Thursday, May 19, 2016

Adoption is Awkward

Awkwardness in Adoption is the exact reason I started writing. No matter how diligently we prepared to bring our children home, one barrier could not be removed:  Our sons didn’t know us as parents and we didn’t know them as sons.

And we were only going to be family because they had lost their first family.

Adoption is born out of loss. Our children are beautiful. We are becoming a beautiful family and we love each other.

The contrasts in the above statements are complex and uncomfortable.

It’s no wonder adoption is awkward.

Our Children are Misunderstood

I do not wish to speak for my children, but I know they are misunderstood because- for a long time- I misunderstood them. [Tweet This]

At times, I still do.

It took me years to begin to understand my children were mostly communicating through their behavior. Even though their behavior was often alarming to me and even dangerous to them and to those around them, it was the only way I could begin to understand how they were feeling and what they were thinking.

Their behavior was a gift and as I finally began to respond appropriately and empathetically, my children became less stressed and began to learn skills they needed to thrive in their new environment.

Unfortunately, we failed consistently for the better part of a year. As behaviors alarmed us, we became slaves to fear. Eventually, anger informed most of our interactions with our children. We didn’t understand. Their schools didn’t understand. Sunday School didn’t understand.

And the adult responses to my children’s behavior told them clearly that they weren’t good enough for any of us.

Even as I consider how much better life is these days, I wonder how often my children are misunderstood today. Their experiences have been complicated. I long to be a good listener and I long for my children to be understood.

When they’re understood, they are accepted and loved.

Because my children are inherently lovely.

Adoptive Parents are Misunderstood

During our first week as family, I spent about forty hours gathering the correct legal documents I needed to enroll my children in school (Somehow nothing current or useful had been included in our five-inch binder of imperative information from the state.) About fifteen hours were spent trying to access healthcare because our children were placed with us from another state and there was a sixty day waiting period for insurance. And we all had ringworm (some on their scalps). (While dealing with this fiasco, I learned that in some states being in foster care promised the worst medical care in the developed world. It took me fifteen seconds to Google search how to treat Ringworm on the Scalp- something my children’s “doctor” clearly hadn’t picked up in medical school or in her years of practice. Or by using Google herself. I could go on...)  About seventy-five hours were spent holding one of our children who was petrified and could not regulate his body to keep himself out of danger. (In fact, his scared body seemed to be drawn to life-threatening behaviors.) At least two hours were spent attempting to call my child down from a play structure on a playground when he refused to come home with me. (That only happened once during our first week because we stopped leaving the house out of fear for our lives.)

In my spare time, I was attempting to fix things that were constantly being shattered and smashed while hoping we wouldn’t be evicted from our apartment due to the noise, chaos, and broken stuff.

When you do the math, you realize I was often holding a scared child, while on hold with the school district, and drafting an email to my children’s former caregivers. After our children went to sleep, Matt and I would unearth the power tools and fix stuff until we finally fell asleep. Matt would then wake at 3:45 am, daily, to rock our most scared child when he would wake up trembling.

All the while, my phone was ringing nonstop with people - genuinely excited about our children- who wanted to get together for play dates.

And the pastor’s wife wondering when I would return to lead the Children’s Ministry.

It all went straight to voicemail.

Some of you may be wondering, if we were so prepared, why hadn’t we prepared our community? The truth is- we tried to. Still, some people believed their prior misconceptions. To them, we were “getting two children who were already potty trained.” It’s as if we had adopted to “skip all the hard stuff.”

While it’s good to realize some people will refuse to acknowledge depth and hardship, if I were to do it again I would prepare a concise letter with documentation and cited sources to describe our expectations of becoming a family. I might even ask for feedback as it would have been helpful to have at least known whom would have the ability to process the information and respond in a way that made our relationship a safe one to continue in.

