The commentary is always the same and I know that it will find me. At preschool pick-up. In the check out line.
There is no return policy. Children are not dogs. Adoption is for life. Did she think it would be easy? How dare she? Awful. Selfish.
What part of forever don’t these horrible people who adopt children and give up understand? What part of parent don’t they understand?
No part. I understand too well. I understand parenting one child to the trauma and detriment of another. I understand choosing between the needs of one child and another.
How could I give up?
I will try and paint it for you. If you will try to keep in mind that I am shaking as I write four long years later.
The sun shone in the windows and for the first time in two months, I felt a fragile peace. My traumatized, institutionalized five-year-old son with valid grief, with understandable rage and abandonment issues, actually leaned against me to see the story that I read. The tentative, warm touch of his arm against mine made it difficult for me to focus on the words. He had chosen to touch me. Months of screaming tantrums set off by nothing and rages and incidents with our little ones that I tried to ignore faded away, melted into nothing at my feet. I could do this. I could do it if we could have these moments. If I could see the progress. If I could have something to give me hope that I was on the right track and he might someday love me and trust me enough that I could breathe.
My one-year-old son, my healthy, untraumatized child toddled back and forth from the bookshelf to us, carrying offerings. He asked to sit in my lap and I pulled him up, but he cried and fussed and I set him down. He leaned against me from the floor and then started to cry and crawled away. Maybe eight or ten times, until I wondered if he was sick, but the fragile bond with my oldest boy held and so when the baby found a quiet game to play on the far side of the room, I read books and snuggled with him as long as I could.
Shadows fell. I kissed my son and got up to start the evening routine. I sat on the ground to change the baby’s diaper, pulled off his pants and pushed up his shirt. Angry red welts scattered across his stomach. One on his side. One on his back. My heart leaped to my throat. An allergic reaction? Hives? They weren’t raised. They weren’t itchy. In the middle they looked bruised.
I knew, then. I looked up and met my oldest son’s eyes and I knew. The hard, angry heart-breakingly familiar set of his face. Defiant, daring, asking. What are you going to do now? Do you still want to be my mother now? The price for my peace. The price for my oblivion and my quiet and my desperate need to have everything work for just one afternoon. I could see my older son’s rage splashed in vivid red on my baby’s stomach.
I could see the price and it was too high for me. I knew he needed to learn that he would be loved no matter what. Trauma, anger, grief, some part of my brain whispered to whatever small part of me remembered to be his mother. I know. I know. I know. I knew and I still shook with rage at a five-year-old boy. There’s no easier way to say it. I shook with rage at a five-year-old boy.
I took his hand and he writhed and screamed and fought and bit and scratched and I don’t blame him. Pure survival instincts. He sensed the danger as well as I did. I pulled him up the stairs as gently, but quickly, as I could, protecting myself as best I could and I put him in his room and I locked the door.
It wasn’t to keep him in. It wasn’t to contain his tantrum which raged inside, turning over furniture and ripping apart bedding and kicking and screaming.
I didn’t lock the door to keep him in.
I turned the lock because I didn’t think I could open a locked door to hurt a child.
And I didn’t. But I wanted to. I wanted to go in there and spank him until I couldn’t lift my arm. I wanted to hold him down and hurt him like he hurt my baby.
I stood on the other side of the door with my head against it and all my education, all my love, all my good intentions, all my reading, all my preparation, the time with the social workers, the words of the attachment therapist were nothing. Nothing. There was nothing and no one there to help me and I have never been so angry, so on the edge of out of control, in my life.
That’s where we are, these parents the world condemns. That is what the bottom looks like. Imagine that you stand at the top of a dark well, looking down at a parent, sitting at the bottom with her head on her knees. Would you try to throw her a rope, or would you spit on her? Which do you think helps the child?
I will tell you what helped my children. A family that wanted a child. A family with only teenagers. A family that had parented traumatized, reactive attachment disorder children before. A mother who on the day that my oldest child became hers said to me not only, “we can do this; it’s okay to let go,” but also, “we understand why you can’t.”
They didn’t throw me a rope, they built my whole family a staircase and it was in the best interest of every single one of my children, my oldest son most of all.
What can we do to help? What can we offer in the place of judgment, instead of scathing commentary? We don’t have to be the whole rope. All we have to be is a thread.
It is a painful reality that a child can be so damaged in the first few years of life that he becomes a terrifying and heartbreaking impossibility for the parents who have opened their hearts and their homes to try and love him. But each and every one of us can be a thread in the rope for change and healing.
How about this? The next time you see a mom “with a horrible kid” “losing it” at the playground, take a deep breath and instead of commenting on the “terrible parent doing nothing while her daughter screams,” think:
Maybe this is the twentieth tantrum today;
Maybe she was up all night;
Maybe the situation is ten million times more complicated than I realize;
And then meet that mother’s eyes and smile at her.
Because maybe, just maybe, an hour ago, she walked away from that child’s door. And maybe, just maybe, for the cost of a smile, you gave her the strength to do it again.
Just like that, you’re a thread in the rope. Now we’re helping children.