Female Speaker over music: Welcome to the Just Ask Mom podcast where mothers share their experiences of raising children with mental illness. Just Ask Mom is a Mothers on the Frontline production. Today we will speak with Paula, a mother of two adopted boys. One who has PTSD, Trauma, and is on the Autism Spectrum. The other son has ADHD, Tourette Syndrome, and Anxiety
Tammy: Well tell us a little bit about yourself.
Paula: Well, I’m a mom here in Iowa. We live in a semi little town but it’s in a metropolitan area so we have lots of great things around us. I have been married twenty-eight years.
Tammy: Congratulations. That’s wonderful.
Paula: Which is a long time. [Laughs]
Tammy: Yes it is. [Laughs]
Paula: Especially – I mean I am not quite fifty but still, we got married when we were twenty. I mean so we were late to the family thing. We wanted to wait, we didn’t want to jump in. And for a variety of reasons being foster parents and adoption was the way that we decided to go. So we have two boys, they are now fifteen and twelve. The first one we adopted when he was three and a half and the other one was seven. So we are no longer foster parents. I did foster care training and stuff but we are no longer foster parents. Because of the level of needs that they both have, they need our full attention. So I am now a stay at home mom, but professionally I am rehab counselor and mental health therapist.
Tammy: Wonderful. So before we get started I always like to ask people about themselves before they were mothers or outside of mothering. So you told us a bit career-wise so just tell us a little bit about your passions and who you are before we get ….
Paula: Well I love lots of things – my husband and I joke that we are renaissance people so we like lots of little things. Before we had kids we were married a long time, which I highly recommend. I mean we got married young, we were twenty. But we didn’t bring kids into our universe until year thirteen or something. Before we had kids though life was moving along beautifully, you know just the way it does, but it wasn’t easy, actually my husband is a stage four colon cancer survivor.
Tammy: Oh wow.
Paula: So when we were thirty three, he was diagnosed with stage four colon cancer and at that time in 2001, less than five percent survived stage four colon cancer. So um we were one of that five percent and so that definitely informs the way that we view the universe. We’re in year what? that’s 2001- so somebody else do the math – fifteen years that he is still you know alive, healthy, we had no recurrence. We went through everything you know all the chemo, liver resection, all the worse things humanly possible. So for us every day is a gift even after fifteen years. We often joke that I should have been widowed – had I been widowed what would I have done? That is what we worked on. You know in therapy — how do you deal with your life and literally I would have had a farm house with a bunch of foster adopted kids.
Tammy: That’s your passion.
Paula: So that’s probably what I would have done. I grew up in foster care and my mom had serious mental illness. She was bipolar rapid cycling and so this was something that was always on our radars to be foster parents and given the biology of our bodies, adoption was the way we decide to have a family.
Tammy: Wonderful. Thank you for that. So what would you like people to know? You have so many rich, great experiences. What would you like people to know?
Paula: When I do trainings on trauma development and the way our brains work, my favorite thing to remind parents – and it is so hard as moms, oh my goodness, it is so hard – is to not take it personal. One of the stories that I share in my trainings is about when my son was five. He was very big for his age, he wore size eight, nine or real close. He is a big boy. I mean he is tall now too. But he was a big boy. He would rage and when you have a child that has trauma you can’t allow them to rage alone because it’s not that they need to calm down. You need to be their container. Mentally you need to be a container – a safe place for them and so, one of my favorite ways to remind parents not to take it personal is, he was in the middle of a rage and he just, his caveman brain was just in charge he couldn’t handle what was going on and we were sitting on his bed and I had my arms around him. He was sitting, on my lap and you know he was just in that fully fledged bucking mode and he bucked back and he hit my nose so that it hit the bridge and I got a hairline fracture.
Paula: If you have ever had one of those, you would rather have your nose broken. The hairline fractures are unbelievably painful but where I teach people not to take things personal is in that moment when he raged and hit me, cause I wear glasses. He hit me and I felt the pain, I knew instantly – this was just the thing that was going into my head: “If I say something now this could undo all the work we have been doing to help him bond and heal. “So I just held him for a moment and I said, “honey I love you, I need to step out” and I stepped out and went to our bedroom, put my face in the pillow and screamed [Laughs] Some very colorful words.