Please do remember this, friends:  Your loved ones are making up for months and years of lost time with their new child. Their children need their new parents as a newborn, a toddler, and an elementary school child- often all at the same time. Your friends are struggling to meet these complex needs. They cry tears over their child’s losses and they wonder if they’ve done the right thing by bringing their child home. They don’t even know if they can meet a small percentage of this precious human being’s intense needs. Your friend may not have the ability to answer her phone. She may not have the ability to shower once weekly. She likely can’t invite you into her house as her child still does not understand whom his new family is made up of.

She will be grateful for every meal, bag of groceries, or jug of milk you drop off on her porch. Your handwritten notes of encouragement are priceless to her. Your ability to listen to her unique challenges without judgment is a rare find.

We Need Consistent Community

I want to be clear, I’m not angry about the awkwardness of adoption. However, I do want to expose it. The more our families are known, the less isolated we feel. The less isolated we feel, the better we love our children. The more our families are understood, the more our children are accepted and the more others begin to empathize with their unique struggles and love them where they’re at.

Our children are treasures.

And due to the misunderstandings and awkwardness around adoption, they are often judged unfairly.

Monday, May 9, 2016

The Gift of Meeting Hope

I’ve mentioned before how awkward it has been for me to develop empathy for two of my children. In fact, even the gesture of giving simple gifts to my children who are adopted can be painful for all involved.

I met my two sons when they had already endured more trauma than any human being should ever have to endure. We shared no natural history. My heartbeat, scent, and voice were foreign to them- and theirs to me. When we were placed together as family, my children had no reason to trust me. Their previous experiences taught them they could not both survive and trust me.

I’ve had to learn to interpret each behavior, each word, and body language so I can attempt to communicate with my very own children (who, have no reason to feel like they're my children). They're stuck in a new culture and have no reason to believe it’s going to be safe. Fun, is not only unexpected, but also undefined for them. Trust is alien.

After experiencing unexpected negative results from giving gifts to my two children from hard places ,I began to wonder...

Was it because they lacked confidence? Did they feel unworthy? Was it because they were disinterested in the gifts? Were they uncomfortable because the gifts hadn’t been earned? Was it because the actual event being celebrated triggered intense feelings of loss?

Or was it because, to them, I was still a stranger and the last person on earth they wanted to share such special moments with or get a gift from?

I don’t know for certain the answer to the above questions. It’s possible my children won’t ever process their particular discomfort verbally.

Still, I need to learn how to show my children I love them.

And I am learning.

What my children enjoy more than a boxed gift from me is the experience of being known by me. As I surprise the boys with a carefully chosen library book devoted to their interests, they're able to genuinely smile. As I build holiday traditions around their obsessions (e.g. bacon), they cannot contain their joy and they come to trust us as the tradition repeats annually. As we enjoy simple pleasures, such as going to our favorite beach or playground together, we build a foundation of shared history.

Bacon, thoughtful Library Books, Shared Experiences, and Dependable Traditions far outweigh any cheerfully wrapped package I could ever gift my children with.

Because, my children from hard places- like all of us- first want to be known and treasured.[Tweet This]

And beyond anything, as their mom, I want to know and treasure them.

So when I realized how truly touched by and obsessed with Dolphin Tale my children were, and when I realized we had a spring break coming up, I started thinking about an unbelievable gift opportunity. For the very first time in our five years as family I was convinced I could give my children a gift they could accept (other than bacon). They would feel known. They would feel loved by me (and by their dad too).

I was giddy at the prospect.

So I contacted Clearwater Marine Aquarium (CMA) and began making travel plans. We were not going to do this thing halfway.

As anticipation is the enemy of anxiety (in our family, at least), I didn’t explain our trip to the aquarium to our children until we had traveled 1,496 miles via minivan to Florida, spent two-and-a-half days playing on beaches, and had arrived in the parking lot at Clearwater Marine Aquarium.

In the parking lot, I told our three big boys that I had spoken to some of the CMA staff  mentioning how incredible each of our children are and that the staff wanted to meet them.

They beamed, speechlessly.

