Saturday, December 02, 2006

Jesus Skates

Sarah is at the age when monsters regularly come to visit her in the night. Piercing shrieks descend from the upper regions of the house each night like clockwork, precisely at 11:30. We've tried reassuring her, squirting a "safety zone" around her bed with "monster repellant" (holy water), talking about the guardian angel that sits beside her all night (that seemed to have the opposite of its intended effect). Now we just take turns lying beside her and singing her to sleep, resigning ourselves to the fact that, come 11:30, there will be one more body in our king-sized bed.

Tonight as I was going through the bedtime routine, Sarah peeped up from under the mountain of blankets she uses to shield herself from the scary noises. I asked her what song she wanted. "Jesus skates," she replied.

"I don't think I know that one," I told her. The closest thing I could think of was "No you can't get to heaven... on roller skates... 'cause you'll roll right by those pearly gates!" Sarah rolled her eyes. "NO, Mommy. JESUS skates."

"Sing it for me, Sarah." Eagerly she obliged with the second verse of "Jesus loves me."

"Jesus loves me, when He died, heaven skates will open wide..."

I smiled to think of Jesus welcoming his family at the Pearly Gates, shod in roller skates. And, frankly, I didn't see the point in correcting my daughter. I want her to think of heaven as a place of endless adventure and happiness ... a place where we all want to be one day.

Right now I have a friend who is looking at those gates, up close and personal, and praying that it is not her time to go through. She has an eight-year-old daughter she adopted when the girl was six. "I don't want to leave her," the mom tells me. "Why would God send her to me after all she's been through, only to take me away from her?"

The truth is that all earthly relationships are temporal ones, and the best we can hope for is a few years of grace and healing before heading for our final, heavenly home. But I know this mom, and I know this girl, and I reminded the mother that -- regardless of the outcome of her illness, her daughter is infinitely better off for having been a part of that family. Inevitably the monsters come -- that, too, is sadly a normal part of life. But we can go humming into the darkness soothed by the knowledge that we have boundless family -- some right beside us, holding our hands; others unseen but just as real.

How do I know? "The Bible tells me so."

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Tuning In . . . and Tuning Out

It was the strangest thing. On a Catholic radio program the other day, the host was venting her outrage over a story about an adoptive parent who was trying to “return” a teenager to the adoption agency. The radio host was angry that the adoptive parent would “give up” on the fifteen-year-old, rather than get him the help he needed. Here’s the story.

Keep in mind, this was not a simple case of food hoarding or back talking, which could be dealt with readily in therapy. The youngster had molested a 6-year-old boy and a 2-year-old girl, branding him a “sexual predator.” Therefore, the social workers informed the adoptive mother, if he remained in her home, she could no longer be a foster parent to others or allow her three grandchildren in her home. So she chose to try to dissolve the adoption, so he could be placed in a home where he would not be around younger kids.

I knew the radio host well enough to drop her an e-mail after the show with a different perspective. The sad truth is, some kinds of abuse can be healed only in isolation. In these cases, placing a child in a home without other children is not only the reasonable thing, and – even if it means separating a child from siblings – it is in the end the kindest thing as well. For both the “perpetrator” and his potential victims.

However, there is another important point to address here as well. Here it is: No one – no one – outside a family is capable of rendering a better judgment of its internal dynamics than those who are struggling inside it. This is especially true for foster- and foster-adopt families. Adopting an older child is not for the fainthearted or the overly sentimental, and it can require an extraordinary amount of structure and self-donation. Not only do you have to endure the occasional sleepless night when a child is sick or the baby needs feeding, you have to find ways to “tune in” in order to prevent – night after night after night – an older, traumatized child from harming himself or others while you sleep. Chances are, nothing will happen – but if it does, it is not the child who is to blame.

To avoid becoming overwhelmed, the parent has to find ways to keep her head above the water.

· Prayer is vital, both for your own peace of mind and for guidance. You cannot expect a child to attain peace and quiet until you have achieved it yourself.

· Taking breaks is crucial. Kids with severe emotional needs cannot be left unsupervised for even a minute. Therefore, finding a support system is important. Crack open that state subsidy check and hire a sitter, then go take a nap.

