Jillian Lauren's Blog
June 28, 2016
In some ways, tour is anarchy- the boys are up late dancing to crazy loud rock music, giving each other dinosaur tattoos with face paint, and smuggling forbidden Fruit Loops into their bunks. They spend their days scootering around parking lots, chatting up the other bands, riding questionable attractions in sketchy roadside amusement parks. It’s pretty much the exact opposite of their micro-managed urban lives at home. We’ve seen a lot of fascinating, educational stuff, like the Atlanta Aquarium and the Boston Tea Party ships, but the road is rife with wild cards. Already we’ve been on a New Orleans ghost tour that wound up stopping at a former brothel. “What’s a brothel?” Well, son…
But within the atmosphere of heightened chaos, I believe the kids are learning valuable life lessons in a unique and memorable way. Here are the top three:
1.THE SHOW MUST GO ON.
There are no sick days in show business. The life of a performer may seem glamorous, but it takes a heck of a lot of grit to get up there night after night. Some nights it’s inexplicably off and disappointing. Some nights it’s so ecstatic and transformative you wish it would never end. Some nights you have the flu, or your girlfriend just broke up with you, or your dog just died. Whatever the case is, you still pin your shoulders back and go out there. And when the curtain opens, if you’re any good at all, you offer your whole heart.
It’s a terrific lesson to bring home and apply to school or music or sports or family chores. And later to everything else in life.
2.YOU CAN’T ALWAYS GET WHAT YOU WANT
I like to think I make an effort not to spoil my children, and to instill in them both an awareness of their privilege and an appropriate sense of the value of things. In reality, we live in a world with a million choices and I say yes more than I should. I try not to capitulate to tantrums, but I do sometimes just give them a corn dog if they won’t eat dinner. Or get them those Pokemon cards for no good reason other than it makes them smile. Or give them an extra 15 minutes of screen time because I want to talk on the phone. I stock our house with all their favorite crackers and bath products and the right color play doh, and while they certainly don’t get everything they want they sure do get a lot.
Tour is not that kind of environment. They may not carry just exactly the right kind of animal cracker in Duluth. You may leave Tigey in a hotel room and never get him back. You may have to wait until the stop at Grandma’s house to get the paint refills for the spinart. Mommy may leave your favorite bedtime book on the bus by accident (totally hypothetically) and you may have to make do with Rolling Stone that night. Because tour is NOT ALL ABOUT YOU. It’s a machine with a thousand moving parts, and it’s a miracle it works at all. The reason it does is because everyone involved takes one for the team now and then. Which leads me to…
3. IT TAKES A VILLAGE
There are about 90 people supporting this tour, and every one of them is working their ass off. We so often see the shiny outsides of the world, and don’t always stop to think about how much work goes in behind the scenes.
Tariku gets up early, puts on his own clothes, and goes alone to eat breakfast with the bus drivers still up from safely delivering us to our destination during the night. The drivers are on a mission to get him to try the biscuits and gravy, made by the outstanding caterers- I actually have no idea when they sleep. On his way back he says hello to the crew already setting up the stage.
I’m glad the kids get to see the enormous amount of effort that goes this flash of magic that’s over in a few hours, only to be torn down and put up again in the next city.
When you travel in close quarters with a large group of people, you see not just what’s behind the curtain on the stage, but also what’s behind the masks we present to the world. No one can be on their A game 24 hours a day, after 4 show days in a row. You see people putting on their makeup over the printer, losing their cool at the delivery guy, hanging their show clothes out to dry over the handles of a stroller. You catch the most dazzling performer slouching exhausted over a pizza, the cheeriest production assistant walking the hall with a secret grouchy face. There’s an intimacy and a realness to it I deeply appreciate.
And I hope they boys are experiencing and appreciating not just the larger organism of the tour “family” but also the solidity of our little unit within it. Learning that we can move and change and have this fluid kind of life and still be together and permanent and safe.
June 16, 2016
Woke up this morning in Atlanta, though the view from the bus window looked exactly like the one in Tampa, Miami, New Orleans, Houston…
Cloudless blue sky, sun turning the asphalt into a skillet, rows of trucks, camps of buses, sweaty crew guys with creative facial hair heaving around huge road cases, laminated signs with arrows: production, dressing rooms, catering.
I’m probably mental for bringing two small boys along on a two-month rock tour.
This grind- this repetitive life of packing and schlepping and losing your toothbrush every four minutes and peeing on a moving bus in the middle of the night- is hard. There’s no doubt. There are a million inconveniences and hours of boredom and late hours. Not exactly the ideal life for two kids with PTSD, who thrive on early bedtimes and routine. Not ideal either for someone who wants- no, needs- to spend hours a day alone writing to truly understand my life.
It’s also the stuff of legend for a reason. A life in the arts is an immense privilege. I wanted my kids to have a chance to live it.
Not to mention that in the course of one whirlwind week we’ve taken a ghost tour of New Orleans, swam in the Florida ocean, seen an Atlanta Braves game, and connected with far-flung friends and relatives of all stripes.
Every morning the members of our extended, crazy, traveling circus family stagger out of buses and wander the gauntlet sleepy-eyed and sometimes still in pajamas, in search of cereal. We pause to gaze out at the rows and rows of empty seats and the bright green lawn beyond. You can almost hear the hum of possibility out there.
Over the years, I’ve grown to cherish the luxury of invisibility that being a rock wife affords. I love being able to observe the goings on from the borderlands between the stage and the crowd, not exactly part of either. The edges of things are often the most interesting.
