Saturday, May 29, 2010

Bless the Beasts and The Children

My neighbor recently got a new dog: a scrappy little doxen-and-something mix.

The other day as I rang my neighbor’s doorbell the dog started yapping away and barking up a storm. “Let me put her in the kennel.” My neighbor called to me through her screen. “He’s a little wild right now.”

She explained that she and her husband had recently adopted the dog, Skittles, from an animal shelter and that he was having a hard transition as this was the third home he had lived at in a couple of months.

“I guess Skittle’s original owner was an older woman who had too many dogs in her home- more than the county’s acceptable limit- so someone intervened.”  I smiled as an image of a crazy old "cat lady" popped into my mind.

She continued, “She’s been doing well except for when I try to discipline her and then she gets kind of scared. I feel bad because I’m not trying to be mean, but I need to reprimand her when she pees on the carpet instead of outside, you know what I mean? She does alright with me, but when my husband gets home from work it’s a different story- this dog kind of freaks out- not just with my husband but when any males come to the door or in the house. I think the last house she was at (before the shelter) there must have been a man that abused him- because men really seem to set him off and give him lots of . . .

“Triggers?” I finished her sentence. She nodded in affirmation. “Sounds like a foster child” I said, half-chuckling to myself.

And when I use the term “chuckle” I don’t mean laughing in a “ha ha, that’s so funny!” way- but more of a “That’s so sad- insert nervous laughter because life can be so unfair sometimes” way.

Mind you, I’m not trying to be insensitive to or demean foster children by comparing them to animals, but JUST HEAR ME OUT as I try to process my thoughts: The parallels between my neighbor’s shelter dog and foster children were impossible to ignore: both are victims, through no fault of their own, of neglect, abuse, or abandonment. Each has to make the transition of being removed from their environment to a new foreign environment where they often must deal with issues of confusion, trust, and fear. Is it no wonder they "act out"?

My neighbor’s words and the similarities between abused and abandoned children and animals in need of homes were in the back of my mind when two days later- I kid you not- I saw this commercial on TV. I didn’t catch all of it, but the line that stood out for me was:

"Shelter dogs aren't broken-

They've simply experienced more life"

The voice-over on the Pedigree commercial continued as pictures of puppies and dogs came across the screen with a somber music playing in the background and a final admonition to adopt a shelter dog.

Maybe I’m too idealistic, but I think that most people are touched with compassion when they hear of others who are suffering or in need of help. And I think that the desire to help is even more pronounced when children or animals are in need because unlike most people, children and animals are not capable of standing up for themselves.

The words of the song “Bless the Beasts and the Children” come to mind. (To get the full affect, imagine Karen Carpenter’s angelic voice singing.)

Bless the beasts and the children
For in this world they have no voice
They have no choice

Bless the beasts and the children
For the world can never be
The world they see

Light their way
When the darkness surrounds them
Give them love
Let it shine all around them

Bless the beasts and the children
Give them shelter from a storm
Keep them safe
Keep them warm

So although I’m NOT writing this post in an effort to put everyone on a guilt trip if you don't go out and become a foster parent or adopt a child from foster care (or even an animal from a shelter for that matter) right this minute, I DO have one request: Perhaps we could re-frame the way we may view children who come into foster care and separate their unfortunate circumstances from the children themselves, because nobody likes to be called "broken" and to paraphrase the Pedigree commercial:

"Foster Children are not broken- they’ve simply experienced more life than other children."

May is National Foster Care Month; hence my obligatory Foster Care Advocacy post.

For a list of ways to help support children in foster care, other than fostering and adopting click here.

Also check out the last couple of paragraphs of this post written by a teenager whose family has fostered over 14 children.  I like that Kylee's post encouraged others to get involved, but it didn't necessarily use guilt as a motive for those who don't choose to foster or adopt.

Friday, May 28, 2010

Extended Visits

This morning after Jared dropped Christian off to visit his father he called me on the phone and said, “I feel so bad. I handed him to his dad and as I was walking away he just kept looking up at me with his puppy dog eyes, kind of like What’s going on? Where are you going?”

I feel bad, too- but what can we do?

