Saturday, February 4, 2017

Surprise! What To Expect When You Are Not Expecting: A First Foster Placement

baby boo

I wrote this post right in the midst of having our first long term foster placement. I didn't publish then because it all felt so new and I wasn't sure if I was qualified to talk about it. Several years later, I am happy I found it so I can publish it now.


Just when we thought it wouldn't happen, when we were debating whether it should or not, when we were really super comfortable with life... It Happened.
A foster placement.
A baby.
A really little one.
I have been practicing the transition to three children on and off for a while with respite care, so that's not so bad. There have been good surprises like a newfound maturity in my youngest daughter as she takes up the mantle of Big Sister. There have been bad surprises like when the bathroom sink started leaking, the girls were fighting, and I was trying to change a diaper with a social worker at the door all at the same time. Keepin' it real.
But mostly the surprises have been kind of superficial. I'm not ready to be deep yet. I have a baby. My brain is fried. I thought that because I wouldn't be recovering postpartum things would be easier. I won't kid you: It's easier, just not in the areas and levels I expected.

Expectation: I'll have more energy.
Reality: For a few nights I was so sore I couldn't sleep from doing all of the squats and arm curls a baby brings! And anyway, not breastfeeding means you actually have to get up and wake up at night. On the other hand, not having all those crazy hormones and having had a big human pushed out of me means my husband is still attractive to me, so... yay!

Expectation: I'll take it slow once the baby is born.
Reality: My house has never been this clean on the regular since ever. Having social workers over constantly really puts the fire under me. Plus no one comes to help you recover or bring meals. And instead of getting a pass from doing things, there's a whole round of extra appointments for the baby: I reference the above statement about the frequent visits of social workers. Still, I didn't push a human being out, so I'm in a better position to handle it.

Expectation: Some people like bottle feeding better. Maybe it'll grow on me!
Reality: Nope. Still nope. You know how they always say to drink a glass of water when you sit down to breastfeed? I was good about that with the girls, but bottle feeding takes me two hands, and I am incredibly dehydrated. I think that's what has shocked me the most. I thought I would be better at self care. So that's a goal.
P.S. In retrospect I also missed the quiet gentle bonding of breastfeeding, and overall I think the baby missed it too. This is not to say that bottle feeding is bad, or that you can't bond, but that I did notice a difference having done it both ways several times over.

Expectation: I didn't really know what to anticipate with my children's reactions.
Reality: There is a degree to which it is stressful for them to share mommy with another person, and we didn't really prepare them for that the way we would have if I had been pregnant. There was nothing obvious that signaled that change was coming! For the most part they have been really happy and really helpful with the baby. At the same time, their fuses are quite short. Tears are coming easily, and misunderstandings abound. I may have been accused of evil step-motherhood a time or two. It's been important to celebrate their new roles, reinforce what routines we can salvage, and acknowledge the changes that are hard. I am praying that a few weeks will find us with a new, less tearful normal.

Expectation: Dance will need to go on hold for a while.
Reality: Yep. Night time feedings are kicking my butt, but I have plane tickets to dancy things, so miraculously a-dancing I will go, at least once this month. Once a month is probably doable right? [Side note: I must say doable often, because the girls sort all undertakings into the categories "Doable" and "Not-Doable."]
P.S. I ended up dancing at least twice a month throughout babyhood. Toddlerhood is kicking my butt though!

Friday, February 3, 2017

Six Things I Learned From Fostering

kissy cheeks
A few years ago I wrote about why I feel fostering is important here. I stand by every word.

We did respite care for a while, and then were placed with a baby boy whom we have since adopted. Our home is now closed to fostering as we focus fully on the children we have. I feel like this process has taken all of my personhood for a while. It's probably a good sign that I feel like I can talk about it now.

So in retrospect here are a few important things that I wasn't expecting about the foster journey.

