Sunday afternoon, 3pm

Someone is hammering outside, and I’m going to kill them.

Indy is asleep, and Ana is fighting. Up and down in the crib, screaming and reaching, all to the sparkly lullaby tunes of the truly magical polar bear toy I bought at Baby Factory last week in a state of fatigued delirium. (It’s voice activated and scatters blue stars across the ceiling to lullabies and nature sounds when she cries! I’m in love.)

I go in to lay her back down and soothe her with “Shhhhh” after 2 minutes, then 4, then 8. If she falls asleep and wakes again, I start over at 2. I run the kitchen tap and boil the kettle to create more white noise. Our water bill is going to suuuuuck. Since we began this strategy on Friday, she has never needed more than 8 minutes – unless she’s woken up again.

That hammering. Prepare to die, neighbour.

Today we’ve accomplished a lot, but I still feel defeated. This is entirely due to a night of broken sleep with Ana and the messages I often send myself when things go wrong. Namely: You’ve failed. You’re letting everybody down.

Not helpful.

We managed our first family outing today – trips with one baby at a time to the clinic or driving them past the Immerse office to pick up a lasagne don’t count. It was a 2 year old’s birthday party, and we got them there in matching outfits with zero meltdowns (from them, not us. I was a bit wound up, I’ll admit).

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Fished from the washing basket for this picture, since we didn’t actually get a photo of just them together.

I managed to distract Ana from clinging to CT today with a makeshift busy board using a bronze wire rack, a ribbon and clothespins. Issy enjoyed time with me getting her hair cut, and a drive to her father’s with CT. Indy grinned at CT from her tummy time mat, unexpectedly excited.

The dog also pooped in the bathroom while we were out, Indy threw up on me twice, our living room isn’t yet in the organised state I promised the nanny it would be on Monday, and we only remembered to change the sterilising liquid for the bottles at 3pm, about 8 hours overdue.

But, I remind myself. The party. We all got cake. We all had friendly conversations. Girls looked cute. Got a few more nits out of Ana’s hair. At least two things in the living room have been put away out of about 100. I threw out some receipts we were mysteriously keeping in piles on the dining table for no reason. (We don’t use the supermarket fuel vouchers. I know, we should. We just keep the vouchers and receipts with good intentions until the clutter drives us crazy and they’re expired by then anyway).

Now both are asleep. Neighbour has stopped hammering.

And I have a can of diet V I can finish in peace.

Little by little, we’re doing this. Those little positives are what get me out of these funks when everything feels crazy and the house is a tip, as they say in New Zealand. (It means dump.)

That and cute matching outfits ❤

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Why do fools fall in love?

Ana has the cutest cherub face crowned with soft baby curls. At 15 months, her toddler babble floats and twirls like Boo from Monsters, Inc. She has picked up a few baby signs, like “dog” and a finger circling her palm that we think means “banana”. She enthusiastically tells us in chirping warbles where the dog is at all times, followed by a lilting “Ohhh!”

CT is the centre of her universe, the only one who matters. How much of it is real, and how much is because he’s Real Daddy’s stand-in? We wonder after hearing she attached right away to the foster dad before. Whatever the reason, CT meets her every need with superhuman patience, until she feels secure enough to totter off and find the dog or stick her foot through the cat door for kicks. She watches him intently from the crook of his arm while he sneezes from her cold that he caught. As for me, she is just as attached to me as to complete strangers: a seesaw of “too much” and “not at all.”

Tonight Ana grinned up at Isobel from the forbidden ladder of my daughter’s loft bed and climbed with chubby toddler determination (and the safety measure of my hovering hand), delighted and immediately asking to come down so she could climb up again. Watching her little body blob up and down in her highchair to the “Baby Shark” song, waving one arm like a DJ, was the highlight of my week. She loves to give gentle, careful kisses to and hold hands with her baby sister, Indy.

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Ana’s contribution to – ironically – a stress ball gifted to us by Immerse.

