I have a small list of resources I drag out when I’m feeling tapped out or just spread too thin for too long. My short list comprises Father Greg Boyle lectures, or better yet, his book “Tattoos on the Heart.” Some favorite graduation speeches (particularly George Saunders speech for Syracuse University in 2013), Pema Chodron (I know- who doesn’t squirrel her books away for dark days or heavy moments). I’m drawn to voices offering compassion and hope. Those who believe our work together is to support ways for the soul to feel it’s worth. My work as a Mama, a for-now-Mama or foster Mama requires that I remember there is boundless compassion in this world. That the work is always to find my way towards being and offering compassion. To stand alongside those who are doing the heavy and breathtaking work of rebuilding a heart from the outside in. I think about this in cosmic, ginormous ways. I think about this in small, fleeting ephemeral ways. And I think a lot about what it takes for a kiddo to want to say out loud, to someone else that their feelings have been hurt, especially after they have lived with so many people and so much hurt, and so little apology. When life has not offered you glimpses of empathy, or repair you have no reason to believe these things exist and when you are then faced with people trying to repair or connect, you shun or skim around it because it's weird and uncomfortable and what are they even trying to get away with here anyway?
I was sitting on the couch this morning and I heard my biggest kiddo, and only girl, try to say something to her brother. She said something and then paused and attempted to reword her thoughts so they were more understandable, grammatically correct and kind, and then moved right on. And this moment, this moment right here, was almost exactly what we have been working so hard on for four months. The amount of speech support, patience, diligence and working very hard to be steady and gentle when guiding and correcting can feel daunting. And it can feel exhausting. Then along come these moments of feeling dumbstruck with awe and the way my kids are moving around in the world. Almost always after I've stopped really paying attention, or feel too tired to be tracking, they surface.
The moms in our house frequently talk about how we have to keep one eye on the day-to-day life and details, and another eye tracking the horizon, or playing the long game as I frequently call it. There are no shortcuts in healing. Tonight at dinner it happened again. My biggest kiddo told Mr. T that he hurt her feelings. She said it so softly it was almost inaudible, and before I could jump in (I know, I know, I'm totally working on it - micromanaging their conflict is "growing edge") The Artist said something like, "[Big sis!] I am so proud of you! That was amazing! Good for you for telling him how you feel - now [Mr. T], what do you say?" And, you know, he said something like "Okay. Sorry you heard me hurt your feelings." I know, concrete pre-schoolers. We're working on that too. Again, I was taken aback.
Given my line of work I have spent fifteen years reading case histories, evaluations, and medical files for kiddos who have been through incredible loss and pain, and the kids in my house have had it as bad as any of them. When I look at all they've been through, I think primarily of our biggest girl as she has lived more of that life as the oldest and least protected of the bunch. She is by all measures, a kiddo growing up and doing the work of healing and finding and noticing yourself. It's a funny thing to watch someone rebuild their heart from the outside in, and see them doing all of the brave and painful work within arms reach. Watching her has helped me really get a handle on what I believe to be true and good parenting. It has helped me settle on how I want to guide and steadily walk along with her. Parenting kiddos who hurt is the ultimate exercise in long game for me. Rarely is there a moment in our home, or with my kids, where I expect immediate changes or turn-arounds (deciding to ride your scooter nudie in the kitchen while I'm cooking on the stove, yes immediate change, otherwise not so much). I think about the place we want to get to, I think about how I break that down, and then I think about what I want to start saying now. Nebulous, I know. Let me break down how it works for us.
For example, when Mr. T moved in he was so disorganized around food, eating, going potty and tuning into his body around feeling full, hungry, all of it. We started giving him very small portions and would offer seconds of what he ate first, talk about how he must have liked that one best because it was all gone first! He sat in the kitchen or in a Tula on my back while I cooked and tasted along with me the whole time, lemons, raw garlic, chives, charred corn, I gave him small piles of ingredients and we talked a lot about salty, sour, spicy, sweet. We talked a lot about feeling full or "fuzzy" (our word for bored or dissociative). We would talk about how to stop eating after a while and how to let our tummy settle to see how it was doing. How tummies can't tell right away, so sometimes we have to listen really good to them and it takes a few minutes. I would point out when my stomach was grumbling, or narrate a lot about how much we ate and when we would eat again, and where snacks were if we needed them. It was a lot of dialogue around food, feelings, and patience. We also started doing much more structured sensory play, like everyday before nap, after tough days or visit days. The work was to have this frame for feeling things in your body, then the work was doing a lot of activities that cause you to notice your body (slime, water beads in oil and water, cloud dough, scented playdoh, light tables, lavender essential oil spray at night, weighted blankets, vibrating teethers, etc...). This cognitive talking, body-based experimenting, and gently moving through meals helped us stop having each dinner end with Mr. T vomiting or gagging, or becoming so disorganized he would mash and smear food all around. It took months, many many months. And after almost a year we had a kiddo would could ask for snacks, rarely gag during meals, and would move around and motor like a pretty typical three year old. If we just restricted his food, if we just talked to him or consequenced him without the bigger construct of needing to pace and connect the dots for him we might not have gotten to where we are now. It's all about sequencing to me, he was so little. Half of this work isn't verbal or language based. He had so little stimulation - much of what he needed was figuring out how to even feel subtle shifts in his body (potty training took almost a year and a half for our guy, because he had turned off his little internal sensors and needed to work on finding them again).
