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.

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Seeking Solitude in the Digital Age

Had I not accepted an unusual challenge during my senior year of college, I doubt I’d be currently aware of how my heart longs for quiet.

The challenge was to choose a spiritual discipline I’d never intentionally practiced before and find a way to observe it for one week.

The list included disciplines I was well acquainted with, such as prayer, fasting, and meditation. As I read on, I began to wonder if there was a spiritual discipline unfamiliar to me. When I read “Solitude” I honestly had to admit I didn’t even know what practicing solitude meant. All I could picture was living in the wilderness, wearing a brown robe cinched with a rope, and making my own butter.

The whole idea seemed highly impractical, but I do love a challenge.

The year was 2001. At the time, I owned a cell phone but for emergencies only. Because it seemed like such a novelty, I constantly told myself it cost $220 per minute to use (which it might have because I was most definitely roaming where I went to school) so it just took up space in my purse. The internet was up and running, but when writing research papers one still needed to cite real books. Email had become a thing, yet my friends and I utilized it to write each other letters. Upon receiving an email, I would print it out and save it in a special shoebox where I also kept my handwritten notes from friends and family. While I owned a television, I didn’t purchase cable, so I could really only use the VCR unless I wanted to watch something badly enough to get the tin foil out and begin problem solving to make our antenna work. AOL Instant Messenger was new and, on occasion, I would chat with a few friends who had it. LOL was the only initialism I recall ever reading, and I never once used it myself.

When I decided to practice solitude I knew I needed to set guidelines for myself. At the time, I lived off campus and had a week where I was staying alone. My classes were scheduled on Tuesdays and Thursdays and I was only taking a few credits as I had already met most of my graduation requirements. With this schedule, I realized I could avoid contact with people five out of seven days. I also chose to eliminate listening to any music, watching any screens, and any use of the phone. Having completed all of my final papers, I had already packed my computer up and sent it home. Therefore, I had no internet. Believe it or not, while I didn’t make a rule for this, I also don’t remember reading nonfiction books.

Given I spent most of my time alone that week, and that I had been struggling with loneliness going into the week, one might wonder what I did with my time.

I still wonder that. I remember reading, journaling, cooking, and cleaning. I remember life becoming peaceful, my heart becoming light, and time passing fast.

Toward the end of the week, I was surprised to realize I was no longer lonely. In fact, I wanted to find a way to extend my week of solitude. My heart had found the very quiet it needed. Which was the quiet I had been robbing myself of out of fear- the quiet I usually spent my hours distracting myself from.

Human connections are imperative for all of us. Yet, when I deny myself of solitude, my relationships suffer. I’m too scattered to listen and respond well.

Social media and email are tools, and in order to use them to enhance connections, I need to set the rules.

I don’t want to live distracted by ads, text notifications, social media, and email.

At this point in my life, a week of solitude seems nearly impossible. Still, I know I need to make some changes to quiet my heart. Last week, I made a social media schedule for myself. According to this schedule, I should not be on social media during one minute I would otherwise be spending with my children. I also purchased an ancient word processor to write on so I’m focused during time I’ve chiseled out for writing.

I took these measures after hearing my three-year-old ask me three times before his words began to register, “Mommy, are you listening to me?”

He shouldn’t have to wonder.

My life is complicated enough. At times I am distracted by weighty matters that seem like threats to my family’s well-being. With or without social media, there will always be times I have difficulty being present for my loved ones.

I do have the power to limit distractions.

When I am brave enough to use that power, I’m free to carve out fragments of quiet I once believed were unobtainable as a parent.

As a result, I’m more present with my loved ones- something our hearts mutually desire.

Can you relate? Join the Conversation, here,
on Facebook, and on Twitter. Also, remember, I’m scheduling posts and responding when I can give you my full attention too!

Thursday, August 25, 2016

Adoption: Was it a Mistake?


Six months after our sons came home, I began to wonder if I’d made a monumental mistake.

All five of us were miserable.

Was it my fault?

Would our sons have been better off in another family?

Unable to sleep, I tossed and turned wondering if every member of our family was going to continue suffering, reaping the repercussions of my mistake for their entire lives.

I wondered if my error in judgment had ruined us.

But I’m realizing my ignorant, angry, and fearful responses to my children’s pain (as displayed through their behavior) hurt our family more than any one of my children’s behavior ever could.

Every single time I took my child’s behavior personally, I made the wrong choice.

Each time I refused to empathize with the pain behind my child’s behavior, I made the wrong choice.

Each time I allowed my fear to control my responses to my child, rather than letting love lead, I made the wrong choice.

