The first week of December marks one year since all our lives were thrown into upheaval when the children went into care. Last Thanksgiving I had no idea my life was about to change so dramatically, yet only two weeks later that is exactly what happened. As we prepare for Thanksgiving it seems appropriate to pause to review and appreciate just how far we have truly come.
The change I have seen in the kids since they arrived is huge. Princess Jasmine was angry and aggressive, hitting her siblings when she thought I wasn't looking, then laughing when they cried. Princess Ariel was teetering on the edge of a serious mental health crisis, utterly paralyzed by loss and grief and the constant fear that she would lose more people she loved. For a long time she was unable to go upstairs to the bathroom alone because she was so terrified none of us would be there when she came out again. Baby Brother was silent, withdrawn and depressed. He didn't smile or want to play. All he wanted was to be held, never really relaxing unless his sisters were nearby where he could see them.
Today, ten months later, a lot has changed. Although Princess Jasmine isn't beyond giving her sister the occasional intentional wallop under the guise of wrestling, she has made remarkable progress in learning how to express her feelings in safer, healthier ways. She is learning to read music and write songs and pours out all her sad, angry feelings into her lyrics. She still vacillates between being glad that she is here with me, instead of with the previous foster family that shaved her head when she got lice, and feeling resentful that I'm taking her real mom's place. But I can also see that she genuinely loves me and wants to reconcile her feelings for me with her love for her real mom.
Princess Ariel is no longer constantly on the brink of tears. She is happy, perky, and mischievous and has developed an emotional intelligence that would put most adults to shame. She soaked up all the techniques she learned in therapy and has become very adept at understanding and managing her own feelings of loss and grief. She has also become good at pointing out to others how they are feeling and what they might do about it. Occasionally she will tell me "Mom, maybe you should take a break. You're getting cranky." She is still sad and deeply, deeply misses her mother. But she isn't blaming herself anymore for what happened, nor is she obsessed with who around her might die or disappear when she isn't looking.
Baby Brother has made the most dramatic change of all. There is nothing sadder than a sad baby, but I am happy to report that "sad baby" is now the least likely description to ever be applied to our Baby Brother. These days he is Mr. Charming, all big toothy smiles and happy chatter. At daycare they call him the Latin Lover because all the little girls want to play with him. He is the perfect toddler man: he likes to cuddle and hold hands and his favorite games are playing dollies and cooking in the play kitchen. He is going to be an excellent daddy someday. When he isn't taking care of his babies he is a total ham who likes to sing, dance and tell jokes (although usually only he understands the jokes). He used to be terrified whenever somebody he didn't know came to our home, fearing every stranger was there to take him away. Now, although he still comes running to cling to my leg, if I explain to him who the person is and tell him it is Ok, he will relax and go back to playing.
As for Big Brother and I we have gone from totally overwhelmed, wondering what the hell we got ourselves into and fearing we might never get out of it again to feeling pretty good about where things are at. Big Brother has grown up so incredibly much through this experience, I am simply in awe of him. He is a natural with the kids, kind patient and loving yet firm and fair when the inevitable squabbles break out. When he comes home they run to him for hugs and to tell him about their day. He picks them up from school and daycare sometimes just to spend time with them. Letting your kids grow up is never easy, but seeing him with his younger siblings has given me a window into who he will be as a father one day. That little peek at the future man my son will be has helped me feel secure in giving him the space he needs as a young adult. My reward has been seeing him blossom into a very capable young adult.
The message I'm reinforcing to the kids these days, as we prepare for whatever answers will be revealed in the weeks to come is we are not two families, we are one. Just like when two people get married, the each bring their original familes and combine them to make a new bigger family together, so it is with us. Whether they live with me or they live with mom we are family. Always. They don't have to chose, they don't have to stress. We are theirs and they are ours. Somehow, we will always be a part of each others lives no matter where we are or who they live with, because love is what makes us a family.