The Story of Our Staycation

In an Easter miracle that feels every bit proportional to Jesus rising from the dead, we managed to pull off a school vacation that didn’t suck.

Easter 2017

I am awed and grateful. I’m not even sure how to describe it, so I’ll just post a bunch of pictures with a few words to record this moment in time.

First, we had the two year anniversary of the day we met the Cherubs. We did not celebrate this, however. I tried that last year, asking #2, “What do you remember about that night?” to which she replied, “We just cried. We didn’t want to leave where we were to go live with strangers.” Yikes. So this year, we left this one right alone. Next month, we’ll celebrate Adoption Day, and then Moving In With Us day in June. But now we leave Nice To Meet You Day out of the picture. Lesson Learned.

We DID celebrate Easter, my favorite holiday.  At church we had art by Grace & Reena, and music about the incredible things we believe.

I preached about the Boston Marathon, and how cool it is that, four years after the Marathon Bombing, no one talks about who did it or why. Instead, everyone talks about the overcoming that happened in the aftermath, and how the words Boston Strong define who we are and what we love about living here. There are Boston Strong signs and t-shirts everywhere. I love it.

Then we prayed for Gwen & J.J. our two friends who’d be running the next day.  So inspiring.

Speaking of inspiring, Steve & I had a date afterwards! The Cherubs went on an overnight with their grandparents, and we went out for long relaxing lunch, after which we came home and RIPPED UP our bedroom.

And no, I don’t mean that as a metaphor.

Remember I told you about the stairs? And how that led us to some conclusions about the gross, hazmat-y rug?

Well, the project expanded in scope almost immediately. Replacing the floor somehow led to repainting the bathroom sink cabinet, pulling up all the baseboards, and taking down a wall.

Here is my inspiration photo:

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Here is what I woke up to this morning:

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Really, we’re practically there.

But I’m happy to report that there are now 10 contractor bags of gross rug down in a bagster next to the driveway, and our floor is now covered in lovely maple boards on which no dog has peed. I’m taking that as a win.

Perhaps the most exciting part of the week was watching Gwen finish the Marathon. Her friend J.J. flew up from Florida to run with her, and spoke at church about how friends run all different kinds of marathons together, cheering each other on and helping through the touch stretches. A bunch of us gathered in an office space overlooking the finish line to watched them cross, and as they crossed, we all pretended to have something in our eyes. Tissues all around for the big wins.

Finish Line Gwen and JJ

 

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Then Steve, the Cherubs & I walked back over the bridge into Cambridge. It felt like such a long distance, but our attitudes were kept in check by all the tinfoil wrapped people we passed who’d just run 26 miles, and the glorious sky over the city, and the fun of having something like this happen for people we love, in a place we love. Really, it was all the gushy feelings, accompanied by some sore legs.

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Speaking of sore legs – I went to the gym. Three times. My first session was with a trainer who is Irish and seven months pregnant, which means we looked like twins. I won’t post pictures of that. I’ll just say that I’m glad I can slide in my socks across the new wood floors as a form of travel rather than having to pick up my feet for each new step.

Happy Monday, All.

He is risen, indeed.

The First Days of Adoption

Friends of ours just met their kids for the first time!!! They’re adopting older siblings from foster care. For obvious reasons, this makes my eyes fog up. I am so excited for this new family. And aware of how vulnerable it feels to attempt this. As much as we all want to imagine these moments as beautiful scenes where orphaned children run into the arms of their new parents with bright smiles, grateful hearts, and the sun shining down on us all, that’s not exactly what it looks like.  At least that’s not what it looked like for us.

For us, it looked like equal parts wonder, awe, and terror.

I’d forgotten about this until our friends sent out a picture from the night they met their cherubs. They were on a couch together, arms around one another, looking for all the world like a ready-made family. It was GORGEOUS. It reminded me of sitting on a similar couch, taking a similar picture. And the surrealness of the whole, “Hi, so nice to meet you, I’m your new mom/dad/kid.”

