Being Counted

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In October of 2008, Scott was on tour in Seattle and I was sitting at my dining room table working on my first memoir, when the number of our adoption agency flashed on my phone. We had been waiting a solid year since we finished the last of our paperwork. I picked up with a shaking hand. The voice on the other end said, “We have a beautiful ten-month-old boy for you….”

I opened my computer to find an email with two photo attachments, which I forwarded to Scott as I dialed his number. The blurry photos were of a gorgeous infant with dark, thoughtful eyes, a wide forehead, skinny legs and a face like one of the famous Ethiopian paintings of wide-eyed angels that adorn the ceilings of their churches.

“There’s my son,” said Scott. “Look at him. He’s perfect.”

I was smitten. I wore my little angel around my neck in a locket. I blew the pictures up and put them in every room in the house. I carried them around in my purse and shoved them in the face of everyone who would look.

“Look! My son! Isn’t he terrific? Isn’t he beautiful? Isn’t he clearly a genius?”

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One day, I met my friend Joel for coffee and began our chat by enthusiastically foisting Tariku’s pictures on him. He oohed and aahed appropriately, and then he said, “I’m here for you if you need help. And you’re going to need help. For instance, someone is going to have to teach this kid how to handle the police.”

I said, “He’s not even a year old, Joel.”

He said, “It goes fast.”

I thought he was being a tad hysterical. But Joel is a black man, and now, a few years later, as Baltimore is smoldering and I can’t look at pictures of Freddie Gray’s face without crying for that young man’s mother, I see that Joel wasn’t being hysterical. Not remotely.

Tariku is seven now, reed thin, goofy-toothed, adorable and all wild boy. He’s taller every day, all of his pants two inches too short because I can’t keep up with him. And as I watch him lope through the park like a gazelle, I think, How soon before he’ll be mistaken for a teenager? How soon before it’s not a mistake and he is a teenager? With every inch he grows, how much less safe is he?

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This should not be a mother’s first thought upon looking at her growing boy.

I’ve found myself stuck every time I sat down to write this past week– unsure how to write about Baltimore and unsure how to not write about it. For such a big mouth, writing about race doesn’t come easily to me.  I’m personally terrified and politically enraged about the brutal institutionalized racism in this country, but when it comes to writing about it, I feel overemotional and under-qualified.

Then I read this sentence from Kevin Powell’s amazing “Why Baltimore is Burning:”

“They know it is madness that so-called progressive, liberal, human-rights, or social-justice people of any race or culture have remained mightily silent as these police shootings have been going down coast to coast.”

That’s me, I thought– the mightily silent. I acknowledging my privilege, cry over pictures of Freddie Gray, make it out to a protest or two once in a while, read books by people smarter than me, retweet people more clever than me… It’s really not enough.

I joined some amazing women at a blogging conference this last weekend, including Kelly Wickham, Luvvie Ajayi, and Kristen Howerton (see: the people I often retweet who are more clever than me), and walked away feeling inspired. These women challenge me to read and write more about race. To reach for my own voice in the dialogue, even if I don’t have anything new to say. It’s not an originality contest, it’s about being counted. This is how I begin.

Travel Guilt

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Yeah, I’m gonna talk about that tired old subject: being a working mom…

I was in upstate NY last weekend for the Woodstock Writers Festival, which was an absolute delight (Thanks, Martha Frankel! And for the photo, Kevin Buso). Compared to many moms I know, I go out of town on business fairly often. I have conflicting feelings about this. I always miss my family. I always experience things I wish they could be experiencing with me.

And…

I also love waking up WHENEVER I WAKE UP, with no one interrupting my dreams by crawling on my head or farting in the bed. I love not making anyone breakfast. I love going to the hotel gym, or reading, or catching up on emails in bed over a giant pot of Earl Grey tea.

This is an extremely privileged version of working mom-ness, to be sure. And I wallow in a lot of guilt, as many of us do, about my time spent away from my child. I feel even more guilty that I enjoy it. Then I remember: Scott goes out of town all the time, because it’s his job. His job is awesome, and brings so much to all of our lives. Not the least of which is our house and the food on our table and drum lessons and groceries from Whole Foods and and and…. But that’s not the end of the story. He loves his work. He never would have considered giving up his work. Why would he?

All of this is also true for me, and yet I feel compelled to apologize for it.