Last night I waited for a friend outside the box office and watched the throngs of people entering. I wondered whose night would be unforgettable and who would wind up heartbroken. All the faces: every size and color, expectant, insecure, arrogant, lovely. The young girls: wearing too much eye makeup, arms crossed awkwardly across their bodies, probably rethinking that midi-shirt. They all seemed so fragile. We’re trying so hard.
I thought about the people walking into the club in Orlando that night, full of hope and high spirits. I haven’t had much time alone, so I’ve mostly been stuffing the waves of tears that keep swelling and breaking, swelling and breaking in me. I gave up and let them spill over, mascara be damned.
Later, as I watched the show with my kids, the cheering hit me like a wall, the love practically levitating my body off the ground. I will never stop being awed by what my man does out there. There is always, always something hopeful and healing in music, in art, in the way we insist on creating in the face of impossible horror. It’s a joy to be so close to it. That’s why I’m stealing a writing moment in dressing room while my kids scooter around a perilously raked amphitheater in the Georgia heat. And that’s why we’ll do it all over again tonight.
April 14, 2016
This past weekend, I had the privilege of delivering the keynote at the Parenting in Space conference, a fantastic therapeutic parenting conference. I followed up my presentation with a workshop on therapeutic writing. The conference was put on by some of my touchstones in the therapeutic parenting community, including Christine Moers, Billy Kaplan of House Calls Counseling, and Lindsay Crapo. If you’re parenting special needs, or just parenting period, please check out their writing.
I felt a bit out of my league, particularly since only a week before I had been weeping over a screaming child in an airport bathroom, vowing to cancel the engagement the minute I got home. I figured, look at me- what could I possibly have to offer a roomful of people hungry for guidance and hope and support?
Once I’d had a chance to recover, I reasoned that I had the deepest respect for the conference organizers who, for some reason, believed in me. I decided to trust their opinion and just go tell the truth.
I’m so glad I went. The special needs parenting community is a club I never asked to join, but what a gift it has been to my life. Through it, I have seen such bravery and resilience, such commitment and love. If you want to have an experience of truly cutting through the bullshit, go to a therapeutic parenting conference. You will walk into a roomful of strangers and feel like you’ve known them forever. You will circumvent all surface differences and have intensely vulnerable conversations with people you would probably never meet in “real” life. And somehow, even after hearing horror stories about hurt children, you will walk away more deeply in love with humanity. That’s the magic trick Parenting in Space manages to pull off. I was honored to be there.
Here is a little excerpt from my speech:
…I believe the most important thing we did with Tariku, was simply telling him he was safe and loved and we weren’t going anywhere. Over and over and over. I’d even whisper it in his ear while he slept. With time he started to believe it. And the strangest thing happened- I also began to believe I was someone who was strong, who could make a child feel safe, who stuck around through thick and thin, and that was an honorable thing to be.
Even then, it took years, and we had to find a school that was wiling to work through some sticky points with us. He still has a hard time being strong over his body and words. But honestly, he’s such a delight now, we found ourselves sitting around like- this is so EASY. What the heck- let’s do it again! If not us, who?
We went into our second adoption with our eyes open. When we went to visit our new son in his foster care placement, we saw all the signs of severe trauma. We knew his hair-raising story of neglect. At three yrs old, he didn’t know what a book was – I brought one out and he tried to wear it as a hat. He couldn’t count to three. He had a failure to thrive and was barely the size of a two year old. On our way home from one of our initial visits, I was crying so hard, we pulled the car over and held hands in silence for a while.
We wondered- were we doing the right thing? Were we about to ruin our lives and the life of our shining star of a son who had made so much progress?
Scott said, “Well, you have to believe in someone sometime in this life.”
And I thought, with this man, with the community of support around us, with God, I can do this.
Good story, right?
Except that last week I was sitting in an airplane bathroom holding a screaming toddler for hours, with silent tears streaming down my cheeks. As soon as we landed, I planned to call Billy and cancel, because I couldn’t imagine I had anything to offer. I couldn’t remember any of the right things to say. Ever. I was yelling again. I was crying myself to sleep. Half the time, ok most of the time, I still have no idea what to do, and I wrote a whole book about it!
A good long plane ride with the two worst behaved children in the history of United Airline flights, was a bracing dose of humility for me, the parenting blogger. But when I got some alone time (please, get yourself some alone time) I realized I was back to square one, and that’s a sacred place to be, if you can embrace it. Because square one is where you have the most potential for growth.
The best gift trauma has given me is to release me from the need to be perfect, to win all the time, to please people and fit in. It’s forced me to give up on this big redemption story of mine, in which I impress everyone with my shiny outsides. Because, as it turns out, it’s not my redemption story at all.
That airplane aside, we’ve started to see glimpses- moments, hours, even a whole day here and there- of who our new son truly is, inside his big, wooly, itchy trauma sweater. He’s hilarious. He’s musical. He’s gentle and smart. I’m crazy about him.
I’m glad I didn’t cancel because I eventually remembered what I wanted to say… we don’t have to remember everything. We don’t have to memorize the playbook. We just have to be willing to start exactly where we are, every day. We have to be willing to forgive ourselves, release our own shame, and let it radiate outward to our families from there. We have to be willing to be wrong, to apologize and repair. Mostly, we just have to stick around and keep loving them until they believe it. Not because we’re saints, but because we’re committed and willing to learn. And because, at the end of the day, we believe in our children and in ourselves.
Here I am with Billy, Christine and Lindsay, feeling grateful:
April 4, 2016
Yesterday, I spent 5 solid hours on a plane correcting a toddler, who was banging with both fists on the seat in front of him, throwing his shoes, and screaming like I was sticking pins under his toenails. It has been a long time since I was so desperately beside myself.
