Nothing Gonna Tear Me Away From My Guy

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She put her flat hand up in front of my chest to stop me. “We’re not allowing parents on set,” the production assistant told me matter of factly. My heart immediately began racing and I felt the mama bear rousing.

image“It’s not legal to separate children from their parents,” I replied bracing for battle while not entirely sure that I was speaking the truth.

I’d heard the announcement prior to the children being escorted from the room. We had been instructed to wait here despite an earlier email promising that we would be positioned in a place where we could see the children perform. I considered, for a moment, obeying as every other parent in the room did. It’s never my desire to stir up conflict. But then I looked at my wee small boy who had turned around in the line to find me eyes smiling and curled his fingers toward his body gesturing for me to follow. “C’mon, Mom,” he said with every confidence I would. There was no other choice but to go.

The director was called to handle the problem mom that I had just become. She reiterated the policy that parents were not allowed on set and I reiterated the law. She told me I could watch through the window, went into the room with the children, and closed the door in my face.

From my position, I could only see my son from behind, but could hear him loud and clear. He was in a strange place, surrounded by strangers, a flood of foreign sensory input, not knowing what to expect, and he couldn’t see me. He was slipping into his primitive brain and I was powerless to stop the slide. He was bouncing wildly in his seat, speaking in a loud obnoxious cartoonish baby voice–trying desperately to drown out his anxiety with noise and movement– and though I couldn’t see his face I knew exactly what his crazed expression looked like.

His bouncing was obstructing the camera view and the camera operator asked for him to be moved to another seat. I don’t know what was said to my bouncing boy, but he was escorted from the room and collapsed in heaving sobs in my arms.

“We’re having problems already,” the camera operator told me. “He’s being a disruption.” camera guy explained that they had asked him to move to another seat and he refused and then camera guy disappeared back inside the room.

Certain neither camera guy nor anyone else was interested in a lesson on trauma’s effect on a developing brain, how years of chronic cortisol baths had left my sweet boy’s stress response wacked, how this wackedness caused him to perceive mildly stressful and sometimes completely benign situations as severely threatening and react accordingly. I just had to fix this quick.

He wanted this so badly–to perform as his idolized older sister does. I had put him off for so long for fear of this very situation. It seemed unfair to set him up for failure. But it evolved into seeming unfair to not let him try. He’d auditioned for and booked a role a few weeks earlier that with me by his side to help him maintain control had gone off perfectly. It hadn’t occurred to me that I wouldn’t be able to be there for him this second go round.

Little Guy having a blast on the set of his first film.

Little Guy having a blast on the set of his first film.

He just needed me to squeeze him, look him in his eye, explain why he had to be moved, and tell him what he needed to do. He needed me to ground him–To help him regulate and regain control of his body. After a couple of deep breaths, he explained that he wasn’t refusing to move, he had never heard anyone tell him to. Heart rate slowed and oxygen now flowing to his brain he returned to the room–in a new position where he could see me–and carried out the assigned tasks beautifully.

But the stigma had already been attached. He had become that kid and I that mom. Surely his behavior was a product of my overprotective and permissive parenting. I don’t really blame people for these judgements. He doesn’t wear his life history on his sleeve. No one would ever question whether we are biologically related and he has been blessed with a sharp intellect and a mostly engaging personality. I understand how this could appear to be my failing to those who don’t know. Unfortunately, we get it from those who do, as well.

At the parent teacher conference earlier this week, I was told he’s leading the class academically but “it’s just the behavior.” Discussions of my familiar friends “self-control” and “disruption” commenced and his young teacher looked completely surprised when I suggested that he be helped to calm down before he loses control rather than reacting punitively after it happens.

And this is the torture of this journey. Bright, articulate, witty, and fun, but burdened with sensory processing issues, and a broken stress response, I have to send him into a world that doesn’t understand. There is an assumption that adoption immediately cures the pains of the past –stopping the trauma makes it all better. If you can’t see the absurdity of this notion talk to a war veteran struggling with PTSD. This is not a choice he’s making. He hates it far more than anyone.

This became gut wrenchingly clear as we strolled the school halls on the way to meet the teacher. The children’s projects were posted on the walls and his class had a section dedicated to their hopes for the school year. While other children wrote about having fun and making friends, my boy’s desire was to “learn everything and not act crazy at school.”

Call me what you will, but he needs me and I’m going to deliver.

I didn’t get to be there from the beginning. I didn’t get to quickly and lovingly meet his infant needs. I didn’t get to gaze into his eyes as he drifted off to sleep full of warm milk and love. I didn’t get help him internalize that he is valued and protected and I will always be there for him. Every other kid in the room had a five-year head start on him and dammit I’m going to do whatever I can to close the gap. Because he believes I will, I must.

After the shoot had wrapped, as we walked to the car, I finally had a chance to talk to Little Guy About what had happened.

“So what was going on there at the beginning?” I asked gently, his tiny hand clasped in mine.

“I was feeling uncomfortable and anxious,” replied my precious child. I told you he is articulate.

