adoption, family

The Pressures of “Adulting” Like a Supermom

The term “adult” has shifted from a noun into a verb in today’s nomenclature. The act of “adulting” means to behave as a grownup is expected to. Being a grownup myself, one might assume I could accomplish this so-called “adulting” like a pro. After all, I’m only a handful of years short of forty!

When parenting children who have experienced complex developmental trauma, things tend to get turned upside down. Probably, parenting is a process that can get the best of anyone.  Adopting older children continues to be a strange and (at times) confusing journey for me.

My children come from a background of fighting for survival, fighting as a way of communication and fighting as the tool to get their needs met. In other words, Carl is masterful at drawing people into an argument and/or shouting match. He is good at the power struggles. He’ll make a great lawyer or reality TV star someday.

In therapeutic parenting the point is to stop struggling for power. You and your child are supposed to work together to find solutions. Its the two of you vs. past trauma as opposed to parent vs. child. In order to do this one must be proficient at “adulting.”

I’ve written before about Carl’s struggles with food insecurity. This comes in the form of hoarding food or binge eating high-value “junk” foods that we don’t usually keep in the house. Luke bought frozen pizza roles at the grocery store and it’s been a struggle every day since then. Carl wakes up in the night to eat them (even still frozen) or begs to have them at breakfast. He will stomp, scream and shout to try and get access to them. It’s our job to teach him that these behaviors will not earn anything for him.

Part of the therapeutic approach of Trust Based Relational Intervention (TBRI) is making compromises. If your child is asking for something rather than demanding it, then you should try for a compromise or some form of “yes.” In theory it fosters connection and teaches good interpersonal skills.

I wish I could say that I “adulted” through the latest pizza role drama like a pro. Usually I do. Last night, on the seemingly 35th consecutive day of nonstop pizza role negotiation, I snapped. I pretty much had a mom-tantrum.

The pizza role struggle looked like this:

Carl: Demands pizza roles 10 minutes before dinner.

Me: Reminds him to ask instead of tell. Offers to discuss this after dinner.

Carl: Tries to bargain from 20 then 17 then 10 pizza roles.

Me: Begins to grow a burning hatred for said pizza roles. Evilly fantasizes about throwing the entire stupid jumbo bag into the outside trash bin.

Carl: Eats dinner by shoveling an entire plate into his face in under 5 minutes. Does not gag. Politely requests 10 pizza roles.

Me: Ignores growing hatred for pizza roles. Asks for a compromise. 5 pizza roles to start with after Carl showers. If he is still hungry in 1 hour he can have another 5. In between he should try fruits and vegetables which are always readily available. Pats self-on-back for using a compromise like an awesome therapeutic adult. Score 1 for Supermom.

Carl: Follows compromise with the exception of doubling the amount of pizza roles and attempting to shove them all in his mouth at once to avoid detection. Ends up with burns inside his mouth.

Me: ???!!!

Carl: Yells at me for noticing this but not the other times he has stolen food. Yells at me for starving him and never letting him eat. Yells at me because his mouth now hurts from being burnt.

Me: Loses all semblance of adulthood and therapeutic calm. Yells at Carl that he better complete his chore (empty litter box) right away.

Carl: Shouts, “Why do you have to get mad at me every single day?!”

Me: Shouts, “Why do you feel the need to lie to me every single day?!”

Carl: Corrects me by retorting, “That’s not lying that’s cheating! I didn’t lie I cheated!”

Me: Begins a disturbing descent into madness.

Carl: Cleans litter box while yelling. Accuses me of getting mad over food. Turns red and continues yelling about how much I suck as a mom. I should be mad about cheating instead of lying.  Refuses to put trash bag of litter into outside trash bin. Reiterates that I suck as a mom.

Me: Proceeds to suck as a mom. Raises voice about lying and breaking compromises. Threatens to revoke television privileges.

Carl: Runs into his room (forgetting new plate of pizza rolls) and locks the door behind him.

Me: Grabs litter trash, forgotten plate of pizza roles and entire jumbo bag of pizza roles from the freezer. Storms outside and dumps them into the trash bin.

Carl: Turns on his SMART TV in the safety of his room.

