27 August 2019

Family Ties

When I was old enough to start making plans for the future, I wanted to have seven kids. My mom and dad had seven kids - the Brady Bunch Way. The "Yours, Mine and Ours" way. I wanted to give birth to seven kids. And I wanted to be the best mom in the world.

Being the best mom in the world would be difficult because the mom who raised me is the best mom in the world. In comparison, I also had a mom who abandoned the family when I was four, and I've always wanted to be a better mom than that.

In one of my teenage diaries, I listed the names of each of my seven kids-to-be, their hobbies and interests, what they'd look like, and even what kind of car each of them would drive. I drew a floor plan for the house we'd live in, and each of my kids would have their own bedroom and their own bathroom. Their own stereo. Their own rotary phone. I spent many hours designing the clothes I'd lovingly stitch for them. All seven of them were girls, which is why I'd need so many bathrooms in my home.

Nadia would be a ballerina, and she'd drive a VW bug. Cara Lynne would be a photographer and would drive an RV equipped with a darkroom. Amory would be a librarian and would drive a little Toyota truck. Kate would be an artist with a Trans Am. Wendy would be a gymnast driving a Jeep. Jocelyn would be a writer, and her favorite mode of transportation would be a bicycle or skates. Sara would be a quilter who'd drive an old Mustang. Each of them would have long, flowing hair, of course, and a couple of them would even have natural curls.

Of course, my imaginary Prince Charming who would be able to pay for all my dreams didn't exist. I also wasn't able to have children. So I did the next-best thing.

I fostered nine children and adopted two of them. I'd have adopted all nine if the opportunity had existed. But two would have to do. Especially since my first husband didn't share my full nest dreams, and I was beyond the age of child-bearing by the time I finally discovered my real life Prince Charming, The Lizard.

I did not date while raising my adopted kiddos alone because I didn't want to chance introducing them to revolving-door daddies. I tried to surround them with the best father figures I could... my brothers, my uncle, men in my church and missionaries.

One of the foster children I took in (the second one) came with specific instructions: "Give this child a Disneyland weekend." Oh, how I wanted to adopt this little angel!!! The birth mother had dropped the child off at the local social services office, signed away all parental rights and gone about her way.

A family in a neighboring city had been chosen for permanent placement, and my instructions were to distract the preschooler from overwhelming feelings of loss and grief, and probably, in my own hindsight, to get out of town for a couple of days to prevent accidental encounters with birth mom. I'd been on the adoption waiting list for at least a year, and the caseworker knew most of my weekends were spent camping, hiking and wildlife-stalking in the mountains.

My second foster child taught me the importance of "Disneyland" weekends without going to California. Foster kids often need something very special to temporarily escape traumatic experiences they often are not equipped to survive. "Disneyland" became the keyword throughout the next seven kids. Only one got to actually see the real Disneyland with me, but all nine of my charges got to experience exuberant memory-making as I tried to be the caregiver they each wished they'd had.

For the two I adopted, both of whom I raised as a single parent, every weekend, school break and summer were designed to beat the previous outing. Family home evening wasn't just on Monday nights. It was every night I could possibly squeeze in a family activity.

Both kids had special needs (as did almost all of my foster children), and I researched every possible way of working with the specific needs, as well as how to bond with traumatized children. (Research in those days was done at the local library. I didn't have a home computer, and no one had cell phones with internet. I'm not sure anyone had internet the way we know it now before 1990.) We practiced cursive with jumbo pencils on special handwriting pads every night because the repetitive smooth, curved movements were supposed to be therapeutic. We took turns giving each other back rubs every night because that was supposed to help develop trust. I read to them every night because I wanted them to experience the magical worlds of books while hopefully teaching them vocabularies beyond their ages. I wanted to prevent them becoming boobtube-watching couch potatoes.

On weekends, we did service projects (such as feeding the homeless or putting together care packages for shelters), went hiking in the mountains or cycling on bike paths throughout the Denver metro area. The two kids I adopted would bike extreme distances, as long as I let them jump in the river along the way. Both of them had nice (used)  35mm film cameras by the time they reached double digits because they each wanted to be a photographer, just like me.

Bad weather winter weekends often were spent learning crafts, making blankets and learning to bake. My second job during those financially tight years was covering high school events for the local newspapers, which meant my kids had press passes and front row seats to all the best sports and even to regional marching band competitions. As they got older, my kids would take notes for me to help write the news capsules. It was another way to teach them to be productive and to notice details.

School breaks and summers were spent exploring pioneer trails, national parks and monuments, and swimming at Water World. I often told my friends I did not have children; I had fish. My kids loved water more than anything, even me. Water often is therapeutic for foster children.

One thing I was never able to unteach was the curiosity about birth families. I knew the longing and the loss as well as my kids; I'd often wondered what I'd done to chase away my birth mom. I often wondered what she must be like, if she would like the way I'd turned out, and if I had brothers and/or sisters out there somewhere.

