Sunday, February 12, 2017

Adopting from Foster Care: Advice from a Mom Who's Been There

The other day I ran into a neighbor of mine who had just started the process of adopting 2 little ones who've been living with her and her family for 2 months. She seemed overwhelmed, scared and above all just WORN OUT by the constant and unrelenting needs of her two new children. In thinking of all the advice I wanted to convey to her, I was surprised to realize how much I'd learned in my own journey over the past 6 years. So, here's some information I wish I'd had (or had taken to heart) when we began our own adoption journey:

Choose your battles

When our four kids moved in at ages 6,7,9 and 10 my husband and I were completely overwhelmed by the challenges we faced. There were the BIG issues like sexualized behavior, violent outbursts and medical problems. But there were so many other things that, while taken alone weren't as scary, they sure added up, compounded each day and making us feel like we were constantly taking one step forward and two steps back. One kid would hoard food by hiding it until we discovered rotten sandwiches by smell. Another made loud nonsense noises night and day until we wanted to cry. Personal hygiene was impossible. Mealtimes were a nightmare. All the kids refused to eat anything but the worst junk food. They'd never used a napkin. After a few months of being beaten back and exhausted by the enormity of what we'd taken on, we finally learned to choose our battles wisely. And to choose ONE struggle at a time. Or, more correctly, we let the kids choose the challenge that THEY wanted to work on. 

So the first summer the kids were with us we invented "summer challenges". Each kid got a personalized list of areas to work on during the summer, and the more they mastered the more rewards they could earn. They could start with any challenge on their list but they would concentrate on just that one area before moving onto the next one. Rewards started out small (ice cream sundae) and got bigger the more challenges they accomplished. Examples were a book of your choice, trip to the movies with a friend, $30 Target "shopping spree",  a day at a local amusement park, etc...     

By the end of the summer the kids had accomplished anywhere from 7 to 10 of their challenges, our house was so much calmer and our life seemed far more survivable. The kids loved it and begged to do it again the following summer. They really felt so proud of the new skills they were learning. By the 3rd summer we had run out of these basic family manners skills and used summer challenges for things like learning multiplication tables or reading a certain number of books. We had come so far in a short amount of time and I credit much of that to our decision to focus on one skill at a time and ignore the rest.

The first year is (probably) the hardest

There are a few families for whom the road does not get easier as the years go by, and I certainly don't want to overlook their pain, but I want you to know as an adoptive parent at the beginning of your own journey that - for the vast majority of families - things do get better. Love alone won't fix everything (or anything) but most kids will improve given a safe environment, professional support and LOTS of structure. YOU will also improve. You will see that your job is not to "fix" your kids but rather to accept them where they're at. You'll learn to embrace the new normal.

Probably at least a hundred times during that first twelve months my husband and I said to each other, "It has to get easier from here". I don't know if we really believed it then but we were right! My grandmother's favorite saying was "This too shall pass". So true. For better or worse, nothing lasts forever. You can get through this month by getting through this week. And you can get through this week by getting through today. And you can get through today by getting through the next hour. Take a deep breath. Count to 10. Or count to 100. Lock yourself in the bathroom for 5 minutes. Take a walk around the block while your spouse watches the kids. If you and your kids have managed to survive the day alive and with all your limbs attached, count it a success. Have that glass of wine or piece of chocolate. You are far stronger than you know. Your kids are stronger than you realize. You will all get through this

Make time to be a family

It is so easy to get caught up in our culture of constant busyness. My husband and I both work. My kids - who'd never had the opportunity before - love to sign up for every sport, club and activity they can. For the average family the weekday pattern of school - day care - dinner on the run - activities - bed might be exhausting and stressful, but for adoptive families it can actually work against your most important job - building connection. All kids who've lost their birth family are going to struggle with attachment issues. If you're a foster or adoptive parent I'm sure you've already learned so much about this through training and licensing. But once the adoption papers are signed and you're officially a family, it's easy to forget. You want to feel "normal". You want to jump ahead to doing what you see all the other families in your neighborhood doing - which is driving in circles every night from one activity to the next. Family dinner comes through a drive-through window or from grabbing a granola bar out of a backpack between soccer and dance.

