Learn by Teaching

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This past weekend, I had the privilege of delivering the keynote at the Parenting in Space conference, a fantastic therapeutic parenting conference. I followed up my presentation with a workshop on therapeutic writing. The conference was put on by some of my touchstones in the therapeutic parenting community, including Christine Moers, Billy Kaplan of House Calls Counseling, and Lindsay Crapo. If you’re parenting special needs, or just parenting period, please check out their writing.

I felt a bit out of my league, particularly since only a week before I had been weeping over a screaming child in an airport bathroom, vowing to cancel the engagement the minute I got home. I figured, look at me- what could I possibly have to offer a roomful of people hungry for guidance and hope and support?

Once I’d had a chance to recover, I reasoned that I had the deepest respect for the conference organizers who, for some reason, believed in me. I decided to trust their opinion and just go tell the truth.

I’m so glad I went. The special needs parenting community is a club I never asked to join, but what a gift it has been to my life. Through it, I have seen such bravery and resilience, such commitment and love. If you want to have an experience of truly cutting through the bullshit, go to a therapeutic parenting conference. You will walk into a roomful of strangers and feel like you’ve known them forever. You will circumvent all surface differences and have intensely vulnerable conversations with people you would probably never meet in “real” life. And somehow, even after hearing horror stories about hurt children, you will walk away more deeply in love with humanity. That’s the magic trick Parenting in Space manages to pull off. I was honored to be there.

Here is a little excerpt from my speech:

…I believe the most important thing we did with Tariku, was simply telling him he was safe and loved and we weren’t going anywhere. Over and over and over. I’d even whisper it in his ear while he slept. With time he started to believe it. And the strangest thing happened- I also began to believe I was someone who was strong, who could make a child feel safe, who stuck around through thick and thin, and that was an honorable thing to be.

Even then, it took years, and we had to find a school that was wiling to work through some sticky points with us. He still has a hard time being strong over his body and words. But honestly, he’s such a delight now, we found ourselves sitting around like- this is so EASY. What the heck- let’s do it again! If not us, who?

We went into our second adoption with our eyes open. When we went to visit our new son in his foster care placement, we saw all the signs of severe trauma. We knew his hair-raising story of  neglect. At three yrs old, he didn’t know what a book was – I brought one out and he tried to wear it as a hat. He couldn’t count to three. He had a failure to thrive and was barely the size of a two year old. On our way home from one of our initial visits, I was crying so hard, we pulled the car over and held hands in silence for a while.

We wondered- were we doing the right thing? Were we about to ruin our lives and the life of our shining star of a son who had made so much progress?

Scott said, “Well, you have to believe in someone sometime in this life.”

And I thought, with this man, with the community of support around us, with God, I can do this.

Good story, right?

Except that last week I was sitting in an airplane bathroom holding a screaming toddler for hours, with silent tears streaming down my cheeks. As soon as we landed, I planned to call Billy and cancel, because I couldn’t imagine I had anything to offer. I couldn’t remember any of the right things to say. Ever. I was yelling again. I was crying myself to sleep. Half the time, ok most of the time, I still have no idea what to do, and I wrote a whole book about it!

A good long plane ride with the two worst behaved children in the history of United Airline flights, was a bracing dose of humility for me, the parenting blogger. But when I got some alone time (please, get yourself some alone time) I realized I was back to square one, and that’s a sacred place to be, if you can embrace it. Because square one is where you have the most potential for growth.

The best gift trauma has given me is to release me from the need to be perfect, to win all the time, to please people and fit in. It’s forced me to give up on this big redemption story of mine, in which I impress everyone with my shiny outsides. Because, as it turns out, it’s not my redemption story at all.

That airplane aside, we’ve started to see glimpses- moments, hours, even a whole day here and there- of who our new son truly is, inside his big, wooly, itchy trauma sweater. He’s hilarious. He’s musical. He’s gentle and smart. I’m crazy about him.

I’m glad I didn’t cancel because I eventually remembered what I wanted to say… we don’t have to remember everything. We don’t have to memorize the playbook. We just have to be willing to start exactly where we are, every day. We have to be willing to forgive ourselves, release our own shame, and let it radiate outward to our families from there. We have to be willing to be wrong, to apologize and repair. Mostly, we just have to stick around and keep loving them until they believe it. Not because we’re saints, but because we’re committed and willing to learn.  And because, at the end of the day, we believe in our children and in ourselves.

Here I am with Billy, Christine and Lindsay, feeling grateful:

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