Even When…

Sarah 2005Today over at Extraordinary Moms Network I posted a little ditty that almost perfectly sums up where I am as a parent today. Go ahead and have a look … I’ll wait.

She’s fifteen now. Fifteen going on thirty. And I swear to you, there are days when we look at each other and wonder, How on earth am I supposed to live with THIS for three more years?

At least. Best case scenario.

If you ask her, she drew the short straw in the Mother Lottery. Her model yells (or yells back). Drinks (a glass of wine at LEAST twice a week, usually while daughter is giving me the stink eye). Is woefully unfashionable. Cramps her fashion style (“No, you may NOT wear black eye shadow”) and sense of propriety (“Yes, you must wash the pen design off your hands before Mass”). Worst of all: HER mom makes her do chores (like a SLAVE, like emptying the dishwasher and setting the table EVERY DAY and cleaning her room).

I’ll admit, I do get crabby sometimes myself. The only time I wake up without the sound of a howler monkey in my ears is when I’m on a business trip. Each morning I fall over the dog, who is cringing under my feet the moment she enters the room. There is not a lipstick, cookie, or bottle of nail polish I can buy that has a snowball’s chance in hell of winding up anywhere but in her room. She speaks, and the room turns blue. She sees her brother, and drama ensues (a fight or teary-eyed accusations of neglect, depending on the day). Her first mother tells me she was just like this at Sarah’s age, which she says to be comforting but actually terrifies me.

But here’s the thing … I love her. Her color. Her exuberance. Her insatiable need for love that induces her to cuddle up to me as close as possible on the couch at night, and plead for her father to tuck her in at night. I try to imagine what it must be like for her, to BE her. I see how she struggles. And I wish I could swish a wand and make it all better.

But that’s not what I signed up for. That’s not what love is about.

Almost fifteen years ago, we signed up for this. God knows if we’d known the wild ride in store for us, we might have run screaming for the hills. But we didn’t. So we didn’t.

Do I love her as much as I’d have loved “my own child”? I don’t know. There’s really no way to know. But this much I can tell you:  She has taught me, the hard way, what it means to really love someone. Because true love most often comes not in the shape of a heart … but of a cross. It means not loving because, but loving even when.

 

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The Circular Mercy of God

An old Portuguese proverb (sometimes attributed to Thomas Merton), reminds us that “God writes straight with crooked lines.” While God cannot be accused of pointless meandering or false steps — his ways are perfect, after all — the same cannot be said of us. And because he has given us free will, God sometimes allows us to take detours, taking us in circular routes to accomplish his purposes in our lives.

prince of peaceBy way of example, I was twelve when I got my first organist gig at this little country church, Prince of Peace Lutheran Church in Hamburg, NJ. It was my first taste of liturgy, and the people there (particularly the longsuffering Reverend Richard Izzard and his lovely wife Eileen) were so kind to me. It was a small but necessary step in my spiritual journey, and these dear friends supported me when it came time for my first short-term mission experience. I think it is one of God’s little jokes that, thirty five years later, my family now belongs to Queen of Peace, a homey little Catholic Church in Mishawaka, Indiana.

Although you can’t tell from the picture, this church can be seen for miles, lying at the top of a hillside along U.S. 94. And one wintery day in January 1983, just a short distance down that hill, my life took another unexpected turn … a car accident in which I was badly injured and hospitalized for more than a month. As a result, I was no longer able to have children. But in his circular mercy, God redeemed even this sorrow. That accident took me on a circuitous route through missionary training, into the Catholic Church, and prompted us to adopt Chris and Sarah. In the words of Thomas Merton, “There is no earthly sorrow heaven cannot heal.”

mitchell familyIn just a few weeks, we’ll be heading to Costa Rica to help a dear friend of mine, Colleen Mitchell and her husband Greg. Colleen is the author of a wonderful book, Who Does He Say You Are? in which she shares the story of her own motherly grief, in which the loss of her infant son Bryce and four subsequent miscarriages led her and her husband Greg to create a maternity home for indigenous women and their children in Costa Rica. You can read more about it here.

