Monday, May 22, 2017

Letting Him Fail

We've now reached six months of having Baby S back with us.

His needs are still constant, but they are changing. He's growing so much. Our expectations for him have evolved drastically.

We can say things like, "Use your spoon!" and he'll stop shoveling milky cereal with his fingers and use his spoon instead. We can say "That wasn't nice! It's Baby Gigi's turn," and he'll give back the toy and pat her on the head - sometimes even with a swipe at his chest with his hand to sign "sorry." We can say "No flipping the light switch, buddy. Either on or off," and he'll (generally) push once or twice more, pick a direction, and then trot away to play somewhere else. At the very least, he chooses to disobey with a sly smile and obvious defiance, and we silently celebrate behind our stern faces because that is what a healthy little boy does.

I know I keep saying this, but when Baby S first came back, we had to constantly manage him for basic survival. Don't vault over the baby gate. Don't throw yourself down the stairs head first. Don't sit on the baby. Don't grab at knives. Don't run into the hot stove. Don't shove other people in the face with all of your strength. (He's strong enough to cause actual damage to a grown man. Ask Josh.) Our commands were direct, to the point, and always urgent. We were always a moment from disaster, for Baby S or those around him.

The problem is that Baby S thrives on chaos. His favorite game is chase. He's smart, and he's learned that certain adults will reward his disobedience with exactly the game he's craving. Tell him to put back the fragile glass thing he picked up, and he'll laugh and run full speed across the room so he can watch you huffing and puffing after him. Even after all of our training, he'll revert back to disobey-and-chase in an instant when he knows it will work. So when he returned, we had to engage for his safety, but always with the goal of backing off whenever it wasn't actually dangerous to do so. We had to give him the extra split second to obey BEFORE engaging in chase. After many many of those little moments of hesitation with no real guarantee that growth was happening, Baby S finally started putting his foot forward and oooooh soooooo sloooooowly coming when called to stop his mischief, and we praised Jesus for a turning point that had seemed impossible.

We've been taking baby steps to forward progress for the last six months. It's a moment's hesitation after saying "stay in the yard, buddy," to give him the chance to trip back around in my direction and engage in chase in a healthy and safe way. It's letting him go toward Baby Gigi and verbally reminding him not to take, then watching to see what he does. It's asking him to stay in a room with our words rather than holding him physically on this side of the gate; then eventually expecting him to respect the gate without reminders; and now, finally, expecting him to respect consistent boundaries - no going upstairs or into the basement alone, even when the gate is down.

He started with no regard for rules or safety. It's tempting to sit back now, baby gates up and every "no" out of reach, and bask in his ability to (sometimes) listen and engage. It's tempting to say "oh, he can't listen because he has this diagnosis and he doesn't know any better." But we've seen his ability to learn and grow, and we're not satisfied with him staying where he is right now (nor is the amazing team of teachers and therapists working alongside us).

So we take turns taking him to the grocery store, even though that might mean abandoning a cart full of groceries to take him home. We bring him to the zoo and take him out of the stroller whenever there's an adult with an extra hand and a very firm grip to hold on tight. We let go of his hand for brief moments in church to see if he'll walk alongside us (he won't, but it's safe to let him try there). We let him climb to the highest places on the playground and go down the big slides.

Look, no adult hands in the picture!
(Because even being pinned in between a lion and boarded up stairs with no where to run except into an adult mega counts as increased freedom for this sweet and crazy little man.)

The victories are amazing. Some days, we don't see a lot of them. Some days we're exhausted with constantly pushing. Often I have thoughts like "Why did I think I could walk to the playground with all three kids by myself?" or "Will I ever be able to talk to someone in the lobby at church again?" In those moments I have to remind myself that this intentional process is worth it. The moments that look like failures are carefully chosen growing moments, not just for Baby S, but for all of us. Big Bro A and Baby Gigi have their own growing areas, but additionally, they're learning from the hard moments with Baby S. We're having conversations about why we choose to bring him to the good things even when we end up all having to leave. We talk about why our family can't do things we used to, or why simple things are so much harder now, and we get to remember that Jesus gave up SO. MUCH. MORE. for us than what we will ever give up for Baby S.

