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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National Foster Care Month

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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.

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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!

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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.

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A Tale of Two Inaugurations

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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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