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.

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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!)

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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.

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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!

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.

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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.

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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.

 

Adoption: The Goodness

Before we adopted, I couldn’t have told you what I’d like about having children. I had hopes, of course. But they were more a sense of what life might feel like rather than specific dreams I could articulate. Once we were IN it, it wasn’t at all as I’d imagined. Some things were harder than I expected, many things were just different. But an important through line to this story is how certain things bring more joy to my life than I ever would have guessed. For example…

I have attended LOTS of soccer games now, and they are so my favorite. Fast paced action, a chance to cheer…all while relaxing in a lawn chair in the sun. It’s glorious. I knew I was hooked when I stood on a muddy field in the cold rain last year as our team lost by what felt like a hundred goals, and I was still incredibly happy to be there.

Also my favorite: Middle School musicals. I CRIED last year as #2 took the stage as part of the herd in The Lion King. Full on soggy face. I knew how hard she’d worked to learn the songs and dances, and was in awe at how the huge ensemble cast pulled off a show that was really entertaining.  I never would have had these moments without the Cherubs.  Hakuna Matata!

Even more than these things, though, I like our conversations, and what I learn just being around them.

I tend to approach kids as people.  I’m not all that into games or crafts or activities, but I love hearing what their lives are about, how they see the world. Both of the Cherubs are interesting. The things they say as they’re just going about their days broadens my perspective in ways I NEVER would have anticipated.

It would be easy to imagine that this broadening has been about the big things that seem obvious: race, generational differences, what it’s like to grow up in hard circumstances.  And there’s been some of that. But most of what I’ve gleaned from the kids is more subtle and unexpected. Things like…

When #2 Cherub talks through her strategies for approaching challenges, the way she thinks is incredibly logical and proactive. She really goes for things that matter to her. When something doesn’t work out as planned, she regroups, comes up with a new approach, and tries again. I can’t tell you how much being around her pushes me to raise my game and do likewise.

#1 is a captain of relational management. He can read & recalibrate a room like no one I’ve ever seen. (If you run a business right now, HE is the guy you’re going to want in charge of office culture & employee retainment in a few years.) I don’t understand precisely how he does it, but his emotional agility is off the charts. He’s taught me so much about the power of quiet observation and choosing your moments to speak.

On a lighter note, thanks to the Cherubs, I now know that the Timberland boots I bought in January (which were known as sh*tkickers when I was growing up and not at all cool) are now incredibly desirable and fashion-forward. Cue the first moment EVER where both Cherubs are impressed with my attire :)

I guess my point is that when I remember to interact with my kids the way I do other kids – as people, not life management projects I’m trying desperately not to screw up, there’s a reciprocity to our relationship that is really rich. It can be challenging to keep that in the forefront of my mind in the midst of all the parenting, but it’s so worth the effort.

It’s too easy to let the challenging parts of adoption define the narrative. But they are not the whole story :)

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This was yesterday. I came in from walking THIS DOG and #1 had his laptop open to show me how much he’s brought his grades up this quarter. 

 

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#2 Cherub, surprised by Dad with Valentine’s Day flowers.

 

 

Fielding Questions About WHY

Today’s adoption question is from Sarah: How do you handle questions your kids have about WHY?

***

We had a really good plan for this. It fell apart immediately upon impact with reality, but I’ll tell you about it anyway.

OUR PLAN was to focus on the positives. Not in a Pollyanna-ish way, but to look for the bright spots in our particular situation and intentionally point to them.

We had some good stuff to work with:

Their biological mother did something awesome when she signed over her parental rights once we were identified as a pre-adoptive family. She saved them from YEARS of legal limbo – trial dates are pushed out months in these matters, continuances granted endlessly, and then appeals can drag on. So she really came through and put the best interest of her kids first in that decision, and we’ve made it clear to the Cherubs that we are grateful for this.

(Let me pause to say that I’m not a fan of the phrase “biological mom.” She’s their Mom, just like I am now, and it helps our family that I’m not threatened or upset about it. Back when one of the kids asked, after the adoption was finalized, “What should we call her now?” I just blurted, “Don’t you still want to call her Mom?” Every adoption situation is different, but in our case, it would be beyond weird for them to start calling her “Lisa” (not her name, but you see where I’m going) after calling her Mom since they were born. For a while, they referred to me as their Round Two Mom, which was kind of funny. I wish that had stuck, because it captures the truth really well. Our roles in their lives are different, but denying reality seems absurd in our case.)

Other bright spots include how they were placed together in foster care (a miracle) in an incredible foster home (another miracle) with a foster mother who knew how to parent with love, how to lead, and how to teach life skills (sadly rare).

And that they were CHOSEN. We hoped that would make them feel special, and that they’d marvel along with us at how God brought the four of us together to make a family.