Many of my friends justify working with the idea that it’s better for their child, because their resulting sense of fulfillment makes them a better mother.

I’m not sure that’s true. I’m also not sure it matters.

Scott would never say that he should work because his music makes him a better dad. He would say that he finds joy in parenting and he finds joy in his work and that both of these things are important to him and help give him a sense of meaning and purpose.

Some of my anguish is certainly due to a cultural double-standard, but not all of it. Some of it is the sense of urgency brought on by the fact that my seven-year-old currently looks like he’s about ready to take the SATs and has a girlfriend and a report card and a lot of opinions and I am acutely aware of how few years I have left that he will still want me to carry him to bed. Which is a good thing for my lower back, but a devastating development for my poor heart.

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I look at his sweet little nose, his still-round cheeks. He catches me staring at him, throws his hands in the air and says, “WHAT are you looking at?”

“You,” I say. “You’re so big!

He rolls his eyes. “Everyone needs to grow up sometime, Mom.”

I think- what am I doing, spending my days facing the f-ing blank page again and again, when I could just be connecting with this precious being every minute of every day? And then I think, he will grow and change, no matter how hard I stare and try to memorize his face. He will grow and he will grow and there are things that will be irretrievably lost. We will also collect treasures I can’t even anticipate yet. And while all this growing and losing and gaining is happening, I’m still going to string words together on paper every day, because that’s what I’m compelled to do.

I just interviewed a super-famous and crazy-cool actress in her sixties (it’s still a secret- I’ll let you know more in a couple of weeks!), and she told me: “Jillian, I was so guilty about the time I spent working when my kids were young. And I shouldn’t have been. I really shouldn’t have been.”

I have been clinging to that like a buoy in the mom-ocean of blame and competence and guilt and joy and judgment and acceptance and fear and love.

The working mom discussion can become so strident and politicized on both sides. The truth is that all of these grown-up decisions have consequences, don’t they? Either way. Consequences suck.

But last weekend I found myself staring out at the Catskill mountains, getting ready to talk to a bunch of people about memory and art and writing– much of the stuff I’ve been deeply engaged with since I was a little kid. I thought, there are consequences, yes. I’m most at peace when I can hold them in the same hand as I do my embarrassment of riches.

Why I Sing Loudly at Whole Foods

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“She used to sing musical theater loud in the grocery store,” said Scott, when we and the other people in our foster parent training were talking about what sort of strategies we might use to address public tantrums.

“I did?” I asked.

“Don’t you remember that?” he seemed shocked.

“Oh yeah, I did, didn’t I?”

How could I have possibly forgotten about the singing? That was the best idea I ever had! I didn’t make it up- it was an amalgam of advice from mommy bloggers and late night phone calls to old friends. But it was, indeed, a great strategy. How had I forgotten it completely? My memories of those first few years with Tariku are peppered with strange blank spots– probably the result of the combined trauma of what we as a family went through.

But when he mentioned it, it all came flooding back. So in case it might be useful to anyone, I thought I’d share it…

Often, children whose nervous systems have been impacted by trauma can become easily overwhelmed and have hair trigger tantrums. This was certainly the case with us. Between 18 months and about 4 years, Tariku had alarming tantrums that would pitch him backward into some vortex of primal fear. Ten times a day, he would wail and thrash and bite and hit, inevitably at the most inconvenient times: Target, the movies, the mall, Disneyland (admittedly, I often feel the same way there). At first it was really embarrassing. Then I stopped caring what other people thought. After that it was just exhausting, and often left me hopeless and despairing at the end of the day.

We even had the police called on us. I’ll never forget the day a police officer showed up at my front door because someone had reported our license plate as a potential kidnapping, from the pony rides at Griffith Park.

Extreme problems sometimes demand extreme measures…

Sometimes, if I could catch the tantrum while the wave was just starting to roll to shore, I found I could short-circuit it. At the first flicker of trouble, I would break into a chorus of “That’s Entertainment.” And nothing, I mean nothing, will stop a child in his tracks and have him begging for you to stop quite like a time step in the produce section.

Except the big trick was, I would make up my own words and they would go something like this (everybody now, to the tune of “Oklahoma”):

I love you! I will always love you! There is nothing you can do to make me not love you! I don’t care if you bite me every day for the rest of your life, I will still love you! I don’t care if you hate me, I still love you! Oh boy you’re being a big pain right now but guess what I love you! I love you I love you I love you!

