Dancing with a Porcupine: Essential Reading for Foster and Adoptive Parents

dancing with a porcupineIf you are even thinking of becoming a foster parent, you need to read this book.

Like many people who decide to become foster parents, Jennie Owens and her husband, Lynn, were confident that love would conquer all. The trauma. The anger. The pain and loss experienced by every member of the family.

And like many such couples, they never knew what hit them. The isolation. The bone-chilling fatigue. The mental strain. Most of all, the unrelenting inner refraing that keeps on and on: Am-I-going-crazy?

I wish I had had this book fifteen years ago, when I needed to have someone explain to me why self-care is good for the whole family. Why “bonding” can be a subtle trap that prevents kids from becoming as strong and self-reliant as they need to be. Why getting a dog might be the one thing you really do need most. Most of all, why the hardest stuff really is the best.

But better late then never. Thank you, Jennie, for sharing your beautiful heart.

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?

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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?

“Room for One More”: Tale of an Unlikely Thanksgiving

This year I was determined to have a table full for Thanksgiving. With Christopher away, the prospect of cooking a turkey dinner for three was . . . unthinkable.

Long story short, we had two special families join us, families that have extended themselves to us in friendship in a special way this year, journeying beside us for what has been the bumpiest mile of the journey of our lives. Thank God we are getting through it . . . together. Not just us, of course. In reality, we have been constantly surrounded by “family of our own choosing.”  Katy and Todd, Christopher’s godparents; Laura Sanders and Helen Ercolino, who provided therapeutic services; and dozens of others who let us know over and over that they were praying for us. So much to be thankful for.

There have been unpleasant surprises, too. Strained and broken relationships. Injustices inflicted, seemingly without recourse. While many prayers have been answered with small miracles . . . others received nothing more than a simple, “My grace is sufficient for thee…” And with each step, in each moment, we’ve discovered the truth of Teresa of Avila’s classic prayer: “Let nothing trouble thee . . . God alone suffices.”

Tonight Craig and I were watching a little-known (at least to us) movie starring Cary Grant, “Room for One More,” a true story circa 1952 about George and Anna Rose. This Lynnwood NJ couple with three children began taking foster children, including several with emotional special needs. Like many adoption or foster care movies (Martian Child, The Blind Side, Matilda) the conclusion is a bit idealized. On the other hand, the experiences of the past year allows me to see these movies with a new perspective: sometimes, when you’re mid-struggle, it helps to be reminded that the struggle can be worth it in the end. The pain is real . . . but then, so can be the joy.

Happy Thanksgiving!

Healing Childhood Trauma

This week on CatholicMom.com, my column deals with the signs parents should watch for in their children that may indicate they are experiencing trauma and need professional help. The source of the trauma varies from child to child and from family to family: divorce, death, separation, neglect, abuse, financial stress, the list goes on. For children touched by adoption or foster care, unresolved trauma from the circumstances that caused them to be separated from their birth families can affect them into adulthood, even if they are loved and supported by their new families. Love, in and of itself, does not always “conquer all.”

What I wish someone had thought to mention to us when we first got our children, is that unresolved trauma can lie dormant for a time — only to bite you in the glutes as the child approaches adolescence. So parents need to keep a watchful eye, especially in children who have been diagnosed with “invisible disabilities” such as autistic spectrum disorders, ADHD, ODD, attachment issues, and so on. And parents of children with a history of abuse and neglect must never let their guard down entirely. Sneakiness and deceit — even with children who are otherwise good and truthful — is part of the disorder.

Another thing I wish had been pointed out to me is that trauma affects parents, too. After years of dealing with acting-out behaviors, your parent brain may not catch the more subtle signs of “something is not right here.” Not only do your kids need help in healing . . . You may also need help in dealing with the stress.

This week’s Gospel, in which Jesus gives dire warnings to those who cause one of his “little ones” to stumble, predicting millstones and a watery destruction, also provide a faint hint of hope to those who hear with the ears of faith. For the Christian, “death by water” has an entirely different connotation than it does for those who have not experienced the “dying with Christ” and “rising to new life” that baptism represents. Through our baptism, we do have all the graces we need to complete the journey. The path is not without suffering, for we follow in the steps of the Savior who suffered and died for us. But as we travel the road together with our children, we can persevere in faith, trusting in the perfect healing that is to come.

Attachment Therapy: One Family’s Story. Guest Post by “Forever, For Always, No Matter What”

Many children diagnosed with ADHD, ODD, and other “invisible” learning and emotional impairments are in fact struggling to heal from trauma stemming from their early years. Some adoptive parents have found that attachment therapy can greatly improve the parent-child bond. In today’s guest post, Jen Dunlap shares her family’s experience with attachment therapy. If your family has had experience with this type of therapy, what techniques or books did you find most effective?

