What it's like to parent a child with incredible behavior struggles

Our little man has some behavior struggles that are not typical for kids his age. It's hard to imagine someone as cute as him could be so difficult to handle...but believe me, he is. (If you don't believe me, you can watch him for a week.) He has made INCREDIBLE strides since he entered foster care and since he moved in with us. But of course, there is still work to be done. It will be years of hard work, I imagine. Generally, his behavior at home has been manageable. His main struggle now is at school.

At dismissal, the kids come outside with the teacher to wait for their parents. Often the kids will see their parents from afar, and will point to them letting the teacher know, and in return, she'll let them run off to their parents. I have never had this pleasure. Jonathan will point and yell "Mommy! There's my mom!" She will nod her head in acknowledgement while placing her hand gently on his shoulder to keep him from running.  Every day when I go to pick him up, I am filled with anxiety about the report his teacher will give me. 

Some days we get phone calls to let us know he is struggling...like today. We got three. At the third call today, I packed up my things and headed straight over to school before their dismissal. When I got there, he and a teacher were processing through a conflict that had happened right before I arrived. I took Jonathan into an empty classroom so we could process the day's events. Before we left he apologized to one classmate, two classroom teachers, and two before/after school program staff. Our rule at home is if we get a call from his teachers, he will have a consequence at home. Here's where we've had to get creative. When you parent a child with behavior struggles, you tend to exhaust your options quickly. J responds well to positive attention, so we've done sticker charts. We've tried bribery. We've tried time outs, calm downs, running him around the yard when he's angry, stomping on the driveway to let out frustration, wrapping him in a blanket like a burrito, holding his tongue when he argues, apology notes, no TV, no choices, extra chores, taking away all of his toys, sending him to be early....seriously. When possible we try to come up with logical, natural consequences. So tonight he had to carry around a hula-hoop all night to remind him of his space barriers since he invaded many peoples' space today at school. He also engaged in a good deal of "potty talk" at school with the other boys (I know poop and farting and boogers are generally not appropriate, but every little boy likes to gross people out with this stuff! Nonetheless...if school doesn't want it, we have to help him learn...), so he got to "clean" all three toilets in our home. (Before someone freaks out and turns me in for child abuse, we gave him NO cleaning supplies...he had a wet rag he used to wipe down the outsides and used the toilet brush to brush the insides.) Cleaning the toilets was completely ineffective. We reminded him as he worked why he was doing this, and he kept saying gleefully, "I'm a worker! I'm working on these toilets." Now the hula-hoop...that seemed to work. Each time he got out of his hoop, he had to go to a "calm down" (our version of time out). On the third calm down, he walked to his room lugging his hula-hoop bleary eyed crying, "I don't want the hula-hoop anymore!" And while it did break my heart, a part of me felt victorious that we finally found a consequence that seemed to affect him. We explained to him again why he had the hula-hoop, and he continued to sulk.

Whew. Parenting is exhausting, but parenting a child with behavior problems is numbing. I think it's even more difficult given all day I ward off behavior issues at school before coming home to deal with more behavior issues. Each night I pray the next day will be better. Each morning, J and I pray that the day God gave us would be an opportunity for us to make good choices and bring glory to Him. I hope that someday soon...very soon...he is old enough to really understand this and will know how to think through his actions and make good choices. I hope God will continue to give us wisdom to parent J effectively, and I hope all of my hair doesn't turn gray before I'm 30...

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The end of my leave

Today was my first day back to work since March 7th...it was very, VERY hard to go back. In fact, I teared up as I organized my cart early this morning to head in to my first class. In the three weeks I was off, one week was spring break including Jonathan's tonsillectomy. The last two weeks I've had the freedom to keep Jonathan home from school, take him late, or pick him up early. What I appreciated most about my leave was how relaxed I felt when Jonathan came home from school. I did not feel overwhelmed with the burden of ungraded papers looming over my head; the frustration of ungrateful students did not knot up in my shoulders. When Jonathan came home from school, I was ready to play, ready to parent. I haven't felt that energized since Jonathan moved in last July.

I love my job, but I don't love that it sucks much of what I have out of me leaving very little for my family. During my time off, I found myself wondering how much better of a parent I could be without the stress of teaching full time. I also know this year I'm not near the teacher I was before we had a kid. I'm a type A person; it's difficult to feel that I'm doing a half-assed job at everything.