The good thing about your life exploding is that it twists your arm behind your back and manhandles you back to square one. Beginner’s mind. Humility.
The growing pains of going from one child to two, both of them with lots and lots and lots of needs, has left me little dedicated time for writing. I steal an hour here and there, early in the morning, late at night. I have to fight for even that much. I know it won’t be this way forever- it will change as all things do. I also know that when it changes I will be both relieved and beset with panic. Because change does that to me.
Part of me wants to follow the path of least resistance and check my creative life at the door of motherhood. Find ecstatic joy in macaroni collages. Marvel at the potential of the popsicle stick. Instagram whimsical, earth-friendly ways to decorate for each holiday.
I’m not knocking the creativity, even art, we bring to mothering. Not at all. But I am also a writer and an individuated being. I’m not interested in pouring every ounce of my creative inner life into my children. I need sacred space in which my mind can wander and my self-expression doesn’t have to be stamped with a G rating.
Before kid #2, I had a pretty manageable schedule, in which I had hours at a time to work. To daydream. To write and write and write. And now I don’t. The end.
I can’t shoehorn 3 more hours into my day.
So what now?
It’s easy for me to get stuck in resignation and self-pity. It’s also a convenient out. I have a perfectly reasonable excuse to not write right now. Writing is very hard- I’m tempted to surrender far too easily.
Whenever I find myself facing this dangerous mindset, I return to a place of curiosity.
What is it I really want to say right now? What’s burning to come out of me? What’s essential?
Then I look realistically at my limitations, and summon all my creative resources and say- how? How am I gonna do this? Is there a way of accomplishing this that I never considered before?
I’m someone who works things out on the page. I ask myself questions and I write and list and chart until I come to some semblance of a conclusion or a next action. This may take minutes, or hours, or weeks. I usually do this in my journal. So journaling has again become so important to me, with my radically limited time. There’s almost always time for a journal entry.
The most important thing I’ve learned in all my years of writing is not to expect every word to be a publishable pearl.
I have kept diaries for roughly a billion years. I have stacks upon stacks of them moldering in the garage and there they will stay until I die, when they will be shredded and donated to the SPCA for kitty litter. They are process documents. They are research and therapy and muscle building. They are not works of art.
I’ve employed a lot of different journaling methods over the years, and I recently did a complete overhaul. I had grown pretty lackadaisical about it, so I gave my journal a hard look and noticed that my writing was completely compartmentalized. I had a tiny notebook I carried everywhere, a large journal I kept in my bedside table for morning pages, a legal pad with an ongoing albatross of a to-do list, a smaller legal pad for grocery list/stuff we needed….
And then I happened upon this post by my friend Karen Walrond at the wonderful Chookooloonks, which suggests putting everything in one notebook. At first, I blanched. I mean- my grocery list next to my Deep Thoughts? Heresy! But in the spirit of curiosity, I decided to give it a try. If I didn’t like it, it only cost $15.
When you organize your thoughts differently, your perspective shifts. Man, I needed that shift so badly. I realized I was compartmentalizing not just my actual physical lists, but also the various aspects of my life. My Writing Time was sacred, as opposed to the to-do list- the minutae.
Combining all has caused me to notice it’s the same me- same heart, same mind, same soul- wandering the aisles of Whole Foods or sitting down at my desk with my important frown on. And life, all of it, is what art is made of. Not just the lofty parts- the passionate love affairs, the dazzling sunsets, the childhood tragedies. Toothpaste, tin foil, animal crackers, crushed tomatoes… has its own poetry.
When we let the high and low- sublime and ridiculous- coexist, a certain kind of magic happens. Without any extra effort, just by proximity, the creative work is lent texture by the daily details and the daily details demand a different level of consciousness.
I also find that having a “friend” always nearby to whom you can tell your most awful thoughts helps those thoughts to not leak out the sides.
For instance- Tariku has been having trouble sleeping lately.
A few nights ago, I had been around and around with him for 4 hours. It was 11pm and there he was, sitting in front of me and I was at THE END. THE END. I wanted to say the worst things. You don’t even know.
Instead I said, “Just sit here and color for a minute.”
And I turned to my journal and wrote all those awful things in giant, psychopath lettering. Then I turned back to him, and said, “Let’s try again.”
Not exactly a gratitude journal, but I got to say it all! With zero consequences. Because there is no such thing as a thought crime.
I can’t say enough good things about putting it all in one place. When I color with the kids, I do my crappy drawings in my journal. When I give my students a writing prompt, I do it along with them.
I almost never look back at it. But as a result, all of my work has many more layers of richness.
What goes in your journal?
(photo credit: Casey Sjogren)
March 1, 2016
Would you walk up to a pregnant woman and tell her about your friend’s cousin’s daughter whose infant died of a rare disease, offer her the unsolicited tale of your hairdresser’s daughter’s home birth gone wrong, tell her about every mother you know visiting her teenager in rehab, etc.? Would you walk up to a woman expecting a baby and volunteer every horrific possibility parenthood could potentially offer?
Of course you wouldn’t. Because it would be both entirely inappropriate and cruel.
Yet, when you’re involved in the adoption process, this is precisely what many people do. Mention you’re adopting, and people will often lean in with bizarre schadenfreude shining in their eyes and share some terrible story of a friend of a friend whose adopted kid with an attachment disorder burned their house down.
I can give you my ten-cent analysis of why this happens- I think it basically boils down to the fear of difference. For our purposes, the motivation behind the behavior isn’t really that important.
