Adoption & Marriage

Today’s question is from Tsedal: How did adoption impact your marriage?

Like a cyclone followed by a tidal wave.

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Steve & I have been through some tough things in the 12 years we’ve been married, but nothing has come close to the  challenge of adopting from foster care. Nothing.  There was one night, back when we had Princess Peach, where I looked at Steve and thought, Holy crap, I forgot you have green eyes…  These moments freak me out, and lead me to a frantic place of How do we go back to being connected? But what I’ve learned is that we don’t go back. We set our eyes on a new place and swim ahead to meet there.

There are two major stress sources we’ve dealt with in this process.

The first is DCF. Massachusetts has one of the worst foster care systems in the nation. You know those states in the deep south where folks don’t believe in government sponsored social services? Yeah. We’re below those. For all the talk about us being a part of the liberal elite, this is one place where we are definitely not elite-ing. I have thoughts on surviving this, but I’ll talk about that in a future post, because it’s kind of it’s own thing. But I’m thankful to say that our DCF experience adopting the Cherubs was much better than our DCF experience with Princess Peach.

The second stress source is the one I think Tsedal was asking about: the challenge you experience when you add two more people to your life.

Steve and I went into our adoption with some solid reserves in the happily ever after department. We’d started our marriage terrified that we’d blow it, and so spent those early years searching out good advice. Most of what we received was total crap, to be honest. I wrote about this in my second book, how useless we found the common marital wisdom: Communication is the most important thing. Sex matters less and less once you’re married. Get in touch with your feelings, they’ll never lie. Thank God we didn’t go with that.

The best advice we got – that we still use today – came from a video of a conference where a group of no-nonsense, straight talking African American pastors (I can’t tell you how grateful I am for the way the black church doesn’t mess around pretending abundant life comes via three easy tips and a “God loves you” refrigerator magnet) pulled no punches as they talked about what it takes to build a marriage. They told us to put God first, ahead of each other. The said we should pray about things that bothered us before discussing them (sometimes rather than discussing them, at least in the heat of the moment). They insisted that we should never ever speak negatively about each other to other people – no girl talk about frustrating habits “all men” have, no guy talk about nagging/overspending/sex-withholding wives. Engaging in that talk is CURSING YOUR MARRIAGE, they said. Don’t do it. They quoted a Proverb that warns, “A wise woman buildeth her home, but a foolish one plucketh it down with her own hands.”  They talked about the call of God on wives to build up our husbands with our words – not imaginary flattery, but with the truth of who God made him to be. She said this was an act of war against the things that daily life tempts us to settle for. And then finally, in perhaps the most hilarious part of the conference, there was this powerful declaration: Ladies? You need to give that man some s*x! They explained how this is intended by God to be the bonding agent in marriage; how it’s not about being in the mood, it’s about building and reinforcing the strength of your marriage.  (I apologize that I only remember the things wives should do part of their advice – it was far more balanced that that.)

These are the things we’ve tried to do.

Adoption has made them as close to impossible as I’ve ever experienced.

Perhaps the most unexpected part of adoption for me has been how much of it is a power struggle. Who is in charge? Who is most important? What takes priority? Does the squeaky wheel always get the grease? If not, then HOW DO YOU STOP ALL THE SQUEAKING?

Kids demand to be the center of the universe, of course. We know this. But when you adopt, you also know that these particular kids have gaps in getting the love & attention they need to thrive, and you want to fill in those gaps as quickly as possible. So you pour EVERYTHING into that, and then some. This worked well for us at first, and then it didn’t. Then we had to set our house in order, so to speak.

At first, the Cherubs HATED it when Steve explained the God first, marriage second, Cherubs third prioritization system. #2 Cherub in particular (the one who genuinely doesn’t understand why we won’t give her the master bedroom) was offended. So we explained (repeatedly) how putting God first adds security to our marriage, and putting our marriage next, above them, adds security to our parenting. This is good news, we told them. Watch and see…

Then we struggled to live it out.

When you adopt, you’re told you need a strong support system. You have no idea what that means, so let me tell you: It’s not just friends & family who think what you’re doing is cool. It’s friends & family who can pass a CORI background check and will babysit.

You’re told to plan date nights (or nights out with a close friend if you’re single) so you can recharge. This is so good in theory. But if you’re four months sleep deprived and starting to twitch at human contact? The last thing you can pull off is a date night — it’s too much restaurant selection, too much non-mom outfit finding, too much expectation to figure out where you left your eyeliner six months ago when you last used it.

We are just getting a handle on this, almost two years in. I wish we’d done it sooner, but it was simply beyond us. (Some might call this depressing. I call it being a lifelong learner :) )

Date nights are where we remember that we prefer each other. It’s a chance for Steve to say, “Let’s have sushi, I know it’s your favorite,” and me to say, “I’ll drive home so you can have a beer,” because most of our everyday life is about the kids, rather than each other.  Date nights give me time where my head is clear enough to even think of how to encourage Steve, because the exhausted hour after the kids’ bedtime (when we’d both rather be watching Madame Secretary) is barely enough for basic maintenance, let alone team building.

So we’re trying to get good at that. Pray for us.