***

Here’s the reality:

They did not feel lucky.

They did not feel particularly blessed.

They could not possibly care less about being CHOSEN.

Their response to all this was, “If you got to consider all those kids, why didn’t we have any choice about our new parents?”

Ouch.

But such a valid point. This is probably their top frustration – that they were not consulted. The will of strangers was just imposed on them, again and again. And so whenever this topic comes up, they say some version of, “I’m not saying we wouldn’t pick you guys as parents, but it would have been nice to consider other options.”

At first, struggling to respond, I’d talk about facts: how there aren’t enough adoptive parents, and how what you think you want in a parent when you’re a kid may not be what you actually need, blah, blah, blah. But this was unhelpful. They weren’t frustrated by the larger picture of foster care in Massachusetts. They were frustrated by how completely they’d been excluded from decisions that have endless repercussions for their lives.

Here’s something to know about adoptive parenting: You constantly need to put your feelings, and the way your Sparkly Hopeful Generous Love is bruised by these interactions, ON HOLD, so you can recognize the ridiculousness of what you are requiring of these children. These kids were

  • Taken from the only family they’d ever known (losing their school, friends, and most of their belongings)
  • To live with a foster family they’d never met (where they were expected to accept whatever they got, may not have had what they needed, AND had to learn new household rules, traditions, expectations, as well as make their way in a new school.)
  • Then later, seemingly out of the blue, told,”We’ve found your new parents!”and introduced to yet another set of people they’d never met, then required to start all over AGAIN.

Our society expects these kids to do this cheerfully, with a good attitude, while keeping up their behavior and grades in school and not acting out in any way. It is insane.

And yet they pull it off.

If you get a chance to look through the photo listing book of children waiting for adoption, or the MARE website? Look at every one of those faces and recognize: right there is a child without functional parents or a real home, who could be moved to a new stranger’s house without notice at any time, and yet will be expected to pass a test on fractions this morning and to figure out what to do about the mandatory chorus concert tonight, the one that requires a white shirt and black pants he doesn’t have.

These kids are AMAZING, functioning in lives where every facet is outside their control. So if our Cherubs get angry or attitudinal about not having a choice about us as their parents, my job is to agree that that sucks and not take it personally.

I guess that’s our strategy for dealing with questions of WHY: Agree that what happened sucks, resist the urge to cover their disappointment with a shiny veneer, and don’t take ANYTHING personally.

Here’s what’s surprising: As we give them freedom to vent their frustration about all of this, we see this sort of two-tier development happening: they recognize how much they hated the process…and that they love us. They wish they’d never had to go into foster care or be adopted…and also see this new life is pretty good.  They learn to live in tension, which might be the life skill we all need most.

This is why I recommend taking a lot of pictures. As you look back over them, you’ll see: Yeah, they were just sort of tolerating us then. But things feel different now. We’re doing better… It draws you out of the daily stuff and helps you see the progress.

 

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Two weeks after we met: Steve & I were SO EXCITED. The kids were like, “Whatever strange people. Please take us back to our foster home where our real lives are.”

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This past Christmas: We were ALL pretty excited…and smiling for real.

The truth is, none of us know why. But there’s a proverb that says, “Don’t withhold good from those who deserve it when it’s in your power to help.” That’s what we’re trying to do here, one day at a time.

Thanks, Sarah. Great question :)

 

Celebrating the Good Moments #2

TODAY’S ADOPTION QUESTION!

Steve & I are often asked what advice we’d give someone considering adoption from foster care. It can be hard to answer, because I want to tell everyone all the things, yet I’m aware that each experience is really unique and not everything will apply. But yesterday afternoon I realized one thing that is universal:

REALLY enjoy the good moments. 

I know that sounds cliche. But seriously. Do it.

When things go well, notice it, savor it, write down what happened in a journal, snap pictures if you can. Tell the story of the good thing that happen to anyone who might listen. Replay them over and over in your mind so that they become integrated into your internal soundtrack of what your life is like right now.

Stressful memories will accumulate on their own. You’ve got to intentionally stockpile good ones.

In your early months as a new adoptive placement, once the honeymoon phase wears off and you’re not all tiptoeing around one another anymore, there comes a time where it feels like your life used to be a nice snow globe…but then it got knocked off the table and landed upside down in the trash. Nothing is the way it used to be, you’re not sure how to rebuild your life from the pieces you can find, and everyone is exhausted from the new emotional demands of creating a family out of strangers. (That’s not bad news, and it’s not forever. It’s just an unavoidable stage.)

So when you get good moments, they are like GOLD.

But if you’re too focused on the stress of rebuilding, or lost staring at the piles of your former life, you will miss these moments.

Don’t.