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Don’t we look happy? But #1 is CLUTCHING that conversation ball for dear life. It might be the best present we brought that night. 

After that night, we started the visits and the process of getting to know each other. Our kids liked us okay. We were white, which wasn’t their favorite. But we said we’d get him a basketball hoop for the driveway, and that she could paint her room any color she wanted, and we had a dog. So that all worked in our favor.

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Steve & #1 assembling the basketball hoop. This took approximately 5 hours, at which point we could see in both kids’ eyes, “Wow, this guy might be serious about being our Dad…”

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Paint swatches on #2’s bedroom wall. She had hundreds of these, and was so excited when she found the perfect shade of lavender.  

We spent the next day with them. We shot baskets at court near their foster home, then went out for lunch. We went bowling, and for frozen yogurt. On the way home, #2 Cherub commented, “Wow, you guys spent A LOT of money on us today.” We didn’t know how to respond. She was right (who knew fro-yo could cost almost $30?). We hadn’t realized how soon we’d be navigating real parenting questions. How should we convey to them the truth – You guys are worth so much to us, of course we want to spend money on things like this, and the other truth – No, this does not mean we’ll buy you every single thing you ask for, like real Uggs or $200 sneakers – when we barely knew them? I think we said something about how we try to be frugal about some things so we’d have extra to splurge on things that really mattered.

Sometimes you just punt.

The next time we saw them was Wednesday.  I drove the 45 minutes to pick them up after school, then we came back to Cambridge to wait for Steve to get out of work so we could have dinner together. There was a weird rule I don’t quite understand that we weren’t supposed to take them to our house until we’d had a couple weeks of visits, so we ended up doing a lot of driving around and activities. I’m not good at planning activities, so this was super stressful for me.

Okay, let me get honest: this part was just awful.

I already loved these kids. But they were so unhappy to have their lives disrupted. They loved their foster mom, and her family. That was the best life they’d ever known, and they were ANGRY that they had to leave it. They hated the music I played in the car (all we could agree on were a few songs from the Jackson 5. Shake Your Body Down To The Ground will forever remind me of being stuck on 95 North in Friday traffic). They hated missing out on time with their friends and foster cousins.  On some trips, they’d both cover their heads with the blankets we kept in the backseat, just to get away from me.

This gave me lots of time to figure out activities for us, what with all the not talking.

This went on for two months.

Most transitions go WAY faster. (We have one set of friends that met their daughter on a Saturday, then she moved in The following weekend.) Often this isn’t based on what’s best for the kids or the new parents, but a more practical need: there aren’t enough foster homes available in Massachusetts, so if DCF can move two kids into a pre-adoptive placement and free up those beds for other kids? That’s the top priority. Fortunately for us, our kids’ foster mom was retiring, so there was no rush. We were able to spend two months transitioning. This let the kids finish off their school year where they were, and allowed them to process some of their feelings of loss, fear, and anger along the way, which made a little room for some excitement to creep in there.

That first Wednesday, we painted ceramics.

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Then we picked up Steve at work, ate dinner out, then drove them home. They were clearly relieved to get back.

I share all this to let you know: this takes time. It didn’t stay this hard forever. It’s been more than a year since either kid hid under a blanket on a car ride (I mentioned this to #2 last week, and she’d forgotten all about it.) But it was rather rocky for what felt like forever, as it ticked by, one minute at a time.

What helped us turn the corner? There were a bunch of things. Their foster mom did an incredible job helping them wrap their minds around the concept of adoption. We showed up on time for every visit and seemed glad to see them, which counted for more than we ever would have guessed. But the unexpected factor was THIS DOG.  The kids loved her, and she loved them. They agreed that she was awesome, even though the jury was  still out on us. And so they let her nudge them along those first few steps of becoming a family.

A pivotal moment was the night we brought Bergie with us to drive the kids back to their foster home. They got out of the car, hugged us and her, and then headed in. Bergie looked out the car window as they went up the steps and in the door, and then began to howl.