Me: Unplugs the internet router, effectively ending Carl’s TV time.

This was not very adult of me at all. I gave myself a time-out. I went to my room with my adult coloring book with some gel pens. It’s actually a very soothing activity. I gave myself the remainder of the evening off. Carl eventually apologized to me over the walkie-talkie. My only response was a weary, “copy.”

It took me a few hours to regain composure. Eventually he radioed in an “I love you. Goodnight.” I was finally able to swallow my burning hatred of pizza-rolls to blurt a half-hearted, “I’m sorry too, kiddo” over the walkie.

For the rest of the night this “adult” colored and watched Hallmark movies about nice families who do not fight to death over a stupid pizza rolls!!

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

***I am not affiliated with, nor do I represent,  TBRI or Sasha O’Hara coloring books in any way. Click on the links above for more info.

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parenting

Murder and Attachment: Bonding Games to Play on a Snow Day

“You’re gonna poke someone’s eye out!” is one of my favorite quotes from the movie “A Christmas Story.” In an ill-advised burst burst of mom-creativity, I did not heed this advice. Instead, I suggested that our whole family have a nerf gun fight today. Because of my back injury, I had to sit in one stationary position whilst my family ran around firing. Guess who got hit directly in the eye? Yup, that would be me. Who knew murder and mayhem could actually be dangerous?!

The reason I was so motivated (read: desperate!) to schedule some family fun activities is because we are snowed in with 18 inches. No school. No work for Luke. Two beautiful children who usually freak out when their schedule changes. Don’t get me wrong, I love snow days. I love the pure  white powder covering our New England stone fences. I love the deep quiet blanketing the forest in which we live. The only colors are the green Douglas fir trees and the soft white of freshly fallen snow. Ahhh…the silence.

Oh-wait. I’m the mother of two children with early childhood trauma. Replace “silence” with “shouting, whining, crying” and also a weird wolf sound that comforts Carl and is a kind of cute.  Days spent stuck at home snuggling by the fire or playing in the snow can trigger one thing in them. Stuck. If their fight or flight instinct is triggered their only option is to fight because they feel TRAPPED. This can show itself as anger, fights between siblings, and battles for control.

So today, I strapped on my super-mom back brace, my stylish old-lady walker, and organized some activities. It was great to turn this day into a bonding experience with family. Playful activities are often a super way to create happy, oxytocin-inducing interactions with a family. Silliness is often the best weapon against fear.

Luckily for me, the rest of our games went much better than the nerf guns. We had a great time. After murdering each other (mostly mom!) with nerf guns, we switched over to a gentler game. I call this one “Throw a wish.” Everyone gets 5 pieces of paper to write a wish on. Some of ours were:

“Kiss my cheek”

“Give a sandwich hug”

“Smell my feet”

“Hug Carl’s stinky shoes.”

“Sing ‘I’m a little teapot’ with hand motions”

“Let mommy eat your brains for 30 seconds!” (Author’s note: this activity is NOT to be taken literally. Pretend only!)

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Section off a room into squares using painter’s tape and crumble the papers into little tossable balls. Everyone picks a section and then set a 2 minute timer. During that time throw as many balls out of your section and into someone else’s section as possible. (Author’s note: you WILL lose this game if you are sitting in a stationary chair due to back issues. Just saying…)

The loser has to perform all of the activities listed on the papers in their section. You must perform the activity for the original writer. For extra fun everyone can perform the “wishes” in their section. This is why I smelled Mary’s armpit, Luke performed the teapot song, and Carl had to hug his own stinky shoes for a full minute!

Our next game was the “Worry Web” (or any kind of web at all.) Again, we used the painting tape so Luke could create a giant web. Then we tossed objects at it to try for a “bullseye!” This is not to be confused with the actual eye of an animal that Carl worried we may have lying around somewhere.

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We launched papers covered with extra painter’s tape into the web. If your child has lots of worries they can write them down and crumble them into balls. Then the worries can be thrown into the spider’s web where they cannot bother anyone and will surely be eaten by a giant, fictitious, spider! (I may have seen this on pinterest somewhere. If I ever find a source I will be sure to cite it. Apologies!)