Yesterday, I was home with my son after school. He asked if he could cook mac & cheese for a snack. He expected me to say no (that child needs protein!) but my lifelong understanding that mac & cheese = happiness won out, and I said yes. Then the moment came: He wasn’t sure how to make it, would I help?

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Now, you ALL know that I am unlikely to have many “let me teach you my favorite recipe” moments with my children. It’s taken me 12 years to figure out basic dinners. But mac & cheese is my THING! I made it in a plug-in kettle in college, a microwave in law school, my little apartment stove in Philadelphia, and the “real” stove I had in D.C., where my Italian roommate (who was practically a chef, just via genetics) watched on, horrified and amused by my enthusiasm. Teaching #1 Cherub to make mac & cheese is closest thing I’ll have to a culinary legacy. So I took pictures, and made all kinds of jokes about how much his future wife will love this special recipe, passed down from his Mom :)

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How much is THIS DOG hoping that some of those shells fall out of that pan???

It was a good moment, and I’m glad I didn’t miss it.

Christmas Fear

We put up our Christmas tree last night. It’s lovely and crooked, decorated by two Cherubs who are fighting mightily with their fear that we’ll disappoint them this Christmas. Fear that the presents won’t be right, or we won’t have traditions, or that this won’t be like they dreamed of when they heard they were getting a “Round 2” family.

They will be disappointed by Christmas, of course. Most of us are. The presents under the tree aren’t all the same ones we put on our lists. The candy is delicious and then makes you a little bit sick to your stomach. And Jesus is just a baby after all, not the swashbuckling hero we’ve all been waiting for. It takes an angel or a wise man to recognize what’s going on and see the bigger picture.

I have no shot at angelic status, but this year I’m praying for wisdom to see the truth, and to live into it in a way so others can see, too. You have to kind of squint, and tilt your head a bit. But it’s there.

My Mom always made Christmas special for us. I don’t know how she did it, exactly. It wasn’t about big-ticket items, or perfect decor. I know that sounds cliche, but it really wasn’t. I kind of wish it had been, because those are tangible things I could acquire were I willing to max out our credit card to reproduce that feeling. But once you’ve had a real Christmas, Pottery Barn & Pinterest can no longer convince you with their lies. Rather, it was something about enthusiasm. My Mom LOVES Christmas. She picked wonderful presents that were filled with thought – the exact brand & flavor of lip balm you prefer showed up in your stocking from Santa. Or a pair of earrings that matched this new season of life you were heading into. The gifts Mom bought said, “I see you” as much as anything I’ve ever experienced. They made us feel known and loved.

I have no idea how to replicate that.

As I pull out all our decorations, I’m reminded of last year. It was just Steve & me then, and all our decorating felt laden with import in a different way, as we were in the middle of our home study and thus trying desperately to look like people who knew how to be a family. (I mean, we knew how to be a family. But have you ever tried to DEMONSTRATE that you know how to be something you are? It’s just AWKWARD.) The home study is where your adoption social worker comes to your house for a series of interviews. We were in the middle of building a wall in our living room, so we didn’t put up a tree because it would just get covered with drywall dust. But I BEDAZZLED the dining room. There were two manger scenes, lights, greenery, and a glamorous pink poinsettia centerpiece that I barely kept alive. There were cute tumbling Santas on the window sills and a snowman with a welcome sign at the top of the stairs. I wanted to show that we were a warm, celebratory family. You know, the kind that could be safely trusted with a couple of kids who might be blessed by some warmth and celebration.

I loved the Cherubs then, already, even though I’d only heard of them once in passing and had no idea that those kids were our kids. I loved them in an undefined sort of way that was filled with longing and hope. We prayed for them every night, and a bunch of times during each day, too. My journal is filled with speculation about how different things might be the next time we pulled out the snowmen and the mangers.

Today, I love them just as fiercely. But now it’s personal, too, which is better. That love is personal is Jesus’ message; the whole point of Christmas, really. Instead of reaching down from on high, God came close, down here. Jesus said, through all his words and actions, I see you. I know you. I love you.  Humanity hadn’t experienced this that directly since the Garden of Eden. And yet we can have it today if we want it.  And we can let God use us to be it to other people, too.

This is my prayer as I fret over new traditions and Christmas wish lists – and over my own hopes that feel too big to ask for, even though I’ve been invited to ask:

Lord, use me to help my family and friends feel seen, known, and loved. I can’t do it on my own. I bumble around and get tripped by obstacles. Teach me to walk by faith and not by sight. Thank you that you order my steps. Show us how to celebrate in a way that is warm and deep and filled with you. Let your Kingdom come, and your will be done, here in my living room…and at Target, and Barnes & Noble, and Sports Authority, and I-95 North & South…here on earth as it is in Heaven. In Jesus’ name, Amen.