The Summer of ’76

It was the summer of ’76 when my dad drove our family to California for a vacation. I was four-years-old in the backseat of a sweaty, hot car as we made our way to the Golden State – approximately 1,900 miles from my hometown. When we arrived, we checked in at the hotel and then headed straight to the beach. Warm sand hitting my toes. Sun setting across the distant ocean. Taking in the glory in front of us.

I cautiously approached the water with my green flip-flops on. Dipped my toes in and then took a few steps. The tide came up, pulled my flip-flops right off of my feet and swept them out to sea. Dad exclaimed, “Jaws got them!” as he tried to cheer up his sad little girl. (The original movie just came out the summer before our trip. Plus, about a mile from our beach, someone caught the largest Great White in California history, at that time.)

The rest of the beach vacation consisted of me digging holes in the sand, running close enough to the water to fill a small bucket, and pouring it in the sand; my attempt at building my own little ocean so that I didn’t have to go where Jaws lived.

Ocean animals have terrified me ever since. I love looking at the ocean, but you won’t ever catch me swimming in open water. I won’t book cruises and can barely watch movies that contain deep water/giant creatures that could eat me for lunch.

My four-year-old brain heard my Dad say, “Jaws got them!” My brain signaled that the ocean and sharks are something to avoid. Digging a hole to create my own little ocean was a way for me to build a safe place where I knew I could survive without the giant monsters looming in the water.

This is similar to what we see with children who have experienced trauma. (For the record, I’m absolutely not saying that my experience at the ocean is as serious as traumatic events of abuse.) This experience instantaneously changed my view of the ocean and it has stayed that way ever since the summer of ’76. The holes I dug really didn’t create more safety for me even though my brain convinced me otherwise.

Just as happy experiences alter development of the brain (in a positive way), trauma does so as well. But not in a good way. Instead, the brain develops patterns for survival. For some kids, it may look like hoarding food even though there is plenty to eat. For others, it could be locking every door they enter just in case someone tries to come in.

Some kids run away from their caregivers (even ones who are safe) and keep running to avoid any type of attachment or relationship. Kids may lie to avoid a beating, although they are no longer in an environment where beating occurs. For others, it looks like claiming control of everybody and everything they can (even animals) because they could not control what happened to them in the past.

Changing the landscape to which kids from hard places view life includes us changing our perceptions of trauma. The brain controls our action – even when we don’t understand it. From fear to elation, everything that happens all comes to down to brain chemistry, connectivity and development.

When I revealed that his words forever altered my view of the ocean and aquatic life, my dad was quite surprised. He had no idea that experience in the summer of ’76 had an impact on me. Families who care for traumatized children mustn’t be surprised when the child pulls away from nurturing or hides food in their sock drawer. Or, runs away from the home. They need to know that it isn’t the child’s response to them but to trauma.

As we end National Child Abuse Prevention Month and move into Foster Care Awareness Month in the US, let’s strive to truly and deeply understand trauma and the subsequent life-long impact it has on the developing brain.

things I wish I heard prior to adoption

As a parent to kiddos adopted out of difficult situations, here are the things I wish I heard prior to adoption:

1) It’s not gonna feel good all of the time.
2) Nurture is awesome, but genetics are huge.
3) You might have days where you wished you had made a different decision. (don’t guilt yourself about it)
4) Raising children with extra needs causes you to live life around a schedule of medicines, appointments, triggers, and other issues.
5) It does hurt when you are told that you are not their “real parent”. (even though you pretend it doesn’t)
6) Fear causes you to overthink…a lot.
7) There will be things that come up in your child’s life that you never had to deal with.
8) Don’t compare your own upbringing or the way you were as a child to what you expect or wish of your child.
9) Adoptive parenting can be very lonely and isolating.
10) Don’t underestimate your voice in all of it.
11) Never underestimate your child’s voice in all of it.
12) Get used to advocacy. It will become one of your best assets.
13) Adoption = loss. It just does.

I never want to paint a rosy or perfect picture of adoption – not even during National Adoption Month. Instead, I want others to know that while adoption is incredible and totally life-changing, it is also hard.

In order for us (people who work and live life within the realm of adoption) to make a difference, we need to take off our rose-colored glasses. We need to tell it like it is.

We have to understand that adoption is wonderful but also challenging. The gavel’s declaration of adoption does not mean that hard stuff ends. If anything, it is just beginning.

For any of you who are parents through adoption and are struggling, I see you. I get it. I am right there with you. These things are what I wish I heard prior to adoption, but I’m thankful to have learned them along the way.

Keep your chin up. Keep it real.

Things I Would Tell My (pre)Adoptive Mother Self

November is National Adoption Month in the US.  We set aside this month to focus on adoption stories as well as the plight of many children waiting for families.  I’ve been an “official” adoptive parent now for a little over ten years.  We’ve stretched out of our comfort zone, dealing with issues that we never thought we would face, and we’ve laughed…a lot. To say I’ve learned a lot is an understatement and there are several things I would tell my (pre) adoptive mother self.

Even on the hardest days – the ones where we have really struggled – my husband and I do not regret our decision to adopt our children.  We would have missed so many precious moments.