I’ve been at this for a while now and have, by trial and error, developed really good boundaries. In fact, this kind of ignorance affects me personally so little now that I see it as an opportunity to educate- hopefully with gentleness and compassion.
But when you’re first in the midst of the adoption process, it can be shocking and disturbing, and, worst of all, can hold up a mirror to all your deepest fears.
It’s not my mission in life to talk people into adopting. It’s a very personal decision and it’s not right for everyone. I do know that if you choose to walk this adoption road (this, in my opinion, glorious and rewarding road) you won’t be doing it alone. Make sure you seek the wisdom of the people walking beside you, not the onlookers shouting from the sidelines.
A friend sent me desperate late-night email yesterday. It echoed so many emails I get I decided to address it here. This is some of what she said:
I’ve been afraid to talk with a few of the women I know and love about our plans to adopt b/c they talk about how:
One’s sister adopted and the child ended up in prison.
Another’s cousin adopted and the kid had such a learning disability he ended up dropping out of school and is working a minimum wage job with no future (both adoptive parents are college professors).
How Nature cannot be corralled by Nurture – it’s a huge crap shoot. Everyone thinks she’ll get lucky by getting a “great kid” but not everyone does.
How I am irresponsible to adopt when I already have two kids, and my resources will be taken from my lovely children when they need me.
In fairness, I know they care about me. They are coming from a place of great concern. And they are trying to help me reconsider this whole adoption thing from a rational POV.
They are basically playing a track of GREATEST FEARS Volume One.
Exactly. Greatest Fears Volume One. A tape which, by the way, all expectant parents have in one way or another. But most women walking around with a baby bump don’t have every random acquaintance at Pilates echoing her tape with a terrifying anecdotal story.
If you want a thousand antidote stories of incredible adoptive families, call me. Or talk to any adoptive parent you know. Read the literature. For inspiration, I love Carried in Our Hearts, by Dr. Jane Aronson or More Love Less Panic, by Claude Knobler. For instruction, I love The Connected Child and everything else ever written by Karyn Purvis. Those are just a couple of an amazing plethora of offerings.
I adore this post from Jen Hatmaker called “How to be the Village.”
Reach out to your adoption community. If you don’t have one, start building one. Read the blogs. A few of the greats: Rage Against the Minivan, Flower Patch Farmgirl, White Sugar Brown Sugar, A Musing Maralee, The Eyes of My Eyes are Opened…. there are so many.
More immediately, here is a general guideline of how I deal with it:
Secondhand experience is irrelevant. Only people speaking from the inside the adoption community are allowed to tell you anything right now, unless it’s about how they just bought you a duffel bag full of awesome baby clothes from Chasing Fireflies.
People are often ignorant and careless about adoption related issues and they will rarely ask if you want to hear what they have to say. They’ll just launch in. This is where you get to work on boundary setting, which I realize can be very hard for women because we are so reticent to offend anyone or create an awkward social situation, regardless of the personal cost.
Try to look at it as excellent opportunity to develop this very important skill. I’m sure it’s a skill you want your children to have. You can better impart it if you’ve cultivated it in yourself.
Say, “Thank you, I understand you mean well (or love me, or want the best for me, or whatever is appropriate to the relationship), but I don’t want to hear any negative stories about adoption right now.”
When they say, “BUT….”
And they will. I don’t know why this is, but the need to tell these horror stories is almost compulsive and they will not want to shut up.
This is the hard part and it’s very important….
Cut them off. Then repeat yourself verbatim.
Do this as many times as is necessary for them to hear you.
Rehearse this at home. I’m not kidding. Have a friend or spouse role play it with you. It’s not an easy maneuver, and you’ll be much better able to execute it in the moment if you prepare in advance.
Then hold your head up and proudly walk your path and know that, whatever trials and joys it brings, you will not be walking it it alone. Reach out your hand and you will find there are so many on this road who will hold it.
I am an adoptive mama who has had a pretty challenging go of it. In spite of (or maybe because of) our struggles, there has never been a day, not one, that I haven’t thanked God for all adoption has brought to my life. It has brought my own parents for one (I’m also adopted)! It has also brought my beautiful children, immeasurable love, personal growth, a stronger marriage, a profound sense of gratitude, a faith in the world and in myself that I never believed possible.
I’m copying and pasting the letter I sent to friends and family when we were in the thick of things with Bright Eyes, and I was sitting in a hotel room after having visited him in his foster home every day for a week, preparing him for the transition to our home. It was a hard, scary, wonderful, transformative time. I was touched by the outpouring of support and curiosity from friends and family, but was also totally overwhelmed and unable to respond personally to everyone. Instead, I wrote this.
Please feel free to use any or all of this, if it seems useful to you:
Dearest Friends and Family-
We wanted to reach out to our inner circle to let you know the new developments with Project Lil’ Shriner #2…
This information is strictly private right now- just close friends and family- so please be conscious of not sharing anything publicly until we do so first. Also- legally no pictures can be posted until there is an official adoption. So if we’re ever hanging out and things start to get instagramm-y, please be aware of that!
And now I have totally buried the lede…
As you all know, we’ve been embroiled in the process of a second adoption for the past year and it has been moving at roughly the speed of a Tarkovsky film. But during the last couple of weeks, things have ramped up to the pace of a Transformers sequel! We are wildly excited to tell you that next week we’re scheduled to meet a precious 3 yr old boy- let’s call him Bright Eyes for now. If all goes well with the next couple of steps, we’ll proceed to visiting and transitioning him slowly, and hope to have him home by mid-December. Possibly earlier!
