On December 23rd I received the best Christmas gift of all…
Having all my kiddos home together!
On Monday night we picked up Ozzie in Pittsburgh, where the transport van from his residential facility dropped him off. He was as excited at the prospect of Christmas as the rest of my crew.
We arrived home and there we were joined by Grace and Zach, as well as Toby who arrived home with pizza in hand. It was our annual “The night before, the night before Christmas” party…One of my favorite nights of the Christmas season.
A few years ago we began the tradition of setting aside December 23rd for the kids to exchange gifts with one another. This tradition began when we saw that the gifts, so lovingly made or purchased by brothers and sisters, often got lost in the larger gifts from Santa and other relatives on Christmas morning. In an effort to forge connection, encourage thoughtful giving, and increase gratitude among siblings we decided to set aside a night specific to gift giving in our immediate family.
Since December 23rd was already the night we traditionally gifted the kids with their yearly Christmas ornament, we decided to make it a celebration of our immediate family before joining our extended family members on Christmas Eve, Christmas Day and the days that followed.
This was one of the best ideas we had as a family and this tradition has become the highlight of my Christmas season. As a mom it brings me such joy to see the love shown among siblings as they thoughtfully bring the magic of Christmas to their siblings.
This year we switched things up a bit and rather than everyone making or buying gifts for everyone else, the siblings instead drew names and shopped for just one person, allowing everyone to really personalize their efforts and focus on showing love to one certain sibling. With Zach in the mix we now had seven kids each picking a name and shopping for one another.
The night began with the traditional reading of my favorite Christmas book of all time, one that delights me in its relatability!
After a yummy pizza dinner it was time to begin the gift giving. We began with our ornament exchange. Every year Toby and I purchase for each child (and each other) an ornament that is reflective of interests, hobbies, or events from the past year. This was a tradition we began on Gracie’s first birthday and it is always a delight to unpack years’ worth of memories when we decorate the tree.
This year Gracie married Zach and took her 21 years worth of Christmas ornaments to her new home to decorate their first tree as a newlywed couple. This is a gift of love each child will be able to look forward to as they launch and have homes and Christmas trees of their own.
This year we focused our ornament choices on major life events for those kids who have experienced a life transition, and ornaments reflective of interests/hobbies for those who haven’t. We began handing out ornaments oldest to youngest.
Toby received a family ornament that highlights his new brood of kiddos…a brood that has grown by 2 this year through adi
Toby continues with a two decade tradition of buying me another angel ornament for the tree. This year’s ornament he secretly purchased while we were at Disney World. (And I, of course, forgot to capture a photo of it. You’ll have to trust me when I say it is beautiful!)
This year we transitioned to a couple ornament for Grace and Zach. It had to reflect their new and exciting journey as husband and wife. This is what we chose:
Molly’s ornament celebrated her graduation from 21st Century Cyber Charter School and her exciting launch into adulthood.
Rusty’s ornament celebrated his beginning college classes through CCBC’s duel enrollment program. He is going to school to be a drone pilot.
Braden experienced one of the family’s biggest life changes this year when he was adopted into our forever family. His ornament couldn’t be anything but a celebration of that wonderful day!
Ozzie’s ornament was so perfectly Ozzie, that I had to buy it when I found it online. What ornament could be more perfect for my weather loving 15-year-old than a Galileo thermometer ornament for the tree!
And Tyler’s “to-cool-for-school,” low-riding Santa, with accompanying soundtrack, fit our youngest perfectly!!
Then it was time for the sibling gift exchange!!
Braden’s gift to Grace was a new lunch bag and thermos for her to take to work.
Tyler bought Zach a few new board games.
Rusty found a perfect gift for Ozzie. Ozzie loves puzzles and Rusty found a set of six mini puzzles online that are packages to look like mini boxes of cereal. He paired the puzzles with an actual variety pack of sample cereals.
Gracie’s gift to Molly was equally personal and extra special. In honor of Molly’s upcoming temple experience Grace bought Molly a necklace bearing a stone setting made from the same marble as the Palmyra, NY Temple, where Molly will soon be making covenants with the Lord.
