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!

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A Long and Winding Road

This weekend’s Gospel is one of those in which the Lord makes a pronouncImageement that seems rather . . . uncharacteristic. Certainly rather austere and forboding, to declare that it is better to enter the Kingdom of God maimed or half-blind than to be cast into outer darkness, perfectly whole (see Mk 9:47-48).

Tonight Craig and I are watching The Mermaid’s Chair, a movie based on the novel by Sue Monk Kidd, about a woman who returns to her childhood home on Egret Island when her mother, a cook at the local monastery, deliberately chops off her own finger and buries it near the island shrine dedicated to its little-known patron, Saint Sonora. There she encounters Brother Thomas, who takes her on a winding journey to rediscover both the power of the island . . . and her own interior landscape. None of this would she have been able to do, had the tragedy not occurred.

“It is better to cut it off . . .” The Scriptures are full of stories in which something is lost, so that something better might come. The Prodigal Son, had he not gone on his walkabout, would be merely ‘The Whiney Younger Brother.” The high priest’s servant who lost his ear, and had it miraculously restored by Christ, gave Jesus the opportunity to show that he was offering himself freely into the hands of those who sought to kill him. Through the centuries of every generation have cast aside wealth, prestiege, and even family in order to take up a particular calling. This stripping, this abandonment was a vital component of achieving the sanctity to which they aspired.

Sitting in church today, listening to the reading, I wondered how many of Jesus’ disciples heard his words and wondered at them. The road ahead was long and winding, and those walking along would not have been able to see very far along the path. But one by one, each of them faced their stripping. And from those seeds of martyrdom, the crop of finest wheat sprang up for the Kingdom.

As for me, I strain to see farther than the next bend in the road. Somehow it feels as though I’m being forced to cut off and cast aside something infinitely more precious than a hand or foot or eye. At least for now, we’ve been separated from our son — forcibly, painfully, and without recourse. Our singular hope is that, when the time is right, that painful cutting will produce a finer crop of wheat than we could now imagine.

What is God stripping from you right now? What is he asking you to release back into his hands? Nothing yet? Fear not. The bend in the road is just ahead.

Photo Credit: Kerry Olson, “Wicklow Road, Ireland” from “Scenes from Around the World.”

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.

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!

For Parents Who Wait: St. Thomas More, Patron of Adopted Kids

The other day a friend of mine was asking me about St. Thomas More, the patron saint of adopted and foster children. His feast day is June 22 — but as Advent is a time of “waiting,” and adoptive and foster parents are prone to wait, I thought I’d share this little true story with you today.

Before our children came to us, Craig and I visited London and saw the Tower where St. Thomas was held prisoner by Henry VIII. As part of the tour, the guard took us to the crypt where the head of St. Thomas was interred. Craig and I knelt before the ornate box that bore St. Thomas’ name, and asked the saint to pray for us, and for our children’s angels to protect them until it was time for us to receive them.

Watching us silently for a few moments, the guard finally admitted that the head wasn’t in the box – that to protect it against vandals, it had been buried in a space in the wall behind us. I placed my hand on the wall, and told St. Thomas that if we had a son, he would be named Thomas.

As it turned out, Craig later admitted that he wanted his son named after HIM, or at least to have his initials, and I honored his request … But Christopher knows he has his confirmation name already picked out for him!

Foster and adoptive parents need to be especially flexible and open to changes to “the plan.” And yet, like St. Thomas, we also need to be prepared to stand for truth, and to guard against the negative influences of society. As foster parents, we are often called upon to mitigate the negative effects of our children’s early experiences. Loving discipline, combined with large doses of patience (of which I am naturally in short supply, but God provides!), will help to ensure that however rocky their beginnings, our children will blossom to become God originally created them to be.

Photo credit: This image is available for purchase here.