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connections

August 15, 2013

The other night we met Mara’s kindergarten teacher, who has lots of experience and is excited to have Mara in the class. (And we met her teen daughter, who’s best friends with Nia’s best friend’s big sister, because this is a small town!) It’s a small class, not even 20 kids, and there will be several other children of color, I think one other black girl, one girl who looks biracial and has a white mom, at least two Latinas, and that’s just of the half the class who showed up to meet the teacher.

Mara and Nia took part in (and took gold in!) a long jump contest a few weeks ago, and the probably biracial girl was the other participant from our town, so they got to know her a bit. She’s also on the cheerleading team with Nia, so we’re seeing her twice a week at practices there. Mara’s cousin we’d hoped would be in her class has moved out of her district, but at least she got to see that there’s someone familiar, that there’s at least one other girl who seems to have brown skin and a white mom, that there’s a girl whose mom (like Lee) won’t be there on the first day because she’s a teacher. The other families from our neighborhood with kids in the public school will be gathering for dinner on the night before school starts, so we’re working on creating a community that will help her transition to her new school easily. Plus there’s Nia, who’s thrilled about getting to be the expert who will help the younger kids find their footing!

I guess I didn’t write about this here last year, but the girls and I had met up with Mara’s mom Veronica at last year’s back-to-school night, which she attended with a neighbor of hers, and then got to meet a family who used to babysit Mara sometimes when she was tiny. We haven’t talked to Veronica in months because the phone number I had wasn’t working anymore, but I reminded Mara that we’d seen her last year and so she might show up this year too. I didn’t think to remind Lee, who was coming with us this year, but while I was still talking to Mara’s teacher and the girls and Lee had headed outside to have snacks, Lee saw Mara take off toward some woman and give her a big hug, and it was only after she’d done a double-take that she realized it was Veronica. Mara couldn’t explain when Lee asked her later how she knew it was Veronica, whether she knew it was Veronica, but it clicked for her immediately and she got a hug she’d been waiting for since last fall.

Just hanging out with Veronica at the back-to-school carnival night meant sometimes she was sitting on the steps with her friend and sometimes she was holding Mara’s hand in line, sometimes I was chatting with the principal and at one point I held Mara and she was able to hug me and Veronica at the same time. It was upsetting for Mara because it brought forward all her sadness about missing her mom, and sad for Nia because she still doesn’t get to see her mom and is always a little unsettled when there’s contact with Mara’s family, and was of course a bit weird for Veronica. But the moments when Mara had three moms supporting her felt great and natural to me at least, and I’m quite sure they did to Mara.

Later, Lee mentioned this meeting to the principal, who wanted to make sure Mara would understand that school was a safe place and that only people who are allowed to be in the building can be there, that this open festival atmosphere was unusual. She encouraged us to make sure the girls’ parents names and pictures are at the front desk so that they can be denied entrance, which is something they recommend in all cases where someone doesn’t have custody. It’s probably a good idea just for safety in Nia’s case, because a TPR date is going to be set in the next week and I don’t know what kind of response her mom will have to that, though I’m thinking about calling to talk to her now that things seem more stable in terms of what’s going to happen in Nia’s future. It’s hard to imagine she’d show up at school and I definitely don’t think Nia would go with her willingly or that even without special scrutiny she’d even get past the front desk, since they called me for permission to let a different caseworker take Nia to a visit just to make sure I knew what was going on and approved of it (even though I’m pretty sure that caseworker I’ve never met has more right to say what happens to Nia than I do.) And it’s weird to be holding these thoughts simultaneously with working on open adoptions. If Mara sings in the chorus, of course we’ll invite her parents to the shows and probably offer them rides. Nia’s grandmother is already making plans to watch her cheerleading. They are part of our lives and part of our families, but there are also dividing lines too and that can be awkward for us as parents and certainly for the girls, who feel so much love but also loss and I’m sure divided loyalties. In the end, both girls held it together and had a nice time, then slept hard and got up for one of their last days at camp. Soon they’ll be back to school and starting a new chapter of their lives. I’m grateful to get to be there with them, but always mindful of the ones who aren’t in that position.

