Bracelets for Our Brothers
Help Us Bring Our Brothers Home
Posted on May 7th, 2017

​I sat across from her in her office; it was just the two of us.   The office was sterile, medical, and smelled like disinfectant.  This place to discuss the most sensitive of emotions somehow felt like the most hollow and vacant place on earth, a strange dichotomy. She was well dressed that day—I remember her floral-print knee-length pencil skirt, white blouse, and  green cardigan, neatly buttoned.  Her tan-colored patent leather heals added a couple of inches to her already above-average height.  She towered over me as we both sat down.
 
It was the very beginning of spring, and the temperature was already rising well that mid-morning, so her attire was perfect for the weather.  The early spring sun was perfectly positioned to pierce brightly through the window to my left, and this somehow added another layer of uncomfortbility, as if the rays of light were somehow going to highlight and expose the darkest of truths.  I had to struggle to see her fully because of the brightness of the sun, but I remember being jealous of her for a split second because she was so put-together and stable and I, sitting in the same room, was disheveled, worn out and unable to button my pants.  I was a week away from receiving my Celiac Disease diagnosis, but at the time, without the diagnosis, my body was on the verge of breaking down due to a ENT’s terrible decision to put me on a high-wheat, bland diet from a misdiagnosis of acid reflux.
 
I kept repositioning myself in the hard, plastic chair.  The thin upholstery carefully positioned in only some parts of the chair was not enough to make it feel anything less than antiseptic.  I was terribly uncomfortable, not only because of the circumstances that brought us to this point of contact, but also because I felt five months pregnant I was so bloated, and I looked every bit of it, too.  My largest pants barely buttoned, but hung loose around my legs.  My ankles were so swollen my feet could not fit comfortably into regular shoes, and it was difficult for me to stand or walk.  My face was puffy, skin and eyes red.  My hair was frizzy, dry, and falling out by the handfuls.  My nails were cracked and a red rash ran down most of my left arm.  I had no physical or mental energy left to deal with the emotional dysregulation happening in my home daily. 
 
You see, parenting children from hard places is hard.  When you adopt them, you adopt their past.  Every action, every abuse, every lie, every hurt, every injustice perpetrated against them—it becomes yours.  Forever. 
 
At first, as an adoptive mother I found myself to be rather naïve and though that I could “fix” it.  For months I just want to fix it, love it out of them, make it right.  I tried to wear several hats and play every role for my children that I could—therapist, doctor, private investigator, advocate, psychiatrist, teacher, and mom. 
 
But, the thing is, while I was trying to wear all of those hats and “fix” things, I was actually unable to be a mother.  And, it caused me to take a lot of my perceived inadequacies in these areas personally.  When a child spews hate from a place of anger because no one has ever taught them coping skills and they have every right in the world to be pissed off, it is so hard to not crumble into a million pieces.  However, the more I tried to “fix” it, the more I found that I was not “fixing” anything--not righting any of the wrongs, instead spinning my wheels, and caught in a continuous cycle of frustration, self-loathing, and desperation.
 
Around this same time, however, I discovered a concept called “detachment”.  Then one called “radical acceptance”.  I read and studied voraciously, and I still do.  I learned, for the first time in my life really, that I am not in control of anything but myself—my beliefs, my thoughts, my values, my actions, my words, and my feelings.  That’s it.
 
I cannot “fix it”, not for my children or for the students from hard places that I teach every day. I can’t control how they feel or act or what they say or do, I cannot be anything but a mother or a teacher.  A safe place to fall, and when they fall hard, the art of detachment comes in very handy.  I learned, across painstaking weeks, to manage my feelings about my children’s past.  Through private writing, strange artistic creations, and quiet meditation, I was able accept there is nothing I can do to change the past.  I also learned to find my real role as a mother—that it is to simply support my children as they work through the anger, rage, frustration, sadness, and grief that they are fully entitled to.  I have learned that, as a byproduct of this process, there will be things said and done to me that are hurtful, but I am not the reason for them, I am simply on the receiving end because I am safe to them.  I am slowly learning to accept these challenging behaviors and words objectively, with empathy, and without taking it personally. 
 