Every day, Indy gazes up at me from her impossibly round face and watches, spellbound, as I smile my widest, happiest smile and mirror her blinks and funny tongue pokes. Then she jerks to life and beams, wriggling and stuffing her hands into her mouth. Our best conversation has involved gurgling and rasping back and forth, her face lit up in indescribable delight when she realised: I hear her. I see her.

When she cries, and if I need to give her to CT or ask Issy to hold her on her lap, Indy’s eyes follow me around the room, her tiny brow furrowed, launching her voice toward me through the air. In the morning, I gush a greeting and bend over her cot and she wriggles her own breathless hello. When she coughs and gasps in the night, I lift her to my shoulder, and she exhales a tiny “Ahhh.” We’re in our world together. I can see it in her eyes – she sees her Mama. I see my beautiful, precious baby girl.

At 5 months old, Indy is vigorously embracing tummy time, and in the past two days has rolled front to back, and now back to front. The back of her head has a flat tilt to one side. When she arrived, she would often lie perfectly still and stare out the window. We wonder how many hours of her life she spent like this.

Isobel sang to Indy one night as she fussed in her cot, teething and struggling to sleep. When I brought the baby out to try feeding her, Issy was still in the room – and the bottle paled in comparison to watching Issy, smiling at Issy, jerking her head to follow where she went.

Indy’s special connection with Ana is bright and breathtaking. Her face lights up when her sister comes close to kiss her. She smiles watching Ana dance from across the room.

Our lives have been turned upside down. I hallucinate babies crying everywhere I go. CT and I speak in nap updates. We’ve each said to the other, more than once, I can’t do this anymore. We run on caffeine and grit and meals delivered by good people.

But we are still doing it. For now, we’re a family. And whether it’s our hopeless devotion to doing right by these kids or the way my heart overflows a little more each day that I dance with Indy in my arms, I know now, for sure, that we’re going to make it. We’re in this together.

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To the parents of my children

Today the babies will see you for the first time since they were uplifted, and I’ve volunteered to write you a letter. To tell you about what your daughters have been up to, knowing you must be in agony over missing them. I wanted to craft a cute note “from” Baby Indy and Ana, like a report card from daycare telling you all about their favourite games.

But after the nights we’ve been having, there are a few more things I want to say to you.

How could you do this.

To your babies.

Your eldest daughter cries for hours at night, inconsolable, screeching, her unrelenting wakefulness tearing us apart as we do everything we can to stay calm and help her.

Your baby daughter struggles with her bottle, milk seeping through two layers of bibs. She remembers breastfeeding. Phlegm rattles in her chest as she sputters and coughs, a foothold of the illness she arrived with.

On and on Ana wakes and wails at night. She hangs onto CT like her life depends on it, shrieking and flapping her hands for him to scoop her back up if he puts her down.

Your children need you. How could you do this to them? To us? CT and I run a marathon every day, juggling your two babies and all the attention and comforting they need. We average four hours’ sleep a night. We’re both working full time. It feels like hell.

And the only thing worse is what your poor kids are going through. Missing you, confused, wondering where you are.

I hope that seeing them today and reading my cute letter about Ana loving her Cheerios and Indy cooing in the front carrier triggers something. I hope you promise to do whatever it takes to fix what’s broken in your family and make this right.

Yes, I’m attached to your children. But I don’t want to raise them.

I want you to do that.

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Holy sh*t, where’s the Tylenol

As I sit here with faint heartburn, having just eaten an entire Ristorante pizza (don’t judge; they’re small-ish), I can’t believe how calm and vaguely triumphant I feel. Yes, the house is a bombsite. Yes, CT and I are co-existing on separate devices, him with one headphone in to listen to the All Blacks and under sharp instruction to please not talk to me now so I can write this.

The victory is: We have survived. And there are two small people in this house not born to us who were asleep by 7:15pm.

