Val and Alex go to respite with another foster family tonight. We’d had everything planned for them to go back to their relative’s when one of the social workers’ supervisors said, “Oh, we don’t want them there for weekends, just for a few hours at a time.” I’m heading out of town this weekend, so at that point the options were to cancel my trip, find a respite placement for the kids, or leave the kids with Lee. That last one wasn’t going to happen, and more on that later.
The good news that comes out of all the back-and-forth that went on after that revelation was that we’re very close to sure that the kids will get to start spending weekends with their parents next weekend. The not-so-great news is that there was also a lot of back-and-forth about whether this placement would disrupt. The resolution to that was that I’m going to basically end up doing more and Lee is going to be very restricted in what she’s willing to do, but the outcome is that the kids will stay in our home. Lee feels like she’s sacrificing her own happiness for the benefit of the other four of us. I don’t really want to write much about that argument because it’s still so raw, but I was very tempted to disrupt because I’m sick of what the stress is doing to her and to me and I feel complicit in hurting her, even if I’d argue that she’s choosing to be hurt rather than to change. Our worker said that it seems like it would be the best thing for the kids to keep the placement going since it’s been so positive for them, but the best thing for our relationship to disrupt the placement. I don’t know if that’s true just in that I would be furious and hurt if we did disrupt, but certainly that’s the dynamic. For me, it’s a no-brainer that kids’ needs come before those of the grown-ups, but Lee doesn’t always believe that and also probably sees herself as being in a situation where she needs to put on her metaphorical oxygen mask before putting one on a child. Well, except that she doesn’t actually want to be doing stuff that corresponds to the metaphoric air-disaster childcare, or at least not for anyone except Mara right now. I dunno.
The truly good news is that my work days will be getting somewhat less busy soon. The kids moved in right before things got super busy for me, and I’m thinking about what my schedule is just because it’s worth remembering sometimes why I’m so tired and frustrated. As far as respite goes, I think the biggest rest I need is for my feelings, because Lee’s behavior and statements lately have hurt me in a lot of ways. And yes, I whine about that online too, which is probably not the most productive way to deal with it but feels like all I have time to do.
I’m going to write in boring detail how most days work, because I think it might be useful for me to look back on this. The day starts with night, in which Mara often wakes once and Alex almost always wakes at least three or four times and yells for me. We’re doing practice runs of picking up his stuffed toy and putting his blankets back on, but he hasn’t figured out either of them yet. Luckily his room is right by ours and it’s easy enough for me to wake up, duck in, take care of whatever he needs, and then fall back asleep within the next fifteen minutes or so. Still, that’s a lot of lost time that I could spend sleeping. Lee occasionally gets up, but basically this is my thing and it sometimes doesn’t even wake her.
I then get up between 5:30 and 6:00. If I’m lucky, there’s time for a shower. I wash my face, brush my teeth, get dressed. Then it’s time to start waking kids. In general, I need to get all three kids up, dressed, done with all their bathroom stuff, fed (just a snack, since all three eat breakfast at school), and out the door by around 7:15. Alex pops out of bed as soon as the light comes on. Mara wakes up quickly but prefers to snuggle and drag things out, though on the plus side she’s the only one of the three who can dress herself. Valerie is definitely not a morning person, and I’ve taken to dressing her and doing her hair while she dozes, which speeds things significantly and cuts down on defiance and whining. No matter how fast the kids are at getting ready, once we go downstairs they switch into super slow motion and the part of the morning where we’re putting on shoes and coats and eating cheese or raisins or a cereal bar can take longer than the rest of the routine.
Lee wakes herself and does her own morning prep, though in general I make her coffee which is something I’ve resented since buying a coffee maker with a timer, but there you have it. She also feeds the pets. She drives Mara to school and I take Val and Alex to their schools, though Val’s school doesn’t open until 7:30 and so I need Lee to take her if I have to be at work by 7:30. Otherwise I aim to leave the house at 7:20, drop Val at her school as it opens at 7:30, then get to Alex’s school about five minutes later. I have to walk him in, which is why it’s more trouble if I have to bring Val along too, and he needs a lot of reassurance as I leave. I get to work between 7:45 and 8:00, though my commute now takes 45 minutes instead of 15.