Molly’s gift for Braden was two parts. The first was a new Sunday tie she purchased for him from Etsy that bears the symbol of his favorite superhero- The Flash. She also made him an affirmation jar filled with 100 strips of paper listing the things she loves and admires about him.
Zach had Rusty’s name and bought him a Wall-E Disney-bounding outfit.
Rusty also received a bonus gift from Toby…The world’s largest water bottle!! Rusty is our water drinker and is never without a water bottle in hand. We tease him about his excessive water consumption, so when Toby stumbled across this gigantic water bottle he couldn’t help but pick it up for Rusty.
After the siblings had all exchanged gifts it was time for Toby and I to open our gifts from the kids. This was another tradition added to December 23rd for the same reason as the sibling gift exchange. We wanted to be able to really appreciate and focus on the gifts of love from our children without them getting lost in the chaos of Christmas morning. It is always a joy and a delight to see the amount of time, thought, creativity and effort our children put into showing us their love through their Christmas gifts.
This note from Tyler is a keeper!!!
Rusty knows what brings his dad joy.
Ozzie carved and painted this Christmas plaque for me in workshop. Another treasure!
Toby also received a jar of 100 affirmations from Miss Molly. A gift that will be treasured even more in her absence!
And Rusty painted me a charming picture. I love Rusty originals!!
It was at the end of opening our gifts from the kids that Ozzie received his big surprise that we revealed in the last blog.
It is hard to believe it has been two weeks since Grace and Zach’s wedding reception. Since that day they have enjoyed an amazing honeymoon abroad while the rest of us spent time recovering from one heck of a party!
Slowly, the house is returning to normal, as each piece of furniture and each decoration finds its way back to its original spot. and we ease back into the routine of everyday life.
Molly has returned to school in Idaho. Grace and Zach, now home from their honeymoon, are enjoying the adventure of married life as they establish their own routines and traditions in their darling little apartment.
The reception was beautiful. It couldn’t have been more perfect. Grace’s vision of the night came to life in a way that made it feel as though we had invited our closest friends and family over for a holiday dinner. There was comfort food, familiar faces, music, laughter, dancing and displays of love that left all our hearts overflowing with gratitude over the blessings of their union.
We made the decision ahead of time to hire our dear friend, Holly (who is an amazing photographer) to capture the magic of the evening so that I wasn’t having to watch the events of the evening unfold from behind a camera lens…
And yesterday she sent us the edited photos, allowing us to relive what was an amazing night.
She perfectly captured the feel of the evening and the love that overflowed as we celebrated the nuptials of Mr. and Mrs. Tame.
On the Monday following Grace and Zach’s reception they arrived at our house at noon to catch a ride to the airport. They were headed off on their honeymoon and Molly and I were acting as their chauffeurs to the airport. They were on their way to Florida where they would board a cruise ship for a five day cruise to Mexico.
At the airport we bid the honeymooners goodbye. It was an emotional farewell for Molly who would be back in Idaho when they returned from their vacation. The week had spoiled us with an abundance of family time, and for these two sisters, who are also best friends, the time together was a gift.
After tearing Molly off Gracie, we bid the happy couple farewell and happy travels before heading back home where we made the most out of our last 24 hours with Miss Molly.
The following morning we returned to the airport at 4:00 am to send Molly on her way.
Once all my kids were safely launched, I indulged in some much needed rest and recovery from the month previous. Life had been a non-stop, emotionally draining, physically taxing whirlwind since mid August and all I wanted was to sit and do nothing for a day or two…
And so that’s what I did. Aside from the most pressing tasks, like schooling and meals, I took a break from all other responsibilities so that I could recover.
By the end of the week I had rallied enough to focus on a project I planned to take on while the honeymooners were away. Zach and Grace had both been so busy working full time, attending school, and preparing for the wedding that they hadn’t found a spare minute to do anything at their apartment. It was filled with boxes brought over from their rooms at home, and stacks of gifts generously given by friends and family, making it look more like a storage unit than a home. Knowing Grace was filling overwhelmed at the idea of returning home from her honeymoon and jumping straight back into school and work the following day, with no idea when they would find time to set up house, I decided to surprise them.
My love language tends to be acts of service and I couldn’t think of a better wedding gift for my daughter and new son in law then to transform their apartment into a home. I spent Saturday working at their apartment and had a wonderful time organizing and decorating. It was like playing with a full size doll house!
