Relinquish

Every year at Mother’s Day I pay tribute to all the people who help to raise strong children, but this year I’m really mindful of the mom who brought my kids into the world and then very bravely gave them up. It was about five years ago I was sitting in a courtroom, waiting for a jury to be selected in my kids’ bio parents’ parental rights termination trial, and their birth mother’s attorney came and asked me if I’d chat with their mother, because she didn’t think a trial was a great idea. I told her I’d be happy to chat, but that their birth mom likely wouldn’t chat back – she blamed me for not having her kids and hadn’t had a civil word for me in a year and a half. The attorney thought I might be surprised. So, there sat the kids’ bio mom, let’s call her “A”, in an orange jumpsuit, with a sheriff’s deputy by her side. A day earlier, I had handed the sheriff’s deputy paperwork demonstrating she had an active warrant for theft, with the phone number of a friend who would confirm, and she was arrested. That might sound super cold, and it was, but after eight pre-trial hearings with no progress, I was ready to move things along for the sake of what were then my foster kids, and I thought their bio mother’s arrest might do that.

So, there I sat, with A hurling insults and language at me for the first three minutes. After some boundary setting on my part, I showed her photos of the kids. She said they looked so happy. I assured her they missed her, but they were indeed happy, and that I loved them very much, but they were her kids, and she had to do what was best for them. It wasn’t about her or me – it was about her kids and what kind of life she wanted for them. She said she just didn’t want them to hate her. I told her we spoke about her inability to parent, not hate. She sobbed. I held her hand. We were there at least an hour, and I really don’t remember what else was said except that what was coming out of my mouth felt more like spirit than words. And I’ve never been more calm, more focused, or more sure of my words in my life. I excused myself and twenty minutes later, I watched A come out into the courtroom, stand before the judge, and relinquish her rights, forever and always, to her children. I think that’s worth noting on Mother’s Day.

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Relinquish

Never trust an overachiever. You never know what she is trying to prove.

A few weeks ago, I wrote about how being called a Saint totally negates the complete and utter richness with which my kids imbue my life. It’s been so interesting to me the way that in attempting to parent my kids, I’ve actually learned so darn much about myself. Because, if you’re going to take on damaged, complicated children, whatever baggage you have (known or unknown) is going to come out and likely bite you on your fabulous ass if you’ve not dealt with it properly, which is exactly what happened to me. This has resulted in what has become the year of love. Not cheesy love. Not romantic love. Not Hallmark love. Naked, heart wrenching, gut punching love.

Everyone I know who has fostered or adopted has had revelations about his or her own childhood, about weaknesses or strengths she was previously unaware of, and about relationships. I get hilarious phone calls from fellow foster/adoptive moms about epiphanies that go like this, “So, it turns out this is how I actually grew up…” or “I never knew how strong my husband was until now.” My life has been epiphany central since I became a foster parent, and this last year the epiphanies crescendoed to the point that I felt like the universe was pulling the rug out from under me daily. Keep in mind I’d had really fabulous therapists for 20 years, and I thought I was pretty darn self-aware. By the way, you really, really need a fabulous therapist if you’re going to parent kiddos like mine.

So, here are the basics of what I’ve learned. After 20 years of therapy, and lots of overachieving, I realized that a lot of the self-doubt and constant need for validation I saw in one of my kiddos hit a little too close to home for me. My therapist recommended a fabulous book that I won’t mention here out of respect to others, and my whole world turned upside down in a completely terrifying, but “wow, this makes so much sense, finally” kind of way.

Things changed so much for me, that my nightly ritual of fiction reading has gone away, to the point that I was having an identity crisis over it. I’ve read at bedtime since I can remember. I finally arrived at the conclusion that I no longer need an escape from my life, which is what my nighttime reading had provided. Now I’m devouring books, but they’re non-fiction books on subjects I want to know more about. My son thinks it’s hilarious that I own several “For Dummies” books. Right now I’m reading “Buddhism for Dummies” because I’ve always been drawn to Buddhism, but never really got the basics.

I’ve had many realizations, but likely the biggest is that a lot of the walls my kids have, walls of protection, I share with them. I think I’ve been a loving person for the most part, but I’ve been truly awful at accepting love or caring from others. I am notoriously independent. And, as I lectured my oldest on how limited her life would be if she wasn’t able to become vulnerable and let love in, I was a bit dumbfounded at the irony of my words. (A bit like when I was lecturing her about taking personal responsibility as I ran out of gas and coasted to the curb.) It’s funny how that happens.

