Massive Mom Fail


Does that look like a photo of a terrible mother to you?

Friends, I yelled at my kids so badly yesterday. I was a monster.

Oh, come on, you say. You’re exaggerating. Everyone yells. You were probably just like, Stop sticking pins in the dog! Or, Stop dangling your brother over the edge of that cliff!

Or some other totally justifiable yelling thing.

Nope. What I said was something along the lines of: OH YEAH? WELL I CAN HAVE A TANTRUM TOO!

It was horrible. Afterward I did all the things- I apologized and repaired, I breathed, I prayed (that kind of sick-of-it-all prayer that starts, “Even though there’s no God and I’m just an idiot talking to the wall right now…”). During naptime, I wrote in my journal. I watched a few minutes of bad TV. I went back in vaguely refreshed.

I called my best friend to come over and support me because Scott was going out after dinner and I didn’t trust myself to be calm and collected.

How do I know to do all this stuff? Because I WROTE A BOOK about it.

After all this, do you know what your charming friend who writes about parenting did after dinner?

I yelled at them again, and it was equally weird and appalling. My husband and friend both stared at me with their mouths agape.

Later that night, I wrote in my journal: I’m good at writing about being a mother but I suck at mothering.

Which may be a little bit true some days.

Not by way of defense, but to contextualize, here’s the perfect storm that led up to it…

I had some wacky hormones that resulted in a migraine for 5 straight days, and I was pretty much functioning with the use of only one eye because the other one had a weird shadow floating in front of it- a shadow that was intermittently stabbing said eye with tiny knives. Also- everyone in this house has been sick for two months, including multiple bouts of pneumonia and stomach flu. Even without the constant sickness, we are in the middle of a massive transition, with the addition of Bright Eyes. Everyone is struggling to find our footing.

That said, stressy life or not, yelling at kids with trauma histories is extra crappy, for a few reasons.

First, it doesn’t work. It just models and more of the exact behavior you’re attempting to address. Usually, they scream right back in my face.

It also erodes your child’s trust in you. Trust is the key ingredient to healing trauma. Yelling just reinforces their idea that the world is an unsafe and unpredictable place, where the people who are supposed to love them will only hurt them and as a result they need to be in control of absolutely everything.

It can cause a big setback. Knowing all of this, I stood there and totally lost my shit at them.

I share this with you not as some self-flagellating confession, but because in spite of all my shame and regret, I still had to wake up today and face my family. And while not all of us scream like some deranged Joan Crawford clone, I know I’m not the only one making terrible mistakes and having to brush myself off and attempt to do better next time. And then having to forgive myself when I don’t. Not because my missteps aren’t egregious, but because I am their mother for better or for worse, and they need me to keep trying. I have breakfast to make. I don’t have the option of twisting myself up into an origami of shame and staying there for days.

I also share this with you because I think we spend a lot of time comparing ourselves to each others internet personas- the beautifully filtered IG photos, the beach days and birthday parties. The heart-stopping adorableness of everyone else’s kids and living rooms and table settings and fluffy puppies and Christmas mornings. Mine included. My kids are darn cute and my dogs are pretty fluffy.

Of course we share the pretty, polished stuff. I enjoy looking at that version of our family. I imagine a life I don’t quite have into being, by catching just the right moment and filtering it and framing it and waiting for all the likes to roll in. I like like like like like it, too!  It’s just not the truth. It’s a truth. But it wasn’t my truth yesterday and it’s not my truth this morning.

This is what I wrote in my journal last night, in the aftermath of yell-a-geddon:

Please let me be closer to the mother I pretend to be. This good, patient, creative, humorous, warm mother I dream into being in the clouds, while somewhere down on earth I am small and selfish and frightened and still an angry adolescent, railing at all I’ve traded and all I’ve lost and sure that truly in my heart of hearts I’m poison. I watch them sleeping, their tiny forms under the covers, and wonder how it is I’ve been entrusted with these two precious souls. This I know- I can’t hate myself into being worthy of them. It’s a law of physics or something. You can’t hate yourself into being better at anything. I will have to believe in myself the way I believe in them. Not because I’m deserving but because it’s the only way.

