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.