Tammy: I bet [Laughs]
Paula: Took off my glasses and I went back in and finished helping him calm down. And then we went and figured out what was wrong. That’s a prime example of not taking it personal. Yes, he physically assaulted me. He broke my nose. That hairline fracture – I wore a little lightweight plastic glasses – I couldn’t even put those on – but it wasn’t personal. It had nothing to do with me. What was happening was not to me, it was to him.
And so always remembering that, so that’s my extreme moment of even now as a teenager when he does things I have to remember, he is not saying this to hurt me, it’s his coping skill. And even when he does now he will say, he will, you know, use the “B” word and so he never uses it anymore because we turned it into a joke and I am like, “you know what buddy I really am and I am really good at it so thank you for noticing.”
Paula: And he stopped. [Laughs]
Tammy: You took the fun out of it! [Laughs]
Paula: Yes, I took the fun out of it. But also I deescalated it and didn’t take it personal. And so that’s one of my biggest wishes for moms is to not take it personal because it is so hard to not do that.
Tammy: Right. And as is the case with so many of these interviews so far, you are telling us something that is especially true when you have a child with mental illness, but this is true for all parents.
Paula: You know I’m glad you said that because our best friend, I love her – she says when she talks about us to other people or she even complains about her children, one of her children is the same age as mine, fifteen years old and they have been in school several times together and she will complain about her daughter doing something and then she just looks at me and smiles and she goes, yes I know Paula, it’s that, plus. So everything that happens in quote ‘regular lives’ is what happens to all of us.
Paula: Which is stressful.
Tammy: Oh yeah.
Paula: Being a mom of a teen is stressful.
Paula: But I like the way that she articulated it. She is like, you know what, you guys have all the normal stress plus. And so it’s not that these techniques that we use with our family aren’t good techniques for everyone, it’s just that we have to be more cognizant of it and more mindful of doing it and the reason we are doing it. Its not accidental, that we use certain language or that we talk about topics more in depth than your average parent. Its purposeful and so I like that because she will do the same topic with her daughter and then she is like yeah, but you guys have to do the plus. So that’s kind of how I view our life work. Like everyone else, plus.
Tammy: Plus, exactly, yeah. Well that’s, I think a really helpful lesson. Is there anything else that you would like people to know in general. I mean you have done, by the way thank you, I always think we need to say thank you when people adopt children from foster care because you are doing not only something wonderful for those children but you are doing something for our whole community.
Paula: As a mom we feel guilt a lot and we feel the weight of the universe on us. And so again our friend that says the plus, I have stopped working for the past four years, almost five now. I got my Masters Degree and then I stopped working. So we were like, oh well that was interesting and so sometimes that guilt kills me. So I like the way that she rephrased it for me and that was, because we have this special needs adoption and we had to really fight for it. Which was really interesting given they were going to put him in an institution. But that’s okay, so we fought hard to get the highest level of special needs adoption but that wasn’t until he was like ten. So, you know we had five years of the first level. The reason that I could not work was because we had two boys that get the special needs adoption and so my friend reminds that, that is my job.
Paula: So it’s not that I am not bringing income into our family. It’s not that I’m not contributing financially. If I didn’t stay at home, and do all of the things that – school calls and “hey you know this child is not doing xyz can you come and calm him down?” -, you can’t do that with a job or you get fired. So letting go of that guilt that you have to make certain sacrifices and that’s okay.
So you know that’s one thing and then the other thing is that I always I have a hard time saying thank you when somebody says you are great for adopting, because I grew up in foster care. I know that it is good that we adopted them, you know hopefully somebody would have eventually. But from my perspective, I was an infertile woman in my late thirties who cried every time she saw all her friends having babies. So in a way, it’s kind of selfish. I mean it works out both ways I mean I wanted children, couldn’t have children, I had a special skill set that could work with kids with trauma. So it’s like I want to say thank you for saying that but a part of me is always like I needed it too. So its sort of a fifty-fifty, yes we saved them but they saved us. So it works that way, it’s not “yay we are adopted foster parents whoo –hoo”. Its not that simple.