I did not mention they could be meeting one of the CMA’s three dolphins because, in my correspondence with the aquarium, they mentioned their programs were dependent on animal behavior. This made perfect sense to me. I have four children. If you told me I had to make certain at least one of them was presentable to greet the public in a friendly sort of way, twice daily, I’m not certain how many days (if any. ever.) we could pull it off.

So, in the spirit of solidarity, keeping expectations realistic, and avoiding the fury of unmet expectations, we thought it best to stay silent.

When my children were ushered to the platform to meet Hope (from Dolphin Tale 2), they were stunned beyond expression. When David Yates, CMA’s CEO, met them in Dr. Clay’s office (from the movie), they were unable to answer basic questions. They reverently and gingerly touched Winter’s prosthetic tail as if it were a rare, fragile artifact on the verge of disintegrating.

Since their time at CMA, they have not stopped hugging the stuffed dolphins we purchased for them in the gift shop and chattering about about their trip. All three of our older boys dream of working at Clearwater Marine Aquarium! Our youngest (3) introduces himself as a dolphin trainer. Our previously petrified-of-all-things-aquatic child wants to return to CMA with his goggles so he can “swim with Winter” (an experience nobody has promised him).

On the Monday morning following our trip, it was clear to me, for the first time in five years, one of my sons would have preferred to stay home with our family- his family- than to complete his ultra-safe-predictable routine by going to school.

Trust has been impacted. The gift has been received. Meeting Hope brought our family together because, us bringing our children to Clearwater Marine Aquarium to meet Hope, gave our children the gift of connection- a connection with Hope, a connection with staff members who love Hope and Winter, connections as siblings, and a deepened connection with us (their parents).

As a result, our family relationships are becoming more natural.

I may never know the feeling of watching the joy on two of my children’s faces as remove a giant red bow from their first new two-wheeler.

But, the week following our trip to CMA one of my sons and I shared more smiles and eye contact than we had in the several years preceding.

That’s miraculous.

Monday, April 25, 2016

Adoption and Dolphin Tale: One Mom’s Review

Disclaimer:  Our family doesn’t own a television and it’s possible, due to being screen deprived, my children are more impacted by audio/visual media than is typical.  Also, I’ve never publicly reviewed any product before and I’m not being paid to review these movies. Winter and Hope’s stories have profoundly impacted our family and I can’t help but share.

Photo Source

A few months ago, I stumbled upon the movie Dolphin Tale on Amazon. By the time I had finished reading the most helpful reviews, I had tears streaming down my face. While I adore my two sons who entered our family through adoption, I am constantly searching for ways to love them in ways they can accept. After reading the reviews, I purchased Dolphin Tale because I was convinced that watching it with my children was going to be a way to love them well. After learning Dolphin Tale 2 was also based on a true story, I purchased it and both movies have become favorites for all of my children. For reasons deeper than I probably even understand, all of my children identify with Dolphin Tale characters and the movies encourage them as they desire to live bravely.

Dolphin Tale is based on the true story of Winter, a bottlenose dolphin, who lost her tail and survives. Her story continues in Dolphin Tale 2, and there, we are also introduced to Hope- a young dolphin facing her own obstacles. When our family watched the first movie together, I saw a beautiful story about Winter who overcame physical obstacles and about relationships forged by a team committed to her good. After my nine-year-old enthusiastically asked to watch it for the third time, I began watching a different story as I watched it with him:  A story where Winter lost her mom, like he lost his first mom.

He watches the movie again and again noting Winter is OKAY.  

He feels this obstacle. Winter’s happy. She has a “family.” She enjoys her family. Her unusual “family” clearly adores her.
As I watch Dolphin Tale with another of my sons, I’m reminded that, against all odds, Winter swims. She swims well. We watch how hard Winter works just like my son is also daily overcoming obstacles due to his early childhood experiences and losses. He tackles those challenges with enthusiasm while donning a smile capable of lighting the darkest cavern.

We love watching Winter do the same- together.

Even our oldest biological son connects with the Dolphin Tale movies. As we watch Dolphin Tale together, we watch Sawyer- a child who didn’t ask for his life challenges and who is lacking specific direction- find friendship and family in unlikely places. As Sawyer invests heavily in others, it’s as if a weight is lifted from his shoulders and he’s free to confidently be himself.

