Tuesday, May 15, 2018

Give it to me straight

Nothing brings out insecurity in the white mother of a black child quite like hair. Thick, beautiful, natural, black hair.

(read about the panic attack I had the first time I gave my daughter a haircut here)

Whenever I see a black woman, whether in person or in a movie or on a magazine, I study her hair. More than one woman at Wal-Mart has probably wondered what my problem was as I stalked her through the hair products aisle trying to spy out what kind of leave-in conditioner she uses. Only once have I dared ask a black woman how she created the hairstyle she was wearing, and that was because she spoke to me first.

Insecurity, remember? (she gave great advice, by the way)

I'm doing my best and learning as I go, but doing Patience's hair doesn't come naturally to me. My friends are always so nice and tell me how cute her hair looks, but frankly, it's not their approval I long for. It's the black woman with two black children at the store who looked back and forth between Patience and me with a question on her face, who put a hand on each of her children's heads as her eyes flicked over my daughter's hair. That's whose approval I crave. And I don't have it.

A couple days ago, I told Patience it was Hair Day. Hair Day is when I do the whole two-hour rinse, wash, condition, comb out, condition, style routine that we thankfully only have to do about once a month. As we headed for the bathtub, I gave Patience's hair a playful tug.

"What style shall we do this time?" I asked.

The only answer she'd ever given to that question before was a shrug. Her preference always seemed to be "whatever gets done the fastest." But this time was different.

"I want it straight," she said. "Like yours."

Oh. Gulp. My heart beat a little faster.

"Okay." I forced a smile. "Let's see what we can do."

We rinsed and washed and conditioned and combed. Then I settled Patience in her "hair chair" and got out the coconut oil, hairdryer, and paddle brush.

"Straight all the way around," Patience reminded me.

I knew no matter how much I combed it out, how much hot air I used, how much product I applied, it was never going to be anything like mine. I would never be the mirror that she was looking for. But she didn't know that. So I brushed and brushed and blew and blew the best I could. Her smile grew the closer I got to the end, and when I said I was finished, she leapt from her chair.

"Now we're the same!" she said.

"You're right." I knelt down beside her, face-to-face. "We both have pretty hair."

"And we both eat scrambled eggs."

"And we both like to ride bikes."

She giggled. "And we both love daddy."

"I guess we're practically twins, then," I said.

I ran a hand over her hair, trying to smooth it down, but it just bounced right back up. It would no sooner lay flat than sprout wings and fly. She gave me a hug and said "Thank you, Mommy," and ran off to play. I watched her go, marveling at all the things we did have in common, despite obvious differences.

Maybe I'll never have the approval of that woman at the store. Maybe I'll never feel confident in my ability to do my daughter's hair. But maybe those aren't the most important things.

See? Twins!

Tuesday, April 24, 2018

Top 8 Reasons Not to Become a Foster Parent

Every foster parent knows that when someone new finds out about their foster parent status, the response is always the same. "I could never do that."

And why would they want to? Being a foster parent is hard. Really hard. They don't call it "foster care hell" for no reason. "I could never do that" is a perfectly legitimate response.

But maybe you've thought you could. Maybe you've considered taking the leap and getting your foster license.

If so, I'm here to tell you: DON'T DO IT. In fact, here's a list of eight reasons not to foster, in no particular order:

1) Though you designate on your paperwork which kinds of placements you're open to, you're constantly called about placements that aren't even close to what you've designated. You're open to girls ages 0-4? Great, here's a placement for a 13-year-old boy. Can you take him?

2) You drag your foster kid out of bed early on a Monday morning, and dress him and feed him and pack him a lunch so he'll be ready to go to a visit with his bio parents by 7:30am. At 7:15am, bio parents cancel the visit. Again.

3) Despite their best efforts and intentions, case workers are overloaded and provide little to no communication about your foster child's case or the timeline for their stay with you. Are the parents making progress? Is there hope for reunification? Was bio mom sent to jail? Is the state planning to move the child to a different state to live with the bio dad's sister? Who knows?

4) You bathe and feed and kiss and hug and love and love and love a child for days, weeks, months...sometimes years. And then, the child leaves. Sometimes with little notice. Sometimes for reasons you don't agree with. And you have no say in it.

5) You squeeze your heart out to maintain a good relationship with the foster child's bio parents, for the child's sake if nothing else, only to have them accuse you of abuse or neglect or theft behind your back. Your foster baby has chronic diaper rash? Must be because you don't take good care of him.

6) Appointments and scheduling. Doctor's appointments, dental appointments, physical and/or occupational therapy appointments, counseling appointments, CASA appointments, WIC appointments. Not to mention weekly visits with bio parents.

