December is the month of publishing

I made it a goal of mine this month to send out pieces for publication on blogs. I sent one to Scary Mommy (a long shot publication) and another to Her View from Home (one with more local roots). The editors at Scary Mommy sent back a prompt and kind reply that while they liked my piece, they didn't have room for it at the time (it was a holiday piece). The sting of rejection didn't hurt so bad because, honestly, I anticipated it. My piece was still a bit sloppy and it was long, and it was Scary Mommy--a blog with over a million followers on Facebook.

A few days later I heard back from the editor of Her View from Home with a note saying they'd run the piece I sent. My essay about parenting was published on December 12th, and I have 30 days to rack up the views (the more views I receive, the greater the chances that I can have more work published....and the more I'll be paid). If you're interested, click here to read it. I'll have another piece posted on January 3rd, so if you like what you read in the first post, watch the interwebs for a link to my next one. And be sure to check out other posts on Her View from Home; there are some captivating pieces published there.


Distraction of Being Understood

The other day I had to carry my seven-year-old son into school mid-tantrum; it became clear to me that he was engaging in a power struggle--he didn't want to go to school; he wanted to stay home and play with toys. I had to make a choice in that moment: I could allow him to continue tantruming safely in the car away from the eyes of others or I could take him into school mid-tantrum because it was time to go to school. I've tried keeping him in the car until he is calm, and while it allows us some privacy, it allows him the freedom to continue tantruming for however long he wants. So I pulled him from the car--kicking and crying--and in all of my nasty, pre-run, pre-shower glory, I carried him into school, sat him down in the front office, and waited for him to be calm while I bore the stares from strangers wondering what the heck I was doing. Needless to say, I've been a hot mess of vulnerability lately. Later that day I texted a good friend and fellow foster-adoptive momma and explained that I felt stuck on an island as a parent--especially as a parent of children with special needs that are not physically obvious. I told her that I just wanted someone to understand my parenting situation, my choices, and my vulnerability. She replied with an empathetic text that ended with, "Unfortunately we don't serve a God who wants us to be understood but to obey."

Her text reminded me of a devotion by Oswald Chambers I read a few weeks titled, "The Distraction of Contempt." The focus of the devotion was Mark 4:19, and in the discussion, Chambers quotes St. Augustine, "'O Lord, deliver me from this lust of always vindicating myself.'" Chambers goes on to explain that we should abandon our constant need to get others to understand us; while Jesus taught others about the truth of Himself and spoke out against wrong religion, he simply didn't correct misunderstandings of his words.

I did some quiet study and reflecting this morning on all of this, and if I'm being honest with myself, my friend's words and the devotion are in direct conflict with where my heart is right now. I have a serious desire to be understood by others--especially in my parenting choices, and I have a feeling that I'm not the only one. We were created to feel and to connect and to live in community with others, and a necessary component of meaningful relationships is that each person connects with the other and tries to understand how the other is feeling. So perhaps our need to be understood comes from the fact that we were meant to engage with others on a meaningful level. The question of the hour, though, is: When do we move from simply engaging in relationships with others to a “lust of always vindicating ourselves”? The more I think about this quandary, the more I'm realizing that a line is crossed when our motive for needing others to understand us is selfish in nature.

Like my friend’s reminder, God wants us to obey Him even when we are misunderstood in this obedience. Oswald Chambers writes, "Our state of mind is powerful in its effects. It can be the enemy that penetrates right into our soul and distracts our mind from God" (My Utmost for His Highest). When I focus on being understood by others, I am often focusing more on myself which distracts me from a deeper fellowship with my creator. God laid foster to adopt on our hearts nearly four years ago, and we acted out of obedience to him (although we were hesitant and scared and still grieving the thought of never having biological children). In obedience, I will be a parent, which requires me to advocate for my children and try to set them up for success. I’m learning, though, that being a parent doesn’t require me to constantly be understood. Like St. Augustine, my prayer this week is, “O Lord, deliver me from this lust of always vindicating myself,” so I can remove my eyes from me and direct them upward.

A visual aid to attachment disorders

Image source
 I am part of a support group for adoptive parents through Right Turn, and part of this is a secret Facebook group for parents in Nebraska to be able to ask questions. A fellow "trauma momma" responded to one of my questions and gave me this chart as a resource. While my kids don't fit into every category, a lot of these descriptors fit our children. It's a helpful visual aid to understanding Reactive Attachment Disorder.