Full of pride for this tiny brave person, I shared with him how performing often causes me anxiety too and we discussed ways to cope and stay in control of our bodies. We walked silently for a bit while he seemed to ponder this with his eyes cast downward. Then he suddenly looked up to me, determined and said,

“I’m going to do better next time, Mom.”

A Dark Day

All I want to do is slump over head in hands and weep–deep mournful heaving sobs from the depths of my soul. A cold front rolled in last night, the sky is grey, and my heart is hurting.

Last night as I tucked her in, Little Sister informed me that she wanted to leave our family and go back to the last family because they gave her candy filled Easter eggs. It’s that simple for her. To pick up and go to another home for the purpose of acquiring meaningless objects–never mind the fact that said family asked for her removal after four months because they recognized early what took me longer to see. I felt like I’d been kicked in the teeth. I just got up and walked out.

It had already been a bad day. She announced proudly at school pick-up, that she “only” got two behavior marks today. She’s made zero progress behaviorally at school and is in no way bothered by this. She has even informed me that she likes upsetting her teacher. We had some errands to run which gave her opportunity to flirt with strangers, wiggling her fingers in a little wave under her chin, tilting her head to the side while grinning doe-eyed and everyone who passed by. It’s a behavior that makes my blood boil and sickens her siblings.

She’s ever ready for departure. She packs emergency bags. She lines up her belongings for quick access in a sudden move. She shops for caregivers everywhere she goes. She purposely annoys others for the thrill of seeing their distress. She fancies herself the center of the universe and is disruptive or sullen when others don’t share this view. She demonstrates no attachment to our family. Most of the time, I cope without taking it personally. I’m not doing that so well lately.

I’m up to my chin in academic and behavioral assessments as we work to find a system that will help her reach her full potential. We waited six weeks to get in with a specialist for FASD (Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder) evaluation only to have her wake with a fever on the morning of the appointment and have to reschedule. We now wait another six weeks. I’ve filled out a mountain of paperwork for school assessments and go in for a third round of meetings this week.

I recently attended a webinar on Attachment Disorder where I explained her history and asked the lecturer–an expert in the field whose name is escaping me at the moment–if it were realistic to expect my child to heal. His answer:

“No.”

At every turn I am informed there isn’t much hope for this child. We’ve already been “fired” by one therapist who said she wasn’t making any progress. We have another who is supportive of me, but offers a dismal prognosis. Add FASD to RAD and we’re looking a lifetime of management of a disconnected being whose behavior is often downright hurtful, and whose judgement, and moral compass are so skewed that they will certainly lead down dangerous paths. All the markers of a more successful outcome were missed. Early diagnosis and intervention are the key and even then the future is not bright. I am afraid. I am lost. I am hopeless. I am angry.

I’m angry at her birth mother who drank during pregnancy and failed to take parental responsibility. I am angry at the system that took her from her birth family only to toss her around from placement to placement for years systematically destroying her ability to form a normal human attachment. I am angry that despite the fact that an estimated 70 percent of kids who come into foster care are affected by Fetal Alcohol Exposure, there is no system for serving them–simply finding a knowledgeable practitioner is a battle and add the need to find one who accepts medicaid and you’ve got a full on war. I’m angry that it has been a never ending uphill climb. I’m angry that I can’t get any help. Although Post Adoption Services will help fund respite care, it is up to the family to find a caregiver and then ask said caregiver to submit to FBI criminal background checks. As you can imagine, people aren’t exactly lining up to help you when you treat them like criminals. I am angry that this effort to do good has done my family so much harm. I am angry with myself for not being stronger, kinder, better. I’m angry that I’m angry.

So I asked Little Sister this morning on the way to school as she chatted cheerfully with no awareness or concern that she had hurt me, “Since you don’t want to live with us, perhaps I should find a sitter for you when we go on vacation?” “I wouldn’t want you to be stuck in the car all that time with people you don’t want to be around.”

Her eyes grew wide, suddenly aware that she may have misplayed her hand and risked acquiring some “thing,” and she quickly responded, “Now I do want to live with you.”

My dark-haired duckling

Half-way through the little kids’ dentist appointment this morning, I was feeling pretty accomplished. Little Guy has a hypersensitive mouth and a gag reflex that approaches a super power. He can even puke on cue. Suffice it say, a regular check-up is borderline torture for him and he made it through without a single tear.

The dentist was patient and followed my lead, warning him about what was about to happen and praising his efforts. This dentist and I were going to be great friends and I began to envision a future together–me and the dentist each holding Little Guy’s hands as he hopped smiling into the chair and willingly opened wide. All was right with the world.

Then it happened. Little Sister took her brother’s place in the chair and the dentist made some comment, but through her thick accent I could only understand the words “her hair.” Still aglow with the warmth of my newfound partnership, I assumed she was complimenting Little Sister. Her hair is thick and glossy and people often comment on it’s beauty. I’m always happy to hear people tell me how beautiful my children are so I asked her to repeat herself.

“Her hair is so dark, how is she sister?” Asked my no longer friend pointing a finger back and forth between Little Sister and Little Guy.

I was caught completely off-guard and probably stared at her with my mouth hanging open. The assistant looked at me awkwardly apologetic, I mumbled something about adoption and my heart sank.

