Have you ever walked away from a situation wishing you had responded differently? Or come up with a great response to an ignorant comment two hours too late? In retrospect, as I edit these letters to you, sometimes four full years after I wrote them, I see how blind I was a lot of the time. I remember how hard it was going through each situation or circumstance, and I can still see my point and validate it. However, now I can see the other side of the coin a lot clearer. Even now, I am still learning from the chaos that was my life for so long. The jury is still out on whether that is a good thing or a bad thing.
When the agency finally pushed hard enough that we had no choice but to remove me from the Bio-Mom visits, I came up with a solution that would help both Malachi and me in the transition. Next door to our chiropractic office was an open-space concept play room called “The Peekaboo Room” where toddlers could take their shoes off and run and play. I offered to pay for the room for Bio-Mom to visit with Malachi every week. Surprisingly, Kena agreed to my proposal without hesitation. So, I was able to maintain some level of control with driving him to and from the visits, and I would be right next door if something went wrong.
I visited The Peekaboo Room with Malachi a couple of times before the first visit so that he was familiar with his surroundings. I introduced myself to Rachel, the woman who ran the front desk, and explained the basics of our unique situation. He loved it there; it was right up his alley… loud and bright and full of noise. Toward the front of the room there were a couple of couches for parents, but the remainder of the big, bright space was all for the little ones. The room was open with a few enclaves for a play kitchen, a doll room complete with cribs, high chairs and swings, and one that housed a toy lawn mower, vacuum and some other “wheeled” activities. Malachi’s favorite spot was off to the far left corner where there was a yellow, red and blue little tyke bus slide. He would go up under the steering column of the “bus” part and down the blue slide over and over again. It kept him so busy that we bought him one for Christmas, but at home it turned into something he used as a catalyst to climb other things!
I was surprisingly calm when the day came for the first visit without me. Ms. Williams signed Malachi in while I paid the fee, we took his shoes and coat off, and I snuck out of the front door before he had even reached the slide, or before Bio-Mom arrived. It wasn’t even 15 minutes later when my phone started buzzing with Ms. Williams name across the screen. I couldn’t even hear what she was saying over the screaming voice in the background that I knew was my son. I had reached the front door of The Peekaboo Room before I hung up the phone, and the only thing I knew from the brief conversation was that he was not hurt. Malachi was standing next to the slide in full-on hysterics. He wouldn’t let anyone touch him, including me for a minute. I squatted down to his level and calmly said his name over and over again until he could recognize my voice and focus enough to see that I was there. When his eyes caught mine, his chubby little arms reached out and found me with such force that I fell to the floor. He was shaking and wet from sweat. He sobbed with his face buried into my neck while trying to calm his breaths with big heavy gulps of air for at least two minutes, and when he finally slowed down enough that the gulps were decreasing in intensity, he still held on for dear life. His grip did not loosen for a couple more minutes. I don’t know how I didn’t cry, but I held it together and stayed calm for my baby. There were approximately a dozen other mothers there with their toddlers and I could see them trying to focus, not only their attention, but that of their children, in another direction. Of course my primary interest was Malachi, but Bio-Mom stood in the background looking hurt and angry. Her 5’5,” 140 lb. frame was wearing a very worn, black and red flannel shirt that was probably a size 2X, with several layers underneath that. She had blond hair extensions in that looked like they hadn’t been combed in weeks, and they were laying long over her left shoulder with a black stocking cap snug on the top of her head. She was holding a little toy broom and dustpan in her hands when she threw her arms up in the air, and in an extremely flustered and condescending tone said, “Well, there she is, there she is. I hope you’re happy now, there’s your mama.” I felt bad for her, but felt worse for my baby boy. I just could not figure out what it was about her that he could not get past. He was such a friendly baby and would usually go to anyone with ease. I had never seen him have an aversion to anyone but her. It took ten minutes for him to calm down enough to be able to sit on my lap breathing normally. I didn’t know what to do, but I knew that I was not going to leave him again that day. I also knew that removing him from the situation was not the answer either. I asked Bio-Mom to sit down next to us and grabbed some blocks. I started to place them on top of each other and encouraged Malachi and Bio-Mom to help me. Just when the tension was starting to ease, and we were all starting to breathe normally again, Bio-Mom decided that she was going to try to move him from my lap to hers. Her arms started to reach across the small area of carpet between us, and she said in her non-gentle voice, “Okay, come on now.” Knowing that it wasn’t a good idea and not wanting to create more tension at the same time, I playfully said “Maybe not yet.” At that point she declared, “I got this,” and went straight for him anyway. I was not going to make a scene and play tug-of-war with Malachi, and since my only other option was to go with it, I acted as if it was no big deal, hoping that he would be open to going to her. He wasn’t. Thankfully, Ms. Williams stepped in right away when it was evident that he was heading toward another panic attack. She said, “Okay, that’s enough for today.” They were already out the door before I could get Malachi’s shoes and coat on, so I was able to ask Rachel at the front desk what happened. She said that as soon as Bio-Mom walked in Malachi started pacing and looking for me, and when she approached him, he started crying. She picked him up anyway and he started to scream. It continued to escalate the more they tried to calm him and that is when Ms. Williams called me.