If I know anything, I know that you can’t believe in yourself because you’ve earned it. Paradoxically, you have to start with that belief, in spite of the evidence to the contrary. I’m worthy of my children because they’re my children and here we are. And I believe that today I will do better.

If I fight to accumulate enough of those days, I know from my experience with Tariku that I will turn around and find that years have passed and somehow, in spite of all my faults, there is a delightful, strong, joyful, confident child standing in front of me.


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10 Ways I Take Care of Myself While Parenting Wild Pirates


A friend stopped by the other night and as I was busy burning some chicken for us all, I caught her looking at me with a combination of horror and pity. It turned out my bright lipstick (the shade I chose to cheer myself up) had migrated across my face, leaving me looking like some demented David Lynch character. I hadn’t noticed because I hadn’t looked in the mirror in roughly 12 hours.

“What are you doing to take care of yourself?” she asked.

People ask you this a lot when you’re parenting young children. They often follow it up with a suggestion that is either time-consuming or expensive, or both. I agree that self care is essential, but those suggestions can leave me feeling like there’s yet one more thing I should be doing but I’m not.

Are you doing yoga?

Nope. Not currently finding 2.5 hours a day, including transportation time, to stretch.

Are you meditating?

Nope. Never. Hate it. Yup- I said it.  I have tried and tried and have now finally given myself a lifetime pass to never do it again. You can smile at me with that odd blend of compassion/smugness all day long and I still won’t Nam Myoho with you. I will, however, watch Buffy The Vampire Slayer and drink wine with you whenever the opportunity arises.

Are you taking enough time for you?

Does bingeing on popcorn while answering emails at midnight count? Then YES I most certainly am!

There have been times in my life that I have written for hours every day, had a regular exercise schedule, and even had extra time to get my nails done and to go out to lunch with a girlfriend once in a while. Before Bright Eyes showed up, life was pretty much like that. Tariku was settled in school, and had become less of a wild destructive pirate and more of a totally delightful pirate. Things were feeling pretty manageable.

But self-care is a moving target. All of us here at Casa Shriner are experiencing growing pains, as our family makes that huge leap from 3 humans to 4. Bright Eyes is a wonder and we’re crazy about him, but the attachment process with a 3.5 year old who has experienced severe neglect is also a real challenge and requires near-constant engagement. Not to mention the fact that our days are jam-packed with social workers, adoption counselors, lawyers, therapists, behaviorists… So the manicures and lunches have gone out the window, and I’m still puzzling through what exactly self-care is going to look like during this transition phase. It’s okay, for a moment, to have gruesome cuticles. But I do still need to find ways to care for myself.

I’m redefining daily what it’s going to take for me to stay sane. It’s often about shifting perspective rather than adding another item to the to-do list. Here are ten things I do to care for myself:

  1. I adjust my expectations. Before Bright Eyes showed up, I was going to boot camp at my friend’s house two mornings a week and going to barre classe on Saturday mornings. It was social and I felt great about myself and my abs were rad! Now, I walk with the stroller around the lake. The end. If I wait until I can do everything to the degree that I’d like, I’ll wind up doing nothing. And a walk in the fresh air is infinitely better than nothing.
  2. I slow down my transitions. That sounds so boring, I know. When I have a ton to do, I can get into a sloppy, rushed mode that’s not only un-fun but also dangerous, particularly when it comes to cooking or driving or anything with sharp edges and moving parts. One thing I’ve learned from having 2 kids who struggle with transitions, is to slow way down and talk them through it. So I’ve started to do the same for myself. After I drop T off at school, I have a spot around the corner, where I pull the car over and just breathe and reconfigure my brain. I answer my texts. I pick out a podcast for the way home. I decide if I’m going to grab a latte or not. I take a breath. If Bright Eyes is with me, I still do an abbreviated version of this.
  3. I give myself small treats. If Bright Eyes is napping and I have a million emails to answer, I make sure I find a sunny spot on the couch. I drink a bottle of cream soda. If it’s chilly, I throw my favorite orange cashmere blanket over my legs. Sure, I’d prefer to do all of the above AND be reading a good book, but sometimes you gotta get shit done. You can sweeten the deal a bit if you allow yourself to enjoy the little things while you’re doing it.
  4. I listen to my own music, sometimes. If they don’t want to listen to the Hamilton soundtrack, they can bite me. I mean, they’ll probably bite me anyway, and at least this way I’ll have listened to “My Shot” eight times, and I won’t care as much.
  5. I read. This has always been my salvation and I’m not stopping now.
  6. I pay attention to my self-talk. This one is closely related to adjusting my expectations. It’s not my habit to speak kindly to myself. I’m stupid and lazy and sloppy and fat and old and mediocre and talentless and a failure and a lousy mother and a basket case and and and…. If anyone talked to my children like that, I’d sock ‘em in the nose. If I imagine when I’m talking to myself that I’m practicing talking to my kids, I’m way more likely to say, “You’re doing great, sweetheart. I love how hard you’re trying. I’m here for you. It’s going to be okay.”
  7. I wear bright lipstick. Or fun shoes. Or a locket I love that belonged to my Aunt May. Maybe this is shallow and maybe it isn’t, but I know that it helps me an awful lot to sport something that gives me a lift.
  8. I cook dinner. This sometimes feels like drudgery and is sometimes the best part of my day. Even when it starts out the former, it often turns into the latter once the olive oil and onions are in the pan and things start to smell good. This is a way of nurturing my family and myself. It grounds me in the present and gives me the happy illusion of control.
  9. I pray. A lot. Nothing formal, mostly a lot of “thanks” and “help.” Prayer reminds me that I don’t need to have every answer. That I don’t have to feel capable of what’s in front of me in order to just do it anyway. That I am not in charge of anyone’s future. And that I am not alone.
  10. I write. I write early in the morning or late at night, for a stolen hour here and there. I write poorly, in jumbled, half-baked prose. Half the time lately, I feel barely literate. But I do it. Regardless of the quality of the product, the process reframes the world for me in surprising ways, as it has always done. In fact, this post came from a journal prompt I gave myself yesterday morning: What does self care mean to you?

Please feel free to take that prompt and run with it! I’d love to hear your suggestions for self-care when under duress.

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When Big Baby J. Came To Stay


As many of you know, Scott and I are in the process of adopting through LA County DCFS (Department of Child and Family Services). As of a few weeks ago, we’ve got our stamp of approval, so we’re officially certified and ready to do this thing!

We got a call last week that there was a six-month-old baby in need of respite care, which is when a child needs an emergency place to stay for a few days. We had not remotely expressed interest in doing respite care, but there is a crisis-level need in LA County for foster parents, and so they called us anyway.

My first response was: no way! I’m super busy and also that sounds really hard and also…ummmm…also nothing. So I called Scott, fully expecting that he would say, no way! No luck. And then we talked to Tariku, to see how he’d feel about it. You see where this is going, right?

And that was how we wound up with Big Baby J.

Big Baby J. had the best chunky baby thighs you’ve ever seen in your life, and the deepest, brightest, most gorgeous eyes. He had a funny off-kilter smile and sweet dimply cheeks. He had us all laughing and laughing.

Tariku was remarkable with him. He fed him and played with him and helped bathe and dress him. He was even kind and funny when the baby woke him at 4am. His exact words were, “Dude! Can he just whine a little quieter?”

I talked to Tariku’s teacher daily, and watched closely for any signs that he was having a hard time. His teacher told me that he actually had his best week yet since school started, and that he was communicating in a very matter-of-fact and enthusiastic way about Baby J.

As for me, I decided that I was going to love this baby with everything I had for the short time he was here. I put away the to-do list. I lay with him on the bed for hours. We banged Tariku’s old toy drums on the living room floor. I looked him in the eye as much as possible and held him on my chest while he drifted off to sleep.

I figured- 3 days, right? We know from the very beginning that we’re giving him back, so how hard could it be?

It was very hard. I spent the whole last morning with him pretty much just crying into his hair. I handed him back, held my head up, and I told him I hoped I would see him again one day.

Tariku said, “I hope he remembers me.”

I told him, “He may not remember you in his head but he’ll remember you in his heart.”

I’m still pretty wrecked. And I’m also happy. I’m proud of us as a family for how we said yes to something scary, and then all came together to make it happen.

