Before kids, The Artist and I had lots of grand ideas about how we would raise kids. Ideas like what fun things we might do as a family, our thoughts on the best way to support attachment, how we wanted to bring kids into our family, how we might manage birth order and adoption and foster care. We had all kinds of thoughts and big plans. And as it often happens we walked into this parenting gig and got bowled over by how myopic our big plans were, and how much we had to learn to do this right. The work of building a trusting rapport and felt safety in our home was harder work than what we ever imagined it to be. In many ways, it's really the only work we endeavored to do initially; we wanted to help two little people really begin to experience safe comfort and get to comfortably know their little bodies, as their rough start had robbed them of an ability to eat, sleep or move as an integrated kiddo. Now that we are over a year and a half in our family of 4, I've been having the space to look back over what we did well and what we were late to get right.
Mr. T was a ball of wild energy when we met him. He was loud. Like really, really LOUD. His talking voice was so incredibly loud that I almost could not sit next to him and play, and when he was agitated or anxious it just got worse. He would bang and throw toys and tear around from one activity to another leaving an epic mess in his wake. He was hard to hug or get close to as he was all elbows and awkward movements. Embraces or affection often left one of us banged up and hurting. Trying to feel close to him was like hugging a bouncing, agitated kangaroo: all quick fits of movement and jabs. He would dissolve into tears or tantrums so often it would take over 90 minutes for us to move on from guessing the wrong choice for his cup for breakfast. Forget getting out the door. It took forever to get coats and shoes on. Every. Single. Day. I'll mention here that both The Artist and I work full-time jobs, although my job is less of a 9-5 gig. So managing work and deadlines with an endless transition time was hard. We have deadlines and start times and that adds pressure to tough mornings like nobody's business.
When Mr. T first moved in he had a home daycare in place that was convenient for his previous foster Mama, but I would say it was not an ideal situation. It was crowded and in a small apartment and he had very little outdoor time or space for gross motor. After a few months of transporting him to his old daycare so he wouldn't have too many changes at once, we switched him to another program, which we were hoping to love, because really, who doesn't love Head Start? In the end this was another bad fit for him. So after months of terrible transitions at drop off (like the teachers wanted to restrain and hold him as he was so dysregulated - screaming and flailing so badly it was frightening the other kiddos there), and pick up was not much better. He had tummy trouble every day and often needed 2-3 changes of clothes a day as he was soiling himself so frequently. I made a fuss about allergy testing, his diet, his schedule there, and eventually we just called it a day. There were a lot of transitions in his classroom, many teachers leaving or going out on medical leave, and ultimately we had a kiddo who was not getting better at goodbyes and hellos, and whom now had tummy trouble.
So we took him out. In six months he had three different daycare providers, before we eventually arranged our schedules to be home full-time with him. Taking him out of daycare and arranging our lives so one of us was home full-time with him was the best choice we ever made. And to be clear, it is a serious financial and logistical privilege to be home full time with your kiddos. I never thought we would be able to make that work, as we both need to work full time. We made some hard choices as a family and weaned our budget waaaaay down. Be we did it. That summer we went to the beach a lot, worked on a sleep schedule and regular naptime, did a lot of toddler wearing in our trusty and beloved Tula and weathered many emotional storms together. We did not have scary goodbyes everyday, and thus we became predictable to him, he started calling us Mom and Mama naturally. I learned that this little guy is a homebody. He needs to be around his toys and things and best buddy (our dog) for a good period of time everyday to be his best self. He's a bit of an introvert with a history of terrible loneliness and scary stuff. We were massively screwing up asking him to go out everyday and be in a stressful and social situation at daycare and then have only a few hours at home before bedtime and then asking him to start all over again. We have had other kiddos, where being home full-time would not have been the best idea, and here was a good reminder to parent the kiddo you have, not who you wished you had or who your friends have. There is so much research on goodness of fit between parents and kiddos and how the way parents can tune into what their kid needs - as opposed to having rigid or generalized rules about what all kids need - makes the difference between developing a secure attachment or an insecure attachment.
