A Climbing Wall: The Art of Parenting

“I need you to check in with me,” I said to the 9-year-old as he placed his foot on a ledge on the climbing wall. “I am what keeps you alive.”

In the boys’ endless quests for adventure, the climbing wall at the gymnastics facility was their next journey. There was fun and challenge to be had on the walls and in the attempt to swing up into a little “cave,” but the greatest fun was to descend into the pit, hook up to a harness, and scale the wall. My job was to belay them. My job was to keep them safe, to keep them alive.

This was a new adventure for me as well. I had no experience in belaying and it’s been way too long since I’ve tied any knots in Girl Scouting (“Form a guy, give him a tie, poke him in the eye.” – viola! – a figure-8 knot). I realized as a stood back, craning my neck, watching my fearless boy climb straight up that there was a great deal of learning happening in a short period of time.

Mr. Ornery was learning strategy of placement of hands and legs. With encouragement from the two men who climb each week, he was learning to focus on his legs to push him up higher. He was also learning to listen to others (even if he had just met them) who had more experience and thus could give him some guidance. If he could reflect deep enough, he was learning to respect his elders.

He was also learning to trust himself and develop confidence. The first couple times, the wall with an overhanging cliff loomed against his skill. Several attempts later, he fought to keep his toes in the footholds and extend his arms high enough to get the next rock. Scrambling over the edge, he shot to the top to ring the bell and joyously called out, “I did it.”

He was learning to trust his mother. “You sure you got me?” he’s asked several times as he reaches far up to the top. He knows he’s high enough that a fall would be devastating. He knows he’s connected to a rope, but he’s not so sure that rope is secure. He knows the rope is connected to me, but he’s not so sure this system is going to work. So, I remind him that he’s safe. I remind him that his mom has him. I remind him that he checked in with me at the start so that we’re in this together – he’s ready to explore, I’m ready to catch. Just as he used to walk off as a toddler and then circle back to check that I was still there, now as an adventurous third-grader, I’m still there. I’ve got his back in this life.

As I hold the rope, I contemplate this parent stuff. I’m responsible for keeping my kids safe, but also for encouraging them to try new things. Before clicking onto the rope, we review the knots together so that my kid thinks of safety first (helmets, seat belts, paying attention – whatever it is, safety matters). Before giving advice about the next possible step, I hang back as much as I can and let him struggle for a bit. Of course, I have an answer for him because I have a different vantage point (I’m not on the wall and I’ve already had a lot of experiences in life), but some of this he needs to wrestle with and I need to hold my tongue.

I am also reminded that part of what makes this parenting gig tough is that I don’t always have all the answers and new things (like belaying) come at me all the time. The great thing is that there are others, more experienced climbers, who can provide help – check the knots, teach me to hang the rope up at the end, provide soft encouragement. And there are more experienced parents who can give advice and share wisdom and provide soft encouragement when the going gets rough. There’s no way I could do this without them (and I’m looking for them as we approach the teen years!).

So, I’m learning to say “Go for it.” I’m learning to coach my kids just a little but hang back as much as I can so that they can figure it out. I’m learning to let others mentor and teach them skill sets that I don’t have. I’m learning to support but not hover. I’m learning to figure out what makes each boy tick and what they need on their journey. I’m learning the outward expression of the love withing.

Before you venture forth, my dear sons, check in with Mom.

And I will say, “Climb on.”

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Rescuing our kids with a secret “Extraction Code”

I would not consider myself to be a Helicopter Parent. In fact, unless you awaken Mama Bear, I’m probably more like Mama Bird – “here, honey, let me give you a little boot out of this little ol’ nest and see if you fly. Come on, kid, FLY!  Huh….”

I do, however, spend a lot of time contemplating the shift to a digital connected world, its affects on social interactions, and the very real dangers associated with the vast anonymous internet. My kids are not yet digital. Other than school, relatives and babysitters, my boys are rarely apart from me, so I haven’t felt the need to equip them with digital devices. That is all about to change as the oldest continues to push into more independence.

The past few weeks, as an Internal Medicine-Pediatric physician (trained to care for kids and adults), I have filled in more on the pediatric side of the medical office. And when sitting with 11-year-olds and 14-year-olds and even 17-year-olds, I’ve found myself giving each of them (and their parents) a little bit of advice.

