Letter to My New Mom Self

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAI’m getting ready to go out of town for a few days, and so I wanted to reprise something for Mother’s Day from a few years back. This year Christopher turns 18, and is reconnecting with some of his birth family, so it seems like the right time to get a little retrospective. (If that’s the right word.)

Oh, and if you caught my Mother’s Day article over at “The Perennial Gen” and have wandered over here … Welcome! (Don’t get scared off by the post under this one. I promise I can’t remember the last time I blogged about anything political. I have enough drama in my life without adding to it — don’t you?)

And so, without further ado … Pour yourself a cup of tea and meander with me to 2015.

Next weekend we celebrate a decade of “official” family life. Ten years since the adoptions were finalized and the kids were officially welcomed into the family . . . and baptized into God’s. We plan to go to Cedar Point with their godparents, to celebrate. This weekend, though, as Sarah and I sit in the living room — her painting designs on her fingernails and watching Girl Meets World, and me typing, my mind drifts back to those first few weeks together. Some parts are such a blur, but others come back with crystal clarity. And so, before those bits get fuzzy, too, I thought I’d write a little letter to my new-mom self.

Dear New-Mom Heidi:

I know it seems impossible right now, when every hour drags as you try to cope with enormous mounds of laundry and unending chaos. Poop on the walls. Food splattered on the ceiling. Kids screaming you awake at one-hour intervals. A husband who spends L-O-N-G hours at work and leaves you alone from dawn to dusk with these ornery little dickenses. I know. I know. But trust me, it won’t always be like this.

Be as gentle with yourself and your family as you possibly can. You have undertaken the most difficult challenge of your adult life, infinitely harder than you thought it would be. But trust me when I tell you this: You can make it easier, or you can make it MUCH harder, just by what you choose to see. This is not the time for your “volunteer” gene to go into overdrive at church, or to take on a forty-hour work week. Because you will never get this time back. And neither will your kids.

Don’t worry about your job right now, and get some help if you possibly can so you can catch up on your sleep. This is a marathon, not a sprint. Every moment you spend with them now will pay rich dividends down the line. But now it’s time to pay up.

Breathe. Laugh. Relax. These kids won’t get calmer, or sleepier, or happier if you are a stressed-out mess. So do everyone a favor. Don’t set the bar too high. Get some help — since you don’t have family nearby, au pairs are worth their weight in gold. Keeping them at home, close to you, is going to help the trauma heal. Read about trauma. And stop yelling, or you’ll make it worse.

Protect them, and never let them out of your direct line of vision, even with other kids. Yes, you need a break, and yes those breaks are few and far between. But trauma attracts trauma, and the worst kinds of abuse breeds sneakiness. Keep your kids close, as close as you possibly can as much as you possibly can, if you want those broken little hearts to heal. When you want their attention, whisper. And don’t forget to teach them “feelings” words. Or to get down on their level, and touch them gently when you want to make eye contact.

Resign your dreams and expectations. They may always struggle academically, no matter how many story hours and silly songs you share with them. No matter how many specialists and therapists they see. They may never make the honor roll, but if they keep talking to you, you’re ahead of the game. Spend more time focusing on their gifts, and less on their challenges.

Expect it to hurt . . . but look for the joy. The kids won’t remember if you stood over them while they struggled through their homework. But they’ll never forget it when you put down the rake, and jump in the leaf pile with them! Let them eat the raw cookie dough and sprinkles, and don’t ration the M&Ms so much.

Adoption is hard work. Don’t forget to enjoy the perks!

Happy Mother’s Day!

 

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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.

 

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!