I felt guilty enough when we used respite care for our recent vacation. Although we knew Christian was in capable hands we worried that he might think we were abandoning him.

So, to make things feel as “normal” as possible for him while he was in a new environment with strangers (and to make it as easy as possible for the woman providing respite care for us) I sent his favorite blankets, toys, and binkies, and wrote an extremely detailed list of his daily schedule including his bedtime routine, nap times, and feeding schedule.

Overall Christian did pretty well while we were gone, but the foster mother providing respite care for us reported that he didn’t stick to his nap routine: instead of sleeping all the way through his morning nap which is typically his longest nap of the day, he would wake up after a short time. I guess he missed sleeping in the nursery in his own crib.

Of course, there’s no way of knowing what’s going on in a baby’s mind. Who knows what he thinks on days like today when he has extended visits with his parents: We drop him off in the morning and he spends 4 hours with his dad and then he spends 4 hours with his mom. Then we pick him up in the evening and bring him “home”. It’s like musical chairs- or rather, musical parents who are all caring for one child being shuffled around.

So why does he see each parent separately? Well, the latest update from Christian’s caseworker is that they were thinking about getting back together and had actually dropped the no-contact orders against each other. However, both the caseworker and the Guardian Ad Liteum feel that it would not be in Christian’s best interest to have the parents meet together with their son, which is why they do their visits separately. In fact, if they get “caught” visiting together then the visits will be moved back to being supervised at the DCFS Office.

Extended visits (meaning more than just the court-ordered weekly hour-long visits) started about a month ago in preparation for him returning to his parent’s care. In fact, the Permanency Hearing is exactly one month from today and I don’t see any reason why the judge wouldn’t order Christian to be placed back into his parent’s care since they’ve both been doing everything required of them in their Service Plans.

At first the extended visits started out as two hours a week for each parent, now we’re up to four hours each, and starting next week we’ll probably start moving up to six hours each (which is basically the whole day) and finally we’ll make the transitional overnight visits. I’m unsure if his caseworker will recommend having extended or overnight visits for more than just once a week but I sure think it would be beneficial for everyone- especially Christian.

My hope is that in the next month Christian will be start feeling more “at home” in his parent’s homes than he does in our home. Or in the least I hope he starts making the connection that his parents are his mommy and daddy rather than just “the guy that plays with me once a week” or “the lady who watches me” when I’m not at my “regular” house.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Birth Moms Deserve Our Respect

" . . . thanks to society's misgivings and misconceptions about adoption, birth mothers are damned if they do and damned if they don't. By indicating that placing a child for adoption is a selfish or painless choice when it's not, or talking about birth mothers as if they were all crack-addled prostitutes or at the very least wayward youth, we not only limit a woman's right to choose but also shut out the possibility that there are other people out there who would love to adopt. Why not try respecting these women as mothers able to make the best decision for themselves and their pregnancies—even if that decision is not to parent?
- from the last parargraph of Raina Kelley's Newsweek article, "Birth Moms Deserve Our Respect"

[There were also some references in the article to how birth mothers (both fictional and real) have been portrayed in the media recently- Juno, MTV's 16 and Pregnant and Brighton Palin, etc.  It would be interesting to go back and read the article in 20 years and see if anything has changed.] 

Incidentally, many times when people inquire about our little girl's birth mother they are surprised to find that she was not a teenager, but a single mother with two other children who chose to place her baby in a home with a father and a mother.

 And for that selfless decision I am eternally grateful to her.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Birthparent Letters: Predatory and Unethical?

In light of my feelings of having to “market myself” through birthparent letters I was interested to find some blog posts which addressed the very topic of birthparent letters. I had some issues with one post in particular which basically labeled and accused any adoptive couple or adoption agency that uses birthparent letters as a way of contacting potential birthparents as “predatory and unethical” since “any time you are making an emotional appeal to someone for their child, it is predatory and unethical, even if you don’t realize it.”

