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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adoption, family

Better Than Expected

I am pretty sure we just made it through our most successful Christmas season yet. I can’t say things went off without a hitch, but it was certainly better than I had hoped. Marcus arrived with Girlfriend and Baby in tow for three days.

I actually made it out to go to the bank and hit one store with Luke for last minute gifts. My back was hurting afterwards but at least I did it. We hadn’t realized the baby was coming without any presents so we stocked up on some extras. We also got a few additional things for Girlfriend because she isn’t on good terms with her mother. Without our Christmas she would have been alone. Even Nana and Papa got things for them.

Carl took having a baby in the house in stride. He was relaxed and calm for the duration of the visit. We managed to play some family card games and get Girlfriend to join in. The baby was the most mellow, laid-back baby I’ve ever seen. She’s a year old and she picks up her toys, listens if you say “no” and hardly ever fusses. Luke and I tried to help Girlfriend as much as possible so she could have a few minutes to herself.

On Christmas morning we went to visit Mary. Everyone handled the two-hour round trip car ride quite well. When we got there the kids were preparing for a gingerbread contest. Her residential school had even taken her shopping for some gifts for us.

I don’t think I’ve ever seen Mary so happy on Christmas. She seemed grounded in reality and relaxed. I didn’t observe even a fraction of that too-bright laughter that used to spiral into a screaming, violent rage. Her laugh was just…genuinely happy.

I was also amazed that Mary held it together around the baby. Typically she does not handle babies well. She gets rather anxious and jealous. She will start to speak in baby-talk and demand baby things. Sometimes she’s been unsafe in a baby’s space. Often times she’ll sort of commandeer the mother for herself. It can be difficult. To my surprise Mary just looked at the baby and said, “cute” before carrying on with her gifts. That was it.

It was a nothing short of a miracle that Carl voluntarily went with us to visit her. After that, he continued with Christmas day dinner at my parents’ house. It was Carl’s job to collect everyone’s coats when we got there. He was content to go along with the group activities or use his iPad.

The only drama this holiday had very little to do with our family. Girlfriend has an open case with DCF for the baby. She didn’t specify why but it had the restriction that the baby’s father was not allowed contact. On Christmas Eve he began sending threatening messages to Marcus and to Girlfriend. Then Girlfriend’s mother also began sending derogatory and threatening messages.

This led to Marcus staging a Marcus-style meltdown. He decided to mix a bunch of wine and bourbon (I threw it out) and storm outside leaving Girlfriend crying in my arms. Carl got scared that Marcus was mad at the family again. All he could hear was Marcus yelling outside while Girlfriend cried inside.

Girlfriend ended up having full panic attack. Luckily, this is the perfect house to have a panic attack. I showed Girlfriend her heart rate on the finger monitor. I showed her how to slow her breathing by blowing Jelly Belly bubbles.

Together we blocked Baby Daddy from her phone. I explained that without a custody agreement he couldn’t make her do anything. She agreed with me that she should just keep following DCF’s plan. I advised her to show the threats to her social worker but I’m not sure that she will. She is legitimately terrified of Baby Daddy.

Eventually Marcus came back inside to talk to me privately. It was mostly ranting/yelling about how he was going to “get” Baby Daddy whether or not he “had his Glock” (I don’t believe this actually exists!) Since Baby Daddy already jumped him and beat him up badly, Marcus is spoiling for a rematch. I let him wave his arms around and shout about how this affected him for about 5 minutes.

When he finally stopped to take a breathe, I told Marcus to grow up. His plan was really stupid. Who cares about being the toughest idiot on the streets?! He has younger siblings looking up to him. He has this little family with GF and Baby now. People depend on having him around rather than locked up.

Also, Marcus is safe at home and safe on campus. This other guy has no job, no money and no vehicle. It’s unlikely he’ll be near Marcus unless Marcus goes back to the city and confronts him on the streets.

I told him to get his act together because this was not about him at all. Then I instructed him to get downstairs and comfort Girlfriend. When someone is already struggling to breathe over their own terror no one should add more stress. I told him what to say and I had him start a hot shower for her. Under no circumstances was he to mention his issues to her in this moment.

Marcus has a long history of not taking advice. He usually does the exact opposite and then self-destructs in spectacular fashion. Not this time, however. I went downstairs to take the baby so Girlfriend could shower and calm down. You can imagine my surprise when I found him holding and comforting her. He was using the exact language I’ve used so many times to soothe his panic attacks.