As one’s physical health improves, and the body gets the nutrients it needs and is not receiving the poison that was killing it, the mind heals, too.  My tolerance for dysregulation built up over time.  My capacity for empathy without compassion fatigue increased, for both my children and my students who have circumstances in their lives that rival the pasts of my own children.  The ability to think calmly and rationally and evaluate situations from all sides became easier each day.   While all of this improves, there is then time to process how to really parent the hard stuff, while preserving my own mental stability in the process.  My confidence soared with each connected moment with my children, each time I remained calm, each time I detached when necessary, and each time it strengthened the relationship I have with my children.
 
But, that day, while I alternated staring at the floor and her bright floral pencil skirt, I didn’t know any of this.  And, I was physically sick to the point of exhaustion and inability to perform daily tasks.  The woman in the floral skirt was my child’s psychiatrist.  We spoke for a while about her most recent outrageous behavior.  Then she said these words, “Maybe you are not the right mother for your daughters.  And, probably not the right mother for their brothers.  Maybe you should give that some thought.” 
 
I was so caught off guard by her comments that I barely heard the rest of her justification for what she was telling me—that she would never encourage anyone to adopt a child at any age because it is too difficult, and that she and her husband considered it until she’d worked in the psychiatric field for so long and realized she didn’t want to adopt a child.  I just caught pieces of what she was saying, focused more on the sting of her suggestion, and fighting off tears.
 
I left the room shattered.  No one had ever suggested this to me before.  Plenty of naysayers, discouragers, and questioners of our decisions, but never someone suggesting that I was not the right mother for these children.  I stumbled to my phone and called my husband.  And, for the rest of the day I sat with those words, unable to think about anything else.  So did he.  We were mostly quiet.  We didn’t discuss it.  It was almost like we didn’t have to, though, because there was a mutual and unspoken assumption of inaccuracy in the doctor’s words.
 
Two months after my Celiac Diagnosis, and a little over two months after this pinnacle moment in the course of my parenting, I understand the full ramifications of my Celiac disease.  I know how sick I was.  I am no longer swollen (I am 25 pounds lighter, in fact), my skin is healing, my hair and fingernails grow very quickly now.  My mind is clear, my tolerance for all things higher, my ability to concentrate and put energy and effort into tasks is greatly improved.  I am healing.  Our whole family heals as I heal. 
 
The impacts of Celiac Disease are far-reaching.  It is not a food allergy or just a GI disease.  The root of the Disease is that the body is not getting the nutrients it needs to support the function of the body.  And, the body interprets many proteins (not just gluten in my case) as poison.  The body literally begins to attack its own systems.  For me, Celiac robbed my of my eyesight, giving me mysterious posterior cataracts in both eyes at the ripe age of 30. 
 
Celiac disease caused my teeth to disintegrate to a point where I have to wear a protective guard to preserve what is left of my back molars.  It caused severe inflammation in my joints and muscles, and also turned my sinuses on high alert all the time.  There was not a day that went by that mucus was not burning my throat and dripping from my nose, and those were the good days.  Perhaps less understood by the general population, Celiac disease, because nutrients cannot get to the neurotransmitters in the brain, robs a sufferer of the ability to think clearly, to maintain emotional stability and regulation, and to perform everyday tasks with quality and energy.
 
But, even as I continue to heal, I have never forgotten the doctor’s words.  Maybe I’m not the best mom in the world.  I am a human being with a lot of shortcomings.  Sometimes it is difficult for me to take on the trauma my children have experienced.  Each time I think I have heard everything from them, there is a new twist, a new bomb dropped on our family, almost always without warning.  Sometimes I embody these surprises too much, feel it too much, take it on too deeply, and still feel the need to fix.  Sometimes these times cause an intense and strange paradox to occur—during these moments, when I feel so deeply for my children, my ability to express physical affection or to engage with them emotionally becomes diminished.  I withhold, I protect, I move away from them as they try to draw closer to me.
 
I make mistakes.  A lot of them.  I often get it wrong.  But, time has a way of giving us perspective on situations we’ve encountered in the past.  While I still stumble, make mistakes, and fail to live up to my own expectations of myself as a mother, I have an answer for the doctor now, although I might not ever see her again.  My daughter is no longer under her supervision.
 