She’s part Great Pyrenees (you can read about our best guess at her genetic heritage here), bred to protect sheep. From Day One of meeting them, The Cherubs have been her sheep,  and she takes her job seriously. She was MOST UNHAPPY that night when we drove away without them.

This was, I suspect, the thing that helped the kids consider the possibility that our house might be an okay home, and we might be okay family.

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Waiting for #1 to come home. She has subdued an invading bear and has things on lockdown. 

Every family has its own unique story. Our friends’ experience transitioning will be different than ours. They’ll have their own ups & downs. Life might look long sometimes. They might wonder if they’ve ruined all their lives with this crazy idea. (Okay, I’m sure THEY’LL never wonder that. Surely that was just us…) But you do what you do in any challenge in life: you hang on, pray, and watch for small signs as things get better.

Over time, we’ve seen a cycle, where what used to feel like miracle moments of unexpected closeness become the new normal. Then we climb up on that new level and reach for the next step. This is my hope for our friends.

And for YOU when you adopt your cherubs from foster care :)

 

Laughing & Crying

I didn’t realize how schizophrenic my weekend was until I sat down to write this post.

First, the funny part:

Have you guys noticed that the way clothes look on Pinterest & style cards isn’t AT ALL how they look on a live body? I think this is a metaphor for EVERYTHING.

This weekend, Steve & I both had boxes arrive from Stitch Fix. I am incredibly in love with this service, ever since they sent me a pair of jeans that fit right out of the box. My round #2 came at the same time Steve got round #1. The results were…mixed.

Here is Steve’s face when he opened his box:

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I laughed so hard I hiccuped. You can’t really tell from the picture, but that plaid shirt looked like it had been made from men’s swim trunks as part of a Project Runway challenge. The look is best described as metrosexual surfer. It even had those loop things on the sleeve with the button!

If you have met Steve, you know that there is no way he would ever wear something like that. The man is a hockey goalie. He buys his clothes at Timberland, NorthFace & L.L. Bean. Next he pulled some grey Sperry-type boat sneakers from the bag and I had to gasp to get enough air.  He tried it all on under protest. The Cherubs were speechless.

We looked at the little style card they sent with the packages and realized something: There is a GARGANTUAN GAP between how things look in 2D, set out flat on a style card with coordinating pieces, and how they look in 3D, on a living person.
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(I’m sad to report that Steve would not let me take a picture of him wearing these items. This shows once again that he is wiser than me.)

Here’s the thing: If you’d shown me this card in advance, I’d have said, “That looks great – he’ll love it!” (Provided I didn’t notice the little sleeve loops). But there’s this collision that happens when we try to transition things from 2D to 3D. Not everything survives the trip.

Honestly, I cannot stop drawing deep metaphors from this experience.

***

Yesterday, I gave a Palm Sunday sermon inspired in part by this Stitch Fix experience. I talked about how disappointing it is when something you hope might be the answer to your prayers comes within reach…and then turns out to be not at all what you expected.

At least 5 people in our congregation have asked us recently some version of the questions, “How do you deal with disappointment? How do you stay faithful to believing God’s promises when you’re in pain?” As silly as it sounds, Stitch Fix gave me a starting point. It was a low emotion example that helped me think this through, and share it in a way that we could all laugh at. Because we’ve all had the experience of seeing something in a picture and thinking, “That would be great!” only to have it collapse when exposed to the challenges of real, 3D life.

So I told them about how, in order to face getting dressed in the morning, most of us have to die to the idea that we’ll look like a supermodel, or a flat style card. We all laughed.

That was the easy part.

Then came the harder part, because some things are a big, pain-filled mystery and we just don’t know where God is in it all, or what He’s doing.

I talked about the pain of losing Princess Peach four years ago – the devastation Steve & I felt then, the hurt look I still see in her eyes when we see her, how she tries really hard not to ask why we let her go. (Two years ago we gave her a doll for Christmas and her first eager question was, “Does it smell like you?”) I’m still looking to God to make this right when it looks so very wrong.

