The Spanking

shadowYesterday over at Without a Crystal Ball, my guest post “You Might Be a Special Needs Parent If…” generated a surprising amount of traffic over here at EMN. My guess is that the ladies came over here, expecting to find more of the same … but the truth is, more often than not I forget to laugh at the ridiculousness that is my life sometimes.

Even though I live with Miss Funny Face, who lives to reinvent herself every day. Smokey eyes, copper eyes, nail polish in every color under the sun (and some she invents herself), hair pink one day and shaved the next. And an ability to change outfits at the speed of light … her definition of “outfit” varying wildly, so that I have to chase after her flapping coattails as she makes her morning break for the bus. Because I’m pretty sure if she’s got it covered on the way to school, it won’t be by the time she hits her first class.

Ah, Miss Funny Face. How I love you.

The teachers send notes home, of course. “Could you please have Sarah leave her jewelry at home? It’s a distraction in the classroom.” “Sarah keeps putting on makeup in class. She needs to focus.” “Sarah keeps using her Chromebook to watch makeup tutorials on YouTube. Please speak to her.”

Oh, reeeeeeeeeallly! And somehow you expect that I’ll have better luck managing your classroom from my home office than you do behind your teacher’s desk? Do tell.

Yes, I can (and do) inspect her backpack, confiscate contraband (to wails and gnashing of teeth over her foul luck in the Motherhood Lottery), and nag her constantly about her classroom deportment. On one memorable occasion, her incendiary response inspired me to resort to my mother’s solution: a couple of whacks with a wooden spoon on a fully padded, fully clothed derriere.  (While I’m not a huge proponent of spanking, I had had it with her. And at the time, it did stop the fireworks.)

Her final word on the subject came the next day: a CPS worker on our front doorstep, with a report of parental abuse and alcohol use (the glass of wine I’d had with dinner the night before), who quickly assessed the situation and informed my surprised daughter that getting her bottom swatted did not constitute child abuse in the state of Indiana.

After the social worker left, we talked with our daughter with as much patience and kindness as we could muster. We knew where the resistance was coming from (though we didn’t say this aloud): she had already lost one family, as an infant. She still had one brother, but they are at the stage that they can’t be in the same room without bloodshed. Even after more than a decade of family life, it was hard for her to believe she belonged.

What we did say was this: Didn’t she know that we love her, that she is the most important thing to us? I’ll never forget her response:

“Ninety percent of the time, I know you love me. The other ten, you abuse me.”

I don’t know what surprised me more: that, as a parent, she gave us an “A” in the most important parental indicator … or that this sense of security was so easily shaken that she still associates discipline with abuse.  (Asked to define “abuse,” she said it was yelling, making her feel bad, making her do so many chores, taking away internet, and making her write lines. Oh, and spanking. Definitely.)

One of the most challenging aspects of raising a child with developmental or neurological issues (whether FASD, PTSD, ODD, ADHD, attachment issues, or other kinds of mental or other developmental problems) is that it can be very difficult to come to a common understanding of reality. Attempting to reason with a child who is at war within herself is an exercise in frustration. You can argue, you can pray, you can encourage, you can reward (or punish, but reward is usually more effective with mine) … but you cannot erase that inner monologue that says the people who are caring for her don’t really love her (in adoption, that often translates to “they aren’t your REAL parents”), and that she is really unlovable, ugly, and powerless. Therapy can (and does) help. But it’s a long road, and there is no getting “around.” Only “through.”

All you can do is hold them until the storm passes … and then move on. Because love (like fear) takes many forms: it’s that midnight bowl of ice cream. It’s that family concert where you cheer her on for attempting to play the same three chords her guitar teacher has been teaching her for a month. It’s signing up to lead youth group, because making friends is scary, and at the end of the day you are her beacon of safety. It’s welcoming her into our bed at the crack of dawn for the bajillionth consecutive day, even when we all know there won’t be any more sleeping for any of us. And, the hardest love of all, it’s taking a deep breath and remembering how tenuous those ties can be, and willing yourself not to give in to the temptation to push her away, literally or emotionally.

It’s looking into those big, brown eyes and seeing … not the angry, snarly teenager who can’t WAIT until she turns eighteen and can leave this horrible place. But the sweet and silly funny face, that happy and cooperative young woman who graces our lives … at least ten percent of the time.



The Last Mile: To My Son on His 17th

heidi-2016Originally I posted this at “A Mother on the Road Less Traveled.” But since we are in the middle of #40Day Challenge: Mother Teresa Edition, I decided to move this tribute here.

Because of the pictures I post most often on my blog, it would be reasonable to assume that we have only one child: my incandescent fifteen-year-old who never met a camera lens she doesn’t like.

