“Behind every fact is a face. Behind every statistic is a story. Behind every catch phrase is a young person whose future will be lost if something is not done immediately to change his or her reality. And when it comes to young, African American men, the numbers are staggering and the reality is sobering.” Tamika Thompson, Tavis Smiley Reports (PBS)
The odds were stacked against our kids long before they were born. We feel that pressure daily as we work to mitigate as much of the impact of that weight as we can for as long as we can. We want to raise kind, resilient kids who feel good about themselves and have a voice, and though we need a village to make it happen - we’re going for quality over quantity here.
There was a time when our kiddos met with their mom bi-weekly for visits in an overcrowded & loud social services office. During much of that time, Tiny’s brain was developing as a newborn, an infant and eventually a young toddler. Visits back in those days were a real challenge and they were devastating for him, as he would scream the entire time without being soothed or getting his needs met. Worse, he could often see us in the waiting room and recognized us as A) his primary caretakers and B) not helping him in those moments. It was all so devastating and criminal. We were fostering both him and Sweet and were quickly identified as their pre adoptive parents - which is one reason we didn’t just drop them off and leave for visits. We became foster parents for the purposes of providing a safe and nurturing home for kids while they awaited reunification. We aren’t the shop-to-adopt folks. Feels important to say that here.
Anyhow, when a child, or in this case, children, are removed from their home, there is a period of time where the parent or parents are suppose to get whatever help they need in order for home to be safe for kiddos to return. After time, if parents are considered unfit to parent, their choices are to surrender their parental rights or to have them terminated. This is suppose to take a long time so as to ensure that parents have as many opportunities to change whatever needs to be changed and the resources to move forward with their children. The systemic odds are stacked here against birth parents, where intergenerational trauma is also a real barrier to people getting the help and resources they need in order to bring families back together and keep it that way. The problem here, however, if I could be so bold as to name just one, is that the rights and needs of kids in these situations get overlooked as the state has a “duty” to be thorough in their investigation and assessment of one’s ability to parent.
Fast forward to now. The boys started a new preschool this week that incorporates a Reggio Emilia approach to early childhood education. You may recall us making the choice to pull Tiny from preschool about 5 weeks ago. The goal was for both boys to be in the same smallish school in the city, with lots of kids who looked like them. Sweet started there a year ago, and we spent the year bringing Tiny to pick-ups and drop-offs with the hope of desensitizing him and giving him lots of time to get to know the people and place before transitioning there himself.
When the time came, it seemed none of it worked. We tried 5 days and it was clear - this wasn’t a good match. We felt strongly that he wasn’t ready and that they could’t give him what he needed. Both were true. But we needed an alternative plan. I lost my job last spring and spent the summer broadening my skillset and focusing on our family, which extended into the fall when we made the choice to adopt our biggest kiddo. And now I need to get back to work full time. Which means, we need childcare and after school options.
There is much at stake here for the well-being of our kids and pulling Tiny from school meant losing his slot, which we had waited awhile for. We didn’t want to introduce him to another nanny, as we already tried that twice and that sorta arrangement just didn’t work well for our family. There were other things, like the timing, losing our deposit and continuing a terrible commute for Sweet. It was a little easier to justify an hour and a half in the car twice a day with 2 kids going to the same school, but that was no longer the case.
All this to say, shortly after pulling Tiny, we got lucky and heard about a new school that opened recently. We toured it - twice - brought the boys for tours - twice - and had much back & forth with the folks in charge. They had a couple slots left. We loved their wholistic and child-centered approach to learning and growing, and we felt confident they would know how to help our Tiny guy adjust. We knew it would be a better learning environment for Sweet as well, and they were willing to work with us financially. The timing is strange, as the school year is underway. And we had to pay double the tuition this month - where the boys left and where they started, which has nearly wiped us out and is terrifying. But the school is already having a positive impact on our boys, us and our family.
It’s no surprise that handing Tiny off to strangers with the hope that they can weave together a healthy and positive early school experience feels nearly impossible at this juncture. Not only due to the early trauma caused by his separation from his mom and the woman who gave birth to him but also because we’ve worked so damn hard for him to have healthy attachments to both of us. Its all so heavy. How do you weigh the importance of this over that or weave it all together so everyone’s needs are met as often as possible? Lest we forget that, as the moms steering this ship, we happen to be working through our own stuff, which, while actively parenting, is super inconvenient.
It’s all so much. We are 4 days in and Sweet is doing great. For better or worse, he’s an old pro in this department, having started daycare in another foster home when he was barely a toddler. Tiny is making progress, but hearing him cry all over again is devastating and the restraint I practice in not rescuing him drains the life from me.
