NPR is where my radio dial mostly hangs out. It offers a rich menu of topics discussed in an in depth way. Many times it captures my imagination and what I hear helps me to live a deeper more thoughtful life.
About a week or so ago I heard Amanda Bennett, author of The Cost of Hope, being interviewed by Diane Rehm. Bennett’s love story memoir chronicles her life with her husband, focusing on the last years of his life battling cancer and pursuing life extension in all possible ways. She talks honestly about and wrestles in detail with the financial, emotional and relational cost of pursuing all possibilities and extremes of medical intervention during his last years of life. This is a topic that makes many of us squirm – how can we make judgments and decisions on the “reasonable” price of extending the life of those that we love? Even thinking about it is an emotional kick in the gut – can’t imagine living it.
Listening to her and pondering the many angles and complexities of this question led me to think about the cost of hope for those who are raising children with any type of special need. As parents, we all desperately want our children to live life to the fullest extent possible. But we also have to be realistic and honestly look at the big picture of our own individual family – we must consider the cost of hope.
There is a great temptation as a parent of a struggling child. We can spend a lot of time, energy and passion seeking the “magic bullet” – that thing that will normalize our child and our family. And the places to seek that kind of magic are numerous – many different types of mental health therapy, occupational therapy, nutritional supplements, medications, neuro/bio/etc. feedback, special diets, expensive brain scans, doctors of many persuasions and the list could go on and on and on. We could literally fill up our entire lives with evaluations, appointments and therapies. It requires wisdom, a great deal of discernment and a trust in God’s grace and guidance to navigate this pathway and choose wisely for ourselves and our children. Which of us would not figure out a way to pay the price, whether the currency is money, time or energy, for anything that we are convinced will truly help our child? The sorting through of promises and dangled hopes can be completely overwhelming.
So in a very real and sometimes gut wrenching way, we must come to terms with the “cost of hope” and which particular emotional, time and financial resources we have available in each of our families to meet the needs of our children in the best way possible. This will be different for each family. There will most likely be second-guessing and some level of “what if” as we walk this road. We have to learn to live in that uncomfortable space.
The honest truth is there is no “magic bullet”. This life together is a marathon and there are no quick fixes and easy answers. Yet I can rest well and be at peace with my God at the end of the day when I can with integrity say, “ we love our child with all of our hearts and we are doing the best that we can”. That is sufficient.
Ever since I was a little girl, reading has been a great joy. The words take me to far away places and times. I get to help solve mysteries, walk in the shoes of others and think and learn about things that don’t readily come to mind. Books challenge me to ponder deeply and see things from another point of view. In my recent reading of Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafon, these words jumped out at me – “that book taught me that by reading, I could live more intensely”. That describes so accurately my own longstanding relationship with the written word.
There came a day in my parenting journey when I said “Dorothy, or Tricia, we aren’t in Kansas any more”. I was forced to acknowledge something pretty uncomfortable – despite the then 18 years of parenting experience under my belt, I was in over my head. So where was I to turn? A bibliophile like me being forced to walk down an unfamiliar path would of course start reading about this new place. So for those of you walking a similar path, I’d like to introduce you to a few of my new friends.
The Connected Child by Dr. Karyn Purvis – this was a book that I read before we adopted our daughters but I have probably re-read it 4-5 times since then. We can’t often put things we have read about into practice until it is game time. Reading Dr. Purvis is like having a wise mother or grandmother whisper gentle life giving instructions into my ear on the most difficult days.
The Post Institute – www.postinstitute.com – Bryan Post is one of my favorite guys. The biggest thing I have learned from reading and listening to his work is that on this journey of parenting, I am the one that must address my own issues and be the one to make the changes. So many of the traditional parenting tapes running through my head call out that I must control and make my child change, when in fact the only person I can truly change is myself – we all know that but often forget that in the role of parent. From Fear to Love is a short book that is an introduction point to Bryan Post’s perspective.
Easy to Love, Difficult to Discipline and all things written by Becky Bailey – Becky Bailey is truly my parenting paradigm shift hero. I am grateful for a friend who invited several moms to meet weekly this past year for an incredible time of encouragement and support as we traveled together through a very powerful workbook called Conscious Discipline. Though written for teachers, it is SO applicable to raising all children, and particularly children who have lived through trauma. Becky Bailey has given me the practical tools to live out a different approach as a parent.
