In addition to celebrating the births of each of our children, we also celebrate the “birth” of our adopted children into our family. This annual celebration marks the anniversary of their day in court when they legally became a McCleery. This anniversary is known in the world of adoption as “Gotcha Day.” In our family we celebrate our boys’ “Gotcha Days” by allowing that child to pick a fun activity for us to enjoy as a family.
For our family, the “Gotcha Days” of our three adoptees fall on July 23rd, November 22nd, and March 26th…nicely spread out through the year for seasonal adoption celebrations.
Because the adoptee gets to choose the family activity, the way we celebrate “Gotcha Days” are as varied as the boys we have adopted. In the past we have gone for ice cream, visited car lots, gone to the courts to play tennis, etc. There is no rhyme or reason to these special days other than they are family-connected and driven by the wish of the adoptee we are celebrating.
This week we celebrated the “Gotcha Day” of our youngest child and our first adoption. This “Gotcha Day” holds a special place in my heart as his adoption opened the door to a world our family would have never known without him. Tyler came into our life as a newly turned 6-year-old and his entrance in our life was nothing short of divine intervention.
You see, when we were in the process of opening our adoption file, we were given the opportunity to select details about our potential child. The survey was specific with the adoptive parents given the opportunity to choose what behaviors, background and disabilities they felt capable of handling. Some questions were ridiculous like, “Will you accept a child who wears glasses?” Other questions were far more significant like, “Will you accept a child who has been sexually abused?” The questionnaire was hundreds of questions long and in the end, with much prayer and consideration, felt called to let God decided which child we were to adopt. With a desire to truly submit to His will and let Him pick our child, we answered yes to every race, sex, age, disability, trauma, and behavior with the exception of three hypotheticals that we felt were beyond our capacity as parents.
Because of the 3 non-negotiables we marked on our application Tyler never should have come into our life. Good thing our God is bigger than our insecurities because had He not circumvented our barriers, we would never have been blessed with Tyler.
How our file ended up on the desk of an Allegheny County social worker is still a mystery to us. Our agency claims it wasn’t sent by them, knowing that this child wasn’t a fit with our specifications. All we know is one day, in the middle of August 2011, we received a call informing us that we were one of two families being considered for a little boy named Tyler. It soon became clear to the social worker that I had no idea what he was talking about so he quickly emailed us Tyler’s child profile and made plans to visit our home the next afternoon to discuss the matter further.
That night, after the other children had been put to bed, Toby and I sat in bed and began reading through Tyler’s child profile. Before we finished reading the first page we were already certain that this child…his trauma, behaviors and needs were far beyond our scope of expertise as parents, and those three non-negotiables that terrified us were all present in this poor boy’s past. Our hearts broke for him but we felt certain that we were unequipped to be the parents for this hurting child.
With our decision firmly made we went to sleep brokenhearted but certain that we were making the right decision. The next day I called the social worker first thing in the morning to cancel our appointment scheduled for that evening. I spent the day attempting to make contact with no luck. No one could track him down and none of our messages made it through, so despite our attempts to cancel, that social worker arrived at our home that evening.
We sat down, ready to let him know that we didn’t feel like we were the right match, when he opened the file and a picture of Tyler fell out on the table. In that moment I knew I was looking at the face of my child, long before determined and destined to be part of our family. I knew he was mine and despite my fears and insecurities, I knew Heavenly Father was delivering Tyler into our arms for a great and important purpose…a purpose that has slowly been revealed through time as we have grown as a family in size, purpose, patience, compassion and eternal vision.
Knowing he was destined to be our son didn’t erase the realities in his file that worried us and made us feel overwhelmingly inadequate, but knowing God was calling us to this journey lifted us above the “what ifs” onto the plane of submissive trust in God’s plan.
How grateful I am that God did not let us get in His way of His plan. I can look back now and see that His hand was in the creation of our family from the start. His hand was in every “no” he whispered to us as we grieved the disappointment of our own plan falling through, and in every push He gave us toward a “yes” when we were too afraid to take the first faithful step. He knows what our final family unit will look like and He has been the architect of each phase as we grow into that family.
Who knew that is setting our family file mysteriously on the desk of an unsuspecting social worker He was opening the door to two children, pre-destined and divinely selected, to be a part of our forever family.
First came Tyler’s adoption in 2012:
Then Tyler’s adoption brought Braden to our family seven years later when he became a McCleery on March 26th, 2019.
I can’t imagine how much love, learning, personal growth and blessings we would have missed had we said no to that little six-year-old boy.
This week was our seventh year celebrating Tyler’s “Gotcha Day.” On Tuesday we found ourselves home with just Tyler and Braden. Everyone else had school or work. Tyler’s request for this year’s “Gotcha Day” was to go to the movies, so on Tuesday night Toby, Braden, Tyler and I went to see the new Spiderman movie. The movie was great, but the company was even better.
How grateful I am for the blessing of adoption in our life.
I can’t help but reflect on all the beautiful moments we might have missed out on if we had allowed ourselves to be guided by fear instead of faith.
Following the Pennsylvania SWAN awards banquet on Wednesday night, we were invited to stay at Kalahari Resort for the next two days and make a family vacation out of the event.
As if the award recognition wasn’t enough, we felt absolutely spoiled rotten by this special gift.
Thursday and Friday were spent connecting as a family, playing as a family, laughing as a family, and enjoying a respite from life.
The kids loved the abundance of water slides available at “America’s Largest Indoor Water Park.”
Some of the slides were familiar, having ridden the sister slides at the Sandusky, Ohio Kalahari Resort,
While other were unique to this particular park.
When we weren’t off sliding, our family could be found enjoying the lazy river or the wave pool.
Braden and Tyler were particularly fond of the basketball pool with its abundance of basketball hoops and balls.
Many hours were spent in that pool bonding as biological brothers. The genetic connection is clearly evident in these two natural athletes who are more comfortable competing with a ball in hand than doing anything else.