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quiet

July 30, 2013

I haven’t written here in a long time. Back in December, I basically left twitter after realizing I wasn’t being a particularly great person there. Then in May I went across the country to see some friends and it drove home how much I sort of need friends more than I have them and then I stopped reading all the hundreds of blogs I used to, though I dip back in sometimes. Instead I’ve been trying to just get through some tough things we’ve been getting through around here. I don’t really have much to say about that and I realize it’s stupid to start a post like this, with the explanations and apologies, but I don’t know what to say but that. But.

Mara and Nia are at YMCA camp for the summer, which has been somewhat less than ideal but still mostly fun for them. Mara won’t participate in group games and since the kind of people who grow up to be Y camp counselors were presumably not the 5-year-olds with no interests in group games, this is baffling and alarming to them. I’m with her, so we haven’t pushed hard for her to change her style. She’s finding things she enjoys. Nia, too, is carving out a niche for herself there. She turned 7 this summer and lapped her addition to our home last summer, and I think both of those have really bumped her up in her level of maturity and security. She’s able to get herself under control instead of blowing up when frustrated, and she’s just able to handle everything better. At court this week, our/my willingness to adopt will be entered into the official record, though her parents’ rights won’t be terminated until probably sometime this fall and it will be another few months after that before adoption can happen.

The adoption stuff is still messy. Lee is angry that Nia had family members who wanted to adopt and who were denied (by their home counties, because they’re all out of state, though physically close because we’re in a border town) and I don’t know if it’s because of her own difficulties clicking with Nia or because she herself was adopted within her family and sees the value of that, but she’s angry with the caseworker and lawyer and probably just the world in general that things didn’t work out for Nia to be able to go with people who’ve known her since she was a baby and who love her and want her with them. On the other hand, staying with us means she can see them frequently and in her case, there’s at least one relative where I’d be okay with her doing an overnight every so often, and we’re not there with Mara (mostly for logistical reasons, because Nia’s relatives just aren’t raising as many other kids as Mara’s are.)

Oh, and we’ve gotten to spend a little time with Mara’s siblings, who seem to be thriving in their new kinship home. I need to arrange a time to get all the kids together again before school starts, and it’s amazing to me that we’re already running out of time there! Mara will be in kindergarten and Nia in first grade with her same teacher as last year, but this time testing slightly ahead of starting-first-grade levels rather than being a year or two behind. Again, the security that a year with no moves brings (almost certainly the first in her life, now that I think about it) makes a big difference and she’s excited about knowing the ropes and being able to show Mara how the school works. She’s so serious about her job as Big Sister and the two of them just get sweeter and sweeter together, which amazes me.

And because I probably shouldn’t just hide it between the lines, Lee and I have had a rough time, not because of lack of love but just because it’s been hard to be in the same emotional place at the same time. She has a new job, which is alleviating some stresses and creating others. I think we’re making progress now, but there have definitely been days, weeks when it’s seemed like we’re two single moms who live in the same house and just pass each other periodically, perhaps asking whether there’s extra toilet paper in the upstairs bathroom but perhaps just nodding in vague recognition and moving along. This is not what we want and not where we need to be, and while I am constantly trying to make sure that the girls aren’t feeling negative impacts, things will be better for all of us when things are better for us as a couple. It hasn’t always been clear what the best way around or through might be, but today is a good day and I just keep working and holding onto hope about the changes I want to see. And I’m keeping the kitchen cleaner and sometimes sweeping the floor more than once a day, and if I can do that, I’m sure I can do anything.

I don’t want to end on the down note of all the things I beat myself up about. I’m just trying to throw all the boring updates out here so that maybe I can say something more interesting next time. The girls are doing well. I’m holding up well enough, and excited about some of the things I’m doing this year in my new role as a parent representative on the school’s guiding council and in planning training events for fellow foster parents. I know my time as a foster parent is winding down, though Lee still wants a boy, and I’m trying to figure out how to give up something I’m actually good at and turn it into something worthwhile in another context. We still see Rowan regularly, though he’s thinking about moving back to his last rural town again maybe. Even as I marvel at how Nia has grown in a year into someone so self-possessed yet hilarious, how Mara in almost three years has gone from a loving wordless lump to a tall and graceful storyteller, I think I’m most delighted to see Rowan smiling comfortably, taller than me and not leading an easy life but still doing it on his terms and finding some happiness in it. I’ve been so lucky to get to be a part of all of this.

