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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An Open Letter to Parents of Well Behaved Children

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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.

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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.

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I See You

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I had a number of meaningful conversations during the Jewish New Year festivities, but my favorite was at a break-the-fast gathering, where I met a lovely woman who had spent the last year working with traumatized female veterans. Trauma- one of my favorite subjects to learn about! Of course I cornered her and asked her all about what she knew. One story in particular stuck with me. She told me about a woman everyone else had given up on, with whom she just sat in silence.

I thought about how, when Tariku is having a total freak-out and hides under the bed with his hands over his ears, I will sometimes just go and lie down on the floor next to him and not say anything. I remember when he was little and having one of his alarming tantrums, at first I would instinctively try to hug him or comfort him and he would panic and lash out. So I started sitting outside the door and waiting with him until it passed. And then little by little I began sitting in the doorway. Then I made it into the room. Sometimes he still needs to go be by himself for a while and work it out, but I’ve learned to see if there’s a little window open through which I can hold out an olive branch. If there is, I will go and sit silently with him.

My talk with the woman at the party caused me to reflect on how important it is to feel witnessed. Not just to be able to call a good friend on the phone and unload, although that’s great too! But to have your trauma and pain recognized and supported on a larger cultural level. We need simply to know: I am seen and there is a place for me here on this planet. All of me. All of my suffering and flaws and hope and humanity.

Because I am fortunate enough to have brilliant friends from different faith traditions, the week before the Jewish New Year, I found myself at a Christian Women of Faith event to hear the awesome Jen Hatmaker speak.  I heard her saying hetmessentially the same thing, with a different set of operating metaphors. Forgive my reductive paraphrasing of such a compassionate, eloquent and funny speaker, but what I heard from her was: You are seen and you are loved. Not for your accomplishments or your good behavior or your willingness to tow the line or your terrific souffles. You are seen, in all your imperfect and frightened humanity, and you are worthy of love. Period. End story.

I think a big part of all holiday rituals is simply to say to each other: I see you and we’re here together. We are all sinners; we are all in pain; we are all hungry for love and connection; we are all going to pass back into the unknown from which we came too soon. In light of all that mishigas (yiddish for “craziness”), we sit here beside one another in the presence of the divine mystery.

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