Thursday, April 6, 2017

Ghosts in the Hallway (a Respite Story)

Yesterday morning, before even changing out of my pajamas or getting to the bottom of my first cup of coffee, I attended a very special concert. The venue was our unheated attic. The artist an outwardly lively four-year-old with a hint of melancholy. He was wearing superhero pajama pants with his Robin shirt and cape while strumming his guitar's remaining five strings and singing.

He introduced his first song as a “sad song.” The lyrics went something like this:

Mom and Dad left
I was all alone
My grandparents moved in
I was abandoned

And there were ghosts in the hallway
Ghosts in the hallway…

This is the song our son composed and earnestly performed five days after Matt and I returned from a three night getaway- during which our children were cared for by adoring grandparents, consumed more sugar than they had the previous three months combined, and heard a consistent stream of Granddad’s riveting tales of family members narrowly escaping being eaten by wildlife.

As I listened to the song, I was also processing our respite situation over the past six years. Getting a break that doesn’t lead to insecurity and major behavioral regression in our children has seemed an insurmountable task and that has been a challenge in our marriage.

Feeling abandoned is sad. Ghosts are scary.

Two of our children have faced- not ghosts- but very real fears. It has taken us years to establish trusting relationships with each other. We’ve been through stages where our children were more afraid of us than anything else in the world and would prefer we drop them off with any stranger to being stuck with us- which clearly wasn’t safe (or easy). We’ve been through stages where it seemed our children were fairly frightened of us and yet felt unusually abandoned when we left them in even the safest of situations. We’re currently in a stage where we’re learning how to best plan for our children to both be safe and feel secure even during our absence.

Which reminds me of the third song in our son’s set yesterday morning:

The Happy Song

Mom and Dad came back
We were laughing so hard we cried...

After our recent getaway, we returned and our children were in various states of dysregulation, but they had enjoyed themselves and they transitioned well when we came home.

There was laughter.

They were all glad we were back.

Which is something we do not take for granted in our family.

[In full disclosure, while we were happy to reunite, we were also all exhausted. Transitions are generally exhausting in our family.]

I would be glad to hear your Respite Stories

Let's Connect on Facebook HERE

Thursday, March 2, 2017

Surprised by Attachment: Time

Today I’m beginning a series called “Surprised by Attachment.” The only reason this subject is becoming a series is because I’ve had way too many failures (or, “learning opportunities”) to fit them into one post. It isn’t my intention to make this a weekly series or anything because you know I don’t really have my stuff together enough for that.

When we began our two-day journey home with our two new sons, limbs were flailing and voices were screaming. Within an hour, my seat had been violently kicked one too many times and shoes had been removed from the terrified offender. By hour three, we had already stopped to use the bathroom no less than sixteen times- only three of them yielding any evidence the stop had been necessary in the first place- yet all accompanied by dramatic potty dances until the confused moment of truth arrived. By hour six we had resigned to the fact that our entire trip was going to move to the rhythm of the question, “Us going on field trip?,” repeated every forty seconds by one of our sons.

I now realize the behavior that was (at the time) driving me quickly out-of-my-mind was a manifestation of my sons’ anxiety rooted in their early childhood trauma.

Prior to that enlightening road trip, I was adhering to a set of ideals that I knew were going to transform me into a super-mom to my sons who were coming home as older children.

With my ideals, attachment would be a breeze.

So I thought.

My first ideal was this:  What children need to attach to their caregiver is time. Spending every moment with our children would result in securely attached children.

And because my best attempts to sign our children up for our public school lottery had already failed, I planned to bring my children home and spend time with them. All day. Everyday.

...Until about an hour into our drive home, when I began frantically making calls to our school district because I knew my son had to go to school the following Monday. [In my (and in my son’s) dreams!)]

Slowly, in the years since our drive home, I’ve been processing the relationship between time and attachment in older child adoption. In the beginning of our relationship, I ignorantly believed my child’s behavior was communicating a hatred for me and an unwillingness to attach. Slowly I came to the realization that my child was threatened by me because he had no reason to believe a mother could be trustworthy or capable. He acted the way he did around me because he was facing his worst fear every time he was in my presence.

Eventually I even began to realize that I, in the face of my child’s behavior, was also living in a state of fear and stress.

I had to let go of my ideal. So, I began to simplify the situation for myself and here's what I came up with:

  1. I need to do everything in my power to lower my child’s stress level so we build a solid relationship and enjoy attachment even if that means what my child needs most is predictable breaks from me, and

  1. I need to do everything in my power to lower my own stress level so my child and I can build a solid relationship and enjoy attachment (while managing my child’s needs first- which is no small feat) even if that means what I need most is predictable breaks from my child.

