family

The Prodigal Son…Graduates! 

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This is a day I never thought I’d be able to see. Don’t misunderstand, I’ve always believed he would finish his high school degree. This is a point I hotly debated with the many social workers, and clinicians involved over the years. “He won’t want to graduate from high school when he is almost 20. He’s missed too many credits. He’ll probably just get his GED,” was something a clinical consultant on his case said to me once. What he meant was “Marcus will surely drop out.” But I knew better. Marcus, our children’s oldest biological brother, never backs down when he’s determined about something.

It’s just that after he decided he didn’t want us to adopt him, he left and swore he’d never return. So I believed that I would have to miss the day he got his diploma. I stupidly tried to comfort myself with thoughts of seeing his pictures on Facebook or being there “in spirit.” Marcus eventually made contact with us and we managed to forge a new kind of relationship. Despite this, I didn’t think he would want his “old parents” at his high school graduation. But he did. He asked us to come when he contacted me to say “Happy Mother’s Day.” Man can that kid make me cry!

For me, he will always and forever be my eldest son. For him I’m probably one of the many “moms” he’s had through his years in the foster care system. He often felt like a throwaway kid.  Marcus felt out of place being loved by a family. So he pushed back. He got suspended, kicked out of schools, sent to a group home, disrupted many foster placements and did a stint in “juvie.”

Social workers cautioned us from the beginning against getting too attached to this “troubled teen.” But attachment was just what he needed. Unconditional love, acceptance, and ultimately the ability to ride out his struggles. No, we never got to adopt him. He aged out of foster care. But eventually Marcus returned to the house of his first foster mom. He wasn’t “in the system” anymore. She had long since retired from fostering kids. But Marcus? He always had a place with her.

Marcus often felt that no one wanted him. He pushed back against love so hard that he tried to drive the people closest to him away however he could. It didn’t work. For this  graduation the vice principal and resource officer (the same one who had to arrest him once) from his former school attended. He had a childhood friend he’d kept in touch with over his years shuffling through foster homes. He had his first foster family. He had an older sister’s ex-husband.  And he had us. One of his older biological sisters came and surprisingly, so did his biological father. We all loved him enough to be there.

When Marcus first started coming to visit us, he reminded me of the little boy Max from the children’s’ book Where the Wild Things Are. For one thing, he would stretch waaay into his 7-year-old sister’s footy pajamas, shirts, and headbands when playing with her. He was just shy of the wolf costume Max wears in the book’s opening illustrations. Like Max, Marcus was always quite fond of “making mischief of one kind or another,” and like Max he was an expert at driving his caregivers crazy.

If ever a child deserved to be made “King of the Wild Things,” it was Marcus.  He would have angry outbursts and tantrums over the smallest things. Then he would put on his headphones and drift away to a place where no one could make contact with him. Marcus would come back at his own pace. So many of his relationships followed this back-and-forth pattern. Like Max, Marcus was a lovable child at heart and needed to know it. I obviously had to read him the book aloud. He loved the experience! At 17, he’d never heard of the story, or even heard of parents reading stories to their children at bedtime. 

When we started his adoption process, I bought him a hardcover copy of the book. I slipped it beneath his pillow after writing on the inside cover “You have finally come home to a place where someone loves you best of all.” We never discussed it. After he left us, he packed everything except that book. It crushed me. Like the beasts Maurice Sendak created, I wanted to roar and gnash my teeth. I wanted to eat him up, I loved him so! But I couldn’t. So I let go. I had been wrong about this story the whole time.

I wasn’t the mother waiting at home with his hot supper. I was one of the many “Wild Things” trying to love him along the journey of foster care. So when Marcus asked us to be at his graduation, I was overwhelmed with emotion. I felt love, pride, and gratitude that we were still family. I cried through the ceremony from the moment he walked in until the moment he crossed the stage.  Luke and I were by far not the only ones there for Marcus. He had the largest group of supporters of any graduate that day. As we stood around wiping tears and snapping pictures, I figured maybe I wasn’t the mother or the “Wild Thing” after all.

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Marcus approached Luke and I last. Without words, he fell into Luke’s arms and pulled me into a tight group hug. He was crying and so was I. In that moment, in that hug? Marcus really was “home.” No matter where he goes in life, that hug was the place where “someone loved him best of all.”

Congratulations, Marcus.

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

*My sincere apologies if I botched the plot with my interpretation of Maurice Sendak’s famous children’s story book Where the Wild Things Are

 

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adoption disruption, family

The Prodigal Son…Visits?

