Don’t call us, we’ll call you

September 21, 2017

One year

Filed under: Books, Family, foster parenting, Motherhood, Personal — Tags: , — llcall @ 5:58 pm

I dreamed about Baby B last night. It was a long, winding story, like we spent a whole lifetime with him in just one night. (I guess that’s sometimes how it felt on those longest nights with him.)

Labor Day marked one year since he came to stay with us. My goal was to finish writing that part of our foster parenting story by the one-year mark. I had my glorious summer break in which to do it, but my grief, or my mind, or Neal said, Forget it; just do the dishes, the laundry, clean the house instead. And in a truly unprecedented turn, I did. The house was never cleaner (and may never be again).

I spent a couple of days trying to write, but I felt the last part of Job’s mourning: “Oh that my grief were throughly weighed . . . for now it would be heavier than the sand of the sea: therefore my words are swallowed up.” My missing him is not getting heavier, but my words are still swallowed up. How can I express how much I long to know that he’s okay? That he’s smiling and laughing and speaking. That his sweetest gaze is met every day with adoration. How can I express how much I just miss his face?

I’ve been reading a beautiful book of verse called Brown Girl Dreaming and it’s made me think in poetry again, something I haven’t done in probably 17 years now. This is what I wrote to remember my dream:

We are none of us whole

wringing our hands, crashing into each other

rushing through this cramped hospital room

trying to make this small child whole again. Or once.

We each lay a soft hand on his head in our turn

it will never be enough.

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June 12, 2017

“But before I tell you that story, I have to tell you this one…”

Filed under: Family, foster parenting, Motherhood, Personal — Tags: , — llcall @ 4:58 am

Any Captain Underpants fans in the house? (Or if not fans, people whose obsessed children made them read every single book in the series to them?) If so, you’ll recognize the title. I’ve heard those words in my mind several times over the last few months as I’ve thought about finishing the story of baby B’s time with us and subsequent departure.

I wrote most of Day 135, our last day with him. Then I wrote some more a week later. And then the week after that, all sorts of things hit the fan in another foster parenting situation. Then there were two more children in quick succession. And then, a break. It’s been a long break now, much longer than we anticipated. There’s been ample time for writing, but I never could bring myself to even open up that document again. Until today when I heard in my head, “But before I tell you that story, I have to tell you this one . . . ” and I finally knew what I needed to do.

When I was 15, I met a girl who rapidly became my best, best friend. We were two peas in a pod, often inseparable. We wrote poetry about our friendship, made books for each other, took pictures with a bowling pin together (you had to be there! — actually, I take that back, even people who were there didn’t get it), shared joint custody of a favorite sweater, and took a senior road trip together for graduation. We went our separate ways for college but stayed in close touch until a falling out. Some people told me that I had to let that friendship go after all that had happened, but I said, “NEVER!” and we nursed our way back to closeness again. We went even further separate ways after college; I could sense both literal and figurative distance but I was committed to keeping our friendship alive. Twice I road-tripped to see her, bringing Neal because I couldn’t imagine her not meeting the most important human being in my life. She reciprocated with a visit and she and Neal and I walked around D.C. for several wonderful hours together. She made the great effort to come to my wedding, and I thought for sure we had reestablished a friendship that would never end.

But we saw each other only one more time after that. We were on different coasts by then, so I knew email and phone calls would have to suffice for awhile, but she increasingly stopped replying or answering. (Not that I can blame her about the phone calls; after all, my blog title.) Neal told me it was time to accept that she had moved on, or at the very least that circumstances had moved us both on, but I said, “NEVER!” I talked to her sisters for updates to make sure she was okay; they both said she prefers text messages. I had never sent a text message in my life at that point, but in a true labor of love, I T9ed a probably unintelligible message. And then again for her birthday. And then again. Neal said maybe she hasn’t just moved on, maybe she actively doesn’t want to talk to you again. I conceded the possibility, but for years, I couldn’t let her birthday pass without some kind of message. Once Facebook came into prominence, I found her there. I wasn’t sure if she would accept my request, but I was determined that one way or another, this would be my last contact attempt. She accepted my request, but I knew that I had to hang back in a way. I’m glad I’m privy to her precious few posts per year — it matters to me to know that she is okay and it still makes me happy to see a recent picture — but I never reach out anymore. I wonder if maybe I’m a reminder of a past she finds painful. Or maybe she feels we have little in common. Or maybe she just doesn’t think about me. I’ve accepted that I don’t know, will probably never know. I’ve accepted that maybe her version of this story is completely different or that perhaps she feels she reached out to me and I failed her in some way. I’ve accepted all that, but still I won’t let her go. She will always be a friend to me.