That day I left her office, not saying anything.  Not defending my choices.  I had no words to speak back to her.  I had no time to prepare my rebuttal.  And, honestly, for a split second I wondered if she was right.  But, now I have an answer for her:
 
I AM THE RIGHT MOTHER FOR MY CHILDREN.  
 
My ability to come to this conclusion was actually relatively simple.  I didn’t have to perform miraculous acts of healing for my children, I didn’t have to fix their academic and developmental gaps, I didn’t have to erase their trauma, I didn’t have to seek justice or vengeance on their behalf, I didn’t have to arrange play dates, or spend hours on Pinterest making cute crafts for their class parties, or buy them special clothing or material goods. 
 
I didn’t have to prove myself at all, actually.  The proof that I am, and have always been, the RIGHT mother for my children was there all along.  In a world of potential parents, for 10 and 14 years  (the ages of my children currently), I was the only mother who said YES.  Unconditionally YES.  I have consistently said YES every day, even when I am tempted to alter that answer. 
 
So, if not me, then who?  Who would be the right mother? 

And, let's talk about unconditional love for a second.  Most of us, when we hear that word would define it as "if you do something wrong I'lll still love you".  For me as a kid it was that time I threw a toy at the wall so hard it shattered a window, or the time I tried to put baby doll clothes on my cat, or when I spilled nail polish all over my bedroom carpet, or lied to my parents, or brought home a poor report card.  They still loved me.

Of course I share this definition with my children.  It is difficult for them to accept because no one has ever shown them this type of forgiveness, grace, and love.  However, what is often missing from the definition is that unconditional love means that love is given, without condition, without expectation of a return, without a requirement that it be reciprocated.  Children from hard places sometimes can't reciprocate that level of emotion, and if we are not careful, we can end up taking it very personally.  I want my children to know that they owe me nothing in return for the love I extend.  Ever.
 
And, you know, maybe the doc was right on some level.  Maybe someone could do a better job.  Maybe someone understands personal and work life balance better than I do.  Maybe someone else can freely give affection without fear of being hurt.  Maybe someone else has more patience, parenting experience, or strength than I do.  Maybe someone else is more fun and is able to build a better schedule filled with activities and outings for their family instead of just trying to get through every day.  But, so far, no one has offered to do that for any of my four children.
 
You see, it is convenient to criticize from a different perspective, especially one that lacks experience.  A doctor who doubted her own ability to parent an adopted child can, with a great deal of ease, tell me I made a mistake, or I’m not strong enough, or I’m not the RIGHT mother for my children.   They can suggest the easy way out.  Just leave them behind like everyone else has done—problem solved.  Except it won’t be.
 
It’s easy, also, to kick someone when they are down—when they are sick, when they are emotionally drained, when they are already full of self-doubt.  Questioning and criticizing the decisions of others when you yourself are not doing anything to solve a worldwide problem is just too easy.  I can’t let her off the hook like that.
 
I will always be thankful for her challenge that day (and the challenges from others that have been much less offensive).  It caused me to do a lot of soul searching.  I had to answer her question.  It took a little while, but I have the answer now.
 
I will never be a perfect mother, but I will always show up for all four of my kids.  I will never dismiss them, neglect them, hurt them, or reject them—even if they don’t reciprocate this unconditional love at times because they have been burned by so many other adults.
 
Maybe my kids will never heal.  Maybe they will always have a really tough go at life.  Maybe the predictions of others, many of them well-respected medical professionals, therapists, and social workers, will be right—it’s too late, nothing we do will ever be enough, they will repeat the cycles of abuse, they will never be able to have healthy relationships, they will never catch up… the list goes on. 
 
I don’t know what their future holds, but I have absolved myself of the responsibility of needing to be in control of that.  My role, as a mother, and only a mother, is to encourage and enable them to find strength within themselves to build a new life.  I think, especially now, I do a pretty good job of that.  And, at the end of the day, me at my absolute worst is better than anything they’ve ever had before.
 