When I was done I surveyed the home that would be the birthplace of their future together as a married couple and couldn’t help but smile. As I locked up I whispered a prayer for their marriage and their future as a couple…
That this little apartment might be a place of much growth, much love, much prayer, and much happiness for my oldest daughter and the man she has chosen to spend eternity with.
Once the wedding day came a close, and we bid the bride and groom goodbye for the night, it was time to turn my focus to the reception. There was much to do in preparation for the celebration that followed the wedding two days later. In an effort to plan an event that was both beautiful and affordable, we opted to make Grace and Zach’s reception a home-grown affair. Luckily this homey theme tied beautifully into Gracie’s vision for the day.
As we began making plans months ago, Grace shared her vision for her reception. She wanted a vintage feel that made guests feel as though they were coming over for a family dinner. Since we don’t have the space in our dining room for 200 guests, we opted instead to turn the church’s cultural hall into home through the use of decorations from our house and heirloom photos. The theme was “home is where the heart is,” and that theme was a joy to bring to life. I am a firm believer that love is in the details and it is our hope that through the details in the décor our guests felt loved and felt the love Grace and Zach share. Here is a sneak peek at the reception hall prior to the celebration.
Using Toby’s trailer we loaded up furniture from home to transform the gym into a reception hall.
Continuing with this “family dinner for 200” theme, we opted to serve different homemade soups, along with salad and bread.
We used pumpkins to serve as signs to identify the various soup choices.
In the lobby we set up the “guest book.” Using the beautiful antique desk given to Grace and Zach as their wedding gift from my parents, we created a homey little vignette to greet guests.
The bride and groom opted to pass on a traditional guest book, choosing instead to purchase a family bible with note taking margins for their guests to mark their favorite scripture and pen a message of love.
For our younger guests we prepared activity boards as gifts to entertain them during the ring ceremony. Each clipboard came with colored pencils and wedding themed activity/coloring sheets.
For those readers not from the Pittsburgh area, you might not be familiar with the traditional cookie table. This sign was displayed to explain why cookies are served in addition to wedding cake at most Pittsburgh wedding receptions.
The cookie table as it slowly filled up with cookies donated by family and friends.
“To go” bags were provided so guests could take cookies home to enjoy later.
Grace and Zach wanted to make their reception as much about celebrating family as they did celebrating their own love. They accomplished this through a lot of thoughtful and personal touches, including incorporating loved ones’ wedding songs as part of the DJ’s playlist for the evening, and in doing so allowed couples the chance to enjoy a slow dance to their own wedding song.
Apple cider was the drink of the night at their October reception.
Their beautiful cake was made by our talented friend, Kelly. Gracie’s request was a “naked cake,” one that was thinly frosted and decorated with fresh berries. It was as delicious as it was beautiful!
The couple opted to have a ring ceremony at their reception so that family and friends could witness the exchanging of rings. In creating a space in the reception hall for that to take place, we opted against a traditional arch and chose instead to create a “arch” using old ladders and vintage details to create a more unique “arch” for the ceremony.
The head table where the bridal party would sit.
The tables themselves were decorated with mismatched vintage tablecloths, framed family photos, decoupaged houses (lit from within to glow when the lights were lowered), and mismatched glassware with fresh cut flowers.
In family-style serving, each table had a cutting board with a loaf of bread in addition to salt sticks to accompany the soup for the meal.
Our “party favor” was an individual apple pie at each place setting, tagged with the pun, “Appley Ever After!”
The table numbers were recreations of old library cards to tie into the antique books that were displayed as part of the centerpiece at each table.
The finished effect made me smile.
But it wasn’t until the overhead lights were turned off and the room was lit only with strings of mercury glass lights that the place really began to feel magical.
Photos of the actual reception will follow soon.
We opted to hire our talented friend, Holly, to capture the evening through photos, thus freeing me up to simply enjoy being mother of the bride and enjoy the magic of the evening. As soon as we get those photos back I will share with all of you, but I couldn’t resist giving you a preview of our magical evening with Zach and Grace.
It’s with hearts overflowing with gratitude that we share the news that our family is once again growing by “two feet.”