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on Sand Creek and Storytelling Selves

May 8, 2013

One thing I’ve wanted to do for a while is write here about books that aren’t about fostering or adoption but I think nonetheless give insights into the fostering/adopting experience. (Actually, in the past I probably wrote here or at least on GoodReads about the importance of really reading and thinking about the stories of enslaved families for an understanding of racial conditions impacting the current child welfare system.) Anyway, today I want to go ahead and start, and I’m going to start with books friends of mine have written.

Ari Kelman and I got to know each other in non-adoption nerdy internet contexts. He’s a history professor who has a new book out, A Misplaced Massacre: Struggling Over the Memory of Sand Creek and I really enjoyed reading it and don’t think I’d have found it without knowing him already, which is one reason I want to talk about it.

Not long before reading Ari’s book, I’d reread Shattered Bonds: The Color of Child Welfare by Dorothy Roberts, and while I absolutely agree with her driving argument that black children are over-represented in foster care and adoption from foster care for reasons stemming from racism on a lot of fronts, the anecdotes she used to buttress her arguments kept leaving me saying, “Yeah, but!” I mean, every time Mara’s mom introduces us to one of her friends or relatives, that person will tell me about being Mara’s regular babysitter. Now, maybe Mara’s mom just went through a lot of babysitters, but you’d think that if there were that many other people keeping an eye on Mara, some of them would have noticed the problems that brought her into care, no? And so I don’t entirely discount the truth of what these people tell me (and certainly not in the case of the person who gladly volunteered she’d routinely given Baby Mara soda and Cheetos and then napped while the babies watched tv, but also not in the case of the elderly relative who sheltered Mara and her mom when they didn’t have anywhere else to go) but I also think that what they’re trying to tell me is that they cared and care about Mara, that they wanted to see her do well when she was in their care and want to see her doing well now. In some cases, especially with the family, they’re giving me the story they’ve told themselves about why and how they did what they could for her that absolves them of some of the guilt or grief they might feel about losing her to foster care and adoption. This is totally normal behavior and makes a lot of sense to me, but can be understandably frustrating for the foster-adoptive parents who are hearing these stories about how great everything was until foster care came along.

So while Ari doesn’t talk about foster care and Dorothy Roberts does nothing but talk about foster care, it struck me that his book was better at covering the dynamics of how and why people tell themselves the stories they want and need to hear, which is a topic that’s long fascinated me anyway. (And to be fair to Roberts, she’s very clear on the racist cultural narratives going on and how they were shaped and who benefits from them, which I do find both useful and true, but she didn’t go as deeply into the individual side of the things as I would have preferred. I still like and highly recommend her book!)

I’d describe the Sand Creek Massacre as the violent destruction of a peaceful Cheyenne and Arapaho encampment in Colorado in 1862 by soldiers from the fort supposed to protect them, possibly under the belief that they were actually harboring anti-white criminals. From the start, you get soldiers who understood their grisly attack and the destruction and mutilation that followed it as justified and justifiable, the leader of the attack who hoped to use it to further his political goals, surviving tribe members whose leaders and families had been destroyed and who could no longer keep faith in the peace system, and military men who’d refused to participate in or support the massacre. So far, so simple, right? But then you add well over a century of propaganda and selective memories, in which the massacre is commemorated as a Civil War battle on a monument at the Colorado state house while the Cheyenne and Arapaho descendants of the survivors have ended up on reservations where the massacre is seen as a deep source of collective pain and the trauma that followed. (It also somehow ends up getting mentioned as part of the backstory in the latest Iron Man movie, but despite Mara’s brief interest in running around in Iron Man’s iconic Black Power Salute-esque pose, I’m not likely to see that any time soon and can’t really say more about it.)

So by the time there starts to be interest in an official historical designation for Sand Creek, not only are the descendants deeply invested in a story they’ve carried for generations and feel is being disregarded, so are various landowners who believe (but can’t always prove) that the massacre took place on their properties and what to be well-compensated for it, the national and state officials who need to try to tease out truth from exaggeration to find and mark exactly where the massacre occurred and how to acknowledge its ambiguities, not to mention amateur historians and historical reenactors and the overwhelmingly white townspeople who aren’t sure how to feel about a potential influx of visitors. And all that’s even before the September 11 attacks in the midst of the process of preparing the historical site make it controversial to even talk about a monument to American troops who acted dishonorably, who are going to be portrayed as bad guys rather than heroes in a political context where words like “evil” are getting thrown around freely.

