Welcome to my circus.

February 12, 2016
by Maralee
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If Foster Care is Hard, You’re Probably Doing it Right

I remember the moment. The four of us were all sitting on the kitchen counters eating cereal at ten p.m. (or it might have been ice-cream. . . we were young and stressed) debriefing about the events of the day. We were all recent college graduates in our early twenties who were responsible for the day-in and day-out love and nurture of 7 boys, mostly teens and preteens. Boys who had come from trauma. Boys who couldn’t safely live with their parents. Boys who brought their unhealthy coping skills and beautiful smiles into this house designed to be their home until they could be safely reunified with their families. . . which for many of them over the years never happened.

We were exhausted by our work. My husband and I were the houseparents and along with caring for the boys were also responsible for supervising the interns assigned to help us– interns that were our same age with our same level of experience (namely, not much). We worked together to design systems to help these kids and created nurturing rituals and loved them with every ounce of our beings and it was draining. I remember the moment when one of our interns said, “I don’t think it’s supposed to be this hard. It shouldn’t be this hard.” We saw other houseparents that made it look easier than what we were experiencing. Were we making this more difficult than it had to be? It’s a question that has continued to haunt me over the years of caring for kids from trauma and as we continue to advocate for them, their families, and the foster families that partner with them.

I remember answering her in the moment, “I think it IS supposed to be this hard, if you’re doing it right.” And that’s continued to be the answer that gives me peace.

 

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February 10, 2016
by Maralee
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Butterfly Problems

I was watching a documentary series the other night (According to my husband, “I was watching a documentary the other night.” is one of my three most frequently used phrases. The other two are “I read a really fascinating article.” and “Why are you crying?”. . . I have six kids.) about a city in Brazil that’s on the edge of the Amazon Rainforest. We’ve been watching an episode a week as a family and this last one was about the giant insects in the city. Of course there were the requisite terrifying spiders and giant flying things, but then they talked about how many species of butterflies there are and how they continue to discover new ones. They showed a butterfly immersing from its chrysalises under the watchful eye of a scientist. Which is when I felt a strong, unexpected sense of identification.

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I’m sure I’ve watched this happen before, but I think I’ve always been focused on the beauty of the butterfly. How amazing to go in a plain, ordinary, ground bound caterpillar and come out as this creature of amazing beauty and flight. The caterpillar must feel like she’s just won the lottery.

But this time when I was watching it, I had a different thought– what if the caterpillar is terrified?

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February 8, 2016
by Maralee
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When it’s Right to do Infertility Wrong (a lesson from Hannah)

When I was little I used to run around with a pillow under my shirt, pretending to be pregnant while also pushing a doll in a stroller, with another doll on my hip. Pregnancy was always part of my plan. I also wanted to love other people’s kids. I didn’t always know what words like “foster care” or “adoption” meant, but I knew I was built to love children and I would embrace whatever way they came to me.

And then at age 22 my husband and I got our infertility diagnosis.

I guess I’ve always known the Biblical story of Hannah, but after our infertility diagnosis, her words began to feel very personal. She begged God for a son. She was so moved in her prayers that Eli the priest thought she was drunk. I knew what those prayers sounded like. I had prayed them myself.

I had cried out to God for a child, but he didn’t seem to remember me the way he remembered Hannah. I was sad and confused and desperate, which is not a great way to begin a journey toward motherhood.

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February 5, 2016
by Maralee
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“Mama loves you” (language and foster care)

Foster care is tricky business. There are a thousand potential pitfalls as you work to navigate relationships between you and the biological family, you and the child, you and the child’s team, and as you seek to support a relationship between the child and their parents. I am a person who loves language and values words, so being intentional about the words I choose has been an important part of building relationships in the foster world. I’ve been glad to see other foster parents have come across the same questions and concerns I have about what words to use in this unique situation. It’s taken me a lot of years to come up with words I feel comfortable with, so I wanted to share a couple of those with you.

