Monthly Archives: March 2013

The jewel of trauma

I have fought against and struggled with the problem of suffering in the world for much of my life. I’ve read books, listened to sermons, and engaged others in conversation on the topic. There are no easy answers to the questions.

Our family moves forward these days with lots of professional assistance. Two critical teachers/life assistants are a family therapist who helps us as parents and my own personal therapist who facilitates my journey to become a healthier wife/mom/daughter/friend/community member/self. About a year ago, close in proximity, each of these important people gently delivered the same message to my ears. I was bemoaning the early relational trauma that our daughters experienced before coming into our family. One responded “oh no, it is the jewel of trauma” and the other said, “trauma formed them”. My immediate reaction was a heart and soul rebellion against this message, yet I have spent about a year letting it simmer inside, trying to wrap my head around it. This Holy week, a series of events have led to a greater surrender and peace with this viewpoint.

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You see, I am almost ready to surrender to this idea when it comes to adults. I see the reality of this beautiful jewel formed through suffering in the lives, stories and faces of those I know and read and love. People who have known great loss and surrendered to this brutal teacher offer a perspective, depth and authentic walk through life that is magnetic. They radiate a haunting beauty. We want what they have. Several quotes from a variety of sources have recently fallen before my eyes and capture the jewel of trauma thought:

“It’s unfortunate, and I really wish I wouldn’t have to say this, but I really like human beings who have suffered. They’re kinder.” Emma Thompson

“If you had not suffered as you have, there would be no depth to you as a human being, no humility, no compassion.” Eckhart Tolle

“A deep distress hath humanized my soul.” W. Wordworth

“Living means changing and changing requires that we lose one thing before we gain something else.” Jerry Sittser in A Grace Disguised

“Whenever the house of cards we’ve so carefully built comes tumbling down (marriage or relationship break-up, loss of job, health, child, financial crisis), God’s spirit that resides within us is able to show us a greater perspective.” Paul D’Arcy

I embrace this perspective almost whole-heartedly.

But my more recent wrestling matches with God have been over the topic of victims of trauma who are children. Occasionally I argue on behalf of my own children, but more often as a response to the children of the world who reside in some of the darkest places imaginable – brothels, abusive homes, homeless on the streets, uncaring orphanages and the list could go on and on. Is this trauma truly a jewel in their lives?

I’m pretty sure that God does not want us to make complete peace with this tension. Going “there” often leads us to more actively and accurately be the hands and feet of God in this world. Despite the ongoing struggle, there is an internal surrender and faith that is increasing on this matter. What is true for adults must be exponentially true for children. Jesus said it this way: “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” As I endeavor to make any sense out of this problem of pain and suffering, God’s still small voice whispers, “I understand. My heart is: Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, Silent Saturday and ultimately Easter morning.”

My personal prayer this week mimics words of Jesus spoken from the cross: “Into your hands, I commit my spirit”. A prayer for myself as well as all those children in this world whose lives and stories overwhelm me: “with open heart and hands, into your hands, I commit their spirits. Show me the holy work you have for me on this day.” Amen.

Good Enough

It was an “aha” moment as I conversed with a trusted family therapist.  She had used the term “good enough parent”, first coined by Donald Winnicott, on several occasions.  But on this day a light bulb went off inside.  Her message was to this effect – even if you could be a perfect parent (and we all know that isn’t possible), it is best for your child if you are only good enough.  A wave of grace washed over me.  It is better for my child that I am good enough rather than perfect; the internal pressure began to imperceptibly seep out like when a tire goes flat over time; and the pursuit of good enough parenting ensued. This is something I can do.  In pursuit of a toolbox was born out of this good enough quest.

The reality is that for our biological children, I was/am a good enough parent.  I genuinely know that deep down in my heart.  Yet, why was the parenting of our adopted children so different, so complex and at times difficult in some ways?  Still currently in the midst of pursuing the answer to this question, I better understand some of the dynamics in play.  Good enough parenting of a typically developing child who has not experienced trauma is akin to being a newly licensed 16 year old driving down a four-lane highway with guard rails.  There is plenty of space and grace for lane changes, more forgiveness of mistakes and a fair amount of room for overcorrection and drifting off course.  Devastating wrecks can happen but are not likely.  I have recently heard it confirmed by two parenting mentors that for about 90% of children, ANY parenting method is good enough.  That is good news for many of us. imgres-2imgresimgres-1

But what about the other 10 %?  As I wrote about in this blog’s inaugural post, 8 plus years ago I opened the parenting toolbox in my possession, and there wasn’t enough for the task at hand inside that box.  This was a sobering and scary realization.  Suddenly I realized that I was now traveling on a one-lane road, with dangerous hairpin curves and pretty giant cliffs along the sides.  What was required was the skills of a Mario Andretti (I know, I’m dating myself….) and a totally outfitted sports car to navigate this road.  I imagine that any parent that raises a child with any number of special needs feels the same.  I had to change, and change in a radical way.  As most thoughtful human beings can acknowledge – true change is hard work and does not happen over night.  Crashes are much more likely and expected.  The response from those on the shoulders watching needs to be compassion rather than judgment.

