Rekindling with you,
Rekindling with you,
I am embarrassed by my son.
He looks fine out there on the basketball court – tall, handsome, athletic. But though he could be a star, he hangs back … too insecure to put himself forward and possibly fail. His team is losing, badly, so he yells directions at the other kids (he feels out of control so he tries to control the world around him.) The game is over (finally, mercifully) and he comes off the court blaming the coach, the referees, the other team – always the victim. All those broken, unhelpful, self-defeating ways of coping which have their roots in his traumatic beginnings – these strategies he developed to cope with a dangerous and unpredictable world in the orphanage – defeat him in his world now.
And I am embarrassed. It is so painful to watch. I talk a a bit to the other parents who acknowledge me with a nod and move on to talk to someone else. I feel their judgement. What kind of parent must I be to have a child who behaves that way? My son is burning my social bridges here in our small town. The other parents, the ones who are judging me, have no idea how hard I have worked to be the parent he needs to bring him healing: the books read, the seminars attended, the years of family therapy (God bless my good husband for taking 1/2 a day off work all year to join us), the money spent, the sacrificed career, the constant intentionality.
And they have no idea how hard he has worked, this handsome wounded boy of mine; the incredibly painful things he has had to face as a child: the abandonment, the starvation, the sickness, the neglect, the horrendous birth family story. We have made him face this awful abyss and talk about it, to relive his suffering in hope of his healing. What suffering have their children faced here in their comfortable suburban lives?
I go home, put my children to bed, and cry. These children of mine are a lonely road.
~ Trauma Mama
They were both the answer to long years of fervent prayer.
They were both the fulfillment of a deep longing.
They were both rejoiced over and celebrated by me and my husband and our larger community.
They both came later in life: motherhood at 38, home ownership at 48.
They both cost a lot of money.
Neither are turning out the way I thought….
They both wake me up in the middle of the night, fretting, worrying, wondering how to solve the current dilemma.
They both drive me to my knees in supplication for grace to persevere, for God’s mercy, for God’s power to be present and active in my messy life.
Sometimes I rail against the Lord….
But here is where I learn to pray with open hands,
Where I practice faith again, “the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” Here is where I live in the “now” and the “not yet.”
I want my life to be easy,
God wants me to be more like Jesus–
and my son and my house are the raw materials He will use if I let Him.
~ Trauma Mama
I get a call from the principal’s office – your son was in a fight and is being suspended. I go into school, again, and hear the sordid tale of my son (who truly was provoked) not restraining his impulses and getting into fist fight with the other child. I get a call from the other child’s parents about the incident. I get an email from his teacher about missing homework, about his rudeness to her in class. We apply for him to go to a private school and have to write a whole page about his emotional and behavioral challenges.
I work so hard at being a good mother to my wounded child. I quit work when we adopted so that I could make up for the deficits my son experienced that first year in an orphanage. We have done intensive therapy, I have read books, we have tried meds, I am part of a mothers’ support group for adopted children, I have gone to seminars, I have implemented systems at home. And yet, there I am in the principal’s office, again.
He looks fine on the outside, as a matter of a fact, he is a handsome and athletic boy. I know people are conjecturing about what must be missing in his home life that gets him into trouble so regularly. There are some dinners after an unpleasant altercation where my husband and I stare at each other glumly and have nothing to say … who wants to rehearse the disfunction as dinner table conversation? Who wants to examine again the dreams of a normal family that have died? The pain, the disappointment, the heartache can barely be borne.
And then we come to it again – we are stewards. We must be faithful. We did not create this dysfunction, we are helping to heal it. Whether or not our son chooses wisely, we have given him every chance for a good life. We cannot be tied to the results. Despite what others see or believe, we are good parents, actually great parents, and will be regardless of what happens in our son’s life.
So, on Mother’s Day, in spite of the fact I will probably be treated meanly because I am the second mom and the first mom abandoned him, I will remember that I am a good mother, contrary to appearances.