You get the idea.

I forgot about it because I haven’t needed it in so long.

Now, once in a while, when I get an, “I hate you!” I’ll respond, “I love you!” in musical theater voice.

And if I really want to annoy him, when he’s ordering me around, I’ll resort to talking in a cockney accent and calling him the “Little Lord.”

“Would the Little Lord like some ketchup with his corn dog?”

Wow, does he ever hate that! He’ll start saying “please” so fast it’ll make your head spin!

Which is all to say…

Sometimes we have to throw a wrench into the habitual, negative patterns our brains can fall into. For us, often playfulness is not just the best option, it’s the only option– unless I want to lock horns with my child and get caught in an unwinnable power struggle. Sometimes we all need to step outside our comfort zones, of our ideas of what is right and wrong and how we should all be behaving.

Sometimes you just have to sing “I love you” to the tune of “Some Enchanted Evening” until there’s nothing left to do but laugh your ass off.

Our Experience with Foster Care/Adoption Training

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Scott and I spent the last two weekends getting our foster care training certificate through a private agency called Five Acres. The Five Acres mission is to provide safety, well-being and permanency to children and families in crisis. We were inspired in part by the journey of our friends Shawna Kenney and Rich Dollinger (Shawna wrote about it here), and also by the fact that we want to grow our family and are not sure the route we want to go yet. We’ve often talked about fostering a teenager at some point in the future, so we figure why not start learning all we can about it now.

So we’re out there gathering information, soaking it all in, waiting to have that feeling of rightness I had when I first looked at photo album of Ethiopia, immediately turned to Scott and said, “That’s where our kid is.”

During the intense four days of training, we grew to feel close to the other eight expectant faces we faced across that long white table, eating our lunches out of paper bags while gamely participating in role plays and discussions. I was moved by everyone’s willingness to be vulnerable. Vulnerability is such a rare and brave thing. We shared our questions, our doubts, our losses, our hopes for our families.

We learned the nuts and bolts of the foster care system, as well as talking in depth about loss, abuse, attachment, trauma and family. Together, we made lists on chalkboards:

What are things people need to feel safe?

What is an expected loss vs. an unexpected loss?

What are some reasons children are removed from their homes?

We watched a few documentaries that were uniformly well-made and heart-wrenching. I highly recommend them to anyone. They included Aging Out, From Place to Place and, one of my favorite movies about adoption, Closure (see it if you haven’t!).

After posting about the training on social media, I’ve had a deluge of emails and messages, all saying the same thing: I want to talk to you more about foster care. Clearly the daunting amount of children in the social services system (20,000 in LA county alone, 500,000 nationwide) is on the minds of a lot of people. And I’m so glad, because, wow, do these kids ever need help and love.

Hearing some of these children’s stories reduced me to a trembling, mascara-streaked mess. But they also left me feeling inspired to participate in some capacity, as well as empowered with the tools to do so. I’m not sure if we’re going to try to adopt through LA County, but the options aren’t just foster or do nothing. There are so many ways we can all help. Here’s a really great post about it from Kristen Howerton at Rage Against the Minivan: What you Can Do. You can also just call Five Acres and ask.

By the end of each training day, I was so drained that I pretty much came home and crawled into bed with Tariku, using afternoon movies as a bribe for snuggles.

As I’m reflecting on the experience, I keep thinking about a discussion our group had near the end of the training.

“When things get hard, asked the woman leading the workshop, “What will you have in your back pocket that will keep you committed?”

I answered that, when facing situations that might inspire fear or judgment, I try to build a bridge to my own life. Watching the movies of those teenagers, I was reminded of my own angry and confused adolescence. I was reminded of my brother- an epic seeker/wanderer- and so many of my friends who have struggled at various times. I was reminded of a time not so long ago when Scott and I held our heads in our hands every night, completely overwhelmed and despairing in the face of Tariku’s trauma-related behaviors. I would never for a minute think that any of us was undeserving of love, or help, or a home.

I believe this even now, when T is standing at the foot of the bed insisting that I listen to him belch to the tune of Gangnam Style (true story).

Here’s the other thing I keep in my back pocket…

I remember first holding Tariku as a baby, burying my face his little nest of hair and thinking that he smelled like powder and cookies and everything good and sweet on God’s earth and that he was truly perfect and I’d never be that happy again. I didn’t require anything in return. I didn’t require anything at all. I had everything I needed.

