National Foster Care Month

RaiseAChild_0183

You deserve to be happy…

That was the well-worn refrain of my girlfriends, when we were in our early twenties. Usually in response to misery over some guitar player or other with long eyelashes, perfectly cut jeans, and a tendency to make out with your roommates.

Get rid of that loser! You deserve to be happy!

I’ve changed my mind since then. I no longer think I deserve happiness. Hear me out, before you go all crazy and start leaving me voicemails saying, “Oh, but you do!”

I no longer believe I deserve anything in particular, or that we live in a universe that hands out just desserts, based on some cryptic metaphysical barter system. But I do believe we’re tasked with making meaning out of what comes our way, and that we’re responsible for taking care of each other.

–image–

I also tend to think this mythical state of “happiness” we somehow deserve, is overrated. Often the things I dread the most wind up being the most valuable to me.

For example, something that recently happened around here…

A few months ago, we figured out that Jovi needed a dedicated therapeutic preschool environment, and we got him into a phenomenal program. One of the reasons the school is so effective with early interventions is they treat the whole family, and give everyone tools for communication, conflict resolution, self-regulation, talking about your feelings… all the good stuff. This requires a hefty time commitment, particularly in the beginning.

Now we get to the annoying part – I found myself attending preschool full-time for three months. Now, I love kids. I especially love my own kids! I also love dropping them off at school and going to get a bagel and write in a cafe. I’ve never really been the kind of person who would choose to be in a classroom of small children all day long. I was not a bit happy about my bagel-less new career attending preschool.

That sentiment remained until my final day there. I never stopped being a little bit resentful about sacrificing my few hours a day of freedom. And yet, I wept helplessly on the stairs outside when the day came that I finally dropped him off and walked away. Regardless of my resistance, my time with Jovi at school was beyond a doubt one of the most worthwhile experiences of my life, and I had such a feeling of loss when it was over that I had trouble even driving out of the parking lot.

Jovi came to us when he was 3.5 going on 35. He had such a vast body of experience already, some of which will always remain a mystery to me. I spent my time at the school learning how best to communicate with him, from true experts. I made a conscious decision to turn off my phone and put away the outside world and really get to know him, in all his hilarious, brilliant, resilient, creative magnificence. I will treasure that time for the rest of my days.

I’m a busy working mom of two kids with trauma histories, and like most moms I have my share of moments when I feel despair and failure. There is also remarkable hope and faith, but I still often wonder if I’m unequal to the task I’ve taken on. And yet, when the children are asleep, breathing evenly beside me, and I just sit quietly and take a moment and listen to the distant sounds of urban life- the hum of traffic, the tumbling dryer, the buzz of a million lives outside my door- I feel a part of the flow and the struggle and the healing, I know that my life has meaning, and just for a heartbeat I get to understand it.

In those moments, I fall in love, passionately, with all of it. Mostly, with us as a family. It’s a love I never could have imagined, as that twenty-year-old who felt like I deserved the rock star of my dreams (ok, that did happen, but you get the point) and the world on a platter. I am renewed and ready to wake up and do it again.

I’ve been thinking about this a lot because it’s National Foster Care Month. Scott and I are honored to have had the opportunity to participate in a couple of outreach efforts, including this nifty streetlight banner campaign for Raise a Child. It was really fun to drive under them and surprise the kids!

raise-a-child-comp

The short video we did with Raise a Child is below, as is one for the Alliance of Moms, an organization whose mission is to break the intergenerational cycle of babies born to teens in foster care.

RaiseAChild #ReimagineFosterParents – Jillian Lauren & Scott Shriner's Story from Rich Valenza on Vimeo.

As I watch Jovi flourish and marvel at what an incredible kid he is, I think of all the Jovis out there, who never will get the chance to shine.

I hear a lot of doubts and resistance toward the idea of getting involved in the foster care crisis in this country. It’s hard. It’s a time commitment. It’s sad. There’s loss involved. There are hurt kids involved and it’s a tough reality to face. It may be painful. You might cry. All those things are true.

It’s also true that it’s one of the most gratifying things I’ve done, and I’m stronger and more hopeful than ever for it. I look forward to finding new ways to get involved.

In Los Angeles alone there are 25,000 precious kids in the foster care system. There are so many ways to help- you don’t necessarily have to foster or adopt (although those ways are awesome!). I’ve included links to some recommended organizations and resources. If you feel moved, take a peek at one or all of them.

Happy National Foster Care Month to you! I’m only getting to this out when the month is almost over because I am now a mother of two, and I will apparently never again meet a deadline!

Sending love,
Jillian


SOME AWESOME RESOURCES:

For starters, come join us for a fabulous evening at the Five Acres Gala! Buy your tickets now. We’ll be there.

