Monday, September 26, 2011

FASD & Other Invisible Challenges

I'm a parent of a child with FASD (Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder). I didn't get to make healthy prenatal choices for my child's developing brain, or protect her from damaging toxins. Before she breathed her first breathe there were changes made to the very structure and function of her brain. The untrained eye might not notice the subtle physical hints that my child is on the spectrum for FASD. Her case is considered mild, and she is a child of above average intelligence... which is why her behaviors can seem so puzzling to others. People who don't understand the impact of FASD may think she is "just being naughty" or seeking attention. People may think we are bad parents.

When I see the round faces and cheerful almond shaped eyes of children with down syndrome I wonder if it would be better for my child to be clearly identifiable as disabled.

I wish the world could see that my child is different.

It's not just parents of children with FASD that face this challenge. Parents of children with autism, emotional disturbances, bi-polar, PTSD, Reactive Attachment Disorder and other "invisible" challenges deal with the same stigma. I have honestly considered applying for a service dog to accompany my child. Not just because service dogs are cool AND helpful... but because I want the world to be a kinder, more accepting place for my child.

I have a friend, Aimee, who has twin daughters, one of whom has autism. Her daughter wears a shirt occasionally that says "I'm autistic... what's you're problem?". In public the shirt provokes equal parts applause and criticism. Regardless of your opinion about the shirt... it's purpose is clear. We're not looking for pity. We're not looking for judgement (or free parenting advice :). We're looking for understanding.

At the heart of the matter is tight-wire balancing act we walk each day. We want our children to be challenged, encouraged and included in spite of their disability... while not being enabled, overlooked, pitied or disqualified because of their disability.

I can't control the ignorant or judgmental glances of strangers in public... but most of our life takes place in a tiny corner of the earth that I am responsible for. It's my duty to raise awareness and rally support for my daughter in our little world. My friend Aimee worked with her child's teacher to educate her daughter's classmates about autism. Now her little girl is surrounded by a group of friends who accept her for who she is (and probably know more about autism than most adults). Aimee doesn't rely on snarky t-shirts or Jenny McCarthy to change the climate of her child's world... she's doing the work one 2nd grade classroom at a time. And it's not just the schools that needs our help; we as parents need to connect our child's grandparents, coaches, babysitters and neighbors with tools for understanding our child better.

Here are a few easy first steps for parents of children with special needs:
  • Stock your school's library and classroom with books about differently-abled children and resources such as Squirmy Wormy: How I Learned to Help Myself by Lynda Wilson
  • Observe adults/teachers interacting with your child and redirect their responses to your child's behavior, for e.g. "Coach Williams, I saw that you removed Russ from the huddle because he couldn't sit still. If you allow him to stand he may be able to listen to what you're saying without distracting his teammates."
  • Help your child's peers understand how they can help your child interact appropriately, for e.g. "Jennifer, I can see that you're feeling a little crowded. Since Ashley likes to sit so close, it might be best if you sat across the table from her."
  • Keep a file of helpful materials or articles you can share with family and friends. I developed the chart below based on one I foundin a book. It's an easy reference I can share with almost anyone. (You are welcome to download and use it as well)
  • Connect with other parents of children with special needs. Whether you join a formal support group, or just meet up with a friend or two at Starbucks, take time out to share your experiences, encourage others and normalize the challenges you face.

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Rock-a-bye Mattie

Mattie Rose was up in the night again last night.

When she first came to our home, my husband and I would wake up in the night with her standing at the foot of our bed like something out of Poltergeist. Like many children who have faced trauma, Mattie has Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). She is a tightly wound spring most days, and it takes a long time for her to unwind. We've asked her to lay quietly in her bed if she can't sleep or wakes in the night, and for the most part she does. We can tell she is trying. But some nights she just can't lay still. I will hear her thumping around upstairs hours after bedtime.

If Mattie were an only child, this might not be such a big deal to me. But Mattie usually involves one or more of her siblings in her nighttime escapades, and generally wakes up a couple more while she's prowling around.

She's pretty sneaky.

I turn down the TV and listen for a minute to confirm my suspicions that Mattie is singing/playing/yelling/crying/running water in the bathroom/knocking on bedroom doors/flipping lights off and on/writing on something with a sharpie marker. I creep up the stairs and tip-toe down the hall, pausing to listen and zero in on her location.

I step on a Lego, but muffle my own cries of pain.