So many times over the last year, people have said to me, “I could never be a foster parent. I would get too attached.” I understand where this sentiment comes from. It’s an emotional wrestle I think anyone seriously considering fostering must confront, so usually it doesn’t bother me when someone says that. But in the lead-up to baby B’s leaving, it stung. I mean, truthfully, everything stung, even the happiness. But during that time, it felt more personal, like they were saying that somehow they felt more deeply than I did, or that I must not get that attached because I chose to be a foster mother even knowing it would entail many goodbyes.

Lest anyone reading this think that they are the one who said this thing that felt like a personal affront, or that I hold some bitterness about it, or that you have to carefully monitor what you say to me, don’t worry. I’m not one to hold a grudge. And even if I were, truly so many people said it at some point that it feels to me almost like everyone and no one said it. It’s all water under the bridge. But I guess it’s the reason I felt the need to tell you that other story: I’m a person that doesn’t let go. There will be no closure here.

January 30, 2017

Preparing for the unpreparable, Day 128

Filed under: Family, foster parenting, Motherhood, Personal — Tags: , , — llcall @ 4:56 am

13 January

How do I fit a lifetime of love into 2 or 3 weeks?

That’s the thought my mind rests on every few minutes. I have massive amounts of work to catch up on in just the second week of a new semester after one of the most challenging weeks of my life. (Literally. We moved into a new house. Took a new foster placement –this time a 16-year-old! Wowsa! The baby and I got the flu. Then I got strep throat because the flu wasn’t good enough.) But after the news this morning that baby B would likely be leaving us in just a few short weeks, it is practically impossible to think of anything else.

I tell myself that it is good to have some notice and prepare myself emotionally. But now that we’re facing it, I’m not so sure. Will I cry every 3 minutes for the next few weeks? (Based on my track record, yes, yes, I will.) What can I possibly do between now and then that will make it more bearable when that moment comes that we have to pack up his stuff and load him in the car for the last time? How will I keep from falling apart (at least until we’re out of sight) when I give him one last kiss?

If you have an answer to any of these questions, let me in on it. Quick.

Paperwork, Day 99

14 December

We had years between the time we decided to become foster parents and our first placement to contemplate how it would work for us. One of the lists I made was the strengths that each of us brought to the table. Addison would welcome any new person with open arms (especially if they would play with her!), and though untested, I believed she would be resilient in the face of loss and change. Neal would be patient and calm. In the face of tantrums and limit-testing, his intensity would go down in direct proportion to the increasing intensity of others. And I would love. So hard.

What I hadn’t considered at that point was just how much paperwork I would have to complete and collate. There was the Intake Inventory and the Monthly Report. The Centrally Stored Medication and Destruction Record/Medication and PRN Assistance Record and the Health Care Visit Form. This week brought a Victim Impact Statement we were asked to complete on the baby’s behalf in preparation for the sentencing of one of his family members. It was hard to write (as I’m sure all Victim Impact Statements are), but I also had this feeling of confidence. This is what I do. Paperwork is what I’m good at.

I like doing the paperwork. I can keep the baby’s binder so dang organized. I can type the monthly report so neatly and shoot it off the exact day the month ends. I’m sure it’s the sense of control in the midst of the uncontrollable that makes it so calming for me. While in comparison to many, I am not an impatient or anger-prone person, I am a regular hothead next to Neal. I’ve also got nothing on Addison’s emotional resilience. But in love and paperwork, I really shine.

January 23, 2017

Coping strategies, Day 60

5 November

I never thought that I would be a foster parent. I mean, going back a ways, I didn’t plan on being any type of parent. But even once I embraced the idea of parenthood and had a sensitivity toward foster children’s needs based on some of my nonprofit work, the narrative in my head was always that I was too emotionally fragile to be a foster parent myself. I would get too attached, and then with my depressive history, I would be thrown into an emotional tailspin when the children had to go away. Which they do. And they will, right up until you finally find that fourth floor, last door fit that was meant to be with your family. So I’ve been trying to face this question head-on:

What will I do when he has to go away?

