Last night I apparently slept with my jaw clenched, something I haven’t done since college. And yes, I’m back in college after seventeen years and the irony doesn't escape me. This morning I had plans to take Samuel to get a haircut and to pick up his “girlfriend” (the first one EVER) and take her to lunch and to photograph them together. I had also promised Lizzie a fun activity would take place today since she is basically the only one of the little kids who isn’t in a serious load of trouble right now. But when I woke up I had this nagging headache on the left side of my head. I thought maybe it was a sinus infection but later when I was eating an organic Aussie Bite (I highly recommend these by the way) - like an oatmeal cookie but good for you - and I realized the soreness was coming from the left side of my jaw. I opened and closed my jaw (duh, I was eating) and the pain was pretty severe. I’m not a jaw-clencher (blame it on the Algebra) but for whatever reason I guess I clenched my jaw last night as I slept.
Since moms don’t cancel their Saturday plans with their children for just anything, and poor, socially awkward Samuel wouldn’t have taken it well, I took some advil, drank a little coffee and got on with my day. We got the haircut, we ran a few miscellaneous errands in town, picked up the girlfriend, ate at chic-fil-a, and took loads of photos at the reservoir. *Samuel is determined to give her a meaningful Valentine’s Day gift, so we needed some good shots of the two of them. And after the first part of the day, I went home and picked up the little ones and a neighbor/buddy and went to the city park for a couple of hours. All during this typically busy Saturday I have been trying to make my jaw stop hurting. I have massaged my face, made chewing gestures, sucked on ice, etc. to no avail. In the car, I surrendered to the pain and clenched my jaw. The crazy thing? Clenching my jaw made the pain feel tolerable, almost normal. Gritting my teeth and forcing my face into the same grimace I apparently slept with was the only way to get a little relief. Of course, after I opened my mouth again, the pain was back.
So why am I telling you this trivial story? This is why:
I work every day with kids who were removed from their families because of abuse or neglect. Not only do I work with them, but I live with them, and I am generally surrounded by a little community of foster and adoptive families. I have studied a lot about trauma, grief, and loss. My kids have been through it. And the girls at the children’s home where I work- they know it well. And it’s really hard - okay it’s super hard - for me to understand why most of them (almost all of them) would go back to their dysfunctional, crazy, abusive or neglectful families in a heartbeat.
My friends are fostering two little girls who were removed from their home after the domestic violence in the home got so bad that gunfire broke out in the night, while they slept. The girls witnessed horrific abuse, lived in a tiny house crowded with tons of people, and moved from one city to the next without forming any friendships or relationships outside of their home. And the oldest one begs to go home! She insults her beautiful, sweet foster mom! She tells her she is unattractive (she’s not!), that she is not a good mother, that she hates her. This little girl is always on the attack, ready to defend her absent mother and incarcerated father. She longs for the pain to go away, but the pain is all she knows. She can’t get any relief, even in a peaceful happy home where she gets to just play and be a kid. She doesn’t know how to be normal.
At work we have girls who have been sexually abused by fathers or stepfathers and their mothers CHOOSE to stay with the abusers and allow their daughters to languish in the system. Most of these girls if offered the chance to go home will tell you “It’s okay, I will just stay away from Ricky . . . Dad . . . Uncle Joe . . .” and some will say: “I never should have told anyone about what he did to me. Then I wouldn’t be stuck here in this group home.” In other words, these girls are saying, “I would rather live with the pain than have to accept this new normal.” Like my sore jaw, it's easier to go back to the place where the pain began and live with it, than to work through the pain so that it does away.
We’ve been going through it here for three years. When people come over without advance notice, I feel like I have to apologize for my house, my kids, the language, the drama, the fights, the constant anger. My kids were little when they were removed from a house full of neglect, drugs, violence, dependency upon the government, and codependency with one another. My kids don’t remember much at all (thank God) but they know they were removed. For three years, they have had to relearn how to be children. They have had to learn how to be loved, made to feel safe, and made to feel a part of a family. Going back to the dysfunction would have offered a little instant relief, because it was “normal” for them. Instead they ( and we) have had to do the hard work of creating a new normal.
Last Fall we went camping in Kentucky the weekend before school started. It was our last trip together before Georgia started college, and it was in Kentucky for a specific reason. We went to spend some time with John’s “other” son, Evan, a cherub-faced, ruddy-looking little boy just a few months younger than Camden, who lives with his mom in Ohio. What makes Evan especially unique is the fact that we only learned about his existence a few months before our adoption was final! Say what you want about our marriage, but we just roll with the punches. And in defense of John, let me say that he told me there was a possibility of another child long before we got serious. He was always honest with me, so nobody needs to freak out or anything. But when we found out about Evan, we were at a very critical juncture in the adoption process. It was . . . a shock. Suddenly, everything changed and there was someone else to think about. And even though Evan’s mom very kindly said “you don’t have to get involved if you don’t want to,” we both knew there was no way we could not get involved with Evan. In my heart, I knew that I could never deny a child from knowing and having a relationship with a man who is as good a daddy as John is.
We had a really nice trip. Our campsite was located right beside the bath house, general store, and everything else that you need when you camp with this many kids. Georgia and Lizzie and I went to take showers on the last day and emerged from the bath house together. We all had towels wrapped around our hair, and we lugged our bags of bath stuff across the parking lot. Across the way, John and all his sons were gathered around the picnic table under the canopy from our little pop-up camper. They were all looking at something together, probably a dead bug or something else gross that boys like.
“Awwwww!” Georgia exclaimed with a little gasp, “From way over here, our family almost looks normal . . .”
I started to get defensive and tell her that “we are normal,” but then I remembered that old saying that normal is just a setting on the dryer. This is our normal now, even though at times it hurt like Hell. At times, going back to the original discomfort would have been easier. But I am so, so glad that we have all found a new normal, no matter what it looks like from the outside.