One of my favorite family pics of almost all of us a few years ago!

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

A Big Fat Zero in Parenting 101!

Today is a day when I get a big fat ZERO for my parenting skills.  Today is the kind of day when I need Nanny 911 or SuperNanny or CrazyLady# 346 to come to my rescue instead of other people asking me for parenting advice.  Today is the kind of day I wish didn’t exist.

I’m tired.  It has been an eventful week and one of my babies has been sick on and off for months with a staph infection.  Last night he woke up at 12:55 a.m. and he spent the rest of the night kicking, screaming, hitting and throwing fits by dropping to the floor while simultaneously reaching out for me. Talk about irony.  As he reached up over the side of the bed for me to pick him up – AGAIN - because he voluntarily squirmed down only moments before – a new fit begins and he hits his mouth on the bottom of the bed rail and it starts bleeding – not once - but twice.  He screams “owie” when I sit him on the counter to make his milk cup.  He screams bloody murder when I try to change his poopy diaper.  He falls to the ground if his feet hit the floor.

But even with 6 prior events and lots of practice, I can’t find any early signs of a new infection and the frustration in my voice is evident.  I’m part exhausted.  Part frustrated at the thought that he might be sick again – when he hasn’t even finished this round of antibiotics.  Part unemotional – even when he hurts himself – because I usually ignore fits and tantrums.  Part trying to keep him quiet enough so that he won’t wake up every other person in the house. 

Finally, at 5:30 a.m., after I tried everything and I know that I am too tired and frustrated to cope any more, I put him back to his bed in the room next to mine and let him scream loud enough to wake the dead from the safety of his bed.  He and I finally fell asleep about 6:30.  Everyone else in the house began waking up about 7:30. 

Waking up after a night like that.  After a week like this.  After a lifetime of dealing with never ending problems, I sympathize with those who have found themselves in similar positions and don’t have the support system or coping skills or knowledge to push through the pain and get through a problem without hurting their child.  It seems odd that I would feel that way about the people who hurt the children I take care of – but I empathize because I can see how it easy it would be for me to go completely over the edge and hurt another person.  There, but for the grace of God, go I.  Those words play over and over in my head. 

Don’t get me wrong.  I’m not condoning hurting your children or anyone else. And I’m not excusing it. I’m simply stating what other people might recognize but not admit.  We all have that innate capacity for evil and we are all selfish to some degree and those qualities, left unchecked and without God, can yield some horrific results. 

So, my child listened to a frustrated mom rather than the sweet voice of his caretaker soothing his apparent pain.  My child, who I’m pretty sure wasn’t intentionally trying to make me mad or hurt me, had to experience distance from me rather than a reassuring hug even when he was pushing me away.  My child, who deserves better, got me.  I'm still just a human.  I’m sorry.  I will try to do better tomorrow.

Sunday, May 27, 2012

Big Decisions. Huge Decisions. Super-size Decisions.

I’m standing in the shower semi- alone parenting from afar. I am diligently trying to organize my thoughts.  I know.  TMI.  But it’s one of the few places I can block out some of the distractions and try to think clearly.  I stand under the warm water a long time – between shouts to my 2-year-old asking him what he is doing – and reminders to my 3, 4 and 6- year-old that I just told them “No balls in the living room!”  (It’s amazing how much you can tell from the vibrations on the shower wall.) 

Anyway, I’m praying and trying to ask for clarity for a very important decision our family must make.  Do we grow again from super-size to unfathomable?  Are we willing to take the risks associated with taking in yet another older teen and her baby – knowing that her child’s father will also need to be integrated into the home at some level.  Knowing what I know.  Doing this as many times as I already have.  Recognizing that it takes many years of a committed relationship with both mom and child to transform lives.  Experiencing - first hand - that success (at least in worldly terms) is not guaranteed.

So, the questions remain:

Am I prepared to guide yet another young woman into her role as mother to her child – acting as part mom to the teen and part mom to the baby – instructing, teaching, leading and sometimes yelling, demanding and ordering?