Big takeaway here? Parent the kiddo you have. Forget what you thought you would do. And here is where internal templates come into play. This little guy had no idea what a home was - he had never known stable housing before. Truthfully, he had not ever had housing and when they were living inside apartments or shelters they would only stay for a few months at a time before another move came along and once again everything was unfamiliar and uncertain. He had experienced so much upheaval and trauma, daycare was his only real constant. He entered daycare when he entered fostercare, and he lost his first home within a few months, so daycare was really his only stabilizing factor. He struggled in daycare with pushing and hitting hands and terrible transitions coming and going with his previous foster parent. Given all of the change and attachment losses he endured I wondered if he would do well in an intimate family setting for so many hours a day so soon into his placement with us. I thought it might be overwhelming, or too much intimacy too soon, and that having daycare would be a nice buffer to the stress of connecting and building attachment with two new adults. But boy was I wrong. Here is where my ethos or my ideas of parenting came into conflict with the parenting demands this kiddo actually needed from us. I remind myself of this frequently, what does he need from me, rather than asking myself what should I be telling him to do.
Arranging to be home full-time with him was perhaps the most drastic decision we had to make, but the small decisions we made were so important as well. For example, Mr. T had a lot of trouble organizing his day or remembering who was where, and what time of day it was. He would just wake up from nap and ask repeatedly if it was naptime again, or rage because he thought naptime was happening right after breakfast. We made up songs about our daily rhythm, we had songs for breakfast, naptime, and bedtime. We created a system of having certain toys in the morning before nap, and certain toys after nap. We did a lot of tracking the sun and looking up at clouds to orient us to the earth and where we were in the course of daylight. There were water sensory games right before naptime and bath before bedtime. Our days consisted of anything we could think of to hold us to a rhythm and predictable structure. Tiny was so tiny his schedule was wacky and it seemed he was always sleeping or eating or tummy-timing on repeat, which did little to anchor the day in toddler speak. And slowly, and mostly in retrospect, we began to notice a change in our home. There was a smoother wave of morning into naptime. Evenings where we could join for games or playing trains and clean up without the house going into DEFCON 1. I could even manage a grocery shop with both kiddos alone and without needing to leave mid-shop to help our little guy rein it back in.
There also began a value in sharing power with one another in our family. We had a little guy who needed lots of control to manage lots of anxiety. I was of the "I cook one dinner and we all eat it" school of thought, and then we had a finicky eater move in and that got all kinds of changed up. Mr. T would overeat until he vomited, or refuse food and then have low blood sugar meltdowns (raise your hand if you've ever really, really needed to get something done and had a little guy who just didn't eat as much as they should have and is starring in a one man act called "Little People Big Feelings??").
It makes sense, he had very inconsistent meals, and often didn't eat for the first years of his life. The frame or context to why it happens is often so much easier to piece together than the response to help repair. I had him help cook, helped him make small bowls of ingredients to taste as we went along, I carried him in the backpack (shout out to Tula toddler carrier- saved us over and over) while I cooked, he taste-tested food while we shopped. We would look over toddler cookbooks and select meals together. I stuck to a snack schedule and I would do a lot of pausing to take a few deep breaths and "check in with our bodies" to see if we felt "weak and hungry", or "full and bored", or "don't know" which was initially his only response as he was too busy and disinterested in this line of questioning. We would talk as a family about how tummies felt before we ate and after, we would massage hands and feet and talk about how it felt. I did a lot of texture and temperature sensory play and we talked A LOT about feelings and sensations. And again, slowly we began to notice progress. At one point I stared at The Artist over dinner and blurted out, "It's been months since he threw up at dinner!!" Like "Whaddya know?!" His little body had evened out and he feels like he can stop when he is done, tell us when he's hungry and even tell me when he is really hungry or "blueberry hungry." Which, real talk, I'm "salted carmel gelato hungry" all the time, so I get this one. This work is slow work, as it almost always is in healing and repair. It's almost always hard or confusing in the beginning and over time you notice growth in reflection. A good friend suggested I write a list of things I notice over the days that hold the healing and movement happening in our family so that I remember. So that I can hold something tangible when I'm feeling unsure or inadequate in this game of Mama-ing. It's a good suggestion, it's essentially a gratitude journal of growth and hard won love. I'm doing it and I'll let you know how it works out over time, although right now I'm amazed by it.
But it happens, friends. We were driving back from our Big Red Barn family vacation last weekend and The Artist and I started talking about all the ways we have grown and how Mr. T is just this shining light of love and empathy. Last Spring - almost a year ago - we spent months wondering if we really had what it would take to help him heal from all he has seen. If living with a Tiny baby was in his best interest given how much he needed and how much sharing a four month old requires. A year ago we were sleeping less than 3 hours a night (and working full-time), and feeling constantly under the gun and inept in our ability to manage this little guy's needs. And yet here we are. If I could tell you the one thing I feel most about this little guy, it is that he is brave, and beautiful and pure sunshine golden light.
The Therapist Mom