We also enjoyed the outdoor hot tub. The combination of warm water, cool breezes, summer sun, and gorgeous views brought home that vacation feel. It was lovely to sit and soak while visiting as a family, knowing I had nothing else to do for the next 12 hours.
Our two lazy days also allowed for me to have time to sit and read a novel and allowed Toby a much deserved nap…two luxuries that have become a rare treat in our lives recently.
It was a lovely luxury to let go of a month’s worth of worries and heartache and simply be present in the gift of today.
It was a blessing to be still and simply breathe, soaking in the blessing of our mini vacation, and praising God for restarts and reconnection.
That is what this time away was for our family. Tucked away in the gorgeous greenery of the Pocono mountains, we found the peace that had been so hard to grab hold of for the last two months. Somehow stepping away from outside influences we were able to remember what this journey was all about.
It was a breakthrough experience for our child who had been pushing hard against the connection that he has fearfully been fleeing from since Mother’s Day. I’m not sure what clicked internally but amid the splashing and sunshine and celebration of adoption with hundreds of other families much like ours, he found some peace…
“I felt very still and empty, the way the eye of a tornado must feel, moving dully along in the middle of the surrounding hullabaloo.” ― Sylvia Plath
I find myself craving the solitude of my bed.
I am so very weary.
That down-to-the-bone weariness that finds tears hovering just behind the eyes and feelings of intense hopelessness fighting hard to push down those remaining crumbs of hope.
We find ourselves in another season of transitions as Ozzie returns to Harborcreek for intensive inpatient therapy for the next 9-12 months, Molly’s graduation nears (only four more days), Gracie prepares to be married in five months, we brace for two more graduating seniors next year, all while Braden derails and I desperately try to successfully finish my first year of college. It is all so much and I find myself moving through my days in a state of numb detachment, dealing with the next pressing crisis while trying to mime some appearance of normalcy on the outside, as I crumble within.
I find myself battling feelings of resentment over the stolen minutes, of these last months I have with my girls before they leave, that are spent chasing Braden as he runs away, shuts down, or destroys property in a fit of rage. I understand where it is coming from. I see beyond his anger and defiance and know that all this change has made his already uncertain world seem all the more shaky. Reacting from a place of fear, he is making decisions that will push us away before we can push him away or leave him. Cerebrally I get it, but fighting on behalf of a 17-year-old who is defiantly determined to sabotage this second chance he has been given has be worn down, discouraged and empty…completely and totally empty.
As a result I once again find myself isolating from others, both in a physical sense as well as a virtual one. Perhaps this comes from an uncertainty as to what and how much to share…always trying to walk that delicate line between being real in our journey while still respecting the privacy of my family. Or perhaps it’s because I feel so lost in the darkness that I struggle to find the light that I want to share with you. Sometimes, though, I think it comes down to just being weary. A weariness so soul deep that even a Rip Van Winkle sleep couldn’t bring the rest I crave.
The weariness comes from the lack of respite. I’m sure many of you can relate. You might not be dealing with the same trauma but perhaps your circumstances bring a similar weariness. It is a weariness that comes from always having to be “on.” The opportunity to escape, even mentally, is not there. Our home at the moment is like an active minefield. We are tiptoeing through our days, trying to tread gently for fear of setting someone off and then having to attend to the casualties and destruction.
Last week we had a therapy appointment with Tina. I went in first to update her before I brought the first child in. She asked me how I was and the floodgates opened. After weeks of isolating myself from the world I finally had someone safe to talk to. I told her I was tired…so very tired. I laughed with bitterness at the irony of my situation. In my desire to save children from a life of horrendous abuse I find myself in my own abusive situation.
I am, in essence, the one being hurt in an abusive relationship that I can’t walk away from. If it was my husband doing and saying these things I would have walked away a long time ago, but these are children. My children. My boys who are dealing with hurts bigger and scarier than anything you and I could conjure up in our scariest nightmare. I have the privilege of being both of their security as well as the walking representation of the figures they love and hate the most: their birth parents. And so I get to be on the receiving end of all the hurt they would like to inflict on the parents they don’t have access to.
And it sucks…big time!
I get to be the emotional punching bag for hard feelings.
I get it. Mentally, logically, I understand the reasoning and the motivation behind the behavior. As dysfunctional as it may seem, this is actually as sign that we are moving in the right direction. The honeymoon period is officially over which means there is a heightened level of trust.
But even with that knowledge I find myself feeling beaten down by the personal nature of the attacks, as I try to figure out how to navigate this relationship with a 17-year-old that screams he doesn’t want to live here, while internally battling fears that he won’t be able to keep living here.
I know there is a lesson to be found in the midst of this, but the weariness that has become a constant companion leaves my brain foggy. I suspect this is another lesson in surrender…
It seems to be a reoccurring lesson in my life.
The reality is, I am in a season on life where my level of control over the choices, safety, and futures of my children is minimal, and it scares the heck out of me. I can’t slow down the clock and the days seem to be rushing past faster than I can grab hold of. I think my weariness is probably rooted in grief as I mourn the death of what was, what could have been, and what will never be.
I don’t share this to darken your joy or weigh down your spirit, but to speak to that soul who is reading this with tears in their eyes, saying…”me, too.”
If you, in whatever circumstance you find yourself in, are thinking, “there is nothing left within me. I am bone dry,” perhaps you will find solace in this prayer Heavenly Father led me to today when I was desperately searching for a sliver of light in the suffocating darkness that chokes me…
I share the quote above because it powerfully puts into words the reality of our journey and petitions for the prayers we stand in need of.
Adoption is a war, but not the war it appears to be through the eyes of those on the outside looking in. To the casual observer it would seem that we were fighting a losing battle against our kids from hard places. The defiance, rebellion, and dangerous manifestations of anger that burst forth in the form of running away, physically assaulting siblings, property destruction, chronic lying, suicidal ideation, manipulation, and relationship sabotage smack of “us verses them.” If someone would step into our home in the midst of one of our daily battles, the screams of, “I hate you! You are not my mom!” coupled with flying projectiles would definitely lead you to believe the warfare playing out is familial, but that is simply not the case. Our war is not with our children. It is a battle we are fighting side by side with our children, against the trauma of their past. Though they do not always see it that way.