The following day I received a call from a parenting coach named Laura. She was already coaching Bio-Mom with the four older children and was going to start coming to the visits at The Peekaboo Room. She asked me a few questions about the visits so far and I filled her in on Malachi’s aversion to his biological mother. I told her about the fact that she doesn’t put any effort in to bonding with him and gave her several examples.
The following Thursday, Ms. Williams and Laura came early to get her acquainted with Malachi before Bio-Mom showed up. He instantly took to her and we played all together for 15 minutes before she asked me to tell him good-bye and head next door. I knelt down and kissed him on the forehead and walked out with no problem. He just kept on playing. It was like déjà vu from the previous week when fifteen minutes later my cell phone buzzed with Ms. Williams name again. My heart sank as I ran next door and calmed my son down again. Bio-Mom looked the exact same as she did on the last visit, down to her flannel and stocking cap. She was calmer this week and had a blank stare on her face. She did not mutter a word. Laura had us build the blocks again after Malachi calmed down. Only this time she was literally telling Bio-Mom what to do, “take your hand and reach over to gently touch his leg,” she instructed. Indeed, Bio-Mom would reach across and touch his leg. Then Laura said “Ok, now rub it gently and say ‘Are you having fun?’” But when she went to follow through with the step it was like she was some bad actor in a really uncomfortable scene. There was absolutely no ease with her actions and she was quickly forced to retract when Malachi moved his leg away. She sat there for the next 20 minutes and watched while I played with our son and Laura made small suggestions to get her to engage. She asked me to include Bio-Mom and show Malachi that it was okay. He did play the remainder of the hour, but did not stray far from me. Bio-Mom left first that day and I was able to have a conversation with Ms. Williams and Laura. Laura did not believe that Bio-Mom was going to be able to bond with Malachi without my help. She said that I would have to be in attendance at the weekly appointments. She confided in me that she was disappointed in Bio-Mom’s progression with the older kids and said that sometimes she just didn’t show up. The conversation turned personal when Ms. Williams said “we were talking and think it’s so sad that you guys remind us of the movie ‘Losing Isaiah.’” I had seen that heart-wrenching movie and did not appreciate the comparison. Since Malachi came into our lives, the thought of that movie made me nauseous.
That was the last time I saw Laura. Kena said that they canceled her services. My protests fell on deaf ears. I reminded her of what Laura said about me needing to be there if Bio-Mom was ever going to bond with Malachi and she said “I’m sorry, it’s just not good for the case.” I got the same response from her supervisor and from Henry. Bio-Mom missed the next four weeks of visits due to illness. That’s all I was told.
The first visit downtown at the courthouse with Bio-Dad was a rough one for me. I knew that Malachi would be fine with Ms. Williams and Bio-Dad, as he typically did well with them. But I did not like the fact that someone else was driving him into the city, and I didn’t like that I had no idea where to picture him in my mind. I had Ms. Williams pick up Malachi from the office so that we could be closer to downtown and I could stay busy with work. He let me buckle him into her car without fuss and they drove away. The two hours that they were gone were filled with some angst, but I did get a lot done. When Ms. Williams walked through the front door with my son on her hip, I let out a big sigh and hugged him tight. He was smiling and babbling and happy. Ms. Williams said it went well and he spent the entire hour at a small train table in the Green Room and had a pretty good meltdown when they had to pull him away from it.