To the kid:

That cell phone you have in your pocket is a very important and potentially very dangerous device. You can get reach out to friends, family, and a whole host of people, which is really awesome. But you can also get yourself into deep trouble with that phone by texting or talking to the wrong people or putting up photos or a whole bunch of things. But, the reason your parents got you that phone in the first place is most likely they wanted to keep you safe so that you could call them whenever you needed.

What you need to do – tonight – is sit down and talk with your parents about your “secret code.” Your secret code is a short phrase, known only to your family, which tells mom or dad that you need them absolutely positively NOW!!

For example, you might text your mom with the sentence, “Gosh, I sure am hungry for pepperoni pizza.” The minute your mom reads that sentence, she will stop everything she is doing (and I mean everything), jump in her car and drive immediately to where you are. She will make up some really stupid crazy parent excuse for why she has come to pick you up. “Dear, the cat is sick and we need to take her to the vet now. I’m so sorry, but I need you to come along.” (Don’t have a cat – make it your sister….but not to the vet….maybe to the doctor!). Then you will roll your eyes, text your friend “my mom is nuts!” and get in the car.

You see, I can tell you’re a smart kid. But every single smart kid at times in their lives gets into uncomfortable or bad or stupid situations. Maybe you’re visiting a friend and maybe another person comes over too. And maybe this other person starts to do something that you just don’t want to get into. Maybe it’s making prank calls. Maybe it’s lighting up a cigarette. It could be anything. If you find yourself in any uncomfortable situation, you pull out your phone and text your “secret code.” Your parent will read it and come. Right then. Your friends will read it and say, “Dude! That’s stupid. Are you really hungry? You want pizza?” And your parent is already in the car and on their way.

To the parent:

Now, we all know the reason you got the phone is so your most precious Jenny or Johnny fits in with the social crowd….well, and because you want to know she/he is safe and because it helps with managing our crazy busy lives and schedules.

You also know that the phone can be a very dangerous possession and I’m sure you’ve already talked with your son or daughter about the dangers. I’m also sure that you randomly confiscate the device and check all the texts, Snapchats, Instagram and whatever other apps and accounts.

What you will do – tonight – is sit down with your kid and develop a “secret extraction code.” (see above) And you will, at the moment that code comes in, drop everything you are doing (and I mean everything – your meeting, your treadmill run, your quick errand at the grocery store, your nice warm cozy bed) and you will turn on your tracking device, see where your kid is, jump in your car and drive over there.

The whole way your heart will be pounding in your ears and you will be scared about what you are about to walk in on, but you will take deep breaths and think of your stupid extraction excuse. “I’m so sorry, Johnny, but your little brother is sick and I need you home now.” And you will promise yourself over and over that these are the only words you’re allowed to say when you see Johnny.

In fact, you’re not even allowed to talk to Johnny when he jumps into the car. You’re not allowed to say a word except “I love you” until he begins to talk. And if he doesn’t talk for minutes or hours or even until the next day, the only thing you can say is “I love you. I am always here for you.”

Johnny needs to know that you’ve got his back. Johnny needs to know that no matter what, you are there for him. Johnny needs to know that you love him so much that no matter what he was doing, no matter what his friends were doing, no matter what – you will keep him safe.

Every parent has looked at me and nodded their head. They know. Deep down we all know the world can be a scary place. We all pray that our kids will make good choices and will never need their extraction code. But we also need our kids to know how to call for help in a way that doesn’t jeopardize their safety, that doesn’t embarrass them in front of their peers, and that doesn’t put the blame on them.

Our kids need to know that we love them so much that we will do whatever it takes to keep them physically, emotionally, mentally safe. No matter what. Mama Bear/Papa Bear will be there.

What’s your extraction code?

The Most Important Day for an Adoptive Parent

Nate cake

Mr. Ornery’s whale picture turned into his birthday cake

It has been a week of celebration. The anniversary of Mr. Ornery’s adoption was on Tuesday and his birthday was on Thursday with a party on Saturday. Super Tall Guy was adopted seven years ago on Friday. And The Little Guy’s “Adoption Day” was on February 12th. These are all big milestones in the lives of these boys. Not ones that they really understand yet, but ones that they currently look forward to solely by virtue of the fact that there are “gifts” involved! And that, as we all know, is really the key way to celebrate a momentous occasion!

But to me, the real “celebration” day was yesterday, two days after Mr. Ornery’s birthday. It was on that day seven years ago that my sister received a call from the foster agency that Super Tall Guy had a younger brother who needed a home and would we be available to get to the hospital in 15 minutes to pick him up?