What will I do that day? That week? That month? What will I do to memorialize him and his place in our life, but still keep moving forward? There is no such thing as closure still rings true to me, but what does that really mean in practice? How do I hold on to all the love and joy while simultaneously letting go of the one who produced them?

Of course, my first instinct is to do some research. What have other foster parents found helpful? Have there been any studies on that topic? But quite surprisingly, I ended up feeling resistant to that idea. Maybe it’s influenced by lack of time, but I also have this feeling of wanting to carve out this path for myself. I had tried to start that process back when I was writing my new life story, identifying at least two things I thought would be important: Create a place to remember each child and Escape. The first one will be easy, I think, if not totally defined at this point. I’m sure I’ll feel sentimental about practically everything, so it won’t be hard to fill something like a “loss box.”

But the second, it turns out, I’ve probably gotten worse at in the last 3 years. Even before we got the baby, I had given up “Dear Prudence” and no longer had a particular show to watch regularly (though thanks to Robin-Elise and her Netflix gift, I can binge watch with the best of ’em when I’m in a funk). We reduced our dining-out budget in order to save for a new home (did I mention we’re moving? minor detail…) so restaurant meals could not be a go-to. (I have, however, allowed myself the luxury of spending $3-5 during each of the baby’s visitations in exchange for using Panera or Barnes & Noble wifi.) In short, my strategies for “escape” are a bit non-existent at the moment (let’s be honest, I’ll probably escape into work because: workaholic), though I’m sure I’ll allow myself a meal out on the day we have to give him up.

I’m on the hunt for more coping strategies, but in the meantime, I’ve found quite a bit of comfort in a quote that my new friend Ali shared on Facebook:

grief(source, I think)

My grief will be proportionate to my love. So it’s going to be intense, and it’s going to well up in my eyes about 70 times a day, just like my love does now. What will I do when he goes away? Just keep right on loving him.

January 22, 2017

Control, Day 44

Filed under: Family, foster parenting, Motherhood, Personal — Tags: , , , — llcall @ 11:31 pm

18 October

Of all the “advice” I gave myself in this mammoth post from 3.5 years ago (which, at the risk of sounding too proud, has turned out to be remarkably prescient about the mental and emotional struggles I would face and processes I would need to employ as a foster parent), the one that has replayed in my mind most in these early days is this:

Focus on what I can control

I think this is the reason why it’s so important for me to never wait in the visitation center lobby. I can’t control what happens there, and it breaks all the parts of my heart to witness what must be for some children.

Despite knowing that we would get notices of court hearings as a matter of procedure, the first one I opened surprisingly filled me with a great deal of turmoil. We were too new to know whether we were allowed to attend, expected to attend, or discouraged from attending, but it was clear from my emotional state that the last thing I wanted to do was attend the court hearing. Neal, on the other hand, was quite interested in attending. We still knew so little information about the baby and his situation, so he was curious whether the hearing would reveal any new information.

As I reflected later on my strong initial response, I realized it all came down to this control issue. I can’t control what happens at court (and it’s more than a little frustrating to think of people, however well-intentioned, who have never met or cared for baby B making decisions about his well-being) so I’d rather avoid it altogether than needlessly shift my focus. (In the end, we were discouraged from attending anyway.) Similarly, Neal has had a desire all along to ask as many questions as we can. I, on the other hand, have felt that dwelling on trying to gather as much information as possible creates an inaccurate illusion that you actually know something. That you might possibly be able to predict something. But if there’s one thing nearly everyone involved in the child welfare system has experienced, it’s getting the rug pulled right out from under them– and not just the foster parents involved. So you have to focus on what you can control. For me, the best days with the baby are the ones where I can just keep him at home, stick to his schedule, buffer him from any effects of others’ choices.