Understanding Reactive Attachment Disorder

Our kids (both adopted from foster care) have Reactive Attachment Disorder. Kids with RAD engage in intense power struggles with their caregivers because they have learned their previous caregivers didn't do a good job of meeting their needs.

For our kids, here's what these power struggles look like: If we give our kids a two-step instruction, they do the second step before they do the first step. If we ask them to put on their coat before school, they'll put on their backpack instead. I laid out a lightweight coat for my daughter last week during our 50-60 degree weather streak; she asked for a warmer one. I explained why we were wearing our spring coats, and she insisted she wear her winter coat throughout the week. If we issue a consequence to our kids, they will yell that we are mean and scream and kick for sometimes up to an hour. When I ask J to walk, he runs. When I ask K to run, she walks. Our daughter has to know everything that is going on: what we are doing each day, when we are leaving, when we are coming home, what we are eating, etc. Our son "spies" on my husband and me when we're having conversations--he simply cannot go play while the two of us talk. Sometimes our daughter even refuses to complete basic hygiene tasks (hand-washing, wiping after pottying, showering, etc). In therapy we've been working on trust--so, the therapist blindfolds the kids and has one of us lead the child around the office. Immediately, their arms and hands begin to feel for something familiar. They stick out a foot and feel around before taking a step. A nervous giggle sometimes turns into out of control laughing. Our kids fight for control in nearly every situation.

Conversely, they are totally sweet and compliant around strangers or those who they don't have a deep relationship with because they've learned how to "work a crowd." In the past they've used others to get what they need: food, attention, hugs, diaper changes, etc. K demonstrates this by giving lots of hugs and wanting to be right next to others (teachers, day care staff, relatives) at all times. She'll play with their hair, touch their jewelry, compliment them on their clothes/house/hair/etc. J exercises perfect compliance in new situations with new people. At every school he's ever attended, he's gone three months with no behavioral incidents. After three months when he sees he's not going anywhere, the deal is off. This year the principal and teachers were so concerned and emailed us multiple times in October when J let his guard down; I explained that this is the real J--that now he feels safe at school and knows he's not going anywhere....I'm sure they thought I was a nut-bag.

This morning on the way to school J argued with me about something; I replied by saying, "Thank you for letting me know that we still need to practice being compliant" (a phrase our therapist has instructed us to use). J retorted with a top-of-his-lungs scream, throwing his backpack at me, yelling I was mean, and kicking the back of seat until we arrived at school. While at a stop light, I reached behind me and took his shoes off so he didn't damage my car. He was still out of control when the bell rang, so I scooped him out of the car--shoeless---and carried him into school. The principal, the secretary, and a handful of kids stared, mouths open. I sat him down in the front foyer and we practiced following instructions until he was ready to go to school....late for the fifth time this year thanks to these morning power struggles.

Admittedly: I am EXHAUSTED. The mental effort and physical restraint it takes to parent my children is leaving me feeling like an overused simile. My body aches on a regular basis. My nerves are shot. Taking my kids both into public places alone, is my nightmare because it inevitably elicits judgmental stares from strangers when I use the integrative parenting techniques suggested by our therapist and RAD literature. And still, I love them. I love them so much that I'll quit my full-time job (that I love) to be more free to take them to counseling and Occupational Therapy and psychiatry appointments or just to run to school to eat lunch with them. I love them so much that I'll fight my instinct to spank them when they're defiant because physical consequences don't work for RAD kids. I love them so much that I'll drag my ass and theirs to a store in the evening so we can practice being appropriate while I shop. I love them so much that I'll bypass reading my new memoir to read a book on parenting kids with attachment trauma. I love them so much that I'll try to ignore the judgmental stares and comments from people who have no clue what it's like to parent my children. I will love them through their tantrums--I'll pop in my ear plugs and rub their back while they scream and kick out all their mad. Parenting kids with attachment trauma is tough work...so find a foster or a foster-adoptive parent and give them a hug, buy them a beer, withhold advice (especially if you're not or have ever been a foster parent), and tell them they're doing a good job because, damn, they need this encouragement.


Favorite Things #2

A podcaster I listen to--Tsh Oxenreider--ends each of her shows with a segment called "What's Making Me Happy." I like learning about new things that are making others happy, and it makes me happy to think about that which  makes me happy. It's just a whole lot of happiness (if you hadn't already picked up on that!). So, here's a list of the mostly minute things that are making me happy this month. I'd love to read about what's bringing you joy--either the material or abstract--so leave a comment below if you feel inclined.

