I have been a mother for eighteen years because I count pregnancy as motherhood. Our oldest daughter is 17 1/2, currently college shopping, and heading into her senior year of high school. Our son is a 185 pound football-and-basketball playing, learning to drive, almost 16 year old. Then in May of 2013, after a 12 year gap, we brought our daughter Grace home from China at 19 months old. She is our first adopted child and our first child with several congenital anomalies; some of which we knew about prior to bringing her home, and some only God knew about.
I don’t claim to be an expert on motherhood or parenting adopted and biological children, but I do feel that I and my husband are the reigning authorities on these three children (as much as any parent can be). As I’ve considered this theme of Dear Younger Me, five main ideas came to mind as I reflect on 18 years of motherhood, and how I’ve grown and evolved in spite of myself as a mother.
1. As grows the child so grows the parent.
Parents grow and evolve with their children. I’m 40 now, which means I was 22 at the time of my first pregnancy. Having been married only 8 months before learning I was pregnant, I was barely a grown woman. I’m definitely not the same person I was 18 years ago. Fortunately for me, my best girlfriends at the time were also new mamas, or we were becoming mamas together. I don’t know how women thrive during that season of life without healthy and supportive camaraderie.
The group of women I was blessed to do life with, during that season of life were, and are, wise beyond their years, grounded, secure and generous. We didn’t compete with one another. We didn’t shame one another for not using the “right” sunscreen or passive aggressively promote organic food, breast feeding, vaccines, co-sleeping, or cloth vs. disposable diapers. We were about the business of empowering each other and each other’s children. There was no Facebook, Twitter, Instagram or Pinterest to shape our competitive nature as a self proclaimed “Super Mom”. Our only essential oil was EVOO. Amen.
Part of how I have evolved as a mom is my age and the wisdom and knowledge that come with age. Adopting Grace was a game changer because I learned so much about the importance of attachment, felt safety, trust, and trauma. When biological children are born the bonding has already begun in utero. This is something I know the importance of now; but I took it for granted 18 years ago. Newborns know their parents’ voices, they know their scent and therefore, they are born somewhat bonded. As those first weeks with their parents continue, parents meet the basic needs of food, shelter, love, and family. As days go by the bonding and attachment becomes more and more secure.
When my biological children were ready to sleep through the night we sleep trained them. That Ferber book ranked right up next to the Bible in those early days. It wasn’t easy, but it worked and we all slept through the night for 12 glorious years. When they were toddlers and began to learn what “No” meant – and subsequently disregarded it – they were appropriately disciplined and sometimes that meant a spanking, a time out, a loss of a privilege, or all of the above. As they grew and developed – I grew and developed and looking back I don’t know if there is much I would change except I wouldn’t be so quick wish away their dependence on me. I would snuggle them longer and let the dishes stack up. I would read more and rock more and delay the bedtime in favor of cuddling them. I say that now because they are too big for my lap and all of a sudden they are on the cusp of their own lives and very much independent.
Our son was 12 when we adopted Grace. It was almost like starting over. In fact, it was just like starting over. With adoption came a complete and total overhaul of our parenting style. Being a mom to children who have never known trauma doesn’t even compare to a child who has an almost-two year history of trauma. It’s moving to a new planet. It’s uncharted territory. My husband and I felt like new pioneering parents. It is completely, 100%, different.
I can count the number of times I’ve slept through the night in three years on one hand. I can count the number of times I have slept without a toddler in my room or my bed in three years on one hand. And it’s ok. I wouldn’t dream of sleep training our adopted child the way we did our first two children because her daily consistent mantra and current mission statement for life is “My not wanna be all alone.” If I had her start at life, I would very likely feel the same.
