Chagrin: distress or embarrassment at having failed or been humiliated.
I was chagrined to learn recently that I—apparently—have been contributing to some of the contention in my marriage. I know you’re shocked to hear that but no more shocked than I was. For 14 years, I’ve been making the classic wife mistake of trying to change my husband. And all this time, I’ve been doing exactly to him what I have been pressuring him not to do to me.
So I have a few options:
1) I can pretend I haven’t seen the light. My husband will never know the difference, and let’s face it, most wives can run verbal circles around most husbands. I’m sure I could get away with it. But then there’s that nagging conscience thing. Not optimal.
2) I can fudge a little and apologize for what I’m doing without mentioning that I’ve been doing it for 57,360 days already. Also easy enough to get away with, but again, that stupid conscience.
3) I can humbly and/or shamefacedly confess that I’ve realized how wrong I’ve been for 57,360 days and ask for forgiveness. I can commit to changing (myself) and demonstrate real progress immediately. I can have a better marriage, and my conscience will be clear. It seems like the obvious choice for a Girl Scout like myself, but it’s soooooo awkward to have to admit my epic fail. I really hate it when that happens. Oh well, once every 14 years won’t kill me.
My mother would roll over in her grave if she knew what I was about to write. I don’t care. My fury will not be silenced. The broken heart underneath my fury that screams with agony will not be quiet. I do write this, however, with the full-throated support of my husband and sons whose pain and grief also seek a voice.
Once upon a time, my husband and I adopted three children, two brothers and a sister, eight, five, and one. We were 43 and 58 at the time, so clearly crazy, but crazy enough to want to help three very damaged children. I was extra extra crazy because I wanted to be a mom no matter what, and there was to my mind no child too damaged. Had I but known.
My husband, who has to be the world’s greatest man, did not want me to miss out on the experience of being a mother. At a time he should have been planning for post-retirement life of travel, friends, and companionship with his wife, he took on what most men one-third his age couldn’t do: a 24/7 hell that passed for our daily life for the next 12 years. I can’t possibly do the hell justice in a few paragraphs, and this is a not a ‘sell’, but it’s described in horrifying detail in One of Everything should anyone care to know more.
Let’s just say I can count the peaceful moments on one hand.
What consumed us was the chaos that children of drug addicts create with their traumatized brains. What drained us was the explosive behavior of children with PTSD. What killed our hope were the signs of drug exposure in utero, especially the seeming inability to master cause and effect. What made virtually every minute a living hell was the abuse they heaped on our heads for self-protection.
Crushed by their birth parents, our children understandably protected themselves from attachment to us—by blocking our attachment to them—like it was life-or-death. What drained our bank account was me quitting my job to be a full-time mother and years and years of counseling, horse therapy, neuropsychological testing, psychiatrists, dental care, orthodontia, orthopedic surgery, eye surgery, psychotropic medication, brain-stimulating neurofeedback, and respite care for my husband and myself so that we could hang in there even one more day.
And yet we persevered. We:
endured my daughter’s ear-splitting screams when she didn’t get her way, which was every day for the first year;
did soccer and football and karate and ice skating and basketball and the San Diego Padres and the Salt Lake Real;
exposed them to museums, the symphony, ballet, junior cotillion, great literature, and people of other cultures;
took them to the Zoo, Disneyland, Lego Land, Universal Studios, Washington D.C., and Europe;
white-knuckled every birthday and holiday because they all triggered past birth family trauma;
taught them self-respect, respect for others, values, morals, kindness, and correct grammar;
protected them from the self-harm the counselors said was their way of somaticizing unbearable pain;
developed (painfully) parenting techniques for ADHD, ODD, OCD, RAD, Depression, Anxiety, and sociopathic tendencies;
minimized as much as humanly possible our daughter’s desperate seeking of any and all male attention that is so often a consequence of extreme parental neglect;
weathered pornography, drugs, promiscuity, felonious theft, purposely-set fires, massive property destruction, bullying, stealing, and lying, oh, the lying.
My mother told me when I was young, “I can handle anything else you do to me, but don’t ever lie to me.” I tried that. What a joke. Every dream I had for motherhood or family life either vanished or blew up in my face. It became nothing but gritty survival. The only reason I never gave up is because I never give up. The Lord knew what He was doing placing those kids in our home.
All along the way, we encouraged contact between the kids and their birth parents, which, I have to say, almost killed me. While we still had the kids in foster care, their parents were so inconsistent with phone calls and visits that we spent days before and days after the scheduled visit, whether or not it took place, managing their acted-out hurt and rage. After we adopted the kids, it was our choice whether to allow contact between them and their birth parents.
