As I wrote in my previous blog post, I imagine Maddie Ziegler’s performance in the music video for Sia’s “Chandelier” to be a representation of how kids who suffer the effects of early-childhood trauma feel. When I watch that video, I find myself wearing the shoes of my step-kids, and I and remember that the kids’ behavior comes from a place of sadness, anger, and terror. The video for “Chandelier” evokes my empathy.
“Elastic Heart,” on the other hand, offers me much needed catharsis… Because I see myself in Shia LeBouf’s character as he tries to save a little girl who refuses the salvation he offers.
I have had a hard time explaining to friends and family exactly what it feels like to parent my step-kids. I try to describe the pain they feel and inflict on me, the sadness and anger I feel over the whole situation, the commitment to keep trying even when it seems impossible… but my words fall far short of accurately conveying the reality of parenting children whose early-life experiences extinguished their ability to trust their caregivers.
Husband and I were overjoyed when his kids came to live with us. They were in an unsafe environment, and our home would shelter them. They would be safe with us. We knew we would be able to fix their problems as long as they remained in our homes.
Oh, how naive we were. Was it really only two years ago?
Back in 2013, we didn’t understand that Middle and Little would fear our safe environment full of love and kindness and predictability. From their point of view, Husband and I weren’t providing them with a safe place to live… they didn’t even understand the concept of a “safe home,” so of course they interpreted all of our rules and structure and even our hugs as traps designed to confine them.
We were trapping them and trying to force them to accept our love when they saw that love as a threat. To them, our house wasn’t a home… It was a cage.
Our safe environment threatens them. We can’t be trusted! And why should they trust us? Any adult who ever cared for them let them down… Even Husband had to let them down. He had to leave for long periods of time to tend to his army duties and every time he left their little lives fell apart around them. Even now, Middle and Little grow uneasy if he wears anything with a camouflage pattern or if he leaves the house unexpectedly. More than two years after they came to live in our home, they still don’t feel safe, they still don’t feel like we will love them unconditionally, and nothing we say or do can take that feeling away. When they get scared that their world is going to be turned upside down, “Fight, Freeze or Flee” kicks in, and they resist our attempts to bond with them.
So they test us. They test the limits of our love every. single. day.
The simple truth is, the brutal intensity of my kids’ emotions plays out in their behavior and sometimes they scare me… At least once a day I worry their behavior will never get better, that some day they are going to hurt themselves or someone else, and that is terrifying.
And sometimes, I do want to run away from all the pain and suffering that manifests physically and emotionally. I want to run not only from the pain they inflict on me, but from the pain I see lurking underneath the surface, the root cause of their “negative behavior.”
At times, I’ve felt that well-meaning friends and family have actually secretly wanted me to run away. People have asked me to really consider if I can handle parenting the kids (and, sometimes, I can’t). If I really want to parent them (and, sometimes, I don’t). I’ve been reminded that no one would blame me for walking away from this “situation.” I’ve been reprimanded for putting Oldest through all this drama for kids that “aren’t really mine.”
But even though these last couple years have been the hardest I’ve ever lived… I stay. I stay, and try to comfort them when they are in the clutches of the Reactive Attachment Disorder minions. I stay, and do my damnedest to therapeutically parent them so that they can heal.
I stay, and do my damnedest to therapeutically parent them so that they can heal.
Many have asked me, “Why? Why are you staying?!”
I have wondered myself on countless occasions. And every time I stop and think about it, I come to the same conclusions.
I stay out of love for Husband. How could I leave him to do this immense job all on his own? How could I run away from his children when he so openly and readily accepted my biological daughter who has her own difficulties with behavior? How could I abandon the man who has shown me so much love, who has redefined my definition of love, who would never abandon me if our roles were reversed?
I stay out of love for myself. Could I forgive myself for walking away from these beautiful children who have seen more horrible things in their short lives than I have seen in my 32 years? Who have been repeatedly mistreated and abandoned? Could I leave them when they so desperately want to love and receive love openly, without fear, to “fit” in our family but just can’t bring themselves to believe we won’t disappear?
No! I couldn’t do that. And I know I couldn’t.
So, I stay for myself.
I stay out of love for Oldest. While it is true that in the beginning, the chaos that her step-siblings brought to our house caused her great distress, we have revamped our parenting style and put into place some steps for her to take if she feels scared during a RAD meltdown. She has someone to play with most of the time, someone to share things with and she loves her little brother and sister. That’s a great thing. And the “negative behaviors” of Middle and Little teach her how to deal with peer pressure and other things that kids have to deal with as they grow, things I’ve always worried she wouldn’t get a chance to learn with her genetic disorder. I’ll never deny that the chaos of our home can be distressing at times, but I think the benefits of our home balance out the disadvantages. She has a family with two committed parents, where she really gets to see the unconditional love Husband and I have for our children. And that is pretty great.
And, of course, I stay out of love for Middle and Little. I can’t even imagine what would happen to them if I left them. I can’t imagine what their minds would do if they woke up tomorrow and I was gone. I know that they love me as much as they can… As much as RAD lets them love me. I know that they love me, even though I sometimes forget the truth in that because their expressions of love look so different than my own.
If you haven’t yet, watch the video for Sia’s “Elastic Heart.” Listen to the lyrics and spend some time thinking about children with traumatic pasts and their desire for love.
You can give them that love. You can.
I know it.
And another one bites the dust
Oh, why can I not conquer love?
And I might have thought that we were one
Wanted to fight this war without weapons
*For example: Yesterday was AWESOME! We visited Husband’s family and friends, and they rocked some awesome behavior. Little even talked himself out of a meltdown. This is an amazing feat in its own right, but considering he had been up for fifteen hours with no nap in a place that essentailly showered him with love and safety all day long, I found his remaining calm when he didn’t get the piggy-back ride to the car he wanted absolutely remarkable. I was thrilled.