Archive for October, 2011

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good people, good intentions

October 31, 2011

This is going to be another all-over-the-place post, so sorry in advance. I’m also open to advice from other foster/foster-adoptive parents with vastly unequal divisions of labor, because it’s looking again like Lee is going to have to compartmentalize in a way that leaves me with the bulk of the work. I thought about putting that in a separate post but I don’t really want it in a separate post. I know there are a lot of people who do this and I believe we can make it work. For a while, anyway. Well, I hope so. Sigh.

One thing Lee is doing really well is dealing with Mara’s family. She was really threatened by the idea of openness before finalization, always afraid that someone would try to lay claim to Mara in a way that could lead to Mara for some reason being moved. Even after our social worker reassured her and reassured her that TPR really was final and that everyone was on the same page about how another move would be a very bad thing for Mara, it took her a while to get to the point where she felt okay about taking Mara for a visit or even being open about the idea of that. But then she absolutely fell in love with Mara’s siblings and the brave, resilient women who are raising them. (And I hope it doesn’t sound like I’m playing with Strong Black Woman stereotypes here, but it takes some guts and persistence to take in and raise a relative’s child or in one case four children without much support or safety net. Certainly we have not only more resources from a financial perspective but in terms of what the state provides us to raise Mara.)

Anyway, Lee did make contact with Mara’s dad. Samara had let word trickle down to him that we were trying to find him, and he was thrilled about it. Lee was able to stop, say hello, drop off pictures, and then later on Friday went back to the place where he works when he was done working so they could sit and talk for about an hour. We know a fair amount about him going into this, know why he’s been in trouble with the law and what Mara’s siblings’ guardians think of him. We are lucky enough to be in a position where we’re dealing with someone who was a good parent to Mara during the time he was her day-to-day parent and is mentally healthy and not violent. If timing had been different, would he have wanted to become Mara’s full-time parent when she had to leave her mother’s care? I don’t know, and I don’t know if it’s something he’ll ever be able to talk about with us. I just know that he loved her but that he was definitely inaccessible at a time when she needed parenting. And I know that she loves him so much and remembers some of their time together clearly.

Friday afternoon, Mara talked to her dad for the first time since some time before her second birthday and maybe much earlier. She got to tell him that she loved him, and she tells us he said something about how sorry he is that he wasn’t a part of her life. She talked to him again last night and had me pull up the one photo we have of him, something she hasn’t asked for in quite a while. He’s been part of her conversation all weekend in a different way. She’s so happy that she got to talk to him, but she’s also cried for a little while on many of the last few nights about how much she misses her family. There’s not really much I can say except that yeah, it’s absolutely sad and she should feel free to cry if that’s how she needs to express it. So I tell her that and that I love her, and she cries a bit and snuggles against me and eventually falls asleep.

Tonight, her last night as a three-year-old, Mara will be dressed like a ladybug and she’ll get to go trick-or-treat in our neighborhood. Val and Alex are also looking forward to putting on costumes and makeup and heading out for candy. Their dad is busy doing some of the work he needs to do to regain custody of them, but their mom is going to drive over to our house and come with the kids and me as we go out. Lee suddenly became worried this morning about whether we’re putting ourselves at risk by letting the kids’ parents know where we live, but the kids know and it wouldn’t be hard for them to find out if they wanted to. Plus again, we know about what their histories are and I know how much I like and respect their mom. I know she’ll feel better once she’s seen the room her kids share and I know how much she wanted to see them in her costumes. She’s working a grueling schedule that kept her from participating in any of the things we did this weekend, and it only seems fair to include her in this. The kids are thrilled about seeing their mom and I think it will be extra fun for all of us. I’m also hoping that once Lee meets her in-person, she’ll be able to let go of some of the reservations she has. Really, anything positive would be good.

I’ve also been pushing the social workers to make a change in how we’ll get some respite. Basically, Val and Alex have two households of relatives who’ve been deemed “safe” by the state as potential placements for them. One is the relative in our town who took custody of them after their immediate family hit crisis but who wasn’t able to keep up that level of involvement, which is what brought them to us. The other relatives did their post-crisis support by letting the kids’ parents move in with them while getting back on their feet. What I hadn’t realized is that the kids’ caretaker relative had been sending the kids to the other relatives every weekend so they could have supervised visitation all weekend long the whole time the kids were living with her. I’d known the social workers talked about whether or not “relative-supervised visits” would be okay once the kids entered our care, but I assumed they meant that the relative who’d been raising them also had been the one supervising, which is not the case.

The kids’ parents are frustrated because the kids entered our care because of the relative’s needs rather than because the parents were not making progress. And yet that means that family visits have gone from being whole-weekend affairs to one hour each week with a social worker watching through the glass. I know Lee was able to express some of her frustrations to the family’s social worker when she dropped the kids off after last week’s visit. Meanwhile I was with the kids’ mom at Alex’s parent-teacher meeting. Both conversations ended up discussing these visits and that the only reason they ended was that the young and relatively inexperienced social worker thought that visits like that weren’t appropriate for children in foster care, though it was the exact same family and situation as it had been before the kids came to us. I emailed her suggesting that we move on getting those visits reinstated as soon as possible since it would give us/Lee the respite break we need and would also let the kids spend more meaningful time with their parents, who want to have that time with them and are frustrated that as they’ve done more to comply with their case plans they’ve ended up with less access to their kids.

The social workers are all on the same page about this, now, and I think we’re all headed in a positive direction here. I’m a little sad that the workers think it’s so unusual that I’d bring Alex’s mom to his parent-teacher conference (which ended up being a great situation!) or to trick-or-treat with the kids. Again, there are lots of reasons this might not be appropriate, but we feel that we know what’s going on in terms of safety and that if the court feels that we can supervise visits with the kids’ parents we might as well supervise them in ways that are positive toward developing a stronger family relationship and meaningful memories. I’m hoping and assuming that the kids will get to have Thanksgiving with their family not because I don’t want them at our celebration (though honestly Lee might feel that way, as she’s having a hard time with meals) but because I don’t see any reason for them to not be with their family. Now, reasons could arise and everything could change, but that’s where we are right now.