You see, that’s how life functioned in the world of foster parenting. The phone was always nearby in case there was a call. And if we didn’t answer or weren’t available for a child, the next family was called. Some people have eight months or more to prepare for a child. We responded to a phone call, went out and bought diapers and formula, and spent the next few months without sleep at night. Life was chaotic, but exciting and good.

Yesterday, I quietly honored the day I met Mr. Ornery. That’s his birthday to me. That’s the day I looked into his small eyes and stroked his soft skin and said “hello.” That’s the day I lifted him into my arms and breathed in the secret baby smell. That’s the day I introduced him to his older brother and said, “Look who just arrived.” That’s the day my heart jumped and the journey began. The wait. The stress. The worry that he wouldn’t stay with us, that a biological family member might claim him. The long nights and the never-knowing. The ache to claim him as my son and the reluctance to grab onto that hope.

Yet for this child, the family court judge was realistic. She had seen this too many times. She offered birth mom her chance and when she didn’t respond at all, the judge moved the process along so fast that the Adoption Day happened two days before his first birthday!

And on that day, I welcomed my second son a second time.

You see, there are Birthdays and Adoption Days and in foster parenting there are “Change of Goal” days and “Termination of Parental Rights” days, but really in the life of an adoptive parent, the important ones are the “I just met you” Days. That’s where the story begins.

I am so glad to have met you, Mr. Ornery.

Thank you for becoming my little boy.

 

Helping boys understand adoption….with a puppy!

“Five minutes, Mom. Only five minutes,” Super Tall Guy barked as we pulled into the parking lot. “I want to go home.” We had left ice hockey a few minutes early where he had spent the time playing on my cellphone, so it’s not like it had been a rough hour. But Super Tall sure wasn’t interested in a stop before we got home, especially when I was vague about “meeting someone for a minute.”

When I held up a tiny 4 pound puppy to the car window, Mitsy2eager squeals of delight erupted. I handed in one puppy and then another. National Adoption Day. In honor of my three adopted brothers, we brought home from a shelter two sister Cavadoodles. It probably would have been more peaceful for my life if that mother had had three girls in her litter, but we’ll just continue to work on “taking turns” and “being patient” and “sharing;” great skills that the boys rarely like to practice.

There’s something so sweet about bringing a little puppy into your life. The pooping on the floor is not so sweet, but the snuggling into your lap and bouncing along behind your feet as you move from room to room can’t be beat. It’s also sweet to watch the boys pick up little Mitsy and tuck into a blanket on the couch, slipping deep into the warmth and rhythm of a sleeping animal. They don’t know it yet, but they are forming a bond with this little lovebug that’s going to change their life. They are experiencing peace and joy and unconditional love. They are accepting a bit more responsibility, altering to a new schedule, sharing their “lovey” with neighbors and cousins, and making a loyal friend. They will likely never reflect on or recognize all these “gifts” that a pet brings (until they sit on a couch as a parent and write about adopting a pet), but they will feel it and that’s what’s important.

I’m hoping that adopting a little puppy and opening our heart and our home to a new life will also help the rough and tumble boys understand a bit more about their own adoption. That they might understand that a woman gave birth to them but was not able to continue to take care of them. That another woman accepted them into her arms and her world eagerly even though it meant big changes in her life. That they are loved beyond measure even when they poop in the house or don’t put the toilet seat up. That they started life in a “shelter” situation, but they can live and grow and flourish in this home with their siblings knowing that they will always be loved and welcomed. That a mother is a mother is a mother and a son is a son is a son. The bond we have will not be broken. Love remains forever, for always and no matter what. That’s what adoption means.

Of course, since I so clearly have failed at house-training three rambunctious boys, I have no idea why I think I’ll do any better with a teeny tiny fluffy dog. But, hey, we still have years and years to work on this!

 

IPOY

We watched fireworks last night for July 4th and I was disappointed to see someone’s private drone right there in the middle of the flashes. As we tried to enjoy the beauty of the sparkles and the colors, there was a small green line hovering in and out of the exploding bursts. Distracting, to say the least, but mostly I was annoyed that one individual had the gall to put an object in the air and detract from the viewing pleasures of thousands of spectators. Examples flooded my mind of so many times that I’ve seen one person think solely of themselves to the detriment of others.