The one other thing I’ll add is how late I was to recognized that (despite all the ways Steve & I share parenting), setting the tone and emotional temperature for our home is almost entirely up to me. I’m not sure why this is, but I’ve discussed it with other adoptive parents and this seems frustratingly true: If you’re a woman? You’re probably the happiness thermostat for your household. So I’m working on keeping it at a good temperature. This is good for the kids, but even more important for us. It’s so much easier for Steve & I to have a good marriage when I am generally happy. So I’m getting really intentional about having my own work to do that isn’t related to the kids, responding to their drama in a calm, even tone, and using what Princess Peach used to call “the firm voice” to quash nonsense quickly, before it spirals. This way when things come up, they’re real things, not just the vague malaise of overwhelm that creeps in if I’m not vigilant.

That said, we’re getting the hang of it. It has taken longer than we expected, but we’ve reached a point now where we’re building reserves again rather than draining them, which feels good.

If you’re thinking of adopting? Take a dream vacation. Get a big fluffy dog. Move to Greater Boston and join a great church with people who will pray for you AND babysit your new kids when you’re forced out on a date night. Build up your reserves so you have the time you need to establish your new normal.

It’s not easy. But it’s worth it.

 

Food Fight

I’ve become one of those people who posts pictures of food.

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I don’t know how this happened, except maybe that food (and dinner in particular) has been such a nightmare for us for so  long.

But last week, the kids liked every meal we made.

(I’m going to leave that as a stand alone line, because it’s a MIRACLE.)

This is my way of declaring victory (read: dominion) over the horror that is mandatory  family dinner. (You know that it’s mandatory right? Because experts. Sigh.) I’ll post the recipes below, in case you’re fighting a similar battle.

A bit of background: Food for me is like exercise: best when it’s completed and I don’t have to think about it again for a while. I know this is strange, and it’s embarrassing to admit in our culture that venerates eating. Suffice to say I’m not someone who sources my ingredients. If you ask me if I eat local, I’ll nod yes with confidence: Market Basket is 3.7 miles from my house, and I buy pretty much everything there.

As I’ve shared before, I was just getting a handle on nightly dinners for two when the Cherubs moved in with us. They HATED our food. (They even complained to their social worker, “All they feed us is STEAK…”) This is common with kids who have spent time in foster care. Most didn’t eat particularly well (if at all) in their original homes, and not every foster home feeds kids enough food, let alone good food.

We had nights where things got so bad, I’d just leave the table after dinner and go up to my room to fume & regroup, because they were Just.So.Nasty.

Normally, I wouldn’t care all that much what they ate. I was raised in the 70s on beverages made from space age powders (Tang, Kool-Aid, instant ice tea, instant coffee, even powdered milk) and I turned out okay. But I HAD to get them on healthier food: I had one child who looked 8 when he was actually 12, and another who had “risk of diabetes from childhood obesity” written all over her medical records. So it wasn’t an option to just sort of play along, feed them Spaghetti-o’s & Hamburger Helper, and hoped things somehow worked out.

Okay, that’s the problem. Now let me tell you what we tried, and what worked.

Step 1: Keep the fridge full.

Our kids are hyper-alert to food availability. I can’t tell you how many times when I’ve had a busy week and just haven’t made it to the store yet, #2 Cherub asks, “Are we having money trouble?” This came up this weekend simply because we opened our last stick of butter. We weren’t even out…we just didn’t have extra.  Almost two years in, and they’re still looking for signs that Steve & I might lose our capacity to serve as the adults.

So I do my best to keep the fridge, pantry, and fruit bowl FULL. There’s not much junk there. But there is lots of food.

Step 2: Stop the complaining. 

After months of trying to figure out this dinner thing, I realized that the kids were kind of getting off on antagonizing me. It was a battle, and they were winning. Power struggles are part of parenting anyway, but they’re particularly part of adoption. On the verge of losing my sh*t about all of this, one night (after a really unpleasant fight the night before) I fixed them a special, just-for-you dinner: plain chicken, plain rice, plain green beans. I filled their milk glasses right to the top, and I told them, “From now on, this is your next dinner after you complain.”

It hasn’t been a problem since. (See pick your battles, win the ones you pick.)

Step 2:  Add Glop

Our kids love condiments. BBQ sauce, ketchup, salad dressing, soy sauce, salt, pepper, hot flakes, butter… Their favorite meals are things they can make gloppy. So look for versions of these that don’t have high-fructose corn syrup, and let them have at it.

Surprisingly, this also provided the best behavior modification option in our parenting repertoire. (See pick your battles, above)

Step 3: Wait

It took time for their palates to change. At a basic level, we were dealing with addiction – sugar in various forms, chemical additives, etc. Detox takes time, and then it takes more time for new habits to form. I did my best to provide variety, try new things, and find as many gloppy meals as I could feed them.

***

Finally, last week, this all paid off.  Here’s some of what we ate that we all liked.  (And when I mention specific ingredients, I will link you right to Amazon. Because if there’s one thing I wish we’d done differently, it was to have some of our groceries delivered during our transition. If you’re in the process of adopting? Let me just set you free and say, you can worry about your carbon footprint NEXT YEAR. The rest of us will cover for you while you save a life or two. And if you have a friend who is fostering or adopting? Sign them up for a delivery service like Peapod or Amazon Fresh, and maybe crowd source a big ole’ gift card from amongst your friends or colleagues. Your friend who’s adopting won’t have the brain space to thank you for about 18 months, so I’ll just say it for them now, because I know they mean it: THANK YOU!)

***

Turkey Kebabs

Anything on the grill is better, particularly because our kids like their meat well done (read: burnt into little hunks of blackened char). We learned with the first run of this that bacon doesn’t work at all on kebabs because the fat catches the whole kebab on fire but leaves everything raw inside (sad face), but with turkey & veggies (even sausage) it’s fantastic.