This time, however, it is not by way of adoption, but by the sacred road of marriage that we are gaining a son.
This afternoon, Zach took Gracie to a place that holds a special place in her heart and asked her to be his bride. Standing at the base of Buttermilk Falls he declared his love and devotion, presenting her with a treasured token of his love: a family heirloom, his great grandmother’s ring.
And Grace responded with a resounding, “YES!”
Their courtship has been a sweet blessing in the midst of some challenging months, and it was with great joy and unwavering assurance that we gave Zach our blessing when he approached us to ask if he could have our oldest daughter’s hand in marriage.
Grace didn’t know today was going to be one for the memory books, but we did! Zach included us in the blessed event as secret photographers of the proposal. It was such a gift of love to be allowed to be part of that experience and it was a joy to share that moment with both Molly and Sherrie, her soon-to-be second mother.
Grace couldn’t have saved her heart for a better man, and as a result is blessed to be gaining an incredible family.
Our hearts are so full that we find our eyes leaking with the joy of it all.
Blessings of love and eternal happiness to the bride-to-be and the man she loves.
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.
As the child of an Army officer, my first 18 years of life were spend relocating to a new school, new town, new state, (and even occasionally a new country) every few years. I know the feeling of anxiety that accompanies walking into a new school, uncertain of what this new chapter will hold, just praying for one kind face that will invite you to sit at their lunch table.
Being the “new kid” is never easy, but despite the initial anxiety that accompanied every move, I loved the Army lifestyle. It wasn’t until I had to move between 10th and 11th grade that I really struggled, for as hard as it is to be the “new kid” at work, at church, or in the neighborhood, nothing is quite so scary as walking into a new high school and trying to find your place in the teenage hierarchy.
As I have watched Brandon adjust to life with us, he astounds me with his cheerful acceptance of a very hard life transition.
For as challenging as every move was when I was a child, his is far more challenging. When I moved to a new state I at least had the security of family and the familiar possessions that created a consistent feeling of HOME, wherever we were transplanted.
He, on the other hand, moved in with little to nothing of his own, leaving behind the familiar and stepping into the role of “new kid,” at home, at church and in a new high school.
And he did so with no complaint, with abundant gratitude, and astounding grace.
He made the transition with no complaint about the challenges of starting over once again, but simply gratitude for the opportunity to start again…
In a new home with his brother.
He is no stranger to new beginnings or heartbreaking endings. After he was removed from his biological home at age 7 he was shuffled through 15-20 foster placements. Adoption at the age of 12 was followed by the death of his new adoptive mom and then the declining heath of his adoptive Dad that then led to multiple group home placements.
He is no stranger to the feelings of being the “new kid,” and yet he never complains about the challenges that have come with it,
But I know it isn’t easy.
I’ve been there.
Which makes me all the more grateful for the families and youth at church who have opened their hearts to our newest addition and made him feel as though he belongs and is wanted. Their kindness to my son touches my heart in a way they will never truly understand.
Last Saturday we had a birthday party for Brandon. He had expressed that he had never had a birthday party with friends before, so we made plans to invite all the youth from church over for a bonfire.
Brandon was so excited!
The day was spent preparing for the party as we cleaned up the yard, cut wood for the bonfire, and bought and prepared food.
Brandon’s plans for the evening included eating, hanging out around the fire, and playing night games for hours with his new friends.
At 7:00 the first car pulled in and many more followed. I was touched by the showing of youth who came out on a very cold night to play in the dark and make Brandon feel welcome and loved. I know it was a sacrifice for many who had other things they could have been doing in the warmth of their homes,
but their sacrifice makes it all the more meaningful.
They wrapped Brandon in the warmth of their friendship, making him feel special rather than like another “new kid” who will eventually leave again.
They demonstrated Christ-like love and it touched my heart.
After everyone left, and we were carrying in the food and trash, Brandon stopped us in the kitchen to give Toby and I a hug.
“Thank you for my party,” he said.
“I love you.”
There in the kitchen of our home our newest addition spoke those precious words for the first time, not by automatic response, nor out of obligation, but from his heart with sincerity and conviction.
And that ended up being the greatest gift of the night.