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This is a post I never wanted to write. I just never thought things would turn out this way. Despite my best intentions,my hardest work, and all of my love, this is where we stand. We started with a sibling group of 4. The teen boys disrupted before we could officially adopt them. We have now adopted the younger two. The adoption fairytale isn’t exactly what I thought it would be. Is that wrong? No. It just…is. I thought I was OK with it. Maybe I was wrong.

Our children’s oldest sibling, Marcus, has been in touch with us for a time. It’s weird to think of ourselves as just one in a long line of “foster parents” for him. I still feel like his mother. We had every intention of adopting them. Only Marcus has stayed in touch. (This is the story of meeting Marcus and bringing him home) In the end, he chose not to be adopted by us. His attachment issues ran too deep to allow him to be in a family.

It’s been a long time since we’ve seen Marcus. When he left it felt like a part of me was dying. Why didn’t he choose to be in our family? Why didn’t he choose to be adopted? Why didn’t he choose to have a mom. Even more painfully: why didn’t he choose me?! I wrote him an open good-bye letter (you can read it here.) This was cathartic for me, in a way. I’ve never stopped loving him. Sometimes I miss him so much it physically hurts.

Marcus aged out of foster care. He signed himself out at 18 and bounced around a bit. He lived with a girlfriend, and her family. His job was supporting a lot of the people living there. He contacted us for money because he was so hungry. Luke gave him advice about how even if he loved this girl, he shouldn’t live where he couldn’t eat food. He also shouldn’t be supporting a family of 6-8 people.

We didn’t send him money. Luke and I had made a pact about letting Marcus learn to stand on his own two feet now that he had chosen not to be adopted. He needed to know that being an “adult” didn’t necessarily mean getting to do whatever you wanted, whenever you wanted. It’s hard work! (I caved and sent him and Amazon care package of food overnight anyway.)

As always, Marcus only lasts with a family for a short time. He bounced again, this time back to a former foster home. Marcus had been very close to the foster mom and we had facilitated visits between them when he lived with us. We didn’t want him to lose anymore people that were important to him. He always referred to her by her first name,  but I knew he loved her. Then he was gone from our house, gone from another foster home, and now about to leave his girlfriend’s home.

He was contacting us a lot during that time, and I think he wanted to ask to come back. He never said it, though. Our contact went something like this. He was making a lot of bad choices at the time. Drinking, getting high, and hanging out with a tough crowd. He was still enrolled in school. He still texted me pictures of his report card. He still wanted me to be proud of him. He still called me, “Ma.”

I was glad he was going back to that former foster home. Maybe he really belonged there the whole time. Perhaps we just hadn’t been the right family for him. Only it didn’t last. Now he has a few weeks left before he has to leave that home, too. He tells me it’s because he lost a job by falling asleep. He works in the day and is getting his high school diploma at night. He says his former foster mom is telling him this is “tough love.” I’m not exactly sure that it isn’t because of drinking, irresponsible behavior, or not working. Marcus usually tells his own version of a story.

It doesn’t matter what the story is, they all have the same ending, Marcus moves on to a new family.

He’s been asking me just for a visit. Just a day or a weekend. I’m conflicted. I don’t want to keep the littles from their brother. Sometimes, I feel like it will be too much for them to see him, and then not see him again for who knows how long? The thing is, I want Carl and Mary to see that we still have a relationship with Marcus. We still love him. No matter what happens, our love is forever. I also get the feeling that Mary has fears that her behavior might get her “kicked out” somehow.

I want her to know that we NEVER “throw away” people!

Should we have him over? Show them that he is still family even though he is an adult making his own living arrangements? Will it break their hearts?

Will it break mine? 

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

 

 

 

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religion

Knocking on Heaven’s Door?

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Since when did I become religious? As I write this I’m listening to Bob Dylan croon away about knocking on heaven’s door. In my youth, I attended congregational church with my mom. I liked the sense of community we had there.

As I got a little older, I changed. My mother supported my exploration of other denominations and faiths. I was so curious. Faith is such a personal thing and I wanted to see where I fit in. I went with friends to evangelical churches, baptist churches, catholic churches, and a pentecostal church. I just wanted to know, to see.

Years later, in my ultra-liberal college days I left that quest far behind me. I had changed again. What I heard about church and faith came from horrific tales from the Westboro Baptist Church and Jerry Falwell. Christianity, as it seemed to me, wasn’t about love. It seemed like punishment and judgement on those who were different. I couldn’t wrap my mind around the same Jesus who loved sinners, disciples, and prostitutes, persecuting same-sex love. What kind of religion is against love? In those days, it seemed that religion just wasn’t for me. “To each his own,” was my motto at the time, and it still is in many ways.