Redemption is hard. I knew that beforehand in the way that I knew my bedroom might smell like a man when I got married and shared my room with a man. It seemed like “maybe” it would smell which through mental gymnastics really means “maybe not!” or that it might be romantic and musky, or that the pungent masculine aroma might have to do with sheets not being changed often enough. But no. It’s not a housekeeping issue, and it’s not romantic, and it is a certain part of living with a dude. 

Redemption is hard, and I don’t mean maybe. Redemption in this case is about choosing to take the consequences for possibly generations of bad circumstances and bad choices off of a child and taking it on yourself. Competence won’t hurt, but it doesn’t get you off scot-free. Like the terrain of a Bear Hunt, you can’t go over or under or around it. You have to go through it, and it’s messy. There's no "maybe not." It isn't romantic. No one is filming you stroking a cherub's hair in the sunset. It's just hard. To the degree it is hard it is also deeply good and right and necessary. It is enlightening, and I feel like I better understand the redemption that comes through Christ as a result of slogging through our own little mini story. 

Doing the “right thing” doesn’t always feel like the right thing. When our son first came to us he seemed pretty well cared for, and people who knew his mother had some positive things to say about her. As much as she had made some choices I questioned, she had also made some I could really get behind. I was filled with horror. What if I was playing for the wrong team, depriving a mother and child of one another? What if the grand act of selflessness people were lauding me for, to my confusion, was actually destructive? I finally concluded that I hadn’t been the one to make any of the decisions involved except to open my arms, and my job was to love this child as hard as I could while the decision makers weighed his next move. That wasn’t the end of feeling wrong though. Each time I had to weigh my bio children’s needs against that of a newcomer's, each time I had to evaluate how to interact with a birth mother, each time I was asked to take another child and had to say yes or no, there was no angels-trumpeting-Mayor-presents-you-with-the-key-to-the-city-parade-worthy kind of “Yes! This is right!” feeling for any of the choices. We have just had to use our heads, use our training, and try to give every person involved neither more nor less than what they truly need. 

People are much more supportive about fostering than about adoption, and the key is finality. People think that fostering is harder than adoption. The number one thing I hear is “I couldn’t open my heart to a child and have them taken away.” The uncertainty is what really tugs the heart strings. So many horror stories circulate about relatives coming to claim a beloved foster child at the 11th hour before adoption. Signing up for that sounds crazy to many people, like volunteering to get your heart broken. In contrast, the narrative with adoption is revealed by the phrase people use, “Forever Family.” It sounds just like hot chocolate and Christmas carols. People think when an adoption is- listen for that language -Finalized, it’s over and everyone is safe and everyone is happy, and we celebrate by going to Disney for a week, roll credits on the family photo of us in front of Cinderella’s castle. 
In reality the adoption journey is no more completed in a courtroom than a marriage is complete at the altar. 
At the end of the day, in the situation of a foster child being placed outside your home you can say after much struggle “I did my best and I hope they are okay, but it is out of my hands.” There is a lot of grief to that.

There is another kind of grief that people don’t rally around as enthusiastically when you realize that you must continue to do your best every single day into the future and redemption is hard and you don’t know where the energy will come from. You signed up for it. Suck it up! It sounds like whining to say “This is hard, this is harder than fostering” but for us at least it has been.  

There is always grief: My theory is that post part depression is about hormones but also about grief. I got PPD symptoms with foster children too. Grief when new children come and your schedule and family dynamics change. Grief about sharing stuff, grief in saying goodbye to free time. Grief when children leave. Grief over the too-quiet. Grief wondering where they are, and calculating how old they are this year. Grief is a part of life. Grief means you have loved. It makes the shadows no lighter to know this. 

There is joy. I wish you the mega-watt joy of introducing a foster child to something they have never experienced before, like a real theater movie, or putting together a Lego, or cooking as a family. Many foster children have never been sung to. They want to hold your hand crossing the street and read a million stories just to sit in your lap. Some will accept literally any affection and positive interaction they can get. Especially as a respite provider you can basically be a fairy godmother of positivity. There is no one else knocking down doors to spoil these children and it means a lot. 

