Blindsided

More than three years ago, for a few weeks she called me “Mommy.” Last night, I saw her face on the adoption photo listing. My stomach has been burning ever since.

I was forced to surrender her after her brother who was also placed with us experienced a violent psychic break and had to be hospitalized. I advocated for their separation. I explained that their relationship was toxic and he was a threat to her, but no one would listen. I was told that I was being unreasonable and a new home was found.

I tried hard to control my emotions as I strapped that tiny sobbing girl into the backseat of her worker’s car as she clung to my neck and begged me to make sure the other kids and Daddy knew that she loved them. I failed and could not contain my tears. Her time with us had been short, but her impact was huge. She was so clever, sassy, mature, resilient, compassionate, and loving. I never could get her out of my mind.

Little Guy and New Guy hiding. I like it when they hide--they're quiet.

Little Guy and New Guy hiding. I like it when they hide–they’re quiet.

Now there she is a lost child listed alone and as a severe risk. I want to inquire, but fear she is no longer the child I knew. Three years is a long time to stumble through the minefield of CPS foster care and separation from siblings usually only happens after they’ve done terrible, often unspeakable, things to each other. Even the most resilient children ultimately break down.

We are already battling ferociously to reach another small child whose time has been long and pain is deep. Another victim of a system that very often does far more harm than good. I don’t honestly know if I could handle another child of this intensity. Just a few days ago, I tossed our struggle in the message below to the Facebook universe as the weight has become to much to bear alone. I fully believe the prayers and positive energies of my friends that followed afforded us a peaceful weekend, but am not so sure I want to tempt fate.

I’m not whining. Really. I chose this path and take full responsibility for all the strife that’s come my way, but fuck it’s been hard lately. This work is hard. Harder than I could ever explain. Harder than you can imagine unless you’ve traveled this way yourself. It comes at great cost. A price, again, that is difficult to explain. A constant vigil, chronic stress, old traumas bubbling to the surface for all my children, honest introspection, committing every day to do better than the day before, finding the strength to never take the assault personally and always see the wounded child beneath the rage, unwavering perseverance when everyone around you shakes their heads and asks why. Because the price is greater if I don’t. Blowing out of here–this place where we will harbor the children that many before have turned away–is a ticket to an institution and all hope lost. Because if I don’t do this work, who will? Because I don’t want one more child to graduate from foster care to prison. Because I want to walk the talk and be the change. Because my inner warrior queen believes when all others have lost faith. It’s still really fucking hard sometimes. This would be one of them.

All that is rational and wise within me says to let this one go.

But the heart won’t hear reason.

I once told this child that I loved her and if I had a choice she would have stayed. I have never stopped thinking about her. I can’t explain what motivated me to browse the photo listing last night–the thought of adding another child now was not even on the radar.

Part of me wishes that I hadn’t looked, never knew. I could have gone on believing that she had remained with a relative as I had heard at last update years ago. But I did look and I do know and now I have to choose. Do I risk losing the ground we’ve gained with this small wounded warrior who just today summoned all his courage and laid his weapons and broken heart at my feet? Or do I turn my back on a child who I once vowed to always love?

Nothing Gonna Tear Me Away From My Guy

Image

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.”

What about the first kids?

Image

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.

Welcome to my world!

044.jpg

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.