I'm trying not to dwell on these things too much during my first week back. There are 8 weeks left in the school year, so there is a light at the end of the tunnel...hopefully no nervous breakdowns will happen between now and then...

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Officially ours

Last week we celebrated Jonathan's adoption! We ate breakfast at Le Peep, went to the courthouse with friends and family, and then ate and played at the Amazing Pizza Machine in the afternoon. It was an awesome day. By the time we got home that night, I was a bleary-eyed mess from crying thinking about how much of a blessing J is to us. Becoming parents has been a long time coming for us. If you know a bit about our story, you know our road to parenthood has been long and winding. Infertility, a failed adoption, a move east I regretted for a year...all led us to Jonathan. There were some soul-crushing moments in the past seven years, but one glance at our intelligent, hilarious, brave, and compassionate curly haired son makes all those pains feel like they were worth something. There were many times I pleaded with God to give us a child, questioned God for our struggles to conceive, and yelled at him for bringing us suffering. I wanted badly to run away from Him, to throw my faith away. Luckily, my husband's faith and friends' faith compelled me to keep clinging to God. Throughout our process I kept Romans 8:28 in mind: " And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose." Now that we're on the other side of this, I can see what God was doing throughout each of those painful moments. He was grooming us to be J's parents...J's resilience just amazes me. When he's old enough to understand his life story, I'm sure he will feel some anger and resentment, but I hope he can use Romans 8:28 to help him make sense of his life. 

Here's a few of my favorite photos from his life with us...there are so many I could post. If you have an extra five hours to kill, c'mon over and I'll bore you to tears by having you look at every picture we've took of him. To those of you who stuck with us when we retreated from relationships after we discovered we could not have kids, and those who offered us support through prayer, food and wine, and other more healthy distractions--thank you. 

His first solo visit at our house

Helping Nate mow the lawn was one of his favorite activities this summer when he visited

This was from  his "graduation" day when he moved from his first foster placement to our home; we had a "graduation" party with his first foster family. 

His first soccer game
Eating a cupcake on Nate's birthday

Our first Christmas...don't know what the frown was all about!

At Nathan and Abbi's wedding dancing the night away with his cousin
Giggling at Pappy on his adoption day
Hot stuff sitting in the judge's chair
Our first official family photo
My favorite from the adoption day....


Our upcoming big day

On Thursday morning we make J's adoption final! We have family joining us for the event and are planning on making an entire day of it celebrating his official christening as a Helzer.

I cannot believe 7 months have passed since he first moved in with us. The transition was no walk in the park. Nate and I had no experience parenting, and J had not had two consistent parents for quite some time. I think the struggle, though, taught us all about unconditional love.

Like a five year old is wont to do, J has flip-flopped back and forth between being excited about his adoption and saying he doesn't want to be adopted. He can't ever articulate why he is or is not excited; I'm not sure he fully understands his emotions. But I think he is scared this adoption thing is not going to happen. He is old enough to have memories with his birth mom and birth dad, his removal from the home, his time in foster care, etc. He's old enough to remember his trauma even if he can't put words to it. So tonight when we read a book about adoption, it did not break my heart when he said he didn't want to be adopted and change his name to Helzer. Imagine being old enough to experience all he has, to be told that you'd be going back "home" only to end up in a stranger's home who tells you they're going to be your new mom and dad. No matter how much we eased him into this, he's bound to feel troubled by it, to feel allegiance to his first family even though it was traumatizing.

While he isn't as excited about the adoption as we are, I do hope it's a day that is joyful for him, one that he'll remember fondly. I hope someday he will understand all of this and that he'll feel special because we chose him to be our son and love forever despite any scars and wounds. I hope he comes to know that we love him unconditionally for the rest of our lives.

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Parental compromising

It's 6 AM on a Saturday; I've been up for one hour. Nate has been up for three. J woke up at 3:00 asking if he could get up and play. When I conceded to the fact I wouldn't be sleeping any later, I stumbled into the kitchen to make my morning coffee nearly tripping on the dog who looked up at me as if to say, Remember when we slept until 8 on Saturdays?