We need to stress all the maybes and probablies and ifs in that paragraph….
We know that adoption is super confusing, so here’s a little primer of what’s going on. We’re adopting through LA County DCFS (Department of Child and Family Services), so Bright Eyes is currently living in a foster care placement. There are many, many steps before we can legally adopt him, and a number of things could come up that derail the process. It could take months. It could take years. It could not happen at all. We just don’t know. There will be lots of court dates and visitations and ups and downs and, well, we don’t even know exactly because this is such a different process from last time.
We ask that you live in the moment, with all of its uncomfortable uncertainty, along with us. Right now, we’re proceeding with cautious optimism. We promise to tell you when it’s time to jump up and down and truly celebrate. Trust us- we can’t wait for you to meet him when the time is right. See the FAQ below for more details.
The next few weeks will tell us a lot, and during this time we will be very, very busy and focused on our family-in-transition. We won’t want to discuss every detail of the process. We will most likely miss your holiday party. We may not send a card. We may not call you back. Please know that we love and treasure you. We could never do this without you- our beautiful extended family, both given and chosen. We’re so grateful for all you bring to our lives.
Jillian and Scott
1.Wait, what happened to Baby J?
We were fostering Baby J. on an emergency basis. Baby J. wasn’t up for adoption and we were never under the impression he was staying. We were lucky enough to share a brief moment with him. We all miss him. We will think about him with both joy and sadness for the rest of our lives. Hopefully we’ll see him again somehow. Bright Eyes is a totally separate case and the two have nothing to do with each other.
2. So do you get to keep this one? What’s the deal? Is he yours or not?
We hope so. We think so. We don’t know for sure yet. I know- it sucks, right? But that’s the deal.
3. All of this is so exciting! I really want to talk to you about it! But I’m so busy and I don’t have the time to read this whole email. Will you explain this to me over and over again every time I see you?
We know it’s confusing and we know everyone is excited. We’re also excited- and overwhelmed and nervous. Every email from our social worker could either be the best or the most heartbreaking news ever. It’s a heavy time. It’s a lot for us to have to explain every step of the way. We promise we’ll let you know about the big milestones.
4. I just heard a terrible story about an adoption that fell apart (and/or read an awful adoption story in the news) and I really want to share it with you for your own good- should I?
5. I went through this and I have some tips or legal advice that I feel could help you- should I share them with you?
YES! Please do. The process is pretty opaque and most of the useful things we’ve gleaned have come from other adoptive families, who have been through a similar process.
6. When can I meet that little nugget of joy and give him a squeeze?
We don’t know yet. Probably not right away. Every child processes the trauma of separation and the transition into a new home in their own unique way and at their own pace. We plan to give him all the time he needs to feel safe before all you crazy pirates start coming around. Again- we’ll let you know!
7. Will you be having a baby shower or a welcoming party?
Yes! We need to see how it goes, and how everyone is settling in. When it’s time, you can be sure we’ll have a party. We’re the Shriners, after all.
8. How can we support you?
We treasure your messages of support. We need all your love and cheerleading and prayers and good thoughts and white light and GF brownies and whatever else you get into. And we’re so grateful for your understanding if we’re MIA for a while. Also- extra special love for Tariku (movies, playdates, airplane-spotting expeditions…) will be very much appreciated over the next couple of months.
February 22, 2016
First of all, go pre-order Julie Fogliano’s When Green Becomes Tomatoes right this minute. Go ahead, I’ll wait. It comes out March 1, so you can also run-don’t-walk next Tuesday and get it at your local independent bookstore.
Okay, well done. You’ll thank me!
Now I’ll tell you a little story about this gem of a book…
Bright Eyes has a language delay and my big genius therapeutic plan is to talk to him pretty much non-stop. I’m from New Jersey, so constant talking isn’t much of a stretch for me. I did the same with Tariku when he was learning to talk, before he got wicked sick of my yammering and retaliated by getting really into dinosaurs and math and things about which I have exactly nothing to say. Touchè.
I never actually expect Bright Eyes to pay any real attention, unless I slip in words like COOKIES or FROZEN or GRANDMA. I’m not really concerned- I figure just the sound of the language helps.
So the other day as we were straightening up, I told him all about my best childhood girlfriend, and how she used to write me notes in class, telling me wonderful stories. I told him she lives in a magical farmhouse in the Hudson Valley with her family and still writes terrific stories for kids (like this one and this one), and that she has a new beautiful book of poetry coming out about which I’m so excited.
Then, when we were picking out our bedtime books, he said, “I want the book about the little girl.”
“What little girl?”
“You. The little girl you.”
“Do you mean the book written by my friend from when I was a little girl?”
“Yeah. That girl.”
You could have knocked me over with a feather.
“You were listening!”
Bright Eyes apparently has no sarcasm delay. So that’s good news.
We got my advance copy of When Green Becomes Tomatoes off the shelf and began to read.
Initially, I thought it was a bit advanced for him conceptually, but it didn’t seem to matter. He was enchanted. As with all good poetry, each stanza we read spiraled into new thoughts and questions. When Green Becomes Tomatoes is a book of children’s poetry, arranged by seasons and presented in diary form. As we read it, Bright Eyes and I wound up talking about rainstorms and falling leaves and flowers and colors and endings and beginnings.
The poems carry echoes of ee cummings, William Carlos Williams, and Emily Dickinson. They’re both bold and delicate, broad and deep. Julie’s words sparkle, as they always have, with the magic that comes along with close attention to the world around us. And Julie Morstad’s illustrations are just lovely. I’ve read it cover to cover and I know it’s destined to be a classic, loved by kids and grown-ups alike.