The encouraging news, actually pretty astoundingly good news, is that as the toolbox is filling up, more skills are gained and understanding is increasing, our little one lane highway is widening.  At this point, I am not sure that it will ever be as wide as the four lane road that we travelled with our sons, but we certainly are becoming much more skilled drivers.  The definition of good enough may have narrowed, but we still only have to aspire to good enough.  This discovery is life giving.  To each of you, I wish you “good enough” in whatever your heart’s pursuit.

The lie – two portraits

Looking back at the mom I was twenty years ago vs the mom of today elicits various emotions – sometimes I smile, shake my head and get a kick out of the younger me and other times I feel regret and sadness over “what might have been”. I imagine that twenty years from now, I will do likewise about this season of parenting.

A scene from 20ish years ago: It was a time of internal naiveté and unrealistic expectations for my children. The memory is crystal clear of the very first time I knew for certain that our first-born child lied to me. I was crushed and devastated. Our neighbors had an old tree house that they allowed our boys to explore. We received a phone call – things had been broken and destroyed – throwing things from way up high is quite a temptation for a little guy and his friend. Inquisitions ensued – lies were told – mom couldn’t deny the facts. More prone to legalistic parenting -this lying issue was one of the ten commandments for goodness sake – the reaction was regrettable.

I don’t recall the exact response, but I am quite certain it was some combination of shaming, punishment and mom’s sermon # ____. What child, knowing that was on the horizon, wouldn’t give lying their best shot? My crazy fear that we were raising a pathological liar kicked into full gear and led to an unleashing of a series of harmful and relationship damaging words. If I had known more about typical child development and been more honest about my own occasional lying tongue and what situations triggered that, it would have been helpful. But I wasn’t “there” yet.

A scene from last week: after reading enough experts, understanding that traumatized children often have a hair trigger fight or flight response and being convinced that lying in my children is at the foundation a fear response, this scene played out. It was over a simple hygiene issue. The question: have you brushed your hair? – the answer yes. The mom sense activated and knew this was not the case. The big old knot in the skewed pony tail was a dead giveaway. I know from experience that if I “call her out” in that moment, we are going to have an escalating situation. My old legalistic fear was slightly triggered, yet thankfully I remembered to take a few deep breaths, send my daughter to locate the brush and we reconnected in a few minutes. At that time, we then had a conversation about how important it is to tell the truth so that we can trust each other and keep our relationship healthy and strong; I assured her that she would not have been “in trouble” if she had told me no, the hair wasn’t brushed; and the importance of pausing before answering such questions was discussed. Sometimes we tell a lie before we even know what has come out of our mouth – a type of survival skill for some. Children of alcoholics are a case in point on this matter. Image

At the end of this interaction, my daughter said, “some moms aren’t like that”, expressing that big trouble is often around the corner for those who haven’t brushed their hair (and admit it) or choose to lie about a myriad of everyday mom requests. When I asked her how she knew that, she replied, “I don’t know their names, but I’ve seen them.” What she does, on some level, but doesn’t fully know is that her own mom used to be and can still be among that crowd. My hope is that this interaction put one more drop in the trust bucket of our relationship. It seems that a more gentle and grace filled conversation went a lot further in relationship building than the old shaming, punishment, sermon route. We have come a long way but still have a ways to go, together.

Note: for anyone who wants to explore more fully lying as a fear response, I highly recommend The Great Behavior Breakdown by Bryan Post. It tackles lying plus 26 other problematic behaviors families face.

Voice for all

One critical component of Trust Based Relational Intervention parenting, TBRI, is that within a family, there is honor and space for the voice of each member to be considered and heard.  This flies in the face of the admonition“ children are to be seen and not heard”.  Though this generation does not strictly adhere to this tenet, shadows of this thought remain.  Many of us have deep seated beliefs that certain types of emotional expression from a child fall into the category of back talk or disrespect.  It is a tight rope walk to allow for genuine emotional expression from a child and at the same time teach them to express themselves with respect.