Emergency placement, up to 28 days. Two girls, siblings. 15 months old and 5 months old.

CT took the call, as he does now, and said yes for us. For the second time. We had actually been asked to take these girls the Friday before, and we’d said yes, and they’d been on their way. 30 minutes later, the placement was cancelled because they’d wanted us for a newborn that Monday. *insert emoji blank stare face that I can’t create on this keyboard*

Then, as you might have read in my previous post, that newborn placement was cancelled too. A few hours after I wrote my post about the experience, we got a call for the two girls again.

It was now Wednesday, and they’d been placed elsewhere in that time but needed to be moved. Placement breakdown. So, with less than 24 hours’ notice, we washed all the donated clothes we’d received from friends for ages 3-6 months and 12-18 months, and Immerse arranged for another foster parent friend to be home with CT when the girls arrived the following day, since I had to be at work. They would arrive with all the equipment, we were told. We just needed to set up a second cot for the baby (Port-a-cot to the rescue!) and to convert our bassinet-sized Stokke to the full crib size. We had a nanny lined up for next week to stay at home with any baby placements for four hours in the morning, and CT would take the afternoon shift and catch up on work in the evenings. Until the nanny started, the agency and our foster parent friend would help us out, and we’d work from home.

We actually, sort of, felt prepared.

Nope.

The thing about taking in other people’s children, and especially kids who have been traumatised in some way – at minimum by being removed from their parents, even if it’s for their safety – is that you might know how to take care of a child, but you don’t know how to take care of these children.

You don’t know what size onesie will fit.

You don’t know when they nap.

You don’t know their signals when they’re tired.

You don’t know how much or what they like to eat.

You don’t have a routine. You don’t have a schedule.

You have total carnage.

Baby Indy, barely 5 months old, was too big for all the 3-6 month old clothes we’d washed. And she’d come with a bag full of more 3-6 month old clothes that didn’t fit.

Toddler Ana screamed unless she was being held.

Baby Indy was spilling milk everywhere from every bottle we tried. And our collection of bottles turned out to be mainly mismatched, meaning we had five of one kind of teat and only one matching bottle, and three bottles of another kind with only one teat. And they all soaked the baby.

Both kids had rashes, bites, and ear and chest infections.

Hold one baby, the other cries. Boil more bottles. Bottle parts don’t match. Forgot to boil water for formula. Now boiled water too hot. Indy wailing, hungry now. Stepping on wet wipes. Diapers everywhere. Baby Indy teething. Ana screeching when she’s put down. Almost forgot to give meds. Try pacifiers – both spit out. Both take an hour of swaying and white noise to sleep. Issy again in her room, sulking with the iPad. Where is that thing? Where is the other thing? Where is anything that fits?

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My second-proudest accomplishment today: Sorting clean clothes that fit each child into their own baskets.

Night one, Ana was up from 11:30-3:30. CT and I each took two hours of it while the other one slept. We each got four hours’ sleep, total.

Day two, I was a zombie.

Luckily, we had help. A social worker from Immerse spent several hours on Friday with me, tiding up while I rocked each one to sleep throughout the day and offering tips on how to get the bottles to cool faster and how we might organise a schedule. It didn’t make it easy, though. I chugged cold coffee and ate scraps of toast in between juggling Indy and Ana amid the wreckage of my living room, completely exhausted. Indy was constipated and miserable. Ana needed intense swaying to get to sleep, and Indy was only happy when I wore her in a wrap, and the repeating the two over and over was crippling my back. Work from home? Forget it. The afternoon when CT came back was probably the hardest stretch. By the time we got them to sleep around 6 (since they’d skipped afternoon naps and were barely hanging on – much like myself and CT), I cried a lot and stared at my phone until Thai food arrived.