Every family is different and every child has unique needs. Attachment comes quickly for some families adopting older children. For other children who haven’t yet known safe adults outside of school or group living situations, small opportunities to build trust with caregivers could be key.

Getting long, predictable breaks for children to process their decision to trust a parent for the first time in their lives could also be key.

I always have to remember, it isn’t my child’s responsibility to attach to me. And it isn’t my responsibility to try to force attachment in my relationship with my child.

It’s my responsibility to lead the attachment process by being trustworthy to my specific child. In my experience that’s meant limiting our parent/child interactions and focusing on how to make the limited interactions we have safe and fun- for both of us- and then growing from there.

I would love to hear about your thoughts and experiences!

We can connect here or on Facebook.

Thursday, February 2, 2017

My Resolution: Four Years Late

Yes. That IS a toilet in our sunroom.

Four years ago, our youngest son was born. My resolution for the first year of his life was to finally organize our house because ordering our physical space seemed like the first step to creating a calm environment to lower our family stress. This seemed like a perfectly reasonable resolution given our three older sons had begun full-day school two weeks earlier.

We had only been living in our house for a few months.The previous owners had (tastefully and artistically) painted every wall in our house shades of purple, yellow, green, and dark grey (many ceilings and most trim included). With the previous owner’s exquisitely chosen decorations and funky mid-century furniture, the house had a glamorous look.

When we moved our mostly-found-on-the-side-of-the-road stuff in, it had the look of pandemonium. It felt as if a McDonald’s play area from the 1980s vomited all over my living quarters, robbing me of any chance of a quiet heart. (Without the aroma of french fries. Which is unfortunate.)

When our youngest son was six weeks old, my plans began to change.


First, I pulled one son out of school because he needed more time with me.

Before the year was complete, it became clear that another son would be joining our daytime circus as his school was refusing to follow his IEP and he was regressing socially, emotionally, behaviorally, and academically.

I didn’t have a legal battle in me and my child needed space to recover from the bullying and abuse he had endured in school.

So, rather than getting my house in order, I frantically managed piles and prayed I could locate items (such as medical records, school paperwork, and clean underwear) on an as-needed basis and frequently reminded myself that it was a blessing I could spend all this additional time with my sons. (It was.)

Four years later, I’m happy to report we’ve painted everything except for one hallway and a pantry.

And we’ve almost unpacked.

Our adoption journey is teaching me that while I can choose my battles in life, I have a limited ability to choose the amount of urgency that comes along with the battles I must fight. Order is important. Having order will be healthier for every member of our family.

And while my heart aches that I haven’t yet had opportunity to provide that order, I’m aware that for the majority of the past six years I’ve been a warrior fighting necessary battles for my family.

While engaged in combat, I haven’t had opportunity to sort through boxes, organize my children’s books, or remember to pay the water bill before our city’s notice was fixed to our front door with bright orange tape warning us we had twenty-four hours to pay it if we didn’t want to be cut off.

So, it’s taken four years. It isn’t done yet.

And I’m exceedingly grateful.

Can you relate? Join the Conversation, here,

Thursday, January 12, 2017

Adoption: This Mom Six Years Later

Last weekend I went to my favorite hardware store all by myself- which is no small thing. While making my order I noticed that each time I gave the man behind the counter a color name, he immediately jotted down the coordinating paint number.

Without thinking about it, I commented on how impressive that was to me.

He smiled and humbly attempted to explain how memorizing 3500 paint numbers is really no big deal.

The interaction was natural. I used complete sentences. And the Benjamin Moore expert didn’t even think I was busting a move on him!

I returned to my van beaming like an idiot and thinking, “That was the regular me back there.”

For six years, I’ve been looking at a stranger in the mirror. I’ve felt crushed and, much of the time, debilitated by the constant pressure of getting to know my children so I can learn how to love them well. Under this stress, I’ve neglected many of my most basic values, such as;  cooking, showering, and remembering to eat. My worries have been choking me to the point where I’ve had trouble interacting with the world around me. My listening skills have been severely impacted and, at times, my concerns have been shouting at me so loudly, they’ve drowned out friends I’m trying to be present with. I’ve even rudely interrupted friends sharing their deepest feelings without being aware until a week later (at which point my face has flushed with shame and I haven’t known what to do with myself). I’ve gone from feeling as energetic as I was as an eighteen-year-old to feeling lethargic and elderly. During these years, not only have I consistently misread social cues, I’ve also sent unintended messages via my erratic behavior.

Eventually, I learned the best way I could function was to avoid every human interaction I could avoid. Otherwise I knew I would unintentionally hurt somebody or be wounded myself.

A few years ago, one of my sons was regressing significantly in his classroom, but when we did work together at home, he was making natural progress. There was no comparison between his school work and homework.