Early in my marriage, I had another change. It seemed that family was my religion. Love was the thing I turned to in times of strife. Let others have their own beliefs. I believed in Luke and me. I thought whatever brought people comfort, was good for them. As Bob Dylan would say, “Don’t criticize what you can’t understand.”So I didn’t.  I also didn’t think about it much.

When we adopted our children, everything changed. I was trying to show them the kind of unconditional love they hadn’t experienced before. As they went through tremendous struggles, I began to sink into the depths of their trauma. The times, were indeed, changing. As Bob Dylan would tell me I had to start swimming or I would surely sink.

My mother started flying into our little New England town from her home in the midwest to help us wade through the quagmire of trauma we were sinking in. She had become Episcopalian so she took us to the Episcopal church in town. I felt so welcomed and so accepted. I’ll admit that the tradition and structure of the service was hard to follow. I did my best. After the service, my children asked me, “God really loves us? He doesn’t even know us.”

Eventually my mom went home, but I kept going to church. I was walking the “40 miles of bad road” that Dylan sang about, but I didn’t feel so alone. My children started to learn about a different kind of love. A love so big that it could handle whatever mistakes we humans could make. Our church didn’t disparage anyone that was “other.”  Being gay was accepted. A parishioner has an incarcerated son who was accepted, loved, and prayed for. A former alcoholic was accepted, loved, and prayed for. So was I. So was our family.

Over time, I started to believe that there was more than just me out there. I didn’t have to have all the answers. My kids changed when they started to believe that God’s love was so big it could last through anything. We weren’t just crazy parents talking about this weird unconditional love thing. Other people felt it, too.

Finding faith has been an interesting journey. Some days I still feel like I’m not there, yet. But I’m working on it.  Some days I get mad at God over what my kids have been through, among other things. When I pray, I express that anger. My reverend says that God has big enough shoulders to handle my anger.

Our church supports us. I believe God supports us. Everyone (even my children) will have their own beliefs, and that’s fine with me. Differences are OK. Bob Dylan might find his religion in music. I find mine at church. Find your own where you will.

I’m still the ultra-liberal girl I was in college, I’m just also a person of faith. I’ve changed. And as Dylan would say, “There is nothing so stable as change.”

 

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

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parenting

Anger at Biological Parents: Adventures in My Own Humanity

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Carl facedown on his “fainting couch”

I’m not even sure where the anger comes from. All I can see is red in this moment. I’m not proud of it.  I am tired, I am frustrated, and I am DONE with this whole conversation.

It’s early in the morning. The children are getting ready for school. Carl wakes up angry, as he so often does. He is arguing with me from the moment he opens his eyes.

“Carl, please get off of the floor. Your sister needs to walk through there.”

“I’m NOT on the floor, Mommy!!” He yells from the floor. Then he heaves himself up with an elaborate sigh and an eye-roll. I can hear him muttering “stupid” under his breathe. To Carl’s credit this is a far cry from the “stupid b*tch,” he might’ve muttered at one time. He also used to threaten me with a fist or with a suggestion that he would physically show me or teach me a lesson. He no longer does these things. In fact, I should be saying to myself, “Progress! Look how far we’ve come!” Instead, I am stumbling to the coffeemaker with a murderous feeling blossoming in my tummy.

After my husband distributes meds, Carl flops down on the couch and feigns sleep. (As a side-note, he is an excellent flopper. Usually face down, in the middle of the floor, or on his “fainting couch” as we have now dubbed the oversized ottoman in the living room.)

“Carl, get up. You need to get ready for school.”

“I AM up! And it’s 6:22! I don’t HAVE TO be up now!!!” he yells from his prone position.

The fact that his alarm goes off at 6:25 is a moot point. Those 3 minutes are black and white to him. After I have banished him to the bathroom to brush his teeth he continues with a mix of yelling at me, saying nasty things to me and his sister, or singing and dancing. I give him reminders to brush his teeth. Mary needs to get in there, too. I remind him at 5 minutes, then 10 minutes, and then 15.

“I AM brushing them!” Carl shouts through a mouth unobstructed by toothpaste or toothbrush.

As I begin a final countdown for him to exit the bathroom he screams, “But I haven’t even brushed my teeth yet! You are the WORST!!” and slams a few things around. Then he shoves his sister in the hallway and I send him into his room. When he is this angry it is better to take a few minutes before having him come in close to me in order to practice respect towards family and emotional regulation. His engine is revving too high at this moment.