So maybe their mom will get to be the one who puts the vampire makeup on Alex tonight and I’m not threatened by that. I’m stopping at the store on my way home to pick up photos of Mara with her siblings to send to her family and Val and Alex in the costumes their parents bought them to give to their mom. We’ve chosen to become parents in a way that involves complicated family relationships, and I think it’s a good thing for all of us but especially the kids that we’ve chosen to embrace that rather than just acknowledge it. We’re lucky in that we’re not parenting kids who’ve been abused by their parents (as far as we can tell) and that makes it much easier to be open and forgiving while still keeping a close eye on everything. The kids’ mom keeps saying how grateful she is to know that the kids are safe and cared for, to have access to them through things like phone calls. I’m just glad we can give her a little more. For tonight, it will be something new. There will be three happy little kids at our house tonight and three different moms with different perspectives on all of this, but we can work together. We can do our best. I still have lots of hope.

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in the whirlwind

October 27, 2011

I’m pretty sure today marks four weeks that Val and Alex have been with us. In the last week, all the kids have been healthy. I still have a nasty cough and sometimes plugged up ears, but what with all the kids and whatnot I haven’t had time to get to the after-hours clinic and so I’m hoping my OTC remedies will knock it out soon. While Val and Alex warmed to us and our house quickly, I feel like they’re really getting comfortable now. Val said last night, “I like playing with you, Lee! And I love your house because it has two stairs!” That was right before Lee and I loved the house because we could send the noisy kids up those two stairs on a rainy day so they could play in the third-floor playroom while we paid bills and we could still hear them but not at the same volume.

Lee is doing better at being a foster parent, though it’s still hard on her and then hard on me when she breaks down. The kids don’t seem to have noticed that she’s frustrated, not participating. I’m sure Mara knows it’s not like it was when she was the only child here, but the others haven’t known anything else and all three seem to take it in stride. (And Lee goes out of her way to spend quality one-on-one time with Mara even outside their shared commute, so I don’t think Mara’s missing out in a meaningful way.) I still have a hard time with Lee’s uninvolvement, but I know it’s standard for a lot of foster/adoptive families and I don’t think it will be permanent. She’s working on improving things now, which gives me hope.

Yesterday we got word that Mara’s adoption date has been set, just over three weeks away. I think my parents will be there, as will all three social workers who’ve been involved with her case. As we did for our blessing ceremony for her, we invited the three couples who were our references on our homestudy. One is a homeschooling family, so their kids (including Mara’s best friend) will be there too. We haven’t decided yet whether to bring Val and Alex to the ceremony, and I’m going to talk to their parents about what they think is most appropriate. It would mean pulling them out of school and while I want them to understand what’s going on with Mara and her case, I also don’t want them to worry about their parents’ rights being severed when there’s no indication their case would go that way.

Speaking of their parents, it’s weekly visit time again. Alex’s preschool teacher called this morning to say she had a cancellation in her parent-teacher visit schedule and could fit me in tonight. I immediately agreed to that, then pretty quickly (after consulting with other foster parent friends) called the kids’ parents to let them know about it too. The net result is that Alex’s mom and I are going to go together to the parent-teacher conference. I’ll call the teacher ahead of time to give her a heads-up, but it should be fine and I’m really glad his mom will get to hear how well he’s been doing. I think he’s been doing well, anyway. Since he gets bussed to and from that program, I don’t get to talk to the teacher directly much. His daycare teacher is happy with his progress, I know.

And speaking of parents in general, I think I mentioned that one of Mara’s aunt’s friends knew where Mara’s dad is working. Lee went down there the other evening and found out what shift he works. She stopped by again today, but he wasn’t there. She’ll call before she stops by next time, but she has a packet of photos to give him and wants to talk to him about Mara. While the social workers had always told us that they didn’t think Mara had ever known him and that her frequent talk about him was just invention, we let her tell her own stories and tried to be noncommittal. When I mentioned to her aunt and Samara that she doesn’t talk about her mother but misses her dad, one said, “Well, sure, he used to take care of her just about every day while her mom was working and probably did more for her than her mom ever did!” So yeah, score one for Mara knowing what she was talking about and being honest about what she wants and what she believes. I don’t think we’ll be able to let her see her dad by her birthday, but everything I’ve heard about him suggests that soon he’ll be some part of her life again. If nothing else, he’ll know that she exists and that she’s safe and happy and that she loves him. That’s something, for sure.

And since I’m speaking of parents, let’s go back to me for a moment. Alex’s brusque preschool director had taken over his class, which already makes me unhappy. Among other things, she won’t lift him up to wave goodbye to me as I walk to the car, which is one of his favorite morning rituals. I haven’t pushed this with her since most mornings the other teacher is there and he realizes that Miss Director won’t do the thing. Today she sent an email to all the parents in the class, but sent it so that all our email addresses and the names she uses in her address book are visible. So I know that “Suzy’s Grandma” is the one who gets emails about her and all the other parents also know that “Alex’s foster parent” is the one to contact if he needs something. That’s an awesome devotion to confidentiality there! I didn’t email her back to complain because I’m sort of saving it up for another time I’m annoyed with her, though I’ll probably decide to be mature and say something now so that it doesn’t have to impact other kids in the past.

I’m not offended by being called Val and Alex’s foster parent, because that’s what I am. I’m Mara’s foster parent too for another few weeks. I’m not at all ashamed of what I do, but I also don’t advertise it to people who deal with them but don’t need to know. Their doctor, their teachers, the people who run their aftercare programs saw the paperwork that gives me custody to pick them up from school and make some decisions about their lives. This is totally appropriate. But when I went to pick up Val and one of the program workers said, “Hey, Val, your mom said it’s time to go!” and Val said, “That’s not my mom!” I didn’t chime in with what I am to her instead. I just said, “Nope, but since your mom can’t be here I’m the one who has to get you home safely and get dinner on the table, so it’s time to go!” If the worker can read between the lines, well, no big deal. If not, there are plenty of other kids being picked up by babysitters and aunts and grandmothers and so on. This is a big, diverse world. I did like the woman who most often does checkout duties when Mara and I are at the library trying to figure out how to comment on the way I seemed to have more kids than usual. She said something like, “So, I’ve seen these two with you a lot lately. Do they have any books to check out?” And I said, “Yeah, they’re staying with us for a while.” Her response, as a person who’s seen the paperwork I have for Mara when I had to show it to her to get Mara a library card, was, “Right, that’s a thing you do. Well, let me check you all out and who needs a bookmark?” It is indeed a thing I do and I’m not ashamed of it and don’t want the kids to be ashamed of it, but it’s not anything we need to broadcast either. This is a complicated family in many ways, and that’s just the way it is. For now, we’re making it work.