Since I was confused about his performance, I called a professional- a friend of mine who is brilliant and has a special education background. Her main point will always stick with me:  A child with a trauma history can look brilliant when relaxed and simple-minded when experiencing stress.

Sadly, it took a few more years before my head was clear enough to figure out who was the most stressed out person in our house:  me.  I have been the one appearing dimwitted.

Today, I know better how to love my four children and my husband in the context of our unusual family than I did over the last few years. As a result, I’m less stressed and I feel more like myself.

So, as mundane as it seems, my hardware store story is something I’m celebrating.

And I’m looking forward to recognizing myself again real soon.

Today is Introduction Day at the Adoption Talk Link Up. You can learn more about why I blog here and about the name of my blog here. I’ll look forward to connecting with you and hope you take the time to introduce yourself!


Thursday, December 22, 2016

Christmas Spaghetti

Our children look forward to three things each Christmas morning;  A fire in the fireplace, a stuffed animal peeking out of each of their Christmas stockings, and bacon.

Christmas Dinner isn’t something they spend much time considering. Traditions are significant to our children. The actual food we consume on Christmas isn’t. (Other than the aforementioned bacon, that is.)

So we make it easy on ourselves.

A couple days before Christmas, I make spaghetti sauce. On Christmas afternoon, I move the pot of sauce from our refrigerator to the range and warm it while preparing pasta from a blue box. Matt slices grocery store bread.

Dinner is served.

The tradition of “Christmas Spaghetti” may not be the tradition our kids are looking forward to, but it is a tradition. They do enjoy it and it simplifies our lives. Most importantly, it’s something we can make happen in most any circumstance (barring our stove joining the band of rebel appliances currently waging war against us.)

Our children from hard places cling to traditions. Each time a tradition transpires, their safety is reinforced. Trust is built.

A week before Thanksgiving, one of our sons asked Matt if we would be doing our “Thanksgiving Tradition” this year. Matt was perplexed so he asked our son which tradition he was referring to.

His response:  Taking turns saying what we’re thankful for.

More than he was looking forward to the aroma of turkey, watching football, or pie, our son was anticipating the Thanksgiving tradition he’d come to expect.

This morning, Facebook reminded me of how “brilliant” we are at parenting with the following post from 2015:

Most brilliant parenting move we've made: The tradition of Christmas Spaghetti. If you set the bar low early enough, nobody knows the difference. In fact, we all prefer the freedom that accompanies simplicity.

While making spaghetti doesn’t really qualify as genius, simplicity lowers our family’s stress.

Complexity increases our family’s stress.

Simplicity + Tradition is an unstoppable formula in our family.

When we create complex traditions, we set ourselves up for repeated failure.

We set our children up for insecurity.

While spaghetti isn't their favorite food, there is no worthy substitute for Christmas Spaghetti as far as our children are concerned.

It’s simple.

And it’s our tradition.

I would love to hear about your Christmas traditions here or on Facebook!

Friday, November 4, 2016

Adoption: Learning how to have Family Fun

Yesterday, I enjoyed the rare opportunity of conversing with another adoptive mom. During our chat, I was overwhelmed with gratitude as my children’s shared laughter echoed in the background.

During our early months as family, time together was anything but fun.

Matt and I had pure intentions, but we were lacking in our ability to care for children who had good reason to expect tragedy. We were humbled time and again when a rained out baseball game or a grandparent’s cancelled visit led to violent behaviors from two of our children. We were astounded when news of an upcoming birthday party led one of our children to behave in such a way that made the birthday party impossible for our family to attend.

After explaining these experiences to a therapist, he suggested that our children didn’t need to know about the excitement on the horizon. He asked us what we thought would happen if we just showed up to the birthday party, baseball game, or if the grandparents just arrived on our doorstep with their suitcases.

After some trial and error, we learned our children were much more likely to enjoy themselves if they were surprised by fun. We also noticed that this fun needed to fit into our general, safe rhythm.

We learned to plan our days around meals and sleep schedules and carefully choose to join only activities we thought our children could handle. We began teaching our children that anytime our typical schedule was interrupted, it was interrupted by fun.

Soon, our children stopped anxiously questioning us each time we prepared for an activity because their experience was telling them fun is always a surprise.

Eventually, they began to enjoy each surprise journey and enjoy fun events we carefully chose for them.

We think the reason this approach works for our family is because anything out of the norm has the potential to create unusually high anxiety in our children from hard places. Also, when we don’t signal future fun plans, we can’t fail to deliver. The trust we’re building with our children isn’t compromised. The stakes are high in our family. When an event is cancelled due to a thunderstorm, in our child’s mind, Mom and Dad didn’t follow through. Mom and Dad aren’t trustworthy.