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Honey Mustard Pork Chops 

The kids like pork, but the highlight of this meal is that I slice a head of cauliflower into “steaks,” spray them with olive oil, add Jane’s salt, and broil them on a cookie sheet. Microwave frozen peas or green beans and call it a night.  I make the honey mustard glaze with hot mustard that is scrumptious. (see Add Glop, above)

My Mom’s Meatloaf (aka the meal of many life lessons)

Really, is there any food concept grosser than a “loaf” of meat? But I loved this as a kid and my kids do, too. I learned the hard way that I need to use 85% lean ground beef or I end up with a giant meatball swimming in grease. I add Italian bread crumbs, chopped onion, egg, and ketchup. I also learned to take my rings off before mixing. (AGGGH)  My mom’s secret was to cut a slice into the center of the loaf and hide cheese in there. That’s some good melty wonderfulness. Finally, I learned that baked potatoes take approximately nine hours and need to be started before you do anything else.

Chili (aka giant vat of glop)

I first made this on one of those awesome nights where we were all happy and having fun together, when it felt like our family life was a miracle and I just wanted to make the kids something they would truly love. So I made chili, even though it sort of grosses me out. It turned out to be a good choice, because this is chili even I can eat.

It’s nothing fancy: browned ground beef or turkey, smushed tomatoes (I can never remember if they should be crushed or diced, so that’s always a wild card depending one which can I grabbed at the store). Red beans & black beans (I get the low sodium ones in the can. Don’t even talk to me about soaking the dried ones. I’m not there yet.) I toss in a jar of salsa (because I’ll mooch Paul Newman’s efforts to advance my cause), frozen corn, and approximately 4x the amount of hot chili powder as I think is way too much. We serve this with that fake shredded cheese no cow would recognize, and the tortilla chips they sell near the counter at the beer & wine store. Just keeping it real, folks.

Chicken & Chick Peas

My friend Laura gave me this recipe a few years ago when I was doing a Lenten fast that only allowed certain grains.  I always use meat that’s already cooked (either from a rotisserie I grab at the store or leftover chicken breasts) so I don’t have to worry about food poisoning. Cook up about a cup of couscous. Take a moment to love that it only takes 5 minutes. Vow to eat less rice because it’s just too demanding. Sauté a chopped onion, along with some orange & yellow diced peppers. Add cooked couscous, a can of drained chick peas, some frozen peas & a bit of chicken broth. Mix together with cumin & that other yellow spice that also starts with C (Curry! that’s it!). Add corn if one of your Cherubs says, “I haven’t gone to the bathroom in awhile…. Spinach if someone is being punished. Let it heat through. Serve in bowls and marvel that they’re eating it. Go upstairs and write in your journal, Have found proof that God is real…

Family Chicken 

I have no idea how #2 Cherub came to claim this as our unique concoction, as it actually came from one of those index card recipes that show up in the mail sometimes. But apparently, it’s our very own now, and when they ask for “Family Chicken,” this is what they mean. It might be the only thing I make with no ingredients from a can, so it’s FANCY.

You dip chicken breasts in egg  while you struggle not to think too much about what’s happening. Coat in a mixture of bread crumbs, grated romano cheese, and Montreal Chicken Seasoning (MCS has solved more “I won’t eat that!” food fights in our family than I can possible describe. It’s cousin, Montreal Steak? Single handedly ended the, “They feed us nothing but steak!” war.) Broil until the edges of the chicken catch fire, because you got a bit distracted and the Cherubs like their meat killed twice. Serve with whatever vegetable you have and whichever starch you have time to boil.

And finally…

Life Group Food

I add this last item because if you’re in the thick of food issues with new kids, I want to reassure you: it won’t always be this hard, you won’t always have to do dinner like a military drill, and at some point, you’ll see breakthroughs in your kids’ tastes and places you can give a little without having all your hard work collapse.

At least once a week, we’re back out the door at night so fast that there’s no time to cook. So I’ve caved to boxed food, and let me tell you, it makes our kids MUCH more amenable to whatever the night’s obligations entail.

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They love chicken pot pie (because glop), and Newman’s Frozen Pizzas. Mac & cheese with hot dogs. Pasta with pesto and a pile of grated cheese (after which I chase them around with a spoonful of peanut butter, giving my 500th lecture on PROTEIN).

Here’s the cool thing:

#1 Cherub has grown about 8 inches and lost a bunch of those baby teeth. #2 Cherub is healthy, fit, happy with her body, and energetic. Both of them now monitor their own eating in a way that supports their personal needs. And while dinner time still isn’t anyone’s favorite part of the day, we get through those ten minutes together. I’m not sure it bonds us the way the experts promise. But it’s a hill we’ve conquered as a family, and shared victories count for more than you’d guess in this process.

Here’s the best book I found to help me think through this challenging season.
To those of you who are longtime readers: THANK YOU for your laughter, support & prayers as I’ve wrestled with this part of our lives. It’s nice to report some victory. And for those of you who are new? And maybe considering adopting from foster care? Forget you ever read this! But maybe bookmark it (I have a whole folder of “adoption blogs that save my sanity”) for the days you need to know that things will get better.

What Do You Do When You’re Not Sure If It’s For You?