My favorite quote Ari got was probably near the end of the book: “I think I know what I know. But what I know is still pretty limited.” Basically any of the participants in the process to create the National Historic Site could have said it, but not all of them would have had the self-awareness to do so and Ari is fantastic at teasing out what people do think they know, but also why and how. He’s (mostly implicitly) making a larger argument that this is how all history works, piecing together incomplete and biased sources to try to find a meaningful workable narrative, and that was part of where I think it overlaps with the weird world of foster parenting. There are plenty of people involved in a case who think they know what’s going on but can’t share that with everyone or who enter something in the computer under the wrong kid’s name so a child is suddenly tagged with a sibling’s diagnosis or who get the child’s name wrong in the first place (which has happened to all three girls who’ve been in our care and is what I was originally planning to write about today) or who jump to conclusions because they think they’ve seen this story before or because it resonates with something in their own histories. None of us foster/adoptive parents, birth parents, caseworkers are ever going to know what happened to our beloved children in the gaps in their stories, and all children remember their lives with selective biases just like the rest of us do.

What I know about my girls and their families and my parenting is indeed pretty limited, but what I can control about that is my willingness to be open to multiple readings of that limited knowledge. Sometimes there’s someone like the one National Parks worker late in the process of haggling over how to reconcile various survivors’ and later visitors’ memories of the location who was able to find a plausible reading that validated all the major viewpoints and created a response that respected everyone’s truth. Sometimes, much as I hate talk about “agreeing to disagree,” I just have to be at peace with knowing that different invested parties are going to see things in mutually exclusive ways, especially in something as personal as a child’s life, safety, or custody. As Ari delineates so clearly, not only do people carry intergenerational pain through the personal stories they believe and use to define themselves, but people also create emotional connections to symbols and stories that then guide their identities and behavior. I look at this as sort of the definition of being human and accept that I’m more obsessed with the idea than your normal person, but I find a lot of meaning in looking at what people find meaningful.

In fairness to people who don’t have that inclination, when I tried to explain what I found exciting about the book to Lee by starting with a “plot” summary, she said, “That sounds boring as hell!” and, well, I guess that’s her story. She wouldn’t necessarily agree that understanding Mara’s and Nia’s families is helped by reading about slavery and debt peonage and the Great Migration and the Black Panthers, but to me it helps I can’t connect them to their ancestors directly, though we’ve got some access to those stories, and yet I can be aware of the larger narratives that lie behind theirs. I appreciate having Ari’s book to add to that mental backdrop not because it speaks to their history specifically but because it speaks to a history that includes incompleteness, uncertainty, and a somewhat satisfying ending that still doesn’t and can’t tie everything up because the world is still going and people are changing and we all only think we know what we know.

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yes

May 3, 2013

So, unsurprisingly except in terms of timing, Lee agreed that we/I should adopt Nia. We can still only have one legal adoptive parent in our state and this time it’s my turn. On that note, it was only when registering Mara for kindergarten(!) that I realized our co-parenting agreement says not that I should be treated as a parent but that I <em>am</em> Mara’s parent. For some reason that wording hadn’t struck me previously, but it felt really good to just write “parent” and “parent” and not feel like I was hedging. They have a copy of that agreement and her post-adoption birth certificate that gives Lee parental rights and we’re good to go. Meanwhile I have to fill out my application to get on the board that runs the school (school-specific, not the citywide school board) and I hope I’ll be even more involved in what will be both girls’ school next year than I already have this year. (And I’m only talking about myself, but Lee coached afterschool basketball and it was hilarious when we walked down the hall after a meeting with Nia’s teacher and all the kids nudged each other saying that, “Ooooooh, it’s the BASKETBALL!” Adorable!)

Anyway, nothing legal will happen for quite a while yet, but I feel like a huge weight has been lifted. Tonight we’re buying some new storage furniture for the hallway outside the bathroom and we’ll be rearranging the playroom and the girls’ rooms. I can get rid of all the duplicate things I’d been saving in case Nia didn’t end up staying and we can have things ready to transition quickly if/when we do end up getting the right call about a little boy. (It’s my fault that we haven’t; I’m very late getting my medical form in this year and we’ve just supposedly been taken off the call list, though we’ll be back on next week.)