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Ask the child’s opinion. Depending on the child’s age, it is good to figure out what makes them feel comfortable as far as what to call you. In our group home days I was called Miss Maralee. While that was what worked in that environment, it did definitely mark our kids as group home kids when we were out in public. Although when there were just a few years age difference between me and then, I don’t think anybody was buying that I was their mom anyway. You don’t want to push a child to call you something that makes them uncomfortable. They may feel disloyal to a parent if you ask them to call you a familial name, but they may also feel uncomfortable around their peers if they call you a name that clearly identifies them as not a legal member of your family. A child may feel most comfortable calling you by a first name, calling you Mrs. LastName, or calling you by a family name. Give them options that are acceptable to you, get their opinion, and be prepared for that to potentially change over time.

“Mama loves you.” This is something I’ve said to all my foster babies as I put them to bed. It’s the last thing I whisper as I walk out of the room. It is one of the phrases that is good for the child to hear and also good for me to say because it reminds me of the reality of the situation. With the kids we have fostered and then adopted, it’s been especially poignant because when they were our foster kids I wanted to remind them and myself that they were loved by their mamas. As they transitioned into permanent members of our family, it was now true about me, as their mama. It’s a simple phrase with a lot of depth.
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January 27, 2016
by Maralee
3 Comments

The Ampersand Life

I recently asked on my Facebook page for suggestions about artful ways to display the brooches I’ve inherited from the grandmothers in my family. I got some great suggestions and ended up going with this idea which involved wrapping a wooden letter in burlap and then attaching the pins. I’m happy with how it turned out, which is saying something since I am the least crafty person I know. . . and I am including the small children I live with.

I originally thought I’d get a “B” for our last name, but something about pinning my grandmother’s brooches on an initial that wasn’t hers seemed odd. I didn’t have enough to do a different initial for each woman represented, although I like that idea. What I ended up deciding to buy and display was an ampersand.

And.

This has been a theme of my life for the last year or so. I have been learning to embrace the “and” in myself, my history, and in the people I love.

I have been a black and white thinker for as long as I can remember. I have a hard time with shades of gray, but motherhood has slowly been burning that thinking out of me. I remember when I was shocked by the sight of a mother feeding her baby a french fry at the local Chick-fil-A while I was spoon-feeding my little angel a hand mashed green bean and pear mixture I brought from home. 5 years and four kids later and I WAS that mom telling her baby, “just one more french fry and then you can have a lick of ice-cream” and trying to ignore the judgey stares from the mom in the booth next to me.

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January 24, 2016
by Maralee
1 Comment

A Life in Status- October #1, 2015

Watch the chaos in realtime on Facebook and Twitter.

I got to speak about foster care (with 2 of my fostering friends and someone from our agency) at a MOPS meeting this morning. A lady came up afterwards and said, “I texted my husband while you were talking. I told him, ‘We’re in trouble.’ He texted back, ‘Bring home the paperwork.'”
Yes, Good Lady- you are in trouble. The best kind of trouble there is. And kudos to that husband for being open to just taking the next step. We need a couple thousand more of that guy.
#‎fosterlove‬ ‪#‎daymade‬

Snuggling child in my lap just started throwing up. So I grabbed the bottom of her shirt and made a little pocket to catch the puke while I carried (i.e. RAN) her upstairs and let her finish puking into the garbage disposal. You’re welcome.
‪#‎protip‬

“Mom, it’s like they just picked up books and threw them randomly on tables! How are you supposed to find anything?” -Josh, 8
‪#‎librarybooksale‬ ‪#‎treasurehunt‬

When you adopt kids from foster care, sometimes they will make suggestions to you about who they’d like to live with if you ever go to prison.
‪#‎awkward‬

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January 21, 2016
by Maralee
1 Comment

Radio interview on Race and Faith

When I started getting interest from strangers (most notably, The Washington Post) in talking about race and the post I wrote recently, I decided it was time to reach out to my friend and mentor Stan Parker about having our own conversation, like we’ve been doing for a couple years now. Stan was my youth pastor lots of years ago and has continued to be a major influence in my life both through the radio work we’ve done together, and in the conversations we’ve had behind the scenes. I had hopes this interview would be more of a dialogue, since Stan has been a big part of my educational process on understanding race in light of our shared faith, but he was the interviewer and chose not to add his perspective. I’m hopeful in the future there will be more conversations where you all get to hear the wisdom I get to hear from him on this topic.

I’ve got a radio link to the interview here and beneath it I’ll post some additional thoughts that we didn’t get to cover. Enjoy!