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a new year

October 24, 2011

We celebrated one year of knowing Mara and her graduation from speech therapy Saturday night, meaning we went out to a restaurant we really like and Mara fell asleep on my lap there after only eating her french fries and Lee and I got to chat, which was somewhat awkward in that we’d been dealing with a lot of stress over Lee’s frustration with the other kids and so on, which I don’t want to talk about yet. It was still great, though. And on the way there I sent a text to Samara, the family friend who raised Mara for the almost six months between the time she left her mother’s custody and the time she formally entered foster care, asking if she had any contact info for Mara’s dad. She didn’t, but she invited us over for the following day and said Mara’s whole family was excited about seeing her again.

So that’s how the anniversary of the day we first met Mara in her all-white foster home was celebrated with her all-black family in the housing complex where they live. Samara moved her sons and Mara’s little sibling there in part so they’d be closer to the aunt who’s raising the oldest four of the sibling group. The very oldest sister was visiting a family member on the side not related to Mara, but all the rest of the kids were there. And oh my goodness, they look just like Mara. I’ll go ahead and stop being coy about sibling genders the way I always have been for no good reason to say that the sister who’s five looks so much like Mara that I had to squint at toddler photos to be sure which is which. Mara is almost as tall as she is and in person you can definitely tell them apart, but oh my goodness does the first picture I have of Mara’s sister look just like Mara.

Mara spent the first 45 minutes or so on my lap or Lee’s as relatives traipsed through to introduce themselves and explain how they fit into the family, what memories they have of Mara. Mara’s 9-year-old sister was sitting quietly beside us and slowly Mara inched over to her until they were hugging and hugging and hugging. Mara stayed that way for a long time, maybe half an hour, by the end of which they were singing together and talking about letters, fingers interlaced. (And those two sets of fingers are exactly the same shade, something I know wasn’t lost on Mara.) Later they went out to play on the playground and watch their littlest sibling shoot marbles and play. Mara’s convinced her sister has taught her to do cartwheels (and, well, she does put her hands on her ground and her feet in the air, though that’s where the resemblance ends) and obviously has a new hero. Her sister is everything, though she was similarly taken with the quiet, handsome, gentle 8-year-old brother who held her hands and stared at her in wonder, eventually offering her both some candy and a loving kiss and hug after we’d loaded her into her car seat and were ready to go pick up Valerie and Alex from their relative’s house.

It was amazing to see all of them together, not just how physically similar they are (and since none of us are their parents, all of us caretakers can honestly marvel at what gorgeous kids we’re raising!) but how they’re all sweet, generous, clearly adoring of one another. These are good, smart kids, which is what I’d always expected because I didn’t think Mara could have become herself out of nothing. It was wonderful to be able to talk to other people who could laugh and share stories about her sibling’s pica that’s even worse than Mara’s, the way she’s always been horrified about having her hair washed but very patient about waiting while it’s styled. (They volunteered to have a relative braid her hair, and I may eventually take them up on it at some point since it would be another way for her to feel like she’s still part of her family.) They were delighted with her progress, happy that we’re going to be adopting her and that she’s in a good home where she’s thriving. Samara in particular doesn’t seem bothered we’re gay and even finessed things when Mara’s grandmother showed up, making it clear that we were her adoptive parents and (subtly) not to ask questions because we’re good people. She says she’d told the social worker when she placed Mara in care that Mara should go to a house without teen boys like hers, without adult men who scared Mara. Samara says she’s happy that Mara finally ended up in a house without grown men to be able to deal with her fear of them, and I was proud to get to tell her that Mara hasn’t had an incident like she used to this entire calendar year.

All of us adults got weepy at various times, and at bedtime I took Mara through all the pictures I’d taken during the visit so we could talk about how her brother has beautiful eyes just like hers and so on. She was asking about various cousins, who’s raising them. She’s clearly paying attention and classifying the people she met. She was so, so happy, and then she said, “Mommy, I crying!” I asked if it was because she was happy, sad, or happy and sad, and she immediately said, “Happy AND sad!” So Lee and I held her in a family hug and had a bit of a sniffly happy-and-sad moment ourselves. Mara has missed having family connections so much and my heart has hurt for her. Making this connection this way was the best possible outcome we could have imagined, and we were trying to prepare ourselves for many more negative possibilities.

We started our relationship with Mara a year ago without knowing much at all about her. Now I’ve been her mom for a quarter of her life and I know her so deeply, her breathing and why she cries and her sense of humor and the laugh that it turns out is just like her brothers. We got to spend a year bringing her into our family, and now that we start a new year in which that family will be cemented legally, we’re finally able to reopen connections to the family she comes from. Mara has wanted this and I’ve wanted it for her. I’m just so amazed and grateful and thrilled that it’s actually working out. For so many reasons, I can’t wait to find out what this next year will hold.

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self-aware

October 21, 2011

Valerie and Alex has their weekly visit with their parents, this time also featuring the older half-brother who lived with them while they lived with their parents but whom they’ve only seen once or twice since the breakup of that family unit. There are two workers — their family worker and our family worker — who alternate turns picking up the kids at school. This week it was our worker’s turn and I learned from Lee that she was planning to drive the kids back to our house (a big four blocks from the office) after the visit, though sadly not until I was already sitting in the waiting room to pick them up. I’m hoping we can talk to the other worker and get some clarity about what I’m supposed to do, since that would be nice!