It was a small moment. I probably thought the same thing a thousand more times before he started smelling like french fries and dirty feet and all the rest went out the window. But for some reason, that moment is the embodiment of love for me. The memory of it can sometimes give me superpowers. I go back to it all the time when the waters get choppy.

Imperfectly Seeking Help

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I’m more likely these days to celebrate Tariku’s triumphs on this blog than I am to explore our day-to-day challenges. I’m not sure why that is. Maybe the successes are just clamoring louder to be written.

But I got an email the other day from a woman parenting a child who also has Sensory Processing Disorder and PTSD. She told me that she had combed this blog for more about our struggles and had only really found the “everything is so much better” stuff. Better than what? What was it like? Please tell me, she asked.

Things are remarkably different now than they were a few years ago; it’s true. But I don’t mean to misrepresent the situation. Here’s a little snapshot:

T rises from his pillow at 5:30 like a hummingbird who has just smoked methamphetamine. That’s how he rolls all day, until we strong-arm him into bed. He wakes up with approximately one-hundred-and-forty-three questions about cloud formations and tornadoes and Cuba and sharks and death and, and, and… He’s extremely bright and curious and hilarious, but will take almost no direction. Whether it’s baking a cake or doing math or playing a piano concerto, he knows how to do it. His favorite word is no, accompanied by an impressive eye-roll. When he gets over-stimulated, he has no sense of his body in space and very little impulse control. He literally climbs the walls. They have the scuff marks to prove it. He wants to be in control of absolutely everything, including the time and the weather. It’s sort of like living with a cross between Iggy Pop and Fidel Castro.

I love every crazy minute of my son; I truly do. Just the other night we were on the bed together and I was reading while he watched TV. He reached over and took my hand. We held hands like that, while doing our own thing, for the longest time. I swear it was one of the sweetest things that’s happened in my entire life. But I don’t want to mislead you into thinking that he suddenly turned into Shirley Temple overnight.

Much of our life is still spent negotiating therapies and school intervention. Most nights I still wake in a panic at 3am, worried for him.

In fact, this morning I was just on the phone with a new counselor, who offers some innovative therapies. I talked to her about T’s trajectory thus far.

“Did you ever try so-and-so pre-school?” she asked.

“No. We heard about it. We thought about it.”

“That’s too bad. It would have been a really good fit. Their forte is working with extremely bright children with social and emotional challenges. Maybe they could still help you with an after school group. I want you to call them.”

“I…I…I don’t remember why we didn’t. It was so confusing at the time,” is all I managed to stammer.

The rest of the conversation was encouraging. We set up an appointment for an intake. I chirped something about so excited to see what the future holds and then hung up.

I put the phone down and sat, staring at the website of the special needs pre-school he didn’t attend. We’re very happy with our school now, but it looked like it would have indeed been perfect a few years ago. And even though I had already loaded on my mascara for the day, I began to weep.

The essential thing I forgot to do. The thing thing that would have helped him. And I missed it. I failed my child.

Which sends me right down the spiral of… at what am I failing right now that I’ll have to answer for at a therapist’s office in three years?

Scott’s guru guitar teacher showed up at the house as I was in the midst of this. I answered the door and actually cried on his shoulder. I barely know the guy.

He asked me tell him what was going on. So I did.

Have I mentioned I barely know this guy?

I can’t imagine what Scott was thinking. It was truly bizarro of me. But sometimes you gotta just be where you are.

“I’m not doing enough,” I sobbed. “I’m doing the wrong things.”

“Are you willing to let that story go? “ he asked me. “Because that’s just a story you’re telling yourself.”

It’s a story I often tell myself. And it’s true I’m usually getting something wrong. It’s true there are plenty of great avenues of help that we’ll never find. But all three of us are seeking help with such hope and dedication. It’s not ever enough, but it’s our best effort. Just look at our little Iggy Pop. He’s learning. He’s making friends. He’s growing all the time. He’s a wild, white-hot ball of pure love. He’s perfect. And I will fail him many times before this gig is up. But that’s just one story. There’s another in which we’re all heroes.

I deeply relate to the desperation and confusion of the woman who wrote me the letter. This isn’t an answer at all. It’s just a story about my morning. But I hope it helps.