Bigger than that, though, my partner and favorite person has been away all week, 3 hours behind us, giving a talk on the other side of the country and providing for our family, so many of our exchanges have been through text. I’ve been parenting solo and managing the school transition alone. So I want to end this with a snippet of how we do. How we’ve worked to find ways to do hard things and show up for each other in those impossible moments. The tiniest of moments which get lost in translation or easily passed by given the gravity of the situation. It is the moments that look like this which act as the adhesive for our family. The support and perspective that flows between us from day-to-day contributes to the foundation from which we build. The landing zone from which they’ll one day launch.
[The following is an excerpt from a brief text yesterday. The boys’ first day was Tuesday and today is Friday. We kept the days short, about 1.5 - 2 hours max. Yesterday and today, I left Tiny alone for the first time. Ever. We did not ever get to that point after 5 days at his previous school. He screamed for me as I walked away and I stayed in the hallway not too far, just in case he needed me. My face soaked in my own tears as all that has pooled at my ankles erupted from my eyes.]
Her: “How’s it going?”
Me: “This is beyond painful. I just left. He’s screaming. I don’t hear him anymore. Now I hear him. Our poor kid.”
“I know. It feels similar. But it’s not the same. They can help him. And he belongs there. I know that gut kick. Breathe. Did you hand off then just walk out? You still in the hallway?"
“Dying. He’s still crying strong. Hallway.”
“Was there a plan for how long they let him cry before they called you?”
“Not really. But I asked them to call me if he throws up.”
Her: “I’m so sorry. Leaving him and letting him cry is just one of the things we’ve never ever done and it feels so awful. I’m sure they’re going to try to redirect him. He’s probably going to cry and see if you come back and then maybe move on when he realizes you’re not just gonna come back when he’s yelling. Maybe you should just go down to [coffeeshop downstairs] so you can’t hear, baby.”
“I’m dying right now, baby. God this is so hard for him and very inconveniently bringing up all the bad for me.”
“I know. I understand. That’s exactly why we shifted from the old school because of how incredibly hard this feels. But he’s with teachers with skills and he’s dropped off at a good place, that’s the one thing I keep trying to hold onto. I have to go get ready - I’ll be back in a second.”
[15 min later]
Her: “How’s it going?”
“Sitting in car.”
“Settling or feeling awful, baby?”
“This is just bringing up a lot for me which I can’t contain on my own in the time I have with the responsibilities I have to tend to with all the kids before bedtime. So I’ll leave at that & continue to deep breathe & distracting myself so when the time comes to pick him up I can pretend all’s well and this is just normal because isn’t that what good parents do?”
[Sends me a pic of her work outfit for the day to distract and remind me we’re both doing big things]
Her: “Work me says I love you.”
[I send her a pic of my puffy, red, crying face]
Me: “Struggling me says you look great. I love you, too.”
“Try to listen to the podcast I sent you at 6 minutes - John Cabot Zinn - about mindfulness and present-based living.”
Her: “He has a loving home. His parents would do anything for him. He’s at a good school. It’s going to be a really rough couple drop-offs and then hopefully we make it over the hump. Good parents care. Good parents pay attention. Good parents know that kids can have it way worse and do their best to make sure that never happens. That’s exactly what you’re doing. That beautiful face. This is the beautiful face of the person I love.”
Me: “Ok baby. Have a good day. Good luck.”
Her: “Thanks baby.”
[40 min later]
Her: “Any news? How’s your heart?”
“Saw him from a distance. I hid behind a tree. He was sitting on a blanket for snack.”
“He looked very sad. Not crying.”
“And was staying with the group? My heart.”
“Yes at that moment. But when they were walking out there I was hiding in the car, laying back so he couldn’t see me. He was screaming and pointing to the car. Last kid in line with the teacher next to him.”
“He’s like ‘DAMMIT! THAT'S MY MOM!’ He’s going to be tired. You are brave, baby.”
“I don’t wanna put him down at all tonight.”
“I understand. He can do this, though. He can have a couple hours at school and come home. I keep trying to hold that this is the work of him building a whole new little aspect of his life away from home which he’s never done before so its hard. …And if we can support him in this, this will be exactly how he feels successful and confident in new places and new jobs and uncertain situations for the rest of his life. I just keep trying to think this is parenting. The way you support your kids and build confidence with the message ‘its so hard and I love you so much and you can so do this.’ As opposed to this is so hard I’m killing you I’m ruining things I’m breaking your heart by making you do this. This is so hard and we can do this. …also, I’m booking you a retreat so pick a Friday - Sunday. My baby’s going silent with yogis and monks.”