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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Massive Mom Fail

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Does that look like a photo of a terrible mother to you?

Friends, I yelled at my kids so badly yesterday. I was a monster.

Oh, come on, you say. You’re exaggerating. Everyone yells. You were probably just like, Stop sticking pins in the dog! Or, Stop dangling your brother over the edge of that cliff!

Or some other totally justifiable yelling thing.

Nope. What I said was something along the lines of: OH YEAH? WELL I CAN HAVE A TANTRUM TOO!

It was horrible. Afterward I did all the things- I apologized and repaired, I breathed, I prayed (that kind of sick-of-it-all prayer that starts, “Even though there’s no God and I’m just an idiot talking to the wall right now…”). During naptime, I wrote in my journal. I watched a few minutes of bad TV. I went back in vaguely refreshed.

I called my best friend to come over and support me because Scott was going out after dinner and I didn’t trust myself to be calm and collected.

How do I know to do all this stuff? Because I WROTE A BOOK about it.

After all this, do you know what your charming friend who writes about parenting did after dinner?

I yelled at them again, and it was equally weird and appalling. My husband and friend both stared at me with their mouths agape.

Later that night, I wrote in my journal: I’m good at writing about being a mother but I suck at mothering.

Which may be a little bit true some days.

Not by way of defense, but to contextualize, here’s the perfect storm that led up to it…

I had some wacky hormones that resulted in a migraine for 5 straight days, and I was pretty much functioning with the use of only one eye because the other one had a weird shadow floating in front of it- a shadow that was intermittently stabbing said eye with tiny knives. Also- everyone in this house has been sick for two months, including multiple bouts of pneumonia and stomach flu. Even without the constant sickness, we are in the middle of a massive transition, with the addition of Bright Eyes. Everyone is struggling to find our footing.

That said, stressy life or not, yelling at kids with trauma histories is extra crappy, for a few reasons.

First, it doesn’t work. It just models and more of the exact behavior you’re attempting to address. Usually, they scream right back in my face.

It also erodes your child’s trust in you. Trust is the key ingredient to healing trauma. Yelling just reinforces their idea that the world is an unsafe and unpredictable place, where the people who are supposed to love them will only hurt them and as a result they need to be in control of absolutely everything.

It can cause a big setback. Knowing all of this, I stood there and totally lost my shit at them.

I share this with you not as some self-flagellating confession, but because in spite of all my shame and regret, I still had to wake up today and face my family. And while not all of us scream like some deranged Joan Crawford clone, I know I’m not the only one making terrible mistakes and having to brush myself off and attempt to do better next time. And then having to forgive myself when I don’t. Not because my missteps aren’t egregious, but because I am their mother for better or for worse, and they need me to keep trying. I have breakfast to make. I don’t have the option of twisting myself up into an origami of shame and staying there for days.

I also share this with you because I think we spend a lot of time comparing ourselves to each others internet personas- the beautifully filtered IG photos, the beach days and birthday parties. The heart-stopping adorableness of everyone else’s kids and living rooms and table settings and fluffy puppies and Christmas mornings. Mine included. My kids are darn cute and my dogs are pretty fluffy.

Of course we share the pretty, polished stuff. I enjoy looking at that version of our family. I imagine a life I don’t quite have into being, by catching just the right moment and filtering it and framing it and waiting for all the likes to roll in. I like like like like like it, too!  It’s just not the truth. It’s a truth. But it wasn’t my truth yesterday and it’s not my truth this morning.

This is what I wrote in my journal last night, in the aftermath of yell-a-geddon:

Please let me be closer to the mother I pretend to be. This good, patient, creative, humorous, warm mother I dream into being in the clouds, while somewhere down on earth I am small and selfish and frightened and still an angry adolescent, railing at all I’ve traded and all I’ve lost and sure that truly in my heart of hearts I’m poison. I watch them sleeping, their tiny forms under the covers, and wonder how it is I’ve been entrusted with these two precious souls. This I know- I can’t hate myself into being worthy of them. It’s a law of physics or something. You can’t hate yourself into being better at anything. I will have to believe in myself the way I believe in them. Not because I’m deserving but because it’s the only way.

If I know anything, I know that you can’t believe in yourself because you’ve earned it. Paradoxically, you have to start with that belief, in spite of the evidence to the contrary. I’m worthy of my children because they’re my children and here we are. And I believe that today I will do better.

If I fight to accumulate enough of those days, I know from my experience with Tariku that I will turn around and find that years have passed and somehow, in spite of all my faults, there is a delightful, strong, joyful, confident child standing in front of me.

 

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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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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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Invisible Hurts

You could hear a cracking sound last week, as if the world’s largest tree had just been split down the middle by lightning. The sound of collective heartbreak.

There are far smarter and more knowledgeable people than I talking about gun control and mental health care issues right now. I think it’s obvious where I stand on both. Yes. Yes, gun control. Yes, health care. Yes. Please.

My two favorite parenting-related posts on the tragedy are Kristen Howerton’s Five Things to Consider Before Talking to Your Kids About Today’s Tragedy and Claire Bidwell Smith’s Holding Them To My Bones.

I do feel compelled to comment in greater depth on the issue of trauma. How do we respond to trauma and the resultant fear, both as individuals and as a collective? Do we build a higher fence around our homes and our hearts? Do we vow to be the one with the biggest stick next time, so that no one will ever make us feel this afraid again?

This is a literal question in terms of gun control, but it is also a spiritual dilemma that I believe is becoming more and more urgent for us as a society. Every day our soldiers return from war, PTSD sending shock waves through their lives and relationships. Children flood the social service system, manifesting the emotional scars of abuse and neglect. And, as is on all of our minds, the children who survived that Sandy Hook bloodbath will have to eventually learn how to wake up again in the morning and live- hopefully lives in which they can love and trust and feel safe. We are faced with the frustrating and elusive task of healing wounds you can’t see.

I have had many people look at me skeptically when I discuss the impact of early childhood trauma or the devastating effects of PTSD. I think people have a hard time considering a slippery, invisible emotional problem, with very few black and white answers. It is hard to sit with the pain of others. It is hard to be a witness to the suffering of our fellow humans, especially children, and not know how to address it. But denying the existence of the wounds won’t make them go away, won’t absolve us of the responsibility to heal them.

Trauma treatment is a more complicated subject than I can get into in this internet-attention-span-friendly post, but I can tell you that none of the treatments, none, involve arming people with a bigger stick. Trauma victims are deeply afraid in places to which the conscious mind doesn’t even have access. You can’t treat fear with more fear. You have to go at it with love. With conscious, patient, and fearless love.

If you’re interested in healing modalities for early childhood trauma, Heather T. Forbes and Bryan Post are two of my touchstones. And for my money, Christine Moers at Welcome to My Brain is the sanest, coolest trauma mama around. I also love Pets for Vets.

I wish healing for all your invisible hurts. I wish light for you, in these dark winter days.