “I will have enough to eat. I will have these foods again.”

We let him keep boxes of power bars and granola  in his room. For years he slept with them in his bed. This was preferable to the chicken drumsticks and other perishables he used to hide in his pillow case!

We got frozen pizzas that Marcus could prepare and eat in the middle of the night. We stopped buying “high-value” foods that would trigger Carl into a binge. This included peanut butter, Nutella, candy of any kind and cream cheese. During the stressful spring season we padlock the fridge to prevent Carl from getting hurt while out of control at night.

Some things have never changed at all. For example, Mary literally does not know how to drink water.  If a glass is placed in front of her she will chug it as fast as possible without breaking. It doesn’t matter how much liquid you put in front of her. I tried to give her a huge water bottle once to see if it would slow her down. It didn’t. Instead she threw her head back and guzzled until I was sure she’d drown.  Instead she began choking and crying while continuing to gulp. Mary wouldn’t put the bottle down until I physically pryed it away from her mouth.

When chugging her water Mary still tilts her head as far back as she can. She also flings her left arm out straight to grab and hold onto whoever is nearest. She will clutch onto them until she is done rapidly swallowing everything in front of her. It looks exactly like a baby drinking from a bottle. Mary is stuck in this phase.

Unfortunately this also makes her vomit. Because of how unpleasant it is for her to chug liquid down and then puke, she usually refuses it entirely. She claims she is “allergic” to water and it always makes her sick. She physically cannot sip from a cup. That skill simply isn’t in her repertoire.

Eventually we learned to pour out two fingers of liquid at a time for her to drink or else we’d give her a straw. She was able to appropriately use the water fountain at school.

My point is this: food insecurity is terrible.  If a professional gives advice on this they should have some actual experience with kids exposed to starvation. Healing takes hard work and years of patience. Even then, that trauma is always with our kids to some degree. Because, really a “food tour” is NOT going to fix the problem.

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

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adoption, family

Report Card for a Trauma Mama

On the last day of summer vacation I brought Carl to the lake, all the while keeping a diligent eye on my son. It was hard to peg him at a distance. Carl spent the summer outdoors baking in the sun until his brown skin perfectly matched the dock color.

I hate to admit it but I panicked a little. Where did my kid go? I could see the headline now: “White Mother is Complicit in Hispanic Son’s Drowning.”

He kept bobbing in and out of sight as he swam away, and then back to, the dock. Drowning statistics were running through my head. Doesn’t it only take 30 seconds or something? The peaceful water lapping at the sand became suddenly ominous.

Through my sunglasses I glanced at a sign that read “Children under 13 must be accompanied by an adult.” This gave me pause. I realized in a flash that Carl turns 13 in two weeks. He will be a teenager. He can technically, by the law of the lake, swim alone in two weeks. What on earth was I panicking about?

Also, what could I even do if I saw him in distress? Paddle slowly over to him at the speed of an octogenarian or snail? I certainly couldn’t pull or drag him to safety. My back injury would completely sideline me on a rescue mission. So basically, I spent a good hour on the possibility that I might just watch my son drown. In this situation my mom skills were nonexistent.

I settled back in my ergonomic beach chair to contemplate my role as he ages. The house seems strangely quiet these days. Out of 5 children only one remains at home. Soon he will be a teen. I think it’s time to re-evaluate my skills. Let’s face it. I am most certainly not always up to the task of parenting. Sometimes I am magical and wonderful and thisclose to being Mary Poppins. Sometimes parenting adopted children from trauma gets the best of me. My report card is as follows:

Areas where I am crushing it:

  • Persistence- I don’t give up on my kids. I advocate in schools, in psychiatric hospitals, RTCs, therapists offices and so on with the persistence of an emperor penguin. No, seriously, an emperor penguin. These animals are persistent AF. Google this!
  • Scheduling- I can remember to throw laundry in overnight on the delay timer setting. I switch it over in the morning and go from there. I can rotate chores, emergencies, sports schedules and my medical treatment like a boss. I should probably admit here that Siri helps me.
  • Using Siri-I am totally counting this in the mom-skill plus column. Yeah, she can do anything. Enough said.
  • TBRI- Its a form of therapeutic parenting known as “Trust Based Relational Intervention” and I’ve gotten pretty good with this over the years.
  • Research- I’ve read books, taken classes, and done many a webinar on developmental trauma. I can quote Deborah D. Gray, Bassel Van Der Kolk, Karyn Purvis and Heather Forbes verbatim. I LOVE reading.
  • I bake my own bread- Yes, this one is real. It’s also not as cool as it looks. I have a bread-maker so I just add 4 ingredients in the morning and set a delay timer. Voila! Fresh homemade bread for dinner and it is hot out of the…er…oven.
  • Crockpot Usage- I am a crock-pot ninja.
  • Saying “no”- I don’t mean to my kids. I mean to everyone else who wants something from me.  My kids have worn me out with trauma drama. I’m sorry. I can’t volunteer for you. I just don’t want to.
  • Naming and validating feelings-If you’re having a tough day then I am here for you. I won’t advise. I will name and validate your feeling and then ask you (therapeutically of course!) how you think you might handle the situation. I can validate your feelings like a boss!
  • Apologizing- I’m not above it and I need to do it a LOT.