The joy of social workers and judges really took me by surprise. They see the worst humanity has to offer every day. They see addiction and mental illness and blood curdling abuse, they deal with mystery fluids in their cars, and acting out in public. They are trying the nearly impossible task of finding adoptive families for teens with juvie records, and that’s all just part of the job! Then while they are trying to do their jobs racist people berate them for working with families of another color, and people wonder aloud why they do what they do, or whether they could make it in a “real job.” But seriously. The family court judges preside over the official affairs of generations of a family so they have been watching the equivalent of a ten car pileup of life choices for years. Everyone has tears of joy when something goes right for a little one. It is the most beautiful thing.   

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Christmas in August

Christmas Stocking

The time to knit stockings is not during the holiday season when you want to be making gifts, so I curl up in the air conditioning to hide from the heat and knit. We are officially legally adding to our family very soon via adoption from foster care! The inspiration for our son's stocking pattern comes from kente cloth to acknowledge and embrace his biological ancestry. In joy our family wishes you joy as well... in August, even though it is traditional to wish such a thing in December. Big gifts can come in any month! 

Thursday, June 16, 2016

How To: Make Alternative Montessori Style Sandpaper Letters

We love our homemade letters
Have you noticed a strong inverse relationship between how much prep time you spend on a teaching related project and how interested your kids are? Not so with this project in our family. Using hot glue to make flash cards worked! It doesn't look fancy, but if it does the job, who cares? These are a great teaching tool for Montessori style learning and D'Nealian cursive, as well as general writing skills. I can see this technique being successful for children with sensory processing issues who don't like rough things as well.

Montessori letter k tracing

For the most part I really adore Montessori materials and concepts. One material my children rejected outright is the sensory sandpaper letters and numbers to trace with your finger as preparation for writing. The materials I got from Adena Montessori are great quality, but the girls abhor the feeling of sandpaper and took their strokes willy-nilly out of order regardless of instruction, so I let it go until their numbers were reversed and I was in an all-out war over cursive.
#teacheroftheyear right?
The beauty of the hot glue cards is that the glue guides their fingers into the strokes in the right order! Before I took the plunge I started with numbers 0-9 with gold stickers, and with success ventured into lower case and finally upper case cursive letter cards.

  Note: In a world where people write by hand infrequently cursive seems like an indulgence that is "way too hard" according to my kids, except for one thing– You remember things better when you write notes by hand, and one of the best ways to write fast enough to take thorough notes is cursive. I credit a lot of my good grades to cursive. Plus if you have nice handwriting its an easy ego boost because people always notice.

My children vehemently disagree with my premise, preferring to print in all caps, hence the cursive battle!

Montessori Hot Glue Letter Cards 

27 cardboard sheets sized 5.5" x 8.5" (mine are 8.5" x 11" cardboard sheets cut in half),
a popsicle stick (optional),
red or pink glitter glue,
6 blue metallic dot or star stickers for vowels, (mine is leftover table confetti)
21 red metallic dot or star stickers for consonants,
hot glue gun, and
10 sticks of hot glue


1. On 19 cards draw solid marker lines 1.5" from the top and bottom, and a broken line 4.5" from the top, centered between the solid lines. My broken line is 1/2" on, 1/2" off. These cards are for the letters that sit on the line. 

2. In marker on the lower righthand corner print these cards with the letters a, b, c, d, e, h, i, k, l, m, n, o, r, s, t, u, v, w, and x. 

3. On the remaining 8 cards, draw a light pencil line 1.5" from the bottom, a solid marker line 3" up from that, and a broken line another 3" up from your solid line. These cards are for letters with tails that drop below the line.

4. In marker on the lower righthand corner print these cards with the letters f, g, j, p, q, y, y, and z. Yes, 2 y's, as one will serve as a consonant and the other as a vowel.  

Montessori letters glitter glue

5. Apply a line of pink or red glitter glue to the bottom-most solid marker line on each card. In D'Nealian handwriting curricula the line the letters rest on is often red/pink. Highlighting it helps the child to hold the card right side up, line the cards up by matching the red line, the glitter is a rough counterpoint to the smooth glue, and shiny is always better. 