Our decision to enter into attachment therapy wasn’t made lightly.  It’s easy to be lulled into thinking things aren’t that bad or that we have all the answers.  We ultimately made the decision that we weren’t going to let our pride get in the way of bettering our family.

It’s somewhat of a bitter pill to swallow, since we thought we did everything “right” when our children joined our family.  Co-sleeping, careful about others holding our children too soon, and I committed to being a stay at home mom with a predictable routine and structure.  Therapy has helped me realize that it wasn’t really about us and what we did, but simply about the trauma that happened to our children before they came into our family.

Even though we have only been going to therapy for a few months, and it’s definitely not a quick fix, we have noticed changes.  We have a better understanding of the trauma our children have experienced and how that trauma really does affect the make-up of the brain.  It has given us more empathy as parents, which is crucial in those moments when you need to remain calm yet you really just want to pull out your hair.  The therapist has given us some interesting insight to our children and some of their “quirks”.  Of course, no one knows our children better than us, but a therapist has a different perspective and often a more experienced, educated and objective view.

All of our children really like our therapist and enjoy spending time with her, but they don’t all like the actual therapy session.  Our oldest in particular is a bit resistant.  Our therapist likes to tell him “therapy isn’t for sissies” and she’s right.  It’s hard and quite frankly, he would prefer to keep all the uncomfortable feelings deep inside and not deal with them.  I can’t say that I blame him.  That being said, we’re hoping and praying that getting through the tough things now will only benefit and strengthen each individual but the entire family throughout our lives.

Jen is a wife to one amazing husband and mom to six energetic kids.  Visit Forever, For Always, No Matter What where she blogs about their Catholic faith, homeschooling and adoption.

The Things We Do for Love: “Chopped”!

"Chopped" All StarsWhen you’ve been married for more than a decade, it’s easy to fall into a bit of a routine: He nods off around 9 o’clock while I “channel surf” until I land on a decent movie or one of my cooking shows. My current favorite is “Chopped.”

Each week four professional cooks vie for $10,000 prize money by creating culinary magic from a basket full of unlikely ingredients, creating first an appetizer (from grape jelly beans, conch, purple potatoes and kale), main dish (tofu, rabbit tenderloin, raddicchio, and Sambucca), and dessert (pumpernicle, lichi fruit, quail eggs, and corn nuts). Thirty minutes, starting NOW.

In each round, one chef gets “chopped.” A messy plate, unseasoned vegetable, or (gasp) forgotten ingredient — a regular occurrance at our house, I might add — is enough to send the ‘choppee’ on the walk of shame to those glass doors leading out of the studio.

“What is it ABOUT that show?” My husband usually stirs awake about 10:50, just as the last contestant’s crestfallen visage gets the requisite closeup as he (or, more often, she) recognizes the rejected dish. A fair question, that. Heaven knows I’m a utilitarian cook most days. But there is something about it that resonates with me. I can just see it: Getting trussed in a gown, forced to turn an armful of strange and not a little intimidating raw materials into something approaching a civilized dining experience, on pain of facing a chorus of alternately disapproving and appreciative “experts” whose opinion can make or break your future.

Yeah. A LOT like parenting . . . foster and special needs parenting especially. Alternately exhausting and exhilarating, satisfying and alarming. Sometimes you have to make do with a Cuisinart when what you really need is the sausage grinder, or the broiler when what you really need is the brulee torch. But somehow, inexplicably, joyfully, wondrously . . . it all comes together in the end.

And in the end, you get something a lot better than ten thousand dollars: You get to be “Mom” to a kid that some das you can’t but love so fiercely, it takes your  breath away. And on those other days . . . well, on THOSE days you hold on and just pray that bond between you holds tight. ’cause love never says “chopped.”

OK, all you secret chefs out there: If you could created a “Chopped basket” to challenge your favorite cook, what would go in YOUR basket?

Photo Credit:  “Chopped” airs Tuesdays at 10 p.m.

HR 3827: “Every Child Deserves a Family Act”

Last month Rep. Fortney Stark (D-CA) proposed HR 3827, “Every Child Deserves a Family Act,” which prohibits discrimination in foster or adoptive placements based on the “sexual orientation, gender identification, or marital status.” If it passes, faith-based agencies would be forced to place children in “non-traditional families,” even if it is contrary to their religious beliefs.

With so many children in the United States in need of temporary or permanent homes — over 115,000 of these permanent wards of the state — it seems only fair to ask, “Why not place these kids in the homes of GLBT adults? Isn’t any family better than no family?”

In a word, no.

