A very long, very heavy post. Sorry. This lovely lady and her thoughtful, respectful commenters got me writing. I know some will think it is foolish, or self-serving, or stupid, or uncomfortable, or wrong to speak openly about this. It probably is. Every single time I write about this topic, I get emails from parents in terrible pain. I guess this is my way of being a thread in their rope.
I read the news articles and I didn’t know what to say.
I braced myself for the tweets and the posts and the comments of outrage and disgust, laced with vitriol and judgment and they came. I didn’t know what to say.
I watched the posts and the essays and the discussions switch from direct condemnation of abandoning a young boy to officials in a foreign country to sweeping generalizations decrying any family that didn’t make it after adoption. I didn’t know what to say.
Reporters contacted me and I was silent.
Talk shows asked me to participate in “a balanced discussion of international adoption and its outcomes” and I stayed wisely, safely silent.
Bloggers whose writing I admire and whose opinions I respect and whose families I hold in awe couched the issue in harsh black and white terms, either you commit forever and make it work, no matter what, or you are a terrible person, not fit to be a parent.
People linked here from chat groups and posts about adoption disruption and I sat here thinking I don’t know what to say.
Adult adoptees spoke up on the pain and trauma of being abandoned and I took it to heart, as I always try to do, because their voice is vital and unheard. I cried and I stayed silent.
There is no return policy.
Adoption is for life.
You said forever.
What part of parent don’t you understand?
No part. I understand too well. I understand parenting one child to the detriment and trauma of another. Do you?
Finally, futilely, but necessarily, I know what I want to say. They aren’t wrong, these outraged, indignant, outspoken people. They aren’t wrong; they’re just taking the easy road. Point a finger and move on. Shake a head. Gasp in dismay and turn away. That’s easy.
Outrage is easy. Sarcastic snark is easy. Judgment and dismissal are easy.
Compassion is hard. Action is hard. Being a part, even a tiny part, of the solution, is hard.
Are some parents worthy of disgust? Frothing outrage? Vicious diatribes on their worthless horribleness? I don’t know. Here’s my question. How does it help? Does it help the child? Does it help other parents balancing on the precipice?
I don’t think so. I think we should save it. Save our disgust, save our sweeping, unknowledgeable generalizations, save our casual expressions of horror and our shocked, callous comments about what we would never do. Save our mocking tweets. Save our holier than thou comments and posts.
We are not helping anything. We are not helping the parents in absolute crisis and as a result, we are certainly not helping the child.
We have to meet people where they are if we want to help them. With open hearts, not wagging fingers. We have to meet people where they are and I will tell you something that I know for a fact about a parent, like me, who considers disrupting an adoption because they have reached their capacity to parent a traumatized child – I will tell you something that I know in my heart about a parent that places a child in foster care or in a mental health facility or at ranch for troubled kids, or even a parent who abandons a child on a plane alone – they are at rock hard bottom.
They are already wearing the hair shirt of guilt and self-loathing and it is cutting them to the core every single second of every single day.
And you are right. All of you who breathe your fiery dragon breath of indignation and blame across the internet and across the lives of families. It is about the child. It is about a child and how tragic it is that a child can be so damaged, so traumatized, in the first few years of his life that he can become a terrifying and heartbreaking impossibility for the parents who finally bring him into their home and try to love him.
I agree with you, in a perfect world, adoptions would be open and potential parents would get full information and intense preparation and meaningful support. In a perfect world, parents wouldn’t give up and they wouldn’t break down and they wouldn’t say I can’t do this any more. In a perfect world, children wouldn’t be abused or starve. They wouldn’t spend years in institutions or in foster care.
But, this is not a perfect world. So yes, it is about the child, but there is no way to help a child without helping the child’s parents. Are you? Are you opening your heart to try and help the child’s parents? Before you type out a vicious comment with your fingers tap tap tapping in staccato righteousness, have you tried to parent a traumatized child? There are many who need you. Have you opened your home to chaos and anger and pain and fury? Are you a respite family for foster care? Do you volunteer at your local shelter for run away teens? Your local crisis nursery?
No? That’s okay. I mean that. That. Is. Okay. But take a breath and ask yourself, what good is your anger “for the children” what good is your tweet or scathing commentary? How is it helping families, parents, people who have opened their hearts and their homes to this possibility and found themselves drowning in the aftermath?