The reality of adopting kids with a trauma history is that as a family you are choosing to open your door and invite inside a battle of epic proportion. You are choosing to fight for the soul of a child and Satan doesn’t fight fair. By choosing to adopt children that the world has seen fit to abandon and give up on, you are agreeing to walk into the fire and expose your home, your children, your marriage, your friendships and your extended family to a whole new level of spiritual warfare.
And I’m here to say that we can’t do it alone.
We need our prayer warriors to surround us with an armor of fortification because our ragtag battalion is growing weary and our wounds are extensive.
Sometimes I look on my family, especially on the heels of one of those intense and destructive battles, and I see in them the faces of the famous Howard Pyle painting, “The Nation Makers.” This iconic piece of artwork is a powerful depiction of the War for Independence. It depicts a line of soldiers in tattered clothing and bandages marching forward through a field of grass and wild flowers. They push forward with a purpose and a drive that trump all obstacles. Bloodied and bruised, they do not hesitate.
And bloodied and bruised my family pushes forward, fighting for a cause even greater than independence. We are fighting for salvation; reclaiming a soul from the brink of destruction.
But that doesn’t always mean that soul wants to be saved. Satan’s greatest weapon in his spiritual warfare arsenal is to whisper into the vulnerable ears of my sons that they are not worthy of our love or God’s love. With those lies, he plants seeds of hopelessness that leads to behaviors only seen in those who have nothing left to lose.
I could draw a vivid picture of our life through my words but it wouldn’t even begin to sufficiently illustrate our reality, and even if my words didn’t fail me, you would have a hard time accepting that it is truth. Our “normal” has reached a new level of dysfunction.
This heightened level of warfare has led to us calling in reinforcements. After multiple trips to the emergency room in the last month, which has led to multiple acute stabilization programs, Ozzie’s doctor has deemed him unsafe to return home at present. She feels he in unsafe with himself and fears for the safety of the other children in the house. Once again we find ourselves in a place where to best love this child, we must surrender this child to God’s plan for him. That plan will involve intensive, inpatient treatment at a residential facility.
We are all heartbroken, hurting, and weary. My older kids are feeling beat up, both emotionally and physically, and Tyler and Braden have been significantly triggered by the events of the last months, setting us back a million miles in their therapeutic journeys.
We all want to curl up and cry.
This walk is so very hard, and I often count my blessings that I didn’t know how hard it would be prior to stepping into the fire, because I fear that I wouldn’t have had the courage to say yes to God’s call.
We are now trying to find some level of stabilization, both individually and as a family unit, for the injuries are severe after this latest round of battles. I look at my family and I am seeing the effect of living a life in crisis, and sympathize with the fact that everyone is trying to continue navigating “normal” life and everyday commitments while destruction and great loss play out behind closed doors.
In the past I have likened this way of living to pitching a tent on the battlefield. War rages on, and you can hear the whistle of bullets as they pass dangerously close, but you try to continue carving out a life amid the destruction.
Just last week, as Ozzie lay in an emergency room bed raging over the fact that I wrestled the handful of pills out of his mouth, thus preventing him from ending his life, I sat trying to submit my last college assignments for the week through my cell phone before the 1:00am deadline. It is crazy and absurd that this has become our “normal.”
I share this because without an understanding of the chaos that is driving our world, life may appear “fine” to the untrained eye, and it is because of this lack of awareness that expectations placed upon Toby and I and our children result in “final straw” moments of emotional collapse.
As a family we need more empathy and support and less judgement.
So, please be tender with my troops.
They have been fighting a war most of you will never have to experience. They are choosing to step on the battlefield day after day, to fight for the future of a child who has walked through hell and feels undeserving of anything more.
Well, friends, we just received the exciting news of Brandon’s adoption date.
On March 26th at 9:00 am we will go before the judge who will legally confirm the bond that has already occurred in our hearts, naming Brandon as our son in the eyes of the law.
It is with great excitement that we count down the minutes to our big day.
With the impending adoption comes some big decisions, as Brandon decides what he wants to do about his name. Having been through the adoption process twice before, we are well familiar with the logistics of the legal process. At the adoption ceremony the adopted child can choose to change their last name (or not,) as well as make additional changes to their given name.
This was a special experience with both Tyler and Ozzie, who chose to not only take on our last name as their own, but also change their middle names.
When we approached each of them with the decision to alter their names, we talked about what is expected of us when we, as Christians, take on the name of Christ and what His name brings to mind. We then talked about taking on our father’s name and how a last name is a legacy that our fathers and grandfathers pass down to us and what responsibility comes with that surname.
We spoke of how taking on the name McCleery grafts them into our family tree in a way that is indistinguishable from those connected through blood, giving them all the same rights and responsibilities of being a member of the McCleery family.
As we discussed the changing of Ozzie’s and Tyler’s middle names, we approached it with the same joyful anticipation that we approached the naming of each new baby in the family. With great excitement and delight we pulled out the baby name books and looked up the meaning behind our favorite names. Then everyone wrote down their 3 favorite names anonymously, along with the meaning behind those names, and we pulled them from a bowl reading them out loud.
Then each of our sons had an opportunity unique to them because of the means that they were joining our family, and got to personally choose their new middle names.
It was a special experience for our family and one of those cherished memories I will forever associate with the beauty of the adoption journey.
Tyler chose to change his middle name from Jordan to Jacob, and Ozzie chose to change his middle name from Emlyn to William. His unique middle name had strong ties to family and he was eager to shed that connection with his abusers.
When we were approached to begin the paperwork for Brandon’s adoption hearing, we had to fill in what he would be known by from that day forward. That simple question led to a deep discussion. When we approached Brandon, we were uncertain if he would choose to change his last name. His situation is very different from Tyler and Ozzie’s in that this is his second adoption, not his first, and he is 17-years-old. There is a deep connection to his adoptive mother who died of cancer and his adoptive father who is fighting his own cancer battle, and we weren’t sure what he would want to do.