~ Trauma Mama
Sometimes in the dark valleys of my life, slogging through the muck and mire of motherhood, I resist the suffering and pain in my child’s life and cry out, “Why must we pay so dearly for other people’s sin and bad choices???”
Every day my child and I reap ten-fold the sin and destruction sown by a confused young girl in a broken country half way around the world. He sees the world as against him – because it was those first two years in an orphanage when he was forming his lens though which he would look at the world the rest of his life. He wants to control…me, his sibling, his teachers, his world – because he couldn’t control his life as a baby and he almost died of starvation, sickness and neglect. He rejects my love, because when adults should have met his needs, he was left to cry until he gave up, so adults are not to be trusted. (Pity the poor orphanage worker whose job it was to care for 12 starving and sick babies – did the crying ever stop??)
Why should my beautiful child write in huge letters at the therapist’s office, “I am WORTHLESS”? His young mother’s inability to care for him makes him believe he is not worth caring for… and subconsciously he is trying to get us, his parents, to validate this with his provoking behavior. “I hate you!” he screams at me as he smashes the picture of our new family on the day we took him out of the orphanage. Later, he admits that he really hates himself (because she, his birthmother, didn’t love him.)
And I, the mother who quit her career to mother him, feel worthless myself, because all the love I have poured into him has not healed the gaping emotional wounds of those first two years. I cry out to God in my distress (“why is it so hard? will he ever heal?”), my confusion (“is there something else I should or could be doing?”), my fear (“his anger scares me, what will become of him? will he ever truly love?”)
Then, I am drawn again to Jesus, who also paid so dearly for the sins of others. “Surely our griefs He Himself bore and our sorrows He carried…. But He was pierced through for our transgressions. He was crushed for our iniquities. The chastening for our well being fell upon Him and by His scourging we are healed.” (Isaiah 53: 4-5).
And, still in the dark with my wounded child, I am comforted.
~ Trauma Mama
Mother’s Day, a day that I wish we could drop from the calendar. A day to be gotten through, and then left behind with a sigh of relief. There were some sweet Mother’s Days … before my children realized that I wasn’t their only mother … that out there was a birthmother, a mother who had rejected them and abandoned them. A mother who had wounded them so deeply, they would never completely recover. So here I am, their second mother, and I am getting what I often get from them, but now in spades – their visceral reaction to all the pain and fear that the idea of Mother creates. Our adopted children are like puppies who have been hit by a car; they lie in the road of life, wounded and bleeding, and we second mothers come in our compassion and scoop them up and try to bandage their wounds, and get bitten by our terrified little injured puppies who are afraid of being hurt more. There is so much pain here – our children’s pain at their rejection by the woman who was supposed to love and protect them – and our pain as mothers at their rejection and lack of love towards us who have given so much for them … so much brokenness that is part of our family’s story.
Mother’s Day has gotten better in our family. We have begun talking about the proverbial elephant in the room, which helps a lot. The Saturday before Mother’s Day we have a little ceremony where we remember our mothers who aren’t here (my husband’s mother died a few years ago). We light a candle in their honor and pray for them. This is a very painful time – raw and difficult. Our daughter wants to do it, our son hates it. But it helps them to keep their first (birth) and second mothers separate. We try and honor the mother who gave them life, and keep the pain about her distinct from the mother who is parenting them (me.) And it has helped. There are not the emotional blowups that there used to be on Mother’s Day.
The other thing I have done is to try and celebrate myself. I am a good mom, a really good mom. I have done a lot for my kids and their struggles are not my fault. So I do nice things for myself on Mother’s Day (and my dear husband helps me.) I don’t cook. I go for a walk if I want. If the weather is nice I take a glass of something cool to drink outside in the sun and read a good book. I do not let our children determine my happiness, particularly on Mother’s Day.
On Mother’s Day I want to honor all you other mothers out there who have done so much for your challenging children and gone largely unthanked. You are great moms! Don’t forget it, and do something nice for you this Mother’s Day.