Don't fall into this trap. Your kids do not need to learn lacrosse or TaeKwonDo nearly as much as they need to learn what it means to be a family. The most important team they can be a part of is the one that has daily huddles around the kitchen table. This isn't to say kids shouldn't do any outside activities, but one activity per kid is a reasonable limit to set. And make sure you plan time in every week for family time. We schedule family time on everyone's calendars and take turns picking an activity (see below). In our family for years Friday nights were "Family Movie Night" and no one was allowed to (or wanted to) schedule anything to conflict with it. Everyone looked forward to piling onto the futon with a giant of popcorn with our own secret family popcorn seasoning.       


Don't do it alone

It has been the experience of many an adoptive parent that after the initial outpouring of support and love when the kids move in, over time friends, family, churches, co-workers all seem to drift farther and farther away. Even those who stay in the picture may keep trying to compare the problems of your children to those of a "typical" childhood. Such seemingly helpful advice like "It's just a phase", "Let them cry it out", "It's normal for kids to..." is not really going to help you or your kids who are facing the overwhelming fallout from trauma and grief.

If you've got an adoption support group in your area, join it! Your county adoption worker can probably point you in the right direction. If you don't have an in-person group, join one online. Or join three! The very best resource you'll find as an adoptive parent is other adoptive parents. These are the folks that will make you feel like you haven't lost your mind. They'll validate the worst feelings you have on your darkest days and help you move past them. The North American Council on Adoptable Children (NACAC) has a database of support groups. Your state Human Services department is another source of resources.

Take advantage of EVERY professional resource you can find. It's typical for an adopted child to have a psychiatrist for meds if needed, play therapist for weekly support, skills worker for in-home support, and sometimes a "para" or aide for extra help at home and school. If your kid does not already come with  an IEP that qualifies them for special education services at school, this is something worth putting your time and effort into obtaining. Even for a kid that is otherwise neurotypical, the stresses of abuse, trauma, grief and attachment issues can have profound ramifications on a child's ability to learn and process information. You will most certainly end up educating your child's teachers about the effect of trauma. This is rarely well covered in the curriculum for teacher development.  Getting help for your child and your family is never a sign of weakness. It's one of the best things you can do for your kids.

Celebrate your Successes!

If you've been chosen to parent children with trauma histories, there will always be a new challenge waiting for you just around the corner. Just when you feel like your elementary school kid is sailing smoothly along, BAM, puberty hits. And when your middle schooler has finally learned to make friends and control their temper - watch out! - it's on to high school and dating and driving and leaving home. You need to slow things down and take time to realize how far you've come.

The other day I was lamenting to my husband that our son had walked to school without his backpack - again. Then we both had to laugh. Because if that's the biggest problem we're facing right now we sure must have done something right. We need to step back and look at the progress we've all made in this family. For our kids who've learned to trust, to manage emotions, to develop social skills, to accept help, and, yes, even to gain enough table manners to eat out a nice restaurant. But also for us as parents who've learned so much from our kids, grown so much in our understanding of what it means to be a parent, become so blessed by our children that we can't imagine life any other way.  We are happy now. Our lives are full. And it was absolutely worth every sleepless night, every tear we shed, every time we second guessed ourselves, every sideways look we got from folks who just didn't understand. It was worth it all because we also had hugs and laughter and long walks and fireflies and more memories than we can fit in 10 photo albums on our shelves. You will get there too. Take it from someone who's been where you're at.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

When Love is Not Enough

A story dedicated to all foster children and those who care for them

Once upon a time there was a little girl who found a puppy. He was a cute little fellow with big brown eyes and floppy ears and a tail that wagged all the time. She loved him right away.

“Daddy! Daddy! Can I keep him?” she asked.

Her father sighed. “No dear. I don’t have time to take care of a puppy. I have to work and to take care of you.”

“But I’ll take care of him!” the little girl cried. “I love him! I love him more than anything in the whole world!”