Food: Kale chips. I'm trying to do a better job of eating fresh foods that are in season. Winter is tough because it means less fruit and more root vegetables (nasty). However....I learned from the food coops that I participate in that kale is in season. The stuff tastes disgusting plain, but drizzle on some olive oil and salt and bake it for 12 minutes, and kale transforms into these airy, crispy little boogers that fool my mouth into thinking they're chips. I tend to eat a large baking sheet of these myself...it's the cheater's way to pack in the recommended veggie servings.

Drink: Fair trade coffee. I'm trying hard to purchase only coffee that is fair trade (fair trade often means fair prices paid to growers), which can be expensive. Luckily I've got my local TJ Maxx to help  me out. I've recently discovered their excellent selection of affordable fair trade coffees (think $5-7 a bag!).

Podcast: Serial. Last year a co-worker hooked me on this podcast produced by Sara Koenig (also a creator of This American Life). The premise of Serial is that a group of journalists uncover details from one particular story each week...throughout the season the story develops in a way that hook the listeners. Last season was about Adnan Syed; it explored whether he was guilty or innocent of murdering his ex-girlfriend who he had been accused of murdering in the 1990s. It was dramatic, honest, and thrilling and kept me company on several long, cold runs. This season is about a US Soldier, Bowe Bergdahl, a topic of controversial discussion in current events this year.

Book: Integrative Parenting: Strategies for Raising Children Affected by Attachment Trauma. The book is written by some folks from the Attachment and Trauma Center of Nebraska (yay for local writers and researchers!). While I'd rather be reading something else, the book has helped Nate and me through some difficult moments with our children these last few months. The  book explains brain development in a way that even my right-brained personality can understand. Additionally, it gives suggestions for creating connections with difficult children, solutions to every challenging behavior we've experienced with our kids (including swearing, defiance, and the ever-loving poop issues!), and how to set boundaries and issue consequences while being attuned to the kids' needs. I'm not quite finished, but I am so ready to read the section on self-care and becoming a happier parent. The book is a great read for any foster/adoptive parent, and segments of the book are wonderful for families and friends of foster/adoptive parents to read; I feel like it would explain why foster/adoptive parents can sometimes be closed off, overwhelmed, chronically tired, or seem to make odd parenting choices.

Music: My Bubba. I found this Scandinavian folk duo on NPR's Tiny Desk Concerts and was mesmerized by their harmonies, softness, and lyricism. Listening to them is like the relaxing sensation of a deep breathe. And since it's the Christmas season, I'll throw this music recommendation out there: Songs for Christmas by Sufjan Stevens--classic Christmas songs with an indie feel and fantastic instrumentation.

Scent: Bergamot oil. Each winter Nate grows a massive beard...it's red and thick and makes him look like a lumberjack. I love it. But I don't love the feeling of sandpaper on my face when he leans in for a kiss or the flakes of dry skin that tend to grace his black jacket. So....we made beard oil! We used a combination of essential oils (using a recipe we found on Pinterest), and the recipe called for bergamot...sweet Lord...bergamot is the best smell. It's citrus-y and sweet with a light floral hint. I dab it on the back of my neck and my wrists each morning and it makes me feel all happy and bright like a My Little Pony doll...it makes getting my children ready for school less painful.


3 Reasons why the elf will not be on our shelf this year...or ever

Recently our family was over at another family's house having dinner; since it is the Christmas season, I took in the beautiful sights of all their festive decorations and felt the cliche warm and fuzzy feeling...until I spotted the damn Elf on the Shelf. I waited anxiously, praying my kids would see the elf and think of it as another Christmas decoration--a cousin to the creepy nutcracker statues. My hopes were dashed within thirty seconds when their adorable three-year-old proudly shouted "Look at Bernard!" pointing to the elf on the piano.

"Who's Bernard?" my son asked staring at the doll, perplexed at the tree-year-old's excitement.

Our friend's oldest daughter, a wise seven-year-old, explained the concept: Bernard watched to make sure they were good until Christmas. He changed spots each day, and if you touch him, you lose three presents. My kids' confusion turned to sudden admiration for the damn doll.

"Mom, why don't we have a Bernard?" my daughter asked.

"That's a good question. Where's the playroom?" I replied--diverting my kids' attention. But here's the reasons I wanted to give them:

1. Your dad and I are simply too lazy. When you guys go to bed at night, we savor the freedom. We do really important things like eat cereal, watch TV, and go to sleep. The last thing we want to do is figure out a cute way to pose a doll. I guess that makes us selfish, too...