One of the things that happens all the time since we adopted (besides conversations about bodily functions and questions like “Can we pl-eeeeeze put a zipline in the back yard???”) is that people tell me of their own adoption dreams. I can’t tell you how many times someone has shared some version of, “I’ve thought about adopting…” or “I’ve wanted to adopt since I was little…”

I should say that I was not one of those people. Adoption never occurred to me when I was in the early stages of planning my life. (To be fair, children never really occurred to me. I thought they were something that just sort of happened to you, maybe in your 30s. Turns out I was wrong.)

But back when it first became clear that Steve and I might not reproduce naturally (that makes us sound like tomatoes, but you know what I mean…) I remember doing all these online searches about adoption, and how overwhelming it was.

So many websites, agencies, and promises.

So many families competing, it seemed, for the same few babies.

So much money required at every step.

Adoption seemed like a distant place we couldn’t get to. It was a weird position to be in because it felt so obvious – we wanted kids, there were kids who needed parents.  But how do you pick a child? What if you start the process and decide it’s not for you? Adoption is a huge, life changing step. Not to be blunt about it, but why would anyone do it if they didn’t have to?

And yet there was this urge to help. And a sense that it might be important. But how do you figure that out?

What I tell people now is, take the MAPP class, or whatever the equivalent required class is in your state.  There’s no obligation. It give you peers who are asking the same questions, information that you won’t know otherwise, and professionals who can help. At a basic level, it gives you a place to sort things out.

Beyond that, though, MAPP Class is training. The thing about training is that it empowers you to do all sorts of things down the road.

(Full disclosure: I went into MAPP Class totally kicking and screaming. Straight up salty and attitudinal. I believe I compared it to an ex-boyfriend’s mandatory DWI rehabilitation class. Yes, I was a delight. You can read about that here.)

One of the things that surprised me in this experience was how many different ways Steve & I could have been involved helping kids all along.  Training helps you explore options.

You might decide to foster once, to provide a home for a child for a short time while their parents sort things out.

You might serve as a visiting resource, where you become a person a kid who lives in foster care can learn from – having them over on weekends, for example, introducing them to your friends, maybe helping them find their first summer job or apply for a driver’s license. You invest in their lives in ways that make a huge difference, without the significant commitment of adoption. (Not all kids want to be adopted, so this can be a big win for everyone.)

You could even provide respite care, which is where a child stays with you for a really brief time while their foster parents away for a week or a weekend.  (Travel can be so complicated to get approved for kids who are in state custody.)  When I first heard of this, I thought, That is AWFUL! You just dump the kids with strangers while you go on vacation??? Now I see how helpful it can be to give everyone some breathing room, along with another example of what home life can look like.

Maybe you’ll adopt.

Or maybe the main thing that will come of it is that years from now, when a colleague at work tells you he’s considering adoption, you’ll be able to say, I know an agency that can help get you started…here’s who to call.

I think maybe it comes down to this picture #2 Cherub painted shortly after she came to live with us. It says, You may only be one person in this world. But to someone, you mean the world. 

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There are so many ways to be this person.

I remember hanging out with our friends who adopted three kids, the ones who made us think maybe we could do this, too. Watching them made me think of the starfish story, the one about the little girl who sees hundreds of starfish stranded on the beach and jumps into action, grabbing them one by one and throwing them back in the water. Someone tells her, “Don’t bother. There are too many. It won’t make a difference.” She just throws another one into the water and says, “Sure made a difference for that one…”

Stop the World, I Want To Get Off

I know this will shock you, but not every moment in our household is delightful and heartwarming.

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Fun family night, right? Yeah, none of us were speaking. #2 got mad because I made her wear a hat. She sulked through the whole game. #1 flat-out refused to take a picture with me. Memories!

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That’s Steve’s “We should have just fed it the money for these tickets to a goat…” look. At least the Celtics won.

This was especially bad in the first year, when I so regularly found myself in situations I had no clue how to handle.

     Can you go to some random park with your friends? How should I know?

     Should I worry that you wear the same sweatshirt all week long and now I can’t get the boy smell out of it? Probably.

     What IS the consequence for yelling at me, “I AM TOO smarter than you (DOOR SLAM)”?  (And before you tell me that such statements are only made in the heat of the moment and aren’t what they really think…let me assure you that this particular Cherub doesn’t just think she’s smarter than me. She’s quite certain she’s smarter than you, too).

I’ve learned that 90% of the time, my initial response in these moments will be something I’ll wish I hadn’t said. I get into bad habits: the reflexive no to everything, the letting my thoughts come out as words (Last week when it was 19 degrees outside and my son wouldn’t wear a coat, I actually said, “Fine. Freeze your ass off. It’s your ass…”)

Here’s the funny thing: My kids are okay when these things happen. They’re no fragile snowflakes. The problem with my initial responses is that they leave me in a heap in corner, angry and exhausted, wanting nothing more than to be left alone. And it takes me forever to regroup. That’s not all that helpful when you’ve just doubled the number of people who live in your house.

The embarrassing part is NOT that I can be such a disaster. It’s how long it’s taken me to realize that the same skills I use in every other relationship in my life – marriage, work, friendships – are the ones that save me here.

When I have no clue what to do, that’s a pretty good indication that it’s time to talk to God.

But first, I need to fume. I need  time to marinate in the absolute rightness of my position, even when I’m not entirely sure what it is.

Once that is finished, I talk to God. (Be sure to check out my forthcoming prayer book, Okay God, What The %^&* Should I Do Now?)  