It is recommended strongly by adoption experts and child psychologists that adopted children and foster children not be disciplined with spanking or any kind of method that creates a pain response. Why? Because unlike biological children, bonding isn’t established on day one. It can take years to bond with an adopted child. It can take a lifetime when there has been trauma. Grace was terrified when she was placed into our arms on day one with her. We have had to be very creative to try and shape Grace’s behavior while building her trust and facilitating a healthy, lasting, rock-solid bond with us. Our main and daily goal with her, for the last three years has been to teach her she is safe with us and those we trust to care for her in our absence, and that she is safe in our house.
I’m not a patient person by nature. I didn’t have to talk through many scenarios and convince our birth children to trust me, because they trusted me implicitly from birth – because we were bonded at birth. I doubt it ever crossed their minds to wonder if I would really come back when I went to the grocery store, or if their dad would always come back when went on a work trip. I doubt they ever panicked upon waking in their room alone. When you have a child who lives in fear more than she lives in security – you have to evolve, change and adjust and do things outside the normal parenting box. It is especially challenging because everyone in this day and age is watching and forming an opinion (aka: judging). Family, friends, blog readers, church members, neighbors, social workers, co-workers… in 2016 everyone is watching and assessing how you are parenting.
2. Resist any urge judge another parent.
As I pack Grace’s lunch I sometimes wonder who might be looking at it and thinking: “What is wrong with that mom? Where’s the organic, gluten and GMO free sandwich? Where’s the meat? Why so many crackers? Why two Go-gurts (dairy!) and doesn’t she know they’re packed with sugar, heavens! This string cheese is not from grass-fed cows. OMG… there are colorful fishy crackers with (gasp) red dye number 6.” This is what Grace’s lunch away from home looks like (I do usually avoid the colorful goldfish but the sample lady gave her free bag at the grocery store and I was trying to avoid a public tantrum).
What most people don’t realize is that one of her congenital anomalies (which is a term I prefer to birth defects) has rendered her esophagus narrow and devoid of peristalsis (aka: her food pipe is smaller in an area than it should be for her age and the nerves that fire the muscles to efficiently squeeze food into her stomach have been broken so gravity and Jesus are our best friends while eating). While it has improved tremendously – with esophageal dilation procedures, the magic of antacids, prayer, and time – there are times when ordinary four year old culinary delights are very dangerous. A chicken nugget isn’t allowed unless we can be closely monitoring her. Mac and cheese has just recently become mostly safe. Sandwiches must be toasted because deliciously chewy bread has caused hours of gagging and near 911 calls. A meatball lead to an ambulance ride just two months after open heart surgery, therefore we tend to err on the side of caution.
She is barely 30 pounds at 4 1/2 years old, so making sure she eats safely is a challenge at times. So as some might judge our food choices – if they only knew how badly we would love to send her with carrots, fresh broccoli, an apple, a banana and almonds, PBJ or a turkey sub sandwich. Instead, Go-gurt, string cheese, squeezy applesauce and a chocolate chip cookie win.
Having gone from having children with only the “tonsillectomy” box checked on their health history form to an adopted child with no family history to list and several diagnoses requiring paragraphs and wikipedia links for her preschool teacher’s “Child Information Form”, I can tell you, it’s different this time around in a hundred different ways. I confess I have been the mom at the grocery store with my two adorable blonde haired and blue eyed toddlers sitting peacefully in the shopping cart, halos on point; watching the horror of another mom’s worst day unfold in front of the Cherrios with a screaming, tantruming toddler. I have thought the thoughts of “Hmm…I guess that kid needs a: nap/spanking/time-out/lesson/to learn what no means etc. I thought I had the answers for children with behavior challenges.
Now I am that mom on occasion with our toddler. Now I see a child having a complete come-apart in public and I wonder what triggered it. I wonder if their child didn’t have night terrors last night too which has made them a little more sensitive to the order in which their groceries were packed. Things that were never an issue with our first two kids are huge to Grace. Sometimes a scratchy tag in her dress is a disaster and provokes wailing and panic, so we aim for clothes without tags. Sometimes, what she really needs most is a nap, but she can’t settle herself down enough most days. Frequently, she needs to leave the dinner table and walk around because her food is moving too slow and the tight feeling in her chest temporarily causes her to be anxious.
