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.

Advertisements

When a Child Leaves Your Home: Thoughts of a Foster-Adoptive Mom

naughty-kidToday a FB friend asked me if I had any advice about how to recover from a disrupted adoption. It got me thinking about the year we had one of our foster kids rehomed for the safety of the younger two (and, I’ll admit it, for my own sanity as well.) Here are the three tips I shared with her, out of my own experience. Would you add anything?
1. Tune out the nay-sayers. We had well-meaning friends from whom we had to distance ourselves for a time, who chastized us for having the child removed from our home. “Don’t you know she’s just testing you? Don’t you know you are making it that much harder for her to bond with anyone, ever again?”
In reality, we had tried for over a year to help our foster child. There came a point, the details of which do not matter, that it became clear to everyone including the social worker that this child needed to be in a home without other children. Thankfully, she blossomed in her new home — though she has harbored anger towards us. Trauma breeds trauma, and unresolved trauma comes out in all kinds of awful ways. And yet, a decade later we know we made the right choice for everyone involved.
2. Adoption is forever. While foster care is by definition a temporary arrangement (reunion is always the ideal, and about 40-50% of foster children do return to their birth parents), adoption is for life, and if your child leaves you cannot simply wash your hands of him or her, or blot that child from your family’s collective memory.
Continue to pray for that child and to make sure (to the extent possible, depending on your situation) that he or she is remembered and taken care of — birthday cards, notes, and perhaps even visits if a safety plan is in place. Not only is it the right thing to do, this will prevent your weakening the bonds you have with the other children in your home (who may otherwise question the security of your attachment to THEM).
The time may come (it certainly came for us) when the child who left will express anger or resentment toward you for your decision, especially if you kept one or more of his or her siblings. Stay strong, and try to be as gentle and kind as you can. Feelings are not facts, and unresolved trauma breeds more trauma. Acknowledge the pain, but do not take it upon yourself.
3. Acknowledge the loss. To yourself. To the children who remain in your home. To your extended family and friends who support you in your grief. Like a divorce, the consequences of the break are real and need to be processed over time. And like a divorce, the fact that there is pain does not automatically mean that the break was not needed.

“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!

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.

Fostering Futures: A New Concept in Foster Care

jen devivo“Fostering Futures” is a foster care agency that has recently opened in southern Michigan; I am their newest board member!

The agency is the brainchild of a group of experienced, dedicated social workers led by Jennifer DeVivo, LMSW, the Chief Administrator of Fostering Futures. Ms. DeVivo initially began working in foster care in 1998 as a foster care worker and therapist at Boysville of Michigan.

This group’s dedication to (a) train and support high-quality social workers and foster parents and (b) invest state monies directly in the well-being of the children they serve has greatly impressed me. If you live in the Ann Arbor area, and have ever considered fostering, I invite you to attend the next training session and begin to explore the process.

Children in foster care are eligible to receive a wide variety of benefits: medical insurance, WIC, daycare reimbursements, college tuition, tutoring expenses, and a per-diem living expense ranging from $15-32 dollars per day. Singles and married couples are both welcome. If you’d like more information, just fill out this form or drop me a note at hsaxton@christianword.com and I’ll put you in touch with Jen.

Miracle Monday: “Ruby Holler” by Newbury Award Winner Sharon Creech

Ruby HollerWhen I picked up this book at the library the other day, it was in the “junior” section. I saw it was an adventure story about to kids who are adopted by an older couple, and who set out on an adventure — the girl canoeing with the old man, the boy hiking with the old woman. And since I’ve been looking for good books to help engage my nine-year-old with the wonders of reading, I picked it up.

“Ruby Holler is the beautiful, mysterious place …” And indeed the author, Newbery Medal winner Sharon Creech has painted an unforgettable portrait of two unloved children (“trouble twins” Dallas and Florida) who are given a chance for a real family. My twitchy nine-year-old sat still, with rapt attention, as the story unfolded.

As the past heartache and abuse that the two children had endured is described in painful (yet faithfully from a child’s POV) detail. But as I read, I was the one who was squirming … What would it do to my kids to hear about these children who, just like them and their siblings, had endured such a painful past?

I stopped reading. Christopher protested. “Keep going, Mom! I want to know what happens to those kids!”

It’s what every mom hopes for … to get her child engrossed in a story like this. But as every parent knows, the fact that a child wants to see, or hear, or experience something doesn’t mean he or she is old enough to handle it. And so I closed the book and suggested a game of Monopoly (Christopher’s favorite).

That night, I finished the book myself. And I wished I’d read it sooner — before we got our kids, for example. In this story, two veteran and elderly parents welcome two “trouble twins” from the local children’s home into their home, and give a fresh start. In these pages, I was reminded how a little kindness and understanding can form a lasting bond of love, and start the healing process for a child wounded by parents who were less than extraordinary.

Thanks, Mrs. Creech, for this timely reminder.