I'm too close to compromise my ambush now.

I hobble the rest of the way down the hallway, then spring into action. Quick as lightning, I open the bathroom door. She's a deer in the headlights. My almost-5-year-old is seated on the bathroom floor putting Suave Volumizing Conditioner on her legs like lotion.

She freezes.

Conditioner drips through her fingers onto the linoleum floor.

I snatch a towel from the towel rack and one of the anchors pulls out of the drywall. I'm muttering something about stud finders while hastily mopping up Mattie and the conditioner. I make sure to keep my angry/disappointed face on so she knows I mean business. I take her downstairs and make her sit in the time-out chair. Time-out isn't her consequence, but we don't spank* Mattie, and I can't send her back to bed because I'm convinced she will get up again, and I can't think of something reasonable because I'm more angry than I should be about the situation.

I'm furious. It's dumb. This is not that big of a deal.

And... the towel bar thing is really my fault.

After about 10 minutes, my angry/disappointed face has faded and I know I need to do something about the prekindergartner in the time-out chair. But I can't think of a darn thing. No consequence I can think of makes sense.

Then I remember- my goal is not to punish her, my goal is to get her to sleep.


My bedroom is dark, cool and quiet. Mattie and I settle into an ancient rocking chair that we inherited from my husband's family. It squeaks. It smells like old people and Waco. I love that about it. It's exactly how a rocking chair should be.

For forty minutes I rock Mattie.

For forty minutes her little hands keep a vice-like hold on my shoulders.

It's now 4 hours past her bedtime. Her eyes are closed, but I can tell from her rigid body and breathing that she is not asleep. Finally she releases a little sigh. 50 minutes. An hour. Her shoulders start to fall and her hands loosen a little. I bury my nose in the part of her hair. I trace the outline of her tiny hand with my finger. I feel her heartbeat on my chest.

It takes an hour and fifteen minutes to rock her to sleep.

Mission accomplished. She's peacefully sleeping on a pallet on my floor. Now I'm the one who can't sleep. I'm laying in bed, replaying recent weeks in my mind and giving my parenting skills some much needed self-evaluation. In so many situations I find myself being reactive, instead proactive. I'm going to work on that. I'm going to focus less of my energy on "catching" my kids doing wrong, and more energy setting them up for success. I'm going to give "do-overs" when my children disobey.

And I'm going to rock Mattie to sleep more often.

* We don't spank Mattie. This is not a judgement on parents who spank (unless you're using physical discipline with foster children. Not ok). With our older bio kids this was our go-to consequence. But we've grown since then. We've spent years trying to fill our "parenting tool box" with other methods. And they work.

Monday, August 22, 2011

New Life

Today I spoke with my youngest three children's birthmother. We've played phone tag all week, and I know she is anxious to talk to the kids and set up a visit. Although we adopted the children from foster care, we were able to build a beautiful mentoring relationship with their young mother. Our adoption is open. This has made our lives more beautiful, more stressful and more complicated. We have laughed together, gazed at pictures of the children we share, stood in court holding hands, cried together... and now we will celebrate together.

Our birthmom is pregnant.

I call her frequently to check in, and we exchange weekly letters through a PO Box. I was initially surprised and delighted by how regularly she wrote letters. Some are addressed just to me. She describes her personal thoughts and struggles in the soft, loopy handwriting of a much younger girl. Others are meant for sharing with the children. I'm impressed by her commitment and diligence that has bonded us as unlikely pen pals.

And now she is in a new relationship and expecting a baby boy in the fall. I'm caught off guard when her boyfriend answers her phone this week, but I can hear her excitement when he tells her I'm on the line. She's excited I've called because she would like to invite me to her baby shower. It is still months away, but she tells me to please check my calendar.

I'm flattered.

I realize I am a little flushed. I'm suddenly holding back tears. We've been through much heartache together. She was wary and untrusting when we first met. I was skeptical and detached. But we both stepped out of our comfort zones for the good of three small children. I am proud of her for making positive changes in her life. I am nervous with her... and for her. There are so many emotions tangled up in our relationship... but now our tenuous threads of hope have blossomed into love. Before I can even voice my thoughts I hear her say it first. "I love you."

This messy, unconventional, patchwork family we've built is growing again.

We're celebrating a new life, and we're celebrating a life reclaimed.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Back to School De-Clutter

It's back to school time and I'm *mopily packing away the beach towels and flip-flops, and pulling out backpacks. Getting ready for the perpetual motion of the school year means getting organized!

