September 22, 2010 I stood outside the Oklahoma County Juvenile Center and took photos with my three kids, who had just officially become my three kids. The girls are in dresses, and my son is in his best t-shirt, and my mom, who is now beyond the pale, is the one taking the photo. Afterwards, my mom took us to IHOP for a celebratory breakfast, and my son ate more pancakes than my mother could fathom. It was a good day.

What I didn’t know, though, was that it would be over so fast. That we would have so little time as a family. Though I knew my family was different, because I’d fostered my kids for two years before I was fortunate enough to adopt them, and was well aware of our struggles and hurdles, I still had fairly average middle-class hopes for my children. I hoped for education after high school, for lots of travel, for finding whatever made them happy and comfortable in their own skin, and I imagined myself as part of their world. I’m not sure that I could have gotten through the last eleven years without those hopes, so in some ways my delusions were beneficial.

I bought our house, a sprawling 1971 fixer upper faux Tudor, with expectations of family gatherings, pool parties, and lots of kids and grandkids visiting as my then husband and I aged, hopefully gracefully. I’m not traditional in many ways, but when it comes to family, I wanted to duplicate what my grandparents had had. They were my moral compass, and family was everything to them.

What happens, though, when you adopt kids at 5, 8, and 11, is that everything is condensed. I went from being a single, child free woman driving a Miata to a mother of three and grandmother in less than eleven years. You don’t get the infant years to get to know your kids, and you get only a few of the grade school years before the tweens hit. By the time they hit early teens, your influence is scarce, and your way forward is by a hope and a prayer.

And, when your kids come into your life with loads of defiance, when the natural defiance of the teen years hits, they leave, and they’re gone. And, it happens way too early, and with the self-absorption and daring of those whose frontal lobe has not fully developed and who have endured tremendous trauma. And, then your family is just gone. And, I was not prepared for that.

I was also not prepared for how my children leaving me, in a blaze of glory that did not include a healthy family discussion (or any discussion of any kind) was how my own trauma would be triggered. For the last few months, I’ve had the same issues I had coming out of grad school and starting my first professional position, 25 years ago. I thought I had figured so much out. I have benefited from many gifted therapists over the last 25 years, read quite a lot of Pema Chodron, and have taken home many a leadership award. But, I’m reminded that I’m still “managing” my trauma, rather than resolving it, something which my current therapist is fond of reminding me. That’s frustrating 25 years in.

My 14-year-old remains at home with me, in our absurdly large house that needs much more attention than I am willing or able to give it. My 17-year-old and 20-year-old are on their own, and don’t communicate with me. I am very aware that regarding my kids’ defiance, I am simply playing the role of “mom.” My kids would be running, regardless of my behavior (good or bad). It’s fight or flight in action. I’ve learned not to take their actions personally, at least intellectually. But all the usual tools are failing me, and I just feel a tremendous sense of endless loss, that that new mom in the photo had no idea was coming.

I’ve often held off on doing things until the time was right – waiting for retirement or until I had the perfect partner or until I was better off financially. One thing I didn’t wait to do until the time was right, though, was craft my family. I was in my late 30s, never married, and had no idea how to parent children, and I’m sure many of my friends and family were dubious and concerned. However, I will always be grateful that I built my family when I did when nothing about it was perfect or reasonable or appropriate. I’m a good mom, and we’re an awesome family, even when we’re apart.


4 responses to “Condensed”

  1. I remember when my own daughter at age 16 decided that my family values didn’t jive with her own vision. She left, I was devastated, hurt, pissed off. I remained constant and available and did so without outward judgement. It was hard. Did I say I was pissed? Fortunately for me, my daughter as an adult became a very close friend to me. There was a light at the end of that tunnel. I pray there is one for you too. Hugs!

  2. Can I just say how you and your kid’s story is inspiring and terrifying? As a woman in my late 30s myself wondering if I ever could ever have the family I thought (think?) I wanted, I truly don’t know if I would be as brave as you. I admire you so much for what you have done and continue to do for your children. No family is perfect, but the love is there. I know that’s not all it takes, but it’s amazing to see in action from afar. Sending love, strength, and bone crushing hugs to all of you.

  3. Wow Shelley. A shock to read this, as I have not kept up over the last couple of years with your journey, through Facebook and the blog. I just knew that it was extremely challenging. I am hopeful that with more time this will even out for you considerably from where it is today.


  4. Re: mental health service access – NYS just did a major reform. All kids with Medicaid and behavioral difficulties may be eligible for in-home and community-based services, individual or small group, to re-learn pro social skills and emotional regulation. CFTSS is the service array, if you’d like to look it up. It’s new so implementation is going pretty rough, but with appropriate support, it can be good.

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