Areas where I need to take the remedial training:

  • Naming animal facts- see above under “persistent.”
  • Sports- Umm, I can totally get you there but I don’t know what you’re doing. Hooray for ball points!
  • TBRI- Hey, some days I’m a therapeutic master and some days I am back to grasshopper status.
  • Research- I’ve read everything I could find. I still don’t have all of the answers when it comes to helping my children heal from trauma.
  • Making dinner- OK, being the queen of the crock pot and the delay timer on our bread maker are my ONLY cooking skills. The stove and I have a tumultuous relationship that once ended up with me melting a leggo on the back burner.
  • Saying “no”- When it comes to a therapeutic recommendation or treatment for my children, I have a hard time saying “no.” Even if it isn’t evidence-based or isn’t helping I’ve given just about everything a try. This has the unfortunate effect of working me to the bone while the children either ignore or actively evade the treatment.
  • Naming and validating feelings- I forget my own all the time. I think our entire family would be better off if I could admit to having feelings rather than waiting until the boiling point.
  • Apologizing-  I just HATE to be wrong. I’m sorry, Luke. See? I can do it.
  • Letting go- This is the hardest one. I can’t actually do the healing for my children. At some point I need to give them more freedom to make decisions and hope they make the right ones. You don’t want to go to therapy (Carl) anymore? OK well then it’s up to you to practice the skills you’ve learned. I’m not staying up with you until 3:00 AM because there might be maybe a bug alive somewhere in the world. You want to live in your car (I’m looking at you, Marcus!) for no apparent reason? I’m going to sleep in my nice memory foam mattress and love you from over here.

All in all I think my report card breaks even.  I’ll just give myself an A and pick up takeout.

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

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Imperfect Family

When my daughter came home I found myself well out of my depth parenting the girliest of girly-girls. She loved pink and Disney princesses. She owned a pair of sparkly high-heels and wore them despite being unable to walk very far. She was seven. I hated those heels with a fiery feminist passion. They wreck a woman’s spine. They represent a misogynistic ideal and so on. However, she brought them with her from foster care. She loved them. They were hers and therefore taking them away would be a violation of her possessions and her past. I was trapped.

As a brand-new mom to a child already seven-years-old I struggled to bridge a divide. She’d already had seven years without me and now I needed to find a way to connect. I favored bare feet and Bob Marley over nail polish and tea sets. Light mascara and a bit of translucent face powder was the sum total of my makeup repertoire. Mary came to me asking about perfume, blush and something called “contouring.”

The boys were always easier in this way. They wanted to be outdoors exploring or working on projects. We’d all put on comfy sneakers and take off for the day to explore a museum exhibit, petting zoo, or aquarium. Inevitably someone would end up carrying Mary because her shoes were uncomfortable.

She’d wonder aloud why I didn’t have more “boyfriends” while her new feminist mom fretted about teaching her the truth behind a woman’s worth. (As an aside Luke was constantly baffled at her lack of understanding around the “marriage” concept. Poor guy!)

People would say to me, “All those boys! At least you’ve got your girl.”

I would think to myself, “Yes, but what do I do with her?? I hope I’m doing this right!”

Mary loved to wear matching clothes. She was delighted at thinking we looked the same. She said it marked us as family. We bought all manner of matching outfits in pastel colors. I happen to love long flowing skirts or dresses with flip-flops. Luckily for me, Mary picked up my penchant for hippie-clothes and Bob Marley music. It seemed like we met somewhere in the middle. Although I still gritted my teeth through “Barbie: Life in the Dream House” on TV, I found I could play actual barbies with finesse.

One of the cardinal sins in adoption is trying to order up your perfect child. Sometimes parents envision a certain kind of future with their child only to face reality  involving an imperfect child. I’m sure we all do this to an extent. We’d like for our children to take after us. Then we find we have a unique individual with their own ideas. Letting go of my peace, love and political-activism ideal wasn’t exactly easy.