As this child watches Dolphin Tale, he wants to be brave and unaware of self like Sawyer.

Also, because Winter is a dolphin, rather than a human, her story isn’t too overwhelming for our family to connect with. My children are not dolphins. None of them have been “rescued.” The story hits close enough to home without anyone having to relive traumas each time they view it.

As our family connects with Winter’s story, we are all inspired and energized to keep going especially because life is full of challenges. I’d recommend this movie for any human being because the message is one of overcoming, teamwork, grit, and the value of unlikely friendships. It’s about brokenness being the avenue to deep connections that eventually lead to unexpected healing. It’s a story about how the “giver” becomes the “receiver” of intangible gifts that far outweigh what he was ever capable of giving in the first place.

I’m better off remembering all of the above, and it is a gift that these movies are presented in a manner that is healthy for our entire family to enjoy together. As we watch together, we connect with each other.

Each of my children’s responses to Winter’s story tells me that my initial hunch while reading Amazon reviews was correct:  Sharing the Dolphin Tale movies with my children is one tangible way I can show my love for them and they can accept it.

Which is Priceless.

I share the story of our amazing kids meeting a very special dolphin HERE.

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Better Home & Dilapidated Garden

Better Home.jpg
Source (text added)

When we moved into our house four years ago, all the interior doors slammed each night with the wind. Some of the widows were actually taped together with packing tape. None of them stopped the wind. Before unpacking, we began our search for replacement windows and had them installed before we had lived here a full month.

Our outdoor space, however, looked like an after photo from a gardening magazine. We live in the city. Our yard is a small extension of our living space. It’s essentially a garden. And our garden was exceptional.

I’d add a photo...but, after four years of us living here, it now looks as if we are raising pitbulls, chaining them to each tree in the yard, and feeding them our deck.

It’s bad.

Each spring we plant grass and we’re thrilled as we watch it grow.

And each year we give our children simple instructions that would be irrelevant if we lived in a rural setting:  1. Don’t dig, 2. Climbing trees is fine, but don’t kill them,  3. Don’t throw the rocks into the neighbor's’ yard (To make matters complicated, our rocks were painted blue by the previous owner for landscaping purposes. Basically the rocks act as a calling card- proving our children are the guilty-stone-throwing neighbors.), and 4. Have fun without being the neighbor’s Saturday morning alarm clock or, in any way, making them wish we lived elsewhere.

The kids learned about the rocks when a disgruntled neighbor marched over bearing one that had grazed her hair and told me (within their hearing) she has SEVERAL of these blue rocks in her yard and she always knows the origin when she finds a blue-painted rock.

The blue rock circumstance may be the ONLY time my kids have ever been scared straight.

The rest of our instructions seem to be lost in translation.

If we had requested, 1.  Dig to your hearts content,  2.  Don’t let that jackhammer in the street stop you from attempting to scream loudly enough for the neighbors to clearly hear your conversations, songs, and altercations, and 3. Strip the land of every living thing, our children would be a portrait of obedience.

But, my yard and neighbor relationships, like so many things, is my responsibility. Two of my children need special support to do typical kid activities* and I need space to be a better parent. I’m learning about emotional regulation and about setting developmentally appropriate expectations. For instance, our children with a history of trauma feel most regulated when they’re directly in the presence of a trusted adult. As soon as there’s a closed door between them and their “regulator,” most bets are off.

If I need a break and I send my children outside, it’s my responsibility to give them the scaffolding they need to meet my expectations. [Tweet This]

Last year, after pondering this problem for some time, I decided we needed to have outdoor stations. I purchased a web swing, built a lego table, and alternated placing a trampoline, scooter, or ball on the deck. Then, for my children who needed additional structure to to feel safe, I would choose their first station, and after some time, I would oversee them rotating stations. While they were engaged in each new activity, I would indulge in some frivolous luxury (such as, work on dinner preparations with relative quiet for three full minutes).