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January 19, 2016
by Maralee
3 Comments

Rat Grooming Behaviors and Raising Calm Kids

I recently attended a foster parent training about how to help kids who have experienced trauma. (Spoiler alert– EVERY kid in foster care has experienced trauma because just the act of coming into foster care IS trauma). My favorite piece of wisdom from the night was a graphic about dealing with kids who are upset. The graphic said simply:

Anxious Child + Calm Adult = Calm Child

Now, anyone who has raised kids who have trauma in their background knows it isn’t always that simple. Sometimes you can be calm nearly to the point of comatose and an anxious child will continue to rage. I am a pretty calm person by nature and even in my most measured and quiet moments I have had kids scream, punch the wall, and throw their psych meds at me. Sadly, there is no perfect formula for controlling the behavior or emotional responses of the kids we love, but I do think this formula is an excellent one to keep in mind.

The importance of a calm, nurturing adult is something I’ve been mulling over for a few years, ever since I ran across this study of rat behaviors:

“Some mother rats spend a lot of time licking, grooming, and nursing their pups. Others seem to ignore their pups. Highly nurtured rat pups tend to grow up to be calm adults, while rat pups who receive little nurturing tend to grow up to be anxious. Continue Reading →

January 17, 2016
by Maralee
1 Comment

A Life in Status- September #2, 2015

Come be part of my community on Facebook and Twitter.

Normal morning stress + picture day = Crazy Mom
‪#‎momconfession‬

When the potty-training child comes to you and says “I sorry, Mama” it’s time to go on a treasure hunt for something you wish you didn’t have to find.

Sometimes I do my best cleaning when I’m stressed. So the house is looking pretty awesome right now.
‪#‎Huskergameday‬

It’s only AFTER bending down to pick up your child in front of a bunch of strangers at a neighborhood cookout that you remember in a moment of boredom (while listening to the GOP debate) you applied a temporary tattoo to your lower back. . .
‪#‎keepthemguessing‬

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January 15, 2016
by Maralee
1 Comment

Talking to Foster Toddlers About Foster Care

I recently wrote a post about how you should talk to your toddlers about foster care. It’s important to me that foster families are having open and honest conversations with their kids about the process and the needs of the foster child coming into their home. I think it’s wise to start the conversation early so you make your mistakes before your kids are even old enough to remember. And for those of you who have a foster child in your community (through church, extended family, preschool, etc.), those tips are for you, too.

But what about talking to the foster toddler or preschooler about their own situation?

These kids have a right to an age-appropriate understanding of their story. Over the years we have learned that talking about these things openly helps remove the stigma or potential for shame. It also helps establish us as truthful and trustworthy people in their lives, which is a highly important role for kids who have trouble establishing a trusting attachment bond. We don’t sugarcoat things for our kids, but strive to speak to them in an age-appropriate way about the realities of why kids come into foster care. This has meant there hasn’t been a moment of shock for our adopted (from foster care) kids as they learn the reality of their own history. In some ways, they have always known it even before they could fully understand it.

(Everything I’m sharing with you is what I’ve learned from a “boots on the ground” perspective. I am not a therapist and I know in the world of foster care, the “right” language is always changing. I’ll do my best to explain what has worked for us with a full understanding that there may be other approaches.)

So here’s what I want you to think about when talking to a foster toddler or preschooler about foster care:

-Whatever you say to them, they may repeat. Before they understand how private this story is and how other people may respond to it, it is good to be really careful about what words you use. If you tell your foster child her parents are drug addicts that are in jail (or you speak those words to someone else in front of her), those words are going to come out in Sunday School, at team meetings, to the pediatrician, and to her birth family. You need to always be truthful with sensitive ways to explain what’s happening.

“We know you miss your mommy and daddy. We’re going to take good care of you while they get some help.”

-Talk in generalities. A foster child’s story belongs to them. While you shouldn’t lie, you also need to be discrete. Where adults have one or two words to describe a set of behaviors or circumstances (addict, homeless, felon, abuser, domestic violence, low IQ, poverty, alcoholic, prostitute), you are going to need to come up with some thoughtful language that helps explain the situation without being hurtful or scary. It can be helpful to talk about why kids in general might need a safe place instead of getting really specific about their situation. That can help normalize foster care for them as they understand they aren’t the only ones in this position.
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