Then, so long as I have properly completed the fuming step, I almost always have some sort of intersecting, Gee I wouldn’t have thought of that, idea pass through my mind. Hallmarks of these ideas (the answer to the perennial “How do you KNOW it’s God?” question) are:

  1. They don’t involve swear words or threats to give my children’s unworn or unkempt clothes to some anonymous grateful child who will appreciate them;
  2. They consider the larger picture of the kids’ growth and desired development, not just this present frustrating moment; and
  3. They are so reasonable that I can say them to the Cherub(s) in a normal voice, and tell them I love you from my heart, not just my brain.

This is a good news miracle, every time.

I’m in the process right now of organizing a Vineyard Women’s Retreat for our area, so I’m thinking a lot about the concept of retreat – what a difference it makes to take a intentional breather before you move forward. It’s so counter-intuitive. And yet I bet it’s EXACTLY what my mother longed for for when we were little kids and she used to cry, “STOP THE WORLD, I WANT TO GET OFF!” in the middle of a particularly frazzled moment.

I’ve felt that so often in life, not just since motherhood.

If you’re feeling this sneak up on you, too, look for a retreat. Pray for one. If you’re from New England (or game to travel), come to ours. Let’s ask God our impossible questions (and pray the prayers with ALL THE WORDS) together.

Middle School Musicals & Blending Families: A Praise Report

This weekend we watched #2 Cherub sing and dance in Oompa Loompa splendor in her middle school musical. It was SPLENDID. The show was hilarious and fun (thankfully less creepy than the Tim Burton movie) and there were some astonishingly good moments for us as a family that I want to capture and remember.

Willy Wonka 1 Willy Wonka 2First, different members of the Cherubs’ original family came for all three performances. Friday, Saturday & Sunday, they each drove long distances to a school they were unfamiliar with. They brought hugs and flowers and loud cheers for #2, and bought #1 more candy than he could possibly scoff down during intermission. They are so for the kids.

It’s not easy, what they’re doing. I don’t think this always how it goes in these situations (this was not at all our experience when we had Princess Peach) – and so I’m astonished and grateful that it’s possible. It’s good for the kids (and for us) to have so many people on their team.

Lest I paint TOO romantic a picture here, let me also say that the kids have no idea what to do with all of this familial blending – first they were terrified that we wouldn’t like each other, now they’re like, “Wait, you guys LIKE each other?” They find it awkward. But as one of their uncles pointed out, when you’re 14 & 12, EVERYTHING is awkward. If this is our awkward, we’ll take it.

Second, as we drove home after opening night, I heard #1 say to his sister in a low voice, “You did a good job.

I was like, “WAIT! was that a sweet moment between my children???”

They laughed and said, “Yeah, it was…”

For all the truth about how much #1 & #2 have helped each other through difficult times, they are also just like every other set of sibling kids I know: they bicker constantly, the one-upsmanship is endless, and they agree on nothing if they can possibly help it. It gets so bad some mornings I’ve threatened to make them walk to school if they don’t cut it out. (This was highly effective the week it was 9 degrees. I think it will lose its power as the temps warm up.)  There aren’t many moments when they say something genuinely nice to one another that isn’t prompted by a grown up.  But this was unprompted and genuine. #1 was right – she did do a good job. He knew how hard she’d worked, and (I think) how much his big brother praise would mean to her. It was precious.

Then we got home and she tripped over something and he made fun of her, so we were back to normal. But still, I think it’s the “good job” she’ll remember.

By the end of the weekend, we were all EXHAUSTED. It’s noon on a snow day right now, and we’re all still in our pajamas. I think big events take a bit more out of you when you’re a new family, because you’re not sure how things will go and there are so many emotions and hopes and relationships at play. But when it all works out? You need to WRITE IT DOWN and remember it, and let it set the new standard for how things can be.

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Dinner, both nights of the show. I would have been such a good 1970s parent!

Blizzard Prep

We’re expecting a ridiculous snowstorm tomorrow, so all of my plans for today were put on hold while I crammed three days of getting stuff done out in the world into one. I hope to post a full blog tomorrow (in between shoveling & chasing THIS DOG as she gallops through the snow). For now I thought I’d share three books you might like if you’re enjoying our adoption story. You know, in case you’re snowed in tomorrow, too :)

Reading is how I process things, how I figure them out. When some new subject catches my attention, the first thing I do is go get every memoir I can find (along with a novel or three) so I can see how other people handled the challenges. Here are three different perspectives on foster care & strangers-as-family that earned a permanent place on my bookshelf:

This book is just so good. I reviewed it here and could not rave about it enough. I love stories where the grim parts aren’t sugar coated and the happy ending feels earned.

If you help foster kids in any way, this book will reassure you that everything counts and you are making a huge difference, probably way more than you realize.

 

A YA novel about a girl in foster care – it sounds sad, but really isn’t.  #2 Cherub told me about this one – she’s read everything in the genre – and this did not disappoint.

I love how it reminded me that kids in foster care are KIDS, with the same array of everyday life questions, dreams, ambitions, and goals as other kids.

 


This one’s a heartbreaker, but in the best way. It’s not about foster care. It’s the memoir of a young woman who moves to a new city and meets a woman from Somalia, along with her five daughters, on a bus.  Her descriptions of the woman’s struggles to learn American culture and survive are compelling.

 

Stay warm! And if you ARE someplace warm, please send pictures! :)

What If My Kids Never Love Me?

Today’s adoption question is from Beth:  How do you deal with the fear and/or reality of the kids not loving/attaching to you, and you to them?