“It’s very easy to love a puppy,” said her father, “but it’s very difficult to care for them. Will you walk him and feed him and brush him and play with him and keep him clean?”

“Oh yes!” said the little girl. “I love him very very much and I will do all of those things!”

“Ok, if you really mean it” said her father. But his voice was sad and his shoulders were slumped.

The little girl was very happy and she scooped up the puppy and took him home and played with him all afternoon. The puppy was happy too. He loved the little girl and would lick her face and nuzzle her hair and follow her everywhere she went.

For the first week the little girl took very good care of the puppy. She fed him and walked him and brushed him every day and bought him a beautiful new red collar to wear. At night he would sleep in her bed and she would whisper “I love you puppy” before they fell asleep.

Then, one day, the girl got a brand new video game which was very exciting. She had lots of fun playing the game and forgot to feed or brush her puppy that day and they didn’t go for a walk. She still told him “I love you puppy” at the end of the day. The puppy whimpered a little because he was hungry but he still loved the little girl and licked her face and nuzzled her hair.

The girl felt bad about what she’d done so the next day she fed him twice as much and took him for a longer walk than usual. She was going to brush his hair too but since she was tired after the long walk she decided to skip it. “I love you puppy” she whispered as they fell asleep.

As the weeks went by the little girl tried to remember to take care of the puppy but sometimes she was playing with her friends or playing with her toys or watching something on TV and just forgot. Other times she felt tired or sad or angry and so just didn’t feel like taking care of her puppy. And so some days she skipped feeding or walking or brushing him. But she never forgot to say “I love you puppy”. And it was true. She still loved him very much.

The puppy was often hungry these days but he still loved the little girl. Sleeping with her was his favorite thing to do. He didn’t mind so much that his fur got matted and stuck together and that his skin was itchy and that he started to smell bad. The little girl loved him and he loved her and that was enough for him.

Then one night the girl looked at the puppy who was not so cute now – his fur was no longer shiny or soft and although he was bigger he looked scrawny and dirty. His beautiful red collar was faded now and hung loose around his skinny neck. She began to worry he might give her fleas. Sometimes, when he was hungry, the puppy also whimpered during the night and that would annoy her. “I love you puppy,” she told him that night “but I think you can sleep in the living room from now on”.

And so the puppy slept in the living room on an old towel and although he missed sleeping with the little girl, he still loved her very much. When she would come out in the morning he would wag his tail and jump up and down and lick her hand when she would let him (She didn’t let him lick her face anymore). The little girl would sometimes pat him on the head and that would make him very happy. But most of the time he was sad.

It was harder for the little girl to remember to take care of the puppy now that he wasn’t in her room anymore. She missed feeding him more often and his fur was too matted now for her to try to comb it. Once in a while she’d still take him for a walk – if she was not too busy. She still loved him. She still said “I love you puppy” every night before she went to bed.

Then one day the little girl’s father called her into the living room. She knew right away she was in trouble. “Look at this puppy” her father said sternly. “He is a mess. He has scabs because you have not cleaned his fur. He is far too skinny because you are not feeding him. He is very sad because you are not playing with him and his feet hurt because you do not trim his nails or take him for walks. I see now that you cannot take care of this puppy. It is time for us to find another family for him. We can find a nice family who will take very good care of him and he will be happy.”

“No!” the little girl cried. “You can’t! I LOVE him! Another family could never love him as much as I do!”

“It is very easy to love a puppy” said her father. “It is very hard to care for them.”

But the little girl cried and cried and threw a terrible temper tantrum and promised her father a hundred different times that she would take care of the puppy from now on and so…finally…he relented.

And so the puppy stayed. And the girl loved him and he loved her. The girl sat down next to the puppy to think. It was bad timing that her father had brought this up now because she was going to be very busy for the next three days. She wanted very much to keep the puppy but she did not want to do so much work to take care of him. What could she do?