Can I offer enough to everyone?   In the past three days I have driven 3 hours each direction to bring 3 of our kids to the wedding celebration of their biological aunt – so that they can continue their relationship with the members of their biological family who want and deserve to know these children.  Arriving home at midnight, I am awakened at 6:30 a.m. by a phone call from the biological sibling of two of our adopted children, asking me to rush to the hospital for her delivery.  This could have been exciting, BUT this day had been set-aside for the graduation party of my current high school senior.  The phone call disrupted the well-made plans and meant that everyone had to pitch in to clean and cook and get ready for the party so that I could stay at the hospital.  I left the hospital when she was 7 cm -- just in time to help my mother and older daughters find the necessary dishes, sweep the floors and clean up the children.  I never changed out of the clothes I threw on in a rush at 6:30 a.m.  I never got to put on make-up so that I wouldn’t look like a freak of nature in pictures with my daughter.  I never got to brush my teeth.  I was sweaty from the last minute rushing around. But I tried to stay fully focused on her celebration – enjoying the company.   I didn’t want to short-change the graduate by focusing on the baby that was likely being delivered while I was at the party.

As the last guests left the party, I grabbed a toothbrush and a clean shirt and raced out the door to return to the hospital – hoping I would make it in time for the baby.  I missed it by about 15 minutes.  I was okay with that, but I didn’t want to short-change my child in labor either.  I didn’t want her to feel less important than the graduating child.  All I could do was tell her that her baby “broke in line and he and I needed to have a long talk. “ He was due the next day and my plans depended on him coming on schedule.  He didn’t.  Which is the story of my life.

And then there is the question of the rest of the family.  How did they feel?  Many times.  In fact, most times, the question is really what “I” can handle as mom.  Unless my husband has a very strong indicator otherwise, he always defers to my saturation level.  If I can’t handle one more, then he certainly can’t do it.  Sometimes I tell him that I can’t do it without his help so I have to know that he fully agrees – even if he doesn’t always want to make the sacrifice.  But, in a few situations, circumstances demand that we involve the entire family in decision-making.  This is one of those times.  Because it is clear I am already overwhelmed.  It is clear I already have too much on my plate.  It is clear that I am only one person and that I can’t do this alone.  So I need to know whether they are willing to make the sacrifices necessary to make this work.  We hold a family meeting.

Two hours later, we have hashed out many of the issues.  We talked about the importance of the biological links to this child and her new baby.  We talked about the positives and negatives. We prayed together.  Tried to determine our likelihood of success.  Discussed balancing our mission as a family verses the needs of our kids to find their own path and do whatever it is God is calling them to individually.  We talked about how hard these choices are.  About how we need God to be direct and tell us what to do. 

And while these thoughts swirl in my head, I think about how I would persuade a judge that our family deserves a chance to offer this young mother and her new baby a chance to make up for past mistakes.  Lots of past mistakes.  How would I convince the welfare agency or the family court judge that in spite of our super-size nature, that we have nothing worldly to gain from this endeavor except the gratification of knowing that we were willing to try -- knowing that success is not inevitable.  How could I explain that we understand that this teen mom has the potential to disrupt the entire family – but that she isn’t the first person with that potential and we have survived thus far.

And then our 2011 Christmas picture came to mind.  It contains 20 people – which is most of our kids, some of their spouses, and most of the grandkids.  But when I start counting I realize that 10 people are still missing!  One was in Japan working Tsunami relief.  Two were on their honeymoon.  Two were in New Orleans. Three were at another family gathering. One can’t be seen because he wasn’t born yet and the last one passed away last year in a car accident.

And this image made me think about a few weeks ago when my husband and me took our three biological children to a wedding.  At about the same time, we all realized that it was one of the few times we had been in this particular combination in years.  We have been raising other people’s children for so long that it is rare for the original five of us to be separate from ALL the other kids.  It was remarkable enough that it lead to a “what if” conversation about how our lives would have been so different if we hadn’t accepted our mission.  Although we enjoyed that night together immensely, none of us wished that our lives had turned out differently.  We laughed at the possibilities.

