The Gift of Community

Normally our 9yr old foster child is at her birth mother’s on weekends. Because of this, J has only been to church with us a handful of times. The last occasion was a total disaster.

When J decided not to go to her mom’s this weekend, I understood but was nervous about how she’d cope. Raine and Athena were singing in the children’s choir Easter morning. I worried J would prevent us from getting there because of a major meltdown. Happily, she rose and got ready without any issues. In fact, all the kids did so well getting out the door (usually our greatest challenge) that we arrived at church early.

J hadn’t eaten her bagel and pear during the drive. She and I sat down in the foyer while Raine and Athena went to their final practice. It’s rare for J and I to be alone. She loves my daughters and always wants them around.

Saturday, while we were waiting in line for pancakes at a local maple syrup bush, J ran through the nearby pine trees with Raine and Athena. The three form a neat little pack. I was struck by how special it is to find a place where you belong. J has shed much of her insecurity and found a place of joy. She is loved and she loves. It’s a gift to have a tribe to run with. I grew up with a sister and friends who nurtured my spirit and soul. That has been on my list of experiences I’ve wanted for my kids. I rejoice that Raine, Athena, and J have that.

As J and I sat in the foyer, people began wandering in for church. Many faces were familiar to me. They knew J was my foster child. Though most had not met her, they stopped to say hello. The grandmotherly women, put their hands on J’s shoulder. Looking her in the eyes they welcomed her. Some told her she was in a blessed home. Others told her she was lovely. Everyone had a smile and kind word for her.

She’d done nothing to warrant their attention. J was simply sitting there eating a bagel (or not eating since she’s been reluctant to eat after being at her mom’s over March break). The people knew her status and went out of their way to speak into her heart. They honoured her with kindness not because of anything she’d done. She has no connection to them. They aren’t her grandmother. They bear no responsibility to her. Yet, they made a point of connecting deeply with her. I watched J’s spirit and soul drink in the love and acceptance lavished upon her.

It took everything in me not to cry. Growing up in the church, I’ve known this kindness all my life. Until today, I’d not appreciated the magnitude. There are so many things I want for my kids – adopted and fostered. A home church has always been on the list. Growing up, that was my community. There were families in my neighbourhood who also went to our church. We spent time together during the week and saw each other on Sundays. I realize there are many other ways to build community. But I doubt there is another place where a dozen people will stop to speak to the heart of a child because they know she’s living a displaced life. Today, J received the gift of community. She was loved, accepted, encouraged, and affirmed simply for being there. It was beautiful and exactly what she needed.

Thank you.

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Peace on Earth and Mercy Mild

Six years ago I served Christmas dinner in my pajamas. It was a miserable moment summing up the state of my life. I was renting an old farm house that turned out to be infested with mice. Though my greatest fear, I’d dealt with that in a few other places I rented over the years. But when sign of the rodents showed up in my bed, I must admit I never did sleep well again in that house. Turning the dinning room into my bedroom kept the critters out of my bed but didn’t offer me much peace of mind.

That Christmas, my teenage foster child forgot to take her morning medication. After she opened her gifts, I was busy getting things ready for the family get together. She wanted to help. Normally, she did a good job of remembering the pills and the medication helped her to function. The hyperness I mistook as being related to the excitement of the holiday. Then she dropped the turkey on the floor while trying to dance with it. I thoroughly washed the bird and got it in the oven. Everything was a struggle that morning. I shed a few tears when family and friends arrived and I was still in pajamas.

I was still a relatively new mom, having been caring for a teenager for 2 years. I wanted everything to be magical and perfect. I wanted to give my foster child shiny new memories to help balance out the years of pain and heartache. That child grew into an adult. She left with all the life lessons I could cram into her head and the memory of laughing at me repeatedly that Christmas as I served dinner in my pajamas. By the time everyone arrived, slightly early, getting dressed seemed much too difficult.

Having been at this now for over 7 years, I’m no longer a new mom. With every passing season, I’m excusing myself more and more from the pressure I put on myself. I can’t always make it magical. I certainly can’t make it perfect.

Yesterday, I decided to get dressed if I felt so inclined. Despite my parents being late, I ended up receiving them in my new Christmas pajamas. There were no tears over this fact. It was a rather conscious choice. The kids were in the pajama pants I’d made for them and their cousins. Since the adoption, our tradition has been to either buy or make matching pajamas for Raine, Athena, and all their cousins. At first it was very significant – making them feel connected to a family that had previously not really been theirs. It was a tangible item that helped Raine make the leap from being a foster child who took part in our family celebrations to an actual member of the family. My parents and siblings had never treated her as anything less than part of the family but Raine had considered herself a visitor when she was a foster child. The pajamas were something she could look at and say, “We’re the same because we’re family.”