Sometimes it feels like there’s a palpable shift towards more and more people thinking

www.wpxi.com (photo credit)

http://www.wpxi.com (photo credit)

only themselves, yet, tonight as I watched the USA Women’s Soccer team come together as champions, I think of their sacrifice of time and effort and I’m reminded of so many people I know who continue to lift others up. In the immortal words of Fred Rogers, I’m Proud Of You (IPOY).

IPOY, my friend, for flying your three boys to Vancouver so they might witness that historic moment as the USA women won their third World Cup title. You have given your sons a memory they will cherish for a lifetime.

IPOY, my friend, that despite a recent divorce, you intentionally try to make sure your 5-year-old daughter has many magical and fun “first” moments with her father. You know how important it is for her to continue and cement a bond with him.

IPOY, my sister, that while already parenting two children adopted from foster care, you are opening your heart and your home to another boy so that he may never again feel abandoned or unloved. You risk heartache and tears so that he might see your unconditional love and heal.

IPOY, my friend, for not worrying about the possible stigma of a medical condition, but seeking help and treatment for a recent illness so that you might be whole again for your children and family. You have shown strength and courage.

IPOY, my friend, for persevering along each goal from medical assistant to nurse to nurse practitioner while parenting two amazing children on your own and serving the community in so many ways. You teach us to seek our dreams and never give up.

IPOY, dear preschool teacher at Disneyland, for willingly reaching out to touch a complete stranger and speak a word of encouragement to a mother in the journey of parenting “challenging” children. You remind us that we are in this together.

IPOY, my “friends” in a social media group, for your daily sacrifice of time with your own family to provide medical care for other people’s family. You gracefully juggle the demands of parenting and doctoring with poise and aplomb.

IPOY, my parents, for sticking with each other through thick and thin for 50 YEARS (this Friday) and for modeling faith and hope and love to your family and to the world around you. You are an inspiration and a gift to many.

It is easy to get bogged “down” and see all the hurt and the pain in the world, but there is actually so much joy and beauty in every day and in each other. Lest we forget this, take a moment today to send someone you admire an IPOY – by text, by Twitter, by Facebook, by phone (what? talk to someone?)….heck, hug someone today and say,

I’m mighty darn Proud Of You!!

IPOY4

Celebrating the family ….in a long over-due reunion

An airline flight of five hours is not ideal travel conditions for five boys ages 4-9. Nor is a 3-hour time difference conducive to productive sleep thus yielding subsequent emotional dysregulation. There was great dread and very little interest in my soul last week as I packed for the trip to California to visit relatives. The fear and nervousness dissipated with the first hug.

IdyllwildIt was the first family reunion in 18 years. The first time family gathered except for patriarch funeral and then matriarch funeral and then the eldest son’s funeral and then a few family members together for a wedding last fall where the idea of the family reunion germinated.

family 1

Awesome uncle encouraging The Little Guy to join in the soccer game.

Finally, fifty people including 24 children, gathered at a mountain resort. We adults were practically giving each other high-fives to not have to hear, “Look how much you’ve grown. Gosh, how big you are now.” Yes, it’s good to be on the other side of that. We got to hug and talk and laugh and introduce our children around. Social media has helped bridge the distance, but nothing is as strong as a warm hug.

Funny how it took a day to start to get to know each other. “Hi, and you are?” Despite my dislike of the custom, almost all conversations started with “And what do you do?” as we sought to establish some understanding. The kids, on the other hand, had no trouble at all. The girls held hands and skipped along like best friends within hours. The boys climbed rocks, battled with stick swords and chased each other round. There were crafts generously donated and coordinated by a great aunt and such laughter and joy. There were meals together and games and hikes. There were slide shows of old and new photos of the family, generating so many memories of prior times and prior clothing and hair styles!

And, there was also a delightful viral illness which knocked out Super Tall Guy, three cousins and one significant other. There’s nothing so glamorous as cleaning up vomit and diarrhea in a log cabin and longing for gloves and Lysol. My 31-year-old outdoor adventure cousin was the hardest hit and eventually left for IV fluids at the closest ER. Despite the miserable day he had spent in bed with constant fluid loss, he left with a smile and remarked, “In some ways, I don’t mind that I got sick. It showed me the amazing power of the family I have.”

family 2

Plastic cups labeled and washed for reuse! No waste here!

Yes, it is a tremendous amount of work and money to take the kids to the other side of the United States. Yet it is so important to me that my boys know in their very soul that throughout this large country, there are people out there who love them….just because they are family. They have joined this family through a court decree; yet, they have been welcomed with loving arms and open hearts. For that, I will be forever grateful. For each and everyone of my great big family is unique and wonderful and loving.

