Don’t call us, we’ll call you

August 24, 2016

Many phone calls, no kids

Filed under: Adoption, Family, Motherhood, Personal — Tags: , , , — llcall @ 7:29 pm

I haven’t felt much like recording every little twist and turn as we wait for foster placements. But I got the urge today, so here I am. Since we were officially certified in February, we’ve had a number of phone calls:

  • March: 1 and 3-year-old sisters — turned down because it was just about a week before Neal’s brother’s wedding out of state and we didn’t want to miss it.
  • May: 2 and 4-year-old brothers — turned down because with our small house and only 1 kids’ bedroom, we cannot take a boy older than 2
  • June: 2-year-old brother and 4-year-old sister — turned down because once again, for us to take a boy, he has to be under 2 so he can sleep in our bedroom
  • 15 August: 2-month-old girl — we said yes, but she ultimately went to someone else (infants were always a long-shot because they are more sought after)
  • 18 August: 8-month-old and 1-year-old sisters — we haven’t officially gotten “the call” for these girls, but we’ve been told to consider it in case the judge rules to seek a pre-adoptive home next month

For the most part, I think I’ve managed to stay pretty patient and even-keeled about the ones that got away. I don’t regret attending the wedding at all, but how I wish that call would have come just two weeks later! I wish that we had about 200 more square feet and a third bedroom! I wish that none of these kids ever had to experience what they’re experiencing! I’ve teared up a bit with every single call; the wanting is always there, but I’m usually too busy to think about it until presented with the possibility of actual little humans coming to our house that day — and then it’s hard to think about anything else.

The patterns of my responses vs. Neal’s have been incredibly predictable, of course:

*ring. ring*

Social worker: We have two…

Me: Yes! We’ll take them! Can we pick them up yesterday?!

Neal: Don’t listen to her. She’s crazy. I have this list of 67 questions and once they’re answered to my satisfaction, then we’ll discuss it.

I think after several calls, we’ve started to meet in the middle. On the two-month-old, we whittled it down to only 4 questions and about 10 minutes of deliberation. That’s basically living on the edge for a Neal. Addison’s response has been a bit more perplexing; we thought she’d LOVE the idea of some little baby girls, but instead we got:

OH NO! I don’t think so! I do NOT want a baby. That sounds like WAY too much work. I will be changing diapers ALL THE TIME. I won’t be able to do anything else. No way!

I’m not sure where she got the idea that she would be doing all the childcare. Maybe it’s a sign that I still lay in bed too much? Or just a manifestation of her general feeling that she is already an adult equivalent to her parents? Let’s go with the second one.

Despite Addison’s anti-diaper-changing outbursts, it’s definitely the most emotional journey for me. I continue to go back to this post periodically to remind myself of the lessons I need to keep in mind. Right now it’s this one: Focus on what I can control. (Which should include my house, currently looking nothing like the neat space that passed inspection, but for today, I’m pretending like that’s completely out of my control!)

I brought back several file boxes from my teen years when I got back from my parents’ house this summer. I’ve been haphazardly glancing through them in an effort to look engaged in the cleaning process.

Quote page

On this busy page, my eye was drawn to the one quote scrawled sideways:

“We never become truly spiritual by sitting down and wishing to become so. You must undertake something so great that you cannot accomplish it unaided.”

– Phillips Brooks

This whole foster/adopt journey would seem to fall in that category, but especially an infant/toddler combo and the accompanying sleep deprivation. We’ll keep waiting to see . . .


March 8, 2016

February: Wrote!

Filed under: Adoption, Personal — Tags: , , — llcall @ 4:50 am

While I didn’t manage the 30 minutes every day that I wrote in my writing challenge “contract,” as of tonight, I have written for exactly 870 minutes over the last month. Five blog posts published here. One guest post written for another blog, which I’ll share when it goes live. One additional guest post labored over for altogether too much time and still an absolute hot mess. Not too shabby.

I feel that I’m still far from my ultimate goal, which is to get back to the feeling of writing flowing more effortlessly out of me, instead of pushing so hard to put words to complicated thoughts and feelings. It still feels “different.” (But perhaps I’m romanticizing the past, considering I had 254 post drafts when I checked back in here.) I think it feels harder to self-reveal than it has at other times in my life. Perhaps that’s just the wisdom of getting older? But if it is, I would rather stay foolish and push back.

One thing I learned for certain (which I kind of already suspected) is that 30 minutes per day  doesn’t work for me all that well. More often, I wrote for 1.5 hours on one day and then none for a day or two after (although on the days I really couldn’t get in any sort of groove, it was nice to feel like I could just stop after 30 minutes). Going forward, my goal is to write for 1.5 hours on Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Sundays. I need to keep tying it to another activity that always happens, so I decided to make it Addison’s bedtime at 7:15.

During the writing sessions when nothing was coming to me, I combed through all 254 of my post drafts trying to see which ones were worth revisiting and deleting the others. I only deleted 14; no doubt incontrovertible proof that I value my own thoughts and opinions far too highly! I also tried to make a list of all the “series” that I’ve started and still have hanging around:

  • One-word Themes: 2012’s Stronger recap, 2016’s new theme (yes, I picked one again this year for the first time since 2013)
  • Mommy Update (35 and 36 years)
  • Dearest Addison (unfinished birthday letters from her 3rd and 5th birthdays)
  • Mental Illness (which was intended to be a single post, not a series, but I’ve started over about 6 times, so now it’s a series, apparently)
  • A Spiritual History (overlapping with mental illness, obviously, which is probably one reason both have been so hard to progress)
  • A Dating History
  • A Study of Grief (prelude and follow-up to this post)
  • Therapy Week (a look back at ALL the therapy, including Marriage counseling: 8 Lessons)
  • Happiness Project Wednesday (apparently 3 or 4 of these never made it to publish back in the day)
  • Thesis Thursday (I have about 6 or 7 of these that I never posted while I was laboring through that project)
  • My Life in Lists (a random personal history based on lists)
  • (Play)Lists: My Musical History
  • Historical Jesus Studies (ever since I wrote this post, I’ve been on a bit of a journey about Jesus and I’ve read books and listened to lectures by some of the most famous historical Jesus scholars)
  • Forgiveness and Restorative Justice (started here)

Sometimes it was quite a kick reading through my old drafts. For example, I found a post with nothing written except a title: “All messed up. Awesomely dramatic, and probably fitting perfectly in at least 50% of these series!