And in the shower, under the warm water, while shouting to one of the big kids to check on all the little ones so I could think for just a few more minutes – I realized that our super-size family Christmas picture represented not just numbers, but lives that were different because we had been willing to take risks and sacrifices.  Because we had been willing to make a lifetime commitment, in spite of less than stellar conduct.  That if we had taken the easier road, we would have been able to fit our charming little family on a single greeting card – but we wouldn’t have had the honor of joining others through this journey called life. 

I still don’t have a clear answer.  But I know that it is worth it.  Even when I feel like a failure.

Post Script 1.
It keeps occurring to me that we can’t make any promises of success. And that isn’t very reassuring. Especially to lawyers and judges. And we have problems and issues much like the rest of the world – just condensed in time and space.  And while I can’t ensure that this teen mom will overcome all of her obstacles and successfully parent her child, I can say that we traditionally work through the issues in the context of our family and our community – not through the state welfare agency.  The state exists for those that cannot manage through their own support networks.  Our children are safe.  Our children are loved.  All of our children face many difficulties and challenges – even my biological children and the ones who came as newborns – but we are working together.  Helping each other.  Learning from each other.  Supporting each other. In the context of family.  And that is the way it should be.

Post Script 2.
We made our decision as a family.  It will be hard.  Very hard.  It will require sacrifices – including changing rooms – again.  It will require team work.  But we are willing to try to do it.  We are willing to take mother and baby.  Now lets see if we can convince the attorneys, social worker and the judge. Praying as I sit in court.

Post Script 3.
Mom and baby are home.  They are ours.  

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Live It. Don't Preach It. A tribute to my mom (and dad).

I adore my mom.  She is my hero.  She is my role model.  She is my friend.  My mom is all of the things that I want to be.  She birthed four children, fostered about 19 and adopted a special needs child when she was 50 years old. 

My mom is frugal, yet sophisticated.  She is simple and classic, yet modern and forward-thinking. She is patient beyond belief.  She is quiet and submissive, but opinionated and strong.  My mom is giving and dedicated and hardworking.

She is intelligent and knowledgeable and wise, yet she listens far more than she speaks.  She feels no need to express her own opinion unless it is requested or helpful. She can disappear into her role serving others and expect no reward.

She has cared for many medically fragile children – some of whom are now adults - giving a whole new meaning to the words “patient advocate.” She is a mama bear when her children are threatened or overlooked – and if you are part of a medical staff where she or anyone she knows is being treated – beware.  She will challenge your routines and thoughts and attitudes and you will be better because of it.

My mom is the least “religious” Proverbs 31 wife and mother I know.  She grew up a devout Catholic and went to Catholic schools through college, but she no longer attends church or participates in organized religion.  Yet, she is a strong woman of faith and a role model for countless people.  Including me - her oldest child.

Although I have actually managed to acquire many of her impressive qualities over the years, hers is packaged so much better than mine. I still have so far to go to reach her level.  Especially when it comes to keeping my mouth shut and my opinions to myself.  Apparently, I got more of my dad’s qualities in that category. 

But she raised me to be independent.  She nurtured my strengths – even when they weren’t her strengths.  She encouraged me not to be like her, but to be like me.  She provided opportunities, even when we had little money.  She didn’t push me to be anything in particular.  In fact, she didn’t push me at all.  She just lived and served and trained and disciplined and listened to me.  And she waited.

Not surprisingly, she raised 5 totally different children.  Our interests are different.  Our strengths and weaknesses are different.  Our personalities are miles apart. But we have a common thread and that connection is our passion. My mom raised children with an enduring passion to pursue whatever it is that motivates or interests them and to perform at a level higher than most. 