Montessori letters draft letters

6. In pencil, lightly rough out each letter referencing D'Nealian resources, Learning Curve Pro font for cursive, School House A font for print. For the letters with tails, use the pencil line toward the bottom of the card to show how far the tail should drop. Use the popsicle stick as a point of reference for the width of the strokes, and to round off the ends. Draw your final lines in marker and erase all visible pencil marks.

Montessori letters add sticker

7. Apply blue stickers or confetti to the leading stroke of each vowel: a, e, i, o, u, and y. Why use stickers? To show where to start. Why metallic? Because, I am told by my product testers, that is one of the things that make these cards great. Why blue? Because in the Montessori method vowels are always shown in blue.
8. Apply red stickers to the leading stroke of each consonant, b, c, d, f, g, h, j, k, l, m, n, p, q, r, s, t, v, w, x, y, and z. Why red? Because in the Montessori method consonants are always shown in red. 

Montessori Letters Cursive H

9. With a steady hand, squeeze an even amount of glue along the outline of each letter starting at the first upward stroke. You can see on the letter "h" here that if a stroke crosses itself priority is given to the first pass, in this case the stroke from bottom to top, and the later stroke is partial for the sake of simplicity. 

10. Spend the rest of your children's school ages trying to get the little glue strings off. Good luck!    
Now, does anyone want to buy my barely used sandpaper letters? 

Thursday, August 20, 2015

Three Year Old Tantrums– Making Peace

Peace Table

Three year old tantrums are like tsunamis. You don’t know how big the cataclysm will be until it’s on top of you, and you can’t stop it once it has started. You just have to be prepared beforehand and get to higher ground. 

As my daughters have moved from the developmental stage identifying themselves with me to seeking individuality and choices, the transition has been rocky and full of temper tantrums. As much as I would like to point fingers and blame their tender youth, I myself am not always the example of maturity I wish to be. I try to let myself off the hook because I am not a yeller, but I’ll say it before someone else rats me out: Bull-headedness and snarling are patterns God convicts me about regularly. Oh God, you multi-tasker, you! Using me disciplining my kids to discipline me! 

So here we are with long, massive meltdowns in very public places, but that doesn’t even matter because I happen to know you can still hear that little voice shrieking inside the house from down the block. Thank God we don’t live in an apartment at this point!

As I said, there’s no stopping it: The element of surprise is impotent. Punitive action and reasoning are equally fruitless. It takes a good 20-30 min. before distraction is an option. Mostly tantrums just have to be forestalled before they start. 
Sure, I know that means eating real meals at regular intervals. Of course it means getting regular sleep. Gee, thanks, parenting sites. I'd never have thought of that on my own!

The key for me was realizing what my daughter was trying to accomplish with her tantrums. On the surface they seem whimsical –in a bad way– but for her it is all about feeling like her rights were trampled on and having no recourse. Her solution might not be the same as your child's solution because her reasons may be different than your kid's. But if you think it may help, read on! 

What has really helped is having a family peacemaking strategy. The work of making peace is not best done by the clear-headed outside observer. It has to start in the heart of the person who is angry and sees the wrong. We have found my daughter's temper escalates when she sees no recourse for due process and justice.
My idea and my children’s ideas of justice don’t often coincide at first, but having a calm, consistent road to travel together makes a difference.
Here are the tools I want to give them: A desire for justice, capacity for mercy, a chance to cool down, a template for respectful discourse, empathy, and experience with un-begrudging compromise. The terrible thing is that this list doesn’t describe my heart of hearts! My own desire and practice are far from perfect, so this is for me too. 

My efforts at cool down time and respectful discourse had so far been blown away in the blast of living fury that is my second-born, so I needed a new strategy. We tried a Peace Table ala Montessori, and it is working surprisingly well! The idea is to have a neutral place for conflict resolution and the promotion of peace. The genius of it is that it gives my kids an avenue for positive action, not just violent protest. 