But today we celebrate the birthday of another child who, though allergic to getting his picture taken (ahem), is also my pride and joy.

He turns seventeen today. Yes, on Ash Wednesday. Father says he can still have birthday cake – though he can offer it up if he wants to. (Which he probably would, so long as I give him the same weight in frozen blueberries.) We have one more year together until he finishes high school and officially launches himself into adulthood. Christopher, in honor of your birthday today I want you to know 17 reasons I’m so grateful God brought you into our lives.

  1. You’re my “homeboy.” Unlike Sarah, who can’t wait to launch herself into the big, wide world, you are happiest here (well, here with your girlfriend). And though you spend most of your waking hours in the toxic zone of your room, because it is your birthday I won’t go there!
  2. You are funny. Your classmates and teachers, your friends, and your family all delight in your wicked, playful, Christopher-ish sense of humor. Yes, you sometimes use it to get out of trouble (who wouldn’t?). But you are one funny guy.
  3. Your smile. The sight of that roguish grin makes me all warm inside. Like sunshine on a cloudy day. You long for braces … and you will get them. But I love your smile just the way it is.
  4. Your art. You love your colored pencils, and have killed whole trees in your drive to capture the perfect animae character. You have an artist’s soul.
  5. You are kind and loyal. Two of the qualities I most admire about your dad, you have in spades as well. Despite all the changes in your life, you hold your friends fast.
  6. You love fiercely. It takes my breath away — and frankly makes me a little scared for you — to see how you give yourself to your friends without holding anything back. I pray that they will always return the favor.
  7. You believe, no matter what. When your schoolmates challenge and tease you, you don’t back down. You know what you believe, and stick to it in good times and bad.
  8. You can see your future, and know what you want. That house in Michigan, a good job, and a family. In an age when marriage is a shaky institution, you aspire to be a good husband and father. That makes me prouder than I can say.
  9. Your compassion. Even when your sister annoys the snot out of you, at the first tear you are visibly moved to reach out to her.
  10. Your eyes. They dance when you are happy, they cloud over when life gets hard. Those clear blue orbs really are a window to your soul.
  11. You are easy to make happy. A large bowl of ice cream (with blueberries, if possible) with your girlfriend and an animae cartoon … Or an afternoon with Jacob on his farm. These are the things that light you up.
  12. You try. When you mess up, you do your best to fix it. Over and over again, you start over and keep trying. That’s a hard skill … and you have it.
  13. You take to heart my advice. You don’t always look like you are listening … but I see you taking up the challenge.
  14. Your balancing act. Part boy, part man … all heart.
  15. Your quest for goodness. You sometimes mess up (we all do). But I have no doubt that, in your heart, you want to be a good person and make the right choices.
  16. You trust people. Despite all the difficult hand life has tossed your way, you keep reaching out.
  17. You call me mom. You are the only boy in the world with that particular challenge. Because of you, my heart lives outside my body — and I have the privilege of helping you achieve your dreams. I’m so proud to call you my son.

Happy Birthday, Christopher!

Thoughts of a Working Mom (to Be)

Anyone re-entering the workplace after taking time to pursue other goals — college, family, or writing the next Great American Novel — knows that finding the ramp back to the fast track can be a daunting experience.  (For those who live in Michigan, it’s more of a “painfully slow” track, but I digress.)

Coming up with a plausible explanation for any gaps in the resume is one thing; being able to articulate how these non-revenue-producing endeavors have contributed to one’s personal bottom line is something else.

So this past week, I’ve been thinking about my vocation as a wife and mother, and above all as a child of God.  Even the word “vocation” is more complex for me now than it was when I was single.  It is infinitely easier to look “together” and “successful” without a captive audience to witness those less-together moments. As a single adult, I led the worship team and managed sixty projects a year.  As a wife and mother, I sat in the church’s “cry room” and aspired to a shower before dinner.

Here’s the thing:  As time went on, I discovered more than a little overlap in the life lessons I”ve learned between the “two me’s.”  For example:

One day at a time.  Projecting too far into the future based on one’s present circumstances can be problematic for mothers and editors alike.  As a new mother, I had to pull focus from “building a writer’s platform” and concentrate on the immediate challenges at hand (like getting that aforementioned shower).  My kids needed me to be fully present.

Now this lesson takes a very different form: I try not to obsess over the “big picture” of what God has planned for my life. Instead, day by day I take up the challenge at hand, always trying to remain attentive to that still, small voice of the Spirit. A Spirit who often speaks to me through my own family.

Rest in the knowledge that God knows me best, and loves me anyway.  Like most people, I have at times wished that life had a rewind button.  As a mom, I’ve cringed over my children’s boisterous behavior in public. My inner critic howled over the injustice of going from choir director to cry-room dropout in just a few short days.