I’m just so darn proud of my dear friend. It has been one of the great blessings of my life to know her and get glimpses into her remarkable inner life. I’m thrilled that the rest of the world now gets to know her, too, through her timeless work.
February 15, 2016
I’ve been working on Bright Eyes’ lifebook lately. I used My Family, My Journey for Tariku, and I liked it so much I bought another one. A lifebook is the adoption equivalent of a baby book, but has a more expansive focus, documenting not just milestones but also history. I appreciate this particular template because it holds a space for many different kinds of experiences. I know plenty of adoptive parents who create their own lifebooks from scratch, but it can be a daunting and emotional experience, and it’s a relief having a framework to help me out. I highly recommend it.
Lifebooks are just one way we sculpt our children’s narratives. We create their story every day- with how we answer questions, with the books we read them, with all the various ways we impart to them their true histories in a developmentally appropriate way. Each of my children came to me with a whole journey I had no part in. But we are still the lens through which they’ll come to know those stories, and it’s an enormous responsibility. As a professional storyteller, I think about it a lot. How do I make these complex and often sad stories ultimately tales of triumph and strength and love and hope? I don’t think there’s any one answer, but I do feel that it’s important to engage with the question in a fluid and conscious way.
Working on their lifebooks helps me, because it’s a time that I can thoughtfully address the hard stuff without the pressure of them sitting in front of me. That way, when the tough questions do come, I’m a little bit more composed and prepared. Lifebooks are also an excellent tool for opening up a dialogue with a child who might otherwise be reticent to ask questions. For instance, Tariku will almost never talk about Ethiopia these days without a visual cue, but when he sees photos, a torrent of curiosity always follows.
A few nights ago, I was working on a page entitled “My Adoption Buddies.” I revisited Tariku’s page, and this is the photo posted there:
These are the adorable little nuggets from our Ethiopian adoption travel group. We’re still close with all of them. They’re family to us.
I started to cry, and emailed our travel group families. I told them that I felt sad, because I didn’t have a similar picture to post on Bright Eyes’ page- or any picture for that matter. I worried that he would feel left out at our reunions, or that he’d feel a deeper kind of loneliness because he doesn’t have the same ties to his roots.
They universally responded:
Welcome to the couch, Bright Eyes! This is your couch, too!
Of course. What was I thinking? There’s more room on this couch. There’s always more room on this couch. As not just an adoptive mom but also an adult adoptee, I’m also on this couch. What a privilege. What a family I get to have. I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else.
I began Bright Eyes’ “Adoption Buddies” page with a picture of him and his brother. I labeled it “your best adoption buddy forever!”
February 10, 2016
Does that look like a photo of a terrible mother to you?
Friends, I yelled at my kids so badly yesterday. I was a monster.
Oh, come on, you say. You’re exaggerating. Everyone yells. You were probably just like, Stop sticking pins in the dog! Or, Stop dangling your brother over the edge of that cliff!
Or some other totally justifiable yelling thing.
Nope. What I said was something along the lines of: OH YEAH? WELL I CAN HAVE A TANTRUM TOO!
It was horrible. Afterward I did all the things- I apologized and repaired, I breathed, I prayed (that kind of sick-of-it-all prayer that starts, “Even though there’s no God and I’m just an idiot talking to the wall right now…”). During naptime, I wrote in my journal. I watched a few minutes of bad TV. I went back in vaguely refreshed.
I called my best friend to come over and support me because Scott was going out after dinner and I didn’t trust myself to be calm and collected.
How do I know to do all this stuff? Because I WROTE A BOOK about it.
After all this, do you know what your charming friend who writes about parenting did after dinner?
I yelled at them again, and it was equally weird and appalling. My husband and friend both stared at me with their mouths agape.
Later that night, I wrote in my journal: I’m good at writing about being a mother but I suck at mothering.
Which may be a little bit true some days.
Not by way of defense, but to contextualize, here’s the perfect storm that led up to it…
I had some wacky hormones that resulted in a migraine for 5 straight days, and I was pretty much functioning with the use of only one eye because the other one had a weird shadow floating in front of it- a shadow that was intermittently stabbing said eye with tiny knives. Also- everyone in this house has been sick for two months, including multiple bouts of pneumonia and stomach flu. Even without the constant sickness, we are in the middle of a massive transition, with the addition of Bright Eyes. Everyone is struggling to find our footing.
That said, stressy life or not, yelling at kids with trauma histories is extra crappy, for a few reasons.
First, it doesn’t work. It just models and more of the exact behavior you’re attempting to address. Usually, they scream right back in my face.
It also erodes your child’s trust in you. Trust is the key ingredient to healing trauma. Yelling just reinforces their idea that the world is an unsafe and unpredictable place, where the people who are supposed to love them will only hurt them and as a result they need to be in control of absolutely everything.
It can cause a big setback. Knowing all of this, I stood there and totally lost my shit at them.
I share this with you not as some self-flagellating confession, but because in spite of all my shame and regret, I still had to wake up today and face my family. And while not all of us scream like some deranged Joan Crawford clone, I know I’m not the only one making terrible mistakes and having to brush myself off and attempt to do better next time. And then having to forgive myself when I don’t. Not because my missteps aren’t egregious, but because I am their mother for better or for worse, and they need me to keep trying. I have breakfast to make. I don’t have the option of twisting myself up into an origami of shame and staying there for days.
I also share this with you because I think we spend a lot of time comparing ourselves to each others internet personas- the beautifully filtered IG photos, the beach days and birthday parties. The heart-stopping adorableness of everyone else’s kids and living rooms and table settings and fluffy puppies and Christmas mornings. Mine included. My kids are darn cute and my dogs are pretty fluffy.