We thought long and hard about what was best for the kids because our natural instinct was to protect them from any more grief and pain. We ultimately decided that as difficult as it might be for them, maintaining contact was best because we fully expected the birth family to be an important part of our kids’ lives when they were older.
The kids received one letter in 12 years from their birth dad and none from their birth mother. The birth dad’s mother wrote a few times but her letters contained digs at us (the adoptive parents) and so many “you are my family not theirs” messages that we felt it was detrimental to the kids.
My husband called the birth dad and said, “It’s great that your mom wants to establish a relationship with the kids, but we’re concerned that she’s making it difficult for them to accept the adoption, and what we were really hoping for was a relationship between them and you.” The birth dad was understanding and apologized for his mother, saying she ‘had a lot of anger’ about the situation. The kids never heard from anyone in their birth family ever again. The letters the kids wrote to them went unanswered.
Still trying to be Mother of the Year, I sent the kids’ school pictures and an update letter to the birth dad annually. (The birth mom’s whereabouts were unknown.) After the birth dad’s brother told me on the phone that the pictures and letters weren’t a positive thing, that they broke his brother up when he got them, I quit.
Fast forward a decade.
Our almost 21-year-old son is a high school graduate, an Eagle Scout, gainfully employed in a job he loves, drug free, above the law in every way, and involved with a sweet girl we really like. It’s to his credit (and maybe a little to ours) that he has achieved these things despite plunging over the cliff after high school into drug abuse, criminal activity, heinous personal hygiene, and loss of job after job because of his attitude and work ethic.
Our daughter reached 18 with a high school diploma, no pregnancies, no drugs (and believe me, we tested her), and her first job where she was fast becoming the superstar employee. It’s to her credit (and a lot to ours) that she achieved these things despite catching a 3rd class felony for stealing a Four Runner; fleeing the scene of a hit-and-run accident; using our credit card (unauthorized) to buy her friends $600 worth of matching watches; stealing my husband’s valuable coin collection to get 13 one dollar bills from the bank; being caught on videotape stealing a Kindle at school; sneaking out regularly in the middle of the night to meet boys in parks; using our credit card (unauthorized) to buy electronic cigarettes and paraphernalia; drinking; using drugs; bringing boys into her bed while we were asleep downstairs; sloughing school; getting friends to buy her hoochie mama clothes that she hid in her backpack until she was out of our sight; harboring a runaway teenage girl in her bedroom (while I was out of town) and lying to the police that she didn’t know the girl’s whereabouts.
I could go on and on, but I think you get the point. This was our life for 12 years, and I haven’t even talked about the impact of our youngest. I’m not going to because he’s a minor, and it’s nobody’s business. Suffice to say he makes the other two look like a walk in the park, and we still have five years to go with him.
Jump back to the day my daughter turned 18 last spring. She did what every normal 18-year-old does and chose the life she wanted. She did what almost every normal adopted 18-year-old does and sought to find her birth family. None of this was a surprise, and we encouraged her to do it.
What she did that most normal 18-year-olds, adopted or otherwise, don’t do, was stop going to work without telling anyone and delude herself that 18 meant no rules and no consequences. Rather than follow any of our rules—and I mean any—she decided to be homeless. We only learned this in retrospect because she left without a word to any of us. Not to the parents who responded with unconditional love no matter what she did; not to the older brother who kept her alive with Eggos and Hot Pockets given him by sympathetic neighbors when their birth parents were passed out from drugs; not to the little brother whose heart was so broken by his birth mother’s rejection that he had risked only one—and barely one at that—more attachment to a female—his sister.
I will spare you the ugliest of details, but we had no idea where she was or even if she was alive for weeks. We would hear bits and pieces of news that someone had seen her here or there, but she made no attempt to contact us and blocked all of us, including her older brother, on Facebook.
A few weeks later, and only because we live in the Mormon (or at least Mormonish) Mayberry, we heard through the grapevine that her birth dad had driven many hours from many states away to get her and take her back to his home, whereupon she promptly changed her name back to his. Gavin was beyond devastated to learn that his birth dad whom he lived with and loved as dad until he was eight years old, had been breathing Kaysville air (and you know she took him by our house so maybe even some of the same molecules) without making any attempt to reach out to Gavin.
Justin, already hanging by a thread, felt so betrayed and abandoned that he started hurting himself and said he was afraid he would kill himself. We took him to the ER for a psych eval, they transported him to an inpatient psych program where he stayed a week, and the psych hospital discharged him to 5-month residential treatment program for kids with PTSD. Only if the trauma in Justin’s brain can be healed enough will he be able to come home or to live anywhere independently. If he can’t overcome it to the point that he can control his impulses when he’s triggered, he is a danger to himself and others and will have to be institutionalized.