We have to meet parents where they are and make decisions based on where parents are and offer suggestions based on where parents are. Parents in these situations don’t open up very often. They don’t tell you the truth. Do you know why? I do. The judgment is crushing. The casual, “just do xyz” comments, cut to the bone. The failure is overwhelming, can’t breathe, drowning in black water without knowing which way is up, overwhelming. Their emotions feel shameful. They are afraid. They are so afraid. Of your awful words. Of losing their other children. Of losing their minds for a moment and losing everything.
Maybe your callous, offhand remarks are made in ignorance. Parents of traumatized, unattached kids don’t talk and so how can you know. Maybe you don’t understand what rock bottom looks like for a parent with a rage-filled, traumatized child.
I will try and paint it for you. If you will try to keep in mind that I am shaking as I type. I am still shaking, three long years later.
I sat on my couch and the sun shone in the windows and for the first time in two months, I felt a fragile peace. My traumatized, institutionalized five-year-old son with valid grief, with understandable rage and abandonment issues, actually leaned against me to see the story that I read. The tentative, warm touch of his arm against mine made it difficult for me to breathe. He was touching me. He was choosing to touch me. I could do this. Two months of screaming tantrums set off by nothing and rages and incidents with our little ones that I tried to ignore faded away, melted into nothing at my feet. I could do it if we could have these moments. If I could see the progress. If I could have something to give me hope that I was on the right track and he might someday love me and trust me enough that I could breathe.
My one-year-old son, my first baby, my healthy, untraumatized child who had my heart like any first child does, from birth, toddled back and forth from the books to us, carrying offerings. He asked to sit in my lap and I pulled him up, but he cried and fussed and I set him down. A few minutes later, he tentatively approached with another book and I pulled him up on my other side, but after a minute, he screamed and I set him down. He leaned against me from the floor and then started to cry again and crawled away. Maybe eight or ten times, until I started to wonder in the back of my mind whether he was sick, maybe an ear infection, but the fragile bond with my oldest boy stayed in place and so when the baby found a quiet game to play on the far side of the room, I read books and snuggled with him as long as I could.
Shadows fell. I kissed my son and thanked him for reading with me and got up to start the evening routine. I sat on the ground to change the baby’s diaper, pulled off his pants and pushed up his shirt. Angry red welts scattered across his stomach. One on his side. One on his back. My heart leaped up to my throat. An allergic reaction? Hives? They weren’t raised. They weren’t itchy. In the middle they looked bruised.
I knew, then. I looked up and met his eyes and I knew. The hard, angry heart-breakingly familiar set of his face. Defiant, daring, asking. What are you going to do now? Do you still want to be my mother now? The price for my peace. The price for my oblivion and my quiet and my desperate need to just have everything work for an afternoon. Just one afternoon. I could see my older son’s rage and jealousy and grief and trauma splashed in vivid red on my baby’s stomach.
I could see the price and it was too high for me. I knew he needed to learn that he would be loved no matter what. Trauma, anger, grief, some small part of my brain whispered to whatever small part of me remembered to be his mother. I know. I know. I know. I knew and I still shook with rage at a five-year-old boy. There’s no easier way to say it. I shook with rage at a five-year-old boy.
I went to him and I took his hand and he writhed and screamed and fought and bit and scratched and I don’t blame him. Pure survival instincts. He sensed the danger as well as I did. I pulled him up the stairs as gently, but quickly, as I could, protecting myself as best I could and I put him in his room and I locked the door.
It wasn’t to keep him in. It wasn’t to contain his tantrum which raged inside, turning over furniture and ripping apart bedding and kicking and screaming.
I didn’t lock the door to keep him in.
I did it because I didn’t think I could open a locked door to hurt a child.
And I didn’t. But I wanted to. I wanted to go in there and spank him until I couldn’t lift my arm. I wanted to hold him down and hurt him like he hurt my baby.
I stood on the other side of the door with my head against it and all my education, all my love, all my good intentions, all my reading, all my preparation were nothing. Nothing. There was nothing and no one there to help me and I have never been so angry, so on the edge of out of control, in my life.