Over the years, I know I’ve felt the strongest compulsion to write on mental illness, my spiritual history, and therapy. But dang, if those aren’t the hardest ones! I’m trying to remind myself of two things:

  1. What Brene Brown says about shame: “Shame cannot survive being spoken. It cannot survive empathy.” (On the whole, I’m a fairly low shame person, I think, but if/when I feel it, it’s about those three aforementioned things, and motherhood.)
  2. The process of foster/adoptive parenting pushes ALL the buttons. It will activate all the complicated feelings, so working to express them now will only help.

You can tell I’m trying to psych myself up. Care to join me? 😉 Also, does anything jump out at you as worthy of finishing?

February 28, 2016

A foster-adopt update

The last couple weeks of writing I’ve been trying to tackle those two guest posts that I’ve promised for other blogs. I am daily feeling how much “writer’s block” I still have. I think writing 30 minutes per day is the best way to get back on track. But it’s also occurred to me that maybe for a few days or weeks, I should just write whatever comes easiest. Or in this case, what everyone keeps asking about!

Back in May 2013, I published part IV of my “new life story.” (Incidentally, that post is an important example of why I need to write, even when it’s hard, especially when it’s hard. I remember how difficult it was to put some of those thoughts into words and it took me about 8 full months to do it to my satisfaction. But oh, the strength I’ve gotten from re-reading it! It reminds me of things that feel crucial to continuing to move forward in my life.) How often do you write a short synopsis of what you’re going to do over the next three years . . . and it actually ends up being accurate?

In a few months, we plan to move a few hours away to a different county in California. Once there, we’ll restart the process of understanding the local public and private adoption resources, particularly focusing on foster-to-adopt programs. When Addison is between five and six years old, we hope to foster-to-adopt a sibling set of two kids. Maybe a five-year-old and a two-year-old. Or a six-year-old and a three-year-old. Or possibly a five-year-old and twin babies. Or . . . you get the idea. There’s an endless number of specific combinations, but we’d like the older child to be around Addison’s age.

Um, nailed it! Addison is six now and we’re officially certified foster parents. Hurrah! We’re still hoping for a “sibling set” (which my friend Lindsay says sounds awkwardly like we’re buying furniture — totally not how we think of it, in case you were wondering, but it’s the lingo), with the older child being close to Addison’s age. We’re still open to various age combinations, though Neal is really really REALLY hoping that we still get to sleep (AKA not an infant).

In the intervening almost-three years, we feel like we’ve done our homework. We went to orientations with both our county and explored some private agencies before we settled on one. We’ve attended a foster-adopt support group off and on for about a year and a half. We’ve read more books (obviously) and loads of regulations and manuals. And then there were the official trainings: PRIDE, CPR, first aid, and water safety.

Of course all of that was easy compared to getting the house ready! Some foster families struggle with the little nitpicky things, like locking up all knives, household cleaners, scissors, and medications. But us? They had to gently recommend that we get ACTUAL BEDS. (Apparently, nobody can be sleeping on little foam pads in the closet. Who knew?) Neal used his massive collection of power tools — did I ever mention he won the Ryobi contest? THANK YOU! — to build us a new bed frame, locking medicine cabinet, and more garage storage. A sweet sister from our ward gifted us a nice cozy mattress for the kids’ room. I dejunked like crazy thanks to a Minimalism game my sister-in-law Robin-Elise started on Facebook. I jettisoned almost 2000 items in November and December, even spending New Year’s Eve cleaning just so I could finish (because: goals).

Our final inspection was on January 5 and the house never looked better. (And surely, never will with a couple more kids in the mix!) We passed with just one minor recommendation: to change the location of the carbon monoxide detector.

So now we wait for a phone call. And try to keep the house from seriously degrading in the meantime. And continue to help Addison understand the actual import of what will happen next — not just her idealized version of big sisterhood. One of those recent such conversations ended like this, “Well, I didn’t really think about the sharing so much. Maybe I just want it to stay you and me and dad forever.” Heaven help us!

February 1, 2015

August – September: Nest

Since I knew back in March that things weren’t going to go according to the plan, I was pretty open to any emergent theme by the time August rolled around. Neal was, of course, lobbying for more organizing/decluttering. But it didn’t seem to quite fit all the things we had in mind, things like trying to buy our house, going forward with our foster/adopt plans, and of course, organizing.  And then it came to me:

Nestverb. To build or occupy a nest: settle in or as if in a nest. To fit compactly together or within one another.

The genius of Nest was that it described both the actions I would take and the overall purpose of what we were trying to do: to build our home and family, so that it fit, and we could settle in happily. As the month went on, I realized I could just as easily accomplish it when I was cleaning the house or making needed home-buying phone calls as I could when I was holding a sick Addison in the recliner. (She even held my hand for about 17 seconds — so thrilling!) It was all nesting.