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Before The Cherubs moved in with us, when we were in the transition phase with visits on Wednesday nights & weekends, our kids declared that they were not going to call us Mom & Dad until the adoption was finalized.

That was fine at first.

But after six months or so,  I was tired of being called Trish & Steve. It didn’t bother me much at home. But when we were out in the world, and people were trying to make sense of who we were to each other because we don’t look alike? It would have been so much easier for the kids to call out across the grocery aisle, “Hey Mom, X is on sale!” than “Hey Trish….”  Plus, when you’re doing all the work of a Mom & Dad, it’s nice to be acknowledged as such. Having them call us Trish & Steve felt way too much like we were just sub-contractors employed to fulfill their parenting needs.

And yet, #2 Cherub asked me almost daily in the weeks prior to our adoption finalization, “Are you SO excited that we’ll call you Mom & Dad after that???” I said that indeed, I surely was.

The day came. It was wonderful.

IMG_5148

When we arrived home, #1 immediately ran across the street to his friend’s house to tell them he’d been adopted. Then asked if we could hang the certificates on the wall in the kitchen, “so everyone can see them.”  (Cue  tears as I hand Steve a hammer and two nails.)

But the kids still called us Trish & Steve for two more months.

It wasn’t until we went to a conference in Syracuse, where our family unit was a distinct entity in a sea of people they didn’t yet know. That’s when called us Mom & Dad for real. It was 15 months from when we first met. Not a long time as I look back at it now. But during those days? It felt like forever.  And it was really hard.

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One of the big things the Cherubs said when I told them about this blog series was, “Make sure you tell people who might adopt not to be offended if the kids don’t want to call them Mom & Dad right away. It’s not personal. It just takes time.”

That’s the overarching theme of adoption: it just takes time. Human attachment doesn’t happen instantly. Some circumstances (romantic love, childbirth) give you a surge of hormones to kick things off. But adoption is really much more like meeting a new roommate: You hope you’ll get along well and even enjoy hanging out. But there’s no way to tell how long that might take.

Even though I knew this, it doesn’t mean I KNEW it. The picture you create in your mind of our future family is about being a family, right?  Whatever that means at any given moment, it’s always about more than being roommates.

Here’s what I learned about attachment: it’s not about what I thought it was about. I thought it would be about affection, attention, positive interactions and new memories we created together.  I thought that if we did enough of that, love would just bloom and grown in a neat, orderly (rapid) way.

Nope.

Attachment is about reliability.

Attachment is when you become the people your kids look to for answers, approval, and assistance. Attachment is when they trust – not with their minds, but with their instincts – that you will see and meet their needs.

There is very little reciprocity in the early days of adoption, and what there is is probably your kids faking it, trying to guess at who and how you want them to be. It’s all YOU, pouring out everything, meeting all the needs as they come up, and trying not to get discouraged as your kids don’t seem to care.

They totally care. But they are terrified this will go away, or that the other shoe will drop and you’ll turn out to be mean, or a loser, or both. And so they don’t have enough energy to reward your awesome parenting with gold stars of Cherubic appreciation. They’re just trying to get through the day without losing their sh*t.

When you adopt, get over the idea that anything in the first six months will be rewarding.  This isn’t about rewards. This is about building, and building is WORK.

Consider this:

Adoption is a bit like getting your family from IKEA: you start with component parts and vague instructions, along with a vision of what you hope to have at the end. You don’t expect your IKEA building experience to be fun or rewarding. You just hope it won’t wreck your relationship or drain your sanity beyond what you can replenish. These are reasonable, appropriate goals.

Practically speaking, “building” meant in every area of our new family dynamic, we went first. We loved the Cherubs first, in word and action, without any response from them.  We affirmed them over and over again, for all manner of successes (“You made the soccer team? GREAT!” “You cuddled with the dog? WOW!” “Your hangnail healed? WAY TO GO!”) We made school lunches, cooked dinners they didn’t want to eat, kept to a daily routine, and arrived every single place we went at least fifteen minutes early (they HATE being late).  As I shared at the start of this series, love isn’t affection at this point – it’s consistency. That’s what our kids needed most when they first arrived.

So how did we deal with the fear that they might never attach to us? Or the moments when we weren’t sure we could keep up this level of unreciprocated enthusiasm?

We took advantage of small escapes. You have to build in the pressure release valves early in the process, because all that steam needs a way out. I had a weekly night out with a friend that I did not stop when the kids moved in. They HATED this – they were sure I was out doing something shady, and had no trouble expressing their disapproval. Whatever, out I went. (Steve did have a talk with them about how & why he trusted me, which helped a lot.) Now, if I miss a night, it throws them off that I’m not gone.

Steve kept playing hockey twice a week before work, even though we were beyond sleep deprived, and it made our morning routine a little more complicated.

And we gave the kids early bedtimes so we could have some time alone together in the evenings, during which drank more wine & beer than is probably recommended. Don’t get me wrong – we were always sober. But I think we needed a finish line to the day – a reward! And it had to be something where the Cherubs couldn’t say, “Can we have some of that?” Because they had everything else. (Here’s the stark truth:  when you’re in the thick of  pre-attachment parenting, there’s a good chance that the guys at your local beer & wine store will know your adoption story.  BLESS IT.)

Here’s the thing though (and if you’re about to adopt, you should copy, paste & print this paragraph):

This doesn’t last forever. This weird roommate-esque, non-reciprocal relationship? This is not your permanent relationship. Your family will not always be a crooked wonky shelf from IKEA. You have all the parts you need. But the attachment part of adoption? Turns out it’s grown, not built.