Tammy: I think most of the time when we reach out to anyone else, it’s helping us as much as helping them.
Paula: Yeah, exactly.
Tammy: That’s always the case. That’s right.
Paula: They have definitely enriched our lives in ways that we could never have imagined and they drive us absolutely insane.
Paula: In the same breath [Laughs] – but that’s what most parents say.
Tammy: Absolutely, absolutely.
Paula: But ours is “plus”.[Laughs]
Tammy: That’s right! So we ask this question of everybody: right at this moment, do you feel like you are swimming, drowning, treading water ? Where do you find yourself?
Paula: I’m swimming.
Paula: I mean I have really great support. Our school is amazing. It breaks my heart when I hear of families that struggle to get basic accommodations. Shout to the Iowa City School District. They have done amazing work with our kids.
Tammy: That’s great.
Paula: They have always listened to us. They value our opinion, we value theirs. I feel that we have a good support system. I mean I feel isolated sometimes just as a mom because there are no mom groups for kids like mine. Yet sometimes I just want to be hermit so it’s a give and take – but I am swimming. I’m blessed – I have an amazing husband who – we are truly a partnership. I parent a fifteen-year-old easy peasy. Twelve-year-old, not so much. He parents the twelve-year-old easy peasy, the fifteen-year-old not so much.
Tammy: That works out nicely.
Paula: So it has worked out really well. [Laughs].
Tammy: Yes, that works really well. [Laughs] When you and I were talking earlier you said – and this seems to be universal among all of us moms – “ if we don’t laugh, we would be crying all the time”, so we like to ask, what’s your most laughable moment ?
Paula: So we laugh about that because I ask my family, “Like gosh what’s the most laughable moment?” and they are like “we can’t parse this out because we are goof balls.”
Paula: When we adopted the boys and when we brought them into our family, the biggest joke was, you can’t join our family unless you want to be silly and so one of the books that I always take with me when I do trainings is, the book, How To Drive Your Kids Sane. It has all these little great tips of how to just do silly stuff like singing silly in the car with a fifteen year old. Because you do that with little kids but when you do it with older kids they crack up at you being so silly but then they are silly and they lose that inhibition and so we try to be silly. Our family is full of puns, we are constantly trying to out pun each other or alliterations and so laughable moments in our life are always around the dinner table. We always eat dinner together. Ao I ask my husband what’s a laughable moment for me and he is like, you know after all these years the one that always pops into his head is, I was extremely exhausted, I was working the third shift at Dunkin Donuts and, you know we were what? Twenty two, twenty three years old and, the phone would ring but I’m on the different body clock than everybody else in the house and he says that I would always try to pick up the phone but I couldn’t find it cause I’m asleep. So I would always pick up the alarm clock. And so this is one those plugged in alarm clocks from you know back in the eighties and he is like you would pick up this alarm clock and you like shove it to your face and realize it’s too big and that it’s not a phone and you just saw this look and like, why isn’t anybody answering this phone but I am asleep.
Paula: And so he says that’s always the image that he has of laughable moments about me. But I think we just try to laugh a lot like you were talking about self care – so being funny and laughing is part of our self-care, of my self care. I am an avid knitter, and that has its own laughable moments whenever I make mistakes and have to undo stuff or you know I make silly things for the kids, yeah, so I can’t come up with one cause there is like ten from just going over to Hurtz donuts this morning.
Tammy: That’s awesome. Well thank you so much for talking with us and sharing your story.
Paula: No thank you for doing this.
Female Voice over Music: You have been listening to “Just Ask Mom”, recorded and copyrighted in 2017 by Mothers on the Frontline. Today’s podcast host was Tammy Nyden. The music is “Olde English” written, performed, and recorded by FlameEmoji. For more podcasts in this and other series relating to children’s mental health, go to MothersOnTheFronline.com.