While every solution has its kinks (for instance, the web swing was unraveling after the first use), the containment that our structured, sensory backyard provided lowered all of my kids’ anxiety, and they all enjoyed being out there together with less adult intervention. They desperately want to do well and have fun. They just need their parents to give them the structure they need to achieve it.

And while our garden is still dilapidated, we’ve only had to have one replacement window repaired over the past four years.

For now, I’m counting that as a win.

No Bohns About It

Monday, April 4, 2016

Rage Against the Pinterest Kid’s Room

SOURCE (changes made: text added and photo resized by me)

When I was a kid, I had a FANCY room. My double bed (that I shared with my sister), was adorned in a yellow Holly Hobbie bedspread my Mom had purchased from the Pottery Barn Kids of our time:  JCPenney.

She even went through the pains of painting the walls yellow.

It was straight up tricked out in a very 1980’s kind of way.

Which is the same type of way I hope my children’s rooms are decorated.

Don’t get me wrong, I’ve dreamt of creating bedrooms for my children that Pottery Barn would want to copy and use in their next catalog and of DIY projects that would be pinned on Pinterest thousands of times over.

But, here’s the thing. A few weeks ago we had some beautiful weather. I seized the opportunity to roll three-foot-wide paper for my children to paint on on our back deck. For the better part of two hours they delightedly created masterpieces. My eight-year-old’s masterpiece featured his personally developed initial-superhero-slogan complete with his brother’s muddy footprints on it. When his paint was dry, he begged me to allow him to hang his creation on his bedroom wall using two-and-a-half inch blue paint tape. I hesitated, knowing it would be a full-wall mural, but relented due to the joy on his face. It’s his wall.

And I want it to stay his wall.

He’s happier decorating with his carefully-designed-personal-logo-on-muddy-footprint-paper than he would be if I dropped thousands of dollars and countless hours creating my idea of utopia for him. [Tweet This]

Beyond having cute stuff, I need to give myself the space to love my precious people. If I give them adorable stuff, and they in turn use it to help me clean the toilet, I might feel angry. I could find them ungrateful and disrespectful when they don’t respect all the thought and work I put into their space. When I relinquish some control and keep things simple, I have the opportunity to admire their wonder and creativity and I have less to worry about or take personally.

While growing up I didn't know anyone with a room nicer than my own, I do remember seeing movies where girls had canopy beds and matching white furniture, and I never envied them. I was thankful for my room because my mom didn’t ask me any questions when I decided to tastefully decorate my yellow walls with posters of Kirk Cameron from my Teen Bop magazines. My room was my space to express my interests (however shallow). The perfect princess bedroom could have complicated things.

If you, like me, are rethinking what makes a child’s bedroom great, I’m sharing all the tips I have so far.

Nicole’s Five Ingredients to a Rockin’ Kid’s Bedroom

1. Clean, Warm or Cheerful Paint on the Walls

2. As Much Open Space as Possible for Play

3. Safe Bed with Simple Bedding According to Child’s Individual Taste

4. Remove all Danger (Lead Paint, Rusty, Sharp Items, Any Other Sharp Items...)

5. Allowance for Child to Make Reasonable, Unique “Improvements”

That’s it. Because, as I relinquish control, I’m free to appreciate my child's creativity. And he knows I support his individuality.

He knows I enjoy him.

That’s far better than being featured in any catalog.

Thursday, March 31, 2016

3 Reasons I Avoid the Pediatrician's Office

Disclaimer:  As I began writing this, I realized I didn’t even know how to SPELL “Pediatrician.” With that understanding, please don’t mistake anything I write for actual medical advice.


Generally, I take my children to the doctor for the following reasons:

To Get School and Camp Forms:  If I need to explain to you why these are important, you’re a much more qualified parent than I am. Better parents would have written:  “Well-check”, rather than “Get School and Camp Forms,” but the real reason I remember well-checks is because if my children didn’t have forms, they wouldn’t be allowed at camp or school. As a result, I’d be a REALLY bad mom. That wouldn’t be healthy for any of us.