Being there for pickup is fine with me because it lets me talk to their parents directly rather than just send a note saying what we’ve been up to. (I also talk to them whenever the kids have phone contact just so they know what’s going on in our day-to-day lives.) This time I also got to talk to the brother’s other parent, who told me more than I’m probably supposed to know about the case and family history, and also their brother, who was relieved to meet the person who’s caring for Alex and Val. Their mom was able to tell me directly that the parents have started their parenting classes, one of the major prerequisites for having unsupervised visits and of course for eventual reunification.

At any rate, the parents decided to walk Val and Alex out to the car, but first we had to walk to the social worker’s car to get the things the kids had left in there after school. While we were fumbling around with that, their mom said to me, “I’m sorry you have to spend your time waiting for all this to be ready.” I immediately said, “Oh, it’s fine. It’s not your fault.” And her response was just as quick: “Actually, it sort of is.” I know it was important to the social workers that during our initial family meeting, the kids’ parents had been willing to accept responsibility that it was their bad decisions and the resulting chaos that required social services to intervene and take custody of their kids, first moving them to relatives and now bringing Val and Alex to us. To me, though, this comment really drove home how their mom at least thinks about this. There are many reasons I want to see this case go to reunion quickly, but liking and respecting their mom is definitely one.

The kids will go to their relative’s house for the night tomorrow. Valerie was a bit whiny about that this morning, saying, “But I want to stay with yooooooouuuuuu!” but I’m not swayed since that was her response before the last visit and she clearly enjoyed herself there. I know she has a sort of love/hate relationship with the three-years-older child of the relative, but she knows that if there’s any bullying or violence her relative will call me. (I don’t expect this to happen, but having a plan in case it did clearly made Val feel more secure. ) I reminded her that it’s important for the kids to keep in touch with their family and stay involved in extended family life, but I know how hard this is on them emotionally. I expect it to be a good thing, but that doesn’t keep it from being difficult.

This is also a bit of respite for those of us who will stay home. This weekend marks a year since Lee and I first met Mara, and it will be nice to have a quiet dinner with her and some time where we can really nurture who we are as a core family. I’m sure she’ll miss Alex and Val while they’re gone, but I know she’ll love having some mom time. We can look through a year’s worth of pictures together and think about all the memories we’ve built. I’m amazed how much she’s grown and changed in that time, a quarter of her life. She was tested at school recently and on all fronts — letter knowledge, shapes, fine and gross motor skills, social, even verbal — she was testing at the top of the range for what four-year-olds should be able to do, except unlike most (all?) of the kids in her class she isn’t yet four. It’s amazing to think that this was a little girl who couldn’t speak much a year ago, who was terrified but also so brave. She’s such an impressive girl and I’m so grateful for the best year of my life with her. I’ll write a Mara Appreciation Post sometime this weekend, but I wanted to throw that in here.

We still don’t have contact with Mara’s mom and still haven’t met any of her family face-to-face. She’s been asking specifically about seeing her dad, saying that this is what she wants for her birthday. As far as the social workers know, he’s still living off the grid. Her former caregiver Samara knew better, though, last time they said that and I’m hoping if I get in contact with her she can lead us to him. I’m not thinking that meeting her dad would be unproblematic or solve her yearning for him, but it could be the start of something. My understanding is that he’s a safe person but just not great at doing what it takes to be a day-to-day father. Since he has no child support obligations to her, we’ve heard from several sources that he’d probably be open to meeting her. Now I just have to try to find him and help him understand who we are and what we want from him. I know Mara is grieving that more as Val and Alex get to live with us but also connect with their own family, and I know she deserves a fuller understanding of her experience and story. Lee is finally feeling ready for me to be more proactive about making that happen even though there hasn’t been an adoption yet. We’ll see.

As for Lee and me, we’re still bumbling through all of this. Bedtime can be hard, at least on Mara’s front. The other two don’t nap and thus need to sleep earlier than she does, but then we have to try to get her to sleep and ugh. I’ve got a book on sleep training and I’m hoping I can learn enough to make it work better than it has been working, because when bedtime comes, I’m ready for a break. We closed on the sale of the Little House today, though, and so that’s one big financial burden gone. We’ve got all our furniture moved into the Piano House and we’re still loving life there. We’re getting quotes on fixing up the box gutters a bit, but the inside is warm and full of family life, just the way we’d hoped it would be. I love that.

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the good parts too

October 19, 2011

I deliberately didn’t go back and reread my last post after writing it, both because I almost never bother with that and because I was afraid I’d sound too harsh and hurt the feelings of readers who are adoptees or had been in foster care themselves or even the first/birth parents who read here. So anyway, that was not my intent and I was trying to be fair and honest while realizing I might fail spectacularly.

Today, though, I’d like to talk about how much fun we have. Sometimes when all three kids are playing together, chaos and confusion reign, but often I just hear three little laughs as they romp in the back yard with the dog or wave their glow sticks across the front porch or use watercolors on their coloring books. I can send them up to the playroom and see three different games going on without uncomfortable overlap or sometimes even collaboration. In any configuration of two, they have fun and avoid bickering. Plus, these are all three some seriously cute kids!

When I write it like that it sounds trite, but Valerie’s joy at trying on the bear costume a coworker of mine gave us yesterday was totally charming. We’ve been watching Winnie-the-Pooh and on the way back from the park the other day, Alex started chanting, “Tut tut, I sure like Lee! Tut tut, I sure like Thorn!” (He totally likes me more, but he clearly adores Lee too. Just throwing that out there!) And Mara, who doesn’t share a room with the others, wakes every morning and says either, “Where are my friends?” or “Where’s my sister/brother?” Alex insists on being tucked in with a round of “Good night! Sweet dreams! See you in the morning!” and on one night he was miffed at Lee for something replied, “I won’t see you in the morning!” which was hilarious to both adults at least.

Today I have my first real parent-teacher conference, talking to Val’s kindergarten teacher, who likes her very much. I’m going to have to have a somewhat awkward conversation about whether it’s really appropriate to let Val leave class every time she cries so she can go see the school counselor if, like at home, it’s sometimes pretty obvious that she’s making herself cry and can’t even generate tears. I’m really trying to walk a fine line between supporting her — and I do think that requires understanding where she comes from, which I try to do — and making sure she’s having to do the things she needs to do. But it’ll be nice to talk to someone who’s a big fan and a great support and also who can let me know to what degree Val’s on track academically. She’s stopped hating homework since I held the line and made her do it and she realized it doesn’t actually take much time and that the littler kids are jealous. At least I’ll get credit for that, and the teacher has already told me how Valerie says she likes living with us.