Lately I’ve been working to 4:45 or 5:00 or even later most days. I have to get out of work by 5:10 if I want to be sure I can get Alex before his program closes at 5:15. I get him first, which means getting out of the car, getting buzzed in at his school, signing him out, talking to him and his teacher, getting all his stuff, loading him up, driving the few blocks to Val’s school, parking, unbuckling Alex and getting him out of the car, getting buzzed in at Val’s school, signing her out at her aftercare program, getting her coat on and backpack ready, loading and buckling both kids in the car, then heading home while they babble on top of each other because they’re so excited. Getting home between 5 and 6, I have to throw dinner together while talking to all three kids. I try to get Val to do her homework in the kitchen so I can supervise, but Mara and Alex would often rather be with us than play on their own. Lee won’t eat dinner with the kids, so I serve the food, supervise and guide conversation, then have to clean up quickly while the kids get in my way and ask to do art or play outside or watch a tv show or something.
Bedtime is supposed to start at 7:30, but sometimes someone will have lost some bedtime as a punishment from a time when a time-out wasn’t applicable. This is usually because whichever child is actually too sleepy to keep listening or obeying or playing gently or whatever the issue is. So at 7:30 we start getting into pajamas, brushing teeth, reading stories. Val and Alex are pretty good at falling asleep on their own, though I get called back in to offer reassurances about the next day. Mara gets two-hour naps at school and isn’t always ready for bed at 8, so she gets to spend more time up while we try to keep her quiet. Lee really likes having one-on-one time with her if she’s around, but often it means I’m trying to rock Mara to sleep while also dealing with shouting for me from Val and Alex down the hall.
By the time Mara’s asleep it’s often 9 or even later. I try to get the dishes running in the dishwasher and the kitchen basically cleaned. I’m often tired enough that I don’t do much else more beyond read in bed for a little while before going back to sleep so the cycle can start again. If I’m going to get grocery shopping done, this is the best time to do it too since I can’t just grab stuff after work the way I used to when I was taking refrigerated things right home to the fridge. I can do this on the nights that they go to visitation with their parents and the social worker transports them, so getting to go to the grocery store is a treat of sorts, albeit one I sort of hate.
When I write it out like that, it actually doesn’t sound so bad to me. All three kids are only in my care for an hour and a half in the morning and two or three hours in the evening. It’s hard to squeeze in all the things I want to do, and I hate that I have to tell them that no, we can’t play with clay if we’re also going to make it to story hour at the library. The reality is that we’re a working-parent family and that Val and Alex need a lot of sleep and don’t get any during the school day, so sleep has to be a priority. So I’m spending eight or nine hours at my job, five hours tops in hands-on childcare, and that should leave me at least 10 hours for myself, though it sometimes doesn’t feel that way. (Oh, maybe it’s that I spend almost two hours commuting that’s getting to me, too.) Okay, eight hours for me, most of which I spend sleeping. Hmm.
The agreement Lee and I came to was that she didn’t want to do any more than she’s already doing, which is pretty close to nothing in the realm of childcare. All three kids spend the bulk of their day at school or aftercare programs, so I want the time that they spend with us to be meaningful for them. They get to play, but mostly they want to talk to me and I have to take the time and mental energy it takes to make sure they get that. I’ve signed on to keeping this schedule for the foreseeable future and I think I’m okay with that. I think that the part that exhausts me is when Lee snaps at me, though yes, definitely it’s sometimes when I have to tell someone for the 700th time to put on socks or to pleeeease be quieter or whatever it is. Sometimes it’s that I’ve asked Lee to put Mara to bed and Mara insists that, no, she wants Mommy and I end up with no break.
I mean, Lee’s good about stepping in if I have a specific request. If I need to work till 6 and I need her to pick up Alex, that’s no problem. I’d told her in one of our earlier iterations of the argument that I wanted 10 minutes a day just as a break. Sometimes this means I just go to the bathroom and enjoy the relative quiet, close enough to be able to yell to the kids as needed. Sometimes it means they go upstairs to the playroom and I can keep an ear on them but also not have to be in the middle of everything. Sometimes I just don’t get any sort of break until everyone’s asleep, and that’s tiring but uncommon enough that it doesn’t push me to the brink of my sanity.
I got to go out to a pub trivia thing with a long-time friend this week, and Lee was fine at putting all three kids into bed and I go to actually talk to grownups (and learn that we should have wagered it all on the final question, which would have left us in first place rather than third) and have a good time. It was relaxing and fun but also sort of weird, and I worried that Lee would be stressed or frustrated at home, which luckily she wasn’t. I was out for three hours and it felt ridiculously freeing, but then I realized the next night that Lee was out for exactly the same hours and it was just normal, just what we’ve been dealing with the last six weeks.