2. If we were in charge of Elf on the Shelf, you'd be frightened at our cynical sense of humor. We'd take our notes from the #elfontheshelffails and ruin Christmas for you. We're really looking out for your best interest by not participating in the elf hype. You're welcome.

3. Do you really want another thing to monitor your behavior?! C'mon...don't be stupid...

At first, I felt guilty that we hadn't shared this piece of cultural tradition with our kids. But the guilt wore off when a fellow mom shared with me how stressful it was to think of something new for her elf to do each day. There's enough stress that accompanies the holiday season without the damn elf: picking out and wrapping presents, hiding the wrapping paper that only Santa uses, standing in massive lines of crying children so my kids can sit on a random stranger's Santa's lap for five minutes, Christmas programs, baking cookies with my kids (seriously, the stress of this almost pushes me over the proverbial ledge), extra trips in the car to see family, etc. etc. I just don't feel guilty anymore for not participating in the Elf on the Shelf excitement.

I admire the parents who post pictures on Facebook of their elf having another fun shenanigan. I think it takes creativity and perseverance to do this every day for the entire month of December, but it's just not for us. So, we'll continue finding little ways to make the holidays fun for our kids: like attending our community's free showing of A Christmas Carol, decorating my daughter's hair with red and green beads, enjoying Christmas-themed movies by the light of our Christmas tree, or fishing out millions of egg-shells from our cookie dough as I bake with them.


Kids with histories of trauma and the holidays

My husband and I have two six-year-olds adopted from foster care. Our son has lived with us since he was four, and our daughter moved in when she was five. We're still a relatively new family, and prior to our kids' arrival in our home, their lives were filled with turmoil and trauma from neglect, exposure, and abuse. This trauma manifests itself in interesting ways, especially during the holiday season. For kids with histories of trauma, consider these four reasons why the holidays are not so merry:
1. The holidays are a mix of sugar, relatives spoiling our kids, Christmas programs, late nights, and trips out of town. Basically, the holidays blow--especially for kids with trauma who often have “chaos brains” (brains that are accustomed to a constant state of fight or flight). Chaos brains are best regulated by having predictable, consistent routines (routine may as well be an antonym to the phrase holiday season). The minute there is a break in this the everyday structure, our kids’ chaos brains tend to spin out of control and breed more chaos. For our kids this looks like excessive silliness, constant running wherever they are (home, school, stores, etc.), and an increase in impulsive behavior from November through January which all lead to an increase in mamma's drinking.
2. They worry their behavior will prevent them from receiving presents from Santa. Our six-year-olds know the whole Santa story; they’ve heard that Santa only brings presents to “good” boys and girls...we’ve tried using it as leverage on many occasions. Desperate to stop the madness, my husband downloaded the app, A Call from Santa. During a fit of crazy behavior from our daughter, he used the app to have Santa “call” and tell her she was being a naughty girl and reminded her there were only 27 days until Christmas. There was a rare two minutes of silence when she gave the phone back to my husband, mortified. The silence was really the calm before the storm, and before long wailing and fat elephant tears ensued. Immediately we became the worst parents in North America; I wanted to apologize to her and spill the beans about Santa being a fraud.

Many kids fear that their bad behavior will earn them a lump of coal on Christmas morning, but for our kids, this fear is rooted deep in trauma because they believe their bad behavior has earned them way more than just a lump of coal in their stocking.  They believe their poor choices are what got them removed from their birth parents. So the Santa business or the Elf on the Shelf crap--all of that reinforces our kids’ belief that they are not good enough to receive presents or love or affection.
3. The holidays can cause them to self-sabotage. It’s common for kids with traumatic backgrounds to want to control situations. The holiday season is rife with enjoyable opportunities for families: trips to visit Santa, picking out and wrapping presents, baking cookies placing store bought cookies on fancy paper plates, eating massive amounts of Life-Savers from those $.97 Life-Saver books. Unfortunately, kids with traumatic pasts often don’t trust that they’ll get to participate in these festivities because they think their behavior will cause the fun to be stripped from them or because they have experiences of previously unfulfilled promises. So, on the brink of fun activities, they will often self-sabotage so they can choose to miss out rather than risk having an experience taken away from them again.

