A Cancelled Birthday

It was my birthday today.

I gotta tell ya, it’s been a rough couple of weeks. Some of you may have noticed that I have posted less lately. Between pregnancy, fostering obligations, homeschooling, therapy, medical appointments, documenting, family events, and being a (lousy) home maker, I’ve just been zapped.

I put a stop to birthday dinner plans with my family. I deleted my birthday on Facebook the night before, so people wouldn’t feel obligated to wish me half-hearted, internet mandated birthday greetings. I told Milkman to just forget about it. I wanted to cancel my birthday.

This has nothing to do with fear of growing old. I admired new wrinkles this morning, rejoiced over a few more gray hairs, and remembered how much I can’t wait to be an old lady. I have no issue with aging.

It just felt like… I dunno. Too overwhelming. Since becoming a mother, my birthday is often overshadowed with just that— being a mother. Perhaps it was petty to cancel my birthday. Perhaps selfish. Perhaps a pity party. Actually, probably all of the above.

Milkman still did his best to make me feel special. Home made enchiladas (my annual birthday meal since elementary school), gluten free cinnamon rolls with birthday sprinkles, and telling me to go do whatever I wanted to. My kids missed the be nice to mama on her birthday (even if she did cancel it!) memo. They fought extra today, were particularly hurtful a few times, and no one napped.

So here I am. It’s 6:26pm on my self- cancelled, 30-something birthday. I’m sitting in the van parked outside of our old house, listening to Buffalo Springfield, eating a giant bag of Cheetos (my birthday gift to myself. Nothing says self care like dyeing my insides with yellow and red dyes), tapping away on my phone, and feeling pretty pathetic.

But the truth is, I’m not JUST pathetic. I texted Milkman yesterday that I felt fragile. I typed the word, back spaced, typed it again. Stared at it, and sent it. I do not think I have ever used that word to describe myself. I am his strong woman. I am a strong mother. I am a strong advocate for my foster children. I am a strong sister. I am a strong friend. I keep my softer emotions in check 99% of the time. I don’t like people to see when I’m feeling weak. But lately? I’m fragile.

Maybe it’s the insanely low lows, the really high highs emotionally we’ve experienced lately with fostering. Maybe it’s this baby who is currently kicking away at my bladder throwing my hormones out of whack. Maybe it’s the lack of quality sleep. Maybe it’s my kids going through their own feelings and testing me. Maybe it’s all in my head.

But today, on this, my forgotten birthday, I’m telling myself it’s just gonna have to be okay to be fragile. Perhaps my gift to myself is letting myself cry buckets of tears that I’ve held in for too long. Letting myself realize that even the strongest of people have weak days and weeks. Putting aside my pride that says I’m better than those who show their delicate side. Maybe this is the year that I can take down another layer of stone from my many walls that I’ve built throughout the years to insulate myself from my feminine side. Maybe my fragile birthday will be forgotten by myself in a few years, but I’m holding out hope that it’ll be remembered as the year I said it was okay to not be strong all the time. Because guess what? It’s okay to be fragile sometimes. For me. For you. For us all.

You Can’t Fix “The System”

No one sits behind their desk and says “Lets emotionally scar a child”.

No one speaks out in a courtroom and tells a judge, “Your Honor, we need to ensure this child ends up with RAD.”

No one sits at your dining room table and says, “We really ought to set this baby up for complete emotional failure in life.”

In foster parent circles, you hear a lot of people saying, “The system is so broken! It must be fixed!” And indeed it is broken. Like the public school system, it is a one size fits all path. So while slight variations may be made here or there, it’s designed to work for the average case— whatever that is.

In my county, young children are not supposed to end up in the system terribly long. This is a good thing. But what is supposed to happen and what does happen are two different things. A child whose life hangs in the balance. A baby who has formed attachments to people other than their parents for months or even years, suffers from the instability of belonging nowhere. An older child passed from home to home, racking up a line of diagnoses and worsening behavior with each disruption. A teenager, ready to age out, with no real hope or plan of what comes next.

So we should speed up the process, right? Well, if we reunite these children too quickly, their parents will fail. Often times, parents have a long history of struggles to overcome in a short time. Addiction, mental health problems, abusive tendencies, and the like cannot be fixed with the swish of a wand. These hurdles can take a long time to overcome. We set children up for failure and re-entry into the system, we risk their physical and mental health, and sometimes we risk even their lives by reuniting too soon.

But, if we terminate parents’ rights too quickly, we needlessly rip families apart. This leads to resentment on the part of the adoptee. We see depression, RAD, we see regret, we see that a family may have been reunited if the parents only had more time. We see two families worn down and broken.

So what’s the fix? How do we “reform the system!”? I don’t think there is an answer to that. Call me a pessimist, but there is no fix that would work in a one size fits all system. The system, “broken” though it may be, is the most effective formula for the middle cases. The ones on top and the ones on bottom get the short end of the stick, but there simply has to be a middle of the road procedure they slap on every case.

Individualizing every case would be ideal of course. But this would require so much more manpower, so many less hard and fast laws, and so much more personal interpretation of the rules on a case by case basis by the decision makers. While that sounds great, it is, of course, a lawsuit nightmare waiting to happen. You terminate the rights of one parent at 3 months into the case, give others 6 years, and you’re asking for revolt.

So what happens? What happens is you sit awake all night with a screaming baby on visit days who is torn apart by anxiety because you left her with a stranger for a few hours. Except that stranger is her mother. You have a little boy, so shaken up by instability that he eats obsessively, hoards food, and steals more for later, because it’s the only thing he can control. You have a preteen girl punching holes in walls, completely conflicted by the stability she gets in one home, and the love she feels for her mother— no matter how unstable her mom’s home may be. You have an adolescent boy shooting up heroine to stop feeling the rejection he has felt from being bounced around home to home for the majority of his life.

So, no. There are no lawyers asking to inflict RAD on a child. There are no social workers providing drugs for foster youth. There are no judges sentencing small humans to a life of depression and instability— but it’s still what’s happening. Fix the system? I don’t think you can.

Sound bleak? Yeah. It is. I’m worn out. I’m weary. I’m tired. I’m wrecked. What can I do? What can you do? If we can’t save the foster care system, how do we make a difference?

By taking the punches— sometimes literally. By being a child’s rock to cling to when they’ve been shipwrecked in a stormy ocean of instability. By praying for that baby while you rock him, since he is too small to understand why he is so scared of visit days. By advocating for resources when you are personally tapped out, and that young lady needs clinical help. By not giving up on the child— even when you’ve given up on the system.

You cannot control the system. You cannot control the parent. You cannot control the judges, lawyers, and social workers. You cannot control the child sometimes. But, you can control the conscious decision to keep going.

So. Tired though we may be. Exhausted. Wrecked. Jaded. Bruised and broken. Soldier on. Keep going.