When we win the victories, we still have to fight the temptation to be discouraged. Social media is always there reminding us how very little our victories seem next to where Baby S should be/could be/isn't developmentally. Baby videos of him from two years ago sound strikingly like Baby S today. Successfully getting through a shopping trip with Baby S in tow is not me able to grocery shop with all of my children, or able to take my family to fast food or dinner out, or able to go on a vacation together. But we can't focus on what we haven't achieved yet. We have to keep looking back at how far we've come, keep soaking in those giant Baby S smiles and hugs, and keep praising Jesus that he waded into the mess that is OUR lives.

That's where we are for now: setting up moments when Baby S can fail, because without those, he can't have true success. We celebrate the victories hard. We crash hard sometimes, too. There are glimpses of "normal life" that are beautiful and yet leave us hungrier for the way things should have been. These moments motivate us because they remind us yet again what we're fighting for. We're fighting for our baby boy. We're so proud of him. We're so in awe of his pure joy despite his circumstances. This child has incredible potential. We wade through these difficult moments believing that some day we will look at our adult son and be in total awe over how far he has come. His loving heart and incredible energy are going to move mountains for people some day.

Monday, May 8, 2017

Treatments and Trauma

Let me paint you a picture. It's a little simplified for where we're going with it, but maybe it could help.

Your family decides to adopt a dog. You don't want a puppy from a pet shop; you want to maybe find a dog that's gone through some stuff. So you go to a shelter. The dog you bring home is so sweet and loves to snuggle up to you and your kids. There's a big problem, though. The dog keeps peeing all over your house!

This dog isn't a puppy, and you assumed it would be house trained. Nevertheless, you decide that you'll keep it and work through the issues, because it's a cute dog and your kids like it.

You have to figure out an approach that will work for this dog. You hire a trainer to come in and work with your dog to help her stop wetting the floor. The methods the trainer uses are standard and you've used them with other dogs in the past; but they're not working for this dog. In fact, the more the trainer shows up, the worse the dog gets. So you cancel the trainer.

What's your next move? You realize that this dog must have gone through some stuff before coming to you. The trainer's style was firm and direct. You try treating the dog with gentleness, thinking that maybe there has been some abuse in the dog's past. You find a trainer with experience in this area and the dog grows by leaps and bounds. As the dog feels safer, she starts using the bathroom outside. Hooray!

I don't know if there are really trauma trainers for dogs. But do you know what I keep hearing? That there really aren't trauma "trainers" for 3-year-olds.

We have been to so many specialists with Baby S. He's got a diagnosis, although we've questioned the validity of it from Day 1. He's been to the places that are hard to get into, and we've sat in rooms where they've told us about "kids like Baby S" and what to expect.

But the problem is, his behaviors never fit in. There's always a qualifier. "Oh, he doesn't do that? Usually kids like Baby S do..." or "Oh, he's been succeeding at this? Huh, kids like Baby S usually don't."

So let's think about this. We're grouping Baby S into a broad category that we know doesn't fit him. Then we're getting resources based on his label, NOT the behaviors. We know he doesn't fit into his category - so is it right to assume that he fits in to these programs?

One of the top specialists for "kids like Baby S" (note: that phrase makes me catch my breath every time) told us that they "treat the symptoms the same way, no matter why the symptoms appeared." This was in direct response to our questions about his past and how that plays into his current situation.

Did you catch that? They diagnose him with a label, then treat kids with that label the same, NO MATTER WHY THE BEHAVIORS STARTED. (Can you tell that this bothers me?)

That's like telling the owner of that dog in my silly example that of COURSE all dogs need to be trained the same way. Just keep scolding it in a firm voice. If the dog isn't responding, it's probably you, or else your dog just isn't trainable. If that was your dog, people would say that, and you'd look at them like they were nuts. This dog was abused, you'd think; of course we can't treat her like a puppy just being house trained.

But this is our child. And that is essentially what we are being told.

There's no trauma treatment for a child Baby S's age. There's no trauma therapy for a nonverbal child. There aren't resources that adequately address his delays in combination with his other areas of need, because kids his age aren't supposed to act like this.

I am consistently shocked by how often trauma doesn't even factor into the analysis of his needs. Wrapping him neatly in a couple of labels and shipping him off isn't even beginning to acknowledge the depth of his needs.