It has been 4 weeks now since our family of 7 became a family of 8. At a court hearing on August 22nd, the judge presiding over Brandon’s case officially placed in him in our home as a pre-adoptive placement.
Our last four weeks have been extremely busy. Those who have fostered children well know how busy things are those first 30 days following placement. In the midst of simply trying to find your footing as a new family there are a lot of extra tasks on the family calendar…
Things like tracking down IEPs and past records, registering for school, shopping for all the basic necessities like clothes and sundries that the child arrives at your doorstep without, fill your days. There are also endless appointments, most of which are required to occur within 30 days of placement. Home becomes Grand Central Station. The front door becomes a swinging door as endless people enter and exit. This is all a good thing. The increased level of monitoring is to make sure some these children are safe and cared for, but just to give you an example of what I am talking about here it what that level of care looks like:
Once a week, the social worker from your agency assigned to your family will visit your home.
Once a month, the social worker from your county’s CPS will visit your home.
Within the first 30 days, the child needs to visit his/her pediatrician. If your child has specific health issues, it is possible that your social workers may request this to be done sooner.
Within the first few weeks, the court investigator will also make a home visit. (The court investigator is the CPS social worker tasked with making a recommendation to the court (judge) regarding the child’s case in the early stages.)
Within the first few weeks, you may also receive a home visit from a social worker employed by the child’s lawyer.
Possible other appointments include, but are not limited to: IEP meetings, therapy appointments, tutoring, and other various and sundry things that may arise in the case.
The time of year has also added to the craziness as we try to adjust as a family to a new son but also adjust to a new school year and become acquainted with being public school parents and all that entails ( bus schedules, football practice, open houses, etc.)
In the midst of the craziness, however, I have tried to keep a firm grip on what is most important and not allow the “important” to be swallowed up by the “urgent,”
And one of the most important tasks on the list has been to facilitate reunions between Brandon and the biological siblings he has not seen for the last few years.
When Tyler, Brandon, and their other two brothers and little sister where removed from their birth home they were separated by the courts and placed in different homes. Over the course of a few years they were adopted individually into different families. When Tyler came into our life it was just he and Brandon left in the system having court ordered sibling visits. We knew that upon the adoption of Tyler one of our first priorities would be to track down and reach out to the various adoptive families and try to reconnect him with the siblings he had lost.
We have been blessed greatly in this regard. We located and reached out to the other families soon after adopting Tyler and were able to host a reunion at Patchwork Farm soon after. What joy there was in watching these children reunite after years of separation, and what a joy it was meeting the amazing families that adopted each of Tyler’s siblings!
Since that special day we have tried to keep Tyler connected to his siblings through phone calls, birthday gifts, and visits, but because of the life circumstances unjustly thrust upon Brandon, he has not been able to enjoy that same level of contact.
Brandon adores his siblings and has missed them greatly, so one of our top priorities, amidst the craziness of all the “urgent tasks” filling our calendars, was to make time for Brandon (and Tyler) to reconnect with their biological siblings.
The eventual goal is to host another reunion at our home in the upcoming months but I didn’t want Brandon to have to wait on the logistics of multiple schedules aligning for that to occur, so in the meantime we arranged some individual visits.
Which leads us to two events that have occurred in the past few weeks…
First we had a visit with Cheyanne and her mom. Cheyanne is the youngest of the sibling group and the only girl. She is deeply love by both my boys and when we were able to arrange an impromptu visit both boys were over-the moon about it. It happened after our Kennywood visit. Rain led to an early closing, leaving us free late Saturday afternoon with no plans. Realization that we weren’t to far from Cheyanne’s neck of the woods led to a phone call and plans to meet at Dairy Queen for ice cream and a mini-reunion between Cheyanne and her big brothers.
It was absolutely delightful watching these three reconnect and become reacquainted, and doing so over Dairy Queen blizzards made the experience all the sweeter! They had all grown so much since their last visit that they couldn’t help but be shocked by each others growth, but despite the physical growth and changes to their appearances, the genetic resemblance remains as strong as ever! There is no question that these three are siblings!
A week later we had the opportunity to meet up with another one of Tyler and Brandon’s siblings. This time it was Sean that we arranged to meet.