And then she had an idea. In the garage was a very large bag of dog food where she would take the puppy’s bowel to fill it up before she gave it to him. What if instead of taking the puppy’s food to the puppy, she took the puppy to the food? And so she went and got the leash, attached it to his collar and led him out to the garage. She tied the leash to a strong pole in the garage and then dragged the bag of dog food over to the puppy and opened it for him. “Here you go puppy” she said. “Eat as much as you want.”

As she walked away the puppy tried to follow her. The leash held tight but the collar was still loose so he slipped his head out of it and went running over to her to try to lick her hands.

“No puppy.” She said sternly. “You need to stay here.” She led him back to the pole and put his leash on again. This time she tightened the collar so that he couldn’t slip out of it. She put a large dish of water beside him as well.

“I love you puppy” she said. And it was true. She did love him. And he loved her. And then she left.

And she didn’t come back for three days.

And the puppy was very very sad.
And he was lonely.
And he was hungry.
And so he ate the dog food that was in front of him. And then he ate some more. And then he ate some more.

He had been hungry for such a long time that he didn’t know how to stop. And so he kept eating. And eating and eating. And he started to get fat in his belly and in his rump and in his neck. And still he kept eating. And the collar around his neck got very tight – so tight that it hurt him and cut him – and still he kept eating. And all the time he thought about the little girl and how much he missed her and how much he loved her.

And after three days the little girl came to check on her puppy that she loved very much – only now she didn’t have a puppy anymore.

And she cried and cried.

“I didn’t know!” she screamed when her father tried to tell to tell her what had happened. “It’s not MY fault! I LOVED him! I loved him more than anything in the whole world!”

But it is very easy to love a puppy. Anyone can do it. You don’t even have to try.

But it’s not easy at all to care for a puppy. It is very hard work and not always fun and sometimes you have to do it even when you’d rather be playing games or spending time with your friends. Sometimes you have to take care of your puppy even when you’re tired or sick or angry or sad.

And so the father felt sad for the little girl who had loved her puppy but he felt even sadder for the puppy who had loved his little girl right until the very end.

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Google Refine

A look at a fantastic tool for data clean-up: Google Refine

This is a walk-through of a sample project using Google Refine - standardizing the names of cities of publication for books. (from the 260|a for all you library geeks out there) This also shows how to link or reconcile to Freebase to return linked data to your spreadsheet!

I may have just created the most boring presentation in the history of "Prezi", but if you ever have to deal with cleaning up messy inconsistent data in spreadsheets, you will thank me later! :)

And here is a slightly updated version in SlideShare form:

Sunday, December 23, 2012

Three Ginger Cookies

Three Ginger Cookies

Probably my favorite holiday treat, these are made using fresh ginger, candied ginger and powdered ginger. They are soft, chewy and gingerific!

  • 3 sticks butter (1 1/2c), softened
  • 1 1/2c brown sugar
  • 1/2c molasses
  • 2 eggs
  • 4 1/2c flour
  • 4tsp ground ginger
  • 4tsp baking soda
  • 1tsp salt
  • 1TB minced fresh ginger root (OR ginger juice)
  • 1c diced crystallized ("candied") ginger
1. First, prep your ginger. The candied/crystallized ginger is the secret of this recipe. Chop it into small chunks.
2. You'll also need 1 TB of very finely minced fresh ginger root. (OR, if you don't have that, you can substitute an equal amount of "ginger juice")

3. Cream butter and sugar together. Beat in molasses, then the egg.

4. In a separate bowl mix flour, ground ginger, baking soda and salt. Add bit by bit to the butter mixture, mixing as you go.

5. Add the fresh and crystallized ginger and stir until evenly mixed.

6. Chill the batter at least 2 hours or overnight. (OR, if you're in a hurry, chill for 1 hour in the freezer or out in the snow.)

7. Preheat oven to 350°. Form dough into small balls approximately 1 inch in diameter.

8. Bake for 10 minutes on a lightly greased cookie sheet. The cookies will be VERY soft when you take them out of the oven but the bottoms should be golden brown (see below).