This year, I made the pajama pants for our 9yr old foster child as well (whose face I can not show).

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Christmas Eve 2015

Raine’s acceptance of family has expanded to the point that the matching pj’s are likely redundant but it’s a tradition I enjoy keeping. So all the cousins received a pair of pants with a shirt I purchased. Raine, Athena, and J had the same shirt. Getting them Christmas Eve, they wanted to keep them on Christmas Day.

They sang Hark the Herald Angels Sing repeatedly as they have been for weeks. They were thrilled with their gifts. They were joyful. And peace reigned. I’d been secretly bracing myself for a major upset – particularly from J. She’d been to her mother’s for two days prior to Christmas to celebrate with her family there. Things hadn’t ended well due to some miscommunication between the worker, the mother, and myself. I informed J of the scheduling information I’d been given. But turns out there were alterations I was unaware of. J’s birth mom told the volunteer driver I’d completely ruined Christmas for J because of the misinformation. I expected J to fulfill her mother’s wish of having a miserable holiday. But J was mercifully mild. She went along with our traditions and my instructions. She even seemed to enjoy herself. At bedtime, she hugged me tight saying, “I won’t let you go. You’re my special Christmas present.”

There was no perfection. The tree was slightly haggard from an incident

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The Stockings were Hung

last week when the kids tried to shake a bunch of needles off to use as food in the play kitchen. I’d been upstairs sewing pajamas. The floors weren’t mopped. And somehow Athena broke a curtain rod in the dinning room while my parents carried in the gifts they brought. I wasn’t impressed. There’s now no hiding the dirty sliding door. This is life with all it’s imperfections. I’m not a great housekeeper. But the kids have matching pajamas, stockings I knit, and so much more.

And I appreciated the joy and peace in our home as I moved through the day in my pajamas.

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We are Not at War

“We are not at war,” is something I find myself saying quite often. It was my 9yr old foster child who introduced the concept. She was sent to her room for being very disrespectful to me one day. With a history of explosive behaviour, it’s best to have her in the safety of her room when this sort of anger starts to bubble up.

In her room, we talked about why she was upset. Her response to being removed from the game she was playing with the other kids was, “Now you’re going to pay. You’ve blocked me from doing what I want so I’ll block you from doing things.”

“That’s not how it works. I’m the parent and you’re the child. There are consequences to how you behave because it’s my job to teach you the right way to interact with people,” was my explanation.

J disagreed, informing me, “We’re at war. You do something to me and then I do something worse to you.”

“We are not at war,” I assured her. “We’re not enemies. We’re really on the same side. We’re both trying to make your life as wonderful as it can be.” The truth is, being a child in foster care who has suffered a great deal of trauma, there is a limit on just how wonderful things can be. J is often overwhelmed by emotions that are far from wonderful. But there’s still the possibility of carving out a degree of wonderful in the midst of what she’s going through. There’s always that possibility for each of us.

“No,” she argued. “We’re not on the same side. We’re at war.”

“I am not your enemy,” I answered. But in the moment, we certainly seemed to be on opposing sides. I was struggling to pull her out of the darkness wanting to overtake her. J was adamantly opposing my efforts. In truth, we are not at war. We are not enemies. Yet so often I find myself in the midst of a battle zone as I fight against fear and insecurity. It arises in the children; it comes out in me. There’s a fear in loving, in being together. That’s what we’re fighting against. But we are not warring against each other.

Raine was quick to pick up J’s philosophy. And my new mantra has become, we are not at war. We are not warring against each other as J and Raine suggest when they find my correction unwelcomed and, as far as they can see, unnecessary. It’s not something to put on a plaque but something I say more than you can imagine – like when Raine is sure she needs to put on underwear from the dirty clothes bin when it’s time to go to church. We’re all on the same side and we’re all fighting against the things that seek to derail us. As I say it, taking a deep breath, I remind myself we’re not enemies. We’re working together on something wonderful.

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Help Me!

Our foster child, J, continues to struggle. At times, she’s completely overwhelmed – like when the movie Mary Poppins was put on. She tantrumed for 2hrs over that. Even though I didn’t require her to watch it, she could not recover from the memories flooding her somehow connected to that movie. What happened I don’t know. Maybe J doesn’t even consciously recall. But the movie sent her into a tailspin. While screaming repeatedly, “Give me something to eat!!!” J smashed to pieces everything she had been given to eat.