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We ended the day with a movie night, complete with snacks. The activities were distracting and fun. They cut down on any fear-based misbehaving because everything was kept light and silly.

So please, enjoy your very own snow day (or rainy day) in a way that brings your family closer together. Calm their fear of being trapped, changing schedule, or losing control.  Also, try not to get your eye poked out!!

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

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family, Therapeutic Parenting

Anatomy of a Trauma Trigger: Responding to My Child’s PTSD

ccard

I slept until 11:00AM! Instant panic on my part. Was Carl OK?! I went to bed at 9:00 PM the night before.  I was exhausted after the physical therapy session I had at my house. I took my first steps without my walker (2 in grand total.) Thank goodness my husband was awake to care for Carl in the morning and meet his needs. It doesn’t matter that Carl is 11 and not 5 anymore. This can set off the trigger alarm.

 You see, my kids come from a home with a junkie mom. She was an addict. She had mental health conditions. She would go to bed and not get up for weeks. Sometimes she would lock the kids out of her bedroom and let them take care of themselves. Mary was 4 and Carl was 5 when they were removed from her care during a drug raid.

I know it sounds harsh, but these are the facts. An unresponsive mom in bed has been a terrible threat to their survival in the past. It doesn’t matter how much of this trauma they remember. It stays in their brains and tells their bodies, “Warning! Fight or flight! This is survival!”

Later that day I ended up back in bed, crying from terrible back spasms. The pain ripping through my spine was nothing compared to the pain I could see on my son’s face. Minutes before we had been goofing around as a family, and my husband startled me. Somehow I jumped or moved in surprise and set off a series of merciless spasms through my surgical incision and deep into the muscles surrounding my spine. I took my pain meds, got on my ice pack, and reassured everyone that I was fine.

It didn’t matter, because in Carl’s mind suddenly his caregiver was unreliable. The following is the closest I could come to understanding the conversations we had with Carl the rest of the evening:

Carl: (whining,moaning and stomping around) I don’t want to take a shower tonight! I’m not as smelly as you guys think! I don’t have to shower!

Carl’s Brain: I must stay where I can see my caregivers. Something bad could happen to mom. No one would take care of me and then I could die. I must get some control over this scary situation. Control lets me feel like I can take care of myself.

When he is scared we offer choices to give him some control. He can pick to shower downstairs in his shower or upstairs in our shower, using my trendy new shower seat (you KNOW you’re jealous!)

Carl: (from inside our shower, where he has successfully showered many times before) “You guys have to help me! I can’t turn the water on! It isn’t working. I need help!!”

Carl’s Brain: Are my caregivers still out there? I’m scared I might be alone. What if they aren’t able to take care of me. I have to know they are still caring for me or I will be all on my own again. And then I might die!

My husband “fixed” the shower for him. Carl called out to us every so often and we responded from close by. Showers tend to soothe him. He came out of the shower and demanded (really close to bedtime, and quite rudely) to build the new crystal growing science kit he got for Christmas.

With soft words and soft eyes, I responded, “Are you asking or are you telling? Would you like to try that again? It sounds like you have something important to tell me but I need you to use your nice words.” (I am totally attempting to channel Karyn Purvis)

Carl: (Taking a deep breath) “Can we please build one of my crystal growing kits?”

Carl’s Brain: Are you still able to take care of me? Can I rely on you? If I cannot win your attention and care I will be all on my own again and I might die!

Me: “It sounds like you’re asking for something we may not be able to finish tonight. (Carl huffs and stomps and moans) Bring both kits up here and let’s see if we can make a compromise.

In the end, after lots of groaning from Carlos, one of the kits was a 15 minute project. I suited up in my back brace and got on my walker. Carl ran and got all of the necessary ingredients. Now we are growing crystals on top of a filing cabinet upstairs. We agreed the big glow-in-the-dark crystal growing experiment would be saved for Thursday.

As I said goodnight to Carl I could sense he was panicking again. I held him close to my chest in a big hug as we practiced our deep breathing. I looked him in the eyes and said, “Honey I know you were having some big feelings tonight. You were panicking a little bit.” He nodded in agreement. “It’s OK, honey, I will always be here. I am always going to take care of you.”