Like Tyler and Brandon, Sean also plays football for his school and after getting a copy of his game schedule from his mom, we made plans to meet her at one of Sean’s games so his brothers could cheer him on.
It was delightful catching up with Sean’s mom while my boys watched their brother play.
Tyler was delighted to find out that, just like him, Sean was the team’s kicker…
And just like Tyler, he is incredible at it!
After the game we had a half hour to spend together before Sean had band practice, so we drove to Wendy’s for a quick dinner that Sean’s mom kindly treated us to. The boys were so cute together. It was neat watching them reconnect, tease, and laugh as brothers do.
Their only complaint was that they didn’t get nearly enough time together. They desperately wanted to head to a local park to throw the football, but were grateful for the time they did get together.
Hopefully we will be seeing all three siblings again soon, for nothing has more value in this life than the love of family!
But adoption is also heartache, heartbreak and loss.
It is all of those things, and if we don’t acknowledge that truth then we are doing a disservice to those who are embarking on (or are already traveling) the adoption path.
Adoption is emotionally messy. Choosing to open your heart and home to a child that has come into your life through loss and tragedy creates a muddy mix of emotions on all ends. With each placement I am better understanding this reality and have adjusted my expectations accordingly.
When Tyler came into our home as a hurting 6-year-old boy, I am ashamed to admit that I really didn’t get it. I viewed what we were offering him to be a loving gift that he should be grateful and excited about. I wanted his emotions to mirror mine. I was feeling excited, blessed, and full of love for my new son but didn’t recognize that his emotions were more complicated.
The reality is…
As much as media wraps the experience in the tagline of: “Adoption is LOVE,”
(Which it is!)
It should equally be acknowledged: “Adoption is Loss.”
If a child comes to you through adoption, whether due to being removed from an abusive home or placed as an infant by a loving birth mother who is sacrificing all for the sake of the child she loves, loss is involved. There needs to be an understanding that while adoption is a beautiful blessing, it is not all joy and gratitude and celebration. There is also a lot of sadness, confusion, fear, anger, and grief connected with this journey.
The past five years have taught me a lot and I feel better equipped to sensitively and kindly navigate this road with Brandon than I was able to with Tyler. God is working on all of us and opening our eyes to the bigger picture and the deeper reality.
Two weeks ago we made a trip down to Washington County so that Brandon could have a visit with his adoptive father (whom he calls “Pap.”) His adoptive Dad is under the care of hospice due to terminal cancer. It is because of a series of heartbreaking losses in Brandon’s life that we find him living in our home. The visit was a good one. It was good for Brandon to see that we would continue to facilitate visits with his Pap and make visits a priority while we still can, but also good for his pap to see Brandon thriving.. giving him a sense of peace about the situation.
When it was time to leave and we were walking out to the car Brandon asked if he could go say “hello” to his dog.
Tied up in the backyard was a beagle that was bouncing with excitement at the sight of his boy. Brandon asked if I would go back with him because he wanted me to meet his dog.
The next 30 minutes were spent sitting in the grass as the pup bounced between us. With that wiggling mass of pure love in his arms, Brandon’s soul opened and the words began to pour out. Sitting beneath the shade of the tree he started talking; sharing memories of all that had happened in that place. Memories of his dog, of afternoons spent in the woods. He shared memories of learning to cook at his adoptive mom’s side and the struggle of watching her health diminish,
And the crushing loss he felt when she died.
It was as though his reinforced, emotional dam broke loose and the thoughts and feelings of the last few years poured out of him. There in the backyard of his home he purged a lifetime of tears and broken dreams and I sat and listened. It was cathartic and I could see the physical affect that emotional purging had on him.
I held him as he cried.
His overgrown, man-body shook with the tears of a toddler…those tears that wrack the body and wash the soul.
I held him tight until he released his grip, indicating he no longer needed hugged. As he stepped away he turned to say good-bye to a furry friend who has been a loving companion through some of the darkest life experiences a person can endure.
I suggested we take a picture of him with his dog so that we could print it and frame it for his room.
He eagerly agreed and the pup thought it was a good idea too!
We left the home of his Pap with the last of his meager worldly possessions packed in a black garbage bag. We will be returning for additional visits, making sure he has as many visits with his Pap as we can before Brandon experiences another horrible loss.