I'm having my rant moment because I want to help people to understand that children don't fall neatly into categories. Trauma is very, very messy. It can surface and then hide for a while and then resurface. Schools need labels to give services, and labels take time, but trauma doesn't pace itself with the school's systems.

Trauma comes in all different forms. I'm going to be so bold as to say that ALL children who have been fostered or adopted have some form of trauma. Trauma can happen before a child is born. It can be exposure to drugs and alcohol in utero, or mental health issues of a mother before birth. It is the separation of a child from its birth mother, even if it's instant. It's the loss of everything familiar. It's being shipped back and forth between birth parents and foster parents. It's living in a high-stress environment without permanency. It's not knowing whether you'll finish the school year in your current school, or whether you'll be able to live with your biological siblings again. It's being torn between two realities that can never exist together. It's moving back with a birth parent and losing a foster family, or staying with a foster family and losing the birth family. It's a million little moments that are constantly stacking up.

It's being treated like a "normal child" despite all of this. It's being punished for not paying attention in school, when you're spending the whole day worried because today is court and your judge might be sending you home today. It's struggling to work hard in school because you don't know if you'll still be here in a month, anyway. It's being put in a class for children with special needs and hearing the teachers tell your foster parents you'll never catch up, even if you've just been too busy trying to get your emotional needs met to grow in other areas.

Treating trauma like "normal" is rarely helpful, and it often makes things worse. I don't know the answer, but I do know the frustration of trying to advocate strongly for your child and hearing over and over that the resources just don't exist for "a child like that" because they're "not supposed to experience these things" at such a young age.

It's true. Baby S shouldn't have these difficulties to deal with. But he does. And we're doing the best we can to help them cope.

Now a moment of encouragement for all of my teacher friends. Do you know what keeps us moving? Teachers and therapists who "get" children like Baby S. Who install an extra lock on the door so that he can stop fixating on escape and start enjoying his environment. Who have his favorite toys in the classroom so he can have "preferred activities" to look forward to between the moments of pushing and stretching him to grow. Who advocate loudly with us for adequate labels, adequate services, and extra help. Who take the time to explain Baby S and what makes him tick to the people around him so that he's getting loved, appreciated, and pushed in all the best ways for him. Who tell us directly that their resource isn't right for him, but it's the closest to right that exists, so they're going to fight to make it the best environment possible for him.

You guys are our heroes. You make so much more difference than you can possibly know.

Thank you!

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

What Love Can't Do

Valentine's Day is a holiday that doesn't rank very high in my list of "things in which I place value." However, five-year-old Big Brother A has been talking about it a lot because of school. He has been placing a lot of very thinly veiled hints that I must do something special for him to prove my love.

Um, I'm feeding you and then washing these.

I'm washing, folding and putting away these.

And I'm probably picking up these, too, because I'll need you to rest more than I'll need you to put these away.

That's how I'm proving my love.

But seriously. That's not my point.

I love kids. I have always loved working with kids. People told me I was good at it when I was still a tween helping out with Vacation Bible School. I attach to them quickly, and when their lives look really hard, part of me always wants to just take them home and love all of the bad things away.

So it's not super surprising that I found myself here as a foster mom.

I always knew in my head that I couldn't just hug the bad things away, but love always protects, always trusts, always hopes, and always perseveres (that's from the famous chapter on love in 1 Corinthians), so my heart always wanted to try anyway. It kind of worked for a while with my biological babies, you know. My two biological children have a sense of safety automatically when they're in my arms. I started as their house, their food source, their comfort. I was one of the two who'd always answer every cry in those important first weeks. They grow up, of course, and bonding grows bigger and tougher, but in the beginning, hugs and kisses really did seem to make all the bad things go away.

Not so with foster care. We had to fight for the bonding. We had to keep giving hugs and kisses to babies who pushed away, stiffened, and cried louder, hoping that one day it would click. It did click for Baby S. He went from being our biggest crier and our most difficult to comfort, to being our biggest smiler and the one most longing for hugs and kisses.

We fought hard to earn his trust. And then he was taken away. And he learned that we aren't trustworthy.

And my oldest learned that people we love go away and that grown ups sometimes don't take care of their children.

My love wasn't enough to protect my children. I could not shelter them from these awful things.