I mean seriously what the fuck? This scenario which has been happening more and more lately really bugs the crap out of me for so many different reasons. First of all you have to be a complete idiot to not figure this out on your own. I am white, my husband is white, our first four chidren and our sixth child are white, and are fifth child is a dark skinned raven haired Latina, how do you think this happened? Secondly, what kind of insensitive pig asks a question like that in front of a child, and finally it’s not your business and I don’t owe you any explanations. Oh there’s more, but I’ll stop to prevent this from becoming a maniacal rant.

We had a similar experience not long ago. We were celebrating a birthday at a local Japanese restaurant when the hibachi chef who’d been very entertaining up to this point suddenly asked Little Sister, “Why you look different?” Not quite satisfied that he’d thoroughly offended us he pointed his utensil one at a time at each the kids seated around the grill saying “See, blond hair, blond hair, blond hair, blond hair, you black hair.” Yes, really, I can’t make this shit up.

I’ve been teaching the kids sarcastic retorts alternating with shocked dismay–I’ve told them to gasp, look at each in horror and ask “What happened to your hair!?”–to the persistent informants at school who like to remind them that they don’t look like each other. I’ve considered adopting four more kids of various races so I can simply respond that all of my children have different fathers and I like variety in the bedroom.

Okay jokes aside, it pisses me off and it hurts her. She is reminded at every turn that she is different. A difference she is acutely and painfully aware of. The rest of us look ridiculously alike. Even Little Guy looks like we fished him straight out of our genetic pool. Unmoved by so many compliments on her glossy black hair, she has told me many times that she wants to dye it the same color as mine. She rejects and even destroys her darker skinned dolls and barbies while doting lovingly on her white ones. She is asked day after day by everyone from classmates to strangers to explain how her very existence can be.

My journey pales in comparison to hers, but I can begin to understand how painful this need others have to draw attention to her differences is. As a child I was very blonde, fair skinned, and freckled while my older brother and younger sister had brown hair and eyes and slightly darker complexions. I endured endless jokes about being the mailman’s child. As funny as these jokes were to the adults around, they were hurtful to me. So much so that it still stings to bring those memories to the surface. Like I said, a cakewalk in comparison.

For so long we were so caught up in managing the behavioral and cognitive differences that the physical differences didn’t even register on the radar…for us. We failed her. We won’t anymore. I’ve written to her teacher asking to help her develop an adoption awareness/sensitivity program that I can help administer to Little Sister’s class and hopefully beyond. I am writing letters to the owners of restaurant and dentist office, I’m preparing for the next occasion whenever it comes (and it will) so that I won’t be left with my mouth hanging open again.

A New Holiday Story

The tree is down, lying pathetically shedding tinsel at the curb waiting for a pick-up that I’m not sure is coming. I should probably look into that. The garland has been unstrung, the new possessions assimilated and properly placed, the lights hung Christmas 2012  finally tugged from the rooftop (don’t judge, we’ve had bigger fish to fry) and we’ve quietly returned to our not so normal existence.

The kids are in bed and will return to school in the morning. I  can finally heave a sigh of relief.

I went into the holiday season braced for disaster. Last year was Little Sister’s first Christmas home and it wasn’t exactly a time of holiday cheer. We had finalized her adoption just days before–an action that flung open a  hatch sucking her  into a dark abyss. I can’t say for sure why and there probably isn’t a simple explanation—perhaps the realization that this was the last stop and she could no longer get by on superficial interactions, the disappointment that we were not the fantasy family kids in need dream of–we don’t have a pool or a horse, eat ice cream for every meal, and grant her every wish–the fear that we would abandon her as everyone had done before, the integrated belief that she was not lovable and did not deserve nice things, or all of the above and so much more. But either the finalization itself or seeing her sister by birth who wept through the process awoke the trauma she’d been keeping sedated. Little Sister set out on a mission to push us far, far away beginning Christmas morning..

She complained about her gifts then  destroyed them one by one–painted nail polish all over the new baby’s face, dumped out all her new perfume, smeared make-up all over her bedding and the bathroom,slammed her new camera around the room and picked the plastic coating off, you get the picture. When she’d destroyed all her new possessions she turned to the old ones writing all over her furniture with a marker, breaking her blinds, and pulling the curtain rod out of the wall. In the coming months she cut up her sheets, smeared gum all over the floor, climbed the rails of her day bed and wildly rocked it slamming it into the wall while screaming and raging about what a terrible family we were, and on a few occasions physically attacked me, all the while batting her eyes, smiling sweetly at, and throwing her arms around strangers.  The screaming could last for hours, but only happened when Big Sister and I were home alone with her. She would stop immediately when Dad or one of the boys walked in. It was a bad, bad time that did not improve for 6 months.

With this being Little Guy’s first Christmas home, not knowing what trauma triggers were wrapped up along with those pretty packages for him or whether the demons that haunted Little Sister were  gone or simply sleeping waiting for the holiday wake-up call, I was ready for a repeat performance.

It didn’t happen.

