I spend too much time on Facebook, but here and there, I do see things that I find meaningful. Two sayings that different people have reposted on their pages have stuck in my mind, and I find myself thinking of them often; observing them and living them out. One is: "Children who need love the most will ask for it in the most unloving of ways", and "be the love you never received".
Since I haven't posted on here much in the last several years, some of you (if you're even still reading!) may not know that I now have two small children in my care. Their mother was a housekeeper at a hotel where we both worked, and I was her boss. She was my best, fastest working employee, and when an opportunity for promotion became available, I wrote her a letter of recommendation. She interviewed well, and got the job. When she was a housekeeper, she made less than a dollar above minimum wage per hour, and received section 8 housing, along with foodstamps and a daycare subsidy. She lived in project housing - cold, hard, carpetless floors, roaches in the walls, loud, aggressive neighbors. Though it was not a standard of living to which anyone should aspire, it was her own apartment, and she was making it. Barely.
Then she had the nerve to work hard, be good at her job, and get a promotion and a raise. She became the executive housekeeper at a different hotel within our company, and then...she lost everything else. She had to move to Columbia, where rent is higher, and pay full price for it. Her daycare subsidy dropped to almost nothing and she soon lost her food stamps. With no safety net, she found herself falling head first into the gap between "poor enough to receive assistance" and "not yet financially secure enough to make it with no help at all". I saw the eviction notice on her refridgerator in April.
We became roommates in May. Her two smallest children, ages 2 and 3, came with her. Since then, we've been co-parenting with varying degrees of success. The ongoing nature of this has been very challenging for me at times, and I can only imagine how much more so it is for the kids' mom; my roommate. The kids have not had a whole lot of stability - they've moved several times already in their short lives, been through several daycares; the 3-year-old's father has been in prison since before she was born and she has never met him, so the 2-year-old's father is the only father she knows, and he is a selfish, childish, angry, verbally abusive individual who consistently makes and breaks promises to them. As their mother works long hours and is exhausted by the time she picks them up, they find themselves competing for her attention, constantly. When they moved in, they had MAJOR behavioral issues. Still do, really, but it just seems so much better now by comparison that it feels weird to say it.
At first, I found myself endlessly angry and frustrated with the way these kids acted. They were so disrespectful, even to their own mother! I was shocked and enraged by the way they felt entitled to talk to her and treat her (and myself!), and at such young ages! Then I realized that indignation and expecting a scolding to shame them into good behavior was ridiculous. They didn't know any better! With no standard having ever been set for their behavior, they had no idea what they were supposed to be striving for. As I began reading articles about parenting and child psychology, certain things became more clear to me. All they cared about was getting their needs and desires met, by whatever means necessary. They'd learned that the louder and longer they could scream and cry and whine, the more likely whatever their demand was would be met, because eventually their mom would just give in to get a break from it. So the battle of wills was loud and relentless, every single day.
I began to identify their needs and look for ways not just to meet them, but for the kids to express what they are, and for effective and polite ways for them to ask us for what they want, as well as how to deal with disappointment when the answer to a request is no. My roommate, realizing she had my full support in any effort to change their behavior, began to make more of an effort to do so, and I backed her up. Things were pretty ugly for awhile - lots of screaming and crying (more so than now, and there's still quite a lot of it) and whining and rebellion. But then, suddenly...things were better. Not a lot, but enough to be noticeable. And they have continued to improve ever since, with minor setbacks here and there.
Today, as I sit at work in (near) silence on such a slow day, I am thankful for the opportunity to be involved in these kids' lives in the way that I am. I am grateful for the opportunity to soothe their screams and cries - for the realization that it's almost never about the object for which they are whining, screaming, and crying, but a much greater sense of disappointment and dissatisfaction with their lives. I'm grateful every time I pick Brianna up off of the floor when she's thrashing around there or doing the limp-noodle thing and refusing to stand up and go to wherever she's being told to, to wrap my arms around her and pull her legs to the side of mine and feel her stop kicking, stop screaming, and sink into me, realizing I understand how big and overwhelming her anger and sadness is for her.
I'm grateful to have helped Ian find a way to deal with disappointment at not getting to play with his mom's phone, or eat a food he's allergic to (there are so many!), or whatever else, by suggesting over and over again whenever the answer was no to whatever he wanted, that we read a book instead. I'm grateful every time he's crying and I ask him "what else can we do?", or sometimes before I can even ask, he calms himself down and then tells me: "I need to read a book!"
I'm so happy when he crawls up into my lap and snuggles into my chest and Brianna sits down alongside me and we read together with my arms around both of them and the book in front. I love it when they do something I taught them how to do and I get to tell them how proud I am of them.
It both breaks my heart and fills in those cracks with gratitude whenever I get a glimpse into what is truly driving their anger around those with whom you would think they would feel safest. Like when Brianna said, out of the blue, in her carseat in the back of my van: "My daddy yells at me a lot." And I got the opportunity to say: "I know, baby. But you know it's not about you...you know it's not your fault, right?" and she sighed and said with heaviness no child should have to bear: "I know", and then, after a minute: "I love you, Julie."
I don't want biological children. I don't want to go through all I would have to in order to be pregnant and give birth, and I don't want to be solely responsible for bringing anyone into this world. I'm not even sure I would ever adopt. But this - temporary, and yet indefinite; almost, and yet not quite - parenthood, has proven to be a rich blessing. I've been given the opportunity to love the children who need it the most but ask for it in the most unloving of ways; to be the love I never received. When I get to meet their needs, ease their fears, calm their rages, comfort them in their sadness...it feels like I am making something right in the world that wasn't before, and not just for them. For anyone who has ever been handed more than their fair share of heartbreak, and at far too young of an age.
A year ago, I could never have imagined doing this. Now, I can't imagine what my life would have been like if I hadn't done it. They challenge me to be more patient, more forgiving, more available, more compassionate, more optimistic, and more thankful, every single day, for every gift in my life.