What a wonderfully surprising life we have. It snuck up on us. It was never like we sat down and said: gee, I hope we get to be foster parents someday. Honestly, I’m not strong enough for this. I’m not very strong at all. I was in bed all day after Big Baby J. left, gnawing on a vat of industrial strength Maalox, because my stomach felt like I had chugged a gallon of acid.

But I think- who’s strong enough for this? The people who aren’t super-sensitive? Maybe, but why would they say yes? It’s paradoxically always going to be up to the people who are perhaps least equipped: the marshmallows, the kids who were always described derisively as “overly-sensitive” on our report cards.

I just kept looking in the mirror and telling myself: you’re strong. You’re a warrior. You can do this. This isn’t about you and what you want. This is about a baby who needs a place to stay and a lot of love. And you have all of that to offer.

I’m sure we needed Baby J. as much as Baby J. needed us.

When I was in Africa last year with Help One Now, my friend Jacob Combs  gave me this Giving Key necklace, with the word “HOPE” on it. The idea behind the necklace is that you keep it for as long as you need it, and then you pay it forward to someone you think could use the message. I liked mine so much as a piece of jewelry that I held on to it for an entire year!

This seemed like a good time to let it go. I gave the key to Baby J.’s full-time foster mom, when she came to pick him up. It’s a message I’d love to offer to all of us- parents, kids, everyone- who have a more circuitous journey than most to find the place we truly belong.

Baby J- I know you are for big, bright things here in this world. I’m blessed to have met you and held you and kissed your perfect face. I am so lucky.

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Making Space


IMG_7463 - Version 2

For those of you who don’t know, we’re in the process of getting certified by Los Angeles County to adopt a child through the foster care system. That’s a picture of our CPR/first aid training (if you’re looking to do it, we highly recommend Ron Calloway).

Whenever I post about some new phase of our progress, I inevitably get 20 well-wishing texts, thinking that we’re bringing a baby home tomorrow. I forget that most people have no idea how this thing goes. There are about twelve million steps: paperwork and meetings and doctor appointments and rabies shots for the dogs and replacing windows because there are no regulation screens and and and…

We’ve been slowly chipping away at it for about six months. Staring at the final hurdles, I found myself feeling paralyzed. I kept landing in an overwhelmed face plant on the bed.

One morning, I decided to throw myself into it guns blazing and just get the thing done. I sat down with my trusty legal pad and looked objectively at every item on my list, with the intention of prioritizing and then attacking it systematically. It was immediately clear to me that the thing I needed to do most was to make space– in the garage, in Tariku’s room, in the disastrous kitchen cabinets.

Most of all, I needed to make space in my heart. I needed to make space in our life for another child.

One of the hardest things about the adoption process is that there’s too much time to overthink it, and a million legitimate reasons to get cold feet. Scott and I looked at each other every night and said, “Are we crazy? This parenting thing just got a little easier. It just got fun. We’re traveling. We’re going out in public without a scene. He’s in a great school. We relax now while our kid cannonballs into the deep end and swims the entire length of a pool. I don’t even have to get my hair wet anymore! And now we’re gonna go F it right up?”

We’re asking for trouble. No, really, we are. We know exactly what early childhood trauma does to the brain. We’re looking to adopt a boy around 3-5 yrs through the foster care system, who will inevitably carry trauma, loss, and deep grief. And then there are the risks involved, which terrify me. The worst being the possibility that the child will not be able to stay with us, which can happen. Sometimes I think we should just call a stop to all this immediately. And then I wonder if I’m having genuine reservations or I’m just scared.

Phew. That’s a lot. Even writing it gives me a stomachache. No wonder I was feeling paralyzed.

In the midst of all this, I happened to read Marie Kondo’s absurdly popular and totally psychotic organizing book, The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up. Yes, it’s that book that suggests you talk to your clothes.amess2

Well, I did it. I took two whole weeks, working all day every day. Everyone pitched in. We took everything we owned out of every drawer and cabinet and closet in the house and mostly we just gave it all the hell away, if only to avoid having to put it back. It was miserable.

It was also exactly what I needed. I’m not sure it changed my life exactly- check in with me in six months and see how we’re doing. But I did have ample time to reflect on what we truly needed and wanted, and what was important to us.

As I worked, I left space. I cleared drawers and left them empty. I left empty hangers in Tariku’s closet.