FIVE ACRES: This is the agency that helped us adopt Jovi, and still provide us with incredible support and services. For over 129 years Five Acres has been committed to preserving successful childcare programs and developing innovative services for children and families in crisis. With over 100,000 clients served since its founding in 1888, Five Acres currently cares for 8,700 children and families annually, across five counties including Los Angeles.Five Acres actively strives to provide a sense of belonging by connecting children to caring adults with safe, permanent and loving families. With strong stability and the chance to stay in a loving home, children are able to rebuild their sense of belonging and grow.

WHAT YOU CAN DO: One of my favorite posts of all time, by Kristen Howerton at Rage against the Minivan. About what you can do to help if you’re not in a position to adopt.

RAISE A CHILD: Raise a child has developed a system to find—and then support—people who are interested in becoming foster/adoptive parents. As a result, RaiseAChild out performs the national standard by advancing 23% of prospective foster and adoptive parents from inquiry to certification.

ALLIANCE OF MOMS: Alliance of Moms is a new generation of philanthropists whose mission is to break the intergenerational cycle of babies born to teens in foster care. An auxiliary group to the Alliance of Children’s Rights.

THE CONNECTED CHILD, by Karyn Purvis. My favorite adoption and attachment-related book of all time.

KIDSAVE: Host a child or mentor a child. Hosting gives the kids an opportunity to experience family life and build a relationship with a family who will either adopt them or introduce them to others who are interested in adoption. What Kidsave has experienced over the years, is that once people meet the kids it becomes easy to be their advocates — or to fall in love.

Comments are off for this post

A Tale of Two Inaugurations

IMG_5263

IMG_5210

Tariku and I attended the Women’s March Los Angeles, on January 21, 2017.

We could barely move, gridlocked in a sea of bodies. We were all there to be counted. To say we did not consent to this new world order of fear and scapegoating and hate and rabid nationalism. I held Tariku’s hand, now practically the size of a catcher’s mitt. He rarely lets me anymore, but even my bold, brazen boy was unsettled by the sheer number of souls crowding the downtown streets.

Our experience of the Women’s March was moving, inspiring, and also totally annoying, as a day of inconveniences will often be when you’re with your kid. Tariku bitched and whined for roughly 7 straight hours that we never got to meet up with his friends, and that we had to walk for so long. It was blustery and overwhelmingly crowded. The Metro was impossibly backed up and there was no cell reception, so we almost had to walk the 6 miles home. We made it about 2 miles up Sunset Blvd (which was NOT FAIR), before we finally got reception and a friend came to pick us up.

And we had to wait in a long line for tacos, which was also NOT FAIR. Lots of things are not fair right now. Nearly-nine-years-old is the age of realizing how very #$%! unfair the world is.

Exactly eight years and a day prior, on January 20, 2009, I sat on a beat-up, brown, velour couch in a guest house in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, while a tiny Tariku slept on my chest. After a few days of transitioning him slowly out of the care center in which he’d been living for nine months, he was finally in my arms for good. I never again had to leave him in that crib covered in chipped, sky-blue paint, with a picture of Scott and me taped to its rails.

DSC09326

He was eleven months old and it was his first night with us. We had zero idea of how it was going to go. Do babies sleep when you watch TV (Yes! Sometimes they do!)? Why won’t he eat the baby cereal I brought for him (Because it’s gross, and anyway he’s already eating spicy sausage stew.)? Will he die if he doesn’t poop for two days (Nope. But you will be very, very sad when he finally does.)?

I held his tiny, perfect hands. Smelled his sweet head- that baby scent that resembles a magical combination of soap and angel cake and fairy dust. Our new friends sat beside us, also holding their babies. Tears of awe and joy and relief streamed down all our faces as on the satellite TV we watched Obama’s inauguration. Aretha Franklin sang “My Country Tis of Thee,” and in doing so, we hoped, we thought, we knew, ushered in a whole new era.

IMG_0902

I was sure I was bringing my son, my black son, home to a world that was immeasurably better, safer, more humane, than any that had come before it.

A lot happens in eight years.

IMG_5286

I now have two sons. I now feel as if I have to apologize for the world in which I’m raising them. I feel compelled to ask forgiveness for my own culpability and privilege. For having done what I thought was my best, and it not being enough.

Some of my changing perspective has to do with this wild political pendulum swing we’re experiencing. Some of it has to do with my own re-education about race in America.

One thing that has not changed is my hope– a thumbprint on my heart, small right now but still very much alive.

IMG_5326

My son- my tall, brave, bright, whiny, impossible, beautiful, surprising son- held my hand as we marched with 750k people through downtown LA, along with millions of people marching around the world. Together we chanted, “This is what democracy looks like!”

I will never forget it. Any more than I will ever forget holding his small, fragile body that first night and imagining the sparkling future that has not, in fact, come to pass. Yet.