On the other end of this spectrum, there are more introverted children who must be encouraged to express their feelings and encouraged to let their voice and choices be known.  Oftentimes in a family where one family member requires a lot of attention and intervention, the quieter members learn to stuff and hide their own desires and wishes.  There just doesn’t seem be to enough energy or space within the family for one more set of needs to be met.  So they learn to silence their voice.  The challenge here is to be an intentional listener and invite this person to articulate and express themselves, as well as be patient and gentle with them as they get acquainted with their own deepest longings.

Within our family, we have a mix.  Extroverts and introverts;  loud and quiet;  more geared toward emotional or rational; and a varied mixture of temperaments.   As I’ve gotten more educated and intentional in parenting, it becomes more apparent that each child brings a unique set of contributions and challenges to our family.  In our more difficult moments, this can lead to anger, misunderstanding and hurt feelings.  In our more connected moments, this leads to great joy and gratitude for the beauty and gift each one offers to our family and out into the world – we get to see the truth of God’s creative work in each of us and begin to understand the “fearfully and wonderfully made” psalm.

The oppression of voice has great consequences in our homes and in our world.  Families have been torn apart and civil and world wars have been fought as a result of squelching voice in a person or group of people.  Children who begin life in an orphanage learn early on that their voice does not matter – that is why orphanages are often so eerily quiet.  It is critical that we as parents give the invitation to all children of all temperaments to express their deepest needs and desires – an invitation that each and every human being deserves.  Whether we have children that need to learn a bit of self control or those who need an atmosphere that encourages self expression, voice for all is the goal.

PS  If you would like to read a great defense of TBRI parenting in relation to some more traditional Christian parenting paradigms, I invite you to read my fellow blogger friend Dana at Death by Great Wall– she communicates some great thoughts.

Welcome to the mom of girl world

ImageSure, I know that girls can be mean.  I started the book “Queen Bees and Wannabes” a few years ago but found it to be so depressing that I couldn’t get past the first few chapters.  We have the American Girl books on friendships and have read them.  I’ve heard from seasoned moms that sometime during the later elementary years, the mean girl thing really heats up.  Truth is back in my coming of age days I was at times both a mean girl and a mean girl target.

I have raised three sons.  They certainly had their share of disagreements and squabbles, but the male way of dealing with things is quite direct and efficient.  A kick, a punch and then typically approximately two minutes later, back at the task at hand and still friends.  It is over and done just like that.

I also am coming to understand that there are historical reasons that females are not accustomed to communicating in an assertive and direct voice.  We have learned through the generations to try and get the things we want in a more indirect route – sometimes in passive or aggressive ways; sometimes through charm and manipulation; Finding our healthy, assertive voice is a challenge.  Helpful to know, but…

What I wasn’t prepared for was the heart drop I would feel when my own daughter was the victim of girl snarkiness.  I got to experience this sinking feeling over the weekend.  Now let me be clear.  All of the girls involved are talented and often kind-hearted kids.  It was a beautiful day and there was lots of excitement in the air over a school sponsored 5K event.  Three times my precious girl reached out to another and three times she was rejected on some level.  It was so painful to watch – from afar and up close.  I first felt a bit paralyzed.  We are in that zone where mom does not step in and make it all ok.  Yet I needed to acknowledge the hurt she was experiencing.  I took a deep breath, shot up a prayer and then did the best I could.

Grace entered this situation as two beloved teachers came across our path.  Maybe they saw the panic in my eyes or maybe the hurt and confusion in the eyes of my daughter.  They excitedly invited her to run with them, tucked her under their wings and off they went together.  I decompressed, felt my heart rise up, thanked God for teachers and waited peacefully and expectantly for her to run across the finish line.  She ran fast and hard spurred on by these two people she loves and crossed the finish line well ahead of most of her peers – ok, now I’m being snarky.

There is still so much for each of us to learn – as daughters and as mom.  A dear friend and mom of a grown daughter reminded me of how resourceful my girls are and that these things will happen along the way.  My heart would like to shield them from this, but my mind knows that isn’t possible or healthy.  These are times to learn and grow.  I know that on any given day, my girls, just like their mom, can land on either side of this mean girl equation – I’ve seen evidence of both..  Some of you are veteran moms, dads or participants in the mean girl wars.  I imagine that a few years from now, I will claim the same battle-scarred status.  Any suggestions on ways to walk through this with our girls would be much appreciated.  I think I’ll drag the “Queen Bees and Wannabes” book back out.  It’s time to look at this more fully.