· Never relinquish your parental judgment in favor of someone else’s, no matter how well-meaning or seemingly qualified. Not your mother, not your best friend, not a radio host. Not even a social worker. They may relieve you from time to time, and offer situation-specific advice. However, it is up to you to figure out what your family needs to function – and even if you’re still trying to figure it out, your instincts are bound to be more accurate than those of someone who sees the kids only occasionally. It’s up to you to set the plan, and trust that over time it will all work out.

. Above all, don’t attempt to compare your family (or your child) to someone else’s. Families are like snowflakes – you have to get up close to appreciate the differences.

Parents need to form a sort of detachment from outside pressures to chart a steady course for their family. It may mean losing (or at least straining) a friendship or two, or enduring withering glares from other parents who do not understand your situation. It may even mean tuning out a lecture from a kindhearted but misguided preschool teacher who thinks you are “neglecting” a child because he doesn’t use proper table manners (you’d be happy if he would stop stashing cottage cheese in the closet). Each day is an opportunity for humility.

But it is also an opportunity for grace. The other day I got an e-mail from a church acquaintance who had noticed a change in my son. “I remember how hard it was for you to sit through Mass when you first got the kids. Then the other day, I saw Christopher beaming proudly as he held Sarah’s hand and practically skipped back to the pew after giving his offering to Father. What a change – and all because of your effort. I thought you would want to know that the love you are giving those kids really shows.”

So, if you are in the middle of a difficult parenting situation, take heart. Each day is an opportunity to place ourselves in the hands of the One who has led us this far, to believe that this is one more chapter in the book of our lives – and to hope that, as the pages turn, the story will get better.

Thursday, August 03, 2006

"Crummy" parenting

Over Italian sausage and spinach quiche, our whole family (Dad was home for dinner last night, so as Sarah says, "It's a PAH-tee!") bowed our heads and thanked the good Lord.

God is great, God is good
Let us thank Him for this food;
by His hands we all are fed,
Thank You, God, for daily bread. Amen.

Just as I started to pinch off a bit of the crust (my favorite part), Sarah spoke.

"Now I wanna say special grace."

I had offered a prayer like this the day before, when extended family gathered to celebrate the completion of our new deck. "OK, Sarah. Go ahead..."

"Thank You God for ... for sausage and Popeye spinach ..." There was more. Lots more, much of it unintelligible as Sarah conversed with the Almighty with her own special "prayer language."

My husband opened one eye and looked at me as if to say, "Can we eat yet?"

"... and thanks for everybody here. In the Name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, Amen!"

Everyone breathed a sigh of relieve and started to dig in. Then, just as I started to take a bite of my rapidly cooling sausage, Sarah spoke again. "Can I say another one?"

Christopher's sour expression reminded me of the time he shoved a jalapeno up his nose. Now, Christopher’s reaction was doubtless prompted by hunger than a lack of faith. At the age of six, Christopher already has a firmly entrenched faith. I’ll never forget the time I found Christopher handing out Cheeze-Its, one at a time, to his preschool friends, intoning "The Body of Christ, the Body of Christ." At that moment, he looked like he needed a handful of those cheesy little crackers, so I intervened.

"Let's save it for bedtime -- or for supper tomorrow night, OK Sarah?"

Still, I had to smile at my daughter’s first unprompted extemporaneous prayer offering. It's those unguarded moments when we are reminded how closely our children watch us, and how thirsty they are to know what you REALLY believe so they can incorporate it into their own little lives. This is the daily grace of parenting, a lifetime of spiritual booster shots.

It happened last Sunday, too, when it was my turn to do the first reading. Just as I approached the lectern, I felt a little hand go in mine. Now, I should preface this by saying that the first time she saw me go up to read, Sarah pitched the mother of all hissy fits: "NO!!! You can't go up there! It's for FATHER WILL!" For a time I considered stopping this particular form of service until Sarah got to be a little older and could understand what was happening, but our liturgist cautioned me against it. "What better way could Sarah learn that everybody has a job to do than to continue what you are doing?"

And so, we continued. And today, when I felt that little hand in mine, I had a brief instant to make a decision: Return to the pew and hand her off to Craig, or take her with me?