Nia finishes school at the end of the month and I think I’ll be enrolling both girls at the YMCA day program so they can get swim lessons every day and stay active and social. It means Mara will be leaving the program at the community college she started when I had to go back after my two months of parental leave when she first came to us and was 3, but I hope having that transition with Nia will help ease the transition to kindergarten.

Speaking of kindergarten, we just met some new neighbors whose son will also be there, the first kid from our neighborhood we know who’s going to be in the public program. (There’s another who will join for first grade when he graduates from his Montessori school.) I have my own thoughts about how much the schools could be better if the people in our neighborhood who are paying to send their children elsewhere sent them to the schools, but I guess that’s why I need to get elected and have a stronger role. Anyway, Mara has one new friend who will also be in kindergarten and she has a cousin on her dad’s side she’s met twice now I think who will also be there. We’ve asked to have her placed in his class so she can have a chance to get to know that part of her family in a less-mediated way. 

And I don’t remember anymore what I’ve posted or not, but after a long time complaining about not wanting two moms, Mara said the other night, “You know, I really like two moms.” And we know she does, and also that she misses the other parts of our family, which is why we never made a big deal about it when she said otherwise. In other cute-kid news, Mara and Lee were awake for a change when Nia and I left for school/work this morning. Nia shouted, “Adios, amigos!” because it’s okay to yell once people are awake and Lee has had some coffee, I guess, but she immediately asked me, “Wait, what’s Spanish for ‘family.’” I told her, and much more quietly she said, “Adios, mi familia!” We haven’t talked to her about TPR or adoption yet, but she knows that she has a place here with us, and that heartened me too.

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goal change

April 29, 2013

Last week was the “goal change” hearing for Nia’s case, meaning the time where the judge looked at how much progress had been made in her 13 months in care and weighed in on whether it was worth continuing reunification efforts. Since there had been a preliminary version of this the last time they were in court, I wasn’t surprised by the outcome. Services to Nia’s mom have been discontinued and her case goal is now adoption. The state should terminate her parents’ rights sometime this summer and she will be free for adoption after that.

This means that the moment when we/Lee are going to have to commit to adoption is getting closer. That got a bit murkier in the week before when we ran into one of Nia’s relatives at a birthday party for one of Mara’s classmates, who is a cousin on the other side of one of Nia’s cousins. (And yes, that makes us two-for-two in coincidental family contact with the girls’ relatives thanks to the community college!) The relative claimed not to have realized that their branch of the family would be eligible to request placement (which I’d mentioned in direct conversation this summer when we met previously, but whatever) and yet also was now apparently serious about trying to bring Nia home rather than have her be adopted. Because all her relatives live in the next state over, our state is not going to seek them out and they have to make themselves known to the worker. That’s exactly what Lee had been hoping and praying for, that there would be an appropriate relative placement for Nia so that we wouldn’t have to be in the tough position of either refusing to adopt because we don’t think Lee is going to be able to do better at connecting to her and meeting her needs for the next dozen years or adopting her even though Lee isn’t yet comfortable with the idea and forcing Lee into changes she doesn’t want.

As it turned out, the relative wasn’t serious enough about wanting placement to manage to call before court, despite multiple explanations from both Lee and me about why that was essential. Since the reunification phase of the case is over, the state is not interested in looking into other relative placement options. Our worker tried to push this a bit, but I don’t think her view has gotten any traction. It sounds like this relative is just going to be told that it’s too late and that Nia is now headed for adoption. Personally, from some things I know and have observed, I think that’s most likely how it would have worked out even if the relative had been screened and vetted, but Lee is sort of shaken to have that last hope for another alternative taken away.