It kind of takes my breath away, thinking of the way God orchestrated all this. Who would have thought, when I was lying broken by the side of the road, that God would use it all to change the lives of two children who had not yet been born? Who would have thought that, after I left missionary work and became Catholic, God would resurrect that desire to serve as a Catholic missionary? Who would have thought that, in his infinite mercy, God would redeem the brokenness of another family, using it to reach a group of people who might otherwise never have known about his infinite mercy?

I remember the deeds of the Lord,
I remember your wonders of old,
I muse on all your works
and ponder your mighty deeds….
You are the God who works wonders.

What’s your story? How has God’s circular mercy been at work in your life? Please consider how you might help to support the work of St. Bryce Missions, and please pray for us as we prepare to go and volunteer — holding babies all day. I can scarcely wait!

Filling up the “Love Banks”

Do you have a child who has sensory issues or who for other reasons does not always respond positively to hugs or other normal signs of parental affection? This is very common in foster and adoptive families as well. At the “Refresh” conference in Chicago this weekend, I shared one idea that has worked well for us — we call it “Filling up the Love Banks.” It allows the child to communicate the kind of touch (and the duration) he or she needs to the parent in a way that respects boundaries and makes the child feel safe and loved.

When I sense that Sarah (or Chris) is in need of a hug, I ask her, “Do you need your love banks filled?” This will generally produce an immediate, positive response. She strips off her socks and shoes and sits on the couch with me, her feet close to my lap. Gently I stroke or put gentle pressure on the instep, musing aloud, “Hmm… let’s check your hug bank first. Is your hug bank full?” If she wants a hug, she says, “No, I think it’s empty.” Then she cuddles up to me and we hug for ten seconds or so. Then I touch the same spot on the foot again. “Is the hug bank full yet? No? Let’s try again.” We hug again, a little longer this time. Then back to the foot rub… until she says the bank is full.

Next, it’s the “kiss bank,” on the other side of the foot. We give butterfly kisses and raspberries, “Mommy kisses” (on the forehead) and fairy kisses (blowing the bangs from the forehead). Buffalo kisses, in which I swish a lock of my hair across her cheek, seem to be a favorite, with “baby buffalo,” “mommy buffalo” and “daddy buffalo” (bigger bunches of hair) each taking a turn. Each time, we check the foot to see if the “Kiss Bank” is full.

The ball of the foot is where the “tickle bank” resides. We like “rub tickles” at our house, gentle pressure on the arms and calves. If your child has a history of abuse, you may want to skip this one at first if you think it will create a trigger. Or you might let your child tickle YOU. Always check every couple of seconds to see if the “tickle bank” is full.

Finally, the “face trace bank.” The child closes her eyes as with one finger the parent traces the eyebrows, eye lashes, nose, lips, and ears. Finish by swooping the whole face in an oval, just beneath the hairline to under the chin.

Feel free to improvise as you discover the kind of affection, respectful touch your child responds to the best. At first you might start with a simple foot massage or scalp massage. Put on some relaxing music. Choose a time of day when you are most wanting the child to relax and “wind down.” This can be a great way for parent and child to bond in a loving, appropriate way that teaches the child to establish and practice healthy boundaries while still getting the love he or she needs to feel happy and connected.love-banks

 

Do you need to REFRESH?

me-tooAs parents, we love our children. We revel in their giggles, rejoice in their accomplishments (“Yeah! The big-boy potty!”), and willingly sacrifice precious hours of shut-eye to tend to their most basic needs (“Good night, Sweetie. What’s that? Thirty cupcakes for Teacher Appreciation Day tomorrow!?”). And yet, parenting children with a history of abuse, neglect, and trauma, parenthood often means other, darker realities as well: isolation, embarrassment, worry, and never-ending self-doubt.