He has decided to take on McCleery for his new last name and honor his adoptive parents by hyphenating their two last names (they weren’t married) and make that his middle name.
When he told us that was what he’d like to do, we were touched and moved by his choice. What a beautiful way to honor all the parents that have loved him.
Then he asked if changing his first name was an option as well. This question took me by surprise. It wasn’t something we had ever considered for the other two, just for the sake of continuity and preservation of who they were despite the huge life change they were experiencing. I wasn’t sure how to respond. It didn’t matter to Toby and I personally, but I wasn’t sure from a therapeutic point of view whether it was an emotionally heathy choice or one that would cause issues or regret later. Rather than answer him, I suggested we bring it up to his trauma therapist at our next appointment.
I gave Miss Tina a heads-up so that she could give the question some thought before meeting with us and at our next session Brandon explained what he wanted to do and why he wanted to do it
He told her very thoughtfully that “Brandon” had lived a life full of unspeakable horrors, neglect, sadness and loss. He explained that after a lifetime of bad he was ready to have some happiness and a fresh start and didn’t feel he could really start fresh while continuing to hold onto a name that had experienced such bad things.
“For this reason,” he explained, “I want to change my name from Brandon to Braden. I’m ready for a fresh start to my new life.”
She listened thoughtfully to his thoughtful explanation, and exclaimed to me that she thought that his desire to change his given name was not only healthy but showed great maturity and thoughtful consideration, and then concluded by expressing that there is no one she works with whose experiences justify the need for a “clean start” more than Brandon’s.
So, in 19 days Brandon Chesney will become Braden McCleery.
The transition from Brandon to Braden has required thoughtful effort on our part, and we recognize it will be a transition for all of you as well. We have begun that transition at home and from here on out we will be referring to our son as Braden.
He, too, is experiencing the struggle that comes with transition, as he has come to us, expressing the desire to begin calling us Mom and Dad, rather than Toby and Kate. We are all working through the adjustment of catching ourselves when we slip up and get used to the feeling of unfamiliar names rolling off our tongues, but it is with great joy in all of our hearts that we are getting used to these changes.
As a mother who has walked both roads of growing a family through birth and adoption, I can honestly say that as thrilling as it is to hear your baby boy call you “mama” for the first time, it doesn’t hold a candle to the first time your grown, adoptive son calls you “mom.”
The dreaded post-Christmas plague has hit Patchwork Farm. It seems this time of year always comes with a bug of some sort. I am convinced that illness is the natural consequence of the exhaustion that accompanies Christmas, leaving us all susceptible to whatever sickness is making its rounds.
This year’s version is a nasty mix of high fevers, headaches, and cough, with some kids also being hit with vomiting. In our house the passing of the flu began with Tyler, who also won the prize for being hardest hit by the bug. The next to fall was Brandon, followed a day later by Ozzie. The other three escaped contamination by fleeing the farm and camping out at a family member’s house where they will be house sitting for the next week.
My days have been spent moving from boy to boy, trying to make them comfortable in the “sick room” that was previously the living room. With each boy claiming a couch, my days have been spent refilling water bottles, delivering popsicles, taking temperatures, adjusting the thermostat to complaints of being too cold or too hot, and dumping vomit buckets.
Not exactly my idea of a fun and fabulous way to spend the week, but it wasn’t without tender mercies…
The biggest of which was an opportunity to connect and build attachment.
All three of my boys have a history of childhood trauma. This history is accompanied by a wide variety of symptoms that stem from the most basic forms of neglect. An early childhood that was fraught with unmet needs and lack of care results in a child who is fearful of attachment, who believes they must rely on self to meet all their needs, and sabotages connection out of fear and basic survival instincts.
The work that must be done in the adoptive home to help that child break free from that survival mindset is arduous. In our family we work on this challenging task by using a wide variety of strategies and therapeutic parenting, but it is definitely a slow moving, hard climb to the summit of healthy attachment.
When an opportunity arises to magnify the results of those efforts, we take advantage of it, and count it a blessing. Most of those opportunities come disguised as burdens and bad days. For it is when our kids are hardest, and when they are feeling most vulnerable, that our connection work has the greatest impact.
For my boys those moments of vulnerability usually occur during times of emotional brokenness or physical illness, when defenses are down and they are receptive to being taken care of.
It is amazing the amount of relationship growth and parental trust-building that can occur during these hard days of life, bringing profound blessings to times that read as trials.
I have found this to be true with all three of my sons who come from a traumatic past. I remember the astounding growth that occurred a month after Ozzie’s placement in our home when he had to undergo an emergency appendectomy. Here are some of the thoughts I penned at that time, in the midst of a challenging few days spent sitting up next to Ozzie’s hospital bed:
“Through the scare of surgery, IVs, and a hospital stay Ozzie learned that we are trustworthy, that we won’t leave, that we will take care of him. He experienced parental love as we held his hand through procedures, were sitting at his bedside as he woke from surgery, and met his needs on the most basic level as we carried him to the bathroom and spoon fed him Jello. God saw what we were in need of as a family and met our needs in a very creative way.”
This winter flu was our first opportunity to see and meet some of those basic childhood needs when Brandon became the second kiddo to go down with the flu. As much as I didn’t look forward to the extra laundry and missed sleep that accompanies the flu, I knew that there would be wonderful connection opportunities we could take advantage of if we saw this week of sickness for what it could be:
A chance for us to bond in a deeper, more profound way, with our newest son.
And this proved to be the case.
Poor Brandon felt horrible, but in his misery he allowed me to care for him, instead of feeling compelled to care for his own needs. As I tucked him in, took his temperature, rubbed his back and fed him the liquids his stomach would allow, I had the opportunity to meet those very basic, primitive needs that were never met in infancy and early childhood. As a small child he had to care for his own basic needs in order to survive, and in doing so the lesson was soon cemented that, “you can only trust yourself to care for your needs.”