Gotcha! Welcoming Your Newly Adopted Child Home: A Guide for Newly Adoptive Parents by Dr. Patti Zordich. This is a great and quick read for anyone who is thinking about, planning or in the early stages of an adoption. It gives very practical steps on how the needs of adopted children are different and how to meet those in the earliest days together.
If you have walked this parenting road, I’d love to hear what resources have offered light and hope to you. There is always room for new friends on the shelves of my library.
My natural inclination is to live life in the fast lane. As a younger mom, that looked something like this: volunteer everywhere my kids are involved and places beyond; take on leadership roles at school and church; have kids signed up for multiple activities at a time requiring carpools and lots of coordination; fit in a few exercise sessions a week, do a Bible study, squeeze in errands, throw something to eat on the table and fall into bed exhausted every night. When raising our sons, I lived this pace of life and mostly felt comfortable there. There were exceptions, but overall I believed I was juggling a lot without dropping too many balls.
Looking back, balls were getting dropped, but I just wasn’t aware of those balls. I used a high paced activity level to cope with my own anxiety and to wall out looming issues that were softly calling out for my attention. Busyness was a great defense against dealing with a deeper call to life and an effective white noise to shut out the whisperings of God. All the activity that I thrived on numbed my own feelings – it was like a drug. Things like tending to the emotional side of life and taking time for true and deep relationship with God and my family suffered. Graciously, it is never too late with God and it is not too late with our sons – a lot of that tending is still in progress. But I did miss out on many of the day to day opportunities with them.
So in this season of life and parenting, the goal is to live life in a starkly different place. Paying attention to the emotional side of life really isn’t an option – well, certainly not one that I want to choose. Part of that may be related to the femaleness of the current children in my daily care – though truthfully, boys need emotional care, maybe even more so given our gender stereotypes and pressures. Another contributor to this parenting shift is that many children who have lived through some type of trauma require a slower pace of life to get onto a healing path. Seems to me that on some level, we all know that something a lot slower than the average American family schedule is a healthier place to live.
Even though I know this is best and a much better place for me and my family, I still at times feel envy when I hear the pace and schedules of other families. There is something seductive about living on the hamster wheel. I don’t surrender very easily. My passion and desire is too often for the fast lane.
In our family, there is a clear pattern – November 1 through December 31 and the month of “May plus” are very difficult times for us to navigate. The temptations to over schedule lurk around every corner and even get delivered in the mail. To maintain any semblance of calm and sanity, we have to put up healthy boundaries and say “no” a lot. Those lines of health look different for each family – for ours, it feels kind of like we are in the healthiest lane if we stroll down the sidewalk while the rest of the world whizzes right by in a sports car.
Coming out of a May when we really “missed the slow boat”, it is a good time to stop, be mindful and learn from our mistakes. When I really think and reflect on this, the slower paced life has been where much of my growth has happened. I started writing, breathing, listening more, knowing true peace and noticing the beauty and joy all around. The addiction to busyness had blurred my sight. It still whispers to me to come and follow and join in. But like all addictions, I know that ultimately it will lead to destruction. So, once again, I vow to submit to the painstaking surrender toward a slower paced life.
It was one of my very favorite times during church – children’s sermon. Lots of children seated up front on the steps and the question posed was, “what do you do if something at home needs to be fixed?”. Travis very excitedly and with confidence shouted out, “call a professional!” I loved that child – he was one of those zesty kids who had a sparkle in his eye and was not bound by too many conventions in life. There was laughter and a moment of redirect.
I have noticed that within some of the Christian contexts of my life, there is a great reluctance and sometimes even a stigma associated with expressing struggles and seeking professional help– in particular, in the area of mental health. Do we sometimes think God should be sufficient for absolutely everything and we are failures if we need this kind of help? Are we afraid of what others will think or say about us if they find out? Is it that we are admitting some kind of defeat or weakness of self? I am sure there are a myriad of thoughts and reasons around this. Maybe the American values of being self-made and self-sufficient are all tangled up in it.
With seven people in our family, there have been several occasions when we have needed to call a professional. I recall the very first time many years ago. If I am honest with myself, pride and arrogance along with fear of the unknown were at the root of my reluctance. Somehow my thinking on this issue had gotten really twisted. But the truth of the matter is that getting help was a huge relief. We needed it. Things were happening that we didn’t have the tools to address and our children and family would suffer if I let my pride stand in the way of getting help.