After that first visit at the courthouse, Bio-Dad did not show up for a couple of weeks. I found out later that he had been arrested and subsequently incarcerated for a period of time to be determined. The agency was limited in what they would tell me, and all I got out of Henry was that it was for assault. I asked Henry if Malachi would have to attend visits at the prison and he said it was up to the individual case worker and agency to decide that. Of course I went straight into pleading for him to step in and help me so that we wouldn’t have to subject him to prison visits, but he said that we should wait and see what the agency decided before making any assumptions. Luckily, when Kena and her supervisor discussed it, they decided against prison visits for Malachi, but not before letting me stress about it for three weeks.
“December 2013 Sibling Visit”
I woke up to Malachi vomiting at 4:00 am the morning of the sibling visit. I knew I should cancel but then we would have to coordinate our schedules again to reschedule, and that was always a painful process. He didn’t have a fever, so I decided to move forward.
The visit was scheduled to start at noon and I felt like things were looking upward when Malachi fell asleep for an early nap at 10:30 am. Even though it was futile to clean up my house in preparation for four hours with eight adults and nine kids, I still felt the need to start with a clean slate. It was 11:00 am and I was sweeping the kitchen floor when Tim, the aid who transported Justin and Edward, called to say that he, the boys and Marco were sitting outside and wanted to see if they could come in an hour early. After a very long pause on my end and with a heavy sigh I answered, “I guess. But you’re going to have to keep it down because Malachi is napping.” I wish I was the type of person who could have said “No, it’s not okay, come back in an hour.” But I’m not. So instead, I used passive-aggressive behavior, which usually works out for everyone… said no one ever. Marco had driven himself to my house before, and he knew how small it was, so I was confused why he had Tim drive them for the second month in a row.
I hung up the phone and approached the front door to see Marco towering over Tim, Justin and Edward with a very small pink hat with a large pom-pom on the top. The four of them came in and sat down in the living room while I continued to prep for the impending storm. The phone rang about ten minutes later and it was Sharon, the new aid transporting Angela and Tameka. Thankfully, she was not coming early, but was just confirming the address. Unfortunately, it woke up Malachi.
The girls arrived promptly at noon and we were off and running. Sharon was a very gentle and sweet woman who was really good with special needs children, so she was chosen specifically for our visits and Angela. Cheryl, Darrin, Josie and Jay came next and the visit was underway.
Since it was cold and rainy outside I tried to organize the day with snack, a craft, food, a game and then a movie. I printed off pictures of each child and pulled out all of my scrapbooking stuff so that we could make a Christmas card. Easy, right? Not so much.
The noise level was insanely high right out of the gate and I had no control over anyone. Angela and Tameka were having a particularly hard time getting along that day and we had to separate them repeatedly. Every time Angela would have an outburst about someone screaming or “bothering her,” or when she would open my refrigerator or cabinet to look for food, I would remind myself that this environment is hard for me, and I didn’t have autism. It had to be torture for her.
It was only 12:30, thirty minutes into the visit, and Jacob had cried at least twice, Angela didn’t want anyone even looking at her, Malachi was whining and crying pretty much all of the time, and Tameka was like a broken record with “Excuse me mom, excuse me mom, excuse me mom,” and when one of us would say “yes, Tameka,” she would forget what she had to say.
When I finally got everyone to the table to make their Christmas card, my instructions were simple, make one card for someone special and use anything you see on the table. Be creative. I had several red solo cups on the table filled with markers, glue sticks, colored pencils, stickers, and other fun scrapbooking stuff. Every child at the table chose to make their card for their foster parent.