Now, having come I’m through the worst of it, it’s alot easier to silence that inner critic where other people are concerned. Not that I have a flawless record. Like most people, I’ve said and done things that — in retrospect — were cringeworthy. And yet, my children have taught me something about God’s unconditional love, which helps me to extend tolerance and grace to others.  

The Iceberg Principle:  Human beings are like icebergs: There’s a lot more than meets the eye. These “hidden mysteries” inform and motivate both our actions and reactions.  However, with time and effort it is possible to develop an instinctive sense of the “danger zones.”

For example, I can always tell when one of my children “forgets” to take a certain medicine or has had a bad night.  The brother-sister banter is edgier, with shriller howls of protest. Cereal turns to mush as the kid in question makes umpteen trips to and from the breakfast nook. Directions go unheard and unheeded. As the mom, I understand why this kid is acting like a gerbil on crack. It’s not intentional, but aggravating nevertheless.

The Iceberg Principle applies in the workplace as well, motivating us to invest on a personal level with those on our “team.”  If we fail to do this, behavior that a friend might interpret to be  “collaborative” (or “proactive”), to a casual acquaintence might seem “lazy” (or “egotistical”).  Misunderstandings (or being misunderstood) is an occupational hazard for those who refuse to map out  those hidden layers.

What do you think? Have you made the transition from stay-at-home to either work-from-home or work-away-from-home?  If so . . . are there any aspects of parenting that have made you a more valuable employee?

Science Fair Syndrome (and other small miracles of parenting)

You could have knocked me over with a feather yesterday when a parent FB’ed me to say that Christopher had won “high honors” for his Science Fair project.  “Do all M&Ms melt at the same rate?” was Christopher’s idea — and he held to it while I continued to pelt him with what I thought were better ideas until his teacher said she thought his idea was a good one. Okay, then.

Next, we had to outline the project step by step. We tried pancake grill, top of stove, and in a low-temp oven. We got lots of cracked candies — but they just didn’t melt, per se. Not even at “mouth” temperature.

Finally, we got things rolling at around 400 degrees. So we ran three trials, compiled the results . . . and low and behold, red candies did seem to melt just a tad more quickly than blue or green! (My husband wasn’t sure the difference wasn’t statistically significant, but Chris kept dancing around the kitchen yelling, “I was right! I was right! Red ARE the fastest!” )

Finally we typed it all up (Chris dictated, I summarized), glue-gunned the candies all over the board, and got it into school a whole day early. (Whew!) I wasn’t sure it was what the teacher wanted — I hoped he’d at least get a passing grade. God knows he needs it.

I’m a little ashamed to admit this, but we didn’t attend the Open House on Sunday afternoon.  In point of fact, I forgot about it — but even if I’d have remembered, we probably wouldn’t have gone. It simply never occurred to me that we might want to be there. 

The truth is, when raising special-needs kids, it can be a real temptation not to set the expectation bar too high.  Craig and I were both good students; over time, we came to realize that our kids would struggle to get grades in a way we never had.

The truth is, I simply didn’t expect Chris to win Science Fair. After four years of attending honor roll assemblies and watching my children wave to me from the crowd while the rest of their classmates trot up for awards in academic achievement, moral focus, or both, I couldn’t raise my aspirations higher than “I hope he passes.”

But today I learned an important parenting lesson:  I need to believe in my children, no matter what. That’s what a good parent does: She always encourages, always helps . . . and always acknowledges it when she fails to do just that.

Yes, sir, today Christopher won “high honors” for his Science Fair Project!  I can hardly wait for the next assembly, so I can watch him get his ribbon.

Thoughts on a Snowy Day

“Stormaggedon?” Hardly.

Woke up this morning with both kids and the dog in bed with us, excited beyond words about the prospect of a day at home with mom AND dad AND no school!  Woof.

It’s almost over now. A pork pie is simmering in the oven, scenting the kitchen with rosemary and garlic. The picnic table on the back deck glistens with a thick blanket of white stuff; the birds all but disappear as they land to pick up the bits of bread scattered across the table top. They look cold, but clearly hunger is more compelling than warmth.

The kids storm in from outside, pink-cheeked and exuberant. Maddy’s muzzle is white from diving into snowbanks for her precious tennis balls. She flops on the towel near my feet to pick the ice out from between her toes, then jumps up to go out again as soon as the kids warm up. After about three hours of this, the kids finally have had enough, and gobble a plate of nachos while I scronk Christopher at Monopoly. Finally they retreat to their rooms to (imagine this!) read a couple of chapters before dinnertime.

Not the most productive day of my week … but I’m sure this feeling of contentment will stay with me.