Of course we share the pretty, polished stuff. I enjoy looking at that version of our family. I imagine a life I don’t quite have into being, by catching just the right moment and filtering it and framing it and waiting for all the likes to roll in. I like like like like like it, too! It’s just not the truth. It’s a truth. But it wasn’t my truth yesterday and it’s not my truth this morning.
This is what I wrote in my journal last night, in the aftermath of yell-a-geddon:
Please let me be closer to the mother I pretend to be. This good, patient, creative, humorous, warm mother I dream into being in the clouds, while somewhere down on earth I am small and selfish and frightened and still an angry adolescent, railing at all I’ve traded and all I’ve lost and sure that truly in my heart of hearts I’m poison. I watch them sleeping, their tiny forms under the covers, and wonder how it is I’ve been entrusted with these two precious souls. This I know- I can’t hate myself into being worthy of them. It’s a law of physics or something. You can’t hate yourself into being better at anything. I will have to believe in myself the way I believe in them. Not because I’m deserving but because it’s the only way.
If I know anything, I know that you can’t believe in yourself because you’ve earned it. Paradoxically, you have to start with that belief, in spite of the evidence to the contrary. I’m worthy of my children because they’re my children and here we are. And I believe that today I will do better.
If I fight to accumulate enough of those days, I know from my experience with Tariku that I will turn around and find that years have passed and somehow, in spite of all my faults, there is a delightful, strong, joyful, confident child standing in front of me.
January 19, 2016
To Tariku on his Gotcha Day-
I always love your Gotcha Day (remember when you used to call it your Cha Cha Day?), because it’s a chance for me to reflect on that pivotal trip to Africa daddy and I took seven years ago, when we first held you in our arms. I can still smell that unique combination of coffee and frankincense and popcorn that permeates the dwellings in Ethiopia. I can hear the cries of children echoing down the marble staircase of the care center. I remember climbing that staircase and walking into a nursery with a whole gang of babies cooing and playing on blankets strewn in the middle of the floor. You sat in the very center of the room in your little blue chair and I recognized your sweet face immediately. I remember the strong, caring arms of the woman who first handed you to me and called me, “Mama.” I can still feel how feather-light you were in your orange jumper, with your precious, soft arms and your skinny spaghetti legs.
If I live to be a thousand years old, I will never know that moment’s equal.
You made me a mother. You came to us and our hearts grew and grew, as our entire carefully planned life exploded and then reassembled itself in the most astounding way.
Your third tooth fell out this morning- one of the big ones in the front. You woke and it finally landed in your hand. Most of your friends have lost more teeth than you by now. That tooth hung on by a thread sideways for weeks, making you look like you were wearing novelty store hillbilly teeth. It made me think of how things don’t often come easily for you. You have worked hard to become the kind, polite, caring, delightful kid you are today. Things like behaving in a restaurant, sharing, calming your body down, and re-setting when you have big feelings have all been hard-won achievements for you.
I have watched you try and try. I have watched you fail and get up and ask for a do-over and try yet again. Over the years, I have seen the toddler who couldn’t stop pulling the dog’s tail grow into a boy who confidently grooms and rides a thousand pound horse. I have seen the toddler who threw crayons in frustration become a passionate artist, spending hours creating a whole world of crazy characters you made up all on your own.
You helped your dad and me tremendously when Big Baby J. came to stay with us for a short time. When he woke up frightened and disoriented, you lay next to him and made faces until he laughed. You were often the only one who could get a smile out of him. It was surprising to you how annoying babies can be, but you just rolled your eyes and smiled and through it all you never stopped being gentle and patient.
So much of this last year was about preparing to grow our little family. You have been begging for a brother for years, but I don’t think you expected how long and rocky a road it would be. I worried about how you would face the uncertainty involved in adopting through the foster care system. When Bright Eves finally did show up, I worried you’d be disappointed, because he struggled with the transition to our home and rejected your affection at first. I worried that his dysregulated behavior, including the dreaded car screaming, would set back your own progress. I worried we’d have less special time to spend together. As you know, mommy worries a lot. I should know better by now. You are all the evidence I need to have faith.
One of the greatest gifts of Bright Eyes joining our family is that I’ve gotten to know you in new ways, and the more I get to know you the more I’m impressed by your wonderful tenacity and your enormous heart. You got upset at first when Bright Eyes wasn’t being all that fun, but you never stopped figuring out ways to connect with him. If one interaction didn’t work, you tried another. At first, he screamed in protest when you hugged him, so now you’ve started asking him first if it’s okay. Little by little, he’s beginning to say yes. Yes, it’s okay to hug me. Yes, I trust you, big brother. Because you’ve showed him that he’s safe. That is a really special and important thing to do for someone.
When he got pneumonia and we had to take him to the hospital, you wouldn’t leave his side. You didn’t utter one complaint, even though we were there for hours on Christmas.
Our family has become closer than ever, as together we face the hard times as well as the fun ones. When your little brother screams now, you simply stick earplugs in your ears and go on with your day.
Whenever you do a trick on the trampoline, or jump off a diving board, or do a cool dance, you say, “Did you see me? Did you see me, mama?” You’re always eager for an audience. I have never met a person you couldn’t make laugh.
I see you, my son. I am looking and I see you. I learn from your strength and joy and kindness every day. I am so proud of you. I can’t wait to see what this next year brings.
