31 Days of De-Stressed Living, Day 12: Get Silly

monster momIn 2002, when we got the kids, we quickly realized we were in over our heads, trying to foster three kids under the age of five with special emotional needs. Looking back, it’s kind of miraculous that no one died those first two years. From my first blog, “Mommy Monsters,” archive in 2004 . . .

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 yourself above the din.
  • In the same set of sweats you’ve 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 so are her clothes. She smells like baby barf. Ugh.

I remember being that disheveled freakshow, running to my computer and sending an emergency e-blast to every mother in my distribution list, looking for immediate solutions. “What do you do,” I implored, “When you’ve had it up to here and they simply won’t give you a moment’s peace?!”

I received sympathetic chuckled from all over cyberspace. But the one that was the most immediately useful came from my friend Martha Bolton, a comedienne who was for years a staff writer for Bob Hope. “Get on the floor with them,” she said to me. “Get silly.”

Not a bad idea. You see it in all the great parenting movies, like “Mr. Napkin Head” in The Holiday.

The Holiday, mr napkin head

Yes, we mothers really need to cut loose!

Sometimes you just need to put away the datebook and pull out a little fun. Make sock puppets or sugar cookies. Paint a handprint mural or let your eight-year-old give you a makeover. (I thought this mom was especially inspiring, letting her daughter draw a mustache on her baby brother.)

Okay, now put down the computer . . . S-L-0-W-L-Y. And go have fun!

funny-face2

The Book Whisperer: “God Found Us You” by Lisa Bergren and Laura Bryant

Book WhispererMerry Christmas! While my family and I are unwrapping our presents, I wanted to share this resource for families whose children experience emotional upsets during the holidays or at other times (such as birthdays) that are typically “happy” occasions.

In Handle with Care, Picoult refers to a “language of loss” that parents and children endure in the most intimate family relationships. Within adoptive families, these losses can be especially complex — if for no other reason, because of the number of people involved in the family bond.

God found us you

As parents, however, we must be willing to see – and help them articulate – the pain of our children as it surfaces. Sometimes the expressions of grief will surface at unexpected times. For example, the other day I was reading my children a book entitled God Found Us You, by Lisa Bergren and Laura Bryant (HarperCollins).

This happy, gentle story about a mother fox and her adopted baby fox, who asks her to tell him the story of how he came to be with her. The kind of books adoptive parents love, because it ties up the future in a lovely, reassuring bow. We read it to our children, hoping it will give them the feelings of love and security we so much want them to have.

The first I read this book to my kids, however, their reaction was mixed. While they want — and need — the reassurance of my love for them (just as Mama Fox reassures her little one), the book also brought some unsettling feelings to the surface.

“It is those who have been most deeply wounded by grief that have the greatest capacity for joy.” I can’t recall where I heard this bit of wisdom, but it seems to fit here. We cannot “fix” or wipe away the pain, cannot silence this language of loss. But if we are doing our job as parents, our children will find in us the compassion they need to make sense of their world.

The Book Whisperer: Two Special Books on Adoption

Book WhispererTo kick off my first “Book Whisperer” column, I thought I would share some wonderful adoption resources. If you have other recommendations, why not send me a note?

ten days Continue reading

The Road Trip Begins

fireplaceYesterday I arrived at Ave Maria to find my coworkers had transformed the office into a real “winter wonderland.” Up to and including the fireplace, fashioned from glittery paper and Christmas lights hidden behind a Yule log. Clever, huh? Made the sixteen-hour journey in the snow the previous day via train, two airplanes, and car . . . worth it.

“Journeying” is a popular metaphor in the publishing world. A good book is supposed to be transformative, leaving you better off simply for having invested yourself in it.

Parenting is also a journey. You start out with a little bundle (or, in my case, three larger ones), and discover a whole new side of yourself emerging. More love than you ever thought you had. Also more less flattering emotions (sleep deprivation does that to you.) But over time, you realize that even these begin to mellow into something more . . . human. Authentic. More fully “you.”

In the coming year, I’d like to invite you to journey with me on that parenting road trip. Sometimes that road trip will be literal (on Fridays I’ll be blogging about memorable places I’ve been to over the years, and invite you to join in the fun). Other times it will be more literary. (Wednesdays here will be my “Book Whisperer” column, where I point you to books and other resources that I’ve found helpful both in writing and in raising two special-needs kids, and invite you to share yours as well.) On Mondays, though, I hope to post about the journey of parenting. Feel free to play along!

Finally, I recently redid my “About” page (thanks to Michael Hyatt’s timely advice in Platform: Get Noticed in a Noisy World). If you’d like to guest post, to share your favorite book or not-to-be-missed road trip experience, please let me know!

“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.

The Warrior Is . . . a Mom

Lately I’ve been winning battles left and right.

But even winners can get wounded in the fight.

People say that i’m amazing, never face retreat.

But they don’t see the enemies that lay me at your feet.

They don’t know that I go running home when I fall down.

They don’t know who picks me up when no one is around.

I drop my sword and cry for just awhile.

‘Cuz deep inside this armor, the warrior is a child.

This ballad by Twyla Paris is part of my childhood soundtrack. Perhaps you have a song like that tinkling in the back of your mind, pushing its way to the front in times of stress, anxiety or utter weariness.

When God created women, he made our strength primarily interior and constant (as opposed to the exterior, brute force more commonly associated with men because of their greater strength and size. That strength is most clearly seen in adversity: that catastrophic illness, that financial blow, that unrelenting burden. We pick up that sword (or dishcloth or bedpan or syringe) long enough to beat back the darkness . . . and then, when the need to be strong is over, even momentarily, we collapse.

We cry for just awhile. And then we take it up that sword again. Because that is the source of our strength; knowing when to let go. Even for a while.

Thanks, Twyla.

Tell me . . . what’s YOUR song?

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.

Adopting Older Teens: Should You Consider It?

Today I came across Nissa Gadbois’ new blog “At Home with the Gadbois Family.” They are attempting to raise $30,000 in order to bring home three teens from Ukraine. (If you would like to help, a link is on her site to the Paypal account set up for this purpose.)

I admire Nissa’s passion and resolve on behalf of these kids who, without her help, are very likely to “age out” of the institutional care they currently receive. It’s heartbreaking to even contemplate.

I’ve come to believe that God puts a custom-designed hole in the heart of every adoptive mother, that only the children HE has in mind for her can possibly fill. And once that hole is there, you want to move heaven and earth to protect and nurture that little soul. The thing is, it doesn’t feel like anything extraordinary, just what parents are supposed to do. Because you love your kids, no matter what. That’s what that “custom hole” is for.

Clearly, Nissa has that kind of hole in her heart as well, which is giving her family the courage to respond to the call to adopt these three kids. At the same time, I would urge caution to anyone considering adopting an older child: Be sure you go into it with your eyes wide open. The older the child, the greater the chances of trauma that all the love in the world may not be able to undo entirely. Yes, these children are a gift, and may be God’s gift to your family. But do your homework, all the while realizing that you may not uncover the full story for years. Attachment and bonding issues (especially with sibling groups or institutionalized children), drug and alcohol syndrome/exposure, sexualization, and other kinds of trauma and impairments may be in store.

That’s not to say “don’t do it.” Only, “Go into it, prayerfully and cautiously, knowing that you are heading down ‘a road less traveled’ and will need extra help along the way.”

God bless you! (And please help the Gadbois family if you can.)