So, late last year, I made the conscious decision to embrace the love and caring that people offered me. This may sound simplistic, but for me it’s huge. It’s something I have to consciously decide to do every day. I breathe in the love, and I breathe out whatever negative emotions I have. I actually bought a “love” necklace as a physical reminder of my new efforts. I started reading the works of Brene Brown for the sake of my kids, because of her shame research, but I ended up learning more about myself. Her words about vulnerability and connectedness were life changing for me, to the point that I buy her books for friends. I’ve always loved Pema Chodron, and I find her words even more meaningful now.

So, long about five months since I decided to intentionally let love in, it turns out I am engulfed in love and likely always have been. I feel like I’m living a whole new life. I’m a much more relaxed and better parent. I’m a lot less attached to outcomes and find myself living in the moment far more than I ever have before. My lifelong negative self talk is very nearly a thing of the past. When sweet friends offer me tickets to Elvis Costello, I accept them and have a fabulous time. (To be fair, i am still a little stubborn about accepting them, but eventually acquiesce). When a sweet woman explained to me the impact I’d had on her son whom I’ve met only once, my heart swelled. I’ve been asked to speak at several events, because it turns out people think I have something to say. And, I recently learned that the YWCA in my community, whose mission is to eliminate racism and empower women, received a glowing nomination for their inaugural Women of the Year class, of which I will be a part. This is the first award I’ve received that felt celebratory rather than validating, and I’m very excited that my daughters will be there to see me receive it. And, I hope that what I’m learning at 45 will be embraced at a much earlier age by children, because the Badassamy children are worthy of love, as are we all.

Never trust an overachiever. You never know what she is trying to prove.

Rehoming

By now I’m sure you’ve at least heard about the State Representative who gave away or “rehomed” his adopted children. The media has skewered him and painted him as someone who would happily hand over adopted children to a rapist while benefitting monetarily and protecting his political career. While it’s easy to vilify him and what appears to be his reprehensible behavior, I’m not going to do that, because his impossible choice is the impossible choice of many adoptive parents. His just resulted in media exposure, which frankly I’m glad about, because now we can discuss how impossible choices are not acceptable, especially when they surround our children.

So how does one find him or herself in the impossible choice of keeping children in the home who are a danger to yourselves and the other children in the home or giving them to a rapist? I’m going to explain that in a few easy steps.

1. Have good intentions, but very little information. This describes Representative Harris, me, and I’m guessing the majority of foster/adoptive parents in the US. While I’m a huge advocate for people becoming foster/adoptive parents, it is a total crap shoot. Any of us could be Rep. Harris. I have friends who have been faced with this exact same situation, and I nearly was. Here’s how this works. When you complete paperwork to become a foster/adoptive parent, you literally complete a “checklist” of what you will or will not accept in a child. It is potentially the most surreal experience of my life. It felt like a match.com profile, except for children, which is just disturbing. Instead of “I will accept a divorced person, but not a smoker,” I was making split second decisions like “I will accept an AIDS baby, but not a suicidal, sexually abused,14-year-old.” Below is an actual checklist from the State of Ohio. I’m not picking on Ohio – theirs is the only form I could actually find online. In fact, kudos to Ohio for actually having this stuff available.

Foster Parent Checklist-page-0

Foster Parent Checklist-page-2

Foster Parent Checklist-page-3

Foster Parent Checklist-page-4

As most adults don’t have the background to understand what accepting or not accepting kids with any of these identifiers into their home means, they have no business completing this document, because it is basically meaningless.

The super frustrating part about this document is that the agency who is handling your foster/adoption only has to note the “known” circumstances of the child’s case, which in my experience is the tip of the iceberg. There are several reasons for this. First, like most other state agencies, state welfare agencies base their contracts on cost. So, the therapists who get paid to provide mental health services to foster kids don’t get paid all that well and usually don’t stay with their employers all that long, and I don’t blame them. They get some experience and then springboard to the next job where they hopefully receive a better wage. Consequently kiddos in care might have a different therapist every three months. That’s not long enough to build a relationship with already traumatized, mistrusting children, much less understand what the kiddo has gone through or make a diagnosis. Secondly, foster care employees are under tremendous pressure to place a lot of children, so they’re often not completely truthful, which I can also understand, though not defend. Our child welfare system is broken, for lots of reasons, and this is one of them. Telling a potential foster parent “well, they act out sexually on pets in the home, but thankfully not each other or adults,” is not good marketing. I realize that sounds harsh, but it’s reality. Lots of kids who need homes and not enough homes means people lie.