7) Behaviors. Every foster kid's got some. They're frightened, confused. They've had little to no positive influences in their life. They're usually behind developmentally. They have to navigate a new world and new relationships. So they act out. Add "attend support group so you don't lose your mind" to the list of things you have to schedule.

And last but not least,
8) Inner turmoil. Am I doing the right thing? Is this fair to the children already in my home? At the end of the day, do all my efforts make any difference whatsoever? What if my foster kid goes back to his bios and something bad happens to him? What if he stays here and something bad happens to him? How many times can our family go through the ups and downs of this process?

No one in their right mind would ever sign up to be a foster parent with a list like that to consider. Those are eight great reasons to NEVER GET INVOLVED, and no one will blame you - least of all me - if you decide not to foster. In fact, that's what this list is for. To talk you out of it.

But...there's one more thing you need to know. One more important thing to consider before you make your final decision.

Those kids - those vulnerable, at-risk, abused, neglected, traumatized, helpless, innocent, wonderful kids - are going to go through foster care hell with or without you. They're going to be removed by CPS, sent to live with a stranger, jerked around between the state's best intentions and their parents' efforts or lack thereof to get them back, with or without you. With or without me.

And we can either stay away and spare ourselves from all that suffering that doesn't really change anything anyway, or reach a comforting hand into hell and hold on to a child for dear life.

The child's already there, arms outstretched. Take his hand or not.

But don't take it if it's easy for you to let go.

Tuesday, March 27, 2018


I read an interesting article called "Why High-Functioning Autism is so Challenging." The article talked about how people with high-functioning autism "pass for normal" in most situations, until a situation comes along where their responses are not "normal," and people around them often end up surprised or upset.

In other words, people with high-functioning autism appear to be like everyone else - until they don't.

So how do you parent a child like that? Maybe it's autism, or maybe it's one of a hundred other invisible challenges, such as SPD, Asperger's, TBI, epilepsy, RAD, PTSD, anxiety, or something the doctors don't even have a diagnosis for. Maybe it's debilitating headaches with no known cause. Maybe it's hypersensitivity to sugar or red dye 40 or a potentially fatal allergy to peanuts.

All invisible from the outside.

How does a parent meet such a child's needs, set them up for success, and get the world to accept them for who they are when everyone else sees a "normal" child who should be able to do everything the same as every other John or Jane Doe on the block?

I wish I knew.

When our daughter joined our family, she was 17 months old. Many people perk up when they hear this because they assume her transition must've been easy since she was so young. She'll never remember her life before. She was basically a blank slate when she arrived.

What those same people often don't realize is that the first year and a half of life - the year and a half that we missed - are the most crucial for brain development. If trauma, abuse, neglect, malnourishment, etc. occur during that first year and a half, it can have a long-lasting negative impact on a child's brain. It can cause a child who appears healthy and "normal" on the outside to struggle with dysregulation on the inside.

Did you know that? I didn't. Not until we began our adoption process and had to start reading books and taking training classes about common challenges adopted kids face. But I know a lot about it now.

And I'm not the only one.

There are thousands of parents out there (many of them adoptive or foster parents) struggling to parent a dysregulated child. They want their child to be treated the same as everyone else, but they also break into a sweat when little Johnny is invited to a birthday party at Chuck E Cheese. Because they've seen that movie before. The one where little Johnny gets overstimulated in a public place, has a meltdown, and doesn't sleep for three days.

These parents often feel alone, and don't ask me how I know. When they succeed at controlling their child's environment and schedule so as to minimize opportunities for problems, they are seen as overbearing. When they fail, others say they need to "discipline more." Part of them wants everyone to keep believing their child is "normal" for as long as possible, but another part wonders...what does normal mean anyway?

What if society at large, and the church - God's hands and feet in the world - in particular, could come around families like this and turn invisible challenges into visible support? What would that look like? Maybe a good place to start is the same place we should start when facing just about any challenge: with knowledge and compassion.

KNOWLEDGE: Knowledge means to learn! Learn about a dysregulated child's needs. Learn about their triggers. Is it noise? Sugar? Unexpected transitions? Men with beards? It could be anything. I know of a child whose entire day can be derailed by anything resembling an octopus because of a traumatic experience. It might sound funny, but a terrified child is no laughing matter. Learn how you can make their day at school easier, or what you can do to bring out the best in them. Learn how you can support their parents.

COMPASSION: Instead of jumping to conclusions and condemning a child and/or their parents, try putting yourself in their shoes. Ask yourself, "Could there be a reason for that behavior that I don't know about?" "Could there be a reason for that parenting strategy that I don't know about?"

I'm ashamed to tell you this, but I was quick to judge the parents of kids with invisible challenges...until I became one. Now I spend my days redefining what "normal" means in my life and desiring to be the kind of person who is sensitive to the needs of others. Because everyone is struggling with something.

And it might be something invisible.