Like any new parent, I catch myself mid-J's super tantrums reminiscing about the way things were BK (before kids). Sometimes, I'm sure other adoptive parents can relate, I slip up and think, This would be easier if it were my biological child...I know easier isn't the correct term; I know different would be a more applicable word. It's just hard to think this way when J does things that are completely antithetical to our own tendencies. Because I'm parenting a child who doesn't have my incredible genetic makeup (she says with sarcasm dripping from her lips) I find myself in compromising positions at times: things I never thought I'd do as a parent, I'm doing now as a parent.

Allow me to articulate.

J's been experiencing some difficulties at school. He is hyperactive and defiant. A lethal combination for any classroom. I've worked with kids long enough to know that sometimes kids don't choose to by hyperactive and defiant...sometimes it's a part of their make-up---whether biological or by the environment they're caretakers have created. Of course, kids need to be taught how to control their defiance and exercise it appropriately (there is a time and place for defiance!) as well as how to manage their hyperactivity--but teaching this to a five year old who has just warmed up to the idea of us being his forever-parents, is no easy task. Per his therapist's recommendation, I issue him clear rewards/consequences each day on the way to school. We discuss ways to deal with stressful situations and we each pray asking God to give us strength to make the right choices and to be a good friend. After a while, a reward and consequence ends up losing its impact forcing a parent to think of new ways to enforce good behavior in his/her brood. This particular morning, I was tired beyond belief and frustrated from one of J's super fun morning tantrums where he screams and cries and throws things for no apparent reason at 6:00 in the morning before I've had my morning coffee. At a loss for a new reward or consequence, "Buddy," I blurted, "if you have a good day today, we can have donuts tomorrow morning." I may as well have said, "Hey kid--have a good day, and I 'll hand you some sugar cubes to suck on." Fortunately (or unfortunately?), J did not earn the donuts that day.

Believing J's struggles are primarily biological, a psychiatrist has recommended we put little J on meds to help balance out this hyperactivity and defiance. Both Nate and I worry about meds. I've seen kids on meds turn into zombies with no personality. I've also seen meds take what seems like an unbearable kid and turn him into a pleasant child who is able to focus. I know some people need medications. I just don't want to jump to meds too soon. While we do research on different meds, we're conducting the Mountain Dew experiment with J. Doctors suggested this to my own parents who were exasperated at my hyperactivity as a child. Give a hyperactive child a high concentration of caffeine, and it will slow the kid down enough so they can focus more clearly. I'm not convinced this is a scientific experiment, and I cringe at the idea of giving a five year old soda (I don't even drink soda), but I will be pouring him a glass this morning and again in the afternoon.

I can see this compromising in two ways: I'm a failure parent who has given into pure bribery to reach her child, or I'm doing the best I can at meeting this kid where he's at. Frankly, it takes a lot of work to believe the second view. Being a foster-adoptive parent feels incredibly isolating. When J is around our friends and family, he is an absolute charmer. Of our support system, we are the only people who see him in his true form. Each day is a struggle to do what's right and fight the deprecating thoughts that lurk in the cobwebs...a battle every parent can relate to.

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Adoption and the issues that come with it

Well the Medicaid debacle has been resolved! After resubmitting paperwork three different times, little guy was finally approved for Medicaid. Praise God...this is such a huge burden lifted from our shoulders. Because this was remedied, we were able to set an adoption date. J officially becomes a Helzer on March 6th. We've taken the whole day off and have invited our immediately family to join us in the courtroom as we make this thing official. We cannot wait to make that day special for J--one he will remember for the rest of his life.