I'm not sure how liturgically sound the result was, but I can guarantee it was the quieter option: I climbed the alter steps with my daughter, and she stood there listening intently while I read from the passage in 2 Kings that prefigures the feeding of the five thousand. "Cast your bread upon the waters, and it shall return a hundredfold."

This, in essence, is parenting. We throw out a few crumbs, and watch the loaves grow.

Wednesday, July 12, 2006


After a week of "vacation" -- visiting relatives with two children and no husband -- I am back, more than ready to settle in and not go ANYWHERE for a millennia or so.

Of course, it's not a real vacation with two small children clutching at one's thigh, unwilling to let go even in their sleep in the offhand chance that Mommy might go somewhere REALLY FAR AWAY (like the bathroom) without them.

Ah, it's an exotic life I lead, folks.

The six year old is especially puzzling. If he is in his room playing, every ten minutes (give or take a minute) he will appear at the top of the stairs and shout: "Mom! Moooooooooooom!"

"Yes, Christopher?"

(pause.) "I love you..."

"Yes, Christopher, I'm still here. Go play."

Every twenty minutes, he will actually bound down the stairs into the kitchen or my bedroom or wherever else I am and say, "Hey! Did you MISS ME?"

Now is not the time for the unvarnished truth. "Oh, yes, Christopher. Heaps."

Interestingly, my sister Chris said that it was Sarah who carried on the loudest and longest the time I went to the drug store for twenty minutes unescorted. (THAT was my vacation.) "I don't get it..." she said. "You've had her since she was six months old. In every other respect, she is a confident little girl. What's the screaming about?"

Well, two things, I'm guessing: She has an older brother who is freaking out, and so she thinks she should get in on the action. And second, she never misses an opportunity to exercise those lungs.

We cut out of my sister's house a day early -- my nerves were shot, and the kids' behavior was degenerating more rapidly than a snowman in Hades. I hated that -- my sister is one of my favorite people. But because I'm one of hers, she didn't hold it against me.

Cause that's what family does... They stick together, no matter what. Right?

Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Where Have All the Children Gone?

Lately I’ve encountered a number of kindred spirits on Some of them have been kind enough to respond to posts on my personal blogs, and have even helped me to promote my sites by linking them to their own.

One of these special moms, Diane, wrote me today to alert me to a three-part series on the fate of children who “age out” of the foster system. (To read the whole thing, go to It reads in part:

National studies (Child Trends 1999) have shown that within 12-18 months of leaving foster care:
  • 40% will not have completed high school;
  • 50% will be unemployed;
  • 33% will be on public assistance;
  • 38% are emotionally disturbed;
  • 50% had used illegal drugs;
  • 25% had been “involved with the legal system” (e.g. with criminal records).

Furthermore, 40% of the nation’s homeless were in foster care as children (Life Coach Homes, 1999). Diane observes that “foster children who age out of the system bring with them ‘an accumulated set of problems that make a successful transition to adulthood difficult.’”
Knowing the statistics, Diane writes, “how can any of us sit back, expect the government to solve these issues, and feel we are supporting our youth in trouble?”

In Michigan last year, 500 children “aged out” of the foster system at age 18. Given their prospects, it is gratifying to know that Jennifer Granholm has signed us up to participate in a six-state task force to study the problem, and learn what other states are doing to assist these teenagers as they transition into adult life and to “listen to the concerns” of the affected youth. (For more info, go to,1607,7-124--135046--,00.html)

Still, I wonder: Given the cash-poor, job-poor economy in which we find ourselves, is a task force really going to make a difference? Wouldn’t the money be better spent, say, funding a kind of “transition village” that would provide vocational training and life skills – budgeting, problem-solving, and other necessary skills through a kind of privatized mentor program?

When I lived in California, the state matched up schools with local businesses who supplemented the existing budget with school supplies, lunch-hour tutoring volunteers, and other practical assistance. Wouldn’t it be cool if each of the 500 kids “aging out” could be partnered with an organization that would not only offer them on-the-job training, but practical assistance as well, to get them started?

And wouldn’t it be cool if the first “batch” of recruits came from members of faith-based communities, who believe in the power of the human person to change for the better?

Hey, I have a dream… Anyone want to dream with me?