By seeing a need (an empty glass of ginger ale) and meeting that need (by filling it before he asks for a refill) I was able to send a powerful message. That message speaks to the most primitive parts of his brain and rewires that survival mindset that took hold in infancy when he cried and no one came to care for him. By consistently pulling closer when he pushes me away, and affirming connection when he expects me to walk, and by meeting his physical and emotional needs on the most basic, primitive levels, we give him the opportunity to heal the damage done to his brain and rewire his way of seeing the world.
By loving him and showing him care as I would a young child who has a need, and then meeting that need with loving looks, soft touch, and healing care,
I am able to connect, attach, and prove myself to my son.
And sometimes that work is best done amid vomiting and fevers.
The prayer is that this bug will pass quickly. We certainly don’t want this unexpected visitor tagging along on our trip to Disney World!
But until it does, I will thank God for the tender mercy of attachment opportunities with my son.
Navigating the holidays is tough on a “typical” year, but we anticipated this year to be more challenging than others, given the added dynamics of a third child with a trauma history joining the family and the triggers that always seem to occur this time of year.
But even with the heightened emotions we managed to find joy and peace despite some hard moments.
Often the “story behind the story” isn’t fully shared. Sometimes that is due to us protecting our boys’ stories. Sometimes it is because our most profound moments are simply to sacred to share. Sometimes the backstory is just too vast and complicated to explain, leaving me to simply omit rather than try to share. Sometimes the changing of tides is so abrupt that I find that before I can share the story of one moment the story has changed.
And if I am being honest…
Sometimes I am simply too emotionally drained to think deep, find the blessings in the darkness, or share the lesson that is hidden within the trial…
And on those days, I tend to remain quiet or keep my blog focused on the shallower moments of living.
But a comment made by a friend made me realize that that our silence has been perceived as ease or insincerity, and that perception isn’t fair to my boys who have been in survival mode this past month, to my older kids who sacrificed cherished traditions and the attention of their parents for the mental well-being of their brothers, or to other adoptive families who feel so alone in the darkness of trauma while everyone around them is enjoying the magic of the Christmas season.
The month of December was filled with many happy moments and special memory making experiences, but those moments are not the only experiences seared into our memory banks as we look back on the holidays of 2018.
Amid the cookie decorating and caroling there were fists being punched through the drywall of bedroom walls, and sleepless nights with children too fearful to close their eyes and face the demons that appear in their nightmares. There were shouts of anger and declarations of, “You are not my real mom! You stole me from my real family!” There were tears of anguish over lost loved ones and expressions of fear that this will all be taken away. There were many unkind words shouted in the heat of anger. We dealt with suicidal ideation, attempts to physically injure family members, and more than one trip to Western Psych for a child to be evaluated.
Those moments aren’t the ones I focused on this past month as I blogged about our Christmas season. I chose to focus on the lighter moments of the journey. I realize now that in doing so perhaps I did a disservice to my children who had to journey the magical season of Christmas through the minefield of trauma. I never meant to imply it was smooth, easy, or without struggle…
I only meant to testify that joy can be found in the darkest of days,
And despite the struggles that permeated our Christmas season (and will likely always permeate our Christmas season) …
We chose joy.
We chose laughter.
We chose forgiveness.
We chose family.
We chose hope.
We chose connection.
We chose LOVE…
Unconditional, no-strings-attached, LOVE.
And the rewards of that choice were precious and holy.
Now that we have left December behind and have stepped into the New Year, the heightened emotions of Christmas have deescalated and we are looking forward to the normalcy of life that returns in January. I am so proud of my children’s resiliency and selfless choice to stay, to love, to lean into the hard moments and trust God’s purpose in the struggle. I am proud to be raising kids that have the capacity to find joy in the imperfect moments and embrace change with an open heart. I love that they love so unselfishly and keep choosing to do so even when love isn’t easy.
This Christmas was filled with many fun experiences but those were merely the tchotchkes that dotted the bigger picture.
Our Christmas season had less to do with what we did, and more to do with what we chose to be, through the grace and mercy of a great God.
This Christmas we embraced the true reason for the season and in doing so felt the love of Christ more profoundly than ever.
On the sixth day of Christmas, my true love gave to me…
The big reveal:
A trip to Disney!!!
Yep, we are Florida bound.
After a half a year in the making we surprised the kids on December 23rd with their combined Christmas gift:
A family vacation to Walt Disney World.
It has been a killer secret to keep, especially because of the added red tape of having to get permission at our most recent court hearing to take Brandon out of school and out of state (since he isn’t adopted yet.) We didn’t tell anyone beyond those who had to know… like the judge, lawyers and social workers, but I lived in fear that someone at court would spill the beans and ruin the surprise.
In the months leading up to Christmas we made plans for the big reveal.
This is the third Disney surprise reveal we have done for the kids. The first occurred when the oldest three kids were 13, 11, and 9. We waited until they were at the perfect ages, with the thought it would be a one-time vacation.
The next few years brought the adoption of Tyler and then Ozzie and we couldn’t let the magical experience of a trip to Disney World be an experience reserved for only half our children, so we planned a second trip to Disney World so that the two little boys would get their “once in a lifetime” trip.
Both trips were made known through surprise reveals. Toby loves surprising the people he loves with grand gestures, but because our older kids know how Toby operates, surprising them has become more and more difficult, especially with something as big and complex as a Disney World vacation.
So when we realized that the widow of opportunity to take our entire family to Disney, and allow Brandon to create shared memories with us at one of our very favorite places, we knew it need to happen this year,
And we knew pulling off the surprise would be a tall order!
Grace is almost done with her ASL program and the next year could bring life changes that may take her away from home. Molly is graduating and will most likely be leaving home to go to school or serve a mission. Rusty and Brandon will both be seniors and within the next two years our family structure will most likely change, as kids spread their wings to soar, so this was the time to make it happen…
The question was, “How do we surprise them without them catching on?”
We finally decided that we would plan the big reveal for December 23rd. This decision was based on a few factors.