I became a lawyer.  Then a wife.  A mother.  A teacher.  A foster mom.  An adoptive mom.  And finally, a full-time mom to 19 children. In that order.

My younger sister became a nurse, birthed 8 children of her own and serves countless people as one of the most Godly women I know.  Her home is open to hundreds of people each week who seek her advice and counsel and friendship and food.  She endlessly serves others well into the night - every night - and is passionate about sharing whatever she has. Her personality is much more like my mom and I admire that in her.

As his protective oldest sister, my next younger brother was a nightmare for me while we were growing up.  He wasn’t so easy on my parents either.  But in spite of his poor grades and daring antics throughout most of his younger years, he pursued and attended the best universities.  Obtained a broad expanse of education – much of it self-taught – and traveled the world. After school, although he could have gone to work for our father in the business he started, in his early 20’s my brother started his own design business to gain a broader perspective before working for and then taking over the architectural firm my father started over 40 years ago. He serves the community and the world through his forward thinking ideas and he is as giving as my parents when it comes to the wealth he has acquired as a result of his ventures. He is hard and stern, yet giving and loving and willing. He has four incredible children and a super gorgeous and equally intelligent wife. 

My baby brother is one of the most honest, humble, giving, passionate men I know.  Like me, he had to work hard for all that he has accomplished and that has made him a better man as a result.  He too is passionate – about many many things.  But his passion extends beyond words to action.  He, like my parents and my other siblings, are the kind of people you want on your team whether things are going well or you are at rock bottom.  He has more friends and has built more relationships with all kinds of people than one can likely imagine.  He uses those relationships not to benefit himself, but to help others.  That is an amazing quality in a person.

And my baby sister - who was adopted when she was about 2-years-old and has significant special needs - is a confident, loving, brilliant, engaging, social butterfly who has garnered the attention and affection of thousands of people around the world.  She has been by my parents’ side almost non-stop for 24 years and in spite of what many might think of as her intellectual, emotional and physical limitations, my parents have ensured that she has had every opportunity available or imagined (usually by them) so that she, too, can develop her individual strengths and passions.

When I began this post, I hadn't quite nailed down the precise formula my parents used to raise such fiercely unique and independent children.  But ultimately, I think it is not what they said to us – because like many kids we probably would have ignored it. It is how they lived their lives.  They worked hard.  Served many.  Gave much.  Always thought outside the box.  Weren’t afraid to be different.  Weren’t afraid to ruffle feathers.  Weren’t afraid to be criticized.  They simply lived their passions and made sure that we had an opportunity to live ours.  When all is said and done, I think that is a fairly good formula for raising children.  Live it.  Don’t preach it.  And when they are old, they will not depart from it.

Thanks mom (and dad).  I love you.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

I Think I'm Expecting Too Much from a Hallmark Holiday

When people hear that I have 19 children, 16 of whom are adopted, I usually hear two things right away.  “Wow, you must be soooo patient.”  And, my personal favorite, “You must really LOVE children.”

I was recently interviewed for a mother’s day article in a local paper.  That particular morning was exceptionally rough as I tried to get 11 kids ready and out the door by 8 am so that I could deliver them to their appropriate spots for the morning.  All so that I could have an uninterrupted interview with this reporter who had heard about me from a mutual friend and thought our story would be wonderful for the May issue.  Poor woman.  I tried to warn her.  Really, I did.

Well, she innocently started the interview with the above two infamous statements and my moodiness that morning couldn’t be hidden.  “I’m the most impatient person I know. And no, I don’t particularly love children.”  The stunned look on her face said it all.  Perhaps she had accidentally mixed up her interview appointments with the Halloween horror stories issue.