This is not a blog about home organization.

If you saw my house on any given day, you would understand why. I am not an organized by nature... but with a big family- some semblance of organization is a necessity. I'd like to share some simple tips for keeping your kids' stuff where it belongs and out of your way. I probably did not invent these ideas, but I've put them to the test and been pleased with the results. I've read many books on organization and would recommend A Sane Woman's Guide to Raising a Large Family if you are looking for more detailed help in this area.
  • Consider making a "mud room". Our mud room was a small formal dining area near our front door. It houses our piano on one wall, and a wide bench on the other. Bins for the children's shoes are lined up under the bench. When kids walk in, they take off their shoes and throw them in their bin. Children heading out the door have a place to stop, put on shoes and gather their things. During the school year we hang up backpacks, the library bag, umbrellas, jackets and hats on the hooks above the bench. In the summer we hang the swim bag, swimsuits and towels on these same hooks. Once a week one of my four-year-olds has the chore of spraying the inside of every shoe with Lysol. My three-year-old helps by pulling out the shoes and lining them up. It keeps the mud room smelling nice, and keeps two preschoolers busy for an hour. Priceless.
    • Store items by category... not by kid. I currently have four children playing soccer. That means 4 balls, sets of shin pads, cleats, uniforms, etc. It's a lot to keep up with, and having a bag for each child's stuff seemed overwhelming. This year I bought ONE giant mesh bag at a sporting goods store for $5. EVERYTHING soccer goes in that bag (except uniforms, which I keep in a basket in the laundry room). When the kids climb in the van after practice they immediately take off their pads and cleats and toss it all in the bag. This system also sets up some great Parenting with Love and Logic. If you're missing your cleats it can only mean one thing... you didn't put them in the bag. And if you didn't put your cleats in the bag... it looks like you will be practicing in crocs.
    • Label with last name, not first. I had a jean jacket in elementary school. I loved it. But it said "Doug" (my older brother's name) in permanent marker on the inside label. 5th grade was awkward enough for me without be nicknamed "Doug". Do your hand-me-down-wearing-kids a favor, and label items with your last name. Ebay has inexpensive personalized iron-on labels I use for jackets, sweaters, blanket-lovies, etc. I have my phone number put on the labels too. When I'm fostering, I go ahead and order each child labels with their first names. Practical? Maybe not. But it's worth the effort for a foster child to feel they have ownership of their belongings.
    • Trash it before it lands is my motto about papers sent home from school. Graded papers. Permission papers. Coloring papers. Most of them are trash. But if I don't sort through and toss papers as they come in... I'm quickly overwhelmed and frantically digging through a mound of papers for one permission slip so my third grader can stop weeping and go on her field trip to the zoo. We have a routine to prevent this: I sit at the head of the table with my kids each day after school, my trusty trash can by my side, and sort through the papers while my kids eat snack and tell me about their day. But what about that sweet drawing? Or wonderful poem? Items like this can live on the fridge for a week. At the end of a week I either toss them, or decide they are keepsake material and file them away.
    • Hooks are one of the least appreciated home organizational tools available. They're great for backpacks... but don't stop there! Do you find wet towels on the bathroom floor? Install a hook on the back of the bathroom door for each child and have them hang wet towels there. My little ones hang their blankets and robes on a hook at the end of bed. My older girls have COUNTLESS hooks in their closet for purses, belts and bags. We have a hook on the inside of our linen closet for dog leashes, and another hook for their little doggy coats and sweaters (Okay, my dogs don't wear sweaters, but that would be cute in a Martha Stewart sort of way). Remember to choose hooks that have rounded ends, and hang them in places where no one can get snagged/impaled by them.
    • Have less stuff. It's really the only key to having less clutter. Instead of buying more books visit the library. Instead of giving your child a scooter or roller blades, have them borrow or trade with a neighbor. Sharing more and owning less builds a healthier lifestyle and sense of community as well.
    *Spellcheck says "mopily" isn't a word. It should be. Here it means "to perform a task or action in a mopey way".