I would encourage all mothers, not just adoptive parents, to release the need to control.  I see it daily in the classroom, especially when I taught older students and more affluent students than I currently work with.  The obsession over GPA, merit, accomplishments, was exhausting to watch.  I could sense the frustration and stress in a great number of the students I worked with, on the verge of collapse under the mighty weight of high expectations.  Understand that I am not suggesting that we, as parents, not hold our children to high standards.  What I am suggesting, however, is that we do so with the understanding that we do not control our children, and their choices are not a direct reflection of our self-worth as a person or as a parent.  The liberation I have found through this outlook has been one of the greatest blessings of my life.
 
And, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention my faith as a component of this answer.  I do not believe in a God who would lead me astray or put his children in harms way on purpose.  My God does not wish to destroy my life or the lives of my children; he wishes to enrich it, so long as we are obedient.  My God does not promise comfortable, or easy, or perfect.  My God promises, instead, a beautiful life full of rich experiences unattainable without strict obedience.  He also promises criticism for doing His work.  May this entry be a testimony that this promise is true, but, given the right mindset, can serve as validation that the right path is being followed.  My God often chooses the least equipped and weakest to do the mightiest of jobs for His glory.  Through His love and mercy, my God finds ways to strengthen me to do His work.  My God chose me and told me that I am the right mother for my children, to go back and get the two left behind, and I am listening. 
 
Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will.  -- Romans 12:2

Posted on February 26th, 2017

For this child I prayed...

One year ago today, a judge said YES (and my teen reluctantly agreed) to our adoption of Stella and Evvie.

The other day I was reading a blog post from an adoptee about the term "Gotcha Day".   The author made a compelling case against using the term.  I always enjoy reading things from and talking to adoptees, because it gives me insight as a parent that my children are not yet mature enough to provide most of the time.  Adult adoptees are able to show love towards their adoptive parents, while offering feedback about what they wished had been different about their upbringing.  I'm sure one day my children will have a lengthy list of my mistakes, shortcomings, and ways that I annoyed them.  Some will be trivial, but some will be worth serious consideration. 

The issue of using the term "Gotcha Day" and celebrating it annually is one that has always bothered me, even before we brought the girls home.  I admit to using the term, mostly before I actually went and gotcha-ed my two daughters.  Our actual "Gotcha" day was anything but beautiful, happy, and was absolutely nothing that I had dreamed/romanticized in my head.  While adoption can be a beautiful picture of redemption (for the child(ren) AND the parents), the truth is, that it is ALWAYS born of sadness and loss.

Since pick up, especially, the idea of celebrating this sadness and loss has always felt unsettling to me, especially because of what our actual "Gotcha Day" looked like.  Filled with tears, hatred for us because they felt we were the ones tearing them away from their brothers (they know now that this was not true, they understand we never were informed of their existence until Trip 1 and it was too late then)-- the only stable family they'd ever known, and fear, terrifying and paralyzing fear.  While Neil and I had waited for this day with great anticipation, we had failed to completely calculate the trauma, the cost, the difficulties this day would bring to all of us.  We had failed, on every level, to account for what this day would mean for our children, and instead we focused only on what we would feel-- mainly a relief that the grueling process to bring them home was finally coming to an end.

Before traveling to Bulgaria for our pickup trip, we knew that we would be picking up the day before Evvie's 13th birthday.  I dreamed of all the ways we'd celebrate our Gotcha Day-- the first one, and then the anniversaries of the date to come.  I read countless blog posts and Facebook posts from fellow adoptive parents about what they did to celebrate the anniversary of this day.  I decided which ideas I liked, and which I didn't.  I also reconciled with the term "Gotcha" and decided we'd prefer to call it "Family Day".  I then agonized (oh, y'all, this was when I had so much time on my hands but thought I was "busy") about when we'd celebrate it.  I didn't want it to be celebrated the day before Evvie's birthday-- I saw potential sibling jealously or blurring of the lines there.  Technically, our "Family Day" was 2/26/16, the day we passed court, because at that time, we legally became a family.  So, it was decided 2/26 would be our "Family Day."