After another giant hug and our normal goodnight routine, he followed Dad downstairs without any further issue. It seemed like he finally felt safe. Not every night goes this smoothly. Fear is tricky, because it can come out looking like anger and defiance. Tonight I was able to translate the trauma trigger coming from Carl’s words. So tonight, I’ll take that as a win.

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

 

 

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mental illness

Tantrums From Beyond the Grave

rogerme

Roger with me at age 12

 

Roger was telling her to hurt me. Mary was writhing on the floor scratching and clawing at her hair and face, as she spoke to him. She then tore apart her bedroom and started screaming at other people who weren’t there. She screamed the neighbor’s name a few times shouting, “Call the police! We need the police!” She alternated between asking for the police because I was hurting her or because Roger was hurting her. In the meantime I attempted to hold her arms down away from me as she attacked me. I was lucky enough to leave the room, before I could get hurt.

Mary launched a fully loaded plastic bin and a trunk out of her bedroom door and down the hallway. Even though it’s been 2 years since she has had a violent outburst directed at me, I remembered to hide behind the bathroom doorframe. As soon as I could, I closed the door to her bedroom and called for help. Yes, the police would be coming after all.

While waiting for the ambulance I could hear Mary screeching from the other side of the door. She was relatively safe as I had already removed scissors and sharp or dangerous objects from her room. Obviously I hadn’t thought about the plastic bin or the trunk, but she’d removed them herself when launching them down the hall.

Half of her screams are wordless cries and howls. Some of them are directed at “Roger,” and another unidentified person. Sometimes she broke into an almost gentle, crooning song. Then she yells at me, “I hate spending time with you and I don’t want to be in this family! Roger tells me you make all the bad choices. He hates you! I HATE you!!! I don’t want to live here!” She throws her body against the door as if trying to physically break through it to get to me. In her all of her rage, she has forgotten that her door, like all bedroom doors, opens inward.

There is nothing I can do. She isn’t listening to my words. She is listening to what Roger is telling her about me. I can’t go in and physically restrain her. With my back injury I can’t even sit or stand for longer than 10 minutes. She hasn’t been like this since 2014. I am surprised to say the least.

When my husband comes and the ambulance comes she is still in her room screaming at me for being a “stupid B*tch” who “never gets anything right.” In the ambulance and at the hospital she tells the same story. Roger was being mean. He told her to hurt me. He told her to do these things. Imagine everyone’s surprise to learn that Roger is my deceased father. A man she never even met when he was alive.

She is admitted in-patient again, for safety, at the psychiatric hospital. I am tired. I am frustrated. I am mad. It’s not anger at my daughter. She can’t help the mental illness that is causing these auditory hallucinations. Somehow I am irrationally mad at my father. We always had a strained relationship, at best. Now, somehow, it seems he has managed to find a way to mess with my life from beyond the grave. Thanks a lot, Dad.

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

 

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family

Control, Amputation, and Other Issues in Trauma

 

“You’re going to lose a finger!” I tell him. He rolls his eyes and shrugs.He clearly knows better than I do because he has achieved the wise old age of 11. He knows it all. It is I, his “over-protective” half-witted mother, who worries about frivolous things like amputation.  He has real problems to worry about like football, kids who cut in line at recess, and making sure everyone can see his knee-high matching champion socks. With shorts. In 30 degree weather.

The thing is, I am just not a cool mom. I am the mom who adopted him and for some  crazy reason, doesn’t want him to freeze. Carl has had frost-bite before he came to us. His fingers are very susceptible. Only, he will play barehanded in the snow without realizing a problem until it’s too late. At that time he will come in screaming at the top of his lungs from pain. Glass shatters, my ear drums burst, he sobs, and its awful. The next day he forgets all about it and heads out without his gloves again. It’s a cycle.

In warmer weather, I let it slide. In colder weather, I let him have options. This coat or that coat? Blue gloves or black mittens? A hat or earmuffs? It’s always the same. He digs in his heals about the gloves. He can never seem to remember the natural consequence of going without them and screaming until his hands are warm again.

They say to pick your battles. As a seasoned trauma-mama I know this. I get it. I still want my son to keep his fingers, though.They are so cute! I’m also rather partial to my eardrums. SOOO this is the battle I choose.