Tuesday, May 16, 2006

Light for Dark Thoughts

Each year around this time I sit down and write a letter to the children's birth parents, recounting highlights of the preceding year to go with the updated photographs. Some have suggested to me that this might come back to haunt me, should the birth parents decide to try something stupid (like kidnap the children). I don't see it that way -- I see it as the decent thing to do for two people who, though they were incapable of caring for the children themselves, did in fact give them life. Which is more than many people would have done.

I'll never forget the time I was sitting at the agency, playing with the baby while the older children had their family visit. A worker came down and, looking at the baby in my lap, said: "I'll never understand why she decided to have that fourth one. She might not be in this mess if she had just gotten rid of it."

I was shocked and appaulled (still am... too much to spell correctly, it seems), but after a moment I found my tongue. "I will always be grateful that Sarah's mother chose life for her. If she hadn't, it is very likely that the other children would not have a home today." The truth was, there were days when the only thing that got me through the chaos was the thought that I could not bear to give back this little bundle of joy. Which is a terrible thing, I know -- the older two deserved to be loved and nurtured as their younger sister, and I have since resolved my feelings on the matter. At the time, I was just coping the best I could . . . which meant looking for the bright patch in the middle of some VERY dark days.

There will be times, dear friend, if you are a foster or adoptive parent (or even a biological one, I'm told) that being high-minded and infinitely benevolent just isn't humanly possible. There will be times when you have some not-very-flattering feelings about the little rugrats who have come to claim every last drop of your rapidly depleting patience and energy. Your Mommy Monsters will come out in full force, particularly after you've been subsisting on Gold Fish and two hours of sleep a night for three days in a row.

Be kind to yourself, and send up a prayerful S.O.S. Stick the kids in front of a video, then lock yourself in the bathroom, turn on the water, and let yourself rant for five minutes. Hit or hug a pillow. Hard. Then take a deep breath, whisper a little prayer (perhaps in care of St. Thomas More, the patron of foster and adoptive children and their parents), and make yourself a cup of tea. Then find your favorite children's book, settle on the floor with your brood, and give yourselves some quality time. The dirty dishes and mismatched socks will be there when you're done. Another half-hour of television will just leave you feeling mentally flabby. (If it's not mental flab you're fighting, get out the stroller and walk the kids around the block.)

And remember, in your darkest moments, that you have just had a glimpse of what those birth parents must have been experiencing -- with far fewer resources to help them, most likely. If that doesn't give you empathy, to allow you to talk with your children about them in neutral if not cordial tones, nothing ever will.

Monday, May 01, 2006

Careful What You Say?

When I was a kid, we learned dozens of little Sunday school ditties that ran through our heads wherever we went, keeping us on the proverbial straight-and-narrow. One of the most popular went like this:

Oh, be careful little mouth what you say (repeat)
For the Father up above
Is looking down in love.
So, be careful little mouth what you say!

The song popped into my head again yesterday at the park, when the kids and I took their “Grammy” for a walk around the park while Dad and “Poppi” were gamely battling the wind and drizzle in an attempt to light the grill under the picnic pavilion.

In between nature discoveries (slow-moving bugs and fast-swimming mallards) we made up silly little songs – “Songs to Skip By,” if you will. To the tune of “Camptown Races,” Mammy sang, “Little Sarah, she’s so sweet, doo dah, doo dah…”

Before I could engage my brain, I offered up the next line. “Though she’s got such stinky feet, O doo dah day!” I looked back, expecting the entire group to chuckle (including Sarah, who just the night before stuck her toes in my face for a tickle, and hooted as she always did when I grimaced at her supposedly smelly soles).

Today, however, it was no laughing matter. The effect was immediate: My four-year-old daughter stopped skipping and ducked her head, her little shoulders hunched. I had embarrassed her – in front of Grammy, no less. “I do NOT have stinky feet!” she protested under her breath. All eyes flew to my face.

Wishing to “Rewind”

There are times in every parent’s life when we wish for nothing so much as a rewind button on our lips. Quickly I knelt in front of Sarah and wrapped my arms around her wooden frame. “Of course you don’t, Sweetheart. I’m so sorry I hurt your feelings. Mommy shouldn’t have said that – and I won’t say it ever again. Will you forgive me?” After a moment she nodded, but she was quiet the rest of the walk, except to remind her grandmother, “Mommy said I have stinky feet, but I don’t really.”