Supplies: On the table we have a rose in a shallow bowl- not a long stemmed flower in a vase, because vases are easier to knock over, and long flowers can be turned into cart whips by furious children– and a battery operated candle. 

Step 1: If someone in the home is feeling upset or experiencing conflict they can present the involved person with the rose, and it is part of the social contract that they go to the table together to resolve their difficulty. 
Step 2: Whomever is holding the rose has the right to speak, and anyone else has the privilege of listening. 
Step 3: The rose is passed between them until they resolve the matter. 

Having physical tools to hold as protocol for the intellectual/emotional process of conflict resolution is grounding and reassuring for them. It keeps them on track. There is a Montessori book to introduce this activity, but role playing was enough, and in fact, quite revelatory for us!

The purpose of the battery candle is that it is an extra task and treat for the angry child to turn on, allowing for a few more split seconds of cool off/distracted time. Every instant counts! Also they are mesmerizing and cheap at the dollar store! Another advantage to having a dedicated space for this is that it is proactive. Choosing from a small selection of activities from the table is a self-directed action. I see cool down time-outs as preventing anyone or anything getting hurt, but the angry child sees it as punishment or banishment, which compounds the drama. I want them to grow up knowing that they don’t get positive or negative consequences for how they feel, but for what they do with the feelings they have. Mature people find activities that de-escalate themselves when they are angry, but sometimes we stop kids from de-escalating by mandating things that make them angry. Once again, anger is fine, being destructive and rude is not. They have to be dealt with separately. 

When I said that role playing was revelatory, what I mean is that I discovered a reason my explosive child has a short fuse: Her fuse is not that short, it’s just that her sister is a pyro. As I found myself trying to negotiate a pretend argument for the rights to a toy I don’t even care about, I discovered that my oldest drives a really hard bargain, and she denies others acknowledgement that they have a real case. While she looks level headed and peaceable to authority figures, she looks like a tyrant when you are standing eye to eye. It raises the point that making peace is everyone’s job. No one is exempt. The burden of it can’t only fall on the people who burn for justice. Acknowledgement and sensitivity are really important. Without empathy the person who is wronged just comes off as a complaining troublemaker, and that is unjust too! As a mother it is tempting to focus my efforts on the child who is most publicly embarrassing, and who inconveniences me most, but my job is to help both the explosive child, AND the kid who casually plays with emotional matches. One is no less important than the other. 

 The spiritual component is something we are working on as well, but not in the tsunami moments. Jesus said that when you try to feed pearls to swine, they turn around and eat you. Raise your hand if that’s happened to you when your kids are angry! I find my relationship with God, my prayer life, and the help of Scripture invaluable, like pearls, but when my kids have a hunger for justice they don’t appreciate moralizing.   

Becoming peacemakers is a life-long, not week-long evolving process. Additionally, peacemaking is not just about resolving conflict, but about developing an eternal perspective, deepening one’s walk with God, developing love, practicing patience, and self-control. As my children master the peacemaking skills we started with, I expect to swap in other activities at the peace table. 

Here are my ideas: 
  • Calm-down glitter jar,
  • Music player with Scripture songs,
  • Books about peacemaking... any suggestions? 
  • Stones with applicable Bible verses on them,
  • Tactile celtic knot tracing activity to introduce labyrinth prayer aides,
  • Recorder for work on taking deep breaths, and 
  • Puzzles for taking time to cool down.
The end of this story hasn't happened yet, but we have gone from 2 huge tantrums a day to 1 or 2 short ones a week. My daughter has been swallowing back the fearful rage and seeking healthy things like cuddling and talking about it since we have a plan. The rose is something she can present to parents too, and be certain her appeal is heard. The table also gives us a benchmark for the minimum of what is required to work something out. Often I would see my older daughter sulking about something her sister did. She always claimed to have tried to work it out, but I wasn't sure. Now I can tell them "If you haven't invited your sister to the peace table, you haven't tried to work it out. If you aren't willing to do that, you can sulk in your room, but not in our space." Very effective! 


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