Day three has had similarly hellish moments of chaos, but a few more moments of happiness. A story and quiet time with gorgeous Indy, and adorable Ana beaming as CT danced with her in the Baby Bjorn. Our foster parent friend helped during the morning when CT had to visit his father, and I discovered I could easily catch up on work while Indy was on her tummy discovering toys and Ana was occupied with another adult. I also devised a theory that the kids had been breastfed and possibly co-slept, hence the reason for the milk spilling, constipation and difficulty settling. (On top of, of course, being in a stranger’s house.)

I also got a break today – two hours in the afternoon when our social worker came to take the kids for a walk in a double stroller so CT and I could buy a complete bottle set and find a new non-dairy formula. (She actually told us to go relax and have a coffee, but we really wanted bottles that matched up!)

Ana went to sleep tonight with a bottle of goat’s milk formula and NO swaying. Our backs are saved! This is, undoubtedly, our proudest accomplishment of the day.

Also, Indy finally pooped. If you’re a parent who has helped a baby through three days of painful gas, you’ll know why that also counts as an accomplishment.

So we’re still here, and we’re still alive, and even though I felt on Friday like I was doing a lot of everything but getting most of it wrong, I know we’re doing a good job. Indy and Ana are the cutest, and I can’t wait to get more on top of things so we can create the time and space to really dote on each child without feeling like we’re always playing a desperate game of catch up.

Until then…send sleep and coffee!

 

 

Somewhere out there

I’ve spent all morning thinking about you, Baby Viv.

Yesterday I worked from home so I could be ready when you arrived. Only a few days old and needing a home. Substance exposed.

From the moment we knew for sure that you were coming, our every free moment became about you.

I sterilised anything and everything. CT and Issy had suffered colds over the weekend, so the whole house had to be cleaned. Between answering emails and editing documents, windows were flung wide open to air out our home. Donated bottles and pacifiers danced in a big pot of boiling water. Baby clothes hung freshly washed and drying, numbering at least 3 more of everything than necessary. Issy’s sweet, oval cot sat at arm’s length from my side of the bed, dressed with a grey polka dot sheet.

This wasn’t about me, or our family, or about CT and I becoming “parents” together. We wanted to be ready for you, so that we could give you anything and everything you needed to thrive.

CT and I watched YouTube videos all evening for the preceding two nights, practising bottle feeding and swaddling soft toys of adequate size and limbs. My daughter is 11, so for me it had been awhile since I’d been completely responsible for the survival of a tiny human being. And for CT, this was all new information. With a muslin slung over his shoulder, he fed and burped a floppy, grinning dog doll with a nightcap on (sounds nightmarish, but it’s actually cute – a typical assessment of any baby toy, really) as we discussed safe sleeping, learned the importance of creating a quiet, dark atmosphere for these sensitive babies, and watched tutorials on baby wearing.

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Quincy had always hated the colour orange, but the hat had been a gift from his grandmother. Never a dog to enjoy conflict, he’d learned to hide his true feelings behind a ghoulishy pleasant smile.

We were excited to meet you, and to celebrate your arrival.

Once the court order was confirmed, we received vouchers to stock up on necessities. We hit the shops and I lingered over a cute onesie with “perfect” printed on the chest. I imagined taking your photo in it, so that no matter where life took you, you could look back and know that you were adored right from the start. What every child should know and feel, no matter what.

Armed with a jumbo bag of baby gear, we made one last stop for a large container to keep all your sterilised bottles in on the countertop. And that’s when we got the call. Or should I say the call that led to us meeting a social worker to hear the news in person, since it was so unexpected.

Things have changed. Baby staying with parent.

That was last night. I’ve spent all morning thinking about you, Baby Viv.

Someone asked me today if I’d cried. No, I didn’t. I didn’t feel the aching loss I had felt earlier in this process, when baby placements hadn’t worked out.

I was pissed.

I wish I could say that I knew this change was the best thing for you, and that I would never judge. But that’s not how I felt last night. I was frustrated. Not for me, or about “missing out” – but for you. You were hours away from coming to a warm, stable, loving home where your every need would have been met. For the rest of your life, if it came to that. What would happen to you now?

