Crying in my car is a pretty regular practice since becoming a foster parent. Because it’s inappropriate to express overwhelm and stress about parenting in front of my new kid, the car is the perfect place to cry my eyes out for 10 minutes, then go about the rest of my day with as much unwavering calm as I can muster. Recently, I was car-crying for a reason I never pictured in the 8 years of trying before I actually became a parent. I had just dropped off my new kid- a child with special needs whose suffered trauma, neglect and enormous loss- at school wearing pajamas, pullups, and no shoes. What kind of mother does that?! A mother doing her best to parent with empathy, love and logic it turns out.
When “the squirrel” moved in, we promised her that our home was a place where no one hits and we use kind voices with one another. She doesn’t know if she can believe that yet. She wonders- “do these new parents mean what they say?” “What happens if I don’t listen?” Like every child, whether they come by birth or adoption, “the squirrel” is testing our boundaries. And the morning routine, in particular, had become a battle of wills and arguments where nobody was winning.
So with guidance from our wonderful social worker, Lynn and I prepared ourselves to take all the time we needed to help our daughter know we DO mean what we say. After gently waking up my little girl one morning with gentle music and a lavender foot massage, I saw the look in her eyes- the one meaning, “It’s on, Mommy. I don’t care what you do. It is SO ON.” But, like I said, we were ready. So I laid out 2 choices of school clothes, gave her a little kiss and said “I’ll see you when you’re dressed.” She crossed her arms. She looked at me defiantly. And she smirked. I went into the kitchen, made my coffee, took some deep breaths and went about my morning routine. After a while, I went back into “The Squirrel’s” room where she was sitting in the same exact position.
“I see you are choosing not to get dressed this morning,” I said. “Okay, well… we leave for school at 8:15. I’m happy to take you in your school clothes or in your pajamas. It’s up to you.” At 8:10, I packed up all her clothes and her backpack. At 8:15, I said, “Would you like to go to the car with your feet on the floor or in the air?” She screamed “NO!” and kept screaming as she walked barefoot through the wet grass, as I put her (as kindly as I could) into her booster seat and during the whole drive to school. She kicked and screamed so loudly, that I’m not sure she heard me when I reminded her that I’d be happy to pull over on the way to school so she could get dressed. But the moment we got to school, her crying stopped. She wiped her face, took my hand nicely and we walked through the fog and out onto the cold asphalt for morning assembly. “Oh honey, your feet must be just freezing. I’m so sad you chose not to wear shoes.” We stood there, hand in hand as all her classmates gathered around, commenting on her pajamas and asking questions. Her teacher looked surprised and eager to dress my kid herself but I bravely asked her not to. “I’m sure she’ll choose to get dressed soon,” I offered, kissing my little girl on the cheek and leaving her to experience natural consequences of a choice she’d made. Then, I got in my car and cried my eyes out.
It’s been over a month since that morning. “The Squirrel” has woken up tired, sick, grumpy, silly or anxious on any given morning…but she’s never resisted getting dressed again. Slowly, she is learning to believe me when I say “I love you” or “I’m here to listen” or “My job is to keep you safe.” And equally slowly, I’m learning to believe that my overwhelm will lessen, my car-crying will slow down and my faith in myself to be a good-enough parent will grow over time.