I do not say this glibly. There is no denying that there is a real shortage of good foster homes, and that more needs to be done to recruit and train licensed foster families. My own kids have an older brother who waited almost three years before he found his “forever family.” Each time we visited, it hurt to hear him cry out for us to take him, too. We couldn’t . . . but we prayed until someone did.

There are times when a single parent may be a child’s best option.  The wholehearted commitment of mature singles who choose to adopt and raise a child alone takes my breath away.  Even so, the absence of a second parent often takes a toll on the whole family.  Nature dictates that the human family by design is based on the love of a man and woman.

To suggest that the best way to find good homes for foster children is to license gay or trans-gendered adults is like saying the best way to solve the priest shortage is to allow priests to marry: It disregards the original purpose of the restriction, as well as the intrinsic good that the requirement represents. In the case of priests, celibacy allows them to channel their energies into a wholehearted service of God; in the case of foster parents, married couples are best able to give children the opportunity to experience family as God intended it — wrapped in the loving embrace of a man and woman sacramentally bound to one another for life.

And so, the issue is not whether someone in the GLBT community can be a good parent, but whether any adult’s “right” to parent should take preeminence over the “right” of a faith-based organization to adhere to sincerely held religious convictions when assessing the “best interests of the child,” the golden standard of social work.

Ironically, the “old-fashioned” choices of those with strong religious convictions can actually count against them as foster parents. For example, Michigan families with eight or more children may not take in foster children. Homeschooling families are also ineligibal (unless the foster children are sent to public school). Corporal punishment is prohibited; permission must be obtained to take a foster child to church. Each state has additional requirements.

Believe it or not, most states already permit GLBT adults to become foster parents, and in many cases to adopt. Some public agencies actively recruit members of the gay community, believing them to be an underutilized source of foster families. However, study after study has shown that children need both a mother and a father. This is not “prejudice,” but common sense.

Children who wind up in the foster care system have to overcome so many sad circumstances, and deserve not to be used as pawns by those who seek to exercise their “rights” to the detriment of those children who really do deserve special protection.

Please write your Representative, and ask him or her not to support this bill.

 

A Severe Kind of Mercy

As I contemplated writing tonight’s post, I read that Moammar Gaddafi’s youngest son and three grandchildren were killed in a NATO missile strike. The general survived, the report continued. On the other hand … how does anyone survive a loss of that magnitude?  

Ordinarily the news might not have made such an impression on me. However, I recently took my children to see their birthparents, who had not seen any of their four kids in seven years.  It was supposed to be another seven years before Chris was supposed to see them, but Christopher’s birthdad had been having heart trouble. Craig and I talked about it off and on for months, until he finally — reluctantly — agreed to a single visit.  We didn’t want Christopher to miss seeing him altogether.

As we walked into the home, Christopher became very animated, shouting, “I remember! I remember!” He ran upstairs to his old room, which seemed not to have been touched since he left it. All his toys and toddler-sized clothes were still there, as though he would be home to stay any minute. As though the little boy he once was had been frozen in time.

It was the same with Sarah’s room. The crib, the rocking chair, the baby swing … Everything was still there. Quickly their birthmom began digging through toys, handing them to the kids until their arms were full as the birthdad left the room so the kids didn’t see his tears. On the way home, I contemplated what I had seen and wondered if I’d done the right thing. 

Then, as if in response to my unspoken thoughts, Christopher piped up, “I can’t wait until I turn 18, so I can move back with my real family.”

I swallowed hard, trying not to show how his words had hurt. “You already live with your real family, Christopher.  You will always be part of our family, no matter how old you are. That’s adoption.”

He thought about that for a minute. “Well… maybe I can live in the middle.”

This “living in the middle” feeling was understandable, and I didn’t take it personally. I have read of adoptive families that  successfully integrate birthfamily members into their extended family. Even so, my son’s comment made me wonder: How can a child who has contact with two sets of parents grow up feeling anything but “in the middle”?

A few weeks have passed, and I’m still not sure it was the right choice.  Time will tell.  What I do know is that once again Sarah is sleeping with us every night, and Christopher has been having nightmares in which I disappear and he can’t find me. I agreed to the visit out of love . . . and yet I can’t help but wonder if it wasn’t a severe kind of mercy.

God’s mercy can also seem severe sometimes. This is the side of grace we don’t often consider. When Craig and I were presented to John Paul II in 1999, while in Rome on our honeymoon, I distinctly remember looking into the man’s clear blue eyes and thinking that I’d seen heaven there.  He could barely walk, and was a shell of the vital man he once was. Six more years would pass before he was finally laid to rest. Six more years of walking through that valley of the shadow, one painful step at a time.