Once in his room, he slams things around, slams the door (Flexible particle-board doors never break. I swear! Always buy the cheap ones!) He screams at me the whole time. Part of his issue is that we will have a high of 32 degrees today. That means he must wear his coat and his gloves. He absolutely hates dressing for winter. Part of it is a control issue. Unfortunately for Carl, it’s a battle he cannot win. When he was small, in his biological home, at some point he suffered frostbite on his hands. That means he has 2 fingers on each hand that are extremely sensitive to cold.

Carl is different from other kids in the sense that he feels physical sensation differently. He is highly sensitive to sticky or wet substances. It takes a great deal of pressure or force to make him feel hard physical impact. For example, breaking his foot wasn’t nearly as bad as having tree sap stuck on his fingers. Many children from hard places have a smattering of sensory processing issues due to their past trauma.

In his biological home, he was beaten so badly, so many times, that physical impact doesn’t phase him. I believe he honestly doesn’t even feel the New England chill until it is too late. Until he comes inside screaming in abject pain and holding bright red, naked hands, out to me. They hurt him so much but he refuses help to keep them warm. It’s much easier to argue with mom.

Today, Carl yells at me from his room this morning that I will have to make his lunch because he can’t make it from his room. I sip my coffee and tell him that he can easily dip into his money jar and bring his own money to buy a school lunch. No worries.

I am mad at Carl this morning. Really, really angry. He is screaming and shouting horrible things at me. He shoved his sister. He sometimes reverts back to whatever mentality in his bio- home that taught him women were meant to be beaten, controlled, and dominated. He isn’t often like this anymore. He’s not physical with me but it sounds like his bunk bed is taking a solid beating.

It occurs to me that I might not be completely mad at Carl. I am mad that we have to worry about his frostbite because his first mom left him alone outside in the snow, under the age of 5. I am mad that no one bundled up my little boy and met his needs. I am mad that he was beaten so badly, and so often, that sensations rarely register with him. After all, nothing will ever hurt him as badly as his biological parents did. I’m mad. He’s my baby now and I wish I could have met those needs. But I wasn’t there. I am here now and instead of letting my pre-teen boy have a healthy parental rebellion, I’m stuck attempting to further protect him from damage that she has already done.

Realizing this softens me towards him. He hugs me and apologizes on his way out the door.Of course I squeeze him tight and wave good-bye.  I am left to wrestle with this anger I have towards her. I try to be understanding. I try to be forgiving. But I am only human. At this point in the day I am a very disheveled, under-caffeinated human. I guess grace and forgiveness will have to wait until I’ve at least had a good long shower.

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

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family

Not This Time: Mood Disorder Warrior

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Sometimes I just know that I can do this. I am feeling the super-powers of being “mom” to some very traumatized children. I try to hold on to these feelings because, let’s be honest, every parent feels woefully inadequate at times. It doesn’t matter if you’re a trauma-mama or the parent of a perfectly behaved honor roll student. We all question ourselves.

Our little family has once again been faced with some big challenges. My back injury has returned. The disc that was operated on has re-herniated. I am out of work, on a heating pad, and just trying to manage my pain. In addition, Mary’s emotional cycle is on the uptick. This time she is in her happy place. Unfortunately, for Mary, that means that she is louder, laughs longer, and becomes wildly impulsive. She is in a manic state.  Eventually, her laughing  ends up as screaming. Then she cries and falls asleep.

Her emotions come before her thoughts. They precede any kind of cognition and she is left scrambling to figure out why she is feeling whatever emotion has taken over. It’s like she’s been hijacked by a feeling and can’t regain control of the car. When Mary cannot control her feelings, or her body, she is scared of herself. I get that. I can’t control the pain and/or function of my own body right now. All of us feel more comfortable when we are in the driver’s seat.

This time, Mary is able to verbalize if she feels unsafe. She tells me that she is afraid she will be hospitalized again. Mary can name her feelings and rate them on a scale of 1-10. She can ask for help. Mary is proficient on coping skill strategies to help her. I am so proud of her ability to handle this mood disorder that life has handed her.

She has been having intrusive thoughts about hurting me. To be clear, Mary hasn’t been hospitalized in almost 2 years. She hasn’t been physically violent with me since then, either. Mary is well-managed with a combination of therapy and medication.  But emotion this big does not know logic. Mary is terrified of the intrusive thoughts she is having. These thoughts tell her that she is going to hurt her mother. These thoughts tell her what the other girls on her cheerleading team are thinking about her. These thoughts are telling her, “I know where you live.”

While Mary is flying high in her manic phase, I am lying low. Literally. I am lying down on a heating pad or an ice pack. I am arranging lumbar support in the strangest sitting positions you’ve ever seen. I am feeling sharp, fiery, electric shocks down my right leg. That right leg isn’t working as well as it once did. I can’t drive at the moment. I can’t go to work. But I can still parent my daughter. I can be there to listen to her needs.

Mary is scared. But she isn’t alone. She is reaching out. She is asking for help.She can do this.  She is a little 10-year-old warrior who inspires me to face my own fears every day! Luckily, we have an amazing trauma therapist who is always there for us. We have a full sensory-diet plan to help her at home. Our state has a mobile crisis team that can send out a therapist when Mary says she is having suicidal thoughts. Her psychiatrist is adjusting her medication and it just takes time. Mary is scared.

We’ve been down this road before. I have neurosurgeons, and pain specialists, and MRI appointments. She has her therapist, her psychiatrist, and the mobile crisis team. We have my parents and our church. We have the support that we need, but that’s not all. The important part is having each other. We will get through this.  A 10-year-old warrior told me so.. So I’m not scared. Not this time.

 

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

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politics

A “Good” American?

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There is one peach color among all of the crayons. I’m at school working with some students on coloring a picture of a boy. There are at least 6 shades of brown, tan, and something called “coffee grounds” in front of my student. She looks perplexed.

Me: “Honey, why don’t you use one of these to color in your boy?”

Student “But I’m coloring an American”

Me: “You can still use another color. Americans come in all different colors.”

Student: (looking confused) “But I’m drawing a good American.”

What?! My jaw hangs open while I try to gain some composure. I explain to her that good American people come in many colors. I ask if she thinks that Hispanic people or African American people are not “good” somehow.  I’m not just a teacher. I’m a mom. I am the adoptive white mom of Hispanic children.
Is she racist 8-year-old? I don’t think so. This is obviously an interpretation she has garnered from what is being said around her. We, as adults, must be careful with the message we are sending our youth.

Maybe it isn’t outright racist comments. Maybe she’s hearing the “Black Lives Matter” movement retorted with “All Lives Matter.” You can justify this to yourself, but a child will see the truth. A child sees it as a denouncement of black lives actually mattering. I’m sure there’s more. In a culture that professes anxiety about the growing number of hispanics, or “dangerous immigrants” in our country, what message are we really sending to our kids? Is she hearing concerns about American Muslims? Maybe it’s a combination of all of these things.

Children are concrete thinkers. They hear the truth behind rhetoric couched in “nationalist” terms. They hear the fear mongering about people of darker skin colors. They hear presidential candidates who want us to fear what is different, what is “other.” Being afraid of differences is harming our culture in so many ways.

As the mother of brown children, I worry. “No,” I tell my Puerto Rican son, “You can’t have the toy gun. Choose another toy.” Is it because I’m anti-gun? Because I don’t want children to play hunting games or Wild West adventures? No. It’s because my son is a darker skinned Hispanic boy. I’m afraid that somehow, somewhere outside of our small town, an officer might mistake his toy for the real thing. I won’t take any chances with him.

My husband and I spend extra time with our kids discussing how to speak to an officer. How to be respectful of the police if they ever stop you. How to explain every physical movement before you make it.  How to avoid being shot. We do this, not because we think police are all bad, but because we are afraid. So we practice. Just in case.

My husband is a paramedic in our town. Everyone knows everyone else here. It’s a wonderful community and we feel safe. When I get pulled over I feel safe. I chat with the officer freely and never think twice about reaching into the glove box. I’m not sure if that’s due to the safety of our little town or the privilege of my white skin. Either way, I want this safe feeling for my kids.

Will our children be subject to discriminatory “stop-and-frisk” policing? Will they grow up to face unfair voter laws which smack of Jim Crow laws to me? I’m not asking about my kids. I’m asking about all of our “good” American children.

Every time I hear rhetoric about “dangerous” Mexicans I get worried. I can’t help it. A country afraid of its brown people isn’t a country that I want my kids to grow up in. I can’t understand the things they might face. The preconceived notions or subtle racism they will experience. I can’t understand it because I’ve never experienced it. It is lucky that I’m raising children with a Hispanic husband. He will understand in ways I may never fully grasp. I’m a product of the white privilege I didn’t even realize I grew up with.

It brings me back to thinking about America. What makes a “good” American? Think about it. Is it hard work? Patriotism?  What about simply being “good” to others? I believe our country is stronger for its diversity.

No matter what side of the political fence you’re on, please be careful. You’re children are listening when you speak. A good American comes in many colors. A good American sees the good in others. A truly good American cares for all of the citizens in our country.

Are you a “good” American? Either way, you’re children are listening.

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