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

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Foster Care: 53 Kids and Counting….

Foster Care: 53 children and counting….
By Anna Giattina Lee

In honor of National Foster Care Month...

Brave is such a powerful word.  It’s right up there with saint and courageous. Innocent people seem to think it is a compliment to use such words to describe our super-sized family.  Truthfully, it just makes me very uncomfortable. 

Okay.  I understand that most sane people don’t spend all the time, energy, and money to become an attorney, and then earn a Masters in Secondary Education, only to leave the professional world and the accompanying salary to foster and adopt a total of 53 children and counting.

Most men I know aren’t willing to give up most of their favorite things to become the sole provider, working hard to support a mega family created because we willingly choose to raise children born into other families.

I am even willing to acknowledge that as parents to three biological children and 18 that are legally ours - my husband and I are in the minority, both literally and figuratively. If it weren’t for the recent wave of reality shows about large families, not many could imagine what it would be like to live in our unique family.  Even fewer could picture themselves as parents in an interracial family with some kids that come and go and others that are permanent.

I can even force myself to concede that living in a home with 8 bedrooms, 4 refrigerators, 2 washers/dryers, 5 freezers, a semi that delivers frozen food to our home, 100+ dishrags, 7 kids under the age of 8, and a load of hormonal teens and young adults is a little extreme.
But none of that makes us special.  Crazy perhaps.  But not special. 

Seventeen years ago, my husband and I recognized a need and made a choice to commit to changing the future one child at a time. We never planned to raise quite this many children.  In fact, we started slowly back in 1995 as a respite home, offering a place for a 13-year-old girl to spend summers and holidays with our family instead of the group home where she lived.

By 2000, when we went from five to nine children in less than six months, every person who knew us thought we were certifiably insane.  Even our pastor, who has since eaten his words and now remembers when we only had nine girls, declared that we should not try to raise that many children.

At the time, I was still practicing law and my husband had his own CPA firm. We had become pregnant on our honeymoon and had three girls by our fourth wedding anniversary, so it certainly wasn’t a fertility issue. We had no desire to get into the Guinness Book of World Records.  We weren’t contemplating a television deal with TLC. We really had no motive, other than keeping siblings together whenever possible and to honor our faith by answering the call on our lives. 

We are intelligent, educated people.  At least our degrees say that.  We know that the numbers don’t make sense.  Financially or otherwise.  But we try hard not to think too much and just follow the need wherever it is.

We literally met the first teen we adopted on our fifth wedding anniversary while she was on a group outing in a state park.  That seemingly chance meeting was the beginning of our adventure, because it was the moment that my husband realized he could love a child that was not biologically his own.

Our second adopted child is a wild, exciting and heartrending story all by herself.  By the time she was six-years-old, she who had already been placed in six different homes.  When we heard about her, her adoptive placement was disrupting because of her psychological assessment and she needed a new family immediately.  There was never a question that she was our child, but every day was hard for all of us.  Tragically, our daughter was killed in a single car accident while texting and speeding, exactly 12 years to the day after we met and chose to adopt her.

Our third child’s attorney had met us at a foster parent training session. We were the only couple that expressed a willingness to foster and adopt a teenager.  Less than a week later, when one of the kids on her caseload suddenly needed a permanent placement, she called us to take a thirteen-year-old girl.  
Without much thought, only an awareness of need, she became ours.

Within a few months, we were asked to foster our next three children for the weekend while the State waited on three separate placements to open up for the sisters. We couldn’t bear the thought of traumatizing the girls even more by splitting them up.  Thirteen years later, we can safely say that this has been the longest weekend in our lives!

And the stories number all the way to 53 kids and counting….

Even now, many mornings we wake up wondering how we can possibly meet all of the varying needs of our children on a budget that is half of what it used to be and with sanity that is quickly waning. On good days, we rest in our faith.  On bad days, we try to do it all by ourselves.

Our peers are well into planning the details of their retirement and we have no idea  how many more children might come through our home before we die.  We just take each day as it comes.

So why do I hate the thought of being called a saint, or brave or courageous? 

It’s fairly simple.  There are well over 100,000 kids in the United States who need to be adopted.  There are approximately a half-million children in foster care at any given time.  And there are far too few people who are willing to foster and adopt these children. 
Perhaps it is because they fear that they are not equipped to handle kids with physical, mental and spiritual issues that can seem overwhelming. Or, when they see people like us –  who stand out because we are on the extreme edges of what seems possible – they think that fostering or adopting just one or two children would be insignificant.  Of course, that is not true.