You can call me a monster. You can say something must be wrong with me. You can judge and parse and critique and discuss and feel superior and safe in the knowledge that you would never feel that way, no matter what and I will say this:
Bullshit. You don’t know. Unless you’ve stood on the other side of that door, shaking with animal rage at the child – person – entity – being – that intentionally hurt your baby, with you sitting right there, like an idiot, watching, and walked away, you don’t know who you are. I dare anyone, anyone with children who has never lost control, even the tiniest bit, even for second, with your precious, bonded, untraumatized, relatively easy child, to throw the first stone.
I’m proud of who I was that day. No. Actually. I’m proud of who I wasn’t. A news story with a sad ending you could all shake your head and cluck your tongue over.
That is the bottom. That is what the bottom looks like and I know from my email inbox that I am not the only parent of a traumatized child who has been there. Could I have put him on a plane that day, alone, with a note saying that I couldn’t parent him any more? If I didn’t have resources and options and a loving, supportive husband, I don’t know. It would have been the wrong thing to do, but we aren’t making our best choices at the bottom. Can you imagine, for a moment, how far down at the bottom, at the end of wits and hope and sanity, a parent must feel to see abandonment as her only option?
That’s where these parents are. Let me ask you this, you are standing at the top of a dark well and you are looking down at a parent, sitting at the bottom with her head on her knees. Are you going to try and throw her a rope, or are you going to spit on her? Which do you think helps the child?
Twittering your disgust is spitting. Ranting in comments on articles and posts is spitting. Rolling your eyes and using your best snarky voice in a Momversation video on a topic on which not one mother involved has the first iota of experience is spitting. Rolling your eyes at the playground or commenting negatively on someone’s parenting or their child’s behavior is spitting.
Families hit crisis. Their adjectives don’t matter. Adoptive families. Biological families. Step families. All types of families. How can we help them? Because that is what helps their children and isn’t that the goal here? Isn’t it?
That is what helped my children. A family that wanted a child. A family with only teenagers. A family that had parented traumatized children before. A family that has never spoken to me with anything but compassion and understanding.
They didn’t throw me a rope, they built my whole family a staircase and it was in the best interest of every single one of my children, my oldest son most of all.
What could you do? I don’t say that lightly. You don’t have to be the whole rope. We don’t have to be the whole rope. All we have to be is a thread. Bad things happen to children and we can each and every one of us be a thread in the rope for change, for healing.
After agreeing with the thoughts of many birth mothers, slamming the resources and support for young mothers in this country, arguing that the first choice for children should always be with their biological parents, I signed up to mentor a young, single mom. I meet with her once a week. I buy her coffee. I listen; Provided everyone is safe, I just listen. I give her a place to spend an afternoon without alcoholic relatives or chaos or unhappiness. Is there a program like this in your town?
Is there a crisis nursery near you? The one in our city takes volunteers in two hour blocks. It’s a safe place to drop off a child for a short time and know that you won’t lose custody, as long as you follow their rules.
Could you be a respite family for foster care? There is a family in your town, right now, that is putting everything, their hearts and souls and sanity and every shred of energy, into a hurting child and they need a break. They need a night to go out to dinner and feel normal; attend a function for another child without worry; have a conversation that isn’t tense and guarded. Could you help?
If not, I understand, but do you? You are not willing to have a disruptive, emotionally challenging, possibly violent child in your home. Not even for a short time while the family that tries to function in that environment every day takes a much needed break. That’s understandable. But consider keeping your thoughts, then, on the family’s lack of love to yourself.
I know these things aren’t possible for all of us. We all have lives, troubles, griefs and concerns. I’m not condemning you if you can’t make such big commitments. I’m not standing above you. I’m standing beside you with my hand outstretched. Being a thread in the rope can be so much simpler.
How about this? The next time you see a mom “with a horrible kid” “losing it” at the playground, take a deep breath and instead of commenting on the “terrible parent doing nothing while her daughter screams,” think:
Maybe this is the twentieth tantrum today;
Maybe she was up all night;
Maybe the situation is ten million times more complicated than I realize;
And then meet her eyes and smile.
Because maybe, an hour ago, she walked away from that child’s door. And maybe, for the cost of a smile, you gave her the strength to do it again.
Just like that, you’re part of the rope. Now, we’re helping children.