Before we really get into Part Five, I want to provide a brief explanation, or preparation, for this leg of our journey.
This is by far going to be the hardest post for me to write. WARNING, I’m going to be very vulnerable, and as open as I dare. In that, not everything I have to say will be easy to write, or to read. Some of it may even be down right unpleasant. However, if I am going to tell our story, I have to honour it by telling it to the best of my ability. I have to be honest; but still be lovingly respectful of my children, my husband, and myself as we were at that time. I hope I can find the right balance between openness and privacy. I pray I can share with you our challenges, what were truly our hardest days, without villainizing any part of my family. In the midst of this I want to share with you the joys, the victories, the hopes and the dreams.
Are you ready? I hope I am.
As I mentioned previously, Dylan and I were married in Mexico in February 2009. I failed to mention an interesting little tid-bit from our trip that I think is very significant to our story. When we were in Mexico we met some people from Westlock staying in the same resort as us. Members of our family chatted with them and one woman, Cathy, said she was a laboratory technologist in Westlock. “How neat, my daughter is a lab tech too!” my mom shared. As it turned out Cathy was the supervisor in the Westlock lab. We all chatted a bit about our lives and work. If memory serves me, mom told Cathy how we were hoping to start a family and that being closer to home would be nice. My memory may be making that nice little detail up, but that’s how I remember it, and it fits quite well with how our story unfolds.
In yet another instance of divine timing, a 0.7 MLT position in the Westlock Laboratory came available for the beginning of April, 2009. I had previously applied for a casual position in Westlock, and Cathy happened to still have my email address. Remembering our conversation in Mexico, she sent me a quick email about the posting, so I applied. Dylan and I had been wondering if we should move back to Barrhead now that we were starting a family, and that answer was about to be delivered. I was interviewed and subsequently hired for the position in Westlock. While I was sad to leave my position in Edmonton, and all the great people I had worked with there, I was excited for the opportunity to learn and grow in the other disciplines of lab medicine. Dylan and I were also happy to be moving closer to our family.
Unfortunately, Westlock wanted me to start work as soon as possible, so my three-week leave of absence ended up being a three week resignation notice. The timing was just that perfect. I left my job in histology, took three weeks to adjust to motherhood, and then began working in Westlock. Meanwhile, we were also planning our wedding reception. Life was hectic but wonderful. In the midst of all the busyness and change, we were working through whether or not we would add Justice into our little family.
Hectic? Yes. Overwhelming? Oh, yes.
When we said yes to Justice, the process of brining her home moved at a very different pace than it did with Tapanga. After our initial visit in May, we did not see Justice again until the beginning of June. Planning the wedding reception, deciding on a yes or no, and working full-time occupied too much of our time. Once we said yes, and let her adoption case worker know, additional visits were planned right away. We visited Justice on Saturday June 6 in her home for a couple of hours, and then took her to our home for a family visit the next day. Sunday, June 7, was her second birthday and we had the special blessing of having her in our home for the occasion. Phone calls were made and our immediate family descended on our home bearing gifts and cake. Everyone was so excited to meet our little peanut, and they all fell immediately in love with her.
Justice's second birthday, June 7 2009.
If we had any remaining doubts they were swept away on the wave of love and attachment we all instantly felt.
Since we were already an approved kinship family, and her foster parents could see the attachment she felt, they did not think there was any reason to delay the inevitable. Her case worker agreed, so one more set of weekend visits, including an overnight stay, was arranged to get to know her better.
And just like that, as two had so recently became three, three became four. Justice’s was whisked into our home and hearts on June 18, 2009.
As all of this transitioning was going on, Tapanga was seeing a child psychologist to work through her past hurts. During her time in counselling, Tapanga came a long way. The symptoms of her Reactive Attachment Disorder (RAD) and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) were lessening with each visit. She was becoming the little girl she was meant to be. When we decided to adopt Justice as well, I shared this with her doctor, and said “You probably think we’re crazy.”
“No,” she replied, “I saw this coming. But, you are going to see a regression. It’s going to be very hard, and it will likely last about two months.”
Oh boy, was she right. She was right on all accounts. It was very hard, and it was about two months until we started to see the light, to see some return to normalcy.
Prior to saying yes to Justice, before we had our first visit even, I talked to Tapanga about Justice. I told her how she had not been adopted yet, how she was in foster care waiting for her forever family. Tapanga, ever the empathetic and loving little girl, was moved to tears by this. She also had an immediate answer.
“What if you and dad adopted her?”
We talked pretty thoroughly about the pros and cons; the potential challenges. Did she know she would have to share her new mom and dad? No problem. Tapanga knew all too well what it felt like to be in a temporary home and she wanted, with all her heart, permanency for her sister. Even knowing there were other families wanting Justice, that she would have a forever family no matter what we decided, Tapanga wanted her in our lives. She wanted to grow up with her little sister.