But then our pick up trip came.  Then we saw the reality of what that day meant for our children.  We saw them say goodbye to their brothers, presumably speaking to them and touching them for the last time ever.  We saw the hurt, the anger, the loss, the fear, and understood that maybe it wasn't a day to be celebrated at all.  Maybe it was just a marker in time that we, as parents, could keep up with to track progress and thank God for putting our family unit together.  The actual day became about survival, and was not celebratory in any way.

The more I've read about trauma, triggers, memories that children have of past events, the more I don't want to celebrate or help my children to remember this day this year.   We are fortunate that our girls still have no concept of time and cannot read a calendar, so we are sort of off the hook this year.  Reading about trauma has also helped me to understand the truth about this day for our children who were old enough to remember and hate everything about it.  It is actually a "truamaversary".  Just as someone who loses a loved one tends to be on high emotions and sadness each year on the date the loved one was lost, our family has been on high emotions lately as we get closer to that year mark.  Although our children are not really aware of time, Evvie does know that she was adopted right before her birthday, and she must know, on some subconscious level, that this date is approaching.  We have seen behavior in both children become more challenging in recent weeks (normal).  Just as someone would not typically throw a big party, or go out bowling, or have a big dinner out at a fancy restaurant on the traumaversary of a loved one passing, we will probably not do any of these things either. 

Lastly, what would we really be celebrating with regards to THEIR family prior to adoption?  That our adoption of them ripped them from their brothers?  That their brothers are still languishing in an institution oceans away?  Our family is not complete, so it doesn't feel right to celebrate "Family Day" without our whole family.

Please understand, especially fellow adoptive parents who do make a choice to celebrate this day, that I am not passing judgement on you or suggesting you should do differently than what you've decided works for you.  Perhaps your experience has been completely different than ours.  Maybe your children have processed or handle their trauma very differently than ours.  Maybe you, as a parent, have processed and dealt with your children's trauma better than I, as a mother, have with my own children.  For me, it is a work in progress daily.  For your family, you do what is right.  Go ice skating, see that movie, prepare all of the cultural foods your child misses, go through picture albums together-- celebrate!  Do it!  For our family, however, I don't know that these things are possible for us this year, so we will let it pass without much mention.

Once our whole family is reunited and settled, though, perhaps we will have a reason to have a Family Day.  Maybe my perspective on this day will be completely different when the girls' brothers are finally home and part of our household.

What I will choose to celebrate daily, though, is God is good.  God is loving.  God has chosen our family to endure these challenges, but to reap the rewards of those challenges together.  God has assembled our messy family in his perfect image.  It is hard, many days, to see his plan, but we trust it and continue to follow it.

Posted on February 16th, 2017

Tomorrow I will be giving a presentation on the effects of trauma on children to a group of about 60 teachers.  The aim is to inform about trauma and how it negatively impacts children: cognitively, emotionally, physically, socially, and in a myriad of other ways.  Only once we brought our girls home did I understand the depth and breadth of this issue, and, since that time, I have often wondered why this was never part of my coursework in college or graduate school.  Sure, I learned great pedagogy, classroom management, and I even took extra courses on child psychology just because I really enjoyed the subject matter.  But, through three degrees, trauma was never the focus.

To be honest I am scared and nervous about tomorrow for many reasons.  I have presented many times before-- to other educators, to students, to philanthropic groups, at professional conferences.  I am not afraid of public speaking.  But, this is the first time ever that I will be speaking about something outside of my professional content area: music.

I am also nervous about tomorrow because, my husband, my children, and I have decided to be honest and raw.  You see, there would be no presentation tomorrow if I weren't their mother.  There would have been no reason for me to become interested in trauma and to become a voracious reader and researcher on the topic if it weren't for the experience of having two highly traumatized children in my home every day.  Therefore, this presentation was conceived from the day to day reality of raising my children, and because of that, I must be honest in my presentation tomorrow.

I know that when people see our family they have a lot of misconceptions and misunderstandings.  I'm not just talking about the random misconceptions we encounter daily in public where someone might wonder why Neil and I are white and my children are brown or why there is such a small age difference between Evvie and myself.  I'm talking about the romanticized notion that we, as a society, have about adoption.  It is both a blessing and a curse.  It is a blessing because it inspires more people to aspire to go out of their comfort zone and adopt, but it is a curse because people don't understand the reality that adoptive families live in many times.