Our kids are still not fully attached to us. But we are light years away from where we were even 6 months ago. We function like a family now. We have inside jokes and longstanding debates. We hug and say “I love you,” and they look us in the eye when we talk to them.  They look to us for help, answers, and approval. They watch when they think we can’t see them to see if we notice them, if we know where they are, if we’re paying attention.

And none of this progress comes in an orderly way. Growth shoots up out of nowhere. Like this:

On Saturday night, I was up in our bedroom working on a sermon for Sunday morning. For the first year we knew them, the kids would never come upstairs, and were convinced I was doing something nefarious if I was up here anytime other than to go to sleep. But that’s been changing lately, and now they’ll come up to ask me a question or pet the dog. But Saturday, they both came up, and we all just sort of hung out, laughing about silly things. #2 demonstrated her pushup technique. #1 hid across the room, texting me to see when his sister would notice he was there (too bad I’d left my phone downstairs). Then Steve came up and we all petted THIS DOG, who was lying in the center of the bed, soaking up the love and clearly thinking, “FINALLY you people get this pack thing!”

It was good. And let me tell you, it felt totally beyond us until the moment it happened.

DO NOT GIVE UP, new adoptive parents! Today is not forever in this relationship. Keep building, hang in there, find some (preferably healthier and less causing of weight gain) ways to let out some pressure. You can do this! And it’s worth it.

 

 

Fight For It

Today’s adoption question: What have you learned about yourself through this process? 

That I hate conflict. This is not new information. But it feels newish, because sometimes  the term parenting just feels like a code word for “being mad at someone ALL THE TIME.”

I just don’t like being angry. My Dad is like this. He honestly does not remember entire swaths of our family history that were unpleasant. He’s there in the midst of them – he doesn’t check out in the moment.  But once something is over? It is OVER. To those of you with a more therapy-based outlook on mental health this might seem terrible, but I have to say, we were a pretty happy family through some heavy stuff as I grew up. I think there’s much to be said for resolving unpleasantness as quickly as possible and then moving on.

iuThe problem is that I’m not great at upholding consequences for The Cherubs the day after a major “parenting moment” occurs, because I forget it ever happened. I can’t tell you how often The Cherubs have to remind me that they’ve lost their screen time, or their condiments (it turns out denial of KETCHUP is our single most effective behavior modification tool), or will be doing some “voluntary” vacuuming as discussed the night before.

I don’t mind talking through a situation or misunderstanding, even if it’s awkward or uncomfortable. (I don’t consider that conflict, actually; that’s just having different perspectives and needing to use words to try to get on the same page. That’s life.) But I don’t like adversarial show downs.

That said, it’s a skill I’m developing…

We have one child who is all about the adversarial show downs. She will argue her point even in the face of obvious, demonstrable evidence that she is wrong. She will not back down. It’s a thing to behold. And let me tell you, what I used to view as, All that money I wasted becoming  lawyer? Now shines bright as, the best parental survival investment I ever made.

Because My Oh My, Child…if you stand in my kitchen while I point to royal blue nail polish on the counter (and lime green paint on the door frame, and pink sparkle something on the dog) and say, “You don’t know! It could have been DAD!!!” you had better believe that you will not emerge from that battle with your ketchup rights intact.

One refrain I saw in almost every recommended adoption book I read: Pick your battles carefully. Win the ones you pick.

Strangely enough, she does so much better when she is not allowed to win these stupid fights. It’s as if somehow it reassures her that the grown ups are on the job. (Which is why it’s such a problem that I forget about the consequences).

Adoption has taught me how much I hate fighting. And yet it’s teaching me to fight, because sometimes you have to.

 

It’s Like Puppy Rescue (?!?)

cherub bergie hug

We have a sweet, smart little girl who comes with her mom to our church Life Group on Wednesday nights.  I’ll call her Awesome Blossom. She is seven, which means that she looks at #2 Cherub (who is twelve) with wide-eyed wonder and longing. The kids usually do their own thing on one side of the room while the grownups talk about the night’s Bible passage on the other. Last week I watched as Awesome Blossom worked up her courage and approached #2 Cherub with all her questions.

We’ve known for a while that Awesome Blossom wonders about our family. We’re confusing. We don’t match, at least on the outside. We leave in different cars because Steve comes to group straight from work. And her mom grew up with Steve, which means they’ve known each other longer than he & I have. It’s all a little confusing.

Last week, Awesome Blossom QUIZZED #2 Cherub. It was adorable. I could hear her part of the conversation, but not my daughter’s.  Later, I asked Reena, “How did you explain things to her?”

“It used to be SO hard talking to little kids about being adopted,” she said. “They have SO MANY questions because it’s so hard to understand. So now I just tell them, It’s like puppy rescue.”  

I’m pretty sure my eyes got HUGE when she said that. If there’s anything the adults in the adoption world do NOT compare this process to, it’s puppy rescue. No one wants kids to think of themselves as abandoned dogs, right?

#2 Cherub corrected my perception, P.D.Q. From a kid’s perspective? NOTHING is better than puppies! Who doesn’t want to rescue all the dogs when you’re a kid???

It’s the ultimate compliment.

And to be honest, it’s sort of the truth.

So there you have it. The key to building a second chance family, summed up by my brilliant, candid daughter: puppy rescue.

If you want to adopt an actual puppy (and you should!), start here.