We put up the tree and decorated and nobody lost their mind. Over the course of a month we amassed a mountain of gifts under the tree and everyone stayed calm. We hung the stockings and there wasn’t a single meltdown. Unable to find an exact match to our existing stockings, I had to settle for a similar stocking for Little Guy and tentatively told him ready for the tears. “That’s okay, Mom,” my sweet angel replied. “I like it.”

Throughout the month, we went to several holiday festivals and parties and visited Santa five times in five different locations with nary an uncooperative moment. Christmas morning came and went full of smiles, genuine appreciation, and lots of joy. It made me a nervous wreck. I was still waiting almost wishing for the explosion for fear the longer it took to happen the worse it would be.

It didn’t happen.

When all of our warm family activities failed to ignite the fuse, I was sure their time at day camp would. After all, Little Guy had been expelled from this very camp just six months earlier after he repeatedly attacked the staff. And Little Sister always copes with new situations with regression and oppositional behavior. Too many changes, too much unpredictability, too much sugar, too little sleep, too much of all that sets off traumatized kids would surely be the final push sending them over the edge. I dropped them off and  waited for the staff to call and demand I come retrieve my little darlings.

It didn’t happen.

Here’s what did.

New Year’s Day we took down the tree. The little ones watched silently as I removed the ornaments one by one and packed them up for next year. When I took the candy cane ornament that Little Guy had made from the tree, his lip began to quiver. “That’s mine!” he demanded in a tone that always precedes his loss of control. I knew I had about one second the figure out the root of the crisis and derail it or the express to Rageville was coming through.

We stopped what we were doing and explained we were just packing it away for next year and showed him all the ornaments that the older kids had made in years gone by that we got out year after year. The one that Firstborn had made in preschool and had a picture of him around Little Guy’s age and looking so very much like him did the trick. Breathing and heart rates returned to normal, but the trauma gates were open. As he continued to talk, the roots of his anxiety became clear.

He needed evidence of our shared journey. He needed to see the past connected to a future. He needed the physical proof that he belonged here and that wasn’t going to change.

He’s too young to fully understand what adoption means, but he knows that it’s the means by which he joined the family. He doesn’t remember his first Mother, but knows it wasn’t me. They don’t call it the primal wound for nothing. For all his inability to comprehend, he knows one thing. It hurts and he wishes it were different.

With words that at once filled me with joy and anguish, he told me,

“I wish I grew in your tummy and came out and was always here.”

I’m not so vain as to think it’s about my magnificence. He only wants what we all want. To belong. To be a part of we. To feel secure that we are one and will venture into the future together. Most of us get this security through biology and a shared past that begins without trauma. It begins in a warm embrace and grows by the second with loving touch, smiling eyes, nurturing, and shared joy. For us the story began very differently and I arrived five years late–after many sad chapters had already been written.

After hugs and assurances that we would get it back out next year, he agreed to let me pack away the candy cane ornament. The day went on and all of my fears continued to not happen. Instead, the beginning of a new story did.

Don’t Be Your Own Hail

A few nights ago I had a dream that’s been loitering in my mind and won’t go away–that’s how all my blogs start as words that keep repeating in my brain so here you go.

There was a time when I was pretty into dream interpretation, but these days I rarely remember my dreams so I hadn’t given it much thought in a while. This message was so vivid and perplexing that I went web surfing for answers. On the surface it would seem pretty obvious that “hail” is a symbol of doom–and that’s what all the dream interpretation sites confirm (that and failed ambitions, crushed dreams, and all that good stuff.) But living in a climate where any type of precipitation is celebrated and having lots of happy memories of kids catching Texas snowballs, hail is not so threatening to me. Perhaps just a gentle kindness offered by my dream brain–getting the idea across without terrifying me with a more horrific message.

The dream continued. I took my kids for a ride in an open vehicle–either a go cart or jeep. We were speeding downhill when I lost control and we went over a cliff. As we fell the kids were thrown far to one side of the vehicle and I far to the other. I watched them plunge into the water below and it was really important to me that I saw where they had gone in. This somehow made the whole disaster less ominous. As I hit the water I was sucked away from the kids by the vacuum  of the sinking vehicle.

Big Sister was terrified and screaming for me to help Little Guy who cannot swim  (in real life or the dream) and was flailing and shrieking “Mommy!” I screamed back for her to hold onto him. I knew if she could just keep hold of him, even if she could not keep him above water,  I would be able to get him to shore and resuscitate him.

As I overpowered the force pulling me down and swam toward my son, I looked for my younger daughter and found her not far from the other two kids grinning and splashing around playfully wearing an infant life preserver while holding onto a kick-board. Even in my dream this vision was painful. The rest of us were were fighting for our lives and she was safe at a pool party. I demanded to know where she got the kick- board, she replied “I don’t know” as she does to all requests for information. I turned my attention back to the other two kids and got them safely back to shore with Little Sister kicking her way happily behind us.

So dense with symbolism (as dreams always are) that I don’t know where to begin. A vehicle symbolizes your self. The fact that this vehicle was open was significant. I’ve been striving to be more open in my life. While my Facebook reads like a never-ending Disney vacation (and so much of my life is so very good) I am seeing more and more value in sharing my struggles and imperfections, as well. While that’s all cool,  it’s not so great that my self is cliff diving with my kids in tow and sinking to the bottom of the lake. Or maybe that was just letting go of the old self. The jeep sank, but I never went down–I was stronger.