    Thursday, August 11, 2011

    Dear Sunday School Volunteer-

    Sunday mornings are hectic. I scoot my child into your class with barely a "hello" (much less a potty training update or properly labeled sippy cup)... but I really do appreciate you. I'm scurrying off late to worship... but you've been in your classroom setting up all morning. The coloring pages and play-dough and Bible story are ready. While I'm enjoying worship... you are wiping noses, wiping bottoms, singing songs, building with blocks, serving goldfish, making crafts, and most importantly teaching my child about Christ. It's a big job, and I'm thankful you've chosen it.

    But I need to ask more of you.

    My child is adopted. She has been neglected and abused. She watched her parents violent brawls until one night the police came and took her away from the only home she'd ever known. She moved from place to place before finally landing in our home. And now she is here for good. We are her forever family... but she isn't like other kids. Her heart has been broken time and time again. She never really feels safe. She's afraid someone will come take her away again. So I need your help.

    I need you to understand that many of her challenging behaviors are rooted in her past. If she's throwing blocks, don't assume she is just being naughty. She may be trying to win your attention. In a neglectful home, even negative attention is better than no attention at all.

    I need you to help her set appropriate boundaries. She may try to kiss you or look through your purse or touch your earrings or play with your hair or rub your feet. Please don't take these actions lightly. She often puts herself in unsafe situations with strangers, so we need the help of trusted adults willing to tell her "Please don't give me a hug without asking".

    I need you not to tell her she is "lucky to have us" or tell us we are "saints for taking her in". She knows she is adopted, but we don't want her to grow up feeling like a pity case. We want her to know that we choose her regardless of her past or her behavior.

    I need you to be patient with the delays that leave her struggling to keep up with her peers. She may not be able to sit still for circle time, or keep her hands to herself, or make her requests with words like the other kids in class. Although this may be distracting at times, we firmly believe she belongs in a class where her peers can set a positive example and encourage her toward growth.

    I need you to reassure her that we will be back to pick her up. Please don't ever joke about how you would love to take her home with you. She's been taken from her parents before. Every time we drop her off she is coping with a deep fear that we will not ever come back.

    In the short time you spend with my child each week you have a chance to be part of her healing. You can help her learn to trust, understand boundaries and grow. You care deeply for our child, and I see it in all that you do. It's not fair that I have let so many weeks go by without thanking you, or asking how you're doing, or sharing the strategies we're trying at home. Thank you for giving your time to serve in my child's class.


    Wednesday, August 10, 2011


    The quote on my blog title is from a wonderful series of young adult novels called "A Series of Unfortunate Events" by Lemony Snicket. In the first book of this series the young Baudelaire orphans find themselves in the clutches of evil Count Olaf. The following quote describes the sanctuary they create in the drafty attic of their captor's home:

    "Sanctuary... is a word here which means a small, safe place in a troubling world. Like an oasis in a vast desert or an island in a stormy sea."

    This week my family experienced sanctuary.

    My husband and I were exhausted by the time we arrived in Denver for the North American Council on Adoptable Children (NACAC) conference. Although we had been looking forward to the conference for months, we'd spent 15 hours in the van with 7 children* (under 9-years-old) and our 16-year-old-nanny-in-training by the time we pulled into the hotel. I was frazzled, the kids were wired, and our hotel room was busting at the seams with sleeping bags and suitcases. I inserted my earplugs, crawled into a queen size bed with my husband and our four year old, and decided this was all a MAJOR mistake.

    The next morning... after two hours of bathing, dressing, pop-tart feeding and awkward 10-people-sharing-one-hotel-bathroom moments... we managed to arrive on time to register our children for the "Kids Camp" childcare program for the conference. The lobby of the convention center was overflowing with adoptive families of all kinds. I spotted a dear friend across the room and ran to give her a warm embrace.

    My kids followed, and one of them reached out to give her a hug.

    But she stopped him.

    My friend took him warmly by the hands and said "Hi, I'm Kim! I'm a friend of your mom's. I love to give hugs... but we should introduce ourselves first. Then you need to check with your mom and make sure I'm someone you can hug."

    If you're a mom of an adopted child, or if you've parented children in foster care, or worked with institutionalized children from orphanages... you're constantly working on boundaries. Our children wander fearlessly away from us in malls and grocery stores. Our kids hug people they don't know. Our sons and daughters don't understand the unspoken boundaries that bind and protect most children.

    I cringe every time a stranger accepts inappropriate affection from my adopted children. I want to yank my child away from them and yell "Stranger Danger!!!"... but I don't. Southern hospitality gets the best of me and I politely accept "Isn't she a sweetheart!" or even worse "What a cutie! I'm going to take her home with me!". When the stranger walks away, I turn off my superficial smile and remind my kids for the thousandth time that we don't hug strangers. The world doesn't get it.