Tomorrow there’s a conference at Mara’s school, but I think Lee’s going to have to make that one without me since it’s during work hours. Mara’s school director has been talking to Lee about how to explain foster care to Mara (which is a little weird to me since it’s not like Mara doesn’t remember her own experiences with it) and how the school can support her after Alex and Valerie are reunited with their family, whenever that might happen. She’s also given Lee advice about good parenting classes, since I made some pretty pointed comments about how she’d better just get comfortable if she’s not feeling comfortable with the kids now. One option includes brunch (a meal I don’t have to cook!) plus a therapist-supervised play session for the kids while the parent is in the parenting group, which I think sounds great if it’s affordable.

Also tomorrow, I’ll be taking all three kids to a party at Alex’s daycare. Because his program is geared largely to kids from low-income families, there’s a corporate sponsor who’s agreed to donate supplies and come in and do events with the kids and so on. They’re holding some sort of festival tomorrow night and the big draw for Valerie is that she’ll be allowed to play on Alex’s playground. I now have to get Valerie from school after I pick up Alex three blocks away because the ever-brusque director of Alex’s program won’t let Val into the classroom after she “tore it all up” (a/k/a took out a few toys and then put them away, albeit not as quickly as I’d asked her to) and so she’s perpetually jealous that he gets to play at school. (I have a lot of qualms about the brusque program director, who was rude to me at one point and said, “I talked to someone who claimed to be his foster parent, which could have been you.” Um yes, and there’s a nicer way to say that and also I gave you my name when I called yesterday and that’s how you got the cell phone number you’re using to call me now, so…. Anyway, I’m really frustrated with that program because it doesn’t even build in a time for naps since the kids can just “doze off during storytime,” which I’m sure is awesome for literacy skills. I’d like to have moved Alex to Mara’s program because it’s so obviously superior and doesn’t require him to spend part of the day on a bus the way his current daycare-preschool-daycare routine does, but his parents aren’t students at Lee’s school and thus there’d be more disruption for him when he had to leave. Still, I think of it sometimes, especially because being able to drop two kids at once would speed up our mornings significantly.)

I got lost in a parenthetical there, but I love that all three kids have their own spheres and their own interests but still enjoy playing together. I love that they are all tenacious and positive even though life hasn’t been great to them. I love that they love their families and also recognize the ways their parents have failed them. I know that raising three kids within an eighteen-month age range wasn’t what I’d expected, but I’m delighted that so much of the time it works as well as it does. I’m very grateful for the ways the kids make things easy and very much aware that when it’s hard, that’s usually because Lee or I aren’t doing all that we need to do. We’re working on getting better there.

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hard parts

October 18, 2011

“You get what you get and don’t throw a fit,” says Val, who apparently learned this from a teacher whose accent skews more Southern than hers or ours. Unfortunately she generally says this when she’s taken something that doesn’t belong to her and wants to justify having it. When I told her to put back the handful of stickers she snagged at the doctor’s office after Mara and Alex’s appointment, that was the response I got. Next came bargaining, “Well, how ’bout just two?” and at last the very fit mentioned in her aphorism.

I’m tired and I was home sick today, in bed sick all day yesterday. Val and Alex are inconsistent about flushing and washing hands and I know I don’t catch them every time they’re in the bathroom to check. So now besides sinus infections for Alex and Mara, there’s a stomach bug making the rounds and it knocked me flat. I suspect that has to do with the number of times I’m woken in the night because, “Thooooorn! My pillow fell off my bed!” and whatnot, not to mention that I have to get three children fed, dressed and out the door every morning, which means an early start.

Just before I got sick, Lee was so annoyed and overwhelmed that she wanted to go ahead and put in our two weeks’ notice. She phrases it as being concerned about my well-being, that she can see the impact the lack of sleep is having on me and the way my back hurts much more than usual. She doesn’t like that our house has plenty of noise and chaos, even when the noise is pleasant. She was just done, but then I was so sick that she didn’t have any choice except to step up and parent for a day and she decided that maybe it was doable after all, that we were making progress and should stick with it.

I spent part of my first sick day reading 1-2-3 Magic, which is the discipline technique their parents are going to be expected to learn as part of completing their caseplan. I instituted the new rules today and both Mara and Alex have gotten to five-minute time out stage. Mara’s was more of a time-in since we were at the park (and she was, of course, throwing mulch. I really want to believe that there’s no arsenic in playground mulch since it’s Little Miss Pica’s favorite thing, but this is an ongoing battle.) but Alex’s time out was right at bedtime, which led to twenty minutes of shrieking, “I DON’T WANT FIVE MINUTES!!” Eventually i just changed him into pajamas and popped him into bed, because I wasn’t going to get into a power struggle that would push back everyone’s bedtime. He does seem to be asleep.

So what’s so hard about all this? An experienced social worker had told us to expect the first two weeks to be hellish as everyone adjusts to the new situation. Maybe that needs to be extended to a longer duration while we deal with all the illness making the rounds here. It was true that right at two weeks I’d really felt I was getting my rhythm, but then Lee’s uncertaintly shook me up a lot. Well, and Val’s school was closed for two days and so I had to care for them all day every day for three days straight before taking to my bed.

Partly this is hard because I’m already working full-time, except when I have to take days off because I have a stomach bug or because the school is closed. I have other commitments beyond just being a mom/foster mom. And kids in this age range (from Mara’s almost-four to Val’s five is only an eighteen-month span) need a lot of supervision and intervention. None of them can dress themselves reliably and I have to police bathroom time much more than I did with Mara alone. That takes time and energy and isn’t particularly emotionally rewarding for any of us involved.

Early on, one of the hardest things to deal with was how Alex made messes and made noise and bounced into everything. He’s mellowing out as time goes on, and his memory seems to be improving now that he’s not under the same amount of stress he was at the beginning. He honestly does want to understand, remember, and follow the house rules. He likes being helpful, but he’s also a four-year-old boy who easily forgets to be quiet or to stop climbing on the chair or whatever because that’s just what his natural inclination is. Both Lee and I have had to make the deliberate choice to change our interactions from sentences starting, “No, Alex!” or “Alex, stop ….” to something more productive. The good news is that this has really worked.