One day it all came to a violent end with those god-awful high heels. You see, from the time Mary came home she would experience intense, violent rages. Mary, and the other children, were always on high alert for danger. The slightest thing could trigger a volcanic eruption from her that resulted in blood, bruising, and property damage all around. If she felt my attention was elsewhere, intense fear of abandonment would start a chain of destructive behavior.

It was startling and baffling to the rest of us. She’d begin to laugh in a loud and strange way. The laughing would reach an uncontrollable frequency and an ear-piercing decibel. Then the rage would start as the laughing turned to screaming, hitting, biting and head-banging. This could go on for hours.

The demise of the high heels came on a day like many others. It was a weekend, which was usually the time Mary found unbearable. Lot’s of close family time was difficult for her. Having a really fun time turned to intense fear and anger quickly. On this day, Luke was at work all day so I took the kids out by myself. We’d all done something fun like a trip to the park before coming home for lunch.

Spirits were high and everyone was laughing. I should have noticed then that Mary had begun the laughing sequence that never ended well. I was a new-mom though, and I didn’t. When I started preparing lunch, she couldn’t handle it anymore. She attacked me with full force hitting, kicking, and biting. She chomped into my exposed leg with the strength of a rabid racoon. Thanks a lot, flowing skirts!

Around this time I had been reading a book by Heather T Forbes that explained regulation and explosive behavior in traumatized kids. She had this suggestion that you contain the child in a room and get below eye level so they didn’t feel threatened. I took/dragged Mary into the safety of her room, speaking in a soft voice. I closed the door for the safety of the other kids. Kneeling down below eye level, I softly repeated, “you’re safe, I’m here,” while she raged.

And rage she did, in spectacular fashion. Before the adoptions were finalized we were unable to place her in a protective hold. The best we could do was mitigate the damage and wait for the on-call crisis worker to come.

After knocking over her book shelf she sort of flew at me and then BAM! something hit my head. It all happened so fast I couldn’t understand why red blood was clouding my vision. I (smartly) stood up and felt around at the wet patch on my throbbing, burning, skull. Mary stood screaming and thrashing with one bloody high-heel in her hand. She’d landed a blow with the heel of the shoe right on top of my head. I stood up and grabbed the heel while clutching my sweater onto the blood. Her rage went on for another hour and I fended her off as best I could.

By the time I was able to disengage, the storm had passed. Mary lay in a tiny 44 pound heap under her blankies. I cleaned up my head and applied ice. The emergency crisis clinician arrived to find a straitened room and a shaken mom with wet hair. Mary had gone mute and wouldn’t talk at all to the responding clinician.

This was maybe the fourth time they’d responded to a sad, quiet child and a shaking, nervous mom. I didn’t realize it at the time but so far as they could tell, nothing was wrong at all. When they asked Mary if anything had happened she would shake her head “no.”

“Was it just that she didn’t want to eat lunch?” the clinician asked, looking skeptical. I shrugged. I had no idea.

When Mary was finally hospitalized in the psychiatric ward, the therapists didn’t understand. I overheard one say to another, “Well, the mom didn’t get exactly what she wanted. She wanted a little doll to dress up and look like her. When these kids aren’t perfect playthings, the parents give them back.”

Four years ago I was stunned to realize that people didn’t believe our tiny daughter was violent and dangerous when dysregulated. At home she felt safe to let her feelings out. In public she was selectively mute, small and unassuming. People in public thought she was the sweetest thing and we just didn’t like her. It was quite the opposite. We loved her and she was beginning to love us. She was terrified.

Four years later and those high heels are GONE. Mary is still here. So is the tiny round scar on my scalp from the heel of her shoe. She may be in a residential therapeutic school, but she is in this family. Therapeutic school is what she needs for treatment. If she needed a kidney, I’d give her that. Instead, she needs intense treatment in a place she can be safe. She is still our beloved daughter. She is always a part of this crazy, imperfect family.

Luke and I did listen to Heather Forbes. We listened to Karyn Purvis and Deborah D. Gray. We learned about trauma and we continue to connect with our daughter the best we can. Mary has a psychiatric condition, though. Her trauma, like my scar, will always be there.

I don’t know what this means for our family long-term. We have a moratorium on heels now. We have the best relationship with Mary that she will allow. Maybe she thought she’d get a perfect mom. Maybe I did think we’d all have that perfect happy ending. I don’t know.

What I know is this: We have a perfectly imperfect family. For now, that’s enough.

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

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