Well-meaning friends and family observe the chaos and try to help, slipping copies of Love and Logic and gently chiding your kiddos to stop climbing the walls, teasing the dog, or hiding turkey under the bed. They press for revealing details about your child’s history and first family, while you attend family functions on pins and needles, just waiting for the next disaster to erupt. You wish for a place where you can just relax and find kindred spirits who truly understand—who respond to your most embarrassing blunders and incriminating thoughts with the two most compassionate words in the English language: “Me, too!”

It’s time for “Refresh,” a regional (Seattle and Chicago) gathering where foster and adoptive parents can find camaraderie, training, and perspective. Founded by evangelical Christians Andrew & Michele Schneidler and “Confessions of an Adoptive Parent” bloggers Mike and Kristin Berry, this year’s event for Midwestern families was hosted in Wheaton, Illinois on November 11-12, 2016. The next conference, in Seattle, will be March 13, 2017.

Craig and I weren’t sure what to expect when we drove up to the Church of the Resurrection on Friday night and walked in the door as laughter and upbeat music emanated from the auditorium. Display tables for Bethany Adoption Services, New Hope Equine Therapy, and Capable Sensory Products lined the walls. Just outside the sanctuary, baskets of paddles reading “Me, too!” (to hold up in solidarity when a speaker shares an observation or story with which you can closely identify). Inside the auditorium, participants wore buttons that helped them connect with those who had similar stories: “Foster-Adoption,” “Sibling Adoption,” “Special Needs,” “Birth Mother,” “International Adoption.” Most people, like us, wore multiple buttons. In no time, we were chatting with new friends about daycare vs. in-home care, and sharing how we bonded with our kids using “love banks” that enabled them to communicate the amount and type of affection they most needed from us. No one pulled away or changed the subject when we talked about the harder stuff, the frustrations and worries. They knew. They had been there.

As Catholics, we had wondered if we’d be welcome—having spent my first thirty years in the evangelical community, I was sensitive to the smiling anti-Catholic undercurrent I sometimes encountered. But to my great relief, we were met with open arms – by their own admission, these parents had known rejection and isolation because of their children’s behaviors, and they were determined to include everyone. When I gave the Schneidlers and Berrys a copy of my book Advent with St. Teresa of Calcutta, they responded with genuine warmth. And I was delighted to see Henri Nouwen’s quote displayed prominently on the screen in one of the talks:

Compassion is not a bending toward the underprivileged from a privileged position, it is not a reaching out from on high to those who are less fortunate below; it is not a gesture of sympathy or pity …. On the contrary, compassion means going directly to those people and places where suffering is most cute and building a home there.

Perhaps I shouldn’t have been surprised. This particular event was dedicated to a cause close to the heart of all Christians who are truly pro-life: supporting families who have said “Yes” to journeying alongside children who have been traumatized by abuse and neglect, and trying to make a difference in their young lives. Not all our stories have a neat-and-tidy, happy ending – one speaker spoke eloquently about what it’s like to watch the police take away your oldest son and place him in the juvenile justice system.

I felt the tears begin to surface as I held up my own paddle. “Me, too.”

If you are unable to attend the next conference but would like some “virtual” help, be sure to sign up for Mike and Kristin Berry’s
“Confessions of an Adoptive Parent”
mailing list.

Time to REFRESH (Chicago)

winterinSomething in the air this week. After two days of a low-grade migraine, I finally cracked when my child-who-shall-be-nameless refused, on pain of death (hers) to do her English assignment — the assignment her teacher wrote down by hand in pains-taking detail, and asked us to work with her to complete. Instead we got a heaping helping of . . . teenage lip.

Predictably, I did not respond well. And as the uglies reached fevered pitch inside, with every member of the house retreating to their respective corners. As you can see, mine was in the far corner of the sectional. And as you can see, Gretta was doing her best to reclaim her spot. If she couldn’t sit on IT, sitting on ME was the next best thing.