Valerie, though, has just gotten more manipulative and bossy as time has gone on. This might have to do with not having to be in the protector role for Alex anymore. I just know that there’s constant whining and she’s the only one who attempts to triangulate Lee and me to get a different answer. She cries at the drop of a hat, but not real tears. And her teachers and others are absolutely charmed by her. I like her a lot myself, though she’s wearing me out. I know she’s learned to do these things because they’ve been effective ways of getting what she wants from adults, but I’m having a hard time finding the balance between encouraging her and trying to make sure she realizes that she’s going to have to use some different strategies here.

Val is good with the little ones, though, gentle and kind. She and Mara have become quite a little duo, pretending to be cats at the park today and sitting together to read books on the couch. Val’s letter recognition is getting better, though she still has some of the letters in her own name wrong when she’s reading them off the handwriting homework she does every day (like “d” for “p”) and I’m looking forward to getting her teacher’s take on that during our upcoming parent-teacher meeting. She’s been responding so far to the 1-2-3s, which is why she hasn’t earned a time out, but I know that getting her to stop whining and shrieking and bargaining is likely to be a long process.

Mara clearly enjoys having the other two around. She calls them interchangeably “my friends” and “my sister/brother,” though they both dislike that last term and reserve it for each other and their half-siblings who live with family members. Mara’s also grieving her family and specifically her older sisters in some new ways, prompted both by Val’s presence in the household and by the kids’ phone conversations with their relatives. She doesn’t like to talk to Lee about this, but she and I have had some good conversations about how much it hurts not to have them in her life. I guess that means it’s time for me to bug Samara again and see if she’s made any progress toward feeling ready to meet us.

I don’t know where I’m going with this except that I want to say bluntly how frustrating this is for all five of us. All of us (except maybe Lee) still find it more positive than not on the whole and are happy about how good the good parts are, but it’s still hard to have three kids so close together, to try to incorporate two kids who have family structure and family traditions already into new ones. It’s hard to be sure that I’m giving them what they need in a way that leaves at least a tiny bit of room to take care of myself. I would say in some ways we parents are floundering, except I think Lee is starting to step up more and I know I’m getting some of my strength back. We’re going to keep pushing, but it’s hard. There are so many foster families who do like to add young children and where there’s a parent (often a stay-at-home one) who’s adept at managing all of this. I am not that person and Lee definitely isn’t. But we chose to do this because we thought it would be good for the kids and I do think it has been better than if they’d been put in a home where they’d either be bussed a long time or pulled out of their schools, where they’d be dealing with compulsory Christianity even though their parents seem agnostic, where they might not get the same commitment to nurturing connections with their whole birth family that they get here. They tell us often and clearly genuinely how much they enjoy us and like various aspects of our house, the animals and the playroom and the proximity to the parks and so on. We’re doing it for them, but we need to take care of ourselves so we can keep doing it right. Maybe that’s the hardest balance of all.

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being differently conspicuous

October 11, 2011

I’ve been meaning to add my comments to Claudia’s conversation about conspicuous families formed through transracial adoption and I’m actually glad I didn’t since what I have to say now is somewhat different from what I’d have said a month ago.

I think most of the time adults who see us out together can tell that Lee and I are a couple. Even though we don’t match racially we have been asked a few times if we’re sisters, but for the most part I think people know what’s up. Once we threw Mara into the mix, it’s been harder to tell what people’s assumptions are. When it’s one mom and one daughter out in the world, people make their guesses pretty quickly and easily. Certainly only I (white mom to black child) have been asked where she’s from. I’ve also noticed, probably unsurprisingly, that white people tend to tell me how adorable she is while they never say the same to Lee (black mom to black child) when she’s out and about with Mara. I’m not sure what people made of us when all three of us were together. If we’re having dinner, Mara’s probably a little more likely to be squirming on my lap than Lee’s, but she’ll almost certainly climb back and forth for cuddles from both of us during the meal. I don’t know if anyone looking at us pays enough attention to figure out what’s really going on, but it’s certainly possible.

Then for the last ten days I’ve had Valerie and Alex with me when I go out. Suddenly we’re objects of curiosity much more than before, with the assumption always that these two pale, long-faced kids are biologically mine. I’ve been a bit surprised how much I recoil from that assumption, how it feels so natural that Mara goes with me and they’re the new ones, the ones I’m still learning about. People at the park ask if I do foster care and it’s not because they’ve seen me before and realize that there are two kids here who weren’t here two weeks ago, but because they see a little black girl in the mix. This feels weird and uncomfortable even for someone like me who’s already used to navigating relationships that seem weird and make people feel uncomfortable.

There’s still never a day I wake up next to Lee and don’t notice her color, where Mara’s thick, tight coils strikes me as just the same as Valerie’s straight, thin hair. I know I’ve read lots of adoptive parents who feel that way, who see their kids as “just kids” but for me race is part of it the way gender is part of it, how I don’t look at Val and Alex and see them as undifferentiated in terms of gender. I don’t think I’m deliberately making some groups Other nor that I’m fetishizing any of this, but it’s real and I know. I always know.

There are times, though, when I wonder how much I have forgotten and taken for granted. On our family vacation, Mara curled up on my brother’s girlfriend’s lap as her blond hair hung down beside Mara’s face and her pale arms reached across Mara to grab a toy. I was struck by the juxtapositions there and was sort of startled by the thought that others must see that every time they see me with Mara or see me with Lee. (I guess it was easier to remember when we were spending more time out at places where sleazy straight guys would say creepy sexist homophobic things about Lee’s body and mine and the ways they’re alike and different, though that’s definitely not something I miss.) When I hold Mara, I’m just feeling Mara, the weight of her body, the warmth of her breath. But when I walk into a room with her, my eyes are open and I’m counting how many other people of color are there, how many other children who have two moms, how much of a place of comfort and support I can see for her there. I pay more attention to that now than to all of the people looking at us. This answer, too, will probably change in time.