9. Immediately remove them from the cookie sheet and place on wire racks to cool.


Water Features

 Ponds, Fountains and Water Features

Whenever you're putting in a garden it's also a great time to think about putting in a water feature. The two go hand-in-hand for a number of reasons:
  • Your yard will naturally have a low spot where water accumulates after heavy rain. Instead of wasting effort fighting this (and losing valuable water to the city drains), work with the landscape and install a pond. This will allow the rest of your yard/garden to stay well drained plus you'll preserve a moist micro-climate where moisture-loving plants can flourish.
  • When you're creating a garden you're going to want dirt and lots of it. The topsoil you remove when you dig the pond hole is perfect to use for creating a raised bed. For this reason I'd recommend installing a wider, shallower pond instead of a smaller deeper pond. That way you're digging out more topsoil and less clay. (The pond we installed in our backyard was this one:
  • Even tiny ponds like ours are enough to attract frogs and keep them in our yard throughout the summer. Birds love our ponds too both as drinking water and as a place to take a bath. Both birds and frogs are helpful in keeping down pest populations in your garden.
  • Finally, what better way to make use of all the rocks that you are inevitably finding as you till your garden than to create a water feature?
For as complicated as it looks, building a pond is an amazingly straightforward process. You'll need to buy a preformed pond, a small pond pump (or even a "tabletop fountain pump" if it's rated for the size of your pond), and (if you want a waterfall) a small length of plastic tubing. All of these are relatively cheap and available at any hardware store. Then dig your hole, set in your pond, backfill around it, fill it with water and plug in your pump! (Having a pump is a must as stagnant water will quickly become a breeding ground for mosquitoes and other pests)

Low Spot Fountain

Here's a picture of our "low spot" pond in our back yard when we were first installing it:

To hide the plastic hosing, we just weighted it with rocks in the water and brought it up under the "lip" of our waterfall and around the back to the top. We then piled more rocks on top:

Here's a picture of one of our friendly toads sunning himself on the fountain last summer:

And our waterfall can be even more beautiful in the winter as we let it freeze and thaw in an endless variety of interesting patterns:

Shade Garden Fountain

So, our first fountain above was built more-or-less from necessity, but our second fountain was built purely for aesthetics. (I take no credit for either of these beautiful water features - they were all the work and design of my husband and our grandson.) Once again, the only "before" pic I have is from the winter we moved in, so here's a winter photo comparison:

This is the north-facing side of our garage. It gets basically no direct sunlight and when we moved in it was only a gravel bed over plastic landscape fabric - no plants at all. Using an old plastic slide as the base for the waterfall, some chicken wire,  and a bit of concrete they were able to create a stunning work of art!

(I did add the shade plants and rabbit so I suppose I can take credit for those.) Geoff and Guy did all the heavy lifting though and there was a LOT of hauling rocks involved. Many of the rocks they gathered from nearby fields and woods.  However many of the prettier rocks you see we actually got for free on Craigslist and Freecycle!

They even had the idea to build a couple of flower "pots" into the fountain itself so that we can trade out plants and always have something blooming:

So those are our fountains and I hope they've inspired you to create yours! Please post any questions in the comment section!

Saturday, December 22, 2012

Our Lawn to Garden Transformation

Hi everyone! I'm a librarian by trade and my husband is a guitarist and together we have set out to transform our boring Minnesota suburban yard into an edible garden paradise. I'm putting together pics and info to start this blog in earnest soon. In the meantime, please post any questions you'd like me to answer in the comment section below! 

Here's some pics of the transformation we've done in one part of our yard:

The only shot I have of how this part of our yard looked when we first moved in is snow-covered so here's a comparison shot of that with how it looks today (Changes to note: we took out the chain link fence and added cedar fencing, build a grape arbor, a fountain, a compost bin and replanted a large bush from another part of our yard into this corner):

Here's the before and after of creating the main vegetable garden. (In the top photo you can see the tiny raised bed that was our first garden attempt in 2011.) 

Some shots of the garden "in action" this past summer. 

And finally here's a bit of our harvest!

I hope to have lots more photos, details and step-by-step instructions to come soon! Thanks for visiting and don't forget to post comments and questions below!