Even at home though, I had to repeat this mantra. In case you missed the memo, this little guy is a screamer/crier/turn-blue-passer-outer. Just as I struggled with Addison’s crying while I was in the throes of my postpartum depression, baby B’s alternately mournful and angry crying was deeply distressing. Initially, I felt that I had to go to almost superhuman lengths to make sure he was never left alone while he was crying. In my head, I knew it was impossible, but in my heart I didn’t want to trigger feelings of abandonment that had clearly already been so damaging to him . . . even for a second. That is another way in which Jennifer was a godsend for me; she gave me permission to let him cry and in the process reminded me that that is yet another thing that is beyond my control.

The first door, Day 27

1 October

General Conference, a twice-yearly worldwide meeting of LDS church members, has certainly been harder for me to “get into” since we had Addison. She has always been a noisy, chatty girl. Now when she watches with me, the questions and conversation are more topical (“I think loving burritos is part of my divine identity.” Direct quote during a session a year or two ago.), but every bit as constant. Adding a shrieky baby to the mix, I thought was sure to decrease my enjoyment and attentiveness even further.

This is not a miraculous story about how that didn’t happen. It totally did. I was so determined to keep listening despite how chaotic the environment was that Neal said I was getting a little shouty and asked me to turn it off. And I said, “I’m going to get through this dang 20 minute talk if it takes 3 hours, so you can just go to your room!” Or something equally grumbly (me, shouty? As if!). Truly I have no memory of the vast majority of what I heard, and I have yet to make it through all 5 sessions. But I think I heard the one thing meant for me.

President Uchtdorf’s discussion of faith and story of the missionaries who knocked on every door in an apartment building before finding a family who would listen didn’t really impact me right away. But then he said this:

Will we give up after knocking on a door or two? A floor or two?

Or will we keep seeking until we have reached the fourth floor, last door?

God “rewards those who earnestly seek him,” but that reward is not usually behind the first door. So we need to keep knocking.

One month into foster parenting, I continue to feel that I can’t do this again. When we attend our adoption support meetings, there is a mom who has had 26 foster placements, and I know I’m not like her. I can’t do this with 26 different children. I fear the eventual loss of this baby that I want so desperately to be my son will be too much for me to bear. Maybe I don’t have a major depressive disorder any longer but it will come back, I think. It’s just too hard; I don’t want to do this anymore.

But if I believe the “you will be an adoptive parent!” message came from God, then this is only the first door on that journey. Going all the way to the fourth floor, last door feels impossible right now, but we must. Sometimes I tell myself that it will get easier, I’ll get used to it, but I’m not sure I’m really wired that way.

There’s always the not-so-secret hope that this first door will “work” for us, but I know how slim the chances are. So we need to keep knocking.

Baby B’s angel, Day 20

Filed under: Family, foster parenting, Motherhood, Personal — Tags: , , , , — llcall @ 7:42 pm

24 September

My new semester began just days after we brought home baby B. I wished we had picked him up a few weeks earlier when I was in the midst of my nice long, five-week break. Then there would have been lots of time for holding him, rocking him, observing his every move, without the crunch of students and instructors likewise needing my attention. But there also would have been no Jennifer.

I currently teach only 1 out of every 6 students that take our course, but it just so happened that Jennifer was in my section. On our introductory discussion board, she mentioned that she was a certified newborn care specialist and ran a consultancy company and that if I ever needed advice on the little guy, I should ask. Although I registered the offer appreciatively, we were still in such a whirlwind of adjustment that I didn’t even know the questions to ask yet.

We had picked baby B up from the children’s center on a Monday night. As we strapped him into the car seat he came with, we tried to keep him calm with a fresh bottle, but he wasn’t having it. He began screaming shrilly, uninterested in even a sip. Addison’s extreme excitement (which just an hour before was so overwhelming that she “could blow up the whole world,” according to her) quickly drained in the face of an inconsolable infant. About 10 minutes into siblinghood she leaned over to me and whispered, “I think I want to go back to being an only child.”

The ear-piercing screams notwithstanding, he actually fell asleep pretty quickly. He slept through the car ride home. He slept through the transfers, from car to house to pack-n-play. He slept for a solid 12 hours, and after being awake for only a short time, he slept again for 3 hours. And then again. And then again. After having a not-so-stellar sleeper in Addison, we were amazed and grateful. It turns out foster parenting is super easy when the baby’s only awake for about 6 hours a day, and even then, just wants to be held! He freaked out and held his breath until he turned blue about diaper or clothing changes, but otherwise he made little noise or movement.