There aren’t words to describe the betrayal my husband felt after sacrificing every last drop of golden years to give her a chance at normal life only to get the news three days before Father’s Day that she had swapped dads. It nonetheless stunned me that she did not even acknowledge my husband on Father’s Day, or on his birthday in August. For that alone I could kill her.
I clung to my Mother of the Year hat, reassuring the rest of the fam that Kaylyn is still Kaylyn, that she loves us, that she needs to go through this experience for herself, that she is desperate to become (birth) ‘Daddy’s little girl’ because she thinks it will fix everything. I reassured them, and myself, that she will have the experiences she needs to have with her birth family and then make room for all of us who love her in her life.
That changed the instant I saw a SnapChat exchange she had with Gavin two months later, where she was clearly testing the water of their relationship with her tentative “howya doin?” His response was totally understandable: “You just left us! You left me and Justin and Mom and Dad and the dogs!” Her response to him turned my veins to ice water: “You don’t know what REALLY happened. We were brainwashed.”
That was the last anyone heard from her until five days ago when I got a text from an unknown number:
Mom, this is Kaylyn I would like you to mail me my stuff that I own please and thank you. My diploma and all that!
The moment of truth had arrived, and it was my move. There were so many ways I could have responded, but my over-arching goal was to let her know we loved her and missed her and we would always be here for her.
So Mother of the Year texted back:
Hey there! We miss you. I have it all ready to go for you, just need an address. You want your diploma, your social security card, and your birth certificate, right? Do you also want that ID card from the DMV?
She was clearly pleased that I had responded so pleasantly, and we texted back and forth a few more times. Then she FaceTimed me. (Whose crappy idea was FaceTime? The whole point of not showering is that no one’s going to see you anyway. But the daughter I hadn’t seen in four months wanted to FaceTime, so I accepted.)
I kept myself on even keel, telling myself I could feel my emotions later, and focused on opening up a channel of communication between us. She was very chatty, so I was feeling quite happy. Then, about five minutes in, I realized virtually nothing she was saying was true. My heart dropped like a stone, and I started taking notes (two full pages worth) so I could remember every lie to tell my husband later.
It was such a surreal experience to know she was lying and to pretend I didn’t know. I’m not a good pretender, and I never let my kids get away with a single lie growing up. It occurred to me that this was the difference between parenting a child and relating to a grown-up child. If I want a relationship with her, I have to pretend I don’t know she’s lying.
The conversation went on so long and so pleasantly that I finally said, “I saw that SnapChat exchange between you and Gavin where you told him he didn’t know what ‘REALLY’ happened and that you were ‘brainwashed’. How were you brainwashed? Without missing a beat, which gave me the shivers, she said, “Oh, that was the birth dad talking to Gavin pretending to be me. Don’t tell Gavin.”
I didn’t follow the shiny object and said, “How were you brainwashed?” She hemmed and hawed and said how her birth family had sent cards and letters throughout the years that Cary and I had never told the kids about. I had no idea if her birth family had actually lied to her about this or if this was another manifestation of her desperate hope that things weren’t really what they were, but I simply said, “That’s not correct” and recounted the truth as I’ve described above.
I had no intention of telling her about Justin because I didn’t want that to be the only reason she came back, and I didn’t want to know—even more devastating—that she knew and still didn’t come back. But she asked how he was doing so I told her.
She crumpled into tears and said, “I’m so sorry, it’s my fault.” I answered, “I’m not going to take that away from you because it was an atrocious thing you did to him.” Just as suddenly, she flashed an angry, “I didn’t think we were that close!”
She gave me her address, we said goodbye, and I mailed the box the next day.
Three days later, Cary and I were talking to Justin and his therapist about how best to handle the situation for Justin’s sake when Kaylyn texted again. I showed it coming through to Justin and asked if he wanted to text her. He said he did. After a few texts, she FaceTimed him and the first thing he asked is, “Are you doing drugs?” That’s all he talks about with us, he’s so worried she will die.
It was nauseating to hear her say, “Justin, look at me. I’m not doing drugs. I’ve been clean for a long time.” Justin looked at me and I looked at him, both of us thinking about the recent FB photo someone had forwarded to us where Kaylyn, clearly high, was bragging that she was ‘high as a MoFo’. Justin did the same thing I did and pretended not to know she was lying, so badly did he miss her and want a relationship with her. The therapist said it was time to end and that Justin could FaceTime Kaylyn again during our visit.
