Happy National Adoption Month…a Day Late!

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It’s been a while, I know. I’ve missed you! As we barrel headlong into the holidays, I wanted to reach out and tell you how thankful I am, always, for entrusting me with your precious time and attention.

Almost everyone I know approaches the holidays with some combination of excitement and dread. There is the prospect of reconnecting with friends and family, a chance to put on a sparkly dress or two, the kids’ faces on Christmas morning. There is also too much money spent, too many things on the to-do list, the endless days of winter break, the gingerbread houses with driveways paved with tears. And the pressure to do it all with a smile and the appearance of ease. About this time of year, every parent I know starts secretly praying for January 1 to roll around so they can finally start vacuuming up the pine needles.

Yesterday, I was reorganizing some files (just to really lean into the holiday pain) and I came across the paperwork from when we were still fostering Jovi, authorizing us to seek medical treatment for him. It brought back memories of our first holiday season as a family of four.

It’s nearly two years now since Jovi came to us. I remember that first Christmas/Hanukkah so vividly. He barely spoke at first, and when he did it was usually to tell me to go fuck myself. Which is sort of funny coming from the cutest three-year-old you ever saw, but trust me, it gets old quick. He was so frail and confused.

Many times a day, I would hold him while he wailed and sobbed until his shirt was soaked through with tears and sweat. I imagined I could see the pain and grief rising from him like heat waves off asphalt on a summer day.

He came to us with a cough, and just got sicker and sicker until, on Christmas day, we rushed him to the emergency room with a 104 degree fever. I tried to convince T to stay home with Scott, but he wouldn’t leave Jovi’s side, so we all went together. I ran from the car into Children’s Hospital, with my child bundled up in a blanket and a panda hat. As I answered the questions at the reception desk, my stomach dropped into my toes. I had accidentally left the paperwork at home authorizing me to act as his guardian. I felt panic and failure. I’m not equipped for this, I thought. I can’t even remember the paperwork. Luckily, they were lovely and helpful and we worked it out.

It turned out Jovi had pneumonia, which eventually cleared up with antibiotics. In retrospect, as awful as the day was, something in him turned a corner after that. Jovi relaxed into my body when I hugged him. He started laughing more. Even now, he likes to hear the story of how I ran from the car with him in my arms, how his brother sat awake beside him until 4am. I think it was the day some deep place inside of him recognized that maybe, just maybe, this time, when he was hurting, he was actually going to be taken care of.

If you have kids with trauma histories, or special needs, the specter of holiday dread can loom particularly large. Holidays can be tough on our kids. The change in routine, the over-stimulation, the anticipation, the sugary treats, the gifts, the weird illogical stories you’re asking them to believe about a magical fat man who somehow fits down the flu of your freestanding mid-century modern fireplace. It’s all scary and destabilizing.

My kids each have different diagnoses, but if I were to boil it down, I’d say I could describe them in layman’s terms as having a cluster of profound sensitivities to the world around them that can make sensory input, strong emotions, even affection- painful. Everything is too loud, too fast, too abrasive. Even joy. Especially joy. They may appear tough (Scott likes to say Jovi is equal parts Mike Tyson and RuPaul), but that’s just the armor they wear because their nerve endings are so close to the skin.

I looked at that old paperwork and considered keeping it, but ultimately threw it away.

I told myself that you honor the past, but you don’t live there.  You buy the holiday pajamas in the next size up, you buckle in, and you make new memories again and again until the day comes that something inside of the kids tells them that they can now trust they’ll be taken care of.

Every year we get a little closer.

Happy National Adoption month! I realize November is over, but I’m just impressed with myself that I managed to post about it before February rolled around. I doubt I’ll do anything in a timely fashion for roughly the next thirteen years, and that’s being optimistic.

Sending you and your families wishes of love and peace this holiday season.

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A Letter to Jovi Starshine on his Gotcha Day

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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.

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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.

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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

 

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Meet our Son

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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)…

 

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Living Out Loud

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Two days ago we were at the water table in the Chicago Children’s Museum. I left the room for exactly five seconds to tell Scott something. When I got back, there was a knot of confusion and yelling around Tariku. I ran toward him and found an incensed grown man screaming at my son, while the other parents stood by mouths agape.

“If you touch my daughter again,” he yelled. “I will call the police”

I said, “Do not threaten my child.”

I wanted to throat punch him. Instead, I composed myself and said, “This is a conflict between children. Let’s see if we can help them handle it.”

I looked at Tariku standing there confused, head hanging, frightened, embarrassed. I shook with adrenaline.

T said, “I wanted my boat to go under the bridge and her boat was under the bridge and I asked her to move it and she said no and so I knocked it.”

I said, “Why don’t we apologize and then you and I can talk about how to make a better choice next time.”

Y’know…Because that’s how you talk to children. You don’t threaten to call the Chicago P.D. because a little boy knocked your kid’s boat out of the way.

Tariku apologized to the little girl’s back, because the man was already stalking out of the room, dragging his daughter behind him.

I imagined for a moment that I was seeing T’s future- my child’s minor transgressions answered with fear and fury due to the color of his skin. I didn’t sleep well that night.

I’m writing this from the front lounge of the tour bus, during the last hour of our drive from Nashville to Dallas. I like the longer drives, because when we wake we’re still on the road and get to see the scenery, as opposed to the usual drill of driving through the night and waking up in an amphitheater parking lot.

Today, the scenery contains a lot of flags flown at half-mast.

Today, I roll into town not with my usual curiosity and anticipation, but rather with sorrow and trepidation. I’m hyper-aware of the unique dangers of living in public as a trans-racial family.

Scott and I long ago accepted the fact that our family will never fit in. We look weird. People look twice; they look a third time. The carnival of the rock tour is about as close as we’re going to get to a utopian bubble of belonging and safety. We thrive in our own little ecosystem, here where we know everyone, behind the tall fence that encloses the backstage parking lot.

Outside the fence, the world is decidedly less sweet and secure. That world is crushing my heart right now. Driving into Dallas, I’m filled with cold fear- a mother of black sons.

I try not to make assumptions about what I’m going to encounter in any given area of the country, because I’ve found that my expectations are often challenged by experience.

Mostly, I find that we’re embraced wherever we go. We’re lively and funny and we’re nice to people and we tip well. Plus, my boys are still little- still round faced and bright eyed. I like to think people get a kick out of us. But there are times I absolutely feel eyes on us in a more aggressive, fearful way. We’re different than the norm, and difference invites suspicion.

And let’s face it- my kids live out loud. They’re big spirits, impossible to ignore. They roil with wild energy. They holler and run and dance and swear and hide under tables and act like dinosaurs and make fart noises with their armpits. They make their fingers into guns; they make pool noodles into guns; heck, I’ve seen Tariku make an American Girl Doll into a gun. They’re boys. But because my oldest is now a tall eight-year-old black boy, he’s on the cusp of losing his cuteness and turning into someone people are afraid of. I tell him you cannot make gun noises, gun gestures, gun anything at all in a public space. And then I pray he’ll comply and I know he won’t entirely, because he’s human. I watch it all unfold with a sense of helplessness and dread.

As we drive into Dallas, I’m mourning. I’m praying. I’m hanging tight to my boys. I’m grateful for our strange blessed life of music and wandering and adventure. I’m deeply saddened by the events transpiring in the world right now, but first and always I’m holding hope and love in my heart.

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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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