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.