To that end, these are some of the things I did in August and September — before the grieving paralysis struck:

  • Attended the county foster orientation (to say it was not the best experience would be a huge understatement)
  • Got a referral for another foster family agency, attended their support group meeting, and decided to go with them
  • Read several books on transracial adoption and other adoption topics (while serving on jury duty for a murder trial, which of course, I was not selected for since no prosecutor ever would select me with my history and bleeding heart)
  • Cooked and froze a new batch of food for my work lunches
  • Agreed on a purchase price with our landlord
  • Researched the heck out of how to buy a house without the help of anyone with real estate knowledge (this was our landlord’s strong preference)
  • Started our mortgage application
  • Cleaned, organized, decluttered far less than Neal was hoping!
  • Took Addison for a mommy-daughter San Francisco getaway instead

Nest. It was such a peaceful theme. I’ll have to come back around to that one sometime.

May 24, 2013

A new story of my life, part IV

Final installment for the foreseeable future. If you want to catch up, here’s part Ipart II, and part III.

I started this in October 2012 and tried periodically to finish it, but I guess it just needed like seven months to “bake.” That, and it’s freaking long.* It takes a long time to make this many words semi-coherent (which I hope I’ve managed to do). So here’s your “tl;dr” in case you only want the adoption update and not the ten-hour journey through my psyche:

In a few months, we plan to move a few hours away to a different county in California. Once there, we’ll restart the process of understanding the local public and private adoption resources, particularly focusing on foster-to-adopt programs. When Addison is between five and six years old, we hope to foster-to-adopt a sibling set of two kids. Maybe a five-year-old and a two-year-old. Or a six-year-old and a three-year-old. Or possibly a five-year-old and twin babies. Or . . . you get the idea. There’s an endless number of specific combinations, but we’d like the older child to be around Addison’s age.

For those not familiar with the foster care system, age 5 is kind of a magic number (well, not “magic” in a good way). When a child reaches five, they are considered an “older child” and are less likely to be adopted. Enter us.

So that’s it. Seriously? That’s what took me seven months to articulate? Here’s the trip down the rabbit hole if you want the whole experience:

Last weekend [last October] Addison met her new cousin, baby Brayden. For the last couple of months before Brayden arrived, Addison totally noticed that something was going on in Aunt Rish’s tummy and she was getting a little impatient.  “Baby come out!” “See him!” She was pleased to finally be able to see and hold him. So I was only mildly surprised when on Monday she said to me,

“Hope you get a baby in your tummy.”

You do?

“Yeah, a baby ‘pider.”

I think we dodged a bullet this time, folks. I thought she was already going to start demanding her own squishy little sibling. Thankfully, she’s really into arachnids and insects. But if my growing up years are any indication, the demands for a brother or sister will start eventually and be persistent. I remember my brother and I being insistent about our need for another sibling, no doubt because we each wanted an ally in our battles against one another.

So I figure I better finish this “new life story” so I have something to tell Addison when the questions come, even though I’m not completely sure how to tie all these disparate threads together. I hadn’t quite meant to leave this story in such a mournful place, amidst all the doubts and fears. Those doubts covered a variety of issues — a lot of them about the specific difficulties of adopting — but at that point my neck issues, which in August made doing almost anything, much less childcare, impossible, were looming large. It was really hard to think about adding another little person or two to our lives when the realization that at almost any moment my mobility could be drastically reduced was so fresh. Still, I couldn’t deny that I had been having feelings much stronger than those doubts for many months.

I. Synergy

Synergy. It’s the only word I could come up with. Various elements coming together in a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts. In parts I and II, which seemed decidedly unconnected, I was just starting to map out a new vision of how past life experiences I had mostly separated mentally were actually inextricably linked. There was my work at CORE with youth in foster care. Stop. Then there was my prisoner work. Full stop. Then later there was my work as a parent. Even though I have made avoiding fragmentation one of the central themes of my life, and have always wanted that oneness to be reflected in an overlap between my work/home/inner life, in practice, mothering has been quite distinct from studying incarceration — unless you draw a parallel to our desperate attempts to keep her locked up during “quiet time” so that she doesn’t trash the place. (Come to think of it, there is probably some useful philosophical exploration of the concepts of retributive vs. restorative justice in childhood disciplinary tactics. No, stay on topic.) But when the idea of adoption, and especially adopting through foster care, started to seep into my psyche, it was like watching many little puzzle pieces fly together magnetically. They were still all jumbled and in need of sorting, but they were clinging tight.

I thought about how often foster care came up in my thesis interviews, enough that my co-investigators and I were kicking ourselves for not having included any related questions in our quantitative survey. Many of the men had spent time in foster/kinship care; sadly, some of them could barely distinguish their time in juvenile detention from their foster care experiences. And now some of their children were similarly experiencing foster and kinship care while their parents were incarcerated.

Early on, I read this passage in You Can Adopt: “Parents sometimes hesitate to tell children difficult details of their personal histories (conception from rape or incest, a parent in prison). But most secrets eventually come to light. And when they do, the fact that they remained secrets tells the child that he or she should feel ashamed. Adopted children need to know their entire life stories, not just the good parts.” I thought about how I have spent the better part of the last decade learning how to discuss these difficult topics with sensitivity and fairness. And I considered that with a little practice and guidance I could learn how to translate what I know about these topics to a child’s language, so that they could look on their pasts with compassion and forgiveness rather than anger.

In short, I realized that all this work I’ve been doing over the last decade was both an end in itself, and the beginning of something else. Something that I’m pretty certain will be the most taxing and trying experience of my life.

