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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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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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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10 Ways I Take Care of Myself While Parenting Wild Pirates

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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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L.A. Sunday Funday

us n muralWe had a crazy fun family day on Sunday, inspired by The Industry’s Hopscotch Opera, which Scott and I were lucky enough to experience the day before. Hopscotch is performed entirely in cars that drive around L.A., and at various sites at which the cars stop. Beg, borrow, or steal a ticket if you can. It’s remarkable. The city  itself is an integral thread in the fabric of the story, and we walked away pumped to explore more of this magical, maddening place we call home.

Tariku’s passion for visual art has really been blossoming lately, and he constantly draws dinosaurs and sea monsters and knights and dragons. He is obsessed with drawing the Phoenix, which seems like a particularly poignant symbol for a boy who has come so far.

us muralsSo Scott and I decided that we’d all go see the downtown murals, and then design our own to “paint” (with chalk) on the walls in our backyard.

It was a blast! We wandered the Downtown Arts District and gaped at the mind-blowing street art, then settled in at Wurstkuche to munch their outstanding sausages and fries (yum!), while we drew our design plans. We then took the plans home and executed them. Afterwards, we rewarded ourselves with some pumpkin pie we had picked up at The Pie Hole.

The experience gave us a chance to educate Tariku about the history and culture of street art, which was thrilling to him, because it’s essentially the Robin Hood story, but with art. We also talked about color, composition, and how we choose our content.

Most importantly for us, we discussed how art is positive way to express our feelings- especially the ones that are bubbling up and need to get out of us! Tariku probably said is best: “It’s better than screaming and yelling!”

Amen to that.

I can’t extol enough the virtues of project-based learning. Or of a stroll through the Downtown Arts District.

Look at that proud face.

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