2.  Live in a country where the mental health system has failed. I honestly don’t know all the details of Representative Harris’ case, but I know enough to know it’s a lot like every other case I’ve heard about. Kids in the system, kids like my kids, have very complicated mental health needs, and we just don’t have the system to deal with them. I’m guessing Rep. Harris’ kids have some form of Reactive Attachment Disorder, the same diagnosis as my kids, and there are very few places one can find services for RAD kids. I’ve written a lot about RAD on this blog, so I’m not going to belabor the point, but simply put, in what I was always taught was the greatest nation in the world, no one should be told their children are a lost cause, and there’s no help. I started this blog, because as resourceful and tenacious as I am, I couldn’t find help for my kid. That’s not a situation anyone in the United State of America should find themselves. I fly a flag every day, and I want to be proud of my country. How we treat our mentally ill children in this country does not make me proud.

2. Not be a gajillionaire, nor care to be imprisoned. So, when multiple psychiatrists tell you you can’t welcome your kid back from the psychiatric facility into your home, because s/he is a danger to others, and your insurance will no longer pay for inpatient care, you basically have three options.  1. Pay for inpatient psychiatric care out of your own pocket, which for most of us would result in bankruptcy in about three months time or less. 2. You can “give back” the kid to the State, which means you will likely incur criminal charges for abandonment and at a minimum will pay child support to the State until the child is 18-years-old. 3. You can “rehome” the child, hopefully to a family you trust who is equipped to deal with the child. These families are few and far between, and this is very risky as the Representatives’s story obviously illustrates. Below is a friend’s story in her own words.

The state actually preferred that we re-home our child. We did try three different private placements that we set up on our own. In order to get support from our state’s human services agency, I filed a VPO against my child. Ultimately after three different hospitals recommended it, we left her at the hospital on release day. That was the only way we could get our state’s human services agency to help with placement.

So, while you’re being appalled at the story of how this man gave away his kid to a rapist, imagine all the other families who are potentially doing the same thing. The above options are not really options – let’s find one that works for the child and the adoptive family, or better yet work with biological families before they traumatize their kids to the point that their kids would like to stab us all in our sleep. I know that’s wild and crazy, but a girl can dream.

Rehoming

Saints

I am really bad at accepting compliments. I’m working on it. I’m better than I used to be, but still awful. I’ve managed to begin at least saying “thank you” instead of “no, I’m not really that nice thing that you said I was.” However, one compliment that I will never accept and one that breaks my heart is “You’re such a saint for what you’ve done for those kids.” There are layers of wrongness with this compliment, the least of which is that I couldn’t be further from a saint. I’m very, very human, very fallible, and if I listed out all the reasons why here, some of you would judge me harshly I assure you.

The next layer of wrongness is that my kids have given me so much more than I’ve given them. If you’ve read any of my other posts you might question that statement, because there have certainly been some very trying times. The whole “one kid in inpatient psychiatric care, followed by another kid in inpatient psychiatric care 3 months later, followed by my then husband leaving for what would be the last time” was certainly a bad patch for example. And, there were days I wondered aloud, using some choice words (words a saint doesn’t use) how in the hell I arrived at that moment. So, having said that, if I tell you unequivocally that my kids give me double or more what I give them, you know it has to be good to make up for all that bad.

Lastly, and most importantly, logic tells us that if I’m a saint for adopting my kiddos, then anyone who chooses to do what I do must be a saint as well. Most people don’t self-identify as saints. So, that tells me that people look at what I do and determine there’s no possible way, due to their lack of sainthood, that they could foster/adopt kiddos, which is tragic and heartbreaking and wrong to the nth degree, because on any given day there are 402,000 kids in the US who need homes. Not perfect homes – good enough homes. my home is a “good enough” home. You’re home is likely a “good enough” home, too.

So, I’m going to explain all the ways you, too, can become a foster/adoptive parent, or at least support a foster/adoptive parent.