Her fight or flight response is on overdrive because of all she has experienced, and it drives her behavior. Like most people who struggle with anxiety, she most comfortable when she has control of the situation (aren’t we all). I wouldn’t have dreamed of giving our first two children control over anything, but this is different.
We are working on teaching Grace to accept situations that aren’t in her control, but it’s a marathon not a sprint. I have learned that sometimes finding a way to keep the peace – especially in a public situation when she’s exhausted – is the best choice for everyone. I’ve learned that lasting learning takes place when children are calm, not when they are mid-meltdown and “offline” emotionally. I’m learning to care less about what spectators to my parenting will think and more about the opportunity at hand to teach.
Some might assume I’m letting her have her way. Sometimes it looks that way because that is what’s happening. Do I give her what she wants when she’s screaming and throwing a fit? Heavens no. I give her an opportunity to calm down and try again within minutes, if possible. Studies have shown that creating new pathways in the brain happens within minutes of an incident and I will gladly take the chance to have her “do it right” and make that new pathway. I try to be proactive and present three choices to her, and let her choose whichever one she likes best. Guess what? That is the sweet spot. She asserts her needs or preference from what I have already decided are acceptable and good options for her. I would say that is a win-win situation. If we are in the business of parenting to come out the winner, in my experience, everyone loses.
I’ve been that parent that has to have it my way or no way every time but I avoid that in this “bonus round parenting” with Grace. It has proven ineffective in creating a nurturing place where trust and attachment become secure. Occasionally it does have to be a specific way “because I said so”, but there is usually a good reason if we say “no” to any of our children.
3. Resist any urge to parent someone’s child for them – especially when in their presence.
Heavens. Whether it’s your BFF’s child, your niece or nephew, the neighbor kid, or someone online. Unless you have a professional opinion that has been asked of you, or have an agreement with your bestie to co-parent each other’s kids – keep shut thy mouth, and still thy fingers. If you start to say, type, post, or direct tweet the following words: “As a mom I feel uncomfortable that you…” it’s probably a mistake. Abort mission. Talk to Jesus about it. The end. At the very least, have a face to face conversation if it is something that is so critical and you feel compelled by the Lord to enlighten another parent – do so in person – one on one.
Definitely don’t call them out or challenge them on Facebook, via text, at play group, or bible study. For heavens sake, do not share an article about your concern to their Facebook or yours and tag them. Never say aloud to a child, purposefully earshot of their parent anything like: “Wow, someone is being so loud right now. Sounds like someone needs to have a time out or a nap or go outside. I am really tired of that whining,” or other such nonsense. Those are things you can say to only your children. The end.
If you are that annoyed, it sounds like you need a time-out. I highly recommend that parents give themselves the luxury of a self imposed time-out. The people in your life will thank you for it and you’ll love it. If you don’t take that time-out, you might fall victim to becoming the mom who lives to show off her mad parenting skills by parenting someone else’s child in front of them. Oh please, no. If your friend, sister, neighbor is within 10 feet of you and their child is in need of an intervention please don’t directly intervene unless someone’s life or safety is in danger, and if that is the case – proceed with caution. Step one should always be to alert the actual parent who is present, and for some reason is either oblivious to this urgent need for intervention, or feels this isn’t urgent enough. Whatever the reason, it’s always best to give that parent a heads up by saying something like, “Hey, I think Grace needs something,” because when children over-react, have a melt down, flip out – they usually do need something and it for sure is not someone other than their parent disciplining them when their actual parent is available.
4. When asked, feel free to give advice on parenting up to the age of your oldest child.
You nannied for 6 years? You have taught every grade? That’s lovely. You can’t give parenting advice unless you’re a parent OR you have a degree in child psychology and even then, you should probably only share what some experts say about how to parent a child at _____ age because even the experts disagree.