With great anguish, we had sent our 6 year old son, Alex, adopted at 14 months from an Eastern European orphanage, to live with Miss Debbie, a therapeutic parent. He stayed there for 2 ½ months. While the time apart was painful, it was also transformative, for both him in terms of new patterns of behavior and us in terms of parenting differently. We learned that while most children will grow up fine with a vast array of parenting styles (as long as there is some love and discipline thrown in there) children who have experienced significant trauma in their first three years of life, especially if that trauma includes attachment challenges, need a very specific type of parenting to heal. So we had to become those therapeutic parents. Miss Debbie could change his trajectory and start him on the road of healing, but we needed to help him continue those changes.
So what were the tasks that were set out for us to learn? My mentor, Grace, refers to them as “the three legs of the stool.” All three are needed for the stool to be stable, take away one and the stool falls over. The following is an outline of what we learned.
A) We always need to be Alpha Mom/Dad. When we are in charge, our kids will learn to feel safe and to trust us. We can only really be in charge and in control of parenting and our household, if we are first in control of ourselves. When our kids test us, we must remain calm and immovable–resting in our own authority and weight of our office (of parent). Thus, learning to be calm under duress is essential.
B) Our kids lack internal order. Their minds, hearts and souls are in a state of internal chaos. In order to compensate, they may try to control the outside world through manipulation, defiance and other controlling behaviors. As their parents, it is our job to provide them with external structure – routines, traditions, and well defined boundaries, and to help them develop strategies to compensate for lack of internal structure.
With children who have experienced trauma, this step follows structure. To provide nurture without being in the Alpha position tends to backfire and empower our kids’ desires to control us. Please note that this is the opposite how it works with healthy, secure children where nurture preceeds structure. For us, it is just as important to know when not to nurture (i.e., Cesar Milan motto: never nurture an unstable mind, Kirk Martin: don’t look them in the eye when they are going nutty), as it is to know when and how to nurture. Getting our love into their hearts is a tricky business, but it can and must be done.
Although this step follows structure initially, the two must go hand-in-hand. Nurturing requires calm and an opening of our hearts to our child, while not allowing him to hurt us (it is very unhealthy for the entire family for a traumatized child to be allowed to hurt his parents either emotionally or physically).
A) Getting to Their Truth: Once established as the Alpha and connected with your child through nurturing, we are ready for the Truth Telling piece, which is where deep healing occurs in our children. When they feel safe, secure and loved, they can then open up that very painful place. It is in this vulnerability that the deepest healing and connection occurs.
B) Our Truth: We are not the cause of our kids’ deep and often overwhelming problems. However, we are responsible to help them heal. Often, however, instead of us helping them get better, they make us and our families sick. We have gotten into a bad dance. It is so easy to get into the blame game and avoid looking at ourselves and the role we play. We must remind ourselves that we are the adults. We must take the lead and see what we can change in ourselves because, in the end, we really only have control of ourselves. Having said that, we deeply believe that we can help our kids change — but only after we change first.
These are the things we had to learn about. Winston and I were good at the nurturing piece, but not so good at the alpha/structure or the truth telling pieces. We had to learn these different roles in order to help Alex heal. And Alex had even more work to do than we did. He had to unlearn his basic ways of operating in the world, and learn to push away his need for control (which he thought he needed to stay alive), let in our love (which was truly terrifying for him) and tell us his truth (all those painful feelings that motivated his behaviors).
Our transformation as a family had begun.
I read Nancy Thomas’ book, “When Love is not Enough.” It scared me to death. First off, it described children much worse than my son. In the long list of rather dreadful criteria she lists for Reactive Attachment Disorder (RAD), my son was only doing a few things. But my new friend and mentor on this journey, Grace, told me that as time went on things would become worse, not better, if nothing changed and more and more of those terrible behaviors would show up. Since that time I have learned that there is a huge spectrum to how attachment challenges manifest. Some children are less angry and more manipulative, as my daughter, Anna, (also from an orphanage) is. The hallmark of all of these children is their need for control.