  • If you’re single, don’t be freaked out by the cost. I was freaked out by the cost and worked unfortunately as a car salesman for a bit, in addition to my day job, in an ill-advised effort to save up. What I actually did was make myself crazy and bump myself into the next tax bracket. Don’t do that.
  • Though the subsidy I receive from my state is not what it actually costs to raise children, it is enough to pay my mortgage. Subsidies are different in different states and are based on things like the age of the child, the number of children, the special needs of the child, etc. They’re basically a supply/demand scenario. There are a lot of older children in foster care, and a lot of sibling groups, and states need people to adopt them. Unfortunately, a lot of people want infants and toddlers, and there just aren’t a lot of those to go around. I adopted a sibling group of three older, minority children, one of which was special needs, so I basically get all the money the State of Oklahoma can throw at me. I like to tell people I “outsourced” the up all night/breastfeeding/potty training years, which is clearly the most effective and fun way to become a parent. I highly recommend it. And, you get money to help raise them without the annoying parts that come along with a former spouse, for example. it’s a win-win. The North American Council on Adoptable Children has a ton of resources including this handy link to subsidies in all 50 states.
  • My kids’ health insurance is paid until they’re 18. Each state receives funding from the federal government to be able to provide this, so wherever you live, this should be available. Without this assistance, I wouldn’t have been able to adopt.
  • While my kids were in foster care, their childcare was paid for, and after I adopted them, their childcare was paid until they were school age. Childcare is amazingly expensive, so this is a big help. Again, the fabulous NACAC has great information for each state here.
  • If you’re single/divorced/widowed/gay/transgender/old/young/disabled/cranky you are very eligible to foster or adopt, even in one of the most politically conservative states in the nation, which is where I live. I was never married when I fostered and then adopted. I have gay friends who have fostered/adopted. I have friends who were in their 60s when they adopted. The basic rule is that you need to be financially, emotionally, and physically healthy enough to support the kids into adulthood. If you meet that criteria, you can foster/adopt.

Though you may look at what I and other foster/adoptive parents do and think you never could, keep in mind that we are all just like you, and we thought we couldn’t do it either. The best explanation and advice I can give is that of the fabulous Tim Gunn – you just make it work. There are some fabulous resources around – the one that’s kept me going is Facebook, believe it or not. I can post on one of various Facebook foster/adoptive sites about what I and my family are going through at any given moment, and there’s always someone who has been there and done that before me, and can reassure me that it gets better, give me advice on what worked for him or her and/or just laugh their asses off with me about how absurd the whole thing is. There is tremendous reassurance in knowing you are not alone.

And, for those of you who really are not a good fit for foster/adoption, become a great resource for those who are doing it. Most of my foster/adoptive friends, especially the single ones, just need a break. Offer to watch their kids for an evening, or better yet a weekend. Or offer to pay the babysitter. Offer to mow a lawn, or do some laundry or pick up groceries. A couple of Christmases ago a fabulous friend had all of the Christmas gifts she’d put on layaway for her five foster/adoptive kids put back on the shelf by an unnamed retailer. it was December 20-something, quite a few of her kids are disabled, so she can’t just run right out to do errands. I picked up a Justin Bieber life-size cardboard cutout and some Project Runway kits for her kiddos, and relieved tremendous tension for her. What was absolutely no big deal to me was a big help for her. These are things almost anyone can do. And, if you can’t do any of those things, the biggest thing you can do to support a foster/adoptive family is offer a smile or a helping hand when you see them out and about. if you see a family struggling with an out-of-hand kiddo, give them a reassuring smile. If you see a family that is all colors of the rainbow a smile, a hello, and a bit of small talk is nice. One of the loveliest things I can ever hear from anyone is “what a beautiful family you have,” and I’m always grateful to hear that, especially on my worst days. Because we are beautiful in all of our brokenness, and you will be, too.

Saints

A Black Mississippi Judge’s Breathtaking Speech To 3 White Murderers

Thanks to NPR for publishing the speech from U.S. District Judge Carlton Reeves. He read it to three young white men before sentencing them for the death of a 48-year-old black man named James Craig Anderson in a parking lot in Jackson, Mississippi, a man I learned this morning grew up with a friend of mine.

Judge Reeves references “Without Sanctuary: Photographs and Postcards of Lynching in America,” in his speech. I happened upon this exhibit at the Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh in 2001. Back then I thought I’d be childless by choice forever, so I definitely wasn’t considering becoming mother to three black children seven years later. I stared at the postcards for hours, walking around in a near dreamlike state, with Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit” playing in the background, and the exhibit has haunted me ever since. Thanks to Author, Hannibal Johnson, for connecting the dots for me recently by mentioning the project and reminding me of its title – I didn’t realize what a historical impact the project had made until I saw him writing about it.