Justin was frantic to get back to her only to have her tell him that we (Mom and Dad) were just ‘Cary and Donna’ and that they had ‘real parents’ and he didn’t know the ‘real’ story. The birth dad popped onto the screen to say hi—no warning, no asking if Justin was ready—but the real kicker was when Justin told the girl sitting next to Kaylyn to quit flipping him off. Kaylyn lashed out, “Don’t you be rude to our cousin. She’s like a sister to me!”
The visit had to end so FaceTime ended and Cary and I had some time to think through the best way to handle all this. I’ll never forget the agony in Cary’s voice when he said, “I feel like I wasted 12 years of my life.” And I, the eternal optimist and benefit-of-the-doubt giver said, “I can’t believe I volunteered for this much pain.”
It was actually Gavin the next morning who made it brilliantly clear what we needed to do. Hearing what Kaylyn had done to Justin, he decompensated to the point of not going to work and not calling in and not caring. It took hours to piece all this together, and in the meantime, Gavin was the ugliest I’ve ever seen him, Cary was the ugliest I’ve ever seen him, and I was the ugliest I’ve ever been. When we were finally able to talk, Gavin kept saying, “How could she do that to us?” He looked crushed. “I took care of her when she was a baby, and she doesn’t even care!”
Mother of the Year sprang into action, and I texted Kaylyn to please call me. Hours later she did. I started out, “Hi Kaylyn, I’m talking to you as my very best self, and I’d like to talk to Kaylyn’s very best self. Is she available?”
I explained that we all loved her and wanted her in our lives and wanted her to want us in her life, but for right now, she was a destructive influence on our family. I asked her if she realized how cruel it was to tell a 13 year old who is already struggling with emotional stability that the only parents he’s ever known are just ‘Cary and Donna’, that his ‘real parents’ are somewhere else, and that what he believes to be the story of his life is false.
I asked her if she realized how dangerous it was to Justin’s precarious mental health to spring their birth dad on him without any warning or chance to prepare himself emotionally.
I asked her if she realized how hurtful it was to Justin that she defended a cousin she met only recently as ‘like a sister’ from him, her literal brother?
I told her Cary was not long for this world (we all know it), and even though I’m a very forgiving person, if he did not receive a personal note from her before he died, thanking him sincerely for everything he did for her, I would be a new definition of infuriated.
Finally, I indulged myself just a little. On the day the judge terminated her birth parents’ rights, I asked her, where did she think she and her brothers would have gone if not to our home (all three mind you). So quick I knew this had to be the message she was getting from her birth family, she said, “My dad’s mom. We should have been with her.”
And a little light came on.
I agreed with her. “You’re absolutely right that the first thing the courts do is look for biological relatives to place foster children with. If the County had known about your grandmother, and she had been determined a suitable placement, we would never have met you. Do you know why they didn’t place you with her? Because your birth dad never told the social workers about her.”
I read to her verbatim the last sentence of the foster care report that says, “The father states that he does not have any relatives to consider for placement and maternal relatives have been ruled out as placement options.”
“That day in court,” I told her, “we were your only option if you wanted to stay together. Very few people line up to take a sibling group ranging in age from 3 to 10.”
I told her that she was entitled to decide we weren’t her parents; that she could choose to believe she was brainwashed; that she could use us for 12 years and then split without a word; but that she was not entitled to hurt Justin and Gavin.
“I’m just expressing my opinion,” she said.
‘Opinion’, I told her, is saying ‘There are happy parts to the story we didn’t know about. If our birth Grandma had known about us, she would have adopted us, isn’t that awesome?’
‘Cruelty’ is telling a thirteen year old boy struggling for his grip that the only parents he has ever known are just ‘Cary and Donna’ and his ‘real parents’ are somewhere else. ‘Cruelty’ is relying on Gavin to survive (literally) birth parents, foster parents, and rough patches with adoptive parents only to blow him off like a booger when she gets what she thinks is a better offer.
“We love you,” I said. “We know you’re having a hard time, but for now, we need to protect ourselves from you. When you get yourself together and can be in our lives without being so emotionally destructive, you know where to find us. Meanwhile, we’re going to block phone, text, and FaceTime. You can send snail mail anytime because a letter gives Justin time to process his thoughts and feelings before deciding whether he wants to read it.”
Then, because I’m her mother whether she admits it or not, I said, “The Kaylyn I know graduated high school, got clean and stayed off drugs, made it to 18 without a pregnancy, and was an awesome superstar in her first job. You were so proud of yourself, and we were so proud of you. Remember that Kaylyn. Wherever you choose to live, whatever you decide to make of your life, she’s the best part of you.”