DSC09328

Comments are off for this post

A Letter to Jovi Starshine on his Gotcha Day

img_4823

To my Starshine on his Gotcha Day

A year ago you showed up here in your red-and-black sweatsuit, with pleather stars in a semicircle across the chest. You didn’t know what they were called yet, but you loved those stars. When it came time to pick your middle name, your brother suggested Star. You picked Starshine, after the song from Hair I sing to you every morning.

“I Jovi Starshine,” you said. And so you are.

You were three-and-a-half when we found each other.

The second day I visited you at your foster home, I took you out for lunch. You wouldn’t stop facetiming Daddy in the car. When I finally insisted we walk into the Sizzler rather than sitting in the parking lot all day, you pointed at Scott’s face on the little screen and me sitting there gobsmacked in the front seat, and said, “Him my daddy, and her my mommy.”

I can only imagine how frightening it was for you when your prediction actually came true.

Miss Johnson (your foster mom before you came to us) dropped you at our house a few days later and then slipped out the front door because she had a hard time with goodbyes. And just like that your world changed entirely.

So many mangled goodbyes in your short life. A lifetime of terrifying and unfamiliar and unsafe everything. You didn’t speak much for weeks.

It was scary for us, too. But we believed in you from the minute we looked into the depths your sparkling, huge eyes. My heart still kvells every time I see them peeking up from behind the couch, where you like to hide and wait for us to find you.

There is nothing in this world as wildly sweet as watching those eyes open when you wake. For just a moment, they are as tender and as young as they should be, nestled in your puffy morning face.

You have a thousand faces. Sometimes you walk like a prizefighter. Sometimes you walk like a runway model. You talk like a sixteen year old. You talk like a two year old. You are an ever-shifting mystery, and yet I can’t imagine a time you weren’t with us. I feel like I’ve known you always; you are a part of my body and soul.

You fight with your brother nonstop, but you two won’t be apart from each other for five minutes. You push and pull. You want to be close but you’re afraid.

img_4822

Truly you are a miracle, my glorious son. You couldn’t hold a crayon, and now you write your name. You could barely speak and now you know all your letters. You couldn’t count to three and now you count to fifty.

You are funny and musical. You love to listen to KISS and Weezer and Panic at the Disco. You dance even when there is no music. For you, there is always music. I can see you’re listening to it. I wish I could hear it. I hope I will someday.

You love to play pranks. You want a snake for the holidays, just so you can scare me.

You have a flair for drama You love makeup and costumes and masks. You keep lipgloss and Pokemon cards and your Barbie “cellphone” in your Elmo purse.

img_4856

You love to press buttons. You love sloths and dogs.

You don’t even know that your dog Calvin is usually grouchy and growly and snappy, because you have brokered some kind of magical agreement with him, in which he sits there contentedly while you hug and kiss him, and put your fingers up his nose. No one- I mean no one- has ever done that to Calvin without practically losing a finger. You dad likes to say that you and Calvin have “an arrangement.” I like to think Calvin feels your heart and knows that you are deeply gentle.

You are also a fighter. You show me your muscles ten times a day. You are growing stronger all the time. You know it and you want to make sure the world around you reflects it. I hope I do.

A year ago we tried to go to a bowling alley on New Years day and you sat there emaciated and overwhelmed, crying and shaking in your winter coat. Yesterday when we bowled,  you stood tall and strong and bowled a strike.

You are my heart and my hope. I love you beyond all imagining. I can’t wait to see what this next year brings.

Love,

Mommy

 

img_4942

Comments are off for this post

Meet our Son

160529_elcap__489

img_4114

img_4124

Yesterday, the four of us drove out to Lancaster and stood holding hands under the fluorescent lights of the juvenile court. The kindly Santa Claus of a judge spoke a few magic words and in an instant the world got brighter, our breathing easier, the burden on our shoulders lighter…

Dearest friends, we are over the moon to finally introduce you to our son- legally. All signed and sealed.

Jovanni Starshine.

Isn’t he glorious?

We call him Jovi. Jovi Starshine. Tariku picked his middle name and you have to meet him to know how wonderfully apropos it is. This kid sparkles with joy and sweetness and resilience and mischief and creativity and curiosity and music and dancing and delight.

“Look what we did,” I said to Scott on the ride home, somewhat astounded to be watching our children happily munching animal crackers, listening to their favorite songs, getting crumbs all over their good suits. We made a family.

“Look what we did,” he agreed.

My heart is a balloon. Meet Jovi.

He is perfect. We are perfect together.

Now that I can legally show you his face, brace yourself to be barraged with roughly a bazilliontrillion pictures (top photo by Jill Greenberg)…

 

img_3757

img_3313

img_1600

 

img_4215

 

Comments are off for this post

An Open Letter to Parents of Well Behaved Children

IMG_3176

Dear Parents of Well Behaved Children,

I just spent the summer traveling around the country with two spirited children and I have met lots of you. You usually like the idea of us. You start out eager to chat with me at the pool or the park. You ask if my boys are adopted. You tell me you’ve always thought of adopting… later. Someday. You tell me how beautiful they are. They are.