I’ve made a lot of mistakes.

Many of them leading to my family’s distress.

Bringing my children home was not one of them.

[FYI:  Matt and I make our major decisions together. Yet, this blog is where I share my story.]

Posts on Attachment in Adoption

Foster Care & Faith

On hearing this, Jesus said to them, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick.

I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.”

Mark 2:17

As a young adult I worked as a live-in houseparent at a home for children in foster care. After living with and caring for a house full of girls who had experienced early childhood trauma, I spent an hour with a college friend and former ministry colleague.  
“You’re just not the same, Nicole. At all,” he all but mourned.
“You just aren’t happy-go-lucky anymore. You seem more… you seem… you seem more… realistic. Less optimistic.”
His words stung. Not because they were incorrect. Though unintentionally accusatory, his words were accurate. My worldview had been impacted by pain and suffering.
During that year, I had learned how devastating life could be for children who were no less deserving of a happy home than I had been as a child. As I’d attempted to love children from hard places, I’d been punched in the face both figuratively and literally. My car had been vandalized, my personal items had been stolen, and I had once dislocated my shoulder commandeering a broomstick from a child who was threatening to beat my coworker with it.
Many nights I cried myself to sleep. All of my best ideas had been exhausted and I was hopeless.
I had failed many times in an area I’d once considered myself strong in… loving others.

Thursday, August 18, 2016

Our Summer Rhythm

Confession:  While I love writing and connecting with friends through writing, my ability to publish a blog post is greatly hindered by school vacation.


School breaks present unique challenges in our family, often resulting in emotional regression and exhaustion for all of our members.

I want to love summer, but as I strive to meet one or two of my children’s needs, it feels as if I’m actively neglecting the needs of my other children.

For years, we fell into an unnatural, summer routine of meeting one child’s needs while everyone else waited in line- becoming less healthy by the moment.

Until this current season.

Over the years we’ve realized our two children who are adopted need an unusual amount of structure to feel safe and enjoy themselves.

This makes sense to me. When two of my sons came to live with us as older children they had no reason to trust me. They weren’t calmed by the rhythm of my heartbeat or voice, and they probably had little reason to believe I was capable of meeting their basic needs.

When my two biological sons were born, they would cry and I would meet their needs. They already knew my scent, voice, and the rhythm of my heartbeat and, therefore, my presence was regulating for them. Through closeness and repetitions of me meeting their physical needs, my sons began to expect me to to be close and to meet their needs. They began to trust me. They eventually began to sleep longer between feedings and we established a natural routine based on trust.

For two of my children, the rhythm of our routine is comparable to the regulating nature of a mother’s heartbeat. [Tweet This]

After almost six years, I see signs my children are trusting me outside of the routine. But still, they thrive with as much routine as I can provide.

Therein lies the problem:  our two children who don’t have a history of developmental trauma are stressed out and inhibited by the intense structure that causes their brothers to thrive.

Yes, our four children enjoy each other and can have one or two weeks of vacation together in relative harmony. (Which is a recent thing, a major blessing, and something we do not take lightly.)

But after that initial two weeks, two children are looking for structure and two are pining for down time.

We tried day camp to add structure, and it wasn’t healthy for our children. For a couple years our sons attended a therapeutic camp and they loved it! The staff even knew how to make the transition smooth as to minimize loss. Sadly, the camp had an “off” year and as one treatment provider said, “If you’re going to run a therapeutic camp, you can’t have an off year.”

She’s right. That camp, exceptional while it lasted, is no longer an option for our family.

This year, with the help of our state, we were able to hire a babysitter (who is a friend) for a few weeks. Each day, for those weeks, she repeated a routine that was comfortable and involved a tremendous amount of physical activity and fresh air for our sons.

They had a blast! Beyond having a blast, this is the first summer our family has continued to make real relational progress and was able to begin the school year strong.
Our summer solution this year is by no means the solution for all families with a complicated dynamic. It might not even be the solution for us next year. I share our experience because I want you to know that if you somewhat dread summer due to the unique obstacles it presents for your family- you’re not alone!

I know how it feels to take a Facebook break because I cannot read one more status update from a glowing parent anticipating the bliss of endless summer days with her children.

I know what it’s like to adore my child and cry myself to sleep because I’m not sure I’ll ever get one moment’s rest from meeting his complex needs- moments I desperately need to preserve my patience so I can love him well.

Like some of you reading, I celebrate unique milestones such as our first summer of continuous fun and uninterrupted progress.

And, for the first time, I have high hopes for our next school vacation.

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