In limiting disappointment for our children, we are not trying to shelter them from the real world.

Due to their early experiences, they are already more acquainted with disappointment and grief than most adults we know. Because we love our children, it’s our desire to create opportunities for them to experience seasons that aren’t defined by loss. It’s our parental responsibility to give them the foundation they need to trust us. It’s our duty to limit their anxiety so we can connect with each other.

When we stopped signaling our plans for fun activities, we began relieving our children of a burden they were never intended to carry. Simultaneously, we were eliminating consistent opportunities for our children to be let down by us. We were giving our children an opportunity to trust us.

Early childhood trauma attempted to rob my children of fun, trusting, and safe relationships. We’re not the first family to struggle on the journey toward fun. I’m not the only parent who has cried tears wondering if Saturday will ever hold any joy in our house. Our solution is far from one-size-fits-all and may not suit any other family.

We weren’t first and we aren’t best.

But what we once thought may be impossible is now happening consistently.

Our entire family laughs and plays together.

Can you relate? Join the Conversation here or 

Thursday, September 29, 2016

Our Marriage & Complex Trauma

Matt and I met under serendipitous circumstances. During our first encounter, he awkwardly avoided eye-contact with me while conversing freely with my roommate.

Two months later, he was secretly learning Sign Language from the outdated VHS tapes he repeatedly checked from his local library. He hadn’t yet asked me out, but he knew I worked at a Deaf school and he wanted to be prepared.

He drew a map of my neighborhood and reviewed it with me prior to our first date so he wouldn’t get lost on his way to pick me up.

Twelve months after that first date, we were married.

And we have no regrets.

For the first couple of years after our children came home through adoption, Matt and I even commented that parenting our children with intense needs was bringing us closer to together, rather than driving us apart.

For almost six years now, our entire family has been impacted by the unique needs that accompany complex developmental trauma. Because we now realize our children often communicate through their behavior, we are continual “interpreters” between two of our children and the rest of the world so they are better understood, have opportunities for personal growth, and aren’t criminalized.

Our family’s lifestyle generates stares that remind us the specific supports we provide for each of our individual children are largely misunderstood. Our relationships with each member of our family is dramatically impacted by the needs of each of the other members. Two of our children need intense structure and scaffolding to succeed developmentally and emotionally. The routine we provide them with lowers their stress level so they can enjoy life and learn, and eventually, become more flexible. All the while, we must constantly problem solve so we can give our two biological children the specific attention they need to be nurtured in the wake of childhood trauma, which is no small thing.

Due to very real attachment needs, we are not able to just drop our children off with a trustworthy babysitter during their waking hours. Because two of our children are still learning to trust us and it takes a long time for them to trust other adults, either Matt or I are “on” at all times. Even when they’re sleeping, “hiring a sitter” involves divulging sensitive information for our children’s safety. It’s exhausting to brainstorm whom would be both capable of watching our sleeping children and will not exploit them with the information we must share.

We hear it’s best to put our marriage first.

We just aren’t sure how to put our marriage first... without our family falling apart.

The stakes are so high.

Two of our children go to school. For them, school is their safe place to learn and their most consistent opportunity to build relationships with trustworthy adults other than their parents.

For our two children who are home during school hours, they need to be home with a parent so they can process trauma and have space to enjoy a healthy childhood.

We are privileged to have the opportunity to so specifically care for our four children’s complex needs. Yet, beyond school, we are the only supports they have. We meet needs seen and unseen. Constantly. There aren’t predictable breaks for us. There are no retreats for mom and dad together.

And we acknowledge that if our children’s needs were not so unique and intense, we wouldn’t be desperate for respite. At one point I was homeschooling one of our children who came into our family as an older child. I explained to Matt how overwhelmed I was because I was convinced that if there were ten of me I still wouldn’t have the ability meet his specific needs. All ten of me would be overwhelmed. Matt nodded in agreement. He got it. And we found a way to keep on until he got into a school that was safe for him.

It feels as if Matt and I have been on an aircraft that’s lost cabin pressure for six years and we’ve only had one oxygen mask for the both of us.

After almost six years of struggling for oxygen and waiting our turn to breathe, it’s easy to begin to resent the other’s need for oxygen.

It’s not logical.

It’s not gracious.

We’re beyond logic and grace.

We’re desperate and we need all of our energy to survive.

His need for oxygen is a threat to my very existence.

My need for oxygen is a threat to his.

We love each other.

We belong together.

And we’re barely hanging on.

Can you relate? Join the Conversation, here,
on Facebook, and on Twitter.

FYI: I should have mentioned that Matt and I read this post together and were both excited about me posting it. In fact, processing our experience together has been helpful for us to work through our individual experiences.

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