Playground fun, summer 2009.
Tapanga’s conscious mind undoubtedly wanted her sister in her life. However, the last time the girls had lived in the same home (aside from the brief time they spent together with Hugh and Sally), they had suffered a trauma. Tapanga’s counsellor explained trauma, specifically how our mind processes it, like this:
Imagine someone taking a rock and throwing it at a window. The glass breaks but stays in the pane, spider-webbed. When a trauma occurs, the same thing happens to to that event in our mind. The event is broken up into pieces. One piece is the narrative, another our feelings. Another yet is the setting; the place, the time of day, even the time of year. There’s a piece that correlates to our physiological, fight or flight, response. When a person has experienced trauma, they can be triggered by similar settings, times of day, or specific people.
Bringing Justice into our home triggered Tapanga’s subconscious mind so she experienced periodic behavioural regressions. These regressions were brought on just by Justice’s presence, by sharing a home with her again. There was nothing any of us could do to stop, or even predict, when these behavioural events would occur. Tapanga could not explain what she was thinking or feeling, she was simply reacting. We were warned that this would occur, that we would see “tantrums” or other challenging behaviours, while she adjusted to Justice being in our home. Thankfully Tapanga was able to continue seeing her counsellor as we worked through this challenging time.
As I write that, it sounds so straight-forward and matter-of-fact, but it was not. I struggle to find the words to describe what this stage of our lives was like. I can tell you it must have been a little traumatic for me as well, because whenever I think, talk, or write about it in any detail I feel a physiological response. My heart rate increases.
Dylan and I were ill-equipped to handle the challenges of a child in the midst of an RAD crisis. Typically when a person becomes a parent they start with a baby. The skills those parents have are very basic, but those skills grow as both the baby and the parents grow. The parents come to know the baby, they watch as she gains abilities. They learn and relearn who she is. Dylan and I knew three-almost-four year old Tapanga quite well, we thought. However, we had only dealt with a few “normal” temper tantrums from her and had not seen the full extent of an RAD tantrum. Hugh and Sally had journeyed through that with her, but we had not. We had no idea how difficult it could be, but we found out.
If I were to give one word that would describe Tapanga’s state in the midst of these crises, it would be detachment. If given two words, the second would be rage. One moment we would be interacting normally, the next she would be gone. When this happened, all we had to do was look in her eyes and we would know we were about to face a challenge. I can still picture the look, though I don’t like to. The expression on her face would cause that same increase in my heart rate and, though it pains me to say it, that look would bring fear. I would wonder how bad the tantrum would get, and what we could or would do to handle it. When she would have an episode at home and we were both home, we could take turns working through it, waiting for it to pass. When she would fall asleep on the way home from daycare, and wake up when I was still driving, that was the worst. That short little nap would often bring on a crises. While I was alone, and driving.
I wish I could say we knew what we were doing in the midst of these crises, but we were so lost. Although our family was behind us, and just a phone call away, they lived over an hour away. When an RAD tantrum would happen, we struggled through it. We were almost always all alone when these events occurred.
At first, we tried the types of techniques we had heard of others using for tantrums. Or what we assumed would work. Tapanga would get wound up about something, we would say that she had to stop or we would remove a privilege, and the behaviour would escalate. Time-outs? Escalation. Offers of talking, listening, hugs? Escalation. And of course, when we didn’t handle ourselves well, if we raised our voice at all, oh boy. Escalation. Tapanga’s past, the traumas she experienced, had left her unable to handle an adult raising their voice. For us to show anger was traumatic for her. I wish I could say we never raised out voices once we realized the negative effect it would have on her, but it happened. Tantrums lasting up to an hour have a way of wearing a person down, of leading to less than perfect parenting techniques.
I hesitate to share this, but Tapanga’s tantrums could be so severe that we would fear for her safety because of how hard she would hit her wall, her bed, just about anything. We even had to take the mirror off her bed out of concern she would break it and injure herself.
After sharing with her counsellor what a hard time we were having, we were given some additional suggestions. We were told that when Tapanga would get worked up about something, we could say the behaviour wasn’t acceptable, but then we had to simply wait it out with her. We could not leave her alone, the isolation could cause an escalation because of her neglect. We could not discuss any consequences, or take anything away from her (for example a toy she was damaging) unless it was necessary for safety. We were in fact discouraged from giving consequences after the tantrum as much as possible because she was not able to control her response at that time. We could give a consequence for the initial event, but not her actions during the tantrum. So, for a very basic example, if she refused to eat supper and the discussion about that led to a tantrum, we could say “no” to treats because she didn’t eat her supper, but we should not remove privileges for the way she behaved during the tantrum.