What could compel somebody to use such strong, negative language to describe that aspect of the adoption process? Well, to understand where the author is coming from, it may be helpful to learn that the post was written by a birthmother who felt like she was coerced into placing her child for adoption years ago, and, as with others who have “problems”* with adoption it sounds like she consequently has a hard time believing that birthmothers are capable of choosing to place children for adoption on their own free will, without being “coerced” or “manipulated”.

*I’ll refrain from labeling this woman “anti-adoption” as I try to give others the benefit of the doubt and she actually states in another post “I am not anti-adoption. I am pro reform in adoption”

I went on to read the rest of her post and had to laugh when she was making fun of one birthparent letter in particular (whether real or not I don’t know) which said, speaking of the prospective adoptive parent’s hobbies:

“they both love to take vacations to experience new places . . . Their favorite was the trip to the Grand Canyon. They are planning another vacation this year to Hawaii.”

Guess whose birthparent letter mentions traveling to both The Grand Canyon and Hawaii? GUILTY! What can I say- we like to travel.

And by the way, you don’t have to be wealthy to enjoy traveling, Enter (I mention this because there is a stereotype out there that all adoptive couples are financially advantaged and the birthmother who wrote this letter apparently believes in this stereotype as well as she asserts that it is further unethical to force women to “compete with financially blessed, advantaged couples”).

This disgruntled woman’s solution to the “unethical emotional aspect” of letters and profiles is to create a “fact sheet":

“The fact sheet lists very basic information about an adoptive couple and includes one picture of their current family. It includes things like age, ethnicity, education, careers, religious affiliation, degree of openness sought... It is a very bare bones introduction to the couple. This would allow for the woman viewing the fact sheet to base decisions completely on the facts. There is no emotional appeal, no flashy pictures, no talks of vacations or mention of how long the couple has longed for a child. And honestly, it takes the pressure off the adoptive couple because you can simple list the truth about yourself with no competition to make the best book or say the right thing or stand out from the rest of the waiting families. You are what you are. :) Once the expectant mother has found fact sheets that coincide with her initial criteria, she can then request some more detailed information about those families.”

Great idea, but DUH!- Are there really any adoption agencies out there that don’t use fact sheets to give birthmothers basic information about a prospective adoptive couple before letting them narrow their search down to specific families who meet their “initial criteria”?

More of her post:

“I can tell you as a person who has given my child to another family, I don't give two hoots about how much your husband loves to do sparklers with your nephews on the 4th of July... I want to know how you would PARENT my child. What would you do to shape the life of the person I am giving to you? So often the only thing that is really offered in Dear Birthmother letters is the promise to love and care for the child. Well, I would do that myself, so that is not anything that is going to convince me that I should give you a person! It kind of makes me laugh when I read that! Most people would want to know more from the veterinarian caring for their dog than they offer of substance in a profile or letter. I don't know if that is because they just don't know WHAT to write or if they are just too nervous to really bare who they are . . . I'm not ragging on adoptive parents (really?- ‘cuz I’m starting to feel like you are) I know that these profiles and letters are required very early on in the process.

It was educational for me to hear about the process of “choosing” a family from a birthmother’s perspective.

BUT, from my own perspective (and in my defense) . . .

Granted, we don’t talk about discipline techniques (yawn) or how my husband and I handle conflict in our birthparent letter. Is this important information? Of Course! Those are the kinds of questions that adoptive couples are required to answer in interviews and in the mountain of paperwork we fill out during the “screening process”. But it’s important to remember that the Birth Parent Letter is only 2 Pages- it is in essence an “introduction” rather than a couple’s complete autobiography or philosophy on parenting. Therefore, if a birthparent has additional questions for an adoptive couple that is precisely what the “Contact Us” page of their online profile is for!

Your thoughts on birthparent letters?

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Birthparent Letters: Let The Marketing Begin

One of the most stressful parts of the adoption process for my husband and I has been composing the “birthparent letter” in which we attempt to introduce ourselves to any birthparents who are considering adoption, express our desire to adopt, summarize our lives and family backgrounds, and portray our personalities and interests in just a few pages.

We stress over what information to include or what not to include: On the one hand, we want the reader to come away with a better understanding of who we are and we obviously want to make a favorable impression, but at the same time we don’t want to come across as braggy, fake, or cheesy.