Strep Throat Symptoms:  Strep is a bacterial infection and needs to be treated with an antibiotic to prevent Scarlet Fever. When my kids seem to be in agony and they mention their throat at all, they get to go to the doctor. We’re not trying to mess with Scarlet Fever. [Incidentally, every time I’ve suspected Strep, they’ve had it.]

If they have a Fungus:  Don’t make me tell you what Ringworm has done to this family. You WOULD have nightmares.

If they need/have Stitches:  After about the 47th stitches incident, my less-medical-than-anyone-else-I’ve-met-on-the-planet husband stated, “I’m pretty confident I could have easily removed the stitches myself.” Don’t worry. I assured him that while he’s excellent at many things, it wouldn’t be wise to attempt such a thing. Then I reminded him of the time he gave one of our sons Tylenol as preventive medicine.

Asthma Attacks:  Thankfully, this hasn’t been our reality recently.

3 Reasons I Avoid taking My Specific Children to their Pediatrician:

1) Medical Appointments and Adoption

Each time I take two of my children to see a doctor, I’m reminded that while children are in foster care, they often see a medical professional before each new placement or after each removal. No wonder medical appointments can provoke anxiety! These two are supposed to see their doctor more than is typical for a healthy child coming from an average living situation, but usually the appointments feel like a burden our whole family is better off avoiding. When triggers are experienced, there is no telling how long anxiety will rule. My children’s health is valuable to me. I just wish taking them to see their pediatrician always seemed consistent with keeping them healthy. [TWEET THIS]

Lucky for us, a friend (and fellow adoptive parent) recommended her child’s comedian, I mean pediatrician, when our sons came home. The exhausting work this doctor does is hilarious and somewhat distracts our children from the fact that they are, in fact, in a doctor’s office. Still, I don’t know whether it’s the stethoscope, the papered table, or the odor, but they HAVE caught on to the fact that these entertaining adventures are medical appointments. While that’s good, because I wouldn’t want them to believe we were just letting any person invade their privacy, it’s a bummer the stress and its effects can’t be avoided.  

I’m very clear with their pediatrician (who IS very good) that appointments are stressful for our entire family and he now expects to see our children less often. Honestly, until the pediatrician's office is also a trampoline park, twice a year is the best we can do for checkups.

2) Germs

Honestly, I’m not a germ freak. I’m not even that big on hand washing. I realize that for my kids who are in school all day, the damage is already done by the time they come home. For my kids who are home all day, they aren’t spending their time licking public urinals. They do gross things. They’re kids. But I’ve learned the gross things they do rarely result in illness. In fact, the grossness is probably helping them build stronger immune systems. At least that’s what I tell myself. Then myself calms down and becomes a better parent. This is a major part of the battle.

When I’m not certain if I should take one of my children to the doctor, I call the nurse. When the nurse thinks I should bring my child in, s/he says so. Directly. But most of the time, if I listen carefully to the nurse’s tone, this is what I hear, “You can come in if you want to, but your child has a virus. There’s nothing we can do for him. In fact, if you come, your family is likely going to pick up three more viruses, because this is the place sick people hang out and get sicker.”

I’m not discouraging myself (or anyone else) from following the parental gut though. That’s another thing I love about nurses. So often they remind me to follow my gut because I’m the parent. The nurses I know are competent, practical, and intuitive.

3) Unnecessary Doctor’s Visits Distract me from what my Sick Child Needs Most

When my children  ARE sick, they need nurturing. From me. It’s incredible. Most anytime, my children would choose their Dad over me. He is the WAY cooler parent. But when they’re sick, the kids can’t live without me. I need to capitalize on that. If it’s at all prudent, I’m going to spend their sick time making them toast, reading to them, snuggling with them, making their bath the perfect temperature, and (less picturesque, but necessary) cleaning up their puke without the added stressful adventure of getting in and out of a germy medical clinic.

And, that way, we avoid the whole puke in the van thing too.

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