Tomorrow people will hear things about my family that I am embarrassed to admit.  All parents want to perpetuate the facade that we all have our lives under control.  But, I must say these things.  Otherwise the content will be less meaningful. Tomorrow people will hear things about my oldest child in particular that are difficult for me to talk about, but she has told me "mama, you have to tell them because they need to know what life is like for me and other kids like me."  She has given me her blessing and she knows everything I will say.  She only asks that people not talk directly to her about it afterwards.  She knows her story is important, and, for that, I am so happy and thankful because it shows me that she is finding meaning, purpose, and strength in her life.

The most import thing I hope people hear tomorrow is that trauma is real.  Its impacts on the brain and cognitive function are absolutely real and I see it play out in my home and classroom every day.  We, as teachers, are fooling ourselves if we think these are isolated incidents that we rarely encounter unless we work in an impoverished school.  Yes, my children has encountered more trauma in their 10 and 13 years than most kids do in a lifetime, but they are not alone.  They have much in common with many of the students who walk in to my classroom every day.  Understanding my children has helped me to become a better educator, and it has helped me fall back in love with teaching-- a love affair that was on its last leg a year ago.

Hopefully this is just the beginning.  I hope that having a platform to voice my experiences will help me to process and cope.  Maybe one day my children can join along side me and have their voices and stories heard, too.  I know they will be stories of victory, courage, and perseverance. 

Posted on February 5th, 2017

We've been getting lots of questions lately about the status of our adoption of our girls' two brothers, and we do have some updates to share!  We've also been getting many questions about the status of our fundraising efforts.

We are beyond thrilled to let everyone know that we are almost fully funded.  Thanks to the amazing and generous outpouring of support, we are about 75% funded, and all of our agency and international fees are covered.  We are now needing to raise money only for our flights and travel expenses.  We are still selling bracelets, and appreciate your support in this effort.  We also have a couple of additional fundraising ideas for the spring time to help us raise the last bit of money we need to make all of this a reality.  

We are both doing extra work on the side and saving as much as possible, too!  The girls are so sweet and cognizant of the need to be conservative with our money at this point.  They realize that going out to see a movie costs a good chunk of change, so they have asked us if we can, during this time, not go to see movies in the theater and instead watch at home with our own popcorn and soda.  Things like that.  It's been a wonderful life lesson for everyone, and we are so proud of how they have handled things.

We have had a couple of wonderful Skype sessions with our sons.  They have each lasted about an hour, and Vesta, our NGO has facilitated translation for us.  They have been incredible sessions, and the mood in our house afterwards is always one of reassurance and happiness.  We look forward to our next one on Thursday of this week.  We can't say enough about Vesta and the work they have done on behalf of our family.

Right now we are in a holding pattern of waiting after a flurry of paperwork and activity.  We mailed our I-800A application to USCIS Immigration at the beginning of January.  Last Monday we received our Biometric appointment letters in the mail, and made a decision to roll the dice and try to walk in early, before our appointment day (2/8) to see if we couldn't speed things up.  We took a day off on Wednesday, went to Charleston, and our gamble paid off.  We were able to knock out the Biometrics that day, and anticipate our approval in the mail in the next 2-3 weeks.  From there, that will be the final piece of our dossier to go to Bulgaria.

Once our dossier is received and translated, it will be presented to the IAC for approval, and our official referral will be granted.  Then it is up to us to accept the referral (which we will), and wait for Trip 1 travel dates.  We are looking at travel for Trip 1 in April probably.  We are thrilled and excited that Trip 1 dates are so close, and are looking forward to once again holding our sons in our arms.  Once Trip 1 has passed, Vesta and our agency thinks that we will have the green light for more communication with the boys, and for this we are thankful because we know anything will help strengthen our bond and keep us going through the tough times of waiting.  It is just as hard on them as it is for us.  We are all ready for this chapter to close and for our family to finally be complete.

Thank you all for your amazing continued support in our journey!  Your support-- financially, emotionally, spiritually, has made this adoption much easier than our last.

