Second Wind


April 4, 2018, the last day I clicked “Publish”. Nearly a year has passed since my last blog entry, and as I sit at my desk, with my clammy tiptoes pressed against our bamboo floors, trying to balance the black, slightly under inflated yoga ball, that’s indifferently bending and rolling beneath me, I ignore the all too familiar sting against my eyes, as I try to find a place to begin again. The tall, oversized window across the room distracts me, as it’s meant to. I look through the pine branches whipping in the wind and focus on the clouds lazily rolling beyond the treeline instead. Every few minutes or so, they give way to the sun, and it crashes across the weather worn branches pouring inevitable optimism through my window, like Moses dropping the Dead Sea on Pharaoh’s Army. The spring sunlight fills the daunting bleakness around me with a moment of triumphant hope for warmer days ahead. Just as instantly, another cloud blocks the sun, and shadows darken the room again. My emotions whip and swirl and churn and fade, just as quickly as the partly cloudy sunshine splashing across the pine needles in our yard. I feel sad. I feel happy. I feel lost. I feel hopeful. I feel angry. Guilt. Shame. Confusion. Doubt. Determination. Nostalgia. Longing. Laughter. Tears. Well, you get the idea; I’m a hot mess, and yet, here I am listening to the gentle, quick click of my fingertips against this keyboard, with my head dancing along with David Garrett’s Smooth Criminal cover, a favorite on my Lindsey Stirling Pandora station. I realize the clicking has stopped and find myself pinching my lower lip, lost for a moment in anxious thoughts. Is my writing worth the effort? Well, what else do I have to do? Clean the house some more? Beat myself up again about not finishing college? Will I ever have the family I imagined as a child? Does that even exist? I feel like a hypocrite. I feel like a failure. I feel lost and angry at myself once more. There’s that damn sting again. Another swig of sweet tea. Another glance out the window. No. Self. Deprecating. Then, I exhale and look back down at the screen.

The electrifying classical covers parlaying with the white noise of the fan behind me seem to parallel my conflicted feelings, like the ever quickening beat of battle drums. The turmoil between hope and depression wages within me, and some days, depression wins. Too many days, hope fights gallantly against the onslaught of negativity I constantly hurl at it, just to retreat for a chance to prevail another day. How many battles does one have to lose before losing the war? My writing has been dormant for nearly a year. How did I let this happen? Will I ever learn how to love others while making myself a priority at the same time? RuPaul Charles sashays across my mind and snaps,

“Gurl, if you can’t love yourself how the hell you gonna love somebody else?”

Eddie then saunders over, accepting a shot of Stoli from Pats, and as they share a cheeky smirk, claps right back,

“Honey, if it were that easy we’d all be doing it!”