Now we have Baby S back, but we can't go back to the days when snuggles make it all go away. We can't take away his memories of being sent away and not being brought back. We can't undo all of those long months of not being properly nurtured. We can't magically catch him up verbally, socially, emotionally, physically, mentally.

We cannot protect him.

Every part of me longs to be the band-aid that makes his life all better. I want to be the band-aid for Big Brother A, too, to fix the instability and frustration he experiences as he struggles through loving his brother but also feeling (justifiably) that life as a five-year-old was probably better before Baby S came back. I want to be the band-aid that tells my baby girl that she can trust this new one and that he won't ever squash her. But I can't be those things for my children.

All of the love in me wants to not just protect, but shield. And I cannot.

Josh and I chose to pursue foster care with full knowledge that it would change our biological children. We knew that there would be lost innocence at an early age. We weighed the costs and made a decision. I still stand by that decision. But we are not unaware of the baggage we are fixing on our family.

We pray that these difficult things would make our children's love for Jesus stronger in the long run. But sometimes, it's hard not to feel like a failure as a parent. My love can't fix it.

My love can't even fix me. My love for my children doesn't take away my selfishness. I still want to go out with my husband for a long meal without the kids; but when I do, can I admit something? I'm ready to turn around and go back out for another date as soon as I'm home. Life is really hard, and love is costly, and sometimes I have love left but not the energy to use it right. Sometimes I don't respond to my husband or Big Brother A in conversation because I'm selfish and I'm focused on loving me when I'm tired and frustrated.

My love isn't going to cure our situation. It doesn't guarantee a recovery for Baby S. It doesn't mean he'll definitely get to stay here. It doesn't make my heart stop being selfish. It doesn't take away the baggage of exposure to hard things for my two bio kids. It doesn't catch me up on laundry or dishes, either.

My love, although all I have, starts to feel so inadequate.

But my love is just a picture. It's an imperfect picture of the love of someone who isn't selfish, and therefore is able to actually love fully. It's a shadow of the beautiful love of Jesus, who gave everything for me. I mean, everything. Not a lot of hours of sleep, or changing diapers, or a difficult labor, or tough love to a biological parent who's pushing away. EVERYTHING. His entire life. His fame. His followers. Heaven itself.

Only to get it all back and then offer it to me, even though I wasn't his yet. He loved me before I loved him, and he loves me fully even though I love him with so much brokenness.

I can't fix the difficult things my children experience. I can't be their band-aid. I can't shield them, on Valentine's Day or any other day of the year, from the hard fact that love is painful. I can't guarantee that being back will take away the damage of the ten months away for Baby S. I can't protect him from the lingering doubts that we'll leave again. I can't protect me from the lingering doubts that he might leave again, either.

But I can be the person who wades through this mess with my children. I can offer what protection my shadow of love can give, while prayerfully pointing them to the real thing. The love of Jesus won't shield them from bad things, either, but he can protect what matters most - their hearts.

I can pray, today and every day, that glimpses of Jesus in me would help steer the hearts of my babies toward Jesus. And I can keep loving with my whole heart because Jesus loves me - first, still, and always.

Sunday, February 5, 2017

The Daily Bedtime Countdown

Life is pretty crazy right now. No, honestly, crazy doesn't fully describe it. Overwhelming probably hits closer to the mark. Josh and I are a little overwhelmed.

We're overwhelmed by Big Brother A's needs right now. He's got these incredible shining moments where we're so proud of the big helper he is, so full of compassion and love. But then, for every one of those, there are multiple really awful moments where we wonder if we've ruined him by making life too hard. (Also, he's dramatic because we're dramatic. Obviously.) Sometimes, he's the hardest out of all of them. But then there are these incredible moments where he comes in and encourages me when I'm ready to throw in the towel and let the three little ones go Lord of the Flies in the living room while I rock and eat chocolate in the bathroom. We see glimpses of who he can be, and we try to use a lot of prayer, grace, love, aaand sometimes yelling to help him see that, too.

Baby Gigi is, you know, a baby. She's an adorable little six month old who doesn't get quite enough practice sitting or rolling because she is at risk of being squashed on the floor pretty much all the time. She's starting to scream (she learned that from Baby S) when she gets a toy taken away. Or my glasses. Or my hair from her tiny but SUPER strong clenched fist. She is joy and sunshine and love, and she gives me motivation. A thousand times a day I thank God for this gift of sunshine. And then I pray that she will never walk. And then I pray no, God, I didn't mean that, but maybe let her be just a little on the slow side. Because I'm not sure how I'll keep up with another one!