Then there’s Little Sister protected in an inflatable shell, kicking and holding on to the past, happily oblivious to the crisis around her–but coming along.  Big sister more concerned for the welfare of others than her own. Little Guy screaming out for my help.  Pretty sure no interpretation is needed. And water itself is a biggie carrying themes of life, renewal, transitions, and a change in psychic state. Yeah, I got all that going on.

But here’s the message I want to hold onto. It was absolutely certain to me in the midst of the crisis was that I was going to save my kids. No doubt about it. I was stronger than any of the forces working against me and I was going to get them out of the water alive.

My waking self is not always so sure.

We’re in a good place right now, but doubts and fears are always lingering in the shadows. Experience tells us that good can go bad with no warning and it’s not easy to let your guard down.

Tentatively, we celebrate that we’ve survived the first few weeks of school with surprising successes.

Little Guy is thriving. I mean really truly thriving. He has not thrown a single punch. Only one bad behavior report in 21 days (and it wasn’t all that bad), and he loves school. He gets in the car aglow at pick-up and bubbles about his day all the way home. More and more I’m struck by how completely normal things have become for him much of the time. His transformation has been nothing short of amazing.

Little Sister is doing better at home. School has given her an outlet for he maladaptive behaviors and she’s happy to leave them there at the end of the day most of the time. Clearly not my most generous thoughts, but I’m glad to have someone share the load for awhile. I knew the behaviors would eventually emerge–I just thought it would take longer. Seems a seating relocation to right beside the teacher was in order within the first week, she has almost daily reports of disruptive behavior or refusal to do her work and she’s managed to convince the team that her abilities are far less than they actually are.

This was exactly what I feared while I wrestled with the decision of whether to put her back in public school, but for now, been a  blessing in disguise. The daily break has been good for us both. Not dealing with constant redirection and behavior management has revived my ability to pour in loving acts and seemingly her ability to accept them. For the first time ever, last week, I felt the spontaneous urge to hug her and she returned my embrace. I’ve been hugging all along, but it was scheduled because she needed it (no matter how much she resisted) not because I wanted to give it. However hard that is to hear–it is a cold hard fact of parenting a child with attachment disorder.  However fleeting, it was pure joy to at last feel a second of connection.

I’ve had more warm moments with her in the past few weeks than I have in the past year. And, hold onto your butt, last week she told me “You’re the best mom I’ve ever had.” (Damn straight I am.) Coming from a child with a basis for comparison and who for the past year has held and regularly voiced a very different opinion this is all the more meaningful.

So despite the themes of doom, my dream and waking lives are ultimately stories of survival. We are moving forward, evolving, and growing. We are fighting the good fight and winning (today, at least).

Back to School Blues

Mr. Elliot was wrong. August is the cruelest month. And this one’s been brutal. Dave’s mom died early in the month, we’ve had multiple incidents of dealing with the worst of human nature, and I’ve had to take a hard look at what the future may hold for my little guy whose angry outburst and oppositional behavior may possibly never go away. I’ve spent a long hot summer with two traumatized kids whose favorite activity is to annoy each other and me.  I’m suffering from compassion fatigue—that’s a fancy way of saying I’m burnt out.  And the thing that is going to give me relief also fills me with anxiety.

School is heavy on my mind right now. I know lots of parents count down the days until the kids go back to school. Not me. I hate it. I hate the preparation, I hate the paperwork, I hate the end of summer, I hate surrendering my children to the state, I hate watching them walk away.

My first kids were all home-schooled until at least 7th grade and Big Sister is my lone child who has never been to school and likely never will. If I were allowed one big do over, school would be it. I wouldn’t have let my boys go. All the reasons that made it make sense at the time are now outweighed by all the consequences of that decision.

This year I hate school starting for a whole new set of reasons. Boys one and two have graduated and not going back to school is a poignant reminder of a time that is gone and never coming back. In what we hoped would be a fantastic change, we moved number three son to a small charter high school with a focus on science and technology—areas in which he excels.  He started last week and the change is proving not so fantastic. School is school. All the things I hate about public education are alive and well in the charter system and I’m disappointed.

After wrestling with the idea all summer, I have decided to re-enroll  Little Sister. We withdrew her from school the day we finalized her adoption in hopes that being home would help with attachment and behavior modification. It was nothing short of disastrous. She spent five months with her heels dug firmly in the ground refusing to do anything remotely related to education, having daily screaming tantrums that could last hours, broke everything in her possession, and spit hatred at me and her sister at every opportunity.  I have no interest in going into that arena again even though I know putting her in school is going to at a minimum stall her progress and at worst set her back. This is about preserving my sanity.

She matter of factly informed her therapist last week that she won’t act like that at school it was just for Mom. Well, isn’t that lovely.