Until the third day, when apparently the trauma wore off enough that he came out of his catatonic state . . . and we realized he had punked us. He would wake at all hours of the night. It didn’t matter if you were patting, rocking, swinging, singing; if he could tell you were trying to get him to sleep, he was mad. He always wanted a bottle, but he could easily down 8 ounces in just a couple of minutes and start screaming for more. We were trying to pull out all our rusty baby skills, but as the sleep deprivation mounted, we weren’t sure what to try. Things that we might have done with Addison didn’t seem right in light of a traumatized, neglected baby that we still knew almost nothing about. And in our 900-square-foot house, we couldn’t really isolate the impact so it wasn’t uncommon for the three of us to be huddled around him, trying to get his diaper changed at 4:00 a.m.

Finally, I remembered Jennifer’s kind offer and emailed, “Could we talk?” We chatted for about 45 minutes on a Saturday night and I took copious notes on her tips for sleepwear, diet, sound, lighting, schedules, etc. Besides his usual skepticism, Neal was even a little miffed because I holed myself up right during the witching hour before bed when baby B was most upset. While none of Jennifer’s ideas were magic, the combination of them and how quickly baby B adjusted felt at least magical, if not miraculous. After just a day and a half of following her suggestions, he started sleeping again. He stopped breath-holding so frequently. He was playful, active, joyful even. He was a different kid.

Having Jennifer in my class this semester was a tender mercy for us to be able to get through those draining early weeks. But for baby B, she was his angel.

Foster parenting, Day 18

22 September

If there’s one thing baby B hated when he came to us, it was diaper changes. But a close second: having his hands touched. He was already 10 months old so his grasp reflex was gone (except as applied to the death grip on his bottle), but he seemed unusually bothered by even the slightest touch of his hands.

For the first week or so that he was with us, we had Neal give him all his bottles. We wanted to quickly break down his obvious alarm at being near a man, and associating Neal with his beloved bottles seemed to be the quickest way. Once that was well in hand, however, I quickly claimed the rocking, bottle-feeding routine. I’d been waiting 6 years to rock another baby so there was no way Neal was going to get all that action!

The first couple of times I held him while he sucked down his formula at breakneck speed (seriously, you cannot believe how fast he could down 8 ounces!), I was struck by how insistent he was that he hold the bottle (even brushing his hand or the bottle could incite his wrath) and how tightly he held it, so much so that the blood would drain from his fingers and they would seem almost glowing white in the darkness. As I rocked, I would think back on how casually Addison had held her bottle. It was the casualness of knowing that someone would bring her another; there would always be another bottle, another time. Every last drop was not required to be sucked out with such force. Still knowing so little about the baby’s background, it seemed obvious that his grip was the grip of survival, of not knowing what the future would bring.

But I had a plan. I thought that if I could slowly supplant his hands on the bottle, taking care to not disrupt his flow of milk, his free hands would eventually land on mine. I would intentionally fan three of my fingers out so that as he moved his hands around they would begin to glance off mine. Once he brushed past my fingernail and his curiosity won out as he spent 15 or 20 seconds feeling around my nail with his tiny pointer. It felt pretty much like winning the lottery, if you’re wondering.

I still remember the moment, probably around Day 10, that he wrapped his little hand around my ring finger for the first time, and just held on. (As long as there was milk in his bottle, of course, after which all hell would break loose.) I wanted to whisper to him that he could hold on to me for survival, he didn’t have to “fend for himself.” But I didn’t, because on Day 11 or 12 or 13, they could come calling for him and he might have to go back to survival mode.

In those early days, my mind was a bit frenzied during these rocking sessions. I loved him so much in just a few short days, I would think about how wrecked I was going to be when he had to leave. During the morning nap routine, I was convinced that when he left I could never foster another child. And then by afternoon, I was sure that I couldn’t live without fostering 10 more babies. Because BABIES.

But most often my mind would rest on two thoughts. Or more accurately, it would rest on the first thought and spin on the second.