I think back to three conversations related to this topic. One was with a minister who expressed something along the lines of “surely there are other people in this church who are struggling with their children – why don’t we talk to each other about this?” And a porch conversation with a minister’s spouse who told me that she and her husband had been going to see a therapist. She recounted that she had been quite honest and talked about this fairly openly. Her view was that this was a healthy and helpful thing to do for their marriage and family. She was puzzled and surprised by the people who literally came and whispered in her ear or called her later asking her questions about this as though it was a big secret shame. Her friends needed help too, but they were afraid, shamed, or somehow needed permission from the minister’s family to go and get that help. And a recent conversation with a dear friend who did go and see a mental health professional – “there were a lot of families in the waiting room – there are a lot of us”.
So, to answer my question about when to call a professional, one thought is that when daily life is interrupted. When we get stuck and just feel like we are barely keeping our heads above water. When things are chaotic on a regular basis or there is an issue for us or our children that we just can’t handle alone. In the context of children with early relational trauma, why do we expect to be able to naturally navigate all that may come our way? As one professional said to me, “this is very specialized parenting”. She also imparted this wisdom to me – it is a privilege to be able to work through some of these things with a professional. And indeed it is.
In Ecclesiastes, it says, “Though one may be overpowered, two can defend themselves. A cord of three strands is not quickly broken”. I’ve always envisioned God in that mix of three, but also know that another person is a part of that cord as well. For the sake of our families, when it is time, may we confidently seek the help that we all need at some point and deeply know the joy of sharing the struggles of life with another.
In Judaism, sitting shiva is the seven days of mourning following a death. The family focuses on mourning during this time, and friends make shiva calls. Thank you to Dr. Ron Wolfson and his “How to make a shiva call” for the following:
- You are not alone is the fundamental message to be shared.
- Comforters are obligated to tend to the needs of mourners.
- What do you say? The tradition suggests being silent, allowing the mourner to open the conversation.
There is much to be gleaned from this beautiful tradition in living life with a child who began life in a difficult place. We need to learn how to make shiva calls. Often in our own discomfort, we rush to say things, dismiss emotions, try to fix things or reassure our children. Silence and real, genuine presence with someone in emotional distress is often best. I am here, truly here, with you in your deep pain. No words are necessary.
How do we practice genuine presence? Now that is a difficult and complex challenge – especially in the midst of a child’s behavioral outburst or emotional shutdown. In the heat of the moment, it involves suspending our own fears and judgments – in short, denying our self. It involves taking deep breaths and truly engaging right alongside and with our children. Jumping ahead to “if this is what is happening at age 6, what is it going to look like at 16?” or behind to “If I had only _________, I am a miserable failure as a parent” are completely paralyzing in the midst of emotional upset.
Beware. There is a counterfeit to presence. Emotional detachment is not true presence. It may appear as calm on the outside, but internally, we have checked right out of this scene. The reasons are myriad – we, the parent, are now triggered by our own pain or hurt and in a very fearful place; we have learned somewhere along the way that strong emotions are dangerous, and detachment is our habitual place of safety; our own fear has led us somewhere other than in the moment.
We all have experienced talking to or being with someone who just “isn’t really there”. Children who have lived early relational trauma have an incredibly sensitive radar system. They can sense and feel the radical difference between true presence and detachment. And when they do, their response can range from a silent cocooning shutdown to a raging behavioral outburst. The only way to slow and calm this cycle for our children is to be genuinely present with the child wherever they may be.
As I write these words, I am personally challenged and reminded of my own shortcomings. There are so many examples of when I fail to be present. I have heard “stop saying so many words” and “you aren’t trying to understand” more times than I want to admit. But being mindful – a topic for another day – of myself and what I am thinking/doing/experiencing in the midst of emotional turmoil is a first step. It will begin to lead me along a path of making compassionate and helpful shiva calls, offering life giving presence, to my children and others.
When I was in high school, I went on a trip to the Bahamas with my youth group. The people there were lovely, seemingly lived a slow paced life and the beaches were calming. Some of the adults on the trip really struggled with the lack of “time awareness” – that thing that we Americans hold in such high esteem. Church started an hour late and went two hours long – there was no firm schedule.