Books should have empty pages between chapters. Chapter two or ten or fifty flowing on without pause straightaway into the rest of the story terribly misleads the reader, because sitting in the great white void of blank indecision trying to invision which words are yet to come is the next chapter. Life has blank spaces. Some, like me it would seem, require more blank space than others before moving on; accepting and respecting my personal space requires diligent mindfulness, and when my depression states, “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn” my mindfulness lumbers off into the fog, like Scarlett O’Hara looking for love in all the wrong places. My last blog entry, which again posted 11 months and 27(ish) days ago, for a quick and simple weeknight spaghetti dinner, one of the incredibly few dishes I could prepare for my foster kiddos without any fear of a meltdown, fills me simultaneously with inspiration and angst. Fond memories of rounding meatballs or rolling dough for pizza night together abruptly leads to memories of hours of angry sobbings, food throwing, table defacing, their heart wrenching screams of “I”m worthless and don’t deserve food!”, cussing me out, and outright refusing to eat because another family visit got cancelled or because we usually eat tacos on Tuesdays, not Thursdays. The intensity of the tantrums and how exhaustingly long they seemed, coupled with my relentlessly frequent inability to nurture these children with a simple plate of food, proved more daunting than I’d ever imagined. Their refusal to eat randomly ricocheted against the walls of our home, like an angry, swelling river sweeping and plunging and yanking me helplessly under every traumatic, insecure moment they had ever endure in their previous lives. One day oranges made the “my favorite fruit” list, and then the following day they were forcibly thrown up all over my dining room table and floor. One week they would scarf down canned Bernie O’s with big, sloppy tomato sauce smiles, and then the next time the same little O’s made another round on the lunch menu, the O’s slowly sogged in a chubby toddler bowl requiring nearly three hours of constant prompting to finish just half of it. An excited food request would bounce about the kitchen, I would ecstatically prepare it, and without one bite taken I’d find myself standing perplexed, while plopping the whole lot in the trash. The issue went beyond the younger children as well, as the teenager who lived with us for six months repeatedly insisted on eating meals alone when he first moved in and disregarded my prompts to eat with dismissive statements like “I’m not hungry” or “I don’t eat breakfast” or “I like to eat late at night” or “I’d like to cook for myself since I’ll have my own apartment soon”, but is that the story he posted on social media or shared, albeit in confidence, with the people he wanted to live with more than us? Nope, not even close. You see, it just doesn’t work that way. Living in constant survival mode causes humans to act in desperate ways, even against their own interests, if, at the time, it means they can maintain any modicum of control over their own existence. Everything, and I literally mean everything, amounts to life or death with these kids, and as horribly unfair and heartbreaking as that sounds, the truth remains the same. If you think about it, the foods we enjoy are comforting because they remind us of happy, safe, enjoyable moments with our loved ones. When you’ve lost your family, food simply reminds you that you are far from home. Even so, I spent so much time preparing two, and most days, three different dinners trying to please everyone (not to even mention breakfast, lunches, and snacks), that all the joy was sucked out of my kitchen, like the infinite darkness of space sucking all the oxygen out of a shattered space station window. I patiently empathized. I pleaded with treats and toys. I collapsed and cried until my eyes hurt. I yelled in exhausted desperation. I drew sticker charts and made up games. I covered my walls with motivational posters, therapeutic printouts, and educational prompts from the Autistic Spectrum just trying to cover all my bases. Hell, after a while, I even threw a few tantrums of my own. The bottom line? They didn’t want to eat at my house; they want to eat with their parents.

Nevertheless, my kitchen is the heart of our home. It has always pumped life into the very foundation of any house we’ve ever lived in. Our kitchen has literally saved our marriage on more than one occasion. It doesn’t matter how fed up we feel with each other, just toss a sprig of Rosemary in a hot skillet with butter and garlic, and whatever mundane nonsense that seemed so life or death a moment ago, is completely forgotten. Not only that, the astronomical amount of time I’ve spent over the past eight or so years blogging my recipes, practicing food photography, researching spices, techniques, exploring, and growing my own plants and herbs now intertwines with every aspect of my creativity. There’s just no way to deny I’m just another sap in love with my “foodie” title. Did I anticipate and even expect food troubles and tantrums during my fostering journey? Of course I did. Even if I hadn’t, a benevolent foreshadowing fell onto my lap one sunny afternoon in the Aldi parking lot, just before receiving our License. A friend of a friend, who currently fostered, had mentioned that food was the most difficult challenge they faced at home every day. Of course, I have plenty of experience with picky, “beige eaters”, and thought, at the time, I had enough tricks up my sleeves to carry me through. Although I heard her warning loud and clear, I did not want to accept defeat before I’d even started my journey. So yes, food challenges I expected. However, did I anticipate the state of my reality collapsing all around me, and so much so, that I was accused of starving children? No, that thought never crossed my mind. Oh, we heard in training time and again,

“Allegations against foster parents happen all the time, so don’t panic. They’re just part of the package.”