However, the man Karol Wojtyla had embraced the job God had given him to do: to take up a particular cross that would uniquely reflect the self-donating love of God to all his children. As Pope John Paul II, he reminded us how utterly we need that hard-won, amazing grace every day of our lives. Even, and perhaps especially, when that way grows difficult, when it would be easier just to give in to despair and bitterness.  It is an uncommon kind of mercy, which drives the nails into the cross we have been called to carry.

As we celebrate the beatification of John Paul the Great tomorrow, let us remember the Divine Mercy that guides each of us all the way to heaven.  Together, as a family, in good times and bad, let us recall the act of grace emblazoned on Faustina’s image:

Jesus, we trust in you!

The Woman in the Mirror

Today I’d like to reprise a few thoughts from my early days of foster care, in gratitude for the new friends I made today who are interested in becoming foster parents — even after I hinted that it could be JUST a bit more challenging than they thought when  they first looked into it!

Foster parenting is tough. There’s really no getting around it. Unlike biological parenting, in which the mother gets to experience labor before delivery, with foster parenting (and adoption), the labor takes place AFTER the delivery. And it can be every bit as messy, painful, and embarrassing. But then — it can also be a good source of future writing material!

One morning when you least expect it, you’ll look in the mirror and find it looking back at you. The phantasm bears a slight resemblance to your familiar self, except… Is it possible that your husband installed a trick mirror while you were dozing, just for kicks? This gal has…

  • Eyes bloodshot from getting up every two hours with one toddler’s night terrors and the other’s asthma attacks.
  • Stomach is rumbling from not eating a decent meal since… What is this? May?
  • Throat is raw from screaming like a fishwife, just to hear herself above the din.
  • In the same set of sweats she’s worn all week, sans bra. Even to the doctor’s office.

And as the bathroom door reverberates with the pounding of three insistent sets of little fists, you pray the lock will hold long enough for you to sit down for five seconds and have one coherent thought.

Suddenly, it hits you:

This is not what I signed up for. I don’t recognize that ghoulish figure in the mirror. She’s grouchy. She’s wrinkled and rumpled, and so are her clothes. She smells like baby barf. Make her go away.

Easier said than done. But if you watch my back, and I watch yours, maybe we can figure this out together. We’ll get those Mommy Monsters.

Taming the Mommy Monster

In my book Raising Up Mommy, I write about the seven deadly sins of motherhood – and the “celestial virtues” we need to acquire as an antidote to those spiritually toxic habits.

The thing is, I never realized how desperately I needed them until I became a mother. Didn’t realize how angry, selfish, and niggardly I could be with those I professed to love most. In retrospect, I’ve come to believe that it was because God knew precisely these things about me, He sent these particular children my way.

I’d like to say that in a short time, I had eradicated all traces of self-centeredness and sloth from my soul.  That wouldn’t be true.  But in the words of the old hymn by Annie J. Flint,

“He giveth more grace as the burdens grow greater,
he sendeth more strength as the labors increase.
To added afflictions, he addeth more mercy,
To multiplied trials his multiplied peace.

His love hath no limit, his grace hath no measure
His love hath no boundaries known unto men.
But out of the infinite riches of Jesus,
He giveth, and giveth, and giveth again.”

Living with the Hard Choices

 One of the hardest lessons I had to learn was recognizing my own limits, and doing what was right rather than what was popular.

 When the children first came to us, there were three of them. Within a few weeks, it became clear that three was one too many; because of what they had endured prior to coming into care, they needed more attention than I could possibly give them on my own.

After about a year, we asked the social worker to find another placement for the oldest child – someplace where there were no other small children, and she could have the undivided attention she needed.  Our intention was to raise the children like cousins, seeing one another for birthdays and holidays and day trips.  We recognized this wasn’t ideal – but we also recognized that, in this situation, it was all we could do.

In retrospect, it was absolutely the right choice. Their sister flourished in her new home, and grew up to be a beautiful, thoughtful young woman.  Every time we see her, we thank God for bringing that couple into her life – and every time, we reassure ourselves that we did indeed make the right choice for all of us.

It wasn’t the popular choice. People who knew us only casually were horrified to learn that the girl was going to live somewhere else.  How could we abandon the child like this, making it impossible for her to trust anyone again?  How could we just give up on her?

It wasn’t easy.  In fact, it was humiliating. But it was the right thing to do.

That is the beauty of adoption.  For every “impossible” child, God has prepared his parents, giving them just the right graces in just the right amount (though sometimes those qualities are latent until they have a chance to be exercised a bit!) so that they can help one another to heaven.  It’s never easy – neither the letting go, or the welcoming. But the graces are there for the taking.  Jesus said it best: “Whoever welcomes this little child in my name, welcomes me.”