II. For whom?

“Those who choose to adopt a child do so with a great deal of hope, but their expectations are usually internally driven, and may not be based on the realities of the situation.” — Adopting the Hurt Child, p. 16

In my study (admittedly, still limited) of foster/adoptive parents, I have concluded that these “internally driven expectations” are critical. It seems that often unhappiness arises because of internal expectations that have not been made explicit. Adopting the Hurt Child certainly makes the case that a large number of the foster/adoptive parents they encounter have had unrealistic expectations. Later in the book they make the point that “parents who adopt a child who is missing a leg, for example, don’t expect love, stability, and permanency to recreate a limb. They simply expect to help the child secure the best prosthesis and cope well.” Unfortunately, most youth in foster care are dealing with more complex emotional issues — things that love, stability, and permanency may ameliorate over time, but most likely will never “cure.” As I start to build my little toolbox of strategies for dealing with the tough times ahead, Don’t expect a new limb” has become my simple reminder to examine the reasonableness of my expectations.

Deconstructing my expectations has inevitably led me to one crucial question: For whom are we doing this?

  1. Is adopting for me, to fill a hole that having no more biological children left in my heart?
  2. Is it for Addison because she should have a sibling to grow and play with?
  3. Is it for  “our family“? (A sort of amorphous concept but one I have heard myself voice before.)
  4. Is it for the children, to give them a better opportunity than they would have otherwise?

And finally, which of these motives are more predictive of a positive experience navigating the foster/adoption system? (Note to self: Do literature search.) (Note to readers: Feel free to answer/speculate in the comments — I’m curious if you have any thoughts/experiences!) What I know at this point is that I have felt the need to actively let go of reasons 1, 2, and 3; if 1, 2, or 3 occur as a byproduct of helping some children in need, we’ll be thankful for that little slice of mercy. But the first three all inherently place expectations on the child (that they will fill a gap, a hole, be a sibling, meet our needs somehow), when #4 is really all we can guarantee — that we will provide them with opportunities for love and stability that they might not get elsewhere. “We have to fill our own gaps,” I remind myself (though, luckily, we’re not completely alone in that).

At first glance, letting go of motive #1 seemed impossible. My desire for another child runs so deep; surely, I would always feel some secret, idealized hope. But one day I realized, No, I have a precedent for this. This prisoner work I undertook so long ago, I did only to provide greater opportunity to another group in need. It wasn’t to meet a need in me, although I have experienced many wonderful byproducts. It wasn’t for external validation since I was met with more criticism than support initially. It wasn’t for any monetary gain (that probably goes without saying, ha!). I did it because I saw a need and I wanted to help. I know I can do that again. I have to remember, “I have a precedent for this.”

Letting go of the idea that another child would somehow meet my needs has ultimately changed the whole landscape. When we first talked about adoption, we both thought we wanted a baby. Who doesn’t, right? But as my baby hunger subsided, I realized that if I could reframe this whole process around the needs of the children, it was likely that the babies in foster care were least likely to need us, based on the simple fact that others would want them. When I looked into all the different foster programs, I was excited by the possibilities: older kids and sibling sets; 30-day shelter care for newborns; intensive teen programs; aftercare-type programs for 18-21-year-olds to help in the transition to adulthood. This not only changed the landscape of what type of children we might take in, but it also opened up the timetable. We could take in a child Addison’s age or a little younger. Or we could provide shelter care for infants when she’s a tween. Or we could have teens or young adults when she leaves for college. For the first time, it began to occur to me that perhaps my life’s work will fall as much (or more) in the foster care system as the criminal justice system. And that this first step will be just the beginning.

III. Reframing

When I started to feel little inklings that maybe more of my future work would be with foster care, I was not immediately taken with the idea. More than a little reframing was in order; a process that ended up being almost as much a theme for 2012 as “stronger.” In case you haven’t noticed, I have invested an awful lot of my time, energy, and passion in work related to incarceration and I’ve had no shortage of future plans in that regard, next steps for when my children were a little older. Suddenly, all that felt like it was being upended in a call to something slightly familiar, but still very different. To complicate that even further, it was the ultimate fusion of work and family. In a way that I had never fully conceptualized until I started picturing myself in that role, I realized what an impossibly difficult thing we ask of foster parents: Be a mother, but also a semi-dispassionate case worker. Welcome them, love them, integrate them into your family, BUT facilitate them rejoining their original family if at all possible. Provide them with stability, right up until the moment that they are taken away. Talk about emotional and cognitive dissonance . . .

How do I start preparing myself for the reality of that? This was my starting point, I think: I won’t be their mother. Not at first; maybe not at all. All I can do is to mother them. If I define myself as their mother, make it a noun, the system/their other parents/the judge could easily take away that identity. But they can’t take away the mothering acts that I will do for them, regardless of how long or short our time together. This Christmas on a rare foray into fiction, I read the first Harry Potter book. I’m glad I did as it had this little tidbit right at the end, “To have been loved so deeply, even though the person who loved us is gone, will give us some protection forever.” It’s a pretty thought, endowed with some mystical power in the book, but I also believe there’s truth there. So I’ll tell myself that, too: “I won’t be their mother, but my love will give them some protection.” And at the very least, I will teach them how to brush their teeth, something my old friend Tina did not learn until she was 11, years into her stay in foster care. (Or perhaps Neal has taken over all dental hygiene forever; either way, teeth WILL be brushed.)

Besides reframing what it will mean to be a “mother,” I had a fair amount of work to do in reframing my own abilities. As I mentioned in part II, after the emotional collapse that was my miscarriage, the story we began to tell each other was that adoption would be too tough for me to take. I wouldn’t be able to handle its difficulties with anything approaching equanimity. But when God sends you a message — you will be an adoptive parent! (subtle, no?) — there’s nothing else to do but strike all those other stories from the record. Apparently, adoption will not be too tough for me to take. Also, I will be able to handle the difficulties with something approaching equanimity. Obviously, “I can do this.”