My heart is skipping into palpitations right now just remembering it. For the life of me, I cannot find the thread that unraveled it all. I’ve heard that a frog thrown in boiling water will jump out, but, if you place the frog in cold water, and then slowly bring the water up to a boil, the frog will just sit there until it boils to death.

Well, our experience with fostering felt just like that, and not just us, as 20 to 25% of foster parents quit within the first year. Did I ever consider that a possibility? No, but our home voluntarily closed exactly 366 days after receiving our License. Some days the idea of getting up and out of my own bed felt insurmountable. Some days the laughter and fun and love overflowed until it spilled out all around us. I bravely gave my all, as much as I had to give each individual day. The kids bravely gave their all, as little as they had to give each individual day. As a hopeless romantic, “all you need is love” became my mantra long ago. Now, I fully realize how naive and one dimensional that sounds. Love does not heal all wounds nor should it. Even so, I kept on keeping on until I couldn’t go any further. How do I nourish children who refuse to eat? How do I maintain healthy immune systems, developmental growth, and creativity when what they like and dislike drastically contradicts everything I thought I knew just one moment before? How do I balance what’s familiar to them with healthier choices? How do I maintain my morals while respecting theirs? How do I keep how helpless I feel in protecting these children from all the trauma someone else put them through from overwhelming me? How do I learn the necessity of placing the oxygen mask on myself first?

So, per my habit, I researched, read, inquired, emailed, phoned, and researched some more, like Hermione in the Restricted Section trying to unriddle Horcruxes. They told me to get their little hands in the dirt and let them help to plant and harvest. So, I did. They told me to get their little hands in the kitchen and let them help stir and mix and smell and taste. So, I did. They told me to provide positive reinforcement and natural consequences. So, I did. They told me to model appropriate behavior. So, I did. They told me to try visual cues, breathing techniques, and rewards. So, I did. They told me to attend family therapy and more training sessions. So, I did. They told me to ask for help, join support groups, read books, and watch training videos. So, I did. They told me to try this and this and that and this too. So, I did. In the end, quite frankly, nothing I did ever worked for more than a few days or so. The mere fact of the matter? Refusing to eat feels powerful. Who can blame them? They are ripped from their families (whether justifiably so or not) and fall through the dark and strange rabbit hole of living with complete strangers. Abruptly, everything familiar to them disappears and to replace it? This stranger offers you a plate of ingredients you’ve never seen before in your life! The trauma based triggers weren’t all food related obviously, but food is a very necessary aspect of life, and very much triggered the kids we lived with. Therapy produced little to no results. Buying processed junk I would otherwise never have had in my pantry or freezer produced little to no results. Refusing to cave into tantrums and meltdowns produced little to no results. Ignoring them entirely produced little to no results. To save a little time, let’s just insert a few trite dilemma metaphors here: jump through flaming hoops, crawl across broken glass, walk through Hell, bend until you break. Then we’ll naturally need to insert the tried and true self-motivation metaphors next: love conquers all, keep on keeping on, one day at a time, failure is a better teacher than success. Mixed in between all those, let’s insert a double helping of biological parent advice here: positive parenting nurtures positive children, don’t take it personally, kids will be kids, all children act worse at home, tantrums mean they trust you, keep them busy, children crave structure, and so on. Honestly, I cycled through every idea in my toolbox, borrowed ideas out of other’s toolboxes, and even threw out the toolboxes altogether and tried to construct new ideas from scratch. Gradually, the very sight of my kitchen, a place that previously brimmed with love, inspiration, creativity, and joy, now only filled me with overwhelming dread. So, completely losing myself wasn’t very hard to do, as table meltdowns were just one of a multitude of constant daily challenges I found myself up against.