Posted on January 29th, 2017

Strive not to be a success, but rather to be of value.
Albert Einstein


I will never, ever forget this moment as long as I live.  We arrived with our two daughters in America the first of April last year after spending almost a month with them in Bulgaria.  Our time in Bulgaria was about survival. When we got home, however, the reality of needing to enroll them in school, and prepare them to function in a classroom set in.  Our girls did go to school in Bulgaria, but I use both "go to school" and "school" lightly.  We saw the school.  Not much teaching and learning going on there.  And, our oldest, had about 120 unexcused absences from cutting classes and terrorizing the village they lived in instead.  If you're doing the math, that's pretty much the whole school year to that point.

Anyway, back to the moment of truth.  We'd been told our girls were on target academically.  We decided to put a math worksheet without language in front of them, just numbers.  Basic one-digit addition.  The first question was 5+3=.  Evvie, 13 years old, wrote 10 as her answer.

That moment of realization stung.  I will never forget the looks my husband and I exchanged with each other in that second of disbelief.  She and her sister filled out the rest of the page, all of the answers were wrong.

That is where we started, and it has been a long road academically the last 10 months.  It has been a long road developmentally as well.  Milestones that children typically reach at certain ages that our children have long since passed are still largely unmet in our house.  Things that seem simple and we assumed they'd come home knowing how to do are still daily struggles of coordination, motor skills, and connecting cognitive dots.  Tying shoes, using utensils to eat, opening food packages, brushing teeth, brushing hair, putting clothes on independently, putting shoes on the correct feet, buttoning pants or shirts (for a long time we were able to avoid this with size 6 or smaller pants for Stella that had snaps, but now she has outgrown those), zipping, using scissors, holding a pencil, forming letters correctly-- all of these things are daily challenges for both children.  And, single-digit addition is still a struggle, too, some days.

This is not because our children are unintelligent.  This is not because our children are incapable.  This is not because our children are uneducable (which is what we were told by their caretakers and teachers).  This is due to extreme neglect.  While most children, by the age of 9 and 13, have had multiple adults in their lives helping to reinforce and teach these concepts, our children were experiencing unspeakable abuse and neglect at the hands of adults.  Children cannot learn when they are in a perpetual state of fear.  The lasting impact on the brain, their ability to connect the dots and learn these concepts, is astonishing.

That day, that moment that 5+3 equaled 10, forced my husband and I to take a long, hard look at our definition of success.  At the time I was teaching high school in an affluent area where GPA, SAT and ACT scores, AP classes, AP scores were the priorities for many families.  College applications, sports and fine arts accolades, academic achievement, scholarships, a major that will allow the the child to earn a degree in a respected field and probably earn a large salary were at the top of the priority list for most of my students and their families.  It was such an interesting dichotomy to work in that environment, and then come home and help my 13 year old child hold a fork properly and assist her with getting rice to sit on it, make it to her mouth, and not all over the floor and table.

I am not being pessimistic, and if you spent long enough talking to me, you will understand the great deal of idealism and optimism I still hold for my children.  However, we have come to terms with the reality that college is probably not in their future.  Academic accolades are not things we are on the look out for.  We are not concerned about standardized test scores except those that measure their English acquisition.

To be honest, I think we are still defining daily what success will look like for each of our children.  They are different ages, have different personalities, different strengths, and will probably be able to achieve at different levels.  However, what I can say has become the priority for us in our definition of success is this: that they are able to live emotionally stable lives and become good and productive human beings.  That's all.  Everything else is a bonus.

We also have learned to celebrate the victories our children have along the way.  Here are some examples:

-- the day that a greater percentage of food ended up in their mouth vs. on the table/floor
-- the day they were able to ask someone where a public bathroom was located and go there without our assistance
-- when the majority of the time shirts were put on with the tag in the back and shoes were put on the correct feet
-- the day they could bathe independently
-- the day they could open a ziplock bag without adult assistance 
-- the day that 5+3 equaled 8

We are still working on shoe-tying, buttoning, and using a knife to cut our own food is probably in the distant future, but we are getting there!

What is YOUR definition of success for your child?






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