I don’t remember if Kaylyn said she loved us. I know she said goodbye, and that’s something.
If I had thought of it in time, I would have asked her how it was that her birth grandmother didn’t know they were in foster care for two full years before we adopted them, or why her birth father preferred to see his children adopted by total strangers rather than by a member of his own family.
I would have asked her how her birth dad could take her thousands of miles away from the people who kept her safe when he couldn’t, and do so without even the mercy of a heads up that she was alive.
I would have asked her if her birth family has any gratitude for us rescuing her and her brothers from foster care; for keeping them together and never giving up no matter how bad it got; for expending every effort and resource to help them heal; and for doing our level best to give them a good life, a stable home, anything they needed, and a lot of what they wanted.
Y’all better recognize that I, as a graduate of Sears Charm School—a graduate mind you—know whereof I speak. When I was 10, my mother drove me down every week to the Sears in Chula Vista where I was the youngest, by far, of the young ladies there. This was back in the day when I wore black patent leather shoes and little white gloves to church. My mother wanted me to get a jump on the manners I would have needed were I to live in a charm school world but which now render me a freak if I use them. Among them:
Men remove their hats indoors, women do not.
Youth rise when an adult enters the room.
No one starts to eat dinner until the mother picks up her fork.
A man walks between a woman and the street. (This derives from a time when horses and buggies sprayed mud as they passed, and the man shielded his companion’s skirts.
Men shake hands upon meeting other men; women have the option of shaking hands with a man, and he does not extend his hand to her but waits for her to extend hers to him.
It is ‘yes’ not ‘yeah.’
Silverware does not make noise by touching while eating and never scrapes the plate.
The knife is never licked, and the fork is never cleaned with the lips unless it is done surreptitiously while taking a bite.
If a piece of silverware drops on the floor, it is left until after the meal.
If one eats something unpleasant, it is discreetly deposited into one’s napkin as one wipes one’s lips.
Soup is eaten by dipping the spoon away, not toward one. (Try it. It absolutely prevents spills.)
When the meal is over, silverware is laid parallel pointing to the middle of the plate at the 4:00 position.
Thank you notes are written within two weeks. Men stand until all the women are seated at a table and rise when a woman leaves or returns to the table.
Children answer the phone, “Voss residence, (child’s name) speaking.”
Alas, time marches on, and we must do our best to adjust. Looking on the bright side, deteriorating etiquette renders me freer to discuss politics and religion in social settings. Always a silver lining.
I hate normal families (just for today, maybe tomorrow too). Normal as in ‘usual, typical, or expected.’ I especially hate normal families who say, “There’s no such thing as normal.” They just prove how normal they are, because those of us outside normal limits know we’re not in the club. Examples of not-normal families:
Families with child prodigies or Olympians-to-be. (Sometimes not-normal is not all bad.)
Families with a severely disabled child.
Families where children suffer sexual, physical, or emotional abuse or neglect.
Families where one problem or set of problems dominates all waking (and some sleeping) hours, pushing aside any semblance of ‘quality time’ and making any semblance of ‘quantity time’ akin to torture.
Families where for reasons of safety, some members must live under a different roof for an extended period of time.
The Obamas (See? Not always bad.)
If you want to argue that the above families are ‘not rare’ or ‘not unusual,’ you have a leg to stand on. They’re still not ‘usual, typical, or expected.’ You could go for the gray and say, “All families are dysfunctional,” and there, you may have a point. (Although I have to say that when my mother made this claim in 1978, I saw it as a total cop-out.) And if all of us are dysfunctional, then dysfunctional is normal, and the characteristics listed above still push some families out of ‘typical or expected.’ Continue reading “I HATE NORMAL FAMILIES”→
There are a lot of good people out there, but they aren’t all good.
Atheism is a belief.
Culture and refinement are passed down to children through the mother.
First we do what we have to do, then we do what we want to do.
Never marry a man until you’ve seen him tired, hungry, angry, and sick.
Always clean the vertical sides of the toilet, because when you tell your mother you’re done, she will check.
It’s only money. (This explains a lot, unfortunately.)
Fish and guests start to stink after three days.
It’s just as easy to marry a rich man as a poor man. (In retrospect, this smacks more of wishful thinking than genuine wisdom.)
You try people on; some people you keep, some people you don’t.
The way you get people to like you is to like them first. (This one was highly offensive to my sensibilities for a long time, because if someone didn’t like me already, it was their problem, and I wasn’t going to trick them into it. With my post-junior high social skills, I’ve realized that it never hurts to make oneself more likable. It comes in quite handy in, say, every social interaction ever.)