As we prepare to make the adoption official, there have been some interesting things to think about come up. First, our adoption date was scheduled for the day of parent-teacher conferences. When I first talked with our immediate supervisor about it, I was told to "come when we could" to conferences. We politely explained that we would not be at conferences because it is J's special day, and family, of course, is our first priority. Our supervisors were okay with this, but they expected us to "make up" conferences some way. Initially, we were more than willing to "make up" conferences by meeting with parents that next day (a half work day for us). But the more I think about it, the more I realize how crazy this is. I realize that growing a family through adoption is not the same as growing a family "naturally," so maybe my comparisons are off base--but if I were to squeeze out a baby the day of conferences, I'm sure Nate and I wouldn't be required to make up the time to meet with parents. I'm almost certain we'd be told to take care of our family. Instead, we're expected to return the next day and do our jobs as if nothing has changed in our lives. A colleague asked if I would take maternity leave after our adoption. "Uh...probably not. J's in school; what would I even do?" I responded. I hadn't even thought of taking maternity leave until she asked me. I did some research this weekend and realized that we are allowed up to 30 days of leave for the adoption under FMLA. I thought about how nice it would be to take even two weeks off wrap up a few things--to make a scrapbook for J; to read about ADHD, parenting traumatized children, etc; to go through his stuff; to begin to clear our second bedroom to make way for another foster child or to have available to provide emergency respite; and honestly...to just let this sudden growth in our family sink in. J moved in with us three days before school started. We didn't have a nine month period to acclimate to the idea of having a child. Part of me feels silly for wanting to take this leave--part of me is afraid I'll have to justify this to people who will think it's ridiculous that I take the leave, to people who will probably never understand the difficulties of becoming a parent to a child who has been traumatized and is old enough to remember this trauma. There's also the reality that if I use more than my allotted leave time (10 sick days a year), I could be transferred to a new school. Because of my vocal chord problems, I've already used 5 sick days this year (more than I've had to use in my 5 1/2 years of teaching!). I only have 5 sick days left. I don't know what the likelihood is of the aforementioned transfer, but I'd hate for this to happen. For the first time in a few years, I enjoy where I'm at and the classes I'm teaching.

All this because we chose to adopt a child...I'm thrilled to be making J's adoption final, but I'm not thrilled to have these other issues clouding the joy.

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Secret thoughts of a new mother

Preface: Yesterday we had our annual winter board meeting for the Nebraska Writing Project. We meet in the morning, have lunch, and then venture out on a writing marathon for the afternoon. For four years I've attended this writing marathon and have cherished this time in Lincoln writing with some of Nebraska's finest teachers. Yesterday, however, feeling overwhelmed, I skipped out after lunch and went on my own writing marathon.  Here's what came from it: 

For seven years I dreamed of being a mom. And now, here I am: six months a mother and today I find myself escaping the role. I could be at home--I could've been home two hours ago, but I'm still in Lincoln, hiding out at a little coffee shop that is literally underground. I want to stay and wander the streets of Lincoln--spend money on frivolous things like Billy Collins poetry books, handmade earrings in the shapes of birds, and notebooks touting Whitman quotes on the front cover. I want to crawl into a tavern, drink a black and tan and eat all carbs and no vegetables. I want to strike up conversations with adults, conversations that don't include mention of bodily functions or superheroes.

I don't know how to deal with this sudden 24/7 responsibility that has given me a new identity. No longer am I Danielle--the teacher, writer, and aspiring intellectual. Now I am Danielle--J's mom--laundry folder, kid-wrangler. In some social situations I don't even know who to flock to anymore. Normally I gravitate towards readers, writers, thinkers, and society-shakers, but I feel like all I have to talk about is my new role as a mother since that's really all I've had time for lately. It seems natural then to lean towards mothers--especially new mothers. However, I don't feel like a "real" mom. I don't have labor and delivery stories, diaper-changing memories, or breast-feeding tips. So I'm an outcast--a haggard outcast who had read nothing more substantial than the newspaper or a fly-by article in The Atlantic once a month.

Deep down I think I am still a writer and aspiring intellectual, but this identity is buried beneath layers of insecurities from my new identity as a mom. Perhaps this is why I'm stuck in this underground coffee shop an hour away from my home spilling my heart on paper. I have a feeling there's a way to merge the two--who I once was with who I now am, but I haven't figured it out yet. Right now I just feel guilty for this confusion. Before we were blessed with little man, I hated hearing moms lament about their kids or their loss of freedom, but now that I'm here, I get it. Of course I appreciate my son, and I wouldn't change my life for anything. It's just difficult to transition rather suddenly into this new role. I didn't have a baby stewing inside of me for nine months forming that natural attachment; my baby came as a four year-old--broken and reluctant to accept me as his mom. I know this confusion is natural, but I can't help feeling like Douglas county's worst mother for feeling a need to escape.

I hope someday I'll feel like my same old self again. But...maybe feeling like my old self isn't the point at all. Maybe the point of all of this is to figure out who I'm intended to be....

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