The book advocated a radical method of parenting that would help these children heal. My husband, Winston, asked me to implement it at home. I had stopped teaching when we adopted Alex, and had home schooled him when he seemed to need more healing, but I felt like this was something I was not equipped to do. I told Winston, “I feel like you are asking me to do heart surgery, and I would if I could, but I have only been trained as a medic. I can bandage a wound, but I can’t do this.”
Grace had 5 children – 4 biological and one, her middle son, adopted from Russia. He had similar behavior to my son, and she had tried everything to help him, diet, behavior plans, and various therapies. While some of them seemed to help a little around the edges, there was no significant change. But just recently she had sent her son to someone who was trained by Nancy Thomas to do therapeutic parenting. This woman, Miss Debbie*, took in a number of attachment challenged children at a time, and taught them how to push away control, own and verbalize their feelings, and let in love – she was a real heart surgeon. She not only transformed the children, she taught the parents how to parent therapeutically. She could change the direction the kids were going, but it was up to us to keep them moving in the right direction.
The prospect of sending our son away was heartbreaking. It was unthinkable. I could never do it. But God had led me gently down a path all year that helped me know this was the right thing to do. Here was the help I had been begging and praying for – the way to substantial healing for Alex. My husband was against it, he was sure he would forfeit his relationship with Alex by sending him away, but in an incredible act of love, he was willing to do it for me. Finally, with great fear, anxiety, and anguish, we did the unthinkable and sent our 6 year old son to live at Miss Debbie’s.
* Miss Debbie can be found at www.AHeartsWork.com
How had it come to this?? My 6 year old son, in a fit of rage, had just socked me in the jaw. While his default emotion seemed to be anger, he had never hit me before. I was shocked and scared and angry. How could this be happening? Would my son end up as a criminal? After all I had done for him and sacrificed, how could he treat me this way??? If it had been my husband I would have walked out the door and given him an ultimatum, “Get help, or get out”… but this was my beloved son, whom I had spent the last 5 years of my life trying to heal. What had gone wrong?
I was well prepared for parenting. I was in my later 30’s when I finally became a mom, and my heart longed for this new role. I had been trained as a teacher, and worked in the classroom for many years – including with special education students for 8 years. My brother and sister-in-law had 5 kids, and I delighted in my auntie role – including occasionally caring for all of them by myself for extended periods. I read many many books on adoption. I quit my job before we left to pick up our son, Alex, so that I could give him my full-time love and attention, and fill up all the emotional deficit that orphanage life had left in him.
Alex didn’t seem upset to leave his orphanage. No one came to say good-bye. The orphanage was poor and crumbling, the children were small and mal-nourished, and the workers themselves didn’t have much. There was one caregiver to every 10 – 12 children. How could anyone meet such glaring needs? Alex’s affect was completely flat for the first few days, not much crying, but no smiling either. Eventually he began to engage in life, and with us. It was such fun to watch a 14 month old experience so many “firsts” – first time to sit on the grass, first ice cream, first step, and first word. We were continually delighted and amazed. He was very independent and didn’t want to be held. I knew I needed to work on attachment, and gave him daily bottles, and played games to promote eye contact.
The years passed. Alex changed from a small, sick, withdrawn child into a robust, active, handsome boy. We adopted his sister, Anna, a few years later. She was 18 months but from a better orphanage. She cried a lot the first six months, but eventually adjusted.
Now our son was six, and had become violent. We had come to the end of all we knew to do to help him. A close friend gave me the name of her good friend who had a son adopted from Russia with similar issues and behavior. God had thrown us a lifeline. She told me to read the book by Debbie Thomas, “When Love Is Not Enough” about Reactive Attachment Disorder (RAD). It was sobering scary reading and my heart rebelled against the words, yet now that ever present anger and the constant battles for control had a name. The book title said it all, our abundant love had not been enough to heal our son from the trauma he had experienced that first year of life.