Of course, getting that message loud and clear and actually internalizing it are two different things. I had to keep digging to get at the root of this idea that I would be unable to handle adoption. I think the root is this: A deep depression is always right at my door; that is, if it’s not already camped out in my room. This always seemed to be a perfectly reasonable assumption. After all, I clearly recall my first depressive episode being when I was 6 years old. And then there were things all along the way until it all got really bad in my late teens. Have you ever tried to get life or health insurance with a history of clinical depression? There’s a litany of questions perfectly calculated to remind you of what a mess your psyche has been. I’ve had to answer a lot of insurance questions over the years; it’s no wonder that I have held on to the belief that a deep depression was always right around the corner.

But here’s a few facts I need to tell myself more often: it’s been almost 14 years since my last really catastrophic depressive episode. In the subsequent years, I have had only two real episodes: after the miscarriage and after Addison’s birth, both things that sometimes make even “normal” people depressed, and neither approaching anything like what I have experienced in the past. I’ve been to almost 4 full years of therapy/group counseling in the subsequent 14 years. Now that it’s been more than a decade, I no longer have to answer insurance questions about it. According to the actuarial tables, then, I am cured. Also this small thing: I experienced a miraculous healing and deliverance from nearly every symptom of mental illness that I experienced from age 6 to 20. It’s too bad I’ve struggled to say that so loud and clear all these years. So I need to accept this:  “I don’t have a major depressive disorder anymore.”

IV. Ambiguous loss

“If [the parents’] decision to adopt stems from personal loss — loss of a birth child or infertility — they must assess where they are in their own grief cycle to maximize their ability to help their new child. After all, adoption is about loss, and facing that loss is one of the first steps in the child’s healing process. It is, therefore, critical for parents to take stock of how bereavement is handled in the family so the child’s loss can be addressed appropriately.” — Adopting the Hurt Children, p. 80

I have been a fan of ambiguous loss theory since I first stumbled on it while researching a paper on young couples dealing with chronic illness, but it took on even more personal meaning during my miscarriage. (I wrote this during that time, although I never mentioned that a miscarriage was what prompted those thoughts.) Ambiguous loss was first applied to various relationships in which a person may be physically present but psychologically unavailable (like dementia or traumatic brain injury) or physically absent but psychologically present (like soldiers missing in action or incarceration). It has since been more broadly applied to situations in which we may encounter loss that is invisible (in some way), difficult to articulate, or unresolvable.  Pauline Boss, the theory’s creator and patron saint, believes it is the most difficult type of loss because “there is no closure; the challenge is to learn how to live with the ambiguity.”

It would be hard to overstate how huge this concept is when it comes to adoption and especially adoption through foster care, where many children may have faced the loss of multiple families, homes, schools, cultures, even cities or states. Eventually I will have to turn my attention to how I can help any future foster or adoptive children deal with their own ambiguous losses, but over the last year I’ve been focused on what it will mean for me as a foster parent. I remind myself, “There is no closure. Period.” Although I have always felt like I have a high tolerance for ambiguity, looking back I see plenty of time wasted by looking for “closure.” What is closure, anyway? And why have I so often told myself it was necessary or desirable? I’m not going to make the same mistake this time. When a child comes into our lives, only to leave again, I want to hold them in my heart while still moving forward. There is no closure, not really. And even if there were, why would I want it? Wouldn’t it be closing off a beloved child?

When I first wrote about ambiguous loss back in 2008, I was grappling with how to memorialize my lost child, a child that was invisible to virtually everyone but ever so present to me. Eventually Neal came up with the perfect memorial: he suggested we each write our “final” thoughts in a beautiful notebook. After using the notebook (a going away present from my dear friend Marshay when I left D.C.) as our wedding guestbook, we had continued to write notes and messages in it for each other. It seemed like a fitting place for a final memorial to our first child. The only problem was that I couldn’t bring my usually verbose self to do it. Neal went first, writing three beautiful pages of love, light, and hope. He crafted it over several days in January 2009, ending with this thought, “We look forward to families that transcend the limitations of this world.” As moved by his words as I was, all I could manage a few months later was an entry that started like this:

We agreed that we would both write in this book as a way to memorialize and grieve the loss of our first child. I find that I cannot do it. I thought that it would offer a final resting place for so much sorrow, but it feels wrong to bury that sorrow. Every time I think I’m moving on, this pang comes as if that moving forward negates the importance, even the existence of the child that I already loved. . . . I don’t really know how to bring either this entry or this chapter to a close gracefully. I just know that I’m getting out of bed in the morning, I’m teaching a class, taking a class, teaching Relief Society, having neck surgery, smiling, crying — all vestiges of my pre-baby life.

To be honest, after we wrote these entries, I seldom wanted to read them. The notebook now represented pain. While I had been the primary writer before, Neal began to write more often and I virtually stopped altogether. In fact, I remember once actually putting it under another book so that it would be obscured from my view. But as I’ve asked myself this very concrete question, How am I going to deal with the ambiguous loss that we will intentionally introduce into our lives?, I have come back to that notebook often. Even though a place that had previously been a source of comfort now carried sadness in it, with time I could appreciate a new type of comfort it offered. It became a concrete place to go with my sorrow, and then to emerge from it. It offered peace of mind, knowing that I didn’t have to cling so hard to my grief for fear that I would forget altogether. There would always be a place to remember. (Months later, this blog became another memorial.)

So that was my first answer to that question of how to cope: Create a place to remember each child that comes into our life. A new entry in our book? A painted handprint? I’ve heard of people who have figurines (probably not a good match for our minimalist tiny-house dreams) or wear necklace charms (doubtful since I couldn’t even get in the habit of wearing a wedding ring) or plant trees (maybe, if we have our own yard). Only recently did I learn that creating a “loss box” is a strategy to help adoptees work through their feelings. I’m not sure what form our place of remembrance will take, but I know it will be essential for me.