January 16, 2016
A friend stopped by the other night and as I was busy burning some chicken for us all, I caught her looking at me with a combination of horror and pity. It turned out my bright lipstick (the shade I chose to cheer myself up) had migrated across my face, leaving me looking like some demented David Lynch character. I hadn’t noticed because I hadn’t looked in the mirror in roughly 12 hours.
“What are you doing to take care of yourself?” she asked.
People ask you this a lot when you’re parenting young children. They often follow it up with a suggestion that is either time-consuming or expensive, or both. I agree that self care is essential, but those suggestions can leave me feeling like there’s yet one more thing I should be doing but I’m not.
Are you doing yoga?
Nope. Not currently finding 2.5 hours a day, including transportation time, to stretch.
Are you meditating?
Nope. Never. Hate it. Yup- I said it. I have tried and tried and have now finally given myself a lifetime pass to never do it again. You can smile at me with that odd blend of compassion/smugness all day long and I still won’t Nam Myoho with you. I will, however, watch Buffy The Vampire Slayer and drink wine with you whenever the opportunity arises.
Are you taking enough time for you?
Does bingeing on popcorn while answering emails at midnight count? Then YES I most certainly am!
There have been times in my life that I have written for hours every day, had a regular exercise schedule, and even had extra time to get my nails done and to go out to lunch with a girlfriend once in a while. Before Bright Eyes showed up, life was pretty much like that. Tariku was settled in school, and had become less of a wild destructive pirate and more of a totally delightful pirate. Things were feeling pretty manageable.
But self-care is a moving target. All of us here at Casa Shriner are experiencing growing pains, as our family makes that huge leap from 3 humans to 4. Bright Eyes is a wonder and we’re crazy about him, but the attachment process with a 3.5 year old who has experienced severe neglect is also a real challenge and requires near-constant engagement. Not to mention the fact that our days are jam-packed with social workers, adoption counselors, lawyers, therapists, behaviorists… So the manicures and lunches have gone out the window, and I’m still puzzling through what exactly self-care is going to look like during this transition phase. It’s okay, for a moment, to have gruesome cuticles. But I do still need to find ways to care for myself.
I’m redefining daily what it’s going to take for me to stay sane. It’s often about shifting perspective rather than adding another item to the to-do list. Here are ten things I do to care for myself:
I adjust my expectations. Before Bright Eyes showed up, I was going to boot camp at my friend’s house two mornings a week and going to barre classe on Saturday mornings. It was social and I felt great about myself and my abs were rad! Now, I walk with the stroller around the lake. The end. If I wait until I can do everything to the degree that I’d like, I’ll wind up doing nothing. And a walk in the fresh air is infinitely better than nothing.
I slow down my transitions . That sounds so boring, I know. When I have a ton to do, I can get into a sloppy, rushed mode that’s not only un-fun but also dangerous, particularly when it comes to cooking or driving or anything with sharp edges and moving parts. One thing I’ve learned from having 2 kids who struggle with transitions, is to slow way down and talk them through it. So I’ve started to do the same for myself. After I drop T off at school, I have a spot around the corner, where I pull the car over and just breathe and reconfigure my brain. I answer my texts. I pick out a podcast for the way home. I decide if I’m going to grab a latte or not. I take a breath. If Bright Eyes is with me, I still do an abbreviated version of this.
I give myself small treats. If Bright Eyes is napping and I have a million emails to answer, I make sure I find a sunny spot on the couch. I drink a bottle of cream soda. If it’s chilly, I throw my favorite orange cashmere blanket over my legs. Sure, I’d prefer to do all of the above AND be reading a good book, but sometimes you gotta get shit done. You can sweeten the deal a bit if you allow yourself to enjoy the little things while you’re doing it.
I listen to my own music, sometimes . If they don’t want to listen to the Hamilton soundtrack, they can bite me. I mean, they’ll probably bite me anyway, and at least this way I’ll have listened to “My Shot” eight times, and I won’t care as much.
I read . This has always been my salvation and I’m not stopping now.
I pay attention to my self-talk . This one is closely related to adjusting my expectations. It’s not my habit to speak kindly to myself. I’m stupid and lazy and sloppy and fat and old and mediocre and talentless and a failure and a lousy mother and a basket case and and and…. If anyone talked to my children like that, I’d sock ‘em in the nose. If I imagine when I’m talking to myself that I’m practicing talking to my kids, I’m way more likely to say, “You’re doing great, sweetheart. I love how hard you’re trying. I’m here for you. It’s going to be okay.”
I wear bright lipstick . Or fun shoes. Or a locket I love that belonged to my Aunt May. Maybe this is shallow and maybe it isn’t, but I know that it helps me an awful lot to sport something that gives me a lift.
I cook dinner . This sometimes feels like drudgery and is sometimes the best part of my day. Even when it starts out the former, it often turns into the latter once the olive oil and onions are in the pan and things start to smell good. This is a way of nurturing my family and myself. It grounds me in the present and gives me the happy illusion of control.
I pray . A lot. Nothing formal, mostly a lot of “thanks” and “help.” Prayer reminds me that I don’t need to have every answer. That I don’t have to feel capable of what’s in front of me in order to just do it anyway. That I am not in charge of anyone’s future. And that I am not alone.
I write . I write early in the morning or late at night, for a stolen hour here and there. I write poorly, in jumbled, half-baked prose. Half the time lately, I feel barely literate. But I do it. Regardless of the quality of the product, the process reframes the world for me in surprising ways, as it has always done. In fact, this post came from a journal prompt I gave myself yesterday morning: What does self care mean to you?
Please feel free to take that prompt and run with it! I’d love to hear your suggestions for self-care when under duress.