1.We wanted to surprise the kids with just immediate family around, knowing that good news and special treats can be triggers for some of our kids that feel unworthy of good things, and those feelings sometimes lead to them sabotaging happy events to prevent good things happening to them.
2.We wanted it to be a really special moment for the kids to share. We thought telling them on the 23rd rather than Christmas morning might help our kids that struggle on Christmas Day.
3.We thought that if any of the older kids were suspicious, doing the surprise before Christmas, rather than on Christmas morning might throw them off the scent.
So on the 22nd we slipped away into our room to wrap the presents we had prepared. We had personalized t-shirts made for each of the kids. We ordered each one a draw string bag so they will be able to carry their own water bottles, snacks and personal belongings around the park. In each gift box we also included their magic band and a lanyard with trading pins ordered off Ebay.
We wrapped up their gifts and then in the middle of the night we snuck into the living room and hid the gifts, Disney balloons and the reveal sign inside the trunk in the middle of the living room.
The following day the kids went about their business, using the trunk as a landing spot for gifts and wrapping paper, having no idea the HUGE surprise hiding within… right in front on their eyes!
When our family gift exchange was complete, and the last sibling gift was unwrapped, we told the kids there was one more gift left to unwrap. We explained that we had purchased a gift for the entire family to share but it was too big to transport to the Homestead so we would let them open it early.
They waited with baited breath, expecting us to carry something in from outside, but instead Toby told them that the gift was hidden in the trunk.
We had them gather around the trunk and open it together. This was so we could be in place on the other side of the couch to catch their reaction.
And their reaction didn’t disappoint!
Some fell to the ground, overwhelmed by emotion,
While others stood in shock…their mouths hanging open.
Their reactions brought feelings of love, joy and gratitude for this dear family of mine…
Especially for our 17-year-old addition, who is finally receiving some magical moments after a lifetime of tragedy and loss.
The countdown has begun and I have 6 very excited kids that can’t wait to strap in and head south…
Let me begin with this great little gem I found online,
Written by a fellow mother raising children with a diagnoses of Reactive Attachment Disorder, commonly referred to as RAD, she has rewritten a classic Christmas favorite to reflect our reality…
Ah, my friends, Listen to the song of my people…
“‘Twas the night before Christmas
and I had it bad, thanks to the chaos from
dealing with RAD
The stockings were ripped from the mantle and strewn
in sad tattered heaps all around the whole room
The children were screaming and fighting and clawing
The littlest one on the dog’s leg was gnawing
Hubby in his pj’s, the cat in my lap,
we’d escaped to the den for an urgent nightcap
When all of a sudden, there arose such a clatter
I put down my gin to see what was the matter
Away to the doorway I flew like a flash
to the family room now I made a mad dash
The moon through the window
and lights from the tree
showed me a scene that I didn’t want to see
For what to my tired bleary eyes did appear
but a nightmare unfolding, the worst one this year
The guinea pig shrieked as he hung from the tree
by the ribbon they’d wrapped ‘round his little belly
A furry white ornament, angry and kicking
while the littlest one now her nose busy picking
The next-oldest one I saw swing from a bough
while the short middle child through the room he did plow
Armed with a hockey stick, the little despot
broke a lamp, then a window, and hit me in the butt
Wildly swinging while onward he came
he screamed like a madman and called us all names
“Hey nose-picking poophead!” he shrieked at the baby
“you bit the dog, now she’s given you rabies!
And you’re such a moron, up there in the tree,
you’re just a baboon-bum, a stupid monkey!”
Our 15-year-old daughter, whom we’d left in charge
screamed at her siblings as Christmas loomed large
“You filthy urchins!” she shrieked next to my ear
“It’s just about midnight and Christmas is near!
I’m sick of you all!” she ranted and raved
“You act just like you were brought up in a cave
with badgers and bobcats, and wolverines, too!
Well, guess what’s going to happen to you!
I’m calling Santa! His name’s in my phone
You’ll be on the bad list, and then you’ll all moan!
You’ll pout and you’ll cry and get nothing at all,
while I’ll get the presents! They’ll be wall-to-wall!”
What happened next, I sure could see coming
the savages attacked, and the eldest went running
But before I could gather my wits and step in
to prevent mass murder, a deplorable sin
up on the roof, there arose a commotion
like battleships fighting it out on the ocean
An explosion that made the entire house rock
and down the chimney my next-eldest fell with a squawk
Dressed in a hoodie now covered in ashes
designer jeans ripped-up and brimming with gashes
One shoe was ruined and the other one missing
His glasses were cracked, and the cat ran off hissing
His eyes, they were huge as he looked wildly around
then out of the fireplace he came with a bound
“Everyone run!” he screamed, ignoring my ire
“I blew up the fake Santa, now the house is on fire!”
The kids all ran shrieking, not waiting for me
as I cut the poor guinea pig down from the tree
The shenanigans done really stuck in my craw
but I ran, shoving guinea pig down in my bra
He did not enjoy the wild bumpy ride
as he squeaked and he clawed, but I kept him inside
The kids were all shivering out in the yard
My eldest corralled them, wouldn’t let down her guard
As I yelled for my husband and started back in,
he emerged with our bottle of Tanqueray gin
We sipped and we slugged and we stared like zombies
as the sirens, they wailed, and the neighbors looked pleased
The dog and the cat had escaped without fail
they ran like the devil was hot on their tails
The fire was soon out, the house it was saved
yet I still had to deal with my clan, so depraved
But first to my bed, where I dropped like a stone
inserted my earplugs and turned off my phone
As I crawled ‘neath the covers, whimpering and sore
exhausted and beaten, and yet I still swore
that when Christmas is over, I’ll do it, you’ll see
Our family is headed to RAD therapy!”
It is only funny because it’s true!
The true test of whether you are raising your own little “RAD-ish” is if you find yourself with tears running down your legs from laughing too hard!