So, the internal moral conflict begins to flip and churn, like a half consumed three day old tuna sandwich from a middle-of-nowhere gas station. Love your fellow man. Support your local community. Work as a valued team member with DSS and your fellow foster parents. Provide children with shelter and safety in a nurturing environment, while bridging over the troubled waters of broken family units so that healing can finally begin. It sounds so beautifully inspirational on paper, and oh how I fell for it hook, line, and sinker. I fell for it, because underneath it all, I was desperate. Desperate for a family. Desperate to adopt a baby. Desperate to be a mother while still in my thirties. Guilt and fear start creeping up my spine, clunking into my gut, while anxiety flashes from my heart to my fingertips. You might wonder dear reader, did love and joy exist in my home between us and the four kiddos we grew to know over the past year despite all the disconnected communication, dismissiveness of the community, and trauma based behaviors we all experienced? Absolutely, and of course! Happy memory after happy memory after happy memory intertwines and snakes around the barbed wire of trauma, lies, manipulations, and mistrust. As I said to each of my kids, “I can feel frustrated and angry and sad and happy and disappointed and excited and all my emotions and it will not change my love for you.” Did I fall flat on my face again and again? Yes, and when I did I apologized and committed to learning and trying harder. Do I feel the same about fostering as I did going into this? Nope. Is the System corrupt? Well, what System in this brave and brilliantly broken country isn’t right now? In all fairness, Social Services, a thankless job first of all, functions every day as an overworked, overlooked, and underfunded collective of everyday people, and as with all things, some of those people are truly altruistically attempting to better our local communities, while a few are power tripping with qualified immunity and hearsay just enough to udderly undermine the intention of the entire organization.

Is it ever a good idea to become so consumed with caring for other people that you totally lose yourself? Absolutely not. Can a family, however you might define it, work with only one person giving their everything to hold it all together? Absolutely not. Do I regret the past year? I’m not sure yet. Have I learned? Yes, a hell of a lot, and even some things I wish I hadn’t. Did my heart break? I think it’s still breaking. The worst part of all this? These children, either lost or stuck in the System, in the least, suffer emotional damage every day they are separated from their families. No matter how much love and structure you, as a Foster Parent, Social Worker, CASA, or Therapist may have to offer them, their parent’s are all they want, which is only a very natural way for them to feel. The warm, clean bed we offered them, with stories and goodnight kisses, just isn’t their bed, and it doesn’t matter if you’re a three star Michelin Chef or casual microwave connoisseur, their mommy or daddy doesn’t cook it that way. Whether straight, gay, married, single, rich, poor, or divorced it really doesn’t matter at all, children belong with their parents.

Again, our home voluntarily closed to fostering February 22, 2019. President’s Day weekend, all the children moved out of our home. As the Little Big Town song goes, “I know why I had to say goodbye like the back of my hand, but I just miss you…”, and I know I took an enormous risk opening my heart and home to this population, so in that fact alone I feel some modicum of success. I’ve cooked from scratch less than ten times since the kids moved out, but the life/death/life cycle goes on. My phone currently contains recent photographs of all four kids smiling and happy and healthy, and I care about that more than anything else. After three or so weeks of “unabashedly bawling my eyes out”, while slipping beneath the depths of my dishearteningly quiet house, the desire to resurrect my blog started creeping up from the remoteness of my depression relentlessly seeking any semblance of a crack to slip through, and, eventually, it did. Maybe the delicate, green sprouts shoving up towards the sunlight so hungrily through the damp, dark earth I’d buried them underneath finally created enough of a fissure for my criatura, for my Wild Woman, to burst through. Nerves and self-doubt abound, but I write a little more every day. The kids I love and cared for over the past 12 months will forever remain ingrained within my heart. The lessons I’ve learned are presently sparking new life into my values, morals, and aspirations. 

Overall, I’ve achieved little closure at this juncture, and the long term impact of this experience I cannot fully imagine right now. What I do know? Without a doubt, I am not the same person who typed out that last blog entry a year ago. How will this latest undertaking of mine impact my writing, my blog moving forward? Honestly, I really have no idea, but I’ve flipped through to the last blank page between fostering and my future and saw only one word: write. So, here I go, sliding the cursor up to click “Publish” once again. And, it sure as hell feels good!