He leaves his gloves on the bus. He leaves them at school. They are lost on the playground. Sometimes I swear he eats them. For some inexplicable reason his sister has decided that she needs to start double-gloving because her hands are extra sensitive. So the ABSOLUTELY ONE TIME he decides to be a gentleman is when he gallantly offers her his own pair to put over her own. Sigh.

It isn’t the gloves, themselves. We have tried every texture, fabric, material, and configuration you can possibly imagine. I’ve specially ordered seamless mittens from a company that sells sensory-special items for children with sensory processing disorders. It’s just the control.

So I’ve decided to become a ninja-mom. There will be gloves and mittens everywhere. In his backpack, in his pillowcase, on the christmas tree, in the school nurse’s office, in his locker, in the cat bed, and between the pages of his favorite books. Electric bill be damned, I’m spending the money on mittens!

I’m pretty sure the dollar store thought they were being robbed today. I walked in and said, “Give me all the gloves you’ve got. No, I want ALL of them! In the cart! Quickly!” Then I paid like a fiend with wild eyes and rushed off to stash them everywhere.

There. Will. Be. Gloves!!!

But seriously…pray for me?

 

 

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

 

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parenting

Manipulation, Melt-Downs, and Meeting Them With Love

Not everyone can be nice all of the time. Not even me. It’s true, although I am loath to admit it. Our daughter Mary has been going through a phase again that is tough to take. I always see her as my loving, sweet, and talented little girl. Despite the fact that I am her doting mom, I can also see the not-so-loving and not-so-sweet actions she has been taking recently.

I’ve learned that Mary has been targeting another little girl on her bus. This little girl is prone to crying easily and is very sensitive. When Mary feels dysregulated, she eases her own feelings by using hurtful words to get a reaction out of this other child. She’s gotten two “bus tickets” for her behavior recently.

At school, Mary is going to talk to her social worker often, but no one is quite sure what exactly is bothering her. She has come up with many different reasons. She has anxiety about friends, about recess, about her biological family. She feels that she can hear the thoughts of the other girls in her class and they all hate her. She typically has these big feelings during math time. This is also the time when she suddenly needs the nurse or the bathroom.

Lately she has been locked in a homework struggle with us. When she completes her work, she crumples it up in her bag and hides it from her teacher. Then she hides her assignment sheet from us and gives a great big story about having to hand in the assignment sheet to the teacher. “No worries,” I tell her gently, “I will take a look in your backpack. Moms have great finding skills.” This is where I find hidden assignments she doesn’t want to do. I also find the elusive assignment sheet. Most baffling of all is that I find several completed assignments that are perfectly well done (She’s VERY good at math.) She cannot explain why she won’t hand them in.

She’s been markedly more irritable. Mary is having meltdowns over the smallest things. She is also inciting as many fights as she can with her brother. She feigns injury when he walks by as though he has punched her. She tries to bait him into fights. When he won’t respond she ends up screaming and yelling and tearing out bits of her hair. I’m not sure that random-pattern baldness is the answer to sibling rivalry, but who am I to give advice? “You don’t understand my body!” she shouts at me. Agreed. I have no idea.

Last night she had a tantrum in therapy. While in the waiting room she destroyed her homework papers by ripping them and stabbing them with her pencil. She screamed and kicked on the floor and told my husband that she hated him and wished she could live anywhere else. I heard this all from the other therapy room where I was with Carl in session.

My husband Luke is a simple man when it comes to family. He just plain loves us. Family is his first priority come hell or high water. He calmly but firmly took the pencil from her and told her in no uncertain terms to stop attacking the furniture in the waiting room. She wasn’t having an out-of-control episode. We know her by now and he could see that she was calculating how far she could go in order to show her displeasure. She stopped, but not before saying some deeply hateful things to Luke. Bless the man, he didn’t respond in kind. He firmly sent her into her therapist’s office where her mood changed to silly, happy giggling, crying, and then back to irritation.

I’m not proud of this, but I didn’t say our special “goodnight” to her at tuck-in. Luke did it instead. I’m so used to my sweet girl that it’s hard for me to see her act with calculated cruelty.  It’s easier when it’s  targeted at me. It is so much harder when she targets the emotionally fragile girl on the bus, her brother, and even worse, my husband.