    But Kim gets it.

    Kim doesn't take hugs from my kids, because she cares so much for them. Kim is an adoptive mom too.

    One of my children was unable to participate in "Kids Camp" at the conference due to his severe special needs. Although our nanny watched him during most of the workshops, he attended a few conference luncheons and general sessions with us. We were THOSE PEOPLE. The ones who bring their fidgeting, special needs child into adult programming. I had my "game face" on. I was ready for dirty looks and irritated sighs... but they never came.

    These parents get it.

    Adoptive parents know that even the best laid childcare plans don't always work out. They understand that our kids can't whisper in quiet places. That our kids spill drinks and try to take food off other people's plates. They don't judge us because our six-year-old is potty training or our nine-year-old threw a pizza in the pool. Parents who choose to build their families through adoption understand how someone can have more than one daughter named Jessica, or own four strollers, or drive a bus, or carry a change of clothes in their purse, or know how to clean the inner cannula of a trach tube.


    It's a hotel pool overflowing with colorful families.

    It's a friend who will lovingly remind your child of boundaries.

    It's a place where your family can release a collective sigh... and feel "normal".

    It's a small, safe place in a troubling world. Like an oasis in a vast desert or an island in a stormy sea.

    *If you know us personally (or are stalking us online) you may be curious about the young man I mentioned in this post. We've opened our home to provide emergency respite for adoptive families in crisis. We're currently caring for a wonderful little boy with special needs who attended the conference with our family.

    Monday, July 25, 2011

    Her Face In My Hands

    Mattie Rose is my four year old daughter. She has inquisitive dark brown eyes that seem wise beyond her years. Although her tiny frame seems delicate, she will eagerly fling all thirty pounds of herself off a diving board and swim to the side of a pool. It is hard to imagine that this brave, outgoing child was living in dangerous and neglectful circumstances before she became part of our family. When her younger siblings arrived in our home as a foster placement, we were told they had on older sister who was living with a relative. The children's service plan did not include visits with their sister, but we worked hard alongside our CASA volunteer to finally arrange a play-date with her.

    We waited in the visitation play room for Mattie to arrive while Elle and Reuben happily toddled around. Mattie came bursting in the room and frantically embraced her little sister. Elle looked scared and confused. Next Mattie screeched "Reuben!!" and ran over to pick him up. He started to cry and crawled away from her as fast as he could. Instead of winding down as the visit progressed, she became more agitated and frantic. She would not release her vice-grip on Elle's hand and kept dragging Reuben back over to where they were playing. At one point Mattie picked up Elle (who was almost her same size) and tried to carry her out the door. We had to pry Ellen from Mattie's hands at the end of the visit.

    Frantic. I know I've already used that word twice, but there is no other word for Matie's behavior. The desperation in her eyes was heartbreaking. As time went by, it became clear that Mattie was not thriving in the relative placement, so she moved into our home the day before Easter. She had sores on her scalp from the legions of lice living in her hair. At 3 years old she was the size of a one-year-old. With six children already in our home we were concerned about our ability to meet Mattie's needs. A psychologist evaluated Mattie Rose and diagnosed her with RAD, PTSD, and failure to thrive.

    As the months went by we saw Mattie begin to thrive. She learned to play. She learned that her siblings' needs would be met by loving adults. She learned about "stranger danger" and table manners. She learned to sleep at night instead of getting up and wandering the house. She learned to expect to eat enough every day. We fell in love with her curiosity and wit. She charmed us with big brown eyes and resilience. A year had come and gone before we knew it.

    But Mattie was not easy to parent.

    Looking back, it's easy to see the mistakes I made. Although I did my best Karyn Purvis impression, Mattie and I butted heads. My attempts at redirection and teaching began to look more a strategy to break her spirit. We would pop a big bowl of popcorn and settle in for a movie... but Mattie insisted on pinching or irritating the person closest to her. She would whisper hurtful words to anyone close enough to hear. She was destructive with books and toys. She spoke in a squeaky baby voice and pretended to choke or gag for attention. She would "forget" how to put on her shoes... EVERY DAY. I would bark her into time out again and again.