The second coping mechanism I’ve been pondering is something I wrote about over a year ago: Escape. I’m certainly still a work-in-progress on this whole fun/escapism thing, but I’ve figured some things out in twelve months. For starters, I like to have a TV show, just one, that I keep close tabs on. I have gone through periods where I watched no TV at all and periods where I watched a TON of TV. I think what adds considerable enjoyment to my life is having one that I look forward to each week. Lately, my show of choice has been Project Runway (ironic, no?); I mourn for its glory days on Bravo, but I still enjoy it when paired with Tom and Lorenzo’s commentary. I think I would prefer a dancing show like So You Think You Can Dance?, but there were just too dang many episodes each week so I had to cut it off. Besides that, I enjoy reading a weekly advice column from Slate‘s “Dear Prudence.” With our upcoming move to the mountains (a town of 2,600 people!), other fun things I’ve been doing here (the beach, occasional restaurant visit, etc.) will require some reworking, but I think I’m on a good track. It doesn’t hurt that Addison is getting more fun all the time (always interspersed with frustration, of course). (How clinical does this paragraph make “fun” sound? Sheesh.)

The third coping mechanism is easy to say, but hard to do: Focus on what I can controlInterfacing with the criminal justice system over the last decade has certainly given me a primer on frustrating, exhausting, often heartbreaking bureaucracy, but I know we’re putting ourselves on a collision course with a lot, LOT more of that. So I need to, in every stage and situation, focus on what I can control. Rereading the above passage out of our notebook reminded me of some of those basics: I can get out of bed; teach my classes; fulfill my church assignments; smile; cry (fingers crossed on avoiding the neck surgery). I can focus on mothering acts, instead of all the things I would like to change in the child welfare system. I have a precedent for this, too, after all: despite the occasional blog post advocating changes in the criminal justice system, I intentionally decided that I did not want to focus on the system per se, but rather on the individual people I could reach out to during their sojourn there. 

I have a lot more reading to do on coping with ambiguous loss (this book is up next), both for myself and for facilitating that process with the children, but I feel that more than four years ago, I identified one of the key things to hang on to: There is no ambiguous loss in God’s eyes. This past year I have experienced a remarkable degree of clarity about myself, my past, and my future. I hope in reading this, and other things I will write over the next few months, it will be evident that I have learned to put words to some ambiguous losses from my past; it’s not the end of pain, it’s not quite closure, it’s a clearer way forward. I know God has been my close companion in this process, healing some things, while at other times reminding me that not everything has to be healed to be productive. 

As Neal said four years ago, we look forward to families that transcend the limitations of this world. With all our doubts and questions, we are certain we’re on a beautiful path to that.

* I thought about posting this section-by-section, but for my sake, I wanted to capture it all in one place.

October 3, 2012

A new story of my life, part III

Filed under: Adoption, History, Motherhood, Personal — Tags: , , , — llcall @ 10:40 pm

If you want to catch up, here’s part I and part II. Spoiler alert: it’s about adoption.

June 2012

I can hardly believe that it’s been only two months since I wrote the first parts of this new story. I’ve done so much research and thinking and praying and learning since then — it really feels to me like we’ve been on this path for AGES. I guess that’s a good sign; it feels so right, it’s hard to imagine that we were ever contemplating something different.

I’m probably the only one that’s still bothered by this, but if you’re like me, when you got to the end of part II, you thought, Wait a second, that had absolutely nothing to do with part I! What the heck?!  All I can say is that I sensed an inherent connection between my career path thus far and the adoption process we’re going to go through, but it was still so abstract. I knew there was a part III coming, but I just couldn’t piece it together yet. It still feels daunting to try . . .

October 2012

Even though my thoughts in June were quite incomplete (apparently it felt really daunting since I abandoned all efforts for four months), I’ve decided they are worth saving. A lot has changed in those four months; I think I feel a lot less sure now than I did then. But that’s probably why it’s good to reread this line, “It feels so right, it’s hard to imagine that we were ever contemplating something different.” We have hit up against a lot of fears, doubts, questions in the last several months. Our research and connecting with people who have been down the roads we’re thinking of traveling have been sobering, to say the least. (Thanks to those who are reading this who shared your personal experiences or connected us with friends/relatives!)

So Neal and I took a break from adoption talk. It ended up being something of a summer break: we went to a meeting with our local county in mid-June, and then we barely talked about things again until a couple of weeks ago. I cried a little rereading some of these past posts today. When you’re stuck in the doubts and fears, it’s hard to remember that one time you knew that this was part of the plan and that it would be a beautiful future. But I did feel that way. And it was POWERFUL. I have been so prone to long periods of depression in my life (like major depressive disorder starting in grade school!) that the fact that I’ve had none of that is nothing short of miraculous. Last spring I felt something that I haven’t experienced so profoundly in over a decade: it was God coming in, healing my heart, correcting my vision, laying out RIGHT IN FRONT OF ME SO THAT I COULDN’T POSSIBLE MISS IT all the good that I too easily overlook (that indeed, I think I am somewhat genetically programmed to overlook — but that’s a whole other story, right?). I’ve had some people challenge me on my belief in God over the last several years, and all I can say is that belief in Him does not come naturally to me. I have wrestled with what I was taught to believe for as long as I can remember. But what I know as much as I know anything in this world is that  God has delivered me, from some terrible things in the past, from accidents and illnesses that could easily have ended my life, and just as miraculously from the captivity of my own mind. He did that for me first 12 years ago, and then again, in the spring.

In case you’re wondering, this is nothing like what I thought I sat down to write today. I was going to tell you about our adoption plans, or non-plans as the case may be. But I guess I just needed to remember the spring.