Ones like this, 20180607_144153_Film1 (1)

Or, this one…

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Thinking back to my “(pre)adoptive mother self”, I totally wish I could say that I was 100% prepared for parenting – not just parenting in general, but adoptive parenting.  I know that there are many similarities, but I also know there are many differences.

If could go back, here are a few things I would tell my (pre) adoptive mother self:

  1. When the gavel falls and adoption is declared, that is when the real work begins.  Meaning, adoption can get much harder.  Sure, there are difficulties getting to the place where you are on the eve of adoption, but oh boy, all of the trials we experienced during that time seem kind of trivial compared to some of the issues we now face on any given day.
  2. Don’t take it personally There is a special kind of guilt that seems to tag along with adoptive parenting.  It is hard to not take things personally when you witness your child struggling or when your child says things to you that take your breath away (I’m not talking about the sweet statements, although there have been some of those).  When you work tirelessly advocating for and managing your child’s life to the point of not being able to capture just a glimpse of forward movement, it is hard to not take it personally.  Just don’t.  Or, at least, try not to.
  3. Listen.  Like, REALLY listen to others who have walked in the shoes you are about to walk in.  Learn what you can about trauma (in the womb and out).  Be prepared to have a host of professionals in your life (doctors, specialists, teachers, therapists, etc).  Definitely advocate and ask questions but also choose to listen and learn.  It will serve you well.
  4. It is not going to feel good all of the time.  The reality is that parenting (of any type) can break your heart from time-to-time.  With adoptive parenting, the things that break your heart tend to be ones that you really do not fully comprehend and certainly cannot control.  I’m talking about genetic issues that come into play as the years go on.  I’m speaking of the damage done in the womb that is hard to explain to someone.  I’m thinking of the challenges that you never faced growing up but now dwell in your home because your children face them.  Nope.  It does not feel good all of the time.
  5. No matter what, don’t give up and don’t you dare second-guess your importance in the life of your children.  Don’t do it.  Never do it.  Your kids need you.  They don’t need another set of parents to not come through.  It will get rough.  You will think, “Am I really being the best parent I can be?  What if I didn’t answer that question the way my child needed me to?  Maybe, I’m the problem?  What if I tried a little harder?”  These questions have circulated in my mind a lot through the years.  They are made up of guilt mixed in with a sliver of grief.  Just don’t go there.

Looking back to my “(pre)adoptive mother self”, I totally thought I was prepared for all of this.  I thought I had a grasp of trauma-informed parenting, adoption issues, loss and grief, and a whole host of behavioral issues.  I totally was not.  I can’t even pretend that I was.

Yet, would I do it all again?  Absolutely.

Can I imagine a life without my children?  No way.

Without (foster parenting) and adoption, I could have missed this:

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There are plenty of things I would tell my (pre) adoptive mother self, but perhaps the best thing is not missing any of these moments.

6 Lessons I’ve Learned From My Beautiful Children

I wrote an article for Adoption.Com recently regarding the lessons I’ve learned from my children.  It seems that as each year unfolds, I find myself learning more and more about children, adoptive parenting, parenthood (in general) and myself.  Thank, goodness!

1. Children have the desire and right to know where they came from. Adoption is a part of our language. Despite the openness or maybe because of it, our children feel comfortable about asking us questions. They know we may not have all the answers, but we welcome their questions. My kids taught me that history is important, and it is okay (more than okay) to want to seek it and understand it.

2. Children don’t expect perfection. They yearn for presence. I have found myself comparing the parenting of others to my own. I have carried guilt and grief over not showing my best side all the time to the kids. The truth is that my children do not expect the “best of me” all the time.  Instead, they just need “all of me”—my time, my love and my presence.

3. Resilience matters. My children did not have the best start at life. They each suffered less-than-ideal womb experiences (and describing it that way is being gracious). They each have struggled in various settings, socially and academically. We have had multiple specialists, medication regimes, and evaluations. Despite a few odds being against them, they are all incredibly fierce in their own ways. My children have shown me resilience, and I do my best to show it to them as well.

4. Love is greater than biology. I know that seems like a no-brainer, and if you are a parent through adoption or provide foster care, you live in this truth. It is hard to fully explain to people, who question the ability to love a child not born of them, how deep and true loving an adopted child is. Sure, there are areas and kinks that must be worked out. There might be lots of behavior problems and attachment issues, but sometimes, these things only deepen the feeling of love and protection. I have experienced this and continue to do so as my children get older.

5. Parenting does not have a one-size-fits-all standard. In our family, we allow certain things to fly. Our schedule is different. We are stricter about bedtime than other parents we know. We must advocate in a different way per the needs of our children, and we discipline in ways that others may not understand. It is not wrong, and it may not be completely right, but it is what our children need.

6. Adoption is a humbling experience. The statement, “Those kids are lucky to have you” often stops me in my tracks. Sure, they are safe, and we do our best to provide them stability and love, but I do not consider what they have experienced in their lives to be lucky. Instead, the reasons they needed adoption are heartbreaking. I know that while my husband and I strive to be the kind of parents our kids need, we will never be able to replace who their biological parents are, nor do we want to. So, yes. Adoption is humbling.

For the full article, click this link:   https://adoption.com/6-lessons-learned-from-beautiful-children

Blessings,

Caroline