A few days ago I had the opportunity to take part in an interview for an adoption newsletter. The article was penned for the purpose of helping families with older foster children navigate the unique challenges of the Christmas season. As I considered what lessons we have learned after 6 years of Christmases with our kids from hard places, I thought first about the reasons why the Christmas season gets so ugly around our home…
Here are 7 possible “WHYs” behind the holiday struggle:
#1:They feel unworthy.
Abandonment or the perception of abandonment in children who have been adopted can lead to a deep sense of shame. This may make them feel as if they are unworthy of love, unworthy of having good things happen to them, unworthy of gifts or attention. With that entrenched feeling of being unworthy of truly feeling happy, sabotaging behaviors can begin to emerge. They may sabotage so that they can force what they see as inevitable disappointment. If their parent then responds in anger to their sabotaging behavior, it only further validates their belief that they are unlovable.
#2:They find themselves triggered.
During the holidays, triggers are everywhere. Smells, sights, sounds, memories of the past… the holidays can be a minefield to navigate. These triggers can cause a fight, flight or freeze response.
#3:Excitement and anxiety can feel the same in their little bodies.
Butterflies in the stomach, quickening of breathing rate, a loudly thumping heart, sweating, and trouble sleeping are the same body responses whether you are feeling excited or nervous. When your child feels those body sensations, it can bring memories of times of stress when they felt that way due to anxiety and fear.
#4:They are overwhelmed with the weight of expectations.
When a child believes that he will fall short of the expectations placed on him, he may decide to just quickly blow things up to get it over with. The stress that come with anticipating the disappointment they may cause can be overwhelming.
#5:They can’t handle the increased family connections.
For children with Reactive Attachment Disorder, Christmas can be a nightmare because during the holiday season relationships are usually the focus and there is more emphasis put on family togetherness and unity. This feels like a threat to kids who are putting protective walls up when it comes to family relationships.
#6:They are overcome with grief.
Holidays have so many things that can magnify grief, sadness and loss.
#7: They are focused on self-preservation and protection.
Attempting to protect their heart from further disappointment, a child who has experienced early trauma will put walls up and push others away. With everything being magnified during the holidays, those walls have a tendency to go higher and that pushing away can turn to an aggressive shove (literally or figuratively).
Knowing the possible reasons behind the struggle somehow makes the struggle slightly more manageable, or at least makes it feel a little less cruel and personal. It can help us to develop feelings of empathy rather than the resentment and defeat that can penetrate our hearts when the behaviors are all directed at the adoptive mother simply because she is the primary nurturer in the family…AKA “Mortal Enemy #1.”
Knowing the “WHY” then allows us to implement the “HOW TOs” as a family, and successfully navigate the minefield known as the holiday season.
Here are some of the tried and true strategies I shared during the interview:
This is by far the greatest determining factor of whether the holidays will bring joy or disappointment, and it is a lesson that was only learned through a lot of mistakes and failings on our part. I think the holidays can sometimes bring a heightened level of anxiety as we feel the pressure of turning December into a Hallmark channel movie. Our expectations increase as we make plans for a magical Christmas season. I think this pressure is one most Moms can relate to, but those who find themselves opening their homes to children who have not been able to experience the normal childhood magic of Christmas, due to heartbreaking beginnings, might find this pressure increased 10 fold. In an effort to make up for a lost childhood, we increase the Christmas magic factor by 100 and rather than a comfortable sprinkling of Christmas joy, we hit our kiddos with a fire hose blast of Christmas Spirit. What began with such loving intentions very often cannot be received in the same spirit.
For kids whose “normal” is chaos and conflict, the overabundance of cheer, connection, traditions and loving gestures may feel more like an itchy wool sweater than that “warm blanket hug” you were going for. I know this to be true for one of our adoptions treasures specifically. Holidays and birthdays are sure triggers for the most challenging of his behaviors and every special family tradition and gesture of love is met with efforts to sabotage and push away the family. This is a tough pill to swallow as a parent. But the reality is: my December is filled with more chaos than joy (at least the Hallmark version of Christmas joy) but if I can set aside my pre-conceived ideas of what a happy holiday season should look like and accept more time will be spent on the trauma therapist’s couch than on Santa’s lap, I can face our new normal with joyful acceptance.
Prepare for the Inevitable-
This is another HUGE one! I have learned with my kids that is it never a question of “if,” but rather a question of “when.” I know that December will be fraught with meltdowns, broken decorations, holes in the drywall, sleepless nights, self-harming thoughts, suicidal ideation, sabotaging behaviors including coming out of my room to find purchased Christmas presents ripped open and destroyed, or all the Christmas cookies that were baked, gorged on and consumed in the 5 minutes I was out of the room. I know December will probably bring more than one trip to Western Psych., many angry chants of “I hate you!” and more tears than giggles as my kids mourn the families that have failed them. I know more that one night will be spent staying up long past midnight as I hold one of my crying biological children as they struggle with resentment towards a hurting sibling who responds with cruelty to every kind gesture, and inevitably by the 31st of the month I will be so emotionally drained and physically exhausted by the heightened levels in our home for the last 30 days, that I will close out the year with a bout of the flu.
I say this not from a place of pessimism or self pity, but from a place of experience and realistic expectations. If I can enter the month anticipating the patterns that I have seen in the past, then I can be prepared for the inevitable and respond in a more measured and loving way, rather than responding with anger and frustration. I have learned to keep presents hidden and have emergency spares set aside for sibling or teacher gifts that are destroyed in anger. I have learned to keep my bedroom locked with all my most precious items safely tucked away until the heighten season of Christmas is over. I am more diligent with door alarms and security cameras, and I don’t leave my emotionally heightened children alone with siblings or any of the animals, knowing that their ability to make good choices is compromised when they are in fight, flight or freeze mode. I make allowances. I give second chances. I ALWAYS have a plan B figured out. I prepare for the worst so that when it comes it is manageable and hopefully all can make it through the crisis fairly unscathed.