    I should have recognized all these acts as typical behavior for a child from a neglectful past. I've cared for children with similar challenges before.... but my resolve began to decay. If you've ever cared for a child from a "hard place", you may relate to my innermost thoughts. You may understand how I could be convinced that this tiny person was trying to ruin my life.

    I took every act of disobedience personally.

    This four year old is plotting my demise.

    She is sabotaging my happiness.

    An undercurrent of these thoughts became a barrier in our relationship. I was skeptical of her hugs and kisses. Her affection felt like manipulation. I love Mattie... but at this point, I didn't like her very much. I found myself avoiding interaction with her. In turn this made her pursue my approval and interaction even more. I realized I would have a headache at the end of the day from clenching my teeth. It was a vicious cycle threatening to permanently damage our tenuous relationship and bond.

    These are hard words to type. It makes me feel like a bad mommy. We were celebrating her adoption with balloons and streamers... but our home felt more like a battlefield. What kind of mom doesn't delight in her child's hugs? I am being transparent here in the hope, that if you are facing this with your child, you will realize you are not alone. I hope that you will see a light at the end of the tunnel! I hope that you will not (however tempting it may seem) sell your child to gypsies! Here is where things got better:

    I had a dream that changed my life.

    In my dream Mattie is paying outside in the yard. I'm reading on the porch, enjoying a little sunshine and watching my children frolic. Mattie is waiting for a turn on the swing and starts to do a little dance. You know the dance. It's the hipitty-hopitty-need-to-potty dance. So I call Mattie over and ask her if she needs to potty. She says "no ma'am" and runs back over to the swings. Even in my dream I know that I am right. I know that she needs to potty, but is going back to play. A while later I notice that she is refusing to get off the swing and share with her sister, so I get up to settle the issue. That's when I see it. Her shorts are soaked. She has wet her pants. I can feel the fury start to well up inside me. I order her off the swing and into the house.

    My face is flushing and I am clenching my teeth.

    I'm good and wound up now. She's stripping out of her soaking clothes on the bathroom rug and Im glaring at her. This child has been potty trained for two years! I JUST asked her if she needed to potty and she LIED to me! Her clothes are soaked in pee!

    This will be avenged.

    This is no time for mercy.

    Sidenote: I'm aware of how ridiculous this all looks in black and white. The child had a potty accident. IT'S NOT A BIG DEAL. But sometimes, in trenches of daily parenting, these little things can seem overwhelming. Even in a dream.

    So in my dream, I kneel down and take Mattie's face in my hand. It's not a gentle lifting of the chin to make eye contact... it's a firm grasp of her face. The kind that lets her know I'm mad. The kind that makes her eyes well up with tears. But when I look at Mattie's face in my hand... I don't see the face of my defiant 4-year-old.. instead I see her face as a toddler. Practically a baby. Her cheeks are round and her whispy baby hair is falling across her small, bright eyes. She looks like she is less than two years old.

    I'm frozen in regret.

    My heart twists into a tight knot.

    And I wake up. It has all been a dream, but my heart is pounding. I'm still flooded with the dispersing anger over the pee-soaked clothes and the shock of seeing my hand gripping her round, baby face. I feel stunned. I quietly sneak upstairs and steal a peak of her snuggled in her bed, then sink down outside her door to cry. The vision of Mattie's little face in my hands is burned on my memory... even though it never really happened. I begin to reflect on Mattie's life.

    I didn't get to hold Mattie's hand while she was learning to walk. I didn't change her diapers. I've never given her a bottle. By the time she arrived in our home she was a lanky, independent 3-year-old. I've only seen her chubby toddler face in the few precious pictures her birthmother has given us. In these pictures she is in the arms of strangers. She is in apartments and homes and parks I've never seen.

    Mattie lived another life before she knew us.

    As an adoptive mother, that is a hard fact to absorb. Mattie is mine. She is as "mine" as my biological children. I would give my life for her. But she didn't start out that way. Mattie's struggle to obey, and to love, and to play, and to attach... all these struggles are rooted in her past. Standing back, seeing the situation from a distance, it's easy to see that Mattie's behavior is a survival technique. It's one that served her well as she lived through trauma and neglect.

    This is where the dream comes in.

    When Mattie acts out. When she is mean or defiant. When she struggles to find peace... She is still the toddler who doesn't have enough to eat. She is still the baby who's cries go unanswered. She is still the 2-year-old fighting for attention and affection. So when I parent Mattie today... I am parenting that hurting toddler of the past.

