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.