I continued.  “Really, some people simply adore children and everything about them.  They love teaching and nurturing and watching them grow and develop. They are completely selfless (or co-dependent) and their identity is wrapped up in their role as mother to their children.  I don’t think that I am that kind of mother. I have desires and interests and passions separate from my children. Don’t get me wrong, I want my kids to grow and develop.  And nurturing is required in the job description.  But anyone who has actually raised children knows that most of our time is spent changing diapers, feeding, clothing, disciplining, chauffeuring, cleaning, teaching, training, consoling, entertaining and losing sleep.  While none of these duties is terrible in and of itself, it takes a strong (or dishonest) woman to say that she actually likes that she is required to do all these things every single day without a break even when she is totally exhausted, needs time to herself, wants to pursue other interests, feels deathly ill or wishes she could disappear.  And all this while trying to meet the needs of her husband and for many, a job or career as well.” And the truth is, all of this is true whether you have one child or twenty. 

I can’t believe that I am 49-years-old and that I have been mothering for 22 years.  With 19 kids ranging in age from 1 to 30-years-old, it amazes me that I am still capable of even attempting to mother.  It is the most draining job imaginable and it requires stamina, patience and endurance beyond what any sane person could call reasonable.  Every time I think that I am finally through with diapers or potty training or home schooling or college educations or holidays or birthdays or weddings, I have another child - or another one reaches that milestone - and I have to do it all again!

I think my first memories of Mother’s Day were fairly traditional.  I received multiple versions of my children’s handprints on artwork. I discovered that my pre-school aged young children thought that I yelled a lot, that my favorite thing to do was take a nap, and that I was 20-years-old, 72 feet tall and had pink hair.  I dutifully and proudly attended the Mother’s Day programs offered at pre-school and watched my adorable children sing songs and recite poems and present me with various tokens of their affection.  And my husband made (and still makes) an attempt to remember that it is, in fact, the one day of the year in which I am supposed to be the center of attention – but not for the usual reasons related to my seemingly endless ability to care for them at will.  (Their will.  Not mine.) I’m not much for gifts, but I usually receive a gift certificate for a manicure or pedicure or massage.  All of which is greatly appreciated.  But it is not quite the same as freedom from responsibility.

That’s because Mother’s Day doesn’t change the fact that there are children and a husband who are hungry, who need diapers and clothes, who fight and whine, and who make incomprehensible demands on my weary soul.  Okay.  My husband isn’t quite in diapers anymore.  But you get the point.  The children have not yet learned that Mother’s Day was designed to be a celebration of mothers. And for most moms I know that implies a day off from the regular duties of motherhood.  A day when fathers, or the children themselves, step up and miraculously take over all the responsibilities that usually fall to mom.  And then there are cards and gifts and flowers and meals prepared and cleaned by someone else.  And sweet notes from our husbands remind us that we are not only the sole object of his passion, love, affection and desire, but that he thinks that we are a wonderful mother to his children.

However, after 22 years I can safely say that this revelation does not occur to any child until such time as they sit beside me on Mother’s Day and commiserate with me as a fellow mom (or mother figure) suffering the inevitable disappointment of finding out that our responsibilities and our life goes on as usual.

This is not meant to be a criticism of those who have tried to make my day special; rather, it is a revelation that what I really want is a fantasy that no human can actually fulfill.

Motherhood, like marriage, is really a story of a selfless commitment and dedication.  I can’t say that it is a genuine love for the duties my roles require.  If I am truthful – and I am much of the time - I would much prefer to be alone.  Reading.  Writing.  Thinking.  Cooking because I want to, not because I must.  Pursuing new interests.  Learning.

But like some of the older woman who came before me in this journey, I’ve learned that if I expect all of the appreciation and love for me to be shown on one perfect day each year, then I am missing the point and losing so much more.  Motherhood isn’t about THIS day.  It is about the perseverance of every day.  Of enjoying the process and taking the seconds of joy that come every once in a while and stretching that to cover for as long as it is needed to sustain me. 

I do love being a mother.  And I love all of my children.  I just can’t say that I am a mother to so many because “I really love children.”  And ask my husband or any of my children and they will convince you that “patient” is nowhere on the list of adjectives that describe me.