And therein lies the problem.  If what we do is labeled special.  If a person can put us on a pedestal and make it seem like caring for children in need of family is brave or noble or sacrificial.  If others think that we must be more patient or wealthy or giving than they are. If people are convinced that the life they imagine for themselves can’t happen if they bring others into it. If they believe these things, then it is easy to trick themselves into believing that they can’t possibly be the ones to step into the role of foster or adoptive parent. And that makes me sad.

Don’t get me wrong.  What we do is hard.  Sometimes really hard.  There have been countless times when I hate being responsible for so many lives. Other times, I cherish the privilege of that responsibility.   

Sometimes, I feel like no one could be more impatient or militant or less nurturing than I can be.  Other times, I conclude that I must be the most patient person in the world because I haven’t actually hurt any of my children and God knows I’ve wanted to put one of us out of our misery on more than one occasion. 

But brave is a word I reserve for others.  Like my children – some of whom have been neglected, beaten, raped and abused and who choose every day to overcome their past. 

And my children who were neglected or feel abandoned by their families and who struggle to accept our love and find their special place in our family. 

Or my birth children, who have shared their parents and walked alongside the struggles of their adopted and foster siblings without complaint since they were pre-schoolers.

Brave describes my children who grew up in poverty and who could barely read or write by middle school, but who worked hard and managed to graduate high school and even attend college with some scholarships. 

Brave is a perfect word to describe my adult children of addicted parents, who are ensuring that their children are not forced to endure the uncertainty of that life. 

These are the people for whom I reserve the descriptions brave and noble and courageous. 

Because admittedly, although this life we chose is not always nice and pretty and happy by the world’s standards, my husband and I gain far more than we sacrifice.  Our lives have meaning and purpose.  

And if that makes us brave, then so be it. 

But I still don’t like that word.

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

When Life is Complicated: 5 Rules for the Proper Use of Curse Words

When Life is Complicated:  
5 Rules for the Proper Use of Curse Words
By Anna Giattina Lee

Trigger Warning:  Some bad words were used in the writing of this article, but none were harmed.

When my kids hear another kid say a bad word they always shout, “Mooooom, so and so said the “B” word!”  For the record, every bad word is a “B” word.  I usually don’t know what word is actually spoken, but I’m sorry to say that anything from the mundane to the horrific is possible. 

Sometimes.  Okay, more than sometimes.  Bad words loosely fly around our house like dust bunnies when I turn on the fan. It could be anything from brat to shut up to what is referred to in semi-polite society as the f-bomb! 

It’s not usually worth a diagnosis.  I just shout back, “Whoever you are, saying whatever you are not supposed to say, stop now!”
I wish I could say I was a better example.  That none of these words ever spill from my mouth or the mouths of any of my older children.  But that would be a lie.
Let me clarify right from the start.  The little ones are not “allowed” to use these words.  Ever. The fact that it gets them into trouble with the teachers and the parents of their friends is only partly the reason we frown on the use of bad words.
However, in the lives of some of my profoundly traumatized children, and those of us who are on the journey with them, these words spill out at times.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again.  I’m not proud.  But so far, it is the only coping mechanism I have found that allows some of us to release some of the pent up screams and frustration we feel. It is especially useful for my kids when physical violence has been the go-to method of releasing that pent up rage. It helps me when I am so crazed that I feel like slamming someone up against the wall, which I must admit is a feeling that has passed through me on far more occasions than I care to count.  (But no, I’ve never actually done it.  I say this to illustrate just how strongly I feel the emotion at that moment.)

I’ve never read this in any professional material, nor have I been trained in the use of curse words as a therapeutic tool, but in my crazy little world, I have found it to be quite effective when used properly.

I know. I know.  Some bright person is going to recognize that this is an oxymoron in civilized society.  Proper use and curse words don’t belong in the same sentence.

Moreover, for my Jesus following friends, I apologize that I haven’t fully fleshed this out from a biblical perspective.  I understand that we are not to take the Lord’s name in vain, nor are we to be quick to anger, and God gives us lots of instructions on the use of words.  And to the extent that any words directly dishonor the Lord’s name, are directed AT a person rather than to them, or are spoken in anger that is unjustified and impatient, I totally agree that they can NEVER be used properly, even by my loose definition.

But there is some gray area in between.  Some area that comprehends the value of words and the nuances that make them so powerful.