As for the fear of sounding too “braggy” in the letter, a good solution is to have each spouse write about the other- because I have no problem whatsoever expanding on my husband’s good qualities, but it would be very uncomfortable for me to go on and on about myself, in essence writing, “This is how fabulous I am and these are the reasons why you should choose me to parent your child.”   Ummm . . . Awkward.

Writing a birthparent letter reminds me of building a resume in that you have to list your good qualities and work experience or you won’t get the job. And that’s precisely what bugs me so much about it- Parenthood shouldn’t be a “job” you have to apply and interview for, right?!

The fact of the matter is that adoptive couples do, in fact, have to go through an extensive screening and “interview process” in order to be considered eligible to adopt in the first place. We have to be found “worthy” to be considered parents by having our fingerprints taken, our backgrounds checked, our physical and mental health and financial stability approved, our marriages evaluated and our homes inspected. We even have to provide letters of recommendation from friends and neighbors who can vouch that we’re decent people!

Furthermore, just because we “pass” our interview and screening process (that is, have our home study approved) does not necessarily guarantee that we will automatically be able to adopt a child because that is something which is entirely up to the few birthparents out there who choose to place their children for adoption.

This is where the next stage of the adoption process comes in: spreading the word about our desire to adopt to as many people as possible so that a birthparent can find us. At times this aspect of the adoption process makes me feel like we’re “marketing” ourselves or running an advertising campaign which, in turn, reduces our highest, most sacred, and personal aspiration of building our family into a very public “marketing campaign” or “ad”.  I don’t like how that makes me feel.

Of course, it goes both ways: adoptive parents aren’t the only ones in the adoption triad who are bothered by adoption being compared to a market economy. As one birthmother described the process of searching for a family for her child by looking through birthparent letters,

”I could tell right away the couples who had adopted before-they read like they were trying to “sell” themselves to me. You think you know just what I want to hear I would think to myself. . . Then one day as I read one “sales pitch” after another, I was all but ready to give up.”

To anyone who questions the motives or sincerity of adoptive parents I just have to say, Trust me, it’s not that adoptive parents WANT to “sell” ourselves. Realistically, what are we supposed to do? Sit around and wait for an anonymous stranger to leave a baby on our doorstep with a note attached that reads “You look like a nice family- here’s a baby for you- free for the taking!” (Because that just hasn’t happened yet.)

I, for one, am NOT a salesperson by nature. But if plastering my family’s picture on a web button with a plea to any possible viewers to ”Help Us Adopt” is what it takes to find our children, then I’m more than willing to get out of my comfort zone and do it.

And speaking of getting out of my comfort zone, as if composing a birthparent letter isn’t awkward enough, hopeful adoptive couples also have to come up with a couple dozen pictures representative of our family so that potential birthparents can see what we look like and what kinds of activities we like to do together. If I were an International model I wouldn’t have as many issues about this, but the truth is I’ve seen “younger” (and thinner) days which would probably make me a more attractive candidate for a birthparent. Yet even back then I’d rarely be satisfied with how I look in pictures as there is always some fault I can point out in my appearance. So now not only is our greatest desire (to have children) made public for the whole world wide web to see, but photos of us- sans glitz and glamour- are available for everyone to scrutinize as well.

When I think about birthparents (or anyone else for that matter) reading our birthparent letter I sometimes worry about wording things in a way that could come across differently than was intended. For example, at one time the caption under very first picture on our adoption profile of my husband and I (pre-children; I prefer to display our pictures in chronological order) simply stated “We were married for seven years before we became parents.” My intent was to share the background of our married life together. After all, if a couple has been married for seven years you would hope that they have had time to develop a good solid relationship with each other, right? But then I thought “What if people think we waited seven years because we didn’t want children or we were too busy with careers or something? Does that make it sound like we were married for seven years before we became parents out of choice? Because that’s not it at all!”

So I changed the wording to “We were married for seven years before we were able to become parents”. And then, of course, because I have a tendency to over-analyze things I thought “What if that sounds like we’re trying to feel sorry for ourselves now?”