But then there are days when J is exceedingly happy – playing at the beach then riding the carousel with Raine.

Sometimes it’s really great. Other times it’s really difficult. In those moments, it’s easy to lose sight of the reasons why I’ve chosen this path.

The other night as I was getting ready for bed, J called out, “Help me!” I rushed to her room. There she peacefully slept. In the morning, J had no memory of the outburst. But the cry continues to haunt me.

Like countless other children, J is struggling with the trauma of abuse. She’s suffering the loss of her family and life. Fear reigns in her body, soul, and spirit. She pushes against the safety and proper structure of being a child who is cared for. It’s foreign to J having a mom who is plugged in and steering her in the right direction. All of that makes J behave in a manner that keeps me at arm’s length.

Still, in the midst of all her resistance and challenges, the cry is clear, “Help me!”

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All Dressed Up with Nowhere to Go

Seems the word “party” is a huge trigger for our new foster child. Yesterday we went to my mom’s for lunch. Little J had a great time with my nephew, niece, sister, and mom.

And at first she was very excited to attend my mother’s graduation today. Then Raine and Athena started calling it a party – because there would be food after the ceremony. Getting ready, J became increasing anxious. Outside, she refused to get in the car.

I should have stopped then and there, but I really wanted to go to the graduation and it was too late to make arrangements for a babysitter. So, I forged forward. Got J in the car. Got her buckled. Traveled about a block before I had to pull over because J unbuckled. She was also screaming, kicking, and throwing things. We pulled over three times before getting on the highway. For some reason I thought we could make it. I wanted to make this happen.

After five minutes, I had to pull over to the side of the highway. J insisted that she was going to move immediately to a new home “that doesn’t go to stupid parties”. She kicked, screamed, and said if I took her to the graduation or my house she’d harm herself “and tell the social worker you did it, so that I don’t have to live with you anymore.”

We stayed parked on the side of the road for about 10 minutes. Raine, Athena, and I cried. We really wanted to go to the graduation. Mostly the kids wanted cake. I really wanted to be a normal, supportive daughter. But, having chosen this path, my life is not normal. I can’t always be the person I want to be. That’s just the way it is.

So I got off the highway and headed home.

J continued making threats. Her detailed plan of harming herself involved jumping off the dresser in her room. The only problem with that is that there’s no dresser in her room. When informed of this, J said she’d find something to jump off of and kill herself. Then I’d be sorry.

“Mom will loose her job if the foster kid is dead,” Raine pointed out.

At home, I sent Raine and Athena inside. J and I stayed in the car for a while. She didn’t want to hear anything I had to say. So I just started praying out loud.

Eventually we managed to move inside the house. J cried and cried. “It’s not my fault I’m in foster care. It’s my parents. I didn’t do anything wrong.” I agreed.

When she was ready to listen, I explained that even though it wasn’t her fault she has a choice about what her experience in foster care will be like.

“Mom’s seen kids act way worse than you,” Raine said. “This is what she does for her job. Screaming won’t get you moved.”

That caused J to shed the bravado she’d taken on since we left the house an hour ago. “I don’t really want to go,” she responded.

I explained that she would not be moving for outbursts like that. Her previous foster mom was a veteran with 25yrs experience in the field. It’s clear she did her best with J. But sometimes kids are unresponsive – especially when they first come into care. The decision for J to move was complicated and prompted by an outburst similar to the one we just experienced. After 5 months in that home, J told the emergency on-call social worker she wouldn’t stay any longer. And that’s how she ended up with me, after a few nights in a group home.

And so, here we are. The nearly 9yr old is under the impression that she can leave anytime. It’s a detrimental view because it will keep her from putting roots down anywhere. Though I don’t know how long she’ll be in care or how long she’ll be with us, it’s likely to be a while. Blocking herself from growing where she is, does J no good. As I prayed many times in the car with her, this is a season of growth. J has the opportunity to be a child and learn how to interact with the world in a new way.

I laughed at her attempts to frighten me with her screaming. I’m not scared. I’ve done this before. I may be all dressed up with no where to go, I may have mascara lining my cheeks, but I’m not scared. I know I can do this. And I know J can move out of anger and grown in peace and joy.

To make amends with Raine and Athena, J let them play with her toy sticky feet she got from the doctor’s. J apologized with sincerity and regretted her decision to keep us from the party. While she recovered in her room, Raine and Athena played – all dressed up with no where to go.

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