But despite the fact we will return for visits, there was a sad finality in the way he looked over his shoulder as we left, at the place he has called home for the last few years.
Adoption is about hope, care, redemption and love…
As I consider Father’s Day I can’t help but focus on the blessing of good men in my life, men that have offered glimpses of the divine character of my Father in Heaven by the way they have lived their lives.
As I consider the blessings of a loving father, two incredible grandfathers, and a father-in-law who treated me like a cherished daughter, I recognize I have been blessed more than most.
Despite being imperfect beings, they were able to show me perfect love.
Through their noble callings as fathers and grandfathers I was able to gain a better understanding of my Heavenly Father’s unconditional love. From these men I learned lessons of sacrifice, diligence, forgiveness, gentleness, meekness, strength of character, and kindness.
I also recognize that many aren’t blessed in the same way and the absence of a loving father can affect one’s acceptance of a Heavenly Father that loves and cherishes them unconditionally. I have seen it in my own adopted sons, both of whom were born of men who were anything but loving fathers to them. Men that put their own selfish desires and dysfunctional needs ahead of their children, leaving them with scars that may never completely heal.
Then I look at my husband and how his relationships with Grace, Molly and Rusty have allowed them a glimpse into the divine nature of Heavenly Father. His example exemplifies all that is good and loving about God, and by watching their earthly father love so selflessly, my children have come to know and trust in a loving Heavenly Father.
How blessed I am to have married a man so selfless, so kind, so humble and giving. He gives all, asking nothing in return, putting the needs of others ahead of himself and does so with a smile and generosity of spirit that I find humbling. When I look at Toby I see the character of his own earthly father shining forth. Like his father, Toby is gracious and selfless, opening his heart and home to all, never thinking of himself, and leaving all those he speaks with feeling loved and valued.
There is no better example of this than his choice to open his heart and home to two boys who were in need of a father. Choosing to step away from the comfort and ease of the life he was living, he chose to travel the harder path in his desire to follow Christ’s example and obey the divine calling God laid on his heart. It has not been an easy road, but not once did Toby pull back or walk away from this hard road. Rather, the tougher the behaviors, the closer in he moved, driven by a conviction that every child deserves a safe and loving family…every child deserves to be loved. Through his Christ-like love our two youngest have been given a second chance to experiencing a father’s love. What was stolen from them in childhood is being redeemed with each word of acceptance, each affirmation, each act of forgiveness, and each loving embrace. Through Toby’s example my boys are learning how a real man loves and are slowly discovering their divine worth as a child of loving Heavenly Father.
Last Sunday we celebrated Toby.
The kids had big plans for Father’s Day, plans that began with breakfast in bed…
And concluded with a special dinner after church.
In between, we enjoyed naps, gifts, and a fun Father’s Day activity.
The kids each made or purchased a special Father’s Day gift for Toby, but my gift was more of an experience than a tangible offering.
A few weeks ago, while shopping for Girl’s Camp supplies at Pat Catans Craft store, I discovered Goblies, throwable paint balls. I knew at once that they had to be this year’s Father’s Day gift.
I knew Toby would love it but also that it would be an awesome, laughter-inducing, memory-making, stress-relieving activity for the younger boys who sometimes struggle with hard emotions on these memory-connected holidays.
I purchased a bag of Goblies in seven different colors, so we could each have our own color to mark one another, leaving undeniable evidence of our success on each other’s shirts. I also bought inexpensive white t-shirts for each member of the family and wrapped them all up in a box for Toby’s Father’s Day gift.
On Sunday afternoon, following a Father’s Day feast and a long Sunday nap, we headed outside to make some special Father’s Day memories in the form of some messy fun.
Pick your ammunition!
It was a blast!
Let the battle begin!
The paint began flying! Each paint ball was filled with liquid paint that splattered when it hit a surface or was squeezed in the direction of a family member.
Tyler loved it.
In fact we all did!
The carnage was colorful…
Yes, it was as fun as it looks! A perfect family fun night for the perfect Dad.
How grateful I am to be married to a man who loves me and my children so fully. How grateful we all are for his unconditional love, his huge heart, his wicked sense of humor, his adventurous spirit and his enduring commitment to his family.