I think the most important thing to remember when composing a birthmother letter is to just BE YOURSELF, because I wouldn’t want a birthmother to think I’m anyone or anything other than who I really am.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

My Worth as a Woman

Last month I was talking to a group of women about children and the topic of "how many to have" came up.  One woman who has her hands full with three young children very close in age shared that although she wanted more, her husband was "done" after having two.  Then she started laughing as she pointed to her grinning toddler (#3) and exclaimed, "She was an accident!" 

WHAT I WOULDN'T GIVE FOR AN ACCIDENT!   In my case, however, "miracle" would be a more appropriate term.  Are children accidents or miracles?  I guess it all depends upon one's life experiences  and perspective.

Don't get me wrong, the woman who told me about her "accident" is a great mother and I don't sense any resentment on her part because of her children, but as I was listening to her and holding my foster baby (and wishing I had a baby to call my own) I just had to smile at life's ironies- because sometimes smiling or laughing is better than the alternative.   This gem of a quote comes to mind:  

Growing up I always wanted to have a large family- six or seven kids.  Perhaps it's because I enjoyed growing up in a family of seven children and the concept of large families is not uncommon or unusual in the Mormon culture I was raised in.  Between my six siblings and their spouses there are 36 grandchildren, which is, on average, 6 children per family.  And in my opinion, six is at the "low end" of a large family as nine or ten children seems large to me.  One friend I grew up with had 13 brothers and sisters- no multiples, no adoptions- her mother had given birth 14 times.  Her mother had spent  over ten years of her life being pregnant!

I had a roommate in college who came from another large Mormon family of ten children and when she was comparing her family (in a bragging way) to another friend who came from a family of "just" five children his quick-witted response to her was: "My parents were going for QUALITY not QUANTITY." 

Of course, that's not to say that you can't have BOTH- the Duggar family comes to mind.  They've gotten a lot of slack for having "too many children", but I am amazed at how well-behaved and clean all of their children are.  And seriously, have you ever seen Michelle Duggar raise her voice?  She's got the patience of Job.  

As I got older and married at 25 (an "old maid" by some Mormon standards) and discovered a couple of years into married life that conceiving children was not something that would come easily for me, my hopes of having a large family were diminished with each passing year of childlessness.  I also always assumed I would become a mother for the first time in my 20's rather than my 30's but I have learned that "life is what happens when you've made other plans." 

I also realized that I had a hidden belief in the back of my mind that the more children I had, the greater my worth would be.  This is an illogical belief as it basically suggests that women who are not mothers are worthless.  Can you imagine someone saying "Yah, that Mother Theresa sure is a loser because she never had any children of her own."  Think of all of the wonderful women out there who may not be mothers in the traditional sense of the world but who nurture and teach and guide children every day of their lives- whether it be teachers who spend more time in a day with children than their parents actually do or counselors, caseworkers, nurses, etc. 

Any woman who has based her worth on her ability to be a mother but has felt that she has "fallen short" can take comfort in these quotes:

"The commonest fallacy among women is that simply having children makes one a mother- which is as absurd as believing that having a piano makes one a musician." 
-Sydney J. Harris
"Motherhood is more than bearing children. It is the essence of who we are as women.
                            -Sheri L. Dew
"You need not possess children to love them; loving is not synonymous with possessing and possessing is not necessarily loving. The world is filled with people to be loved, guided, taught, lifted, and inspired."
               - Heber Kapp     
BOTTOM LINE: A woman's worth should not depend on if she is able to be a "mother" or not.

So, although I know in my mind that my worth should not be dependent upon having children or of having a certain amount of children, in my heart I still feel like a failure at times because I don't have a house full of half a dozen children like I had ideally imagined. And when I meet or read about people like Michelle Duggar or this woman (both of them home school their children, too!) I find myself both envious and in awe.

Here's how two other Mormon women who have struggled with infertility have described it. Sadly, both of these women use the word "failed" to describe their experiences. But I love how both of these women are so honest with their feelings and I feel compelled to share their thoughts because when I read what they had written I could so strongly relate to them and I felt like I WASN'T ALONE:

From Kim's post Are You There God, Its Me, Margaret?