Then last night was the twice-monthly tutoring at the church that I’m supposed to be running but that has degenerated into fuckery of the highest order. I was mad at Lee for not showing up on time at the book festival at Alex’s school to pick up Alex and Mara so I could take Val to tutoring, both because Val is in kindergarten and thus old enough but also because I know her whining annoys Lee and I wanted to give Val the chance to get through the day without a time out, which she finally managed! So I was more than five minutes hate when I hate being late and when Lee’s biggest complaint about the church is that everything starts late, so I was mad at her, only to find that none of the deacons who are supposed to help me had shown up and that in fact the church was still locked. Whoever was supposed to run the second hour of music/drama practice didn’t show either, so eventually I got the five kids into the church and we did a tiny bit of tutoring and then I came home. This is just a paragraph I’m throwing in here because Lee wants me to quit tutoring because she thinks I’m doing too much and I said I didn’t want to because the kids deserve the attention and help, but oh my goodness am I going to be on my own with it, I think. Luckily the other adult there was a former foster parent and understood when I said I’d been busy and didn’t have my usual pack of spare paper and books for kids who don’t have homework. She’s also a fantastic grandmother and the grandchildren she’s raising are doing really well in school, so that part was great. I have no idea what I’m going to do about supposedly running this program (which was sprung on me at the beginning of the school year) but I think I’ll say that other people can take care of the youngest kids and I’ll rope in the church member who’s a high school science teacher so we can focus on the teens. Or something like that.
So anyway, this is our life right now. Lee has agreed that she’ll stop talking about disruption and try to just accept that the kids are who they are and it’s a lot of work and noise and mess to have three young kids in our home. Supposedly we’ll get some time off on weekends to be just the three of us, but I’m not going to have the kids going out to respite with strangers again, so after this weekend I’ll have to just stay home with them if they’re not with family and Lee can go stay with friends if she needs to be away. That means I’d have to take on more housework, where I’ve definitely been slacking, and pet care. If I have the kids all weekend, I try to make at least one day a trip to the zoo or a museum or park, depending on weather, so that the kids can amuse themselves and I can herd them as a group, which is a little more restful than trying to manage all of them at home.
Both our worker and the family’s worker want to make the placement last, but I’m not sure what anyone can do beyond what we’ve got going right now. I mean, Lee could do more, but yeah, that’s not what she wants. I’m still hoping that her emotional hangups about this will get better and she’ll feel a motivation to do more, but I don’t get to control when, how or if that happens. I can just do as much as I can do, and she’s agreed to try to be healthy and able to support me when I really need it. I did get my flu shot so that at least I don’t have to worry about that, but I spent most of the first month with the kids nursing what was probably a sinus infection or bronchitis without making time to go to the after-hours clinic to get myself checked, so I also have to be realistic about how I’m disregarding some of my own needs.
This isn’t forever, though Lee’s no longer saying that January is her absolute cut-off date. At this point she’s saying that she’ll sign on for the duration of the placement as long as we don’t ask her to do more than she wants to do. And I agreed to that because I think it’s what’s best for the kids. We are paying someone to come and clean at the house twice a month, but we don’t have the money to do any more than that and are going to be kind of scrounging to come up with the money for what we’re doing as is. We have no money to pour into solutions, no extra time to round things up. I’m not looking for help, really, but just planning to keep doing what we’ve been doing for as long as I possibly can. I mean, I’m aiming for playdates with neighbors who have older kids who can be good role models for ours. I’m trying to encourage family connections with both families. I’m still finding time to read at lunch at work or in the bathroom. I get on twitter more than I should, especially when I’m annoyed or worn out. I’m managing, not flailing, but I’m trying to figure out to what extent I’m deluding myself about being able to pull this off and to what extent it matters. I’m really not sure, because this is what I’ve agreed to and what I have to do for as long as necessary and I feel much better about that than I felt about potentially disrupting, which made me shaky and miserable. (“Love Is the Plan the Plan Is Death,” my brain keeps chanting to me now.)
So yeah, this is what we’re doing. I can’t afford to have the time away from home I’d hoped for this weekend, but I still get a break and a chance to talk to people I adore about things I find compelling. And food, there will be food! I’m losing a fair amount of weight thanks to the pace of life and that I’m not eating as much as I normally would, but I’m looking forward to mealtime conversations with people who don’t need to be reminded not to spill their drinks or to stick their noses in their soup. I’m getting a break, and that will tide me over to the next time I get a break. In the meantime, I’m doing something more important than just taking care of myself.