I know that it comes from a place of pain.  She is hurting, so she hurts others. I know I must respond with love and kindness. After some deep breaths I am able to try again. A panicky feeling sets in when I realize this is the only night I haven’t done our special tuck-in since she came home two-and-a-half years ago.

I gently wake her out of slumber and touch her face in the rhythm we have established. It goes: forehead, cheek, cheek, nose, chin. I whisper the words that match the rythm, “I Love you forever, no matter what, and I am so (tap) glad (tap) you’re (tap) home (tap then lip-pop)” She smiles sweetly in her half awake state and gives a muffled lip-pop back. Then Mary mumbles, “Mommy.” That’s right, kiddo. Mommy’s here. Always.

apologyletter

 

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

 

 

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adoption, family

Mommy Needs a Time Out: Adventures in Self Care

It’s my job to remain regulated when they are dis-regulated. And sometimes? I want to quit. OK, maybe I don’t really want to quit my job as “mom.” It’s more like I just need a personal day. Parenting kids with trauma means lots of tantrums. Lots of yelling and crying. Lots of aggression. And LOTS of work.

Our kids have some very very large emotions. I want to be as responsive as possible. I acknowledge their emotions, reflect back their statements, help them to label their feelings. I encourage them to let it all out.It’s my job to act as if I am their frontal lobe. It’s my job to bringing these children back to the here and now.

Mary yelled at her homework because it was the same math sheet she always gets. She threw her pencil to teach it a lesson. Apparently the 81st math sheet was one worksheet too many? Carl yelled at the fridge and kicked it because it contained an apple that he would have to eat after his shower. I tried to watch an HGTV show about buying homes in Montana. Mary yelled at me for loving Montana more than I love her. I spent a better part of the day processing everyone’s feelings about homework, the fridge, and Montana. Then I iced Carl’s foot for awhile. Sometimes when you fight with the refrigerator, the refrigerator wins!

On Friday night I knew I needed a break. I could feel the frustration building. I love my kids so much, but sometimes I just crave a bit of piece and quiet. My children interpret this to mean, “Mom doesn’t love us anymore and will soon leave us.”

I should have been more in tune with my own needs on Friday when I began to feel this way. I wasn’t. I was guilty of something that many moms are guilty of. I forgot about myself. I tried to push through like a super hero. I am not a superhero. I am a sleep-deprived, overworked, exhausted mama. And by Saturday, it showed.

In trying so hard to be present with my children, I forgot to be present with them. Instead of really connecting with them, I was going through the motions and feeling cranky and resentful. The kids picked up on this right away. They began to feel unsettled and afraid. They began to vie for attention by picking each other apart. They tattled, they fought, they stole food from each other. Because I was dis-regulated, they became dis-regulated. I had basically backed myself into a lose-lose situation. I triggered their anxiety.

The solution? A mommy time-out. I put myself upstairs for a time out. Luke told the Littles that I was taking space. He brought me a picnic style dinner to eat in our room. I skipped family dinner. I watched trashy grown up TV. I took time to myself and I did not emerge until it was time to cuddle the little chickens and tuck them into bed. They missed me, sure. They were worried that I didn’t love them and that’s why I was taking a “time-out.” But guess what? We all got through it and I believe we were better for it. As I tucked them into bed, they both complimented me on using my “coping skills!”

Sometimes, getting sucked into the quagmire of their trauma means that I am so busy responding to their feelings that I forget to respond to my own. I’m not suggesting that every mom needs to watch Bravo TV in order to feel good. I’m suggesting that we, as parents acknowledge ourselves and our emotions as part of the intricate framework that makes up our families. We, too, are important.

The road of parenting children with trauma is not an easy one. Therapeutic parenting has it’s own set of challenges unique to us as Trauma Mamas (and Papas!) As I sit here sipping tea and listening to Chopin I know that I am taking care of myself. I am alone. I am not ashamed to take this time for myself.  And I know that I am worth it.

 

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

*If you have ever considered foster care or adoption, I encourage you to get started on your own adventure!

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