I’ve always said that I thought Lee would get better with the idea of adoption once she was no longer guarding her heart against reunification, and I guess we’re about to find out how true that is. Nia’s mom called me after court and was surprisingly calm and lucid. Her preference would be that Nia go to the relative (though it had never occurred to her to suggest that relative in the first place) but stay with us if that can’t happen. When we saw Nia’s grandmother this weekend, she said the same thing. So I’m honored that they trust us with Nia and can see that she’s healthy and cared for properly. At the same time, I feel awkward and guilty to know that we’re not as committed to her as they might think. Concurrent planning is really emotionally hard, and I think this is more common than people probably let on. Lee was up in the night comforting Nia during a series of nightmares Nia was having and I’m really impressed with the job she’s been doing as a parent to Nia, but that doesn’t change her underlying discomfort.

I also had to talk to her mom about the plan for Nia to repeat first grade. She’s made huge leaps in her reading and steady progress in math, but she’s still just not where she needs to be to cover the material first graders are expected to know. The plan is to keep her with the same teacher next year so she can be the expert who helps the younger kids learn the ropes. Her teacher and workers and Lee and I all agree that this seems like the best balance, that letting her soar and be a role model will be a much healthier fit for her than letting her start another grade significantly behind the other kids. She’s such a bright girl, but she has a lot of trouble listening rather than talking, staying on task without reminders from an adult. I’m grateful that this doesn’t mean she’s getting diagnosed with anything as she would be at a lot of schools, because I agree with her teacher that it seems to be immaturity and her personality rather than an underlying condition, but she makes things harder for herself and hasn’t learned yet how to stop that. There will be a number of her classmates retained, too, but most of them are going to other classrooms. And we’ve talked with her best friend Katrina, who repeated a grade the year she was adopted out of foster care and is now glad she did. But still, telling Nia’s mom — who puts a premium on Nia looking cute and working hard at school — that a year’s progress wasn’t enough to make up for the disrupted year of kindergarten was hard and I hedged more than I probably should have. But she was understanding about it and supportive of the rationales. She wants to see Nia succeed.

And that last sentence has the last big issue. Even though the case against Nia’s mom is concluded, the no-contact order the judge put in place is still in effect I guess until adoption or maybe just TPR. I asked the workers and lawyers if Nia would now be able to send letters to her mom and was immediately told that I’d be in contempt of a court order if I let any contact happen. Sigh. So she can’t get her daughter back and doesn’t have a caseplan to comply with to regain visitation but she’s also barred from seeing her daughter because she’s not following the no-longer-existent caseplan? Welcome to foster care, I guess! And we have to figure out if we do adopt Nia what role her mom and her extended family will play in her life. Right now, Nia can only see her grandmother, who would like to visit every weekend but I think is going to get scheduled for once a month plus special occasions because I think more would be overwhelming to Nia. (Ugh, as I’m reminded that she wants to bring family to a birthday party for Nia, and I’m going to have to tell her that the worker won’t allow it unless I can talk the worker into it somehow. Ugh.) All of this is harder in certain ways than it needs to be and it would be hard anyway to be talking to someone who’s losing her rights to her daughter even if you weren’t the person who’s been raising that daughter for almost the last year, and so on.

Nia doesn’t know about the changes yet, and I’ve sort of been putting them off because I don’t know how to answer the questions that will come up about adoption. I guess once Lee and I know that, I’ll move forward with talking to her. All of this is weird and hard, very different with a child who’s almost 7 than one who was still 3 when all these legal changes were going on. I’m a different person and parent than I was back then, too. I suspect the outcome will be the same, that Lee and I will arrive together at the courthouse for an adoption, this time to join these girls who already consider themselves sisters as legally part of the same family. I hope if that happens we can come to it as joyfully and peacefully as we did last time. I guess now that’s my personal goal.

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prodigal

April 15, 2013

This is not a post I’d ever entirely expected to write. I mean, I’d found Rowan on facebook a year or two ago after last seeing him the day before his 16th birthday, before we had Mara, and then talked to him intermittently on the phone throughout the next year. But his phone number changed and so did his address and he never responded to my friend request, and so we went through more than a year of silence. I knew he was out there somewhere, thought of him graduating and getting older, turning 18. A month or so ago, I looked for him on facebook again, saw that he was now living in our town, and sent him a message saying I hoped he was well, that we still think of him often, that I regret some of the choices we made but that being a parent of any kind is hard and that I’m sorry he had to be our test case and that we couldn’t always give him what he needed. He wrote back something sweet and suddenly we were friends.