The most unsettling part of the Judge’s speech for me was how “normal” these young killers seemed to those around them. Before you write off them and the people in the lynching photos as monsters, consider your own potential biases and the potential biases of those you love. Harvard has a series of bias tests that are truly illuminating. I would gladly throw myself in front of several swift-moving comets for my sweet children, and I got a “moderate automatic preference for European American” on the Race IAT. We’re not living in a post-racial world, and I don’t know that we ever will. In the words of Carl Jung,  “There is no coming to consciousness without pain. People will do anything, no matter how absurd, in order to avoid facing their own Soul. One does not become enlightened by imagining figures of light, but by making the darkness conscious.”

A Black Mississippi Judge’s Breathtaking Speech To 3 White Murderers

Top Ten Reasons Reasons to Defriend Me Now

This started as a Facebook post, and then it grew legs, so I’m posting it here. These are the Top Ten Reasons to Unfriend Me Now and/or Reasons I Will Never Be Elected to Public Office.

1. Tax cutting ourselves to prosperity doesn’t work. Please stop acting like it will. Reference Kansas. And, a lot of written material from experts.

2. We need to stop throwing our mentally ill into prison. We’re spending 5 – 10x would it would take to actually treat their illness, rather than incarcerate them. it makes no economic sense. I’m including drug/alcohol addicts in this group. Let’s treat them and get a giant return on investment by ensuring they’re working and creating wealth for Oklahoma (the US state in which I live) and the US rather than sitting in a cell all day, costing all of us money.

3.1 Sex is not bad. Stop it with the shame and destructive behavior that results from that shame. We’re constructed to not only have sex but find it enjoyable. If you’re a religious person, I find it hard to believe that you think God would construct us in a way that makes sex enjoyable, but we’re only supposed to have it when we’re attempting to procreate. That seems like an affront to God.

3.2 Sex education is necessary and reduces the number of teens having abortions and babies. I’m a fan of fewer abortions and fewer teens having babies. Why are we still doing the abstinence only education? It hasn’t worked in 15+ years. Thank goodness for pilots like the Campaign to Prevent Teenage Pregnancy in Tulsa, which is doing a fabulous job.

4. Continuing with sex issues, can we please make prostitution for both men and women legal? It’s been happening forever, and this way we can regulate it, keep everyone healthy (cutting down on disease), keep sex workers safe, and most importantly tax it. European countries have done it this way forever. I remember reading John Irving novels set in Germany when I was 15 and thinking that made sense. 30 years later it still makes sense, and we’re still not doing it.

5. We don’t live in a post-racial society. White people, when you say you don’t see color, don’t notice race, etc., I realize your intentions are good, but that’s naive and honestly offensive. Please stop.

6. Gay rights are civil rights. When you make religious arguments to back up your ideas that gay rights are not civil rights, you’re using the same religious arguments that whites used to maintain slavery. Please stop.

7. Go vote. Please. Lots and lots of people have fought and many died for our right to vote. Please inform yourself and then go vote.

8. People are basically good. Bullies are made, not born. I really think the Christian “turn the other cheek” means we should have empathy for our bullies, put ourselves in their shoes, and help support them with whatever journey they’re on instead of turning against them. It’s not about wimping out – it’s actually about being remarkably strong. I have a tough time with this one myself, but I’m trying. (One might say that I’m very trying.)

9. Trauma is all around us. I’m amazed at the number of people who tell me stories (for whatever reason, people tell me stories) of sexual, physical and emotional abuse, traumatic deaths, mental illness, serious relationship issues and more. If you’re thinking you’re alone, you’re not. We all have stuff going on.

10. Finally, I am by no means a religious expert, but the world’s major religions seems to point to some pretty clear themes of love and compassion. Please be good to yourself and those around you and especially the people you don’t know, who are very different from you. We can find common goals with just about everyone. There’s no reason for all the vitriol in our country right now other than to keep us unbalanced and fighting with each other rather than working for real, positive change.

Top Ten Reasons Reasons to Defriend Me Now

Tired

Today I’m reading in a national publication about three rape victims in my home state being bullied out of high school. A few weeks ago I was filing a police report, because a man in my building attempted to sexually assault me in the middle of the day. Last year I was explaining to my kid’s school administrators that rape culture was so rampant at the school that they had daily themes of “Titty Twist Tuesday,” and “Slap Ass Friday.” Three years ago, I was taking one of my kids to the safe child center to provide testimony against a child rapist. I could go on and on about my own and my friends’ experiences, but I’m sure the theme is clear by now.