When I finally got to meet my long-lost birth mom, I learned young girls who leave their children without a single regret and go on to live happy, literally care-free lives can never live up to the innocent and heart-felt expectations of the children who grew up wishing they could have been together, making excuses for why the absent parent never returned.

Part of a foster parent's responsibility is to nurture the bond between the children and their birth families. Teaching a child to love and appreciate where they came from, even if circumstances were not perfect, was supposed to help them accept themselves and learn to forgive. I grew up loving and longing for my birth mom but did not like her very much at all once I got to know her 28 years later. I carried a lot of anger and bitterness for a long time before realizing those feelings were weighing me down and preventing me from enjoying my life to the fullest.

My kids and I had candid discussions about all our tender feelings, and I thought my experiences would help them move on and heal.

I was wrong.

Both of my kids embarked upon permanent unauthorized field trips before they came of age (they ran away), both in search of the parents they'd lost. Both returned to the lifestyles of their birth families and have repeated some of the same mistakes their birth parents made.

That was 17 years ago. All three of us have grown and changed since I became an empty-nester. All three of us are healing.

I'm pretty excited about the way most of my life has turned out, and one of my kids is beginning to get feet back on the ground. Both my kids cling to old habits and crutches, and both of them have had offspring before they were ready. Both of them have made choices they regret to this day. But our relationships with each other are improving, and I still pray every day that I might be a good influence for them, and now for their children as well.

Only one of my 10 actual grands (26 if you count siblings) got to stay with the birth parent. That one, who lives in another state, calls me almost every day. We are becoming quite the conversationalists, even though I can hardly understand most of the toddler speak.

Three years ago, I was able to meet four more of the grands and their new families, and I'm now trying to be the best grandparent in the world to 16 kiddos. Once again, it's a hard act to follow, because I believe with all my heart that my Dad's mom was the greatest grandmother in the world.

She wasn't in the best of health, but she took care of me and my two little brothers until Dad remarried a single mom (and the two of them brought one more kid into the family), and then she was the best grandmother in the world to all seven of us, even though she had no obligation to three of the new grandkids.

She never left anyone out. She knew the three new kids (plus the new baby) could use all the grandparents they could get, and she tried in every way she could to make our time with her special. She taught us crafts. She fed us Lucky Charms (which was quite the phenomena for kids who'd never heard of cereal with marshmallows), taught us to work in the garden and let us play in the blue plastic kiddie pool in her backyard all summer long every year, deep in the desert southwest. She even let my teenage uncle bring home two hamsters (which rapidly multiplied and totally replenished the entire basement before Grandma finally said, "Enough!") so we could learn to be responsible and compassionate pet owners. (She treated us to a magnificent cat after the last of the hamsters was adopted.)

My new mom followed suit. To me, she is my mom. She took care of me and my two brothers as if she'd given birth to us, even though two of us were too old for her to be our mom. How many 23-year-olds could take in seven kids from newborn to nine years of age and thrive? Looking back, I can now understand things I saw and sometimes misinterpreted back then. Such as holding hands with the younger siblings, which were her birth children, but never us big kids when we were in the grocery store or the park.

Sometimes I find myself saying things like, "Man, I was a stupid kid!" And in many ways, I was. But I also was a kid who wanted a mommy to hold my hand. A mommy who wouldn't leave. A mommy who would always love me.

And that's exactly what I got. I guess I had to have kids of my own to see how much my new mom loved and still loves me.

When I adopted, I hoped I could be the mother my mom was to me. For a long time, I thought I'd failed. Now that my kids have had kids of their own, they, too, recognize how great they had it, and they sometimes thank me for everything I did for them. You know what's really bizarre? Sometimes they even ask me for advice!!!

Now I hope I can be the grandmother to all 26 grands, even though I do not have contact with 10 of them yet, my grandmother was to me. Yes, I count all 26. Each of those children is as precious as all 25 of the others. Not a one will ever feel I wasn't a real grandma, if I can help it. (UPDATE!!! I now have contact with three more of the grands, and I'm trying to finish quilts for them and two new babies coming to two nieces by Christmas!!!)

Yes, it can be overwhelming to try to make 16 19 Christmas gifts every year. Making 26 Christmas gifts is going to be months harder when it happens. But I have faith it will happen one day, and until then, 16 19 kids are going to see me being the grandma I wish I'd had. (Because I'm a good 20-plus years younger than my grandma was when she became my role model. And she never got to learn to drive or ride a bike. But she gave me my first bicycle!!!)


  1. What an emotional post - it is sweet. I think you are describing unconditional love - and you seem to have a lot of it! I really love this post, its so sweet and I think.... you are being the best Mom/Grandma these kids could ever want!

    1. Thank you, Alycia! I hope I’m being a good exacting them and showering them with love!

  2. Giving each of the 7 kids their own bathroom would sure take some doing.

    Sometimes in hindsight we see a lot more than in the moment and realize all that was done for us, by birth parent or not. With 19, hopefully all 26,, you'll never run out of things to make.

    1. Thank you, Pat! I do think I will never run out of things to make! I just hope I never run out of ideas!!!


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