    I've read The Connected Child. I know how a child's past abuse affects their later behavior and attachment. But it was not until I saw her face in my hands, that I really understood. That vision changed everything. I am delighting in my child more. I am seeing hints of her carefree spirit. Our trust is growing.

    I still mess up.

    I still lose my temper.

    Mattie Rose still makes daily visits to time-out.

    But my hope is renewed. I know that I can keep on trying. That I am getting better at this parenting thing. When days come that I feel like I'm at the end of my rope, I remember that God is still working on me. That he is gently taking my face in his hands and speaking truth into my life.

    Wednesday, July 20, 2011

    A chink in the armor

    Today I took my family to Six Flags amusement park in Arlington, Texas for a day of rides, 100+ degree weather and fun. More on this later.

    Many of you who know me, know that I do not fly. I have flown. Starting with a transatlantic flight to Europe in 1999 I began to experience a great dread of flying. Dread turned to anxiety, and anxiety to shear terror/panic attacks. It's a little bit claustrophobia, a little bit anxiety, a little bit motion sickness and a lot of hyperventilating and vomiting. My dear friends Ginny & Chip Fowler and Josh & Kortney Carnes got front row seats for this in late 2008. We were attempting to fly from Dallas to Chicago for a youth workers conference when all hell broke loose in terminal D14. There were tears. There were heavy sedatives. There was gnashing of teeth.

    Ultimately, the rest of the party boarded the plane with my husband... and I sat weeping on my suitcase outside the gate. My loyal friend Megan Adkins collected me and my rainsoaked luggage at the curb and took me home.

    I've never flown since.

    I've driven from Dallas to as far as Washington DC for conferences and speaking engagements. But shudder to think of boarding a plane. Intellectually I understand that hours of highway driving are far more perilous than a brief airplane trip... but my stomach does a little flip when I even see planes taking off or landing. I don't know if I will ever fly again.

    Which brings us to today. At an amusement park with my family.

    I've never been one for roller coasters. I'm the gal who waits in line for hours, then happily holds everyone's bags, hats and half-eaten funnel cakes while they ride... and I wait at the bottom. Happily. It doesn't bother me. I'm not a thrill seeker. It has bothered others in the past, who seem determined to convince me that I am missing out on a wonderful experience by not having my body flung through loops and steep drops in a tiny metal car.

    No thanks.

    I like my feet solidly on the ground...

    Which may leave you wondering how and why I found myself having a panic attack at the top of a large tower in the middle of an amusement park today.

    We spent much of the morning taking my children on "kiddie rides". My older kids started to get bored so we headed towards the larger rides in the park. We found ourselves standing at the bottom of a 300-foot-tall tower called the Oil Derrick. It is the highest structure in the city. This attraction is frequently closed due to powerful winds that whip through its open observation deck at the top.

    Today it was open.

    In a moment of poor judgment I joined my husband and 5 of our children in line to ride the elevator to the top of the Oil Derrick tower. My husband will ride any attraction in the park... but had never been up the tower before. The doors shut and I noticed that the dial by the attendant running the elevator was labeled "slow" and "fast". The little arrow pointed to "fast". I instantly knew I'd made a mistake. As the car began to rise quickly up the structure I felt weak in my knees. My hands started shaking uncontrollably as the world below began to shrink away. I felt my heart pounding, and it seemed to rise into my throat. The walls and floor of the elevator car are a metal grid, so you can see the world rushing by and feel the wind.

    I'm silently prayed something like this:
    "oh God. Oh God. groan. gasp. oh God. oh my God."
    I kept my eyes open, because I was afraid if I shut them I would pass out. Finally we came to a gentle stop at the top of the tower and stepped out onto the deck. My children shot out to the tall railing and chain-link fence at the edge of the platform, eager to look around.

    Seeing them near the edge made me feel nauseous, although I knew they were safe.

    I walked down the steps to the lower deck and collapsed onto a stair to try and collect myself. By now, the shaking had moved from my hands into my entire body and I was having a hard time breathing. Bruce located me after a few minutes because it was time to board the elevator back down to the bottom. I told him I needed a minute, so he and the children rode the elevator back down without me. I am trying to hide the terror on my face. Trying not to make a scene.

    But I can't get up.

    I cannot imagine stepping back onto the elevator and feeling my stomach drop as it descends towards the earth.

    It is impossible to take the elevator back down.