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finding our way

October 10, 2011

Unlike Mara, the two new kids have a hard time remembering things, especially directionally. While Mara could probably give turn-by-turn directions to any place she’s ever been (and does seem to have been accurate in pinpointing the block where she lived when she was 12 or 18 months old, we’ve learned) Val and Alex tend to turn the wrong way leaving their bedroom toward the bathroom every morning. Because of this, I think it’s especially important that we were able to keep them in the same town they’ve known. Every time we drive to school or walk to the park where they used to play with their brother, we talk about what we’re passing to help them orient themselves. Alex can now recognize when we’re turning onto our street, and both learned to recognize our house within the first week.

They also got to visit the relative who had been raising them this weekend, giving us a few hours as the family we used to be before the New Two arrived. I should probably backtrack and talk about the family meeting last week that set all of this in motion. Since they were consensually placed in foster care by this relative, she was still considered a “safe family member” and they would have been allowed phone contact except that the family social worker never bothered to give her my number the way she’d promised she’d do when she and I talked the day after the kids came into care. She also didn’t give the kids’ parents the message that Alex wanted a specific stuffed animal even though I asked her before she saw them Monday, though Alex’s mom mentioned that stuffed animal at the meeting and when I said I’d asked for it that jogged her memory. More importantly, she hadn’t bothered to shift the parents to a program that can enroll them in parenting classes earlier than the January or February promised by the place she’d sent them to, although another worker in the room knew of others with immediate openings. Um, I continue to be unimpressed by her and feel like she’s actively trying to undermine the parents because she’s young and new at the job and thinking of things in Good Guy/Bad Guy terms. But that’s also me being new to this case and looking at her as a Bad Guy because she annoys me and pushes my buttons.

In case you don’t know me, I deal with this button pushing by being overly sincere. When she said that in her opinion what kept the parents from making more progress on their caseplan was poverty, I smiled gently and politely said, “Oh, good! Since that’s explicitly not allowed to be grounds for termination, that means all we’ll have to do is make sure they get hooked up with the appropriate supports!” and left it at that. I was sort of like this at the meeting too, saying, “Well, I’ve never been through this process before and of course it’s none of my business what’s on the actual caseplan, but what would it take in terms of effort and time to get the parents to the point where they can start unsupervised visitation?” and she had to actually come up with an answer.

At any rate, the reason I’m saying stuff like that is that I liked meeting the parents. They were very up-front about admitting their mistakes and what they’re doing to rectify them. They very clearly love their children and want good things for them. We were all on the same page about bedtimes and nap preferences. I asked them about religious preferences and they don’t go to church but want their children to eventually be exposed to world religions, which works for me. I’m sure I’ll have to bring them along occasionally, but at least I don’t have to try to encourage them to pray or anything and can go on being my happy little atheist self. They were visibly moved that I’d brought photos and their mom got weepy a few times throughout the meeting.

I know, of course, that good intentions aren’t enough and that all of this could fall apart at any time. It was just nice to feel like my initial guess had some more backing to it, that these were kids from a good but troubled family that got into a crisis situation. The parents are now in fact working to resolve that crisis and get their lives set up in a way that will prevent future breakdowns. They sound genuine in their intention to get this done, which is certainly a necessary condition for progress. And in part because I pushed and because the social worker for our side (not our regular family worker but another we know who sat in for her during the meeting) was able to offer useful resources, they’ve made a big leap closer to being able to make significant progress on what they need to do to reunify their family.

Lee has been absolutely terrified through all of this, and was in fact praying that the other safe relative (whose house the parents live in now, which is why this relative can’t be an approved placement for Valerie and Alex) would step forward at the meeting and say that she wanted to take the kids and kick out their parents. Now that we know that they live at the back of the beyond (and that living in the back of the beyond with no car is seriously impairing the parents’ ability to get to all the meetings and whatnot they have to attend) we’re glad the kids aren’t heading there but are staying in the schools where they have fantastic support networks in place.

Lee had actually talked to our worker about how she really didn’t feel she could keep doing this if it was going to be a long-term placement. A few months, sure, but a year would be too much. Six months might be too much. And so she was asking whether it was better to send them to a new home immediately because it would be so damaging if they got completely attached to us and then had to leave later because she couldn’t handle it or if we should just keep plugging along and hope things would get better for her. She categorically denies that any of this terror comes from her obsession with never wanting to be a mother like her own birth mother, Leah, who (regardless of what confounding factors may have been in play) did in fact neglect Lee’s care to some extent and then relinquish her to the care of her grandparents, whether willingly or not so much. Lee has always felt shaped by that abandonment and yet she doesn’t think her fear of connecting with and then losing contact with or “failing” these kids is connected to it. It’s my blog, though, so you can guess what I think.

At any rate, I was really frustrated with Lee when I thought we were supposed to be 50-50 partners in this and then she was being all paralyzed by anxiety and also whinily sick and thus not parenting. Now instead we’ve shifted the paradigm to being me as a single parent with her as my helpful housekeeper. This lets her do the housework that keeps her from clutter-induced frustrated meltdown and then she naturally picks up extra childcare duties without having to be forced into the role. As time goes on, we’re gently transitioning her to more parenting, but it’s helped both of us to have this mental schema in place. I do feel terribly embarrassed writing about this publicly, but I figure I might as well be honest. I don’t think it’s a failure on her part, just that she’s doing the best she can and that every day she does a little better. If it makes people think we’re not fit to be foster parents or that our relationship is fundamentally flawed or whatever, well, fine. It’s working for us and for the kids now, and that’s what matters most to me. In reality, this is how things started out with Mara too, and Lee has ended up absolutely engaged with her in a deep and intense and mutually satisfying way.

At any rate, I’m doing a lot of the hands-on parenting and I have Lee around for groceries and logistical backup and situations that require handling one or two kids at a time. She’s also spending this week packing up the remnants of our life we’d left at the old house as we prepare to close on that sale, which will be a huge relief. I’m grateful for all she’s doing and if it left Valerie and Alex thinking that I was her mom rather than her partner, well…. They had a moment’s surprise at hearing that she was my girlfriend (since that seemed like a more kid-appropriate term than the “partner” I usually choose) but have rolled with it fine.

