This is going to be the first of probably a bunch of posts as I talk about what I feel comfortable sharing of how Mara’s processing her impending adoption and her growing understanding of her first family, how all of that is triggering Lee’s attachment difficulties but also helping her heal from and review her own early history, and what we’re doing to try to finally get Mara back in touch with her family.
Anyway, I’m giving this a provocative title but don’t expect there to be much here that’s actually shocking. I get frustrated with a lot of Christian churches’ “Orphan Ministries” for many reasons, including that I’m not sure it’s appropriate to talk about kids who have extended family and/or a living parent in their lives as orphans, plus that it seems like a marketing ploy to get people to care about something they should care about without fancy branding techniques, plus that I just don’t like evangelical movements and don’t think it’s a plus for more kids to be raised in Christian homes, though it’s not necessarily a minus either.
So at any rate, Mara’s parents rights have been terminated and we’re past the point where her parents could have appealed that ruling, so legally Mara has no parents right now. We signed the caseplan that her goal is adoption by us, but until we get there she’s in legal limbo. And yet none of that changes how she relates to us or to her memories of her family.
All of this came to the forefront when she had a second crying fit at the same parking lot as the last one, making us more sure than ever that something big had happened there. This time, she was able to tell us, “I lost my daddy.” Sometimes she embellished on the story a bit, telling us he had a car or that he liked to eat rice. Sometimes she tells us about an iguana, and I have no idea if there’s any truth in that part of the story. We deal with it in the most matter-of-fact way we can. “Yes, you did lose your dad, Mara, and I’m sorry. I hope he’d be proud that you can do XYZ now.” It’s a bit harder to manage, “Hmm, an iguana? I’d never heard about that before.” Still, she says the iguana was big and her dad was little and this is the story she’s telling these days….
It’s a story she tells every day. Every day she says, “I lost my dad.” Sometimes she wants to talk about her mom, whose name she can pronounce better. (She did start talking about her dad the other day and both Lee and I thought she was saying “cereal.” I figured it out from context the next day and told her that I was sorry we hadn’t been able to understand her the day before. “Right, in the car I said [Dad's name],” she responded, satisfied to see I understood. She often talks about her siblings, too, especially the one who’s almost exactly a year younger than she is and so would have been almost one when she started living with that sibling’s caretaker, Samara, and not even one-and-a-half when Mara left Samara’s care and entered foster care with strangers.
So now on my iPad I have to allocate two of the screens in my browser to pictures of Mara’s parents so that they’re accessible to her wherever we are when she wants to see them. (I’ll be honest here and say I had a friend I met in the online adoption world take copies of their mug shots and change the background, make it more neutral and less threatening. They were each arrested for minor and non-violent reasons around the time of Mara’s birth, so she has those pictures and knows that she was a baby when her dad’s picture was taken, that she was inside her mother waiting to be born when her mom’s was. These are the only photos we have of them.) She asked a lot to see them, often wanting to be held while she looked. Now she doesn’t ask for them more than daily, but she knows they’re there, has memorized their features.
We’ve kept up the vocabulary we’ve used throughout Mara’s time with us because we didn’t want her to think she was responsible for all the moves she’s had in her short life. We’ve talked to her about mom jobs and how it’s important for a mom to do those jobs and that if she can’t do them appropriately, someone has to help her or find a new place for the child. We say that our monthly social worker visits are about checking that Lee and I are doing the mom jobs rather than about assessing her and her progress. This is all as true as if we put it the other way, but we’re trying to make the focus something she can understand. She knows that her mom and dad are not doing their mom jobs and dad jobs for their other children, that it’s not just her. She doesn’t talk much about her emotions about this, but I know she’s processing it.
It helps Mara to know that Lee was in a similar situation when she was eighteen months old. She’ll say, “Mama lost her daddy too.” At one point, she even added, “Mama lost her dad. That’s why she needed Grace.” We’d never talked to Mara in much detail about Lee’s bio-aunt/adopted-sister Grace as someone who cared for her, but Mara has had a real interest in Grace since Lee’s visit months back when Grace was hospitalized with the flu and we were all afraid she might die. Mara talks sometimes about Grace being sick, pointing to pictures of her. And yes, she somehow understood that Lee had needed Grace the same way Mara needed us, needed someone who was willing to step up and do what needed to be done.
As I rock Mara to sleep every night, we talk about her family. I tell her the names I know, how old her siblings are. I remind her of the chronology of her family placements. Last night she said, “I want talk!” and then “No more talking!” and I was glad she felt able to speak up for herself. I know this is not a conversation that has an end.
From our new house, I drive to work through town rather than on the highway the whole way most days. That means that, as far as I know, I’m driving past the housing complex where Mara’s mother lives most days of the week. She’s maybe ten blocks away from us and we know where she works, though ambushing her there seems wrong. Then I drive into the next community and pass two blocks from the school I assume her siblings attend, sometimes take the other route home where I pass the boarded-up house where Samara lived when she first took Mara into her home and family. I know that Mara’s father is out there somewhere, living off the grid where the government can’t find him easily. I know Samara could find him, but her phone’s turned off again.
I think it’s important for Mara to re-meet her family soon because of all of that, because if we don’t make it happen in a way that’s respectful of everyone and gives everyone time to process and prepare, it’s going to happen when we’re in the grocery store and I call out Mara’s unique name, when we’re at a street festival and see another child who looks just like her. I absolutely believe it would be important for Mara to have those connections even if we weren’t close (and I also understand where Lee’s fear about all of this comes from) but it’s imperative now because we can do it and because I think she’s making it very clear she needs it. She’s asked us to find her dad, and I’ve told her I don’t know if we can do that, don’t know if he’ll want to be found. But we can find his parents, I know, and send them pictures of her and an explanation of why we’re looking. We can find the siblings she has on her mom’s side and get to know them and their caregivers.
We can give her more than she has right now, which is names she recites as a litany and little stories she’s building around that grain of truth, that she lost her dad. But not lost forever, I hope, and as the one doing some of those mom jobs now, I have to make sure I do what I can to get her what she needs. The social workers don’t think she ever knew her dad, though he acknowledges her. I saw her eyes widen when she first saw his picture, though, and I believe that whether or not she saw him last in that parking lot, she remembers something about him in the recesses of her hypervigilant mind. (I also believe she’s focusing on her dad because he’s farther removed, because her separation from her mom caused her much more pain and trauma, not because being in a two-mom home is making her yearn for a dad. We’ve talked about this some, though. She’s quite clear that even while she had a foster dad, her “white dad” she still missed her “black dad.”)
So that’s what we’re up to these days, talking about her dad and her brothers, since she now says “sisters and brothers” rather than “sisters and sisters who are little boys.” We talk about her mother and her mother’s friend Samara who’s raising her younger sibling and her mother’s relative who’s raising the older ones. We talk and rock and then she falls asleep and, more often than not, sleeps through the night in her own bed. If she calls out for “mommy” I know that she’s calling for me and I wake up and respond, but I know that doesn’t mean that I’m the only mom, just that I’m the one who does that mom job. And so of course I do it.