The day before the visit, Daryl had glued the arm together on an old antique rocking chair that we recently had reupholstered. Because it wasn’t dry I wrapped the chair in a long, thick neon orange moving strap that we had in the garage, and I put a piece of paper on the back that said “broken,” and then I placed it in the corner of the living room behind the couch. Cheryl, Sharon and I were standing behind the kids at the table helping when needed, and I looked up to see that Marco had finally moved from his chair in the living room, pulled the rocking chair up to the table and sat on it. I was so confused, and I’m sure didn’t come across very friendly when I said “Um, Marco, that chair is broken. Thus, the reason for the neon orange rope and note that says ‘broken.’” He didn’t stand up right away, but instead, slowly looked down to the left and then to the right, looked up at me and said “oh.” When he still didn’t get up, I added “So… you might want to choose another seat or stand?” He said “ok,” stood up and went to stand behind Justin and Edward.
I could feel myself focusing on the chaos, the noise, and the insanity of the moment and had to take a few deep, cleansing breaths. Angela was really enjoying the craft but wanted to use some scissors. I didn’t have any child-safe scissors, so I let her use “adult” ones with my help. It took all of my patience and energy to focus on the task at hand, but in the background I heard Marco’s faint whisper, plus an added lisp that I had not noticed before, “Stephanie… Stephanie… Hey Stephanie… Stephanie.” I slowly lifted my head to look up at him with contempt in my eyes, and he whispered in his soft, almost ridiculously melodic voice, “Justin needs a glue stick.” I felt my heart rate increase, sweat start to form throughout my body, my ears got hot, and the walls start to close in from that simple little request and I felt like I was going to blow. But instead, through gritted teeth and an added growling element to my tone, I answered, “Marco, there are about a dozen glue sticks on the table directly in front of you. So why don’t you just reach your arm out and grab one for him, yeah?” I don’t remember who made the recommendation, but someone mentioned that I might need to take a break. I decided to heed the advice and take a time-out in my bathroom.
When I rejoined the group, feeling like a child, things had calmed down. While Marco and Tim supervised a viewing of “Monsters, Inc.,” Cheryl and I filled Sharon in on the ins and outs of our case. We told her how it took 18 months from the time the kids were removed from Bio-Mom to even have adjudication. We vented about how the information we get contradicts other information, how the visits rotate around Bio-Mom and her schedule, and how we were constantly inconvenienced to make sure all of the requirements were met. Sharon had been a case aid for 20 years and she was shocked that Angela, Tameka and Justin did not have any services in place. All four of the older kids could use some therapy. Justin’s emotional outbursts could be part of something bigger, and Angela and Tameka are both on the spectrum and should be getting some sort of occupational therapy, amongst other things. She asked if we were paid for having the visits in our homes and when we told her that we submitted for reimbursement but were denied, she scolded us for not pushing harder and insisted that we should be compensated. When Cheryl and I explained to her that we believed the agency was only driven by money, she confirmed that we were likely right. Agencies can’t run without funding and a family of six kids equals a lot of money.
When Angela appeared in the kitchen looking for food, we peeked into the living room to find that the only two watching the Disney movie were Tim and Marco. Tameka was playing with clay on my couch, the boys had Lego’s everywhere, and Jay and Joy had disappeared downstairs where Daryl was watching the football game with Malachi and Darren. Angela opened the refrigerator again and when I told her to shut it she started chanting, “Why is she on my brain so much, why is she on my brain so much?” Then she went for the butcher block of knives on the counter, but luckily Sharon was able to stop her in time. The familiar overwhelmed feeling started to creep back into my body and I snapped out, “okay, it’s time for everyone to go. I’m calling this one. Let’s go,” and I waved my arms in an aggressive motion toward the door.
So, in retrospect, I can see how I contributed to some of the chaos that surrounded our lives. For one, instead of acting like another child at the sibling visit, I could have stepped up my game and held it together and I wish I had.
Likely, Malachi felt the tension that was between Bio-Mom and me, though I really did try to act normal when we were together. The fact of the matter was there was nothing normal about it. Not only did I completely fail Bio-Mom, I missed the point of why I should not have been at the visits from the very beginning. I let my fear take charge for so long that I had, indeed, significantly affected the bonding between Malachi and his biological mother. I do regret that. Their bonding and her gaining custody were two different things and I am ashamed that I didn’t see that until it was too late. But of course, hindsight is 20/20.
Bio-Dad is a different story altogether. I’ll tell you more about that next time.
*Names have been changed