Now that I’ve written about all that, I’m almost not sure where else to go. Lee was vastly relieved by what went on at the family meeting. I made it very clear to the family that it seems to me that Valerie and Alex should go home and I’m committed to helping that happen however I can while I take care of them. Our social worker’s supervisor thought I was very refreshing, so I guess I must have hit on some current buzzwords or best practices or something, but it all seems pretty straight-forward to me. Lee is willing to keep going with this because she knows they’re good kids and that it’s her own fear holding her back, but also because it really does seem like reunification is the most likely outcome. So we’ll get a break while they go to stay with their relative, who presumably would play the same role once they went home to live with their parents. If we keep Mara in the public school in town, she’ll start kindergarten with Alex in first grade and Valerie in second grade in the same building, so there’s no reason they couldn’t stay in touch long-term. Maybe someday we’ll be watching them at the park so their parents can get a break. Who knows?

As with Mara’s case, I want to make it clear that there are many things about the case and the people involved that I don’t know and also many things that I’m just not going to discuss. That said, there are times when it seems worth challenging what people uninvolved with the system think about foster care with a specific from their histories, and I’ll try to anonymize that as much as possible but still be honest about it. One example is that we’d assumed their relative decided she was unable to keep caring for them because of the physical and emotional toll having two needy little beings (especially when one of them is four-year-old Alex, as we’re finding in our house) necessarily creates. Instead, it was Valerie’s ear infection that pushed her over the edge. Not having a car meant it took her longer than she’d hoped to get Val to the doctor in the first place and then she had to beg people all over her neighborhood to drive her to the pharmacy to pick up the prescription, making an unnecessary lag between when Val first got sick and when she finally got treated. This was what made her think that she just wasn’t able to keep the kids safe appropriately and that she wouldn’t be able to get better at it because it was outside her control. For want of a nail….

So anyway, that’s what’s going on with us and I do hope to update more frequently once I get better at being woken in the night by three kids (actually usually just Mara and Alex, but typically a few times each) rather than one. I’m sorry to stick you with such an obvious metaphor in the title and throughout, but the social worker who sat in on the meeting told me to tell Lee that the first two weeks of any new placement is hellish and you should just expect that, so I’m glad to use that as an excuse and be able to get away with it. All of us can only do the best we can do, and eloquent blogging is not my thing right now. Luckily for you, dear readers, excessively verbose blogging still is!

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Outnumbered

October 5, 2011

A little before noon last Thursday, we got a call about taking placement of two young kids, and unlike all the other times we’ve gotten such calls recently we decided we’d better take this one because we were the only option to let the older child stay in her school in our town.

So at four pm, we stopped at the child protective services office a few blocks from our house and picked up five-year-old kindergartener Valerie and her little brother, four-year-old Alexander. Alex just turned four, meaning he’s about six weeks older than Mara, who’s still three for another month. Like Mara, they’d gone from their parents’ care to live with a relative who was unable to keep up with their needs and voluntarily relinquished them to child protective services. In their case, it doesn’t mean that they have what I’d consider special needs (at least from what I have seen so far) and in fact it’s giving me a new eye toward just how scared, hurt, and traumatized Mara was after her history, which is still relatively minor in the scheme of what lands kids in foster care. They seem to have been basically raised well until their family hit a crisis, which is what gives me optimism about their parents’ ability to get their lives back on track and regain custody.

Valerie brought an ear infection with her, which she’s since officially passed to Mara and unofficially shared in some form with all the rest of us. So everything that’s been going on is compounded by the problem that kids are sick and whiny and Lee and I are sick and whiny, and yet I’d still say it’s largely going well. I’ll write more about what that means later because it’s complex and both like and unlike what the early days of parenting Mara were like, but we’ll see.

They’re both white, both petite and friendly. Little Alex was terrified about coming to live with us, but Valerie has been fairly positive about it. I’m pretty sure much of what she’s said was parroting what her relative had told her, but she’s drawing solace from that and they should be able to visit their former caretaker relative and maybe also their parents and (half-)siblings who live in other family placements soon. We ended up keeping Alex in his school program and just adding aftercare, but I’m not totally thrilled with that and we may end up pulling him out and switching him to Mara’s program after we see how his adjustment goes over the next week or two.

Mara has had a lot of regression, needing extra attention and babying. For the most part, though, she’s really enjoying having the other two around. As usual, she’s completely fantastic about sharing her toys and her space. For the weekend, the New Two were calling Mara “your child” and Lee “her other mom” but by now they know all our names. Alex and Val are just calling us Thorn and Lee, though they’ve slipped and called me “mom” a few times. I made it clear that whatever works for them is fine, but I didn’t suggest Ms. Thorn, which is the form they use for their teachers and other important adults, because I hate it so much. Lee is having a hard time seeing Mara have to share, but we’re working on this and Lee is definitely working through some of her own attachment issues and some of the overprotectiveness she feels for Mara.

We’re really exhausted and overwhelmed, but I think that’s normal just like I think each kid’s desperation for non-stop attention is normal. I’m starting to breathe a bit better and today’s my first full day at work since they arrived, so I hope it means we’re heading toward having a routine. I still don’t think there’s any way to efficiently buckle three kids into their booster seats in the back seat of our little cars, but other than that I expect that everything will get streamlined and refined as we go and that we’ll be able to make this work better than it’s working right now. If the parents get on the ball about following their caseplan immediately, I’d still expect it to be a couple of months before the kids could go home full-time. If they don’t, Lee’s going to be really nervous about having this be a long-term placement. We’re far from having to make that decision, though, and I think that Lee’s perspective will change as she gets more used to our new normal.

So expect more from me because I have so much to write about, but maybe not this second. I’m still trying to figure things out and the amazing thing is that I’m mostly doing it. I’d still rather be parenting teens than little littles like this with all their needs, but apparently Lee’s right that I’m pretty good at it. We’re all getting by and getting our basic needs pretty much met. I think that’s a good enough start for the first partial week, or really for whatever’s to come after that. Now you can use the comments to ask questions that I didn’t think to answer because, hey, I have three kids now and life is basically hectic!

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