Lately, I've really been wondering... "What is Normal?" "I just want to be normal!"

I bawled my eyes out two weeks ago when once again, my body failed me. I cried for two hours until my eyes were dry and sleep finally overcame me. 
I want to be normal. I want to be like all of the other happy little families taking up an entire row at church with their six kids.

I want to FILL up the car we bought a few months ago...really. Today as I was driving my just felt, EMPTY.
From Kenna's post Infertility: Its What's for Dinner:
 I have failed as a woman, as a wife, as a Mormon, as a productive member of society. I had applied to be part of the exclusive 'Mom's Club' and I got a rejection letter with a huge 'F' on it.
Imagine sitting in sacrament meeting. You are on a bench in the middle. To your right? Mom, Dad, 2 kids. To your left? Mom, Dad, 3 kids. In front of you? 2 pregnant women, 2 newborns. Behind you, Mom, Dad, 2 kids. All around you? Mom, Dad, kid. Then, as you are trying to calm your feelings of hurt and loss down (by chanting in your head, 'I have new couches and a big ass tv'), you hear that there are going to be 3 baby blessings. Sunday school you talk about the importance of teaching your children gospel principals. Every one either has a baby on their lap, or is pregnant. Relief Society, well, we won't go there because I don't go there.
So where am I at this point in my life in regards to basing my worth on having children?  I turn 36 this year and my husband and I are celebrating ten years of marriage this month.  We have been blessed with a beautiful daughter through the miracle of adoption and we are extremely grateful.  I occasionally have to remind myself that "quality" is more important than "quantity" when I compare my expectations with reality.  BUT . . .  in my state of mid-life crisis induced pity:

 Is it too much to ask if I can just have more than one child before I turn 40?!

Thanks for letting me share. :)

Respite Care

I have a good excuse for my recent lack of posts: I have been on VACATION in Hawaii celebrating our Tenth Anniversary, which, incidentally, brings me to the topic of this post.

respite: (ˈres-pət): an interval of rest or relief

Q: What happens when a foster family wants to go on vacation?  Do they take their foster children with them?

A: It depends on where they are going- if they are in the same state no big deal but if they are going out of state they have two options:

  1. Take their foster child with them after getting permission from the child's birthparents and the child's caseworker and/or guardian ad liteum, (because technically speaking, traveling out of state with a child who is not legally one's own is "kidnapping").
  2. Use Respite Care

Q: What happens when foster parents need someone to watch their foster child because they want to have a date night or a weekend getaway?

A: Anytime a foster parent is not with their foster child, the foster child can only be watched in a licensed foster home (which has undergone health & safety checks) OR by another foster parent.  Therefore, if my husband and I want to go out on a date night we could:

  1. Get a babysitter to watch our foster children in our home but we wouldn't be able to just drop him off at say, a family member's house or a neighbor's house (unless, of course, they are licensed foster care providers).  That is why it's good for foster families to get to know other foster families in their area so that should the need arise they can
  2. Use Respite Care with another foster family
In the state of Utah foster parents are able to use one day of respite care a month not to exceed 12 days of respite in one year.  Or if they choose, they can "save up" days for extended periods of time such as vacation.

We never used respite care for our first two placements but we used respite care twice with this placement: one day earlier this year when I was sick and most recently when we went on vacation.  We figured that since we were not only going out of state but going overseas as well it would be easiest (and more of a vacation) to leave Christian behind so while we were gone he stayed with another foster family who lives less than a mile from us.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Perspectives on Mother's Day

I wrote about Mother's Day a few years ago, but this Mother's Day (okay, so technically I'm a few days late) I wanted to share a couple of accounts I've read from other people's perspectives which I found particularly interesting:

Click HERE to read Nia Vardolous' entertaining thoughts on Mother's Day Etiquette.   

Click HERE to read Jill's enlightening post about Mother's Day/ Birthmother's Day from the perspective of a birthmother.  She brought up some points that had never even crossed my mind and it's always good to try and learn from each other.

There is no way to be a perfect mother, and a million ways to be a good one." ~Jill Churchill