Thank God for snow days!

For Parents Who Wait: St. Thomas More, Patron of Adopted Kids

The other day a friend of mine was asking me about St. Thomas More, the patron saint of adopted and foster children. His feast day is June 22 — but as Advent is a time of “waiting,” and adoptive and foster parents are prone to wait, I thought I’d share this little true story with you today.

Before our children came to us, Craig and I visited London and saw the Tower where St. Thomas was held prisoner by Henry VIII. As part of the tour, the guard took us to the crypt where the head of St. Thomas was interred. Craig and I knelt before the ornate box that bore St. Thomas’ name, and asked the saint to pray for us, and for our children’s angels to protect them until it was time for us to receive them.

Watching us silently for a few moments, the guard finally admitted that the head wasn’t in the box – that to protect it against vandals, it had been buried in a space in the wall behind us. I placed my hand on the wall, and told St. Thomas that if we had a son, he would be named Thomas.

As it turned out, Craig later admitted that he wanted his son named after HIM, or at least to have his initials, and I honored his request … But Christopher knows he has his confirmation name already picked out for him!

Foster and adoptive parents need to be especially flexible and open to changes to “the plan.” And yet, like St. Thomas, we also need to be prepared to stand for truth, and to guard against the negative influences of society. As foster parents, we are often called upon to mitigate the negative effects of our children’s early experiences. Loving discipline, combined with large doses of patience (of which I am naturally in short supply, but God provides!), will help to ensure that however rocky their beginnings, our children will blossom to become God originally created them to be.

Photo credit: This image is available for purchase here.

The Ghostly Minds of Middle-School Boys

This morning I took a carful of fifth graders to the Detroit Science Museum. I didn’t know any of them well (apart from my son, that is). And so I was a bit floored when the two sitting immediately behind me started talking about the fact that they regularly hear things going “bump” in the night. If you catch my meaning.

One of them, who happened to be from another faith tradition, lost his father a few years ago as well as several other male relatives. The other was Catholic, and said that he regularly wakes up hearing someone walking up and down the stairs outside his room. Even though no one is there.

My son has told me from time to time he’ll wake up and sense that someone is in the room. So he tells his guardian angels to protect him, pulls the covers over his head, and goes back to sleep. I’m starting to wonder if this is a middle-school thing, something in the development of their brains.

I was a little floored at first, knowing what to say to the child who had lost his father. He has a teenage brother, and it sounds as though the two boys are often on their own as the mother supports the family alone. He mentioned that he regularly sees movies and television programs that are … well, let’s just say the content is more mature than I’d want my 10-year-old to see.

This boy didn’t really know me, and I was pretty sure if I just said, “Don’t WATCH stuff like that. It will rot your brain!” He wouldn’t listen — and it wouldn’t really help. Nor did I think his mother would appreciate my issuing an altar call right there on the freeway. So I racked my brain for something that would be consistent with his world view.

“Sweetie, you must miss your dad so much, and it must be comforting to think of him right there beside you. He will always be a part of you, living right inside your heart. And I think if he were here right now, he would want you to focus on what a gift life is, and to enjoy the good things every single day.

“You know, sometimes I have scary thoughts at night, and I let my imagination get away with me, thinking about the future. When that happens, I ask my guardian angel to help me, and to bring my prayers straight to God. I know for a fact that all three of the great monotheistic religions believe in angels — Hagar and Ismael, Abraham and Isaac, the stories of the apostles, all of them include stories of God’s messengers who intervene when we need it. Maybe next time you feel scared or worried, this little prayer might help you.” Then I taught them all the “Angel of God” prayer.

“Thanks, Mrs. Saxton. I like that — I’ll try it.”

“One more thing. Have you ever considered why some movies are labeled ‘R’, so that you have to be 17 or with your parent to see them? Or why some movies are PG-13? Your brain is developing really quickly right now, and some images are so powerful that they can be permanently etched in your mind, and not in a good way. If you’re having trouble sleeping, and find yourself often thinking about dark things — death, and demons, and ghosts — then you really need to watch what you are feeing your brain. That means making grown-up decisions about what kind of movies you watch with your brother. That way you can be in charge of your thoughts and your dreams.”

Both boys got quiet on that one. I wondered how much their parents knew about their viewing habits. Clearly they both had a lot of time on their hands without supervision … and so someone needed to encourage them to think like little adults, instead of sneaky children.

This little boy had been through so much. He needed someone to give him permission to be a child as long as possible.

Heavenly Father, watch over all the children in my community whose parents aren’t there to influence their daily choices and habits. Give these children wisdom beyond their years, to protect their hearts from the evil one and his schemes. In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit, Amen!