And Baby S. Oh, Baby S. We are SO glad he is here. So glad. Don't doubt it for a second. (I'm telling you and us.) But life is really crazy hard right now. He's making incredible gains, but he has a very VERY long way to go still. We're fighting so hard. Every little piece of gain that you notice was bought at a price, for him and for us. I am very proud of him for his hard work. But along with those gains and his growing comfort in our home come some behavioral regressions, too. This is typical. There's so much more involved for him than just a learning disability. Sometimes the people in his life forget that. There's the trauma of being shuffled between homes. He was developmentally younger when he came back to us than when he left. I'm always half joking that he and Baby Gigi are going to learn to talk and potty train together. He has the tantrums of a child just learning to use words and realizing that they don't always get him what he wants. But try telling that to a very tall, very strong two-and-a-half-year-old. He's super fast and has no fear of danger. So he just runs, in whatever direction, at any moment, at full speed. And this is why we don't bring the kids anywhere.

Running away and screaming in public is exhausting.

Except when we do, because I realize we're all missing out and we need to train him and let Big Bro have fun experiences. Josh and I joke that these kinds of outings are "nightmares from which there is no waking." That might sound dark. I told you, we're dramatic people! But it is pretty rough. And usually ends with Josh and Baby S waiting in the car while I try to finish off whatever it is we were attempting with Big Brother A, which gets derailed because I also have a six-month-old strapped onto me, who occasionally needs to eat, sleep, or have her diaper changed.

I'm not saying this for sympathy. Life with three little ones is hard, period. For all of us who are there now or have been there in the past. I hear it only gets harder as they get bigger! Or at least, a different kind of hard. I believe that. The emotional "hardness" of Big Brother A is much harder than the physical "hardness" of not sleeping because of Baby Gigi.

There are also beautiful moments. These are refilling. I try to drink them in extra deeply because the tired seems to run pretty deep some days. Those are the moments when I'm upstairs grabbing someone an extra pair of pants (someone is ALWAYS pooping, you know), and I see two kids' bedrooms upstairs with a toddler bed, a twin, and a crib, and I stop and breathe in how right it is to see those three here in this house together. It's when Baby S grabs Baby Gigi by the toes and says "ee!" (feet!) and then they giggle together. It's when the boys and Josh are wrestling on the floor under the green blanket. It's even when we're leaving a failed attempt at a family event and I look back at all of the little ones contained in their carseats, and I am satisfied because this life and all its ups and downs are exactly what I want.

Sometimes I hide in the basement (Big Bro can open gates so he finds me) or in the bathroom (but Big Bro always has to use it when I'm there). Sometimes I pause for an extra moment on the stairs (but then Baby Gigi cries louder and I have to run down to make sure no one is sitting on her). Sometimes I have a second - or third - cup of coffee (it takes me over an hour to get to it, though). Basically what I'm saying is that there is no relief some days. There's no real rest. No down time. No brain-turned-fully-off moments. God is much stronger than me and he keeps filling me in the times when I think I'm beyond being fillable.

But sometimes I long for bedtime. Sometimes, I read the last book and shut the last door, and I sigh a great big sigh of relief, grab myself a nice big bowl of ice cream, and shut my brain off in front of the tv with my husband. We call it a date because actually going somewhere feels harder than staying in together right now. I go to bed a little too late and I think I won't possibly have the energy for tomorrow.

But then I do. Because God is so good. I am so weak and he is deciding to use me anyway. I sit here and write this with Baby S on my lap, poking my phone and the monitor for the millionth time, trying to stick a wet kazoo in my mouth, and poking my eye under my glasses which he is also trying to remove. I'm tired, but I'm glad. I'm so very, very glad for all three of my little hoodlums. I'm glad that we are the ones who get to fight this hard fight alongside Baby S. It's nothing compared to the sacrifice Jesus made for me, but it helps me to feel a little sliver of what real love and sacrifice are, and to serve Jesus by offering him this very small and very imperfect picture of what he offers me. Ô (That weird symbol was from Baby S. I'm still not even sure how he did it.)