I wrote our child-to-be little notes as I went. In some cases I actually printed them on label tape and stuck them to drawers. I thought the visual reminders would help Tariku start subconsciously making space of his own.amess

I wrote:

We love you little brother!

This is your dresser!

In the garage, I created a bin for keepsakes and put it next to Tariku’s. On the bin, I wrote:

Welcome. We love you. We are waiting for you.

The current update is that we’re probably just a few short weeks away from completing our certification, which will make us eligible to get a placement at any moment, although it could take a while. Whenever it happens, the empty drawers are ready.

As I organized, I told myself that if after all that work, I found I ultimately didn’t want to go through with this adoption, that would be fine too.

Instead, I looked around and it was clear to me: we have a beautiful home, full of so much love and music and joy. We’re not at all crazy to want to share it with a child who needs a home. It’s okay to have ambivalent feelings. It’s okay to be scared of the unknown. It’s okay to start getting excited about it, even though the road ahead may be a rocky one.

And just look at all this room in my heart, after all.


Coming Home


I’m back, friends! Sorry for the long absence. I’ve missed you! I got home from my wonderful (if exhausting) book tour during Tariku’s last week of school and crashed full force into the daily minutia of life. The every day-ness of waking stupid early, making breakfast, facing piles of laundry and cleaning dog throw-up was both an enormous relief and a bit of a let-down. I had exactly three days before we had T home full time. And that was five minutes ago. Oh wait- it was three weeks ago. How is that possible? You know, how summer is so relaxing (cue hysterical laughter of moms who work at home)?

This book is extremely precious to me and it was thrilling to be able to share it with so many people. I went to parties and readings, spoke on panels and taught workshops. One of my favorite events of the tour was a panel on transracial adoption at the Mixed/Remixed Festival here in LA. Mixed/Remixed brings together people of all races, creeds and genders to celebrate what it means to be Mixed, multiracial, or part of a blended family. Being in that room felt like taking a deep breath. I was overjoyed and inspired to dialogue with people about so many of the subjects about which I’m passionate- family, belonging, race, identity, adoption, self-worth, parenting…


And then Charleston happened and it knocked the wind out of Scott and me.

The day following the terrorist massacre, Scott and I were meeting with our social worker, talking about our next adoption. I looked over at Scott and he started to sob in the middle of a sentence. Soon all three of us were crying.

I have to be honest here and admit that when Scott and I were first talking about transracial adoption, nearly ten years ago, I was dismissive of the idea that having an African American child would make me think differently about race. I would have told you I didn’t need a child of a different race to be concerned about racism. I was an artist and an activist- someone deeply concerned with equality. I protested discrimination and injustice whenever I could. After all, once upon a time I had driven hours to see Angela Davis speak at a rally about diversity on college campuses.

I was so clueless. Because all the college protests in the world did not remotely prepare me to look into the face of my child, my heart, and know that someday soon, I will have to explain to him that he is not safe. That he will not be treated equally. That I enjoy privileges that he may never enjoy in his lifetime. That people with his skin color in this country have experienced hundreds of years of brutality and disenfranchisement and discrimination. That he lives in a world where we must shout #blacklivesmatter, because it’s not obvious. That things might be better than they used to be but not nearly better enough. Not even close.

I don’t have anything particularly new to offer the discussion. Maybe you feel the same way. Please don’t let that stop you from raising your voice and speaking out against racism and discrimination as loudly as you can.

I offer my grief, my rage, my fear, my solidarity, my tears, my voice, my eagerness to learn, my willingness to work.

Here are some of the posts about Charleston, from my touchstones:

Awesomely Luvvie: “On Charleston, Forgiveness and Black Pain”

Jamelle Bouie on the GOP and the Confederate flag.

Jon Stewart being awesome.

Mocha Momma: “Let’s get to the Work of Anti Racism”

Brene Brown: “Own Our History Change the Story.”

Karen Walrond at Chookaloonks: “Say Something.”

I am memorizing the names of Cynthia Hurd, Susie Jackson, Ethel Lance, DePayne Middleton Doctor, Clementa C. Pinckney, Tywanza Sanders, Daniel L. Simmons Sr., Sharonda Coleman-Singleton and Myra Thompson.