I have hopes that her teacher will read the long email that I will be writing as soon as I finish this blog, I hope she will click on the links explaining attachment disorder and developmental trauma and borrow some of my books, and I hope she will become an ally in the healing of my child. I’m hoping for the best, but expect it will go more like this:  

She will skim my email and upon meeting  my superficially charming child will decide that I am bat shit crazy, that she the teacher  is indeed a superior more compassionate human who understands my child better than I do, will ignore all my requests to employ therapeutic interventions, will buy into my child’s manipulations intensifying my child’s belief that all adults are untrustworthy idiots resulting in my child growing weary of putting on the charm and acting out in ways that disrupt class or are directly offensive to the teacher and the other kids at which point teacher will contact me asking if there is a problem at home because my little darling just hasn’t been herself lately.  Believe it, this isn’t my first rodeo.

Then there’s the little guy. It’s been a rough summer. He was kicked out of day camp and the gym childcare due to aggressive outbursts. He struggles with self regulation, sensory integration, slips into “looking for a fight” mode whenever things are not going his way, has poor boundaries, and talks incessantly. You see where this is going. At this point in the game, to school or not to school him is not my decision to make so at least I don’t have to wrestle with the guilt of the decision.

So here on the eve of my 46th birthday—you know the one that moves you closer to the 50 side of the 40-50 timeline—I am deeply anxious of what lies ahead.  I am consciously making a choice that I know may have grave consequences. I’m turning my traumatized child over to a system I don’t believe in and one that will likely undermine my efforts because I can’t do this alone anymore.  

This is the good stuff

Every older/hurt child adoption text I’ve ever read says that maintaining a sense of humor is the key to navigating this jungle.  Some say, it is the single deciding factor as to whether a family makes it.. It seems if you can laugh at feces purposely smeared on the wall, you can handle anything. I tend to agree.

This is why my Little Guy, maladaptive behaviors and all, is a gift to me. He’s hilarious. At least once a day and often more, he says something that makes me laugh out loud. Feeling like this blog of mine could use a little levity because I’m going to hit you with more heavy stuff I have brewing soon I’d like to share a few of my Little Guy jewels.

While being dragged through Target one evening, he randomly asked me, loudly enough for anyone in the women’s department to hear,

“Mom, are you Jesus?”

Already amused and eager to see where this was going to go, I replied as casually as possible,

“No, honey, I’m not.”

“Then how are you always there for me?” he asked completely straight.

If there had been an older sibling around, I would have accused him or her of coaching him, but this was all Little Guy and his confusion courtesy of vacation bible school, but that’s another post entirely.

A few nights ago, while we were sitting on the back porch eating watermelon when Little Guy suddenly smashed his piece over his head.

“What are you doing?!” I demanded.

He sat quietly for a moment seemingly seriously pondering the question then flatly replied,

“I don’t know.”

Not much you can say in the face of a 5-year-old’s version of a temporary insanity plea.

One night as I was leaving his room after having tucked him in he called to me to wait to tell me,

“Mom, do you know there are coconuts all over the house?”

“Did you just say there are coconuts all over the house?” I asked expecting him to launch an illustrious bedtime stalling attempt.

He simply replied,

“Yes, goodnight Mom.”

Pretty sure that clever little bugger was just messing with me.

Tonight he informed me,010

“I can’t go to bed because I don’t have any humans to sleep with me.”

Apparently Sponge Bob’s charm is fading.

A recent conversation with Big Sister went like this:

Little Guy: I found one cat food.

Big Sister (not really paying attention): Okay.

Little Guy: I’m going to eat it. (throws cat food in mouth)

Big Sister: Did you just eat it?

Little Guy : *crunch* *crunch*

Big Sister: Did you just eat it?!!

Little Guy: I’m not going to die. *swallow* See, I’m not going to die.

He was right.

And finally my current favorite. Number Three Son is a fan of the Daft Punk song “Get Lucky” and was singing along loudly when it came on the radio in the car. The refrain lyrics are “I’m up all night to get some. She’s up all night for good fun. I’m up all night to get lucky”

Later that day, I was treated to Little Guy’s rendition that goes like this:

“I’m up all night for fun. I’m up all night for fun. I’m up all night to get a monkey.”

You kind of adore him now too, don’t ya?

 

What about the first kids?

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riverday3“She doesn’t control how I feel,” explained my 13-year-old daughter when she caught me watching her choosing loving acts. I may have looked a little surprised or perplexed. It had been a very bad week. Old behaviors revived. Hurt feelings.  Anger. Resentment.  We were digging deep and recovering the only way we know how—by creating Joy.

We were spending the day at the river with nothing to do but enjoy each other. I watched my  precious child who at 13 is more emotionally mature than most adults behave in a way that was loving, compassionate, and forgiving toward a little sister who devotes a shocking amount of energy to trying to hurt her and push her away.  Big sister pushed little sister on the swings, she helped her down the hill, she helped her climb a tree, she was every mother’s dream come true.  I was so overwhelmed with pride, I could only touch her beautiful face and smile.

But I was also overwhelmed with guilt.

Shaped by a painful childhood, it was my vow to protect my children from trauma.

I sure fucked that up.

I didn’t just fail to protect them from trauma, I hunted it down, brought it home and invited it in.

Because of my choices my first four children have suffered.