Another example: One of the many things we wanted to help Big Sis with was her fixation on the boys. Boy counselors, boys in the neighborhood, boys on TV or in movies, boys in stores. Boys Boys Boys. She was a kiddo who struggled to connect with girls, or really establish friendships and value them. At camp she often preferred to hang out with the counselors rather than engage in games. If one of the boys said they liked something she was wearing or suggested she do her hair a certain way she was fixated on their preference. There are lots of reasons we could unpack why this isn't ideal, hell, why this induces panic in Moms. But shaming, punishing or ignoring her preferences would get us nowhere. So we started small. Like really small, we started getting all kinds of games - car games, memory games, blocks, baby dolls, puzzles, workbooks, reading books, art supplies, tons of crafts, you name it we tried to find it. And then when she would gravitate toward certain games or activities we would notice, we would narrate:
"You are so good at drawing faces and Pokemon!"
"Man I thought markers were your thing, but this art you're creating with tape and crayons is amazing!"
"You're so athletic, did you notice how you always catch yourself when you twist fast on the swing, you're the only one in the house that can do that!"
You are who the people in your life believe you are. If I criticize you for a way you adapted and survived your life when things were hard, I'm sending you a message that my discomfort matters more than your survival. I'm telling you that the way you held onto your life isn't important to me, because it isn't what I want for you. I'm messaging you all my anxiety and none of my hope.
I know what happens for kiddos who struggle with peer relationships and in turn gravitate to boys or girls. And in this moment that has to be far away from what guides my parenting, because right now you need to find a way to wonder about yourself. And the more I wonder about you and wonder with you, the easier this all becomes. I notice what I see her liking, and I'll ask if I'm right. And in the beginning of this, like four months ago? I didn't really track her responses, or worry too much about if I was noticing right because we were setting the stage. The first time she corrected me I essentially threw a party for her. I didn't get upset or call her defiant, I said "Yes! Good for you for wanting to say something different! I might not change what I'm doing, but yes! This is great kiddo. Someday you and I can do this and both feel solid and like we understand each other, regardless of whether we agree or not. I bet we'll get there!" Over time I set out two outfits for her and she had to pick which one she wanted, same with snacks for lunch, same with books for bedtime - when she chose baby board books for the first few weeks we went with it. We talked about how much fun it would be to see what class she liked best at her new school, what her first spelling words would be. We focused on school, choices, celebrating predictable milestones. Then we started on talking about friends, having her go with Mr. T and Tiny on their playdates so she could be a big sister and help the little kids play. She loved it. I loved being able to talk about how amazing she was at being fair and how fun she was. I mentioned that whenever she's ready we could schedule playdates for her. The concept of a playdate or spending time with a friend outside of school blew her mind. We picked books about kids with friendships and the ups and downs that come with them. I noticed kids on playgrounds playing together, or sharing or helping each other out, in a "Hey look at those kids! She just ran to help her friend when she tripped, what a cool kid - I bet that's the kind of friend you are, you're thoughtful just like she is."
You are who the people in your life believe you are. And then a couple months later, she came home one day with a note scribbled with a girls name on it. Not a boy's name, a girl's name and this was the first time this had ever happened. I sent this kiddo's Mom a note asking them if we could hang out and let the kids play and The Artist and I held our collective breath. Three days later this kiddo's Mom texted on a Monday night to ask if we wanted to have a playdate. I imagine this is what it feels like to find out your kid got into the college they dreamed of, or you find out they won their sports tournament. We were just giddy. Scheduling her with kids we knew, or friends' kids all those months ago didn't drive her to want to connect, it drove her inside and away from the outside world. Sometimes you just have to keep your eyes toward the horizon, just keep working at your long game and let your kids pace your way there.