That night I tossed and turned in bed, realizing with anguish that I had broken a mother’s promise. As a child I had frequently been on the receiving end of thoughtless and hurtful remarks that had cut to the core. Over the years my emotional armor became a permanent fixture, protecting me even from those who loved me. Thank God for Craig, whose gentle demeanor made me feel safe enough to let down my guard. (To this day we have the shortest fights on record: On those rare occasions a harsh or impatient word escapes him, my eyes tear up and he moves heaven and earth to make it stop!)

I promised myself that if I did nothing else for my children, I would teach them that their feelings were safe with me. I understood how much words could hurt, and they had already been subjected to horrific abuse and neglect in their early years. I was determined that they would never have reason to question whether they were loved and appreciated. They could be able to trust their mother not to expose them publicly for private shortcomings. “Praise in public, correct in private” was my motto. The incident at the park reminded me just how careful I needed to be if I were going to keep that promise.

Extended Protection Warranted

For many foster families, there are other important reasons to protect our children from the idle curiosity of others – even other family members. Extended family may object to the prospect having to include in the family circle a messy, noisy, energy-draining urchin or two with whom they share no biological connection. Furthermore, the behavior one can expect from traumatized children – verbal or physical outbursts, “prickly” responses to gestures of kindness and affection, bad manners and hyperactive tendencies – can be off-putting for those unaccustomed to dealing with such children.

One family I know saw their in-laws just twice the first year after their foster children arrived, even though the grandparents lived barely thirty minutes away. “We’re not used to having little children around,” they would excuse themselves. “We’re too old to keep up with them.” And yet, these were the same people who begged their daughter-in-law to keep their son’s teddy bear on their bed because they had read an article that it could increase the chances of conceiving a child.

My friend recognized the emotional impasse that was at stake here, and began “chatting up” her mother-in-law with the children’s progress, even dropping by unexpectedly and placing the youngest child, who was then less than a year old, in her grandmother’s arms. Gradually the ice began to thaw.

A year later, when the adoption went through, the grandparents began taking more interest in their new grandchildren. They had lost out on nearly two years of their adopted grandkid’s young lives. And the adoptive parents, who had struggled through that first year of foster care, had missed the benefit of having family nearby. And yet, there was nothing to be gained by mourning or harboring resentments about the past – and much to be gained by focusing on the present.

In this case, a little emotional armor – which enabled the adoptive mother to persevere in cultivating a relationship between her children and her standoffish mother-in-law – was a good thing, in the best interest of the family. In the words of the Apostle Paul, “Love is patient and kind… Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things” (1 Cor 13:7). These words, pronounced frequently at weddings, are not just for newlyweds; it is the “Golden Rule” of all family life.

St. Antony of Padua, patron of humility, pray for me that I might safeguard my words, that I might never injure those entrusted into my care. In the name of Jesus, the Word of God made flesh, protect my children from losing their innocence and joy from the carelessness thoughts of their mother. Pray for me, and for mothers everywhere, that we may be ever mindful of the “Father up above, looking down with love,” and to show our children by example how to “be careful, little mouths, what you say.” Amen.

Sunday, April 23, 2006

Does God Have a Family for Every Child?

Today my friend “Sue,” also an adoptive foster parent, told me of a harrowing tale involving her children’s older brother. Considering all he’s been through, “Kevin” is not a bad kid. Certainly he doesn’t deserve what life has dished out to him – losing not only his birth parents but also his four siblings, who have been adopted by two families. For their safety, Kevin cannot be placed with his brothers and sisters, so at the tender age of ten he is living in a group home with children considerably older than himself.

Each time Sue sees him, she says, Kevin is a little more resigned to his fate.

Well, “resigned” is not the right word. He cries. He rages. He asserts – quite vehemently – that Sue had no right to give his brother and sister a new name. They belong to him. His feelings are understandable; while his siblings have a bright future ahead of them, Kevin’s dreams are squarely in the past.

Sue told me that as she returned Kevin to the group home, he sobbed as she led him to the front door. “What could I say? I just hugged him. I’ve been praying for a family for Kevin from the beginning, but it is becoming harder and harder to sound convincing or encouraging. Is it loving to hold out hope where very little exists?”