    I ask the teenager running security on the observation deck if I can take the emergency stairs down. He calls the security manager, who rides all the way up the elevator to tell him "no". Now I'm crying. So he calls the safety office, who sends their manager up the elevator. He brings several more security officers with him and two EMTs. I'm sitting on a step, 300 feet above the ground, feeling the wind on my face and the steel tower's gentle swaying, insisting that I will take the stairs down. My family has now been waiting at the bottom for 30 minutes. Bruce comes up to check on me, sees that I am an immovable force, and rides the elevator back down to wait.

    If I were a fly on the wall, watching this sunburned, thirty-year-old woman crying at the top of a tower... I would think "she is crazy". You may be thinking that right now. A final call is made down to whoever runs Six Flags, and I am told walking down the stairs is not an option.

    I have to take the elevator.

    A female security officer offers to hold my hand.

    I shakily rise and walk to the open door of the elevator. I hold the security officer's hand. I ask if they will turn the elevator speed to "slow" instead of "fast", and they do. The doors close and we make a ridiculously slow and gentle descent. I pray the same prayer on the way down. I'm trying to look calm, but I am freaking out on the inside. Then we reach the bottom. I step off the elevator (escorted by what may be the entire emergency response team of the amusement park) and feel the ground under my feet.

    I feel like a total fool.

    My eyes are red and my face is white as a sheet. I feel clammy and cold. I am shaking like a leaf.

    Because of an elevator.

    An elevator.

    Even now, sitting at my computer typing this, my face is flushed with embarrassment. But there's a reason I feel compelled to share this experience.

    My husband and I are living a life full of challenges. At least once a week someone who knows our story tells me "I don't know how you do it". Let me be clear, we're no saints. God has called us to live a life of adventure, and we're clinging to His will. We try to say "yes" more than we say "no". We've cared for a tiny newborn addicted to cocaine, and 30 other children who have lived under our roof in the past 9 years of fostering. In three years our family has grown from 3 kids to 7. We take all these precious children on cross-country road-trips and tent camping in the heat and in the snow. I've quit my job to follow a mission calling and never looked back. I fought cancer and won. I've endured natural childbirth. I've skied black diamonds and ridden wild horses...

    But today I froze up. I was shaking with dread. Because of an elevator.

    We all have our private struggles, but today one of mine became very public. It's a "chink in the armor" my good friend observed after I shared the experience with her. Today I was left humbled and embarrassed by my weakness.

    But there's good news.

    1. I'm not writing this blog from the top of a tower.

    2. It may be possible to "die of embarrassment"... but apparently today is not my day to go.

    3. If you have a "chink in the armor"... you're wearing armor. Let's unpack that idea further:

    This anxiety... this paralyzing fear of moving, enclosed spaces is just one of MANY chinks in my armor. I won't give an exhaustive list here (although a fear of clowns/puppets, emotional over-eating, pridefulness, codependence and gossip would be in the top ten). While these weaknesses may slow my progress, or take me off course, I can't allow them to keep me from what God has for me.

    He's called me into battle.

    He's called me off the sidelines.

    And I've shown up in the ratty armor carrying a wooden sword.

    The truly AMAZING part is... He looks on me with delight. Where the world sees weakness, He sees potential for growth. When I feel insufficient, He is assured. He accepts me for who I am, but is ever refining, ever teaching, ever improving me. I have weakness to overcome, but I am also uniquely equipped. I wish I could sing and tell stories with my voice like Alison Krauss or Sara Groves. Sadly, and much to the chagrin of those seated near me during worship, I cannot. I can choose spend my life frustrated I can't carry a tune... or I can celebrate that God's plan for me requires patience, a missional spirit, the ability to go without sleep, good birthing hips, a solid sense of humor, a heart for orphans and a thrifty soul. And we can take it one step deeper. If God is willing to look past my sometimes-ridiculous short comings, how can I not extend this grace to those around me?

    "... the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us through wordless groans. 27 And he who searches our hearts knows the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for God’s people in accordance with the will of God.

    28 And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who[i] have been called according to his purpose. 29 For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers and sisters. 30 And those he predestined, he also called; those he called, he also justified; those he justified, he also glorified." Romans 8: 26-30

    Today the Spirit heard my groans. He is using my weakness to shape me into who I need to be. To be more like Himself. I didn't know what I was asking for... but it was something that could only be found at the top of an elevator shaft.