I’m super tired of the “boys will be boys” attitude in our schools. I’m tired of the “girls must cover their shoulders and thighs,” dress code instructions which always come with a “well, boys are just wired to get distracted by girl flesh, so we have to keep it covered up,” explanation when I ask. How is this OK? How is it OK that we’re teaching our boys that they’re mindless animals with an uncontrollable urge to put their penis in anything handy, and we’re telling our girls it is their responsibility to stop that? How is this not completely insulting to men as well as women? And, how does it help our kids foster relationships with the opposite sex? How can a girl feel good about her sexuality if her “job” is to make sure she holds violent threats from boys at bay? How are boys supposed to feel good about themselves, when girls are terrified of them? We are failing our kids.

Our “anti-bullying” measures in the schools over the last few years are well-intentioned, miserable failures. Bullies are not born – they’re made, and using punitive measures with bullies only makes things worse, and nothing gets resolved. I’ve recently begun to study restorative justice in schools, and the tremendous success schools have had who have implemented it. Our “tough on crime” measures don’t even work with adults. Why have we transplanted them to the classroom? If kids have stuff going on, really tough stuff, they’re going to act out. Deal with the stuff – don’t punish the kid.  Great quote from a NY Times article:

“The approach now taking root in 21 Oakland schools, and in Chicago, Denver and Portland, Ore., tries to nip problems and violence in the bud by forging closer, franker relationships among students, teachers and administrators. It encourages young people to come up with meaningful reparations for their wrongdoing while challenging them to develop empathy for one another through “talking circles” led by facilitators like Mr. Butler.”

Rape is not sex. Sex is not rape. Stop using those words interchangeably. Rape is an ugly, traumatic, violent crime. I hope that’s not also your description of sex.

Men are not bad. RAINN (Rape, Abuse, & Incest National network) cites the following in their report for the White House Task Force to Protect Students from Sexual Assault:

“…three percent of college men are responsible for more than 90% of rapes. Other studies suggest that between 3-7% of college men have committed an act of sexual violence or would consider doing so. It is this relatively small percentage of the population, which has proven itself immune to years of prevention messages, that we must address in other ways.”

Men are raped, too.  And, we never, ever talk about it. I know men who were raped as children by their babysitters. I know men who were raped by other men. I’m sure you know male rape survivors, whether they’ve disclosed that to you or not.

Sex is not bad. In a country where we’re excited to talk about how much we love God, it’s amazing to me that we want to make our kids feel shame and guilt about very natural and God-given body parts and feelings. Kids need to be fully informed about how their bodies work and the responsibilities that come along with being sexually active. Please no more abstinence-only sex education. Would that have worked for any of you when you were a kid?

Finally, people who have already been raped are vulnerable to being raped again. I don’t know any kids who have been through the foster system who have not been sexually abused by adults or other kids. I’m so jaded at this point that I assume any kid who is in or has been in the foster system is a victim of sex abuse/survivor of rape. Please let’s make sure kids who have already been through hell are not re-victimized.

If you or someone you know is a rape survivor, there are some great resources here. You might also check the resources section of this blog. If you have ideas (or proven strategies) for dealing with any of the issues I just described, please post them here. Thank you for reading.

 

 

Tired

Excalibur

First, Happy Adoption Month!

Secondly, though it may seem like we’re super serious a lot of the time, what with the calls to the local PD, psychiatric hospital stays, running away, my meltdowns, and other stuff, we actually do have a pretty fun time at our house. We camp, we take road trips, we had a great summer vacation to Chicago this year, we dance a LOT (I am the reigning Just Dance champion in our household, for the record), we listen to music, we cook together, we play board games, we swim, we play with our awesome dogs, and we have a fabulous dress up closet.

Some of this fun happens, because we’re just fun people, and some of this fun is very deliberate on my part, because it helps to build attachment with my kids without them really being conscious of it. If they’re having so much fun that they forget to be on guard against attachment, then it sneaks in and starts to build within them before they know it. What is my sturdiest weapon in the “sneaky fun” strategy – ticklefests. Not kidding. Ticklefests combined with dog piles are like a super secret weapon. Ticklefests, combined with dog piles, combined with pillow fights are like the Excalibur of the adoptive parent’s toolbox. I wish some wise person had told me this early on, which is why I’m telling you. I actually learned via Dr. Daniel Hughes’ PLACE model, which has been very good for our family. The “P” stands for “playfulness,” thus the ticklefests.