In a couple of weeks, Craig and I are going to the REFRESH Conference in Chicago. Looking forward to meeting Mike and Kristin Berry and all the other super adoptive/foster parents. Not that I feel like a super adoptive parent – certainly not today. But it’s good to see a light at the end of the tunnel.

And tomorrow … well, tomorrow we just might tame the Book Thief, after all.

How Stubborn Is She?

grettaToday a new phrase has been added to the Saxton family lexicon: “As stubborn as a Chiweenie in the rain.” You would think that a reasonably intelligent, generously proportioned middle-aged woman would be able to persuade a twelve pound ball of trembling dogflesh (at least five of those pounds water, from having refused to go out to pee the previous night for fear of rain AND dark) to go outside long enough to tinkle.

You would be wrong.

You can almost hear the soundtrack, courtesy of Dr. Seuss:

“I will not tinkle in the rain.
I will not tinkle near that drain.
Won’t tinkle here or there, you’ll see
I really DO NOT HAVE TO PEE.
I’ll slip my harness … it’s not that hard!
Now chase me cross the neighbor’s yard!”

Funny thing is, it feels like I’ve been through this before. Though of course a child’s worth is infinitely higher than a dog, I’ve used many of the same skills in helping this newest “member” of our family adjust to life chez Saxtons as we used to help the kids adjust when they first arrived.

For example, Gretta has for her first few days here resorted to hiding in hard-to-reach places like under my bedside table or underneath the bed in exactly in the middle of the mattress. Yes, I could have grabbed and forced her out – but that would hardly have built trust (and could have resulted in a mini-bite). Instead, we spoke to her kindly, offered food and water periodically, and eventually she came out on her own.

Similarly, when one of the kids took to hiding under tables, my gentle giant of a husband never raised his voice or demanded that the child in question come out. Instead he picked up a bowl of Cheetos and let them do their magic. First a nose, then a questing hand . . . soon Chris was perched next to his new foster dad, munching merrily away.

As I look outside, I realize it has stopped raining. I’d better get the dog. Make … um … spray(?) while the sun shines!

Do Adoptive Parents Love Like Bio Parents?

DSCF0569

A recent comment from a reader caused me to reflect upon this question at the Extraordinary Moms Network. Sorry, for some reason I can’t get this link to work properly: https://extraordinarymomsnetwork.wordpress.com/2016/07/20/do-adoptive-parents-love-like-bio-parents/

First, let me short-circuit any alarm that this question might raise, perhaps particularly in the minds of newly (or aspiring) adoptive parents. I love my kids – and I do think of them as “my” kids, even on the worst days. I know my husband feels the same way. We would do anything for them, even take an extra turn taking out the trash or cleaning up the dishes when we just can’t summon up the energy to enforce the chore chart. Which, depending on your point of view, makes us loving or lazy parents. Take your pick.

I’ve often thought about this question as I’ve been elbow deep in dinner dishes, and I’ve decided that, just as my feelings for Chris and Sarah (and theirs for me) shift from day to day, it’s very likely that it would have been the same way for a biological child. It might have been easier to connect and bond with a child who shares my DNA, I don’t know. What I DO know is that for the past fourteen years, I’ve tried to act loving even when my feelings didn’t measure up. Because that’s what you do when you truly love someone.

This is a lesson we’ve been trying to teach the kids as well. Like many teenagers, they have conflicting feelings about their place in the family at times. (And at times, those feelings seem to target their sibling, with whom they share a genetic link.)

Now, loving under these circumstances requires a certain kind of stubborn stick-to-it-iveness that is very different from the warm-and-fuzzy devotion that kept us plodding through that sleep-deprived haze of the first year.  It can be a bit like hugging a cactus, actually. Is it the same as what biological parents of teens experience? I don’t know.

Then again, it doesn’t really matter, does it?

Why not head over there and weigh in with your experiences?