You haven’t adopted yet but you think you might? You for sure cannot give adoption advice, but you definitely should solicit some. If you plan to parent every child the same, I wish you good luck, but I don’t recommend it. My biological children are opposites in almost every way from learning style to taste in music. One is motivated internally and the other responds better to setting goals and earning rewards. Parenting toddlers is like the show Survivor – outwit, out play, out last.
Do share how you survived parenting toddlers once you have actually survived, but please spare someone in the trenches with teenagers your good advice when you are loving life with your newborn or your six-year-old. Just because you remember being a teenager doesn’t mean you know how to parent one. Being a teenager is one thing, parenting them is wonderful yet challenging, beautiful and frustrating, fantastic and frightening. Those of us with teenagers know the brutal truth, it went too fast and we only have a short time left before they are on their own-ish.
5. Remember to take care of you.
“In the event of a loss of cabin pressure, the oxygen mask will descend in front you. Apply the mask to yourself before attempting to help others.” This is so important but is completely contrary to our instinct as a parent. Earlier I mentioned a self-imposed time out. Adult time-outs are so much better than when we were children. It could be a simple nap or a walk or a work out. It can mean securing regularly occurring respite care (a babysitter, preschool, a camp, grandma’s house, VBS…) for your children. Some of us recharge best among other people, so perhaps a women’s retreat is for you. Created for Care conferences might be just what you need because you will meet other moms who have adopted.
I have learned that we who are on the adoption path of our journey, are in need of people to walk along side of us who have also walked that same path. Some of the best words I’ve heard from other moms are “me too”. There is comfort in knowing we are not alone in our struggle, especially from someone who has left that specific struggle and can pass along wisdom for those of us still in it and still swinging.
Others of us recharge best alone reading, sitting in quiet, or working alone on a hobby. The older I get the more I recharge by being alone and thinking or praying and hearing only nature or music. It’s some of the best medicine around.
I never imagined I would find myself in a counselor’s office. All I thought I needed was my family, my girlfriends, my bible study girls, and Jesus; and I could walk through anything with joy. Along came a season with a series of challenging and unexpected events, personal health challenges, and out went the joy. I needed to find that joy again and found it enormously comforting for me to bare my soul to someone I didn’t know – but who loved Jesus and trusted Him.
I typically don’t read Facebook status updates from people that talk about their great session with their counselor, but what if we moms who have found that to be helpful admitted that, sometimes, a little extra help from a counselor is a good thing, a saving thing, a healing thing. When a difficult season of life hits I have found it helpful to surround myself with people who will listen and then remind me of the truth in God’s word because in my life – it is the only thing unchanging. He is he only thing unchanging. I’m fortunate to have friends and family to remind me of God’s truth but it has also been so helpful to receive godly counsel as well. Being honest with the ones who love us about our need for a grown-up time-out is necessary because it helps us recharge and be better for ourselves and our families.
God didn’t create us for life in solitude where we hide our struggles, highlight our triumphs, and keep the illusion going as long as we can that we have mastered motherhood or fatherhood. He designed us to crave relationship with Him and others. He commanded us to first, Love. Love Him, and love others as we love ourselves. Loving others looks less like judging and more like empowering and encouraging. Loving ourselves looks less like judging ourselves too harshly, empowering ourselves by allowing ourselves a time out from time to time, and encouraging ourselves in His word to remember that we are never left alone. He promises to never leave or forsake us. He promises to carry us, rescue us, and be our God until our hair is white with age (Isaiah 46:3-4).
Take heart… you aren’t alone on whatever journey God has set before you. He goes before you and will provide you with opportunities to grow beyond your wildest dreams. Eighteen years ago I became a mom. Had someone told me then, that I would adopt a little girl from China some day I would have laughed and said, “I could never.” I had no idea I could love a child who didn’t grow inside me as much as ones who did, but I do.
There’s nothing too big for God, there’s no situation He cannot redeem, no joy He cannot restore. If you strive to be slow to judge, quick to cheer on, and steady to do your best with what God has entrusted to you – you’ll do well. On your mark, get set, Go!