For example, at our most recent visit to the psychiatrist, my 12-year-old, who has been with me 5 1/2 years, explained that though intellectually she knows I love her, and that she’s safe and taken care of,  she doesn’t really trust any of that. She often doesn’t believe her life is real or that I’m real, which is extremely standard for kiddos like mine. It’s tough for them to trust that they can actually just relax, breathe, and be kids.  So, since that visit, at random times during the day (like when I’m cooking dinner) I’ll look at her very seriously and say, “Hey is this real?” and tickle the crap out of her until she falls on the ground in a giggling mess. I love the giggling mess part. I will also throw in some pokes to the tummy and pats on the head just to mix it up, all the while asking “What about this? Can you feel this? Does this appear real? I just want to make sure.” It is awesome.

Every once in a while, I can actually tickle her away from the tipping point of a violent fit. This is dicey, and sometimes tips her right over the edge, but I’m getting better at knowing when to use it.

If you have found wonderful ways to help your kiddos, whether they’re adopted or not, I’d love for you to share them here. No fair keeping them to yourselves! Check the resources section for the helpful things I’ve found along the way, and have a great, fun-filled day.

 

 

Excalibur

So Comfortable

This morning I read Slate’s story on The Whiteness Project and I was reminded of the times I’ve been asked by black people how I got so comfortable around black people. First, I have to give major credit to those who asked, because that’s not an easy question to ask for lots of reasons. And, I’m sure it’s been on the minds of many people who didn’t ask. So here’s the thing – I wasn’t always comfortable around black people. I grew up in a 1970s suburban development in Oklahoma City, one that my mother and stepfather specifically moved to for the schools. One might even call it a white flight development. I went to an all white grade school, and an all white middle and junior high And, I went to high school with 400 other white people. If I’m remembering this incorrectly, I’m sure someone will tell me about it. Maybe there was one brown kid in there somewhere? But if so, I really don’t remember that.

In college, I still didn’t know one darn non-white person until I was matched up with a young black woman via lottery in the dorms my sophomore year. We rarely talked, and I assumed it was because I was older, and she had a full social life, but looking back, she may have just had her “you’re a white person” walls up, boundaries I didn’t realize existed until I was much older.

In grad school I met some black people who played in bands, because I worked at a restaurant/bar on campus corner, and we had fabulous live music. That was peripheral at best. So, I was on a campus of fifteen or twenty thousand people, and still didn’t know any black people, as terrifying as that is in retrospect.

I finished grad school and went to work in Oklahoma City for a state agency, and worked with a few minorities, none of whom I knew beyond small talk.

In my 20s and 30s I worked around a few black people, but again only peripherally. I never knew any of them beyond very small talk at work. Then, I met a young black woman at work, and we became friends. I knew what was happening in her life, and she knew what was happening in mine. We didn’t socialize, though. And, later I realized she had the “you’re a white person” walls up, too. I mean that in a loving and straightforward way – not as a criticism.

So, long about 35 I started to think I likely needed to become a parent, for many reasons that I’ve already discussed in other blog posts, and voila the universe gave me three beautiful, brown children. I don’t recommend acquiring brown children as a way to become comfortable around non-whites – it’s sort of the Evil Knievel method of getting there. But, it’s what worked for me, and I think it’s a lesson for others.

Had you asked me before I became a parent if I was comfortable around black people, I would have answered “yes,” and that would have been a lie. I didn’t know it was a lie at the time, but it was. When the social service agency in my state called to say they didn’t often have healthy, white babies in the foster care system, I told them I only wanted kids 4-years-old and up, and I didn’t care what color they were. And, I didn’t care. But I had no idea what a paradigm shift I was in for, because I had no idea what the world of black people was really like.

So, here’s what I’ve learned, and what the article referenced above spells out – when you surround yourself with people who look like you, think like you, and earn the same income as you, whether you intend to or not, you have created a scary little insular world where it’s easy to judge and condemn anyone outside your circle, because you don’t regard them as people. They are “other,” so how can you have empathy for them? Not pity, but empathy? How can you walk in someone else’s shoes, if you don’t even know what shoes they’re wearing?