If you want to adopt a cherub (and you should!), start here and here.

As the saying goes, TODAY could be the first day of your whole new life ;)

Adoption Shopping

Yesterday I was going through old Amazon orders and came across a whole section I recognized as my “The Cherubs are coming!” shopping frenzy – items we bought hoping they would make the kids feel loved and welcomed, help us get to know each other, and meet practical needs (like how we had one twin bed and two incoming kids). It reminded me of the intensity of those early, mind-bending days, and how many directions we were looking to for help. Here’s a list of some of the items that delivered. Some of them might come in handy in your non-adoption life (or what I like to think of as your PRE adoption life!), too.

 First, The Thumb Ball.  This humble little ball started our conversation the first time we met The Cherubs. We came to their foster home in the afternoon after school. Their social worker, Janna, was waiting with them and introduced us. We all sat on couches in the living room, looking at each other but trying not to be weird about it. We knew conversation would be awkward (where do you even START?) so I brought this little ball I found online. The concept is simple: you toss it to someone, and wherever their thumb lands when they catch it, that’s the question they answer. “What’s a food  you don’t like?”  Janna didn’t like cinnamon, which gave us something to marvel at together. “What’s a good vacation place?” gave the kids a chance to tell us they’d been to Disney. Perhaps the best part of this, though, was that it was so tactile. When the game was over, #1 Cherub held onto the ball, squeezing it, tossing it in the air. It gave him something to do with all the nervous energy. I think we could have all used one.

On a similar note, Table Topics.  These cards were on our dining room table for months, rescuing  us from dinnertime misery night after night. Here’s why: Dinnertime was AWFUL that first season together. The kids didn’t like our food, we didn’t like their attitudes (and we were stressed about their health) We fought Every. Single. Night. But we had mandatory Table Topics conversations to approximate some semblance of the “value of family dinners” we were grasping for in those ten minute meals that felt like they lasted three hours. And you know what? It worked!  Sometimes you need a question about whether or not you’d travel to Mars if given the chance to get the party started!

A Note for writers: I once spent an entire summer using a box of these for daily writing prompts. Highly recommend.

Chocolate Hair, Vanilla Care.  This book FREAKED ME OUT. I was prepared to learn a new world of hair care for my mixed-race daughter, but the author’s personal approach to her child’s hair is a bit extreme. For example, the book suggests that if we went to the beach, afterwards I should use AN AIR COMPRESSOR on my child’s head to remove sand from between the braids. I was like, “The same one that runs the nail gun???”  I cannot tell you how stupid I felt, asking one of my black friends, “Um…do I need an air compressor?”  Thankfully, her answer was No. That said, if you’re looking for a guide for how to care for natural hair, this is great. It has so much helpful information that helped me understand different types of hair, products, etc. and it also has detailed how-tos for different braids and styles. I’ll leave decisions re: the use of power tools up to you.

Patriot Bear.  I think Pillow Pets are brilliant, and wish they were the norm for adult pillows, too. Kids of all ages like soft things. When a child moves in with you, he or she might come with a favorite snuggle toy. But I think it helps with the transition to add something new from you that has meaning and solidifies their life at your house. (If you live outside of New England and aren’t a Pats fan, they have these bears for all the teams.) I covet this bear every night at tuck in time – he’s very cozy.

Black Nativity.  I love this adaptation of the Langston Hughes play. It’s gritty and complicated, and yet shot through with scenes that show God’s presence even in the midst of seemingly hopeless situations. It’s by far my favorite Christmas movie. We first got it from the library, and I was ordering a copy to own before the credits were done at the end.

Black or White.  We watched this one early in our new family relationship and it was HARD. But it was also good. The scene with Kevin Costner’s court testimony where he breaks down what really happened? I tear up just thinking about it. This movie does such a good job of showing how complicated these cases are. Not just because of race, but because of people. This brought up a lot of stuff for all of us (Steve and I had been through something similar with Princess Peach) but I’m so glad we saw it. It’s tempting to try to keep everything happy and easy when you’re just getting to know each other. But the Cherub’s foster mom gave us good advice: Bring it up, she said. It’s gonna come up anyway. She was right.

On a lighter note…a friend recommended this South Shore bedroom set as a frugal solution to our two kids/one bed dilemma. We ordered the bed, headboard shelf & nightstand for #2 Cherub, the price was incredibly reasonable, and they’ve been fantastic. Note: leave some time for assembly pre-Cherub arrival.

And finally, three of my favorites, because they’re so personal:

Out of My Mind. I bought this book before we even met the kids, because #2 Cherub listed it as her favorite book in the adoption flyer her social worker prepared to help recruit for them. This book is so good. I couldn’t wait to meet #2 and talk about it. It gave me hope that she & I might bond through books & writing, and indeed, we have. Our love of books and stories is one of the best things we share, and I’m so grateful to her social worker for including this gem in that flyer.

Kyrie Irving Fathead Graphic. We knew that #1 loved basketball. But we were unprepared for his favorite player being from Cleveland :) Kyrie stands tall over #1’s bed, ready to make a move on the basket. (But yes, we also got him a Celtics Fathead to make it a real game. And we might have put the guy in the green shirt on the wall closest to the net…)

cys-sign  reenas-sign

I found these signs at Marshall’s and got one for each Cherub’s bedroom. I want them to see this every single night, and wake up to it every morning. It’s the truth. You can find something similar here, here, and here. As I look at them now, I kind of want one in every room.