Our kids are known for self-destructing. After recovering from a turkey, stuffing, and family hangover, we decided to put up our Christmas tree. Our kids love to read, so we busted out the stack of Christmas books, set up a cozy spot for them on the couch, and asked them to read together while we put the fake branches on our fake Christmas tree trunk. “Once we get the tree built, then you can help us fluff it out. Please stay on the couch and read until then, okay?” They both nodded and got busy reading. Approximately 47 seconds later, our son jumped off the couch and proceeded to run through the piles of fake pine needles that our fake tree had shed during its removal from the box. Our living room was a disaster zone of Christmas decorations and fake pine needles, so to avoid more chaos, we sent him to his room where he happily played with his cars and trucks as if that’s what he wanted in the first place. Twenty minutes into our attempt to decorate the tree with our family, both kids were in their rooms for what appeared to be intentional defiance, and my husband and I swore as we proceeded with the terrible job of fluffing out our fake tree by ourselves.
4. The holidays remind them of all they've lost. Our kids didn't have much in the way of material possessions to begin with, so you'd think that receiving gifts on Christmas morning would be exciting for them. While it is exciting, it is also overwhelming.

The first Christmas with our son, we showered him with gifts, which resulted in an immediate tantrum that lasted most of the morning. We couldn't figure out the cause for the melt-down; did he want a blue sled instead of a red sled? Did we not explain clearly enough the purpose of a sled and how much fun it is? We had given him nearly everything from his Christmas list. Pissed that our Christmas morning didn’t meet the expectations I had of our first Christmas as a family, I stormed off leaving my husband to deal with our new son’s confusing behavior. It wasn't until after the chaos of the holiday season passed when he said something out of the blue about never receiving Christmas gifts from his birth parents that we were able to understand that perhaps his Christmas morning tantrum came from a place of loss--a reminder of the gifts promised but never received from his birth parents, a reminder that it wasn't natural for him to be spending Christmas morning, a time normally reserved for immediate family, away from his immediate family. Remembering my response to his behavior on Christmas morning, my cheeks burned red in humiliation, and I reached out to hug my boy.

As a foster-adoptive mamma, I’ve learned to accept that the holidays will most likely be difficult for our family. We probably won’t be able to engage in every fun activity our community has to offer, and we may not be able to attend every holiday party we’re invited to. Instead, we’ll spend extra time at home together. It takes an extra dose of patience, so if you know a foster parent or foster-adoptive parent, send them extra empathy and love booze this holiday season to help get them through it.


My daughter: Clothes and growing up

Yesterday afternoon I went shopping at the mall (gag) for a pair of jeans. I loathe shopping for myself, but I love shopping for my kids. I had K with me (my 6, going on 13 daughter), and she ohh-ed and awed over every dress and furry vest. She'd hold up clothes up below her little face, strike a pose, and ask, "How do I look?!" The girl has a passion for fashion. We picked up a new pair of Wal-Mart boots for her (because I'm cheap) that were of the fashion trend. Little brown ones that stop at the ankle...the kind that lace up and zip and fold over. I'll admit, they were pretty cute. She was smitten and gasped when I decided that $20 was a respectable price to pay for boots and placed them in the cart. "I'VE ALWAYS WANTED BOOTS LIKE THIS!" she yelled (she says this about everything she ever receives....I'VE ALWAYS WANTED THESE OFF-BRAND GUMMY BEARS! I'VE ALWAYS WANTED THIS USED BOOK WITH THE FIRST FIVE PAGES MISSING! I'VE ALWAYS WANTED THIS RECEIPT FROM COSTCO! etc. etc.).

At our house, each of our kids has a closet organizer that contains six storage boxes. On Sundays we fill the boxes with outfits the kids can choose from for the week. Today K grabbed the outfit with her new boots---a pair of dark skinny jeans, a plain white shirt, and a gray and navy striped cardigan. With her mo-hawk made of tiny Afro puffs, she looked like she stepped from the pages of an H&M catalog.

As I restyled her puffs this morning, I noticed how gorgeous my little girl is. Her eyes are the perfect almond shape and they are a deep brown...almost black. Her lashes are thick and long and accentuate her beautiful eyes. And her smile...man, her smile will melt you. As I brushed back her hair and combed out her puffs, I suddenly imagined her at 16....and my heart jumped into my throat. My girl loves clothes and already has to be pried away from the mirror; just yesterday I made her "redo" her walk from the living room to her bedroom, because she started swinging her hips and shaking her booty like Shakira. I want to teach her to be a strong, confident, independent woman...but I also want to teach her to be modest with her body not for the benefit or sake of others, but because she values her body as a gift from God. But If yesterday's Shakira-shake and today's fashion show are any indication of what is to come, then man...we have our work cut out for us...