They have experienced loss.

There was the baby who lived with us for a year who we could have adopted and didn’t because her special needs were more than we were willing to commit to. Parenting her would have cost the other children parental resources and limited our freedom to a life full of adventure. It was a price I wasn’t willing to pay.

Although it was amongst the most difficult decisions I have ever made, I believed it was in my other children’s best interest. Ironically if the decision had been theirs to make, I know they would have chosen to make the sacrifice. They loved her and losing her was painful. It was the kind of pain that creeps into your being and never goes away.

There was another baby who went to a kinship placement and more who went home. I suspect for my children, the losses are all heaped into a single ache that resides in their hearts always.

They have experienced fear.

There were the boys from a very rough place with only monsters for role models who behaved like miniature thugs. There was the deeply disturbed 4-year-old who was viciously aggressive. There was the deeply disturbed 11-year-old who threatened our lives.  One by one many have crossed an inflexible line in the sand that led to their removal from our home. We won’t live with predatory behavior. Period. Unfortunately, you don’t know it’s there until they show it to you.

I don’t want this to come off as self-loathing. It’s not. We’ve done a lot of things right. We are damn good parents. They know we cherish them. We speak it often and show it well. We live to support our kids in discovering their passions and polishing their gifts.  Each of them has arenas in which they shine. We did what had to be done to preserve normalcy and seize opportunity.

 If they wanted it and were willing to do the work, we made it happen no matter how many miles, how much juggling, or how difficult it was going to be—we even took turns sleeping in the car last summer when number three son booked a lead role in a feature film with multiple overnight  shoots . In short we have refused to be defined by the choice to add traumatized children to the family.

That said, if I had it to do over, I would do it differently.  I would have waited longer—my youngest was only five when we began this journey and I should have given her well, all of them, more time.  I would have said “no” more often—child placing agencies love to push you outside your limits and accepting the shove rarely ends well. I would have ended more placements more quickly—traumatized children are capable of frightening behavior and I should not have allowed so many second (and third) chances and I would have prepared better—I was pretty naive when we embarked and I’ve made a lot of mistakes.

But I’m sure what I should have done is no consolation to my children and they and  I have to live with what I did do. I have to make peace with the fact that this journey has affected my children.  It has hurt them.

 My choices have hurt my children.

They are not broken. My kids are all bright, funny, compassionate beings with a zest for life who fill me with pride every second of the day. They are fun to be around and liked by most. We did more right than wrong, but I am sure in each of them resides the wish that things had gone a different way and I hope they will forgive me.

What did you say?

I’ve been thinking a lot about words–The ones that hurt, the ones that help, and why. Time and time again the subject of older child adoption comes up and and I find myself starring dumbfounded at someone who has just spoken words that hurt, ignite, or simply surprise me.

A recurring theme is the need to label and define my kids. When people discover that I have adopted a child, they often need to determine whether my other children were adopted, as well. I think a lot about this need and I also think a lot about why it bothers me so. I mean it really freakin’ bothers me.  I think about it so much that I’ve devised lots of clever responses that I never use.

I’ve been asked if my children are “real” “biological” “your own” and a new one recently “natural”  That last one knocked me off balance the first time I heard it not long ago. Funny thing was after never having had someone use that particular term, it came at me twice in a matter of days.

Most of the time, I swallow my irritation and simply answer the question, but when I’m in a last straw kind of moment, I answer that whatever label has just been tossed my way applies to all my children regardless of how they joined the family. This response is never well received and absolutely never works as I intend it to let the interviewer know that I don’t want to take this walk with him or her.

In fact, it generally has quite the opposite effect of spurring the interviewer to delve deeper with a more personal line of questioning about my children’s past and the circumstances that led to them needing to be adopted.  So in all my thinking this is what I’ve concluded. These questions are not malicious. (give me a second while I say that ten times fast so I’ll remember) Some probably come from a very pure place of concern and perhaps even an interest in adoption.

However that genuine concern for kids from rough starts has blurred into a sense of entitlement to private information which leaves me standing face to face with a stranger demanding that I explain my family. I’ve often fantasized about handing out instructions to anyone I notice watching a little too long. It would go something like this:

  1. Don’t ask me anything about my child (yeah even the one that doesn’t look like me) that you wouldn’t want me to ask about your child. Unless you want to be drilled about your drug and alcohol use during pregnancy, don’t ask about my child’s prenatal experience.
  2. Resist the urge to label my kids. They are all mine, natural, biological, and real regardless of how they joined the family. If you simply cannot resist, at least do not question me in front of my children. It is hurtful to them–all of them.
  3. Respect that my child’s past is personal and private. Don’t ask. If I choose to trust you with details, please do not share them without my permission.
  4. Resist judgement. Raising kids with rough starts takes special parenting skills, firm boundaries, and a truckload of patience and persistence. If you think I am not treating all of my children the same way, you are probably right. I am giving each of my children what he or she needs. If you think you can do it better, please become a foster or adoptive parent–thousands of kids are waiting.
  5. Remember that they are MY children and not public property. Do not ever use the word “my” or “our” when you are referring to my kids. They are not yours and such references confuse them, and undermine my authority which they may already be struggling to accept.
  6. Do not give physical affection to my children unless you have that kind of relationship with my entire family and maybe not even then. Most kids from rough starts have poor boundaries and attachment issues. Getting and giving physical affection to strangers or casual acquaintances reinforces a dangerous behavior.
  7. Remember that I am human. I have undertaken a Herculean task for which their is little public understanding or support. Sometimes it wears me down and I’m not at the top of my game. I’ll do better next time.
  8. Trust me. If I share my struggles, believe me. Children with attachment issues can be master manipulators. You may never see the behavior that I describe in my publicly charming and docile child. Don’t make me show you the video.
  9. Don’t gush and fawn over my children. As much as we appreciate that you want to show approval and acceptance of our family, the over enthusiasm makes us uncomfortable (and it’s kinda weird.)
  10. And finally because it’s such a biggie, number 4 bears repeating. Resist judgement. Children from rough starts have some very difficult and even scary behavior. So don’t freak out if I need to vent or am not 100 percent in love with my child at the moment. This is hard work from which I get little reprieve. Obviously, we are committed to our kids and want the best for them, but sometimes they piss us off (don’t yours?)

Welcome to my world!

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I’ve been wanting to do this for so long, but couldn’t figure out where to begin. So I’m just going to start where I am and figure out the way as I go. I once backpacked through Europe with this approach and that turned out okay.

The stirrings began about six months ago when we were in a pretty dark spot along this adoptive path, and I wanted to reach out to the universe for help because I wasn’t finding any comfort in my smaller part of the world.  Lots of ideas were taking shape in my mind, but I was afraid to give them voice for fear I would regret them later. That was a smart decision.

Fast forward a few months and things were better so I decided to start writing, but I still didn’t have the guts to put it out there. I’m feeling brave today so here goes.

Because I want to be brutally honest, because we (those of us in this world of older child adoption) have to be if any of us are going to get through this, if our kids are going to heal, if the rest of the world (or at least my small part of it) is ever  going to comprehend this struggle, I want to show how much the climate can change in a matter of weeks. So I’m going to set the stage with two separate posts written several weeks apart.

Begin Blog # 1.

I am a disappointing hero.  Praise and admiration make me uncomfortable. I swear. I drink. I speak the truth even when nobody wants to hear it. I don’t take no for an answer, I’m a bull by the horns type of gal,  and I won’t sugarcoat adoption from foster care.  I’ll be the first to admit that the undertaking is heroic—I’ve been called upon to muster a strength of spirit that I didn’t know I had—but  if you’re looking for a fairy tale, I’m going to let you down.

I’ve been compelled for some time to document this journey, but have struggled with the ethical balance between protecting my children’s privacy (and mine—it is not my nature to broadcast my struggles), and the hope that our story may be just the inspiration another needs to keep plugging.  A wise friend recently tipped the scales in favor of sharing with a single sentence that changed my life-but I’ll talk about that another time.

Feeling vulnerable, but following my own advice to my children to do that which scares me most, here we go. My husband of 20 years and I had four children born to us in the early years of our marriage. Let me say straight up that I despise the term “biological child”. All children are biological, except of course the plastic ones. Can’t say I love “born to us” either but at least it’s factual.  

Semantics aside, we decided we did not want to give birth to any more children and took permanent measures to ensure we wouldn’t.  Adoption at a later date was always the plan—at least it was mine.  The people who love me must often accompany me on my adventures as captives.

Eight years ago my hostages and I became a therapeutic foster family.  I’ll have to flesh this out later as I’m eager to get to today. The short story is that we fostered more than 20 kids and saw the best and worst of humanity.  The experience changed everything from my politics to my views on cosmetic enhancements, but ultimately made me better and stronger. 

Weary of the revolving door and its accompanying heartache we actively sought out an adoptive placement.  I have always been so crazy in love with my first four kids that more could only be better, right?

We are now just weeks away from the year anniversary of our daughter’s placement in our home and I am finally feeling hopeful. That’s a nice word, hopeful.  In her six short years, our daughter had experienced 10 out of home placements and was on a mission to get to number 11 as quickly as possible. She came armed with an arsenal of behavioral weapons that had already caused one adoptive family to surrender and had us afraid that life would never return to normal.

Seven months in, add a tow-headed 4-year-old foster son who I declined placement of twice, ultimately agreed to provide short term emergency respite for  as a desperate favor, who now calls me Mommy and is completely entwined in my heartstrings  to the mix and we had a heaping mess of little girl reeling.

For far too long, we—well I (Mom is the emotional thermostat of the home) allowed her to set the temperature a few degrees shy of Hell.  Then one day, my wise friend sat beside me, listened, no heard me and set me free from my own angry/guilty demons.  Now don’t imagine that it’s all butterflies and cupcakes—my daughter had a screaming tantrum this morning and informed me for the gazillionth time that I’m a terrible mother (she’s wrong—I rock at the Mom thing).

The difference is me. I’ve come to accept my feelings or lack of them in light of the situation and have taken back control of my home’s emotional climate effectively disarming my child and allowing us to begin the journey toward peace.