First, I would hear this poem in my head, introduced to me by my friend Steph. My mind might wander to the papers I needed to be grading or the discussion boards I had to post while the baby got a precious little sleep, but I’d hear, “I’m rocking my baby and babies don’t keep.” I guess that’s true for everyone, but it was so poignantly true for us. He might only “keep” for one more day, so I could just forget about my work for awhile and press my cheek against his one more time.

Second, less pleasantly, I was plagued by this question: what if what I’m doing for him — which in some moments is pure euphoria and in others is the most painful thing I have ever voluntarily put myself through — is actually maladaptive for the life he has in store for him? He’s still an infant, yes, but maybe the survival instincts he’s developed are what he needs for the life he has ahead. What if teaching him to depend on me will actually make his life worse if he goes back to an environment in which his needs are not warmly met?

Of course, my mind spins through any relevant studies I’ve read. There’s the ACEs work, but did it address my fundamental fear that not only will the suffering we’re putting ourselves through not help him, it could actually make his life harder? I’d have to revisit it. In those moments, it feels absolutely urgent that I find more data. Of course, there couldn’t be any sort of random assignment experiments comparing human babies from his background who got temporary, nurturing care with those who did not. But maybe there was something with mice or monkeys? But then I remember, I’ve got a baby. Ain’t nobody got time for scouring the research when you’re physically running on empty.

Despite these misgivings, however, my plan worked like a charm. Slowly, he began to take hold of my hand more often and cling to it — but gently, not a death grip. And about a week later, on Day 18, this happened for the first time. 18 days to go from deep fear and distrust of Neal to a little thumb hold on a leisurely walk. Be still, my heart. (Time stand still too, if possible.)

baby-boy-holding-hands

 

 

 

 

November 6, 2016

Foster parenting, Day 15

Filed under: Family, foster parenting, Motherhood, Personal — Tags: , — llcall @ 10:18 pm

19 September

This morning as we said our family prayer before rushing out the door for the bus, Neal asked Addison to pray for the little guy to have a good visiting day. She prayed for that and then added on her own, “And please bless his mom to not be too sad.”

It made me feel like despite all the craziness of the last two weeks we must be doing something right if Addison is thinking of and caring about this woman that she’s never met. I think as a foster/hoping-to-adopt-someday parent, you need constant reminders that the biological family is not the enemy. You’re sad/mad that they’ve made bad choices that hurt the child that you started to love the minute you held him. You’re scared about whether they will have learned the lessons they need to do better.

But if you’re honest, you know that they’ve probably been through things you haven’t. Maybe they weren’t raised with the kind of love and nurturing that you took for granted. Maybe they were exposed to, or not taught to avoid, drug and alcohol abuse that can impair all your good sense and positive parenting impulses if you don’t actively fight against it. Maybe they’re stressed to a breaking point just trying to keep a roof over their heads in the face of limited education or employment opportunities.

We have no idea what factors are playing out in the lives of baby B’s biological family. What we do know is that the police found him alone at home, and a judge determined that he should be retained in state custody for an undetermined period of time. We know that his mom is sad and confused.

Foster parenting is certainly the most emotionally and cognitively dissonant thing I’ve experienced. I want to be like Addison and pray for his mom. I want to believe that she can right the wrongs that have been done to him. I want to pray that she will have the enormous strength it takes to change ingrained habits, and eventually bring him back to a safe, healthy home. But I also want him to stay with us forever, because we can give him everything he could ever need (except his bio family). I want to pray for that instead. And so, often, I pray for nothing related to him at all . . . because too many thoughts, too many emotions. Too loaded.

The saving grace for me is that I have years of experience interacting with people who have made bad choices. When his mom and I talk in the lobby before they go behind the locked door and I leave (always, always leave), I can very nearly dissociate who she is from what has happened. How was your weekend? When is your friend’s baby due?  What’s happening with her boyfriend? I chit-chat with the best of ’em and she readily talks, just as if she were a client sitting in my office. I make empathic responses to all the complicated situations she confides. Sometimes I give little bits of advice, the same things I would tell my clients who had lost their children to the foster care system. In those moments, she’s just a person and the emotional complexity falls away. Because I’m good at people. And she’s not bad or evil, just flawed. Like all of us.

And so I must remember, please bless his mom to not be too sad.

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