Find Joy in this Season of Life…even if it is not Ideal-
This one is so hard but so important. It took me a while to figure this one out and even longer for me to accept it and embrace it with joyful acceptance. It requires a surrender of self to God’s plan. It means letting go of what Christmas pasts might of looked like and accept that for this season of temper tantrums the good china will be put away and paper plates will showcase Christmas dinner. It may mean the days of large Christmas parties are put on hold for a few years and December evenings are spent watching movies and going to bed early. If the smells of a Christmas dinner trigger your hurting kiddos, then Christmas dinner may have to be Chinese take-out for a few years.
But regardless of what this season of Christmas looks like, the joy of Christmas can be found in the absurd and unorthodox…because the joy is born from love of family.
Last Sunday some of our kids were in crisis. We were at the end of ourselves and I wept tears of defeat after a week of challenges. My magical Christmas season was dissolving before my eyes as words of hate and anger filled the house rather than songs of goodwill. Everyone was hurting. All were grieving. Relationships were crumbling and it was time for emergency triage. We were suffering from blood loss after some major war injuries and we made a judgement call to meet the needs of our hurting children and find joy in our journey even though it wasn’t “ideal.” Everyone was sent to their rooms to put on PJs and we declared it a relationship recovery day. We spent the day praying as a family, watching videos of the birth of Christ, making family memories as we decorated sugar cookies and played games. We served each other and others and ended our day by turning off all the lights, except for the Christmas tree, and participating in a time of worship as we watched a silent Christmas lesson and allowed the spirit of Christmas…the spirit of Christ…to permeate our home and our hearts.
Here is link to the Silent Christmas Lesson we watched as a family:
Was it what an ideal December Sabbath would have looked like five years ago?
But it was exactly what was needed that day, in this season of life.
See the Need/Meet the Need-
Some of our long-time readers might remember a blog post I wrote a few years ago about a strategy we use in our home when our boys are emotionally heightened. It is a strategy we continue to use today and one I shared in the interview…
I am speaking of the McCleery holiday nerf wars!
Entering the Christmas season with expectations that the next four weeks will be fraught with conflict and chaos, we make sure we enter the holiday season armed with tools and strategies to meet our kids’ emotional needs before the explosions occur. This takes preparation and awareness of what your kiddos’ triggers are and what coping skills are most effective for each of them. Knowing this, I am able to make sure we have the tools in place prior to the need. I load up on dollar store stress balls, fidget toys, bouncy balls, etc. but the #1 tool for managing my boys’ need for conflict and chaos during the Christmas season is nerf battles. By giving them a healthy and connecting way to escalate they are able to have their emotional need for chaos met in an emotionally healthy way.
Kids who come from an abusive situations have a different brain chemistry than a child who has never lived in the turbulent, high stress environment of an abusive home. As a result they become accustomed, from a very young age, to a constant surge of adrenaline as they live in “fight or flight mode,” never knowing when the next strike will come.
To feel calm they need that adrenaline release, so our job is to find ways to meet that need in a healthy, happy, PARENT LED way.
Our favorite strategy: family nerf battles!
So, with the tree twinkling in the background we have engaged in frequent, much-needed nerf battles so that our struggling kiddos could have their emotional needs met. As we neared the holiday season we made sure the guns were collected and placed in a basket in the corner and that our nerf bullet supply was replenished, for just a time as this:
Remember the Reason for the Season-
This is by far the strategy I have found to be most affecting. Remembering the reason for the season allows us to regain perspective and adjust our expectations. It allows us to find joy in imperfection. It is important to remember that this time of year isn’t about the traditions, the decorations, the perfect tree, the delicious dinner, the ideal reactions to perfectly wrapped gifts…
It is about love.
It has been from the very beginning.
There was nothing “ideal” about that first Christmas…
There was poverty.
There was homelessness.
There was filth and pain and rejection as a young husband, a simple man with little worldly offerings, begged for a place for his wife to give birth.
A young woman, heavy with child, with no place to lay her head, brought her baby into the world in a place of dirt and filth.
There was no family surrounding her, no words of support from anyone other than her husband.
The only sounds accompanying her moans of pain were the baaing and bleating of farm animals.
There was nothing “ideal” or “Hallmark” about that first Christmas, and yet it was perfect. Not because of where they were, or what they wore, or what they ate, or who was there, or because of the gifts that were given.
It was perfect because it was born of sacrifice.
It was born of redemption.
It was born of faith.
IT WAS BORN OF LOVE!
That is what Christ offers each of us.
That is what He offers our hurting children.
That is what He offers our hurting world.
That is the key to navigating the holidays with children from hard places…
Nothing matters except this:
Let it be born of love and the rest will fall into place.
Ever since our trip to Pittsburgh for Light-Up night (where we saw the gingerbread house village on display) we have been looking forward to creating our own gingerbread village.
Gingerbread house decorating is one of our family’s favorite Christmas traditions.
Some years we bake our own gingerbread, some years we use graham crackers, and some years Mom shops online and finds pre-made kits on sale. This was one of THOSE years.
I purchased a variety of different “homes” and let the kids each choose their kits. Some of the kits I bought with certain children in mind. I was eager to see if I chose correctly when the time came for the kids to each pick their kit. This Momma nailed it and 3 of the kids chose the kits I had mentally picked out for them when I was shopping.
The combination of candy and creativity make this annual tradition a family favorite. This year was extra special, however, in that it was Brandon’s first time ever decorating a gingerbread house.
The kids were eager to show him the ropes.
On Sunday evening, as part of Family Night, we prepped the table for our gingerbread house party and then waited for Grace to return home from church.
Once Grace was home we gathered in the dining room and everyone got busy creating their candy cottages while Christmas carols played in the background.
It was fun seeing how creative everyone was in their designs.
The end results were charming and each creation was reflective of the designer who created it…
Tyler decorated a Mario Brothers Castle:
Ozzie’s creation was a snow covered cottage:
Brandon decided to keep things traditional with his FIRST EVER gingerbread house:
Molly decorated a Christmas train, complete with a fondant snowman as the conductor:
Rusty’s gingerbread house was a charming little dog house:
And Grace created her dream “Tiny Home” out of cookies and sweets: