adoption, family

Swimming Upstream

I wonder how a salmon can continue to swim upstream fighting the flow of water every inch. It seems counter-intuitive but their instinct tells them to keep going. Just thinking about it makes me exhausted.

Recently, Marcus broke up with the girlfriend who had the baby. He and his friends were all over social media saying horrible things about her. The threads ranged in topic from disparaging comments about her vagina to the fact that she had a baby. The language used was awful.

I explained that these words were not OK. This is a form of abuse and harassment. I offered an alternative as to how to handle the situation. At 21, Marcus makes his own decisions and I’m not even sure I got through to him. The social media backlash did stop so maybe our conversation worked.

As a woman and a mother I want to raise strong men. I want my sons to internalize the same values I do. It is so important to me that they respect women in their words and actions. I don’t believe that a man should ever use physical strength to coerce or intimidate a woman under any circumstances.  I also believe that a woman’s sexuality is just as natural and sacred as a man’s. Words like, “c*nt, whore, slut, b*tch” etc. do not have any place in my value system.

In fact, the more shame that surrounds a woman’s sexual identity, the more vulnerable she is. Sexuality is a natural thing. If the taboos surrounding it disappeared so too would the silence. I believe it is easier for perpetrators to commit sexual crimes if they know victims will be too afraid to speak out. If we teach our girls to be ashamed of sexuality then we teach oppression. A strong man doesn’t wield this as a weapon. He doesn’t have to.

So how can I pass this on to my sons? The truth is that I can’t. At least, not entirely. Carl and Marcus grew up in a very different environment. An early model of domestic violence colors their views. Foul language disparaging a woman for her sexuality was simply common vernacular in their childhood home. The value that physical dominance makes a “man” permeated their early years.

Over time Carl has mostly shed these misconceptions. It’s Marcus I worry about. He doesn’t understand what is appropriate here and what is not. When he was 16, I found out that he was bullying a girl online by calling her a “slut” and other sex-shaming phrases. I tried to make him see how this was wrong no matter the circumstances. Utterly baffled, he defended his actions because, “she really is a slut!”

When discussing Chris Brown’s infamous 2009 attack on then-girlfriend Rihanna, Marcus took his side. “She deserved that!” The idea that no one should be physically punished was foreign to him. It’s taken a lot of years to get him to a place where he believes that physical violence between partners is not OK.

He’s got a new girlfriend now. Girlfriend L attends his Job Corps program. She seems nice, but like anyone getting emotionally close to Marcus she probably won’t last. He posted about her the other day. It went something along the lines of being lucky to have her in his life. I found it to be incredibly sweet. If he is able to verbally express his emotions then he’s maturing. This is new for him.

Unfortunately, his oldest biological sister and Sean weighed in. Both of them encouraged him to take down the post because it made him sound like a “little b*tch.” I have no idea why but this seems to be a persistent family value from long ago. Be a man. Don’t be “soft,” whatever that means.

I hope that Luke and I have influenced the way Marcus treats women. I’d like to think he’ll continue to grow to be more like Luke. Every step we take it seems that history is there to fight us. Marcus is caught between the values of our home and those he grew up with. Parenting Marcus is a lot like un-parenting his past. I am still fighting my way upstream.

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

 

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adoption, family

What Are We Teaching Them?

“Wait–what do you mean? My glasses prescription can expire?!?!! That doesn’t make sense!”

Sorry, Marcus. You have to go to the eye doctor every year. You also need a yearly checkup with your primary care physician. And the dentist? Yeah, that is every six months.

This week Marcus was texting me in a panic that he had lost his glasses and was having headaches. He wanted me to look for his prescription so that he could get new glasses. Sometimes I am still caught off guard by the things my children do not know. Looking back, it makes sense.

Marcus went from 2014 until 2016 without a doctor’s appointment in foster care. He never went to the dentist. For whatever reason the state he was in somehow claimed to change insurance based from town to town. Marcus bounced around continuously. Therefore he pretty much never had health insurance.

His last placement (after the Juvenile Detention Center) was with something called “intensive foster care.” This meant that a specialized agency was contracted by child services to care for him. A worker met with him weekly and a highly trained foster parent provided a home. In theory it looked great. The program was supposed to provide skills for older teens who would soon age out of the system. They had strict regulations and monitored each worker intensely.

In practice, it was pretty awful. His intensive case worker changed every few months. Marcus never saw a therapist. He never saw a psychiatrist even though he was prescribed psychotropic medication.

His foster parent was not supposed to take him to medical appointments or attend the case review meetings. She really wasn’t required to do much except feed him. She couldn’t even give him Tylenol without calling the agency for approval first. That just meant no medication was available if he spiked a fever after business hours. Maybe the lesson was not to get sick on the weekends?

When Marcus came to us we were required to drive him back to his home state each week to meet with his worker. Marcus was 17, so his case worker had a limited amount of time to impart the all-important “life skills.” A frantic worker would meet my husband and Marcus at Panera Bread every week for lunch. He spent three weeks focusing on reviewing a module in his binder called, “water safety.” Yes, they worked on pool safety while eating lunch (that my husband payed for) at a restaurant on dry land. Luke used to joke with Marcus to “try not to drown in the drive home.”

In the meantime we had to fight to get Marcus his driver’s permit. We were willing to teach him but technically the DMV requires a legal guardian. I doubt many caseworkers are headed to the long lines at the DMV with their teens. They also require an original birth certificate which child services refused to release to Marcus. Don’t worry, after lots of advocating we got it all figured out.

However, here I sit explaining to my 21-year-old how medical care works. Sometimes I think we’ve missed so much time to instruct Marcus he may never catch up. Have we really prepared him for the world? What else have we missed or lost along the way?

So the question remains. What are we teaching teens in foster care to prepare them for the world? If they age out without a family to turn to, how will they learn?

In this, Luke and I are lucky. Marcus knows he can turn to us if he needs to. I thank my stars that our son can come to us. If we have taught him nothing else, I know we have taught him this.

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

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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

Math Lessons in Ramen Noodles

At about 3:00AM my cell phone comes to life with a string of beeps. Who is texting me at 3:00AM?!

“MMMOOOMMM!!!”

“MOM??”

MOOMMM I’M RUNNING LOW ON NOODLES!!!!”

The texts devolve into a series of shocked and presumably dying or close-to-death emojis.

Hi, Marcus.

He’s still at Job Corps. He’s been there for two months and 3 care packages. When he first got to his dorm he didn’t want to bring any of this own things, even toiletries. Years spent in the foster care system taught him some unfortunate lessons.

In typical Marcus fashion he keeps his personal items scattered across several houses with different relatives or friends. He’s always done this. It allows him to move locations frequently and easily. It also guarantees that if he blows out of a home in a rage, he won’t lose the entirety of his belongings. I guess it’s his way of diversifying assets.

Due to this process, he went into his dorm without much. Marcus had honestly never heard the term “care package” until I explained it to him. When I was in college my mom sent me goodies in the mail. It kept me going and made me feel loved. It connected me to the woman who took care of me even when I wasn’t physically with her.

Marcus was flabbergasted. “Srsly?!” He texted me when I explained the concept, “That’s a real thing? Like Nana really did that? Do other people do it???”

Yes, Marcus.

Now here we are at 3:00 AM. He seems to have gotten a good grasp on the care package concept. I’d like to think he’s gotten a handle on the trust concept also. When you need food, go to mom!

However, his math skills are suspect. It was exactly 6 days ago that I Amazon Primed him 48 packages of Ramen noodles. Even if he eats 2 per day it should last him over 3 weeks!

Perhaps the next lesson for Marcus will be a math lesson about the consumption of Ramen noodles.

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

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adoption, family

Paying for His Mistakes?

There is no middle ground when it comes to Marcus. He’s either in or he’s out with his perception about family. He can be up or he can be down with his emotions. He’s either with us in rural Connecticut or on the streets of a city slum in his old neighborhood. Marcus can be in a place where he makes a series of good decisions or a string of bad decisions. He is caught between his biological and his adoptive families. It doesn’t matter how often we try to get him to accept both.

When he came home from Job Corps for Thanksgiving it was great. He helped us with chores around the house.  He spent the weekend replacing light-bulbs and breaking down Carl’s bunk bed to replace it with a stand-alone frame. He hauled up the Christmas decorations from the basement so we could trim the tree and set up our annual zombie nativity scene (yes, really). Acts of service like this are the way Marcus shows us he cares.

Carl pretended to push Marcus off the ladder while he affixed the angel at the top of the tree. We played about 47 games of Phase 10 and Scattergories. Our house was filled with activity and laughter the entire week. It was wonderful.

Now Marcus is back at Job Corps. I’ve sent him a care package of Ramen noodles via Amazon Prime. He has what he needs and he’s in a place that is safe. He passed his return drug test so he’ll be able to go off-grounds for weekends (as opposed to Holidays only) starting this week. His life seems to be progressing in the right direction. I can feel good about the choices he’s making.

Except…except…I’m not confident he’ll continue to make them. When we discussed Christmas break he mentioned going back to the city to stay with a friend. He’ll be back in the thick of the drama that got him jumped in the first place. It’s so easy to slip into old habits in that environment. He’s 21, but when it comes to thinking choices through he’s developmentally around 6.

He sent me a message last night asking if we could cover a court fee for $50. When I pressed him as to why he said it was from driving with a suspended license. He claimed not to remember when or why his license was suspended, only that it was now reinstated. He sent me a pic of the re-reinstatement paperwork. Although he says he’s not able to cover the cost, I think he can. I know Job Corps gives him a little over this amount each month.

Honestly, I don’t want to pay it. When he left home the last time to live in his car and return to less-than-legal employment in the city, he got in trouble. He got stopped while driving an unregistered vehicle. His car insurance lapsed. He popped a tire doing donuts in a parking lot because he lives life like a Fast and the Furious movie.

I just can’t bring myself to feel like this is my problem. Luke and I did have his car towed to bio-dad’s house after it was impounded. He won’t give us the real reason why his license was suspended other than “it was the cop’s fault, man!” These are the natural consequences of his very bad choices. Part of me thinks when he leaves for winter break he will get sucked back into the city and skip out on Job Corps.

I don’t want to pay it. I don’t want to support his bad decisions. What I want to do is say, “I TOLD you so!!” However, I know it will cause a rift in our family. I really just don’t know what the right move is here.

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

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adoption, family

The Prodigal Son Makes a Decision

Marcus is here in the house, fast asleep. Just writing those words is like a having a weight lifted from my chest. Last night my living room was full and so was my heart. When Mary FaceTimed she got to see all of us.

At the wise old age of 21, he’s made a decision about his future. Marcus came home without the GF, her baby, and her extra friend. I’m not sure where they are staying exactly. I did manage to ship a package of warm winter baby clothes to GF at a reliable address.

Now it’s just my son. He’s back in his room among a pile of suitcases, boxes, and trash bags full of clothes. I wonder what happened to the other luggage he had. Where are all of the plastic bins he previously used?

Trash bags are the currency of packing in foster care. Just seeing them full of clothes sets my teeth on edge. I can assume his luggage went the way of his electronic keyboard and Beatz headphones we got him. Marcus must have bartered or sold them to get by on the streets.

He isn’t he here to stay. He’s here to do all of his laundry and store some of his things. Then it’s off to Job Corps! Marcus starts on Tuesday at 12, for the Electrical program. Victory! He can come home for holidays and some weekends.

Job Corps is a lot like the the regular college experience except they also teach basic life skills and schedule medical appointments. This is great because our son is behind on everything. Luke and I tried to cram a lifetime’s worth of “life skills” into a boy we met when he was already 16. It didn’t exactly stick. Needless to say, he still requires guidance.

I have no idea how Marcus finally, FINALLY, came to this decision. Like most things, he’s had to make the choice on his own by learning through a multitude of mistakes. Experiences, usually bad and had on his own, are Marcus’ only teachers. If you tell him the stove-top is hot, he’ll have to reach out and burn his hand before he believes you.

I don’t know what’s really going on with GF. He told us she said “hi” but that he doesn’t care what she thinks of his decision to do this. Marcus says “no one can hold him back” from his future. I’m pretty sure this is the same kid that told us “no one could make him” decide things about his future.

I want to say, “Honey sometimes you hold yourself back.” But I don’t.

I want to say, “When did you realize you need to consider a future?”

I want to say, “Hey, by the way, how come you ripped the doors off of the closet last time you packed your stuff?”

I don’t say these things because he’ll never even be able to explain. He probably doesn’t know why. I don’t even really need to know the “why.”

Here is what I do know:

1. My son is safely home in (approximately) one piece. He’s still a bit bruised and broken from the beat-down he got on the streets.

2. In 48 hours Marcus will be living on-campus in a program teaching him skills to be a licensed electrician.

3. He had to pass a clean drug test to get into this program.

4. I will love my oldest son forever, no matter what. Someday he may actually trust me on this one. He’s certainly tested it a few times.

 

**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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