June 11, 2012


Filed under: Adoption, Motherhood, Personal, Pregnancy — Tags: , , , — llcall @ 3:55 pm

I wrote this last Monday, but promptly forgot about it amidst the busy week.

Yesterday I held a just about two-month-old baby during Relief Society. I could hardly take my eyes off her, observing/remembering all the baby things babies do that Miss Addison most decidedly does not do. I forgot how charmed  I am by the little things: watching them gently suck pacifiers (something Addison never actually did — maybe that’s why I don’t remember how cute it is); seeing their lips break into momentary smiles; listening to them grunt, trying to get comfortable (or poop). My right arm felt dead afterward, but it was worth it.

Despite how much I enjoyed it, I realized this surprising fact: I’m not really baby hungry anymore. I still like them, I still want one, but there’s no ache there now. There’s a few newborns at church and I remember seeing the first one come to church in March, at just a few weeks old. His mom picked him up to shush him and I started crying. I just wanted to shush a baby so badly. And not someone else’s where I wasn’t quite sure how he wanted to be held, whether he wanted my shoulder or the crook of my arm. I wanted to shush a baby and know that I was the very best shush-er for that little one. But unless I’m mistaken, I think that was the last time I cried for a baby. And that aching hunger has been replaced by something calm and peaceful: my time will come again. Someday.

I’m surprised at how quickly and gently that ache went away. I thought it would hang on me, maybe drive me back into therapy (not that we could afford that right now). I credit it to God and Addison. She doesn’t let me hug her often or long, but one-and-a-half seconds turns out to be just enough to remind me that I have already been given an incredible gift. (And shenanigans like Saturday’s remind me that it won’t be the worst thing for Addison to be older when a sibling comes along, lest I have another child to manage while fishing her out of fountains.)

But despite the baby hunger dissipating, I still feel some sorrow about pregnancy and labor and delivery. This just doesn’t compute for Neal. In his mind, my pregnancy was 9 months of absolute hell and complete incapacitation. But when I protest with all the things I was able to do, I can only come up with finishing my stats class and going to church.  Being out of bed 7 hours a week for 7 months (fewer after the appendectomy) is not exactly a ringing endorsement for pregnancy. And don’t even get Neal started on the terror of labor.

I remember it all differently, of course. Not that it seems rosy, but it seems amazing, almost magical and so incredibly worthwhile. I still can’t believe that I, of the strange and never-ending health problems from infancy (when I was a baby my parents came into my room once to find me bleeding out my eyes) to now, carried and delivered a girl so robustly healthy that she is forced to run everywhere and sees the doctor only once per year! That is a miracle worth suffering for.

Even while I can think of many advantages to not having another pregnancy, when my mind starts to wander, I routinely picture myself with a big, round belly again. I don’t miss the rash, but I sure do miss that belly (and the little girl punching me from inside it). And when I think about never being part of another labor/delivery, I feel sad. I still read lots of birth stories, but it’s not the same as being there with a laboring women, or myself, watching the intense highs and lows unfold.

Is it weird that I don’t even think about having another biological child anymore, but I do still dream of being pregnant and (most of) what goes along with it?

May 21, 2012

“The hurt child”

I’m on my third adoption book now. And, WHOA, it’s a doozy (I definitely need that fiction break!). I certainly don’t consider myself squeamish (I actually enjoy reading about the complexities of incarceration), but this is one of the hardest books I have ever read. Ever. It’s called Adopting the Hurt Child: Hope for Families with Special-Needs Kids. You just don’t ever want to think about the kinds of things that they’re describing happening to children. Having to face the reality, on page after page, that these things do happen to hundreds of thousands of kids is difficult (understatement of the year). Perhaps I just haven’t arrived at the hope part yet . . .

It’s probably as telling as anything that about 30 pages in I actually wanted to stop reading it. And I never want to stop reading anything I’ve started. I was just coming off You Can Adopt: An Adoptive Families Guide, which even though it does address all aspects of adoption, including “hurt children,” is a bit rah-rah-rah. You can adopt! It will work out! Here’s how to do it! Ready, go! (Don’t get me wrong, I think it is a great resource, I just think maybe I should have read it after Adopting the Hurt Child).

But I am pressing on and realizing some important things. For one, there is a certain comfort in working with adults in the criminal justice system. Even though many, if not most, have experienced the trauma the book is describing, I’m seeing them as full-grown men, strong for having lived through various kinds of hell; strong for being willing to talk about it and to seek help and to just keep surviving. It’s much harder to envision the children in this book, almost frozen in these devastating circumstances.

The other thing that’s been growing in my mind is that in some ways my background is ideally suited for adopting through the foster-care system. Considering a “special needs” adoption forces you to really think about what you expect from your children, and how you would cope if your children veered from those expectations. A couple of weeks ago my friend Emily, my resident child development expert, asked if I do a certain child development activity with Addison, and I responded something like: Not really. I’m not very intentional about it anyway. It’s more intuitive for my mom . . . but when Addison goes to jail, I’ll know just what to do! Of course, I don’t want Addison to go to jail or prison, but it’s definitely something I think I could deal with. I’ve played out that possibility in my head, considering what I would do in various scenarios (does that sound weird? When I’m sick I end up with a lot of time on my hands!), and I certainly don’t assume that Addison is immune to those kinds of problems simply because she is my child and has been blessed with many advantages in this life.

I guess the point is that when you think your child being incarcerated would be tough, but workable, and you’ve already considered strategies for getting through it, perhaps you are precisely the kind of parent that some “hurt child” could really use. Perhaps.

May 16, 2012


I’ve been reading a book called You Can Adopt: An Adoptive Families Guide that walks you through all the questions/decisions/issues/procedures that you will have to navigate in the adoption process. (After my first haul from the library, I asked Neal how many books on adoption he thought I would read based on my track record with pregnancy books: “all of them.”) So, um, did you know there are like a bazillion things to consider when trying to adopt?