I know it’s obnoxious to compare this loss to an unfortunate Stitch Fix delivery. But I need both examples.

Steve has already forgotten that that plaid shirt ever happened. (He’ll be quite surprised to see another box arrive in June, with selections from a updated style profile and a Pinterest board I made from pictures of clothes hockey players might wear.) This low-bar example gives me space to think through how I deal with disappointment: in most cases, I trust that there is a something better is possible, and that it’s coming.

The challenge is applying this to bigger things; to real hurts where the emotions are  too live for me to figure out what response my faith suggests, because I’m simply surviving. There are so many swirling questions when we’re in pain. How do I trust that this is God’s best for Princess Peach? For us? What do we DO? How do we move forward? Of course, learning about adoption from foster care led us to The Cherubs, which is amazing. But I don’t think God leaves one little girl out in the cold so that two other kids can have a Mom & Dad. I have to believe that the story is not over.

Closing out the sermon, I shared one special memory that helps me:

It was our last day with Princess Peach. We were in the car, driving her to where the social workers were meeting us to take her away. They were over an hour late, so we had a lot of time to fill. Steve prayed a Father’s blessing over Princess Peach, speaking love and a vision for her life. Then we drove around Cambridge, all three of us numb with disbelief. Princess Peach starred out the window and stroked the soft fur of the stuffed puppies we’d bought to take with her to keep her safe. We had the iPod on shuffle to fill the silence. Then a song came on and Princess Peach lit up. “Play THAT ONE again, please!” she said.

It was a song by CeCe Winans, called “It Ain’t Over.” It’s one of those songs where you stand up in church and stomp your feet and clap. It’s a BATTLE song. Princess Peach kept saying “Play it again?” So we did.

So you gave it all you had

And you still came up short

You’ve been faithful through it all

And you answered the call.

Keep your eye on the prize

Don’t give up the faith

God has a plan for you

That’s why we say…

It ain’t over.

It felt like God was right there with is in that awful moment, challenging us to believe.

And so we do. It’s been four years. I still cry every time I hear that song. We’ve seen Princess Peach 3 times in those years. I don’t know what God is doing, but I know this for sure: It ain’t over.

We pray for her every day.

We move forward with life, trusting that God will reconnect our dots someday.

And we take joy in small things, because they add up and make a difference.

One of the hardest things for me after we said goodbye to her was figuring out how to LIVE. To laugh at something funny, or enjoy a good meal, or be excited about cute jeans that fit…it seemed like such a betrayal of her. We lived in a suspended state for months after that, certain she’d be back.

We were surprised when Easter came, so to speak. How Jesus showed up and reassembled us, giving us new life where we were dead inside. It’s been miraculous. The pain hasn’t disappeared. But we’ve grown into the ability to carry it and live on. And in that, I trust that He is doing something similar in Princess Peach, because she loves him and so is covered under the promise of Romans 8:28 (“For we know that in all things, God works for the good of those who love him and are called according to His purpose.“) I hang onto this verse like a lifeline. And then I entrust this sweet girl to Jesus, and get on with everyday life.

***

My Stitch Fix box turned out better than Steve’s.

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There was another pair of jeans that fit, which makes me want to hug my stylist “Katelyn,” whether she’s a person or an algorithm. I kept a top that was not at all something I would have picked for myself after Steve walked in and said, “Wow, that looks great on you!”

The other three things – a blazer like one I already own, a top I loved thats didn’t quite fit, and a wool scarf – went back (and made me realize I need to take the cold weather outfit pictures off of my Pinterest style board). I didn’t get the 25% discount you get if you keep all 5 items. But even at full price, it was worth it. I spent five minutes placing an order, rather than three hours at the mall, and came out with a new outfit. I don’t look like the perfection on the style card. But I’m a nicely updated 3D version of me :)

I’m taking every bit of joy I can out of that small, silly win.