Last week I picked Nia up from her after-school program because her worker was coming over. As we were driving home, I stopped at the stop sign two blocks from our house and there was Rowan ready to cross the street in front of me. We recognized each other simultaneously, I rolled down the window to ask where he was going and whether he wanted a ride, and he hopped in. (He was going “over by where I ran away from you that one time,” because this kid is nothing if not honest, as I noted when he did run away from us that one time!) He of course didn’t know anything about Nia, but they said hello and he was kind and chatty in his questions to her. He was happy to meet Mara, too, and immediately wanted to check on the animals he remembered, cuddling our dog while he talked to us a little about what he’s been up to as he reconnects and now draws back away from his birth family and what his recent life has been like.

Our worker showed up within 20 minutes so we can’t have talked long, and then Rowan was off again with directions on how best to walk as far as he needed to walk. He’s taller than I am now, but he grinned and hugged us, asked Lee to help him apply for college even though I know that’s a job that will mostly get delegated to me. Our awesome worker got to meet him for the first time and didn’t think there was anything odd about us seeing him and just bringing him home. It just feels right to have had him here, to have found some small way to let him know that he’s still connected, that the girls know about him (and have more questions they want to ask next time) and that we haven’t forgotten about him. Lee and I reminisced and laughed a lot that night after the girls had gone to bed, just like we had a lot of good memories to talk about with him in that short visit.

I am so grateful that I got the chance to be a sort-of parent to Rowan. We never were paid a cent for the time we spent with him because it was always considered visits or respite, never even got mileage reimbursed for all the times we drove to the other end of the state to pick him up from his residential treatment center even though we were supposed to get that. And yet at that time in his life, we were the only adults he interacted with who weren’t being paid to do so, and that ended up being worth far more than anything the state would have given us. That he has some warm memories from his time with us, that he’s held onto photos and letters and gifts makes me so happy. It means we did what we wanted to do in showing him we cared for him even if we weren’t able to meet our original goal of becoming his family through adoption. I didn’t use the “mom job” language we use with the littler kids then, but I got the idea that we could reach out to him, feed him, connect with him meaningfully. I know it meant something to us and I now know for sure that it still means something to him. Lee and I have been so lucky and so loved and it just amazes me.

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Easter Sunday

April 8, 2013

Some things have been hard at home lately, but the good things have been really, really good. We got through some very tough anniversaries for all four of us and have come out the other side more tightly bonded and with girls who are growing up so fast and with so much grace and wisdom (and silliness and defiance and all that good stuff too, granted). I am the one having a hard time at the moment, in way over my head with a few things I know I can tackle if I just buckle down and put in the effort and stop beating myself up, but ugh.

With that out of the way, though, I want to talk about going to church. Again. I know I’ve done this a lot of the years, but trust me that it takes a lot of mental energy to know where I stand on church as a white atheist going into this church that is almost entirely black, with a worship experience very different from the Catholicism I grew up with and a theology that (of course, since I’m an atheist) I don’t accept. There are tough parts like how Lee thinks I’m going to hell and won’t talk to me about it because it’s too upsetting for her. There are tough parts like how Mara, who’s doing much better since starting her occupational therapy, would spend too much of the music time with her hands over her ears trying to protect herself from the noise, and how she and Nia get jealous if the other is getting more of my attention (since I’m almost always the only parent there) and so I spend an hour or two with two 50-plus-lb. children on my lap.

I don’t know when I became an atheist, though the first moment of doubt I remember comes from when I was 4 or so and realized that if God was watching people all the time, then that meant watching them while they were on the toilet, which was gross and disrespectful and I was not cool with that. As an adult, I’m totally comfortable with what I believe, and remember during my teens dropping my recitation of bits of the Apostolic creed as I stopped believing in various parts until there was nothing left to say. (When I thought about this to write it up, I had to admit that I do believe in “the forgiveness of sins” except that I don’t believe in sins in the Christian way and so it probably doesn’t count anyhow.) At any rate, I’m an atheist and Lee has made it very clear that she doesn’t want me telling the kids, at least at this point, that I think religions are stories that are created by people to help people structure their lives and give meaning to a big, scary universe. For that reason, though, it makes me laugh that Mara insists on saying “The end!” after the “Amen” at the end of prayers at my parents’ house and that when Nia asked for a soothing prayer the other night Mara suggested she “pray for ‘happily ever after.’”