Luke and I spoke to Carl and addressed his fears. He was OK once he realized Marcus wasn’t raging at the family. Eventually Girlfriend’s sobs quieted down. Luke and I put the baby to sleep. We were exhausted on Christmas morning but we still managed presents, a Mary visit, and then dinner with Nana and Papa. We did it! There was not one hospital visit!! I’m sure I’ll be mainlining Tylenol for a week but it was all worth it.

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

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adoption, family

Do You Get to See Her?!

It’s the second Christmas she won’t be home for. We will bring presents to her on Christmas Day along with some of the dinner. Mary is at a therapeutic residential school that specializes in complex trauma.

I’m glad. Every Christmas Mary experiences periods of psychosis and violence. This usually ends with an inpatient stay in the psychiatric hospital. Her command hallucinations are the worst at this time of year. Carl gets triggered in the Springtime and Mary gets triggered at Christmas time.

Last Christmas Marcus, Carl and my step-kids all got to have a regular drama-free holiday. Luke and I were not stressed out or sleep deprived.  This year will be the same except that Marcus is here his GF and her baby.

I’m not even sad Mary won’t be here on Christmas morning. Typically, even when she was relatively stable, she’d be in-patient at the psychiatric hospital this time of year. She’s been able to handle this holiday better now that she is in congregate care. Whatever trauma occurred in her biological home follows her into the holiday season with a vengeance. Something about being in a family situation at Christmas sets off her trauma triggers to a full blown decibel.

It’s strange to me that people ask if we “get to see her.” She’s not in another country or in jail. She’s at school. We see her all the time and we talk to her every day. The school bought a special staff phone so we can FaceTime 3 days per week. She didn’t leave the family when she left the house.

Truthfully, our relationship with Mary is better now. It’s easier to practice connected parenting when not worried about imminent danger. Without the violence,we can focus on fun. This is the best thing for us. I think people everywhere make the best decisions for their own families. In fact, for other cultures it can be normal to attend a boarding school at her age. Is it only in the U.S. we question if parents “sent their kids away” or “got rid of them?” I’m not sure.

I’ll not ashamed of this decision. I’m proud of Mary. I’m proud of all the hard work her treatment team puts in. I’m proud of the work she puts in. She does a lot of “body scans” to “check her energy level” now. This helps her determine if she is becoming dysregulated or getting triggered. I think it’s an amazing feet for an 11-year-old girl to be able to do this.

Like the little engine that could, our family just keeps on chugging. Someday we’ll get over that hill. Until then I’m satisfied with appreciating what we have right now.

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

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adoption, family

Late Night Texting With the Patchwork Kid

In typical Marcus fashion I got a late-night text message. My phone chirped with the image of a certificate. Clicking on the “Student of the Month” award picture with Marcus’ name on it made the late-hour text worthwhile. This was the first time he’d ever received the accolade. His childhood was spent missing out on, well, being a child.

When our kids were in their biological home they only attended about half of the school days. Even if they went to school there was often no one to get them off of the bus at the end of the day. They were all behind in academic subjects when they entered foster care. Mary wouldn’t speak in school at all. She would sit with her head down, her arms limp at her sides and her eyes averted for most of the day.

Carl and Marcus got into trouble often. They had physical altercations, tantrums and suspensions. Carl once famously (infamously?) told a teacher he couldn’t participate in reading because the “kids were ugly.” Marcus was more likely to get arrested in high school than go to a school dance. In fact, I know the former happened but I’m pretty sure the latter never did.

Carl couldn’t read when he came to us. He was at a Kindergarten level going into third grade. I worked with him all summer before school and he flourished. By the end of that year he was right on track. Now he’s made honor roll for two semesters. This coming semester he’s trying for high honors!

Mary struggles with her behavior in class. She is behind but it’s hard to keep her on track when her mental health prevents it. Now that she is in a great residential school for complex trauma, she’s making progress. Both Mary and Carl have received the “Student of the Month” award a few times.

For Marcus, it’s a huge deal. It took him until he was 21, and in Job Corps, to engage in academics. It’s suddenly very important to him that he does well. Seeing his younger siblings achieve accolades through the school years has been so difficult. Marcus never got the same support in elementary school.

So last night I made a HUGE deal about it. I posted his certificate on Facebook. Luke and Nana praised him. I sent him every celebration emoji in my phone! Go team Marcus!!!

Even though he’s older it  feels like he needs that approval. Marcus still has so many milestones yet to be experienced. His maturity is like a patchwork quilt that is continuously being made. Piece by piece we are filling in the missing patches.

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

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adoption, family

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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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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