Though I have not travelled to Beirut, I have stood on the border of Israel and Lebanon where there is a history of much conflict. Razor wire fences stand tall at the border, bombed out vehicles from a long ago war litter the sides of the streets. I did not meet any people who were a part of this war, but I can pick up a newspaper and read much of PTSD and its devastating effects on the brain for many soldiers. I imagine that at times it feels like living in the middle of the movie Black Hawk Down – an intensity and terror of the heart, mind and soul.
So what do Beirut and the Bahamas have to do with adoptive parenting? Recently I was listening to an interview with Dr. Marcy Axness, author of Parenting for Peace. She was talking about the scientific research on the brain chemistry of children who are adopted. Any situation in which a birthmother is considering placing her child for adoption is stressful. A baby floats in this biochemical stress pool for 9ish months. Dr. Axness said that research studies show that babies whose first days are residing in such a place are born with brain chemistry that is ready to survive in a war zone. This can be multiplied by time spent in institutions and/or various foster homes. Here is a quick list of just a few of the symptoms of PTSD – irritability, hypervigilance, anxiety, depression, flashbacks, nightmares, sleep issues, emotional detachment and numbing, and the list goes on. This can be multiplied by time spent in institutions and/or various foster homes. These babies come out ready to protect themselves from a dangerous world.
The Bahamas? Dr. Axness said that in order to healthily and effectively parent children with highly sensitive brain chemistry, the parent needs to experience the brain chemistry of someone who resides in a calm and peaceful place. A very tall order indeed – especially when living in the presence of someone who feels like they are in a war zone.
This analogy – Bahamas and Beirut – has been rolling around in my mind ever since I heard it. It is not a totally fair or accurate depiction of these two places, but what an incredibly powerful picture. The good and hope filled news is that brain chemistry can change – maybe not completely, but it can change. But what a daunting challenge it is for us as parents to dwell on a peaceful tropical island when our children sometimes are camped in a place that feels like it threatens their very life. I hope to write more about specific ways to get the help we need to increase our internal peace and calm in days to come. A quick and very incomplete list – good nutrition, adequate rest, exercise, professional help, slow paced life, relaxing activities, solitude – these are some of the things we may need.
And on days like yesterday when rather than staying in the Bahamas, I myself went to Beirut, I need to forgive myself, pick up where I left off and cling to the truth that God’s mercies are new every morning.
For over 25 years – a quarter of a century, half of my life – I’ve been actively parenting children. Our first three children, all amazing boys, came to us through birth. Our next two, beautiful girls, came by adoption. Though there are definitely things I would have done differently and mistakes were made (!), for the most part, our parenting journey with the boys rolled along with the mostly typical bumps in the road. I somewhat brazenly and naively felt fairly prepared, adequate and up to the task.
I was comfortable with and familiar with a “traditional parenting” model that I heard much about in Christian circles. This paradigm mostly demanded respect and obedience with an emphasis on control and left little room for emotional expression – this was my comfort zone. I had confidence in the parenting toolbox in my possession – it seemed adequate to the task. Those who taught and espoused this method made sense to me, for the most part. I spent some years reading such authors until one day I read a book called “Grace Based Parenting” and there was something deep in my soul that resonated with that text. On completion of that particular book, I resolved to take a hiatus from reading about parenting. I needed to experience and impart more grace to myself and others.
This was the beginning of a crack in my parenting paradigm. But things were rolling along in reasonable fashion, so there was no impetus for real change. Enter our daughters. They came to us, via living in an orphanage, at the ages of 18 and 22 months. Though our adoption agency had responsibly educated us and challenged us to see that parenting children who have experienced early relational trauma requires different skills, we still weren’t so sure about that. Love is enough is a very common misconception for adoptive parents – well, that and the parenting skills I already possess.
Critical crossroads – I very clearly remember the moment. There had been a big rage and tantrum that had gone on for hours. I had pulled out all of the tools in my parenting toolbox, and things were escalating. It was as if God Himself whispered, or probably screamed, into my ear, “you can change yourself and your parenting or you can dig in, cling to your old ways and in the process destroy two children – this is your choice”. That was holy ground.
This blog will be an attempt to share the now 7 year, and still ongoing, journey of the pursuit of new, different and more life giving tools to fill up the toolbox. It is quite a ride.