In her more emotional moments, Sue toys with the idea of finding a way to take Kevin, too – but he has amply demonstrated that he preys on younger children. And Sue recognizes that her first responsibility must be to the two she already has.

And so, she hugged him tight and left, fuming under her breath: Where are You in this, God?

I know exactly how she feels. All my life I’ve operated under the assumption that God has a plan for all His children; I’ve seen God’s Providence come through in very trying situations. So why is He distressingly silent in this situation? Is it possible that, in Kevin’s case, God’s plan does not include a family?

Or maybe it did, and that family decided they wanted a different plan.

I once heard Mary Beth Bonacci observe, “God calls all of us to give ourselves in love, either to marriage or consecrated religious life. Fortunately, He is very generous with His ‘Plan B.’”
So in this case, maybe God’s ‘Plan B’ is for each of us to do what we can, and trust that it will be enough from keeping kids like Kevin from going off the path altogether. He wants us to cry and pray and struggle alongside them, always keeping our eyes on the primary task at hand: To keep our own children safe.

It’s not the ideal situation. Frankly, it stinks.

It also reminds me of something that for years puzzled me. When Christ was on earth, He is never recorded as having healed whole crowds of people with a single word, though doubtless He had the power to do so. He almost always did it one at a time, usually with some kind of personal contact. Have you ever noticed this? Wouldn’t it have been a far more convincing proof of the power of the gospel to heal them en masse, no muss or fuss? He could have set up a cushy private practice somewhere . . . He could have wiped out world hunger by opening soup kitchens with all that multiplied fish and bread.

And yet, these were not tasks entrusted to Him by the Father. The Lord came, first and foremost, to give His life in order to restore the human race to spiritual wholeness, and to plant the seedling Church that would tend His fields and flocks in His absence. And He came to give us a living example of what it means to carry those burdens – and only those burdens – God calls us to bear.

“The poor you shall always have with you…” Christ observed to the disciple who criticized the perceived extravagance of the woman who anointed the Lord with costly ointment and wiped His feet with her hair. For foster and adoptive parents, there is a lesson for us here: We cannot allow ourselves to become overwhelmed, or distracted by burdens God has not entrusted to us.

We cannot get too far ahead, worrying about next year or even next week. Each day God gives us a little more light, just enough to take the next step along the path He has called us to follow. One day at a time, one child at a time: We will have strength enough to follow Him only if we trust Him to carry the rest.

Don Bosco, while you were on earth you were father to hundreds of fatherless children. We pray for Kevin, and children like him, that their hearts will not grow hard before they have the chance to feel the full force of the love of God’s Sacred Heart.

And, dear Heavenly Father, if it’s not too much to ask, please provide a family for Kevin. In the Holy Name of the Most Blessed Trinity, Amen.

Thursday, January 12, 2006

The Monster Returns

"Nanny 911" is appointment television for me. More often than not, the families (whom you have to admire for being willing to subject themselves to public embarrassment) bear a strong resemblance to the one who lives under our roof. At least sometimes.

So when the family in the hot-seat had a four-year-old whose normal tone of voice was a cross between a fire siren and a fog horn, I sat up and took note.

Imagine my shock when Nanny Stella gave Mom what-for (Craig and I thought the dad was going to get it, but she surprised us). "The child wouldn't yell so much," Nanny lectured, "if she felt someone was listening to her.


So I dutifully printed up our "house rules," as Nanny suggested, and let the kids decorate the posters with glitter pens. So far, so good. The rules read, in part:

1. Show respect. Hitting and name-calling are not respectful.
2. Speak, don't shriek.
3. Don't whine, or Mom can't hear you.
4. No TV until all homework is done and your rooms are clean.
5. Clean up after yourself. Yes, that means you.
6. Infractions will result in time-out on the stairs.

It was the last rule, though, that Nanny promised we would appreciate the most:

7. Thirty minutes of family time every single day. Since Dad frequently does not come home for dinner, this means we've been making breakfast our "together time" And to my great surprise (I am not and have never been a morning person), it really does help the day get off to a good start. No more whining. No more screaming. Just sweet and heavenly peace.

Now, we've only been at this about a week. We may just ber in a "honeymood" phase. But if it keeps the monsters at bay, why not?