But regardless of my beliefs, Nia as a child in foster care has the right to be supported in her own religious beliefs and practice. As a 6-year-old, she doesn’t have much of either, but it’s clear that she and her family are (Protestant) Christian and I want to encourage and preserve that for her. This means I’ve bought her Bible stories with ambiguously brown characters and take her not just to a church but to a black church and pray with her every night as part of her bedtime routine. (Mara’s family is also Christian, though her mom has become a Jehovah’s Witness. I don’t think there’s an easy way for us to incorporate being part of any local JW community as a lesbian couple, but I can teach the girls about some of their beliefs, especially the ones that involve not saluting the flag or saying the Pledge of Allegiance or joining the military and so on.)

As I was driving home from church a few weeks ago, I said something to the girls about, “And you know why we go to church…” and Mara immediately peeped up, “Because at church everybody got brown skin!” So we ended up talking about how, yes, that’s a big factor. I would not take them to a majority-white church. It’s important for me to be the minority, typically one of two white people in the room. If I’m going to take them to church as a non-believer, I want them to get the “black church experience” so that when they grow up they’ll be able to draw on shared idioms with their friends, though that may be less of a factor in their generation than it is among my friends and peers. This way, they won’t have the experience I did of never see anyone speak in tongues until I was 30 and so on. They’ll also have some shared experiences and language with their families, though none of them attend our same church.

Even more important than that, they’re seeing other black lesbian-headed families. They get to talk to other kids who haven’t always been thrilled about having two moms. They hear people give testimony about having a mom who was absent because of drug addiction, about being a mom who was absent because of drug addiction, about growing up in foster care or being a foster parent, about the people who played parental roles for them and the ways they’ve created family within and beyond their biological families. The head pastor spoke recently about how hurt she was by the parents who didn’t care for her and how even the love of the grandparents who raised her didn’t heal that hurt, she had to learn how to be loved by a parent to make her peace with being loved by God. All of this resonates with the girls and means a lot to them, and I see part of keeping them in touch with their culture (distinct but overlapping with keeping them in touch with their families) is making sure they’re getting a nuanced view of people living in poverty like their families are, that race and class and gender and everything everything everything get mixed up together for us.

So for the first time, all four of us went to church together for Easter. Mara wore the same dress as last year and Nia had a new one, both of them with coordinating sweaters and flower clips in their hair. They brought new dolls (mini American Girls, Celine for Nia and Addy, and don’t get after me for going in for Easter basket presents because both girls have some sad Easter memories and I don’t regret giving them something extra special at all) and were able to play some and pay attention some and make it the whole three hours of the service, though Lee bailed after two to get home to watch basketball. They got so many compliments on how sweet they looked and how much they are growing, and I think it really matters to hear that from other people with dark skin, other people with locs, other people who are affirming that we are a family and they are part of it all.

Now that I’ve written all this, I’m not sure what I’m saying exactly. I don’t regret what we’re doing even though it’s sometimes a stretch for me and even though in some respects it’s made me less open to Christianity as a belief system I’d consider than I might be with less contact with Christianity, more secure and sometimes more frustrated in my atheism. And yet every night I pray with the girls, “extra love and blessings for all the people you love and all the people who love you, and may you sleep well with the sweetest dreams and go right to sleep” and I mean all that. It isn’t what I grew up with (the “God bless all good people everywhere” that led to one of my first rejections and revisions, since it seemed like the good people were the ones who needed blessings the least) but it isn’t too different either and it helps Nia get the transition she needs to going to sleep. It’s not how things worked when she lived with her mom, but I don’t think it’s incompatible with how her family would want things to work. In all of this stuff where I’m/we’re trying to connect with the girls’ cultures and histories and so on, that’s the balancing act we have to go through. And I think it’s good that it’s hard on me sometimes (or is that my Catholic youth talking?) to get through this element of what we do for them because so much of what they do with us is hard on them and I’m trying to make church as painless and meaningful as possible, though admittedly they still sometimes think it’s too loud and too long. It’s normal to them and that’s what I want and what I think they should get, and where they go with their understandings of divinity and the universe from here will be up to them at some point. I am just trying to teach them to listen, to learn, to love, and I think both Jesus and I can be cool with that.

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