In our family, bad words are not made to throw at someone, but to reveal the depth of passion, feeling or attitude needing to be expressed in a way that nothing else does quite as effectively.

So, here are my 5 Basic Rules for the use of curse words and other politically incorrect language:

1.  Curse words and bad words do not belong in your everyday language.  They are a special tool that is useful only when used sparingly, knowingly, and intentionally to make a very specific point. Overuse negates the   effectiveness and power of any word.

2.  Know your audience.  If you choose to use bad words in front of someone who doesn’t follow this kind of philosophy, there will be consequences. Teachers might inadvertently label you the “bad kid.”  Your friends who are more sensitive might be offended.  You might hurt someone’s feelings.  Your friend’s parents might not want you to play with their child.

3.  Cursing is ONLY permitted when there is no other acceptable word or safe action that will be as effective as the curse word will be.  The truth is, cursing sometimes has the same affect on our brains as physical actions.  If the choice is to hall off and punch a guy, or scream at the top of your lungs, “I’m so effin pissed.”  Choose the screaming cuss words. 

4.  Do not use words to call someone names, as in “I know what I’m doing, idiot,” or “You are stupid.”  However, in the right context it is proper to say, “You are acting like an idiot. You have a bitchy attitude right now and it is not helping your case.”

5.  The word must generate the emotion or feeling that the word intends to incite. And by intend, I don’t mean that you are using the word to hurt someone just for the sake of hurting them.

And one more that should be a rule, but isn’t official.

6.  If mamma uses the “f” word, you better run and hide.  She reserves that word for when there is nothing else for her to do.  “She is as mad as she gets.  Her next choice is murder.  Run.  Fast.”

Allow me to illustrate, I have been known to use the “S” word - more commonly known as shut up. I used it long before it was politically incorrect because it might harm the poor fragile psyche of our delicate children who should never be told “no” and who deserve only our best all the time.  I think that is crap!

When I say shut up, I’m not saying, “Sweetie, could you hush?” or, “It is my turn to talk and I need you to listen.”

I’m not thinking, “I need you to be quiet for a few minutes.” 

I mean, “I’m sick of listening to you nag and whine and complain, so keep your comments to yourself and don’t talk to me another second.”

I intend to convey, “You are lying to me and you better be quiet before any more stupid spills out of your mouth.  I will not listen to what you feel you must to say to me at this very moment.  Stop talking and think before you speak.  Until then, I’m going to ignore you and I expect you to stop talking this instant.”

I am thinking, “If you call your brother a loser one more time, I’m going to explode.  When you try to justify it to me, all I can think is that there is NO justification.  So stop talking.  Period.  Nothing you can say will help your case.”

When I say shut up,  I mean just that.  I want to convey all the negative that the word connotes.  If I don’t want to convey that, then I will use another word, like “be quiet please,” or “hush,” or “shhh.” 

Sometimes the word shoots out faster than I can stop myself. Like when I hurt myself, when I step on a lego with bare feet, or I break my humorous while trying to hang a shower curtain, or when I jam my toe into the brick wall by accident, I can almost certainly be caught using the other not so nice “sh*#” word!  It happens so fast and so automatically, I rarely have a chance to shut my mouth! 

Frequently, curse words are an expletive used as an adjective to amplify the meaning of a noun or a pronoun.  Like when I have a deadline and the computer locks up on me for the 50th time and I can’t get the printer to work and I say, “I hate the damn computer.” That’s almost a violation of Rules 3 and 4, but not quite.  I really do hate the damn computer at that moment. And it isn’t harmed by my expression.

In a far more serious conversation with one of my teens who is struggling to put the pieces of their traumatized life together, it might come out through wails and crying like this, “Why is my life so *&?*!* hard.”

Even when directed at me personally, when one of my kids is in a rage that is hard but necessary as a part of healing, I would never reprimand the child for using any bad word in the book – even repeatedly.  In this case, the child knows his audience and is using the words properly.  And we have both found it to be extremely therapeutic. 

I could give many more examples, but suffice it to say that in our unusual family, we use whatever tools that work to relieve the intense pain that we all endure while engaging in life together in sometimes impossible circumstances. 

I am well aware that some people will be shocked by this revelation of my thoughts because I try to know my audience and respect those that I’m talking to.  But others, who have benefitted from my philosophy – especially my kids and some of the ones that I counsel who have no perceived place to vent– are equally thrilled that I have adopted this philosophy.

Consider yourself warned!