This is not such a surprise; there should be a bazillion considerations to something as significant as trying to find loving, supportive care for children all over the world. But still, it feels overwhelming at times because there are just so many decision points, many of which you can’t completely prepare for beforehand. Although Neal and I feel a lot of natural consensus about some of the decisions, questions of race/ethnicity have not been so cut-and-dry.  The fact is when we picture our future child, we each picture a different race.

The book has a short section about evaluating whether you can parent a child of a different race and one of the things it recommends is taking some Implicit Assumption Tests (IATs), which are meant to measure how strongly a person holds certain stereotypes, to better understand yourself. We spent an interesting afternoon taking some IATs (using Harvard’s website — click on Demonstration and it will bring up a range of assessments), mostly on race and skin color, but also gender stereotypes and religious preferences. It was enlightening to see what implicit associations are strongest for me — my strongest, by far, was on the Gender-Career IAT where I had a strong implicit association between females-family and males-career. Interesting, considering most people (including me) don’t think I fall into a very traditional camp in that regard.

Coincidentally, this week I also ran across a Jezebel article entitled, “A Complete Guide to Hipster Racism.” Although there were far more f-bombs in it than I would prefer (fair warning), I thought it was an important treatment of the topic of “ironic racism,” which could be loosely defined as a method of joking about race to show that you’re enlightened/aren’t racist. There were a lot of bits worth reading, but this section toward the end really stuck out to me:

If you claim that you are not a racist person (or, at least, that you’re committed to working your ass off not to be one—which is really the best that any of us can promise), then you must believe that people are fundamentally born equal. So if that’s true, then in a vacuum, factors like skin color should have no effect on anyone’s success. Right? And therefore, if you really believe that all people are created equal, then when you see that drastic racial inequalities exist in the real world, the only thing that you could possibly conclude is that some external force is holding certain people back. Like . . . racism. Right?

I hope it’s absolutely clear that I think racism is alive and well in this country (and world). I see it in a lot of places, but the criminal justice system is a glaring, glaring example. But being able to identify racism and working to eliminate it, does not automatically mean that I’m not racist myself. Which is why I appreciate that caveat that being “committed to working your ass off not to be one . . . is really the best that any of us can promise.” I totally believe that. It’s my responsibility to continually examine my thoughts, beliefs, reactions, opinions for racist stereotypes and beliefs. Some people would say that is the price of privilege (I agree). But I also think it is simply the price of being human surrounded by other humans who are not me.

It can be a tricky endeavor to see differences between myself and others and not subtly assume that what I am is better (because it’s what I know? because I’m surrounded by it? because an ingrained part of me believes that a particular trait is better?). It can be equally tricky to determine how to acknowledge and embrace differences in a positive way (I don’t believe “color-blindness” is either possible or desirable). None of this applies just to race, but because racism casts such a long shadow over our country, it seems like one of the most important subjects to be vigilant about.

So if you’re like me and don’t want to be racist (I hope that’s everyone reading this), let’s never assume we’re not racist because {insert rationale here} and start saying that we are committed to working at not being racist every minute of every day until we die. Deal?

May 9, 2012

“Everything changes”

Filed under: Adoption, Family, Motherhood, Personal — Tags: , , , — llcall @ 4:24 am

The first adoption book I read, Adoption Nation: How the Adoption Revolution Is Transforming America, included this passage about a couple’s adoption process:

Like most people, they started out wanting as young a child as possible, but as they learned more—and, pointedly, as they saw pictures of and met older children—their hearts began to open to other possibilities. ‘Once you see their faces, everything changes,’ says Dottie, a library director who was thirty-one when she and her partner decided they were willing to adopt a child who was blind, deaf, or had other disabilities, a child who was older or of another race, or a group of siblings.

Showing photographs to prospective parents, or introducing the boys and girls themselves, is the most effective method for finding homes for children with special needs. Adults often discover that their stereotypes and fears evaporate when they look into a child’s eyes, or leafing through photo albums full of children without families brings home the enormity of the problem and brings out their compassion. (218; emphasis added)

The concept of seeing the children’s faces or looking into their eyes and having everything change actually hints at the first rookie mistake I made a couple of months ago. I had heard of an organization called the Heart Gallery that recruits professional photographers to take nice pictures of children who are waiting for adoption. I looked up the local chapter and was soon clicking through pictures of waiting children. It’s a common story in the books I’ve been reading — that adoptive parents often meet or see a picture of a child and just know that that is the child they were meant to find. Well, I saw one, and her picture and description just captured me. She had such a joyful smile. She was a teenager but still seeking an adoptive family, which actually says something because some youth in foster care are jaded (understandably) by their teens and prefer to “age out” of the system without adoption. Only half-jokingly, I asked Neal how he would feel about having a 13-year-old daughter in a few months.

After Neal’s panic attack (not really; he’s mild-mannered even under duress), I realized that I should not be looking at pictures of adoptable children until we are, in fact, ready to adopt one. There are too many lovely children; I’m sure to want two or three with each glance. Neal, on the other hand, thinks looking at pictures and reading descriptions might be helpful for him even at this preparatory stage. He doesn’t have the same emotional reactions nor does he have as much exposure to the variety of children and backgrounds represented in the child welfare system. He could probably benefit from putting faces to some of the “types” of children (as if children really fit smoothly into categories) we’ve been discussing.

Somewhat surprisingly, I am feeling very content to take this journey very slowly. I am learning everything I possibly can about every kind of adoption there is (similar to how I approached pregnancy, although with many more variables). While I am not sure exactly what the future holds, I’m starting to get inklings . . . part three of that new life story is slowly taking shape.

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