As I was writing, a memory surfaced and it brings such peace and closure to that period of time. I remember how Tapanga would look and behave right after the tantrums. Red faced, tear-stained; and so very remorseful. She loved us so much, and she knew she shouldn’t behave that way, but she just could not get control. I feel so sad for that little girl, and so sad about the mistakes we made in ignorance. Just as she was doing the best she could so were we, but we were new and naive. We were learning not only how to parent, but how to parent a little girl with very deep hurts.
Adding to that, we were trying to adjust Justice to our routines, and were attempting to bond with her. I say attempting because there was a fun little challenge added to an already challenging situation. For the first little bit Justice was terrified of Dylan! I’m not sure if it was his size, his skin tone, or his gender that brought on her fear, because it certainly was not his behaviour. Dylan was so sweet, kind and gentle towards her, but it didn’t matter; she wanted nothing to do with him. Oh, the memories….
I’m so thankful for the growth we’ve all had since those hard days, not one of us is the same as we were. While I can look back at the girls and still love the in-process people they were, I have dealt with such guilt and shame over my own short-comings. I’ve had to look back at our mistakes, and consciously forgive myself. While I was able to do that some time ago, I’ve recently come to realize that I need to look back at the woman I was, and love her. I held myself in such condemnation over such little mistakes that I completely erased from my mind all the good we did in those early days. We were good people doing the best we could in a difficult situation.
The best analogy I can make to describe to you where we were at in our parenting journey is a carpentry one. Our toolbox contained Fisher-Price toy tools, maybe a sledge hammer, and probably a regular hammer. These limited tools were all we had to restore an incredibly damaged, but beautiful, Victorian era house. To properly restore the Victorian home to it’s former glory we should have had artisan-quality tools. But we had toys, and hammers. A restoration of that magnitude would take years, even with the proper tools. Thank God, as the years have progressed we have been able to upgrade our tools. Thank God He has been restoring, nurturing, and maturing us as we work on restoring, nurturing, and encouraging the maturation of our girls.
While sharing this piece of our story has re-opened some difficult memories, it has also surfaced some good memories. Yes, there was fear and hopelessness in the midst of the tantrums, but when the tantrum would end there was hope. I also felt the need to share this part of our story because those of you who may be considering adoption need to understand how challenging it can be. If I left this part of our story out, some of you would be deceived into thinking it was all easy. You would read the previous parts of our story, and see where we are now, and you would miss the struggle. Adoption can be hard. It is a labour of love.
Tapanga asked me recently; “Do you ever regret adopting me?” Without a moment’s hesitation I replied “No!”
I can look back on the turmoil, the challenges, and the heart-aches with this clear conviction: If we had to do it all over again to be able to keep these girls in our lives, there would not be even the faintest pause. While those were our darkest days, the brilliance of these days, and the ones to come, overpower the struggle. There is no doubt, our girls were worth every tear. And more. Infinitely more.
Even as I write that, and I mean it with my whole heart, I realize I do have a few more words to write. Words that hurt to say; words I pray will not hurt my girls one day, should they happen to read this. I pray that if they do read this they will understand my heart, my absolute love, even in this memory.
There were days that were so unbelievably hard that the though “I can’t do this anymore!” did enter my mind. Those moments no mom wants to admit to, but that I’m sure many have felt. Moments where your heart feels like it has been pulled from your chest, the pain is so big. Moments when you feel alone, and absolutely inadequate. In one of these moments, I actually picked up my phone, dialed, and declared to the person on the other end of the phone: “I can’t do this, I can’t! It’s too hard, I don’t know what to do, I CANNOT handle this!” As I sat in my stairwell, tears streaming down my face, the voice on the other end said exactly what I needed to hear. The calm and loving voice of my father spoke directly to my heart, encouraged and gave me strength, even as his words frustrated me.
“Too bad. You took these girls into your life, you’re their mom, and there’s no backing down or turning away.” I think I probably exclaimed something about how he had no idea what we were going through, how hard it all is. “I know. I know it’s hard. And you’re right, I don’t know what it’s like. But I know you, I know how much you love her. I know how much I love you, and how much I love her. And you CAN do it. I’m sorry it’s so hard, but you can do it.” This conversation happened over seven years ago, so I obviously don’t remember it word for word. But I remember his heart. I remember him saying exactly what I needed to hear, as hard as it was to hear. Please understand that not one part of me was truly ready to give up on my girls. I was at such a sad and desperate point; feeling completely alone in the biggest struggle of my life. What I actually needed, and what I got, was an open ear, and open heart, and hope.
Knowing that although I felt alone, I truly wasn’t, was restorative. That day was not the end of our challenges, but I think it was the end of my hopelessness.
If you are in the midst of a similar circumstance, you need to know: you are not alone, YOU CAN DO IT, and most importantly, IT IS WORTH IT.