On our second night together, as The Little Guy had drifted off to sleep and Super Tall Guy’s eyes were softly fluttering, my brother opened the door to our cabin. “Everyone’s on the step for a family photo.” “Now?” I grumbled in disgust. “You’re kidding!”  Knowing that we had talked about it all day and never done it, I was frustrated that it was happening “late” at night. Yet, with furrowed brow and glaring eyes, I woke the boys, got them dressed and ran to the steps in time to set the timer on the camera. It flashed three times and we trudged back to the cabin. My cousin’s hug soothed me and I knew it was the right thing to do, but I teared up when Super Tall Guy lay down to sleep again and whispered, “I can’t wait to show that photo to my kids.”

Full circle.

Family.

 

We honor each other.

We love each other.

We work to continue to connect with each other.

Despite the trials and the difficulties of gathering.

Despite our differences and inconveniences.

 

If not for us….it is for our children.

For they must know that they are worthy and that they are loved.

They must know the strength of the bond that ties us.

We must give them family.

 

Family who will be there when you are sick and vomiting.

Family who will be there in the good times and the bad.

Family who will be there on the other side of the photo.

 

For someday our children will share us with their own family.

From one generation to the next

Love will endure.

family 3

The family also celebrated my parents’ 50th anniversary! They bear witness to love and family.

Ten reasons why foster parenting is so hard

  1. You just have no idea when your phone is going to ring and a caseworker is going to ask if you’d like to take on a kid. Sometimes you’re just waiting and waiting eagerly. Sometimes you’re crossing your fingers saying “I’ve got three right now, I’m feeling a bit busy, thank you, but….” And sometimes they ask if you can pick up a kid within 15 minutes!
  1. You just have no idea how long a kid is going to stay with you. It might be three days for a “shelter hearing” when a relative or someone else is found to take the foster child, or it might be 6 months and 2 days, or 18 months and 9 days, or at least 18 years and the rest of the kids’ life once you’ve adopted the child.
  1. You just have no idea when they are going to schedule a “visit” for the child to see his or her biological parent and once the child goes off in a stranger’s car, when the child will return to you. If the parent shows up for the visit, it might be a couple hours. If the parent doesn’t show, it might be just a round-trip in a car. You just have no idea how truly irksome this is to have little control over your schedule.
  1. You just have no idea whether to get rid of some of the 3T boy clothes you still have in boxes or whether you should keep them just in case another kid comes along. Do you take the carseats out of the car or shove them in the trunk?
  1. You just have no idea how much paperwork you’re going to have each time the caseworker stops by for a visit. And when one agency decides to stop their foster care services and you have to switch to another agency, you have another thousand and five pages to complete, and clearances to run, and home inspections to prepare for.
  1. You just have no idea how each child is going to respond to arriving in your house. You can’t predict if they’ll cuddle right in or scream for hours. You don’t know if they’ll throw punches at the wall or help with the dishes. You don’t know if the other children are going to be thrilled with a new “friend” or wish that they were gone. The uncertainty is huge because everyone is reacting to a major unexpected change.
  1. You just have no idea how painful it is to have a child leave your house with only a few hours notice and realizing that you likely will never see that child again in your life, despite being the one and only parent the child has had in the past 10 months. The empty space hurts.
  1. You just have no idea how protective you can become of a child, caring for them the best you can and wanting so badly to advocate for their well-being.
  1. You just have no idea how frustrating it is to not really have a voice for a child. You provide the 24-hour a day love and care but have no influence over the bigger picture. You wash and feed the child, watch them grow, encourage their development, treat the fevers, but no one wants to hear your point of view.
  1. You just have no idea how quickly your heart is going to fall in love with the child in your home as you rock them to sleep and kiss their scrapes and bumps. You tell yourself that you’re keeping a distance, that you’re not really attached, that this is just “foster love,” but your heart never listens to that anyway.

You just have no idea how your love and your hugs and your home can make all the difference in a child’s life, comforting them in a moment of chaos and giving them layers and layers of love to buffer them through life’s future troubles. They may stay with you. They may return home. They may more on. But your touch is always written upon their life.foster

You just have no idea how wonderful it can be to be a foster parent.

Think about it.

Some kid somewhere out there needs you to be brave enough, strong enough, creative enough to say, “I just have no idea….and you know what? That’s okay.”