When I fostered and then adopted my kids, it was like I learned the secret handshake for a world to which I had not been privy my whole life. What I’m about to describe below is the rule, not the exception. Some of you I’m sure have wildly diverse social networks, but as the “75% of white people don’t include black people in their social networks” statement in the above-referenced article illustrates, you’re the exception not the rule. If you’re reading this and thinking “yeah, but I’m not racist” stop doing that. I’m not saying you’re a racist. I’m saying you don’t know black people. So, here’s what I’ve learned:

  • My kids get treated differently than white kids at school, until I go to the school and show the administrators/teachers they have a white mom, and then it stops. Does every school and every teacher/administrator do this? No. Do enough do it that I’m forced to admit it’s a thing? Yes. And, yes I do use my white privilege on behalf of my children and will continue to do so. This makes me sad in so many darn ways.
  • Other black kids tell my kids they smell “musty” and have “nappy” hair, one of the many ways in which black children learn to belittle other black children. These are words I didn’t even know outside of Alice Walker novels until I became a parent. And, I didn’t realize black people were awful to each other, as completely naive as that sounds, until I became a parent of black children. I assumed white kids would say awful things to my kids about their brown skin and “nappy” hair – I didn’t expect it from other black children. I was absurdly wrong.
  • Black hair – don’t even get me started on the culture of black hair. My kids are beautiful. They have beautiful, natural black hair. And, I can’t tell you how many women have walked up to us to tell me, in front of them, how horrible their hair looks, because it’s natural. Thank God we also have wonderful women, with their own natural hair, walk up and say the opposite, too. I actually created cards to hand out to people who have complaints, because my oldest daughter started getting in their face about it, and I was afraid she was going to get punched. In my wildest pre-adoption dreams, I never thought I and my children would be waging a self-esteem war about hair. If you haven’t seen Chris Rock’s Good Hair, please watch it.
  • Salespeople treat me differently when I’m with my kids than when I’m not. When I’m not with my kids, I get the full “uptight, white lady” treatment, which means I get waited on immediately with a big smile. When I’m with my kids we stand around for a while and might have to finally ask someone for help. I first experienced this when I was buying furniture for my children’s rooms in a store that is notorious for very aggressive salespeople. I walked in with my kids and stood there while no less than 7 salesmen stared at the floor and each other. Finally a woman, who later explained that she was Iranian, walked up and very graciously helped us. I knew exactly what I wanted, so she earned her commission on $1,500 in less than 10 minutes, which I hope she explained to her co-workers.
  • White people are judgmental and rude. I can’t tell you how many big-haired, Baptist women have looked disapprovingly at me in the grocery line when they see me with my kids. Or at the park, or the movies, or the festivals or wherever. And, no I don’t actually know that they’re Baptist – there’s just a type of woman in the Bible Belt that I can’t describe any other way. Or there’s the group of white women dining next to us in Chicago who gave us more disapproving looks than we’ve ever had in Oklahoma. I wanted to say “yes, my beautiful brown children ARE dining on lobster this evening, and they know how to use their utensils properly and how to eat in a grown-up restaurant, so I invite you to suck it,” but I smiled nicely instead, as did my seething 15-year-old.  And, by the way I always smile politely, directly at the judgers, so they can see that I and my family know how to treat people, and we will not be shamed.
  • Black people do not talk to white people like they talk to their black friends. You may think they do, but they don’t. They really, really don’t. People I thought I knew decently well spoke to me in a whole new way after I adopted the kids. It’s like they let walls down, although I’m sure not completely, and it was at that point I realized my black friends had had filters the whole time they’d known me. I can’t imagine what it’s like to walk around the world filtering yourself at work, school, socially, with your neighbors, because I’ve never had to do that, because I’m white. No wonder black people have their own churches. Can you imagine worshiping with a filter? This realization, too, made me very sad.

And, finally, I treat black people differently than I did before I adopted. I know that, because I’ve had several people ask me “Shelley, how’d you get so comfortable around black people?” That tells me I’ve had a shift that wasn’t purposeful or conscious – it just happened. I thought I was treating everyone the same for the last 40 or so years, but I wasn’t. I can’t name what’s different – I think I’m just more authentic, more transparent, I don’t know. Maybe someone reading this can tell me what the difference is. I do know why the difference happened – I got to know some black people. It’s really that simple. I have tremendous empathy for my children, and it’s tough to see someone who looks like them and continue to regard those people as “other.” Young black men walking down the street who might have scared me 10 years ago (yes, I was one of those white women as are a lot of white women), now look like my son will in 10 years, so I smile and say hello. Know what I get back? Nine times out of ten I get a smile back and a a”Hello ma’am, how are you?”

So how can you get to know black people? I don’t know, frankly. I keep threatening to have quarterly parties where I invite people from all the worlds I inhabit and make them talk to each other. Maybe a good start would be to admit that we don’t live in a racially equal or a post-racial society. White people who say “I don’t see color” are just absurdly misguided. Of course you see color. Now, confront your fears, step outside your safe, white world and actually get to know some of the people behind the color. I highly recommend it.

So Comfortable