To sum it all up…

Listen to this song. Pray for Princess Peach, and for the big questions you still have about what God is doing in your life. It’s okay to clap and have some fun with it. I think part of heaven coming to earth is that it brings a lot more joy than we expect, even in the midst of pain:

And if you need some clothes, or feel like you’re style is hopeless and you can’t face the mall? Try Stitch Fix. If you order for the first time through the link, I get a $20 referral credit, which makes jeans more affordable.

This life is both/and, you guys. It really is.

Power Struggles

Rough week here in Ryanville. One of our Cherubs truly believes she is maturing at a tremendous rate, such that she’s becoming more our peer than our child. In her mind, she, Steve & I form a triune leadership counsel, through which we lord power over her brother and the dog. She tolerates my place on the counsel grudgingly. But in her eyes, I’m sort of like the Queen Mum: an annoying ceremonial necessity she must tolerate as she works her way to the throne.

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I cannot even describe how exhausting this is.

In a state of desperation (and because I want to make sure we can afford Catholic school before I threaten to send her there), I’ve turned to Cesar Milan, a.k.aThe Dog Whisperer, for help.

No, I’m not kidding.

I started watching his show & reading his books after we adopted THIS DOG.  As some of you remember, Bergie came to us huge and mostly untrained. She couldn’t walk on a leash without leaping and thrashing, and she looked at the stairs to our house like they were the strangest thing she’d ever seen. She weighed 93 pounds at that point, so these were LARGE problems.

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Steve used to call her “Pot Roast.” :)

Cesar’s point of view on dog training is clear: Dogs need stability, consistency, and clear authority. To become part of the pack, he says, a dog needs to know what is expected and how to participate successfully. Nothing makes a dog more anxious than an unclear pack structure. 

Then he let fly with this gem of awkward truth: “Human beings are the only creatures on earth who will follow an unstable leader.”

Yikes and wow. Hearing this the first time, I realized how trained most of us are to ignore signs of instability in our leaders (and in ourselves when we lead). We don’t want to rock the boat or make things awkward, we don’t know how to fix what’s broken, so we double down on whatever we’ve been doing, hoping more will help. But more unstable leadership doesn’t make a healthy pack. Only good leadership does that.

Cesar’s take on this has been revolutionary for me. With THIS DOG, I realized that I had to stop being pulled around the block by this giant creature, stop talking a high pitched sweet voice trying to appeal to her better nature, and stop letting her jump all over our furniture whenever she wanted. I needed to toughen up. Not in a mean way. I needed to learn to communicate to THIS DOG exactly what I wanted her to do. Which means I needed to figure out what I wanted her to do, so I could let her know.

Which brings me back to my Cherub. I don’t know if this is true with all kids, but I know it’s prevalent in kids who have been in foster care: They don’t trust adults. My kids still don’t trust Steve & me to do what we say, or be who we need to be, or do what needs to be done. They assume we will fail, forget, flake out, or otherwise disappoint them. So they prepare for this contingency.  And perhaps because they’ve been less socialized in faux kindness, our kids are closer to the instinct-level functioning Cesar Milan describes. My Cherub will not follow an unstable pack leader. She will fight that leader in an attempt to take over the pack.

Thinking of our family as a pack is an interesting perspective shift.  I’m pretty confident her behavioral acting out is a problem in leadership, not followership.  So I need to figure out what it is I expect from her, specifically, and communicate that to her, pronto. For her to do better, I need to do better.

(And yes, this means she was right when she said that adoption is “kind of like puppy rescue.”)

I can train a Great Pyrenees mix (a breed often considered untrainable because they are so incredibly independent) to walk gently at my side, I can teach a tween to respect (or at least pretend to respect) authority. It has to be possible, right?

If you think the answer is no, don’t tell me :)

 

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.

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.

Celtics

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!

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?

***

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.

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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.

***

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.