The days are so very long. The countdown to bedtime is all too real. But the weeks are pretty quick, and from Sunday to Sunday I can see how incredible the growth is in all three of my babies - and in myself, too. We're getting through a day at a time. The hard fight for progress will go quicker than I realize. Someday, I pray, by God's grace, I will look back on this time in disbelief because it's too hard to imagine how far Baby S had to come. It's already like that when I think back to his arrival. He's a fighter, and a sweetheart, and a firecracker. He's a ray of sunshine in our lives and a wrecking ball in our home, and he's growing me in a lot of painful and amazing ways. I can't wait to fully realize someday how God has worked in each of us, all five, through this amazing daily battle to bedtime.

Saturday, December 31, 2016

A New Year and God's Story for Baby S

Resolutions for the new year don't really go very far for me. I've learned that, if it's not something I'm already working on, then I'm probably not going to change simply because it's a new year.

I've been doing something else the last few years instead. I've chosen a word for the year. It's either something I need to work on or a theme for the year. My word for 2015 was hope. We were in a constant state of maybe-Baby-S-is-leaving. We knew leaving wouldn't be the best thing for him. Sometimes it was hard to trust that God had the best in mind for our little guy. So I fought for hope that year. My word for 2016 was joy. We knew Baby S was definitely leaving and it was hard to feel gladness or joy in our circumstances. I struggled for joy even when very good things happened, like finding out Baby Gigi was coming or moving into our first house together. I didn't want to just SAY that God works things for his glory and our good; I wanted to FEEL it deep down. Joy.

A new year starts tomorrow, but my new word started 43 days ago. My word for this year is redemption.

My prayers for Baby S shifted around two months ago. We knew his circumstances would create long-term challenges for him, but the things I was hearing from Birth Parent were becoming more and more dire. They were weighing heavily on me. I realized that my prayer for Baby S needed to change. It needed to get deeper. God hasn't chosen to spare Baby S of hard things in his life, so I need to realize that he has a plan in this. My prayers for Baby S shifted to pleading with God to use these very hard things in Baby S's life to shine his love for our little guy. I started praying that God would speak his love and power so loudly in our lives by walking Baby S out of this incredibly tough place and into healing and wholeness, and that his wholeness would be all the more beautiful because of the journey.

I started praying that for Baby S just a couple of weeks before we saw God move in a way that was an unmistakeable answer to that prayer. It's a start to a very long road, but we've seen such incredible growth in our little man already.

Redemption.

God allowed some things in Baby S's life that looked truly awful from where I'm standing. But I believe and I can SEE that he is going to use those things to make Baby S's life story even more beautiful. I believe someday Baby S will talk, and the wonderful things he says will be even more incredible because once he didn't have a voice. I believe his beautiful smile and joyful spirit will be an encouragement to many people, and his amazing positivity will be all the more impactful because of the negative circumstances he's walked through. God is going to take those very hard things and redeem them for something so beautiful that an easy life couldn't have had the same impact.

Such a beautiful gift to have all three of our little ones safe and sound this Christmas!

There are still no guarantees for Baby S's long term future with us. There is a strong possibility of him being here forever, but if we've learned one thing from foster care, it's how quickly things can change. (Remember how we finally accepted two and a half months ago that Baby S wasn't coming back? Remember that we were all ready to re-open for a new foster care placement only TEN DAYS after Baby S came back?? Things change SO fast!) I'm not walking into this year more naive than I was last time we had Baby S in foster care. But I can see that God is already starting to redeem these rough couple of years, and I am so ready to watch his work this year. We're not even in 2017 yet, but his redemptive work has already taken my breath away and I am incredibly excited to see God continuing to move.

Our non-verbal child who wouldn't make eye contact is looking, and laughing, and starting to say words. He's joyful. He wrestles and teases and loves to play chase! He trusts that we'll come back for him. He sleeps in his big boy bed all night long, gets up too early, and then snuggles every morning. He finds me to kiss his boo-boos and then runs away all better. He's working so hard and making so much progress. That's after six weeks, guys. God is so good, and his work in Baby S is so beautiful. This year is going to be incredible.

I can't wait to soak in God's redemptive work in Baby S's life - and mine - in 2017.