And then my little one gets frustrated with something and shouts, “SHUT UP, YOU FUCK!”

Then my big one does a wild dance that is funny for a minute but goes on a little too long. Then a lot too long. And it starts to seem weird.

Your smile grows forced, your body language uncomfortable. You drift away. You corral your kids in another part of the playground.

Don’t think they don’t notice. Don’t think it doesn’t hurt my kids’ feelings to be rejected and side-eyed. Don’t fool yourself into thinking they are doing anything but their absolute best. They want the exact same thing we all want- to be seen and loved and appreciated for who we are.

When your kids are munching the sushi from their bento boxes and politely building Neutra-inspired sand castles, it’s easy to think you got all this because you’re worthy of it. You manifested it from your vision boards. Your babies listened to so much Mozart in the womb they popped out whistling “A Little Night Music.” When they were six days old they asked you in sign language to please turn on NPR.

I’m sure they did. And I’m sure you’re terrific parents. But having well-behaved kids is also in part an accident of birth. A roll of the dice that landed just so in terms of privilege, personality, temperament, needs, and abilities.

By a different accident of birth, my kids were born into traumatic situations, and now fight mightily to function with neurological wiring that tells them every minute of every day that they are unsafe and everything they know and love could at any minute be taken away from them. So, yeah, my little one swears like a sailor and my big one will teach your kid to fart on cue. And they are doing AMAZING. This is what amazing looks like for us.

I had so many judgments about parenting… before I was a parent. More specifically, before I was a parent to two kids with special needs. I was sure I knew the magic formula to raising creative, inquisitive, polite, humble children- full of curiosity and bursting with energy for seasonal crafting projects. I was kind of an asshole. A well-intentioned asshole.

IMG_3391

As embarrassed as I remain, even to this day, by the very public antics of my incredible, hilarious, often suckily behaved children, I am so grateful they saved me from being that asshole. They could do the same for you if you’d open your hearts to them.

Now, I look at families who appear to be struggling and think- I have no idea what’s really going on there. I have no clue what that kid has been through, what this family’s story is, what the copy beneath the headline would tell me. I ask myself not how far I can get from this bad influence, but rather how I can throw my arms around this family and draw them closer.

Of course that takes extra work, and parenting is so much work already. It might just feel easier to shut out anything that seems unfamiliar or uncomfortable. But it’s not an act of charity! Here are five important benefits your angels could derive from spending time with my wild pirates.

  1. COMPASSION. Compassion is a hallmark of emotional intelligence, which may be far more important than academic performance in determining success and leadership abilities in life. It is also essential for leading a life of deep and meaningful connection with others. Compassion isn’t learned from a textbook. It’s learned by interacting with people from varying circumstances, with different advantages and disadvantages.
  2. CONFLICT RESOLUTION SKILLS. It’s tempting to want to shield our children from discomfort, conflict, and failure. If only we could enclose them in a utopian bubble of support and cooperation and safety. If only they never had to hear an unkind word, be the last one picked for a team, have their toys grabbed or their bubbles spilled. But how would that really prepare them for living in the world without us? Which is ultimately our goal, right? The world is rife with spilled bubbles. When are they supposed to learn effective conflict resolution strategies if we shield them from all potential sources of conflict?
  3. ACHIEVEMENT. Now I have your attention! Studies show that classrooms of diverse children perform better than more homogeneous groups. When children of different needs are represented in a classroom, the kids learn to support a classmate who may be struggling. Teachers are forced to teach out of the box and tailor their instruction more individually to each child.  I believe this applies not only to the classroom but also to the world around us. Everyone wins by diversifying our lives.
  4. RESILIENCE. My kids are amazing models of no retreat no surrender. Just try to stop them. I once watched Tariku, at 3 years old, take twenty minutes to figure out a climbing wall that was way too advanced for him. He whined; he cried; he got frustrated; he walked away; he came back. Still, he refused my help. Still, he would not go to another activity. Finally, finally, with one or two shoves of assistance, he made it up. This stubbornness can be a pain to deal with as a parent but it is exactly the kind of grit that we all need to face life’s climbing walls. I’m reminded of this as I watch the Olympic athletes fight and keep fighting and fight some more.
  5. JOY. My kids are not quiet. They sometimes have lousy table manners. They will splash you in the pool. They also love life with an infectious, boundless enthusiasm. They are full of celebration and wonder and affection. They will make the line outside the museum into a spontaneous party. They will get you laughing. They will sing everywhere and anywhere. They will free you from inhibitions. They will make you want to dance. And c’mon. You know you want to dance.

IMG_3302

Comments are off for this post