Like any protective mother, I wanted to drive across town and make sure you were being looked after. CT and I wanted to know, for sure, that this was the right thing for you. That the sleeping arrangements were safe. That any breastmilk would be tested. That you would be looked after, attended to, given that warmth and closeness you needed to recover. That your family wouldn’t let you down.

But no one can tell us that. We can’t drive across town. We can’t make sure you’re ok. We can only let go. And believe that if we were willing to change our lives for you, maybe your family will change their lives for you, too.

Baby Viv, I hope you’re sleeping sweetly right now, cuddled up to someone who loves you, soothed and safe. And if it doesn’t work out, I hope, with all my fingers crossed, that we’ll be given the chance to make it up to you.

Down the Rabbit Hole

Last week, we accepted a call for a 2-year-old girl. She would need a permanent home in the future. She was around the same age that the two babies I lost to miscarriage would have been, had they lived.

The call stretched out over 26 hours as I waited to hear back, let myself get excited about forever, and discovered that a gap in communication had meant the child was placed elsewhere before her social worker knew we were interested… and it wouldn’t have been a permanent placement in our home anyway. Someone else’s home, eventually.

To make a long story short (“Too late!” as they’d shout in the movie Clue – one of my favs, and yes, it’s a movie of the board game), this experience opened up a lot of old wounds for me, and forced to me to re-examine my motives for fostering. This has turned out to be a really good thing.

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See, Kiwis? It’s called Clue. NOT CLUEDO. Ahem.

Why are we doing this?

Our family’s journey was originally driven by my desire to help a child. This, in turn, was driven by my own challenging upbringing, which in turn stemmed from a family history of abuse. I’d always wanted to adopt rather than have children naturally, but when I did have my own child, I still wanted to add to our family by adoption.

Fast-forward to my second marriage, and two subsequent miscarriages. Adding to my motivation was now a deep pain from loss and infertility. We began investigating adoption.

We quickly learned that it’s really hard to do.

Specifically:

  • Children aren’t adopted out in New Zealand unless they’re newborns, and only a handful of newborns are placed for adoption each year (with hundreds of hopeful families in the pool of applicants).
  • International adoption costs a lot of money and time, and it can be hard to know whether you’re accidentally participating in child trafficking or legitimately helping a child in need.

We then looked to NZ’s version of “adopting a child”, which is permanent fostering. We learned that this is a really hard choice for us to make.

Specifically:

  • Permanent fostering, or Home For Life, makes you a legal guardian of the child, and the birth parents are also legal guardians.
  • This means you must still cooperate with visits to the birth family, and still consult and agree on issues like schools. Or, in some cases, haircuts. It also means that custody can be challenged every two years.
  • Not a huge problem – except that our original life plan had been to move to my home country of Canada when my tween daughter, Isobel, is ready for university. If we can convince her to attend a Canadian uni. (I’m currently here in NZ out of moral obligation, making possible her relationship with her Kiwi dad – but that’s another story). With a Home for Life child, we could find ourselves fighting a birth family in court to be allowed to go, after years of my waiting to be allowed to leave. If we even wanted to leave by then. In seven years or so.

What if, what if, what if.

We then looked into other types of fostering. We learned that this might be logically right for us.

Specifically:

  • Transitional care means we can open our home to a child and include that child in our family life, while not having to wonder if the choice to do so has excluded us from being in Canada later on.
  • The training in TBRI that we received with Immerse means we feel ready to rehabilitate a traumatised child, reminding me of why I originally wanted to adopt.

So transitional fostering it was. A smart win-win. Away we went, and here we are. Only the three near-miss placements made it very clear that my poor ‘ole heart needs a stake in this, too. Upon reflection, I’ve learned a few things.

Specifically:

  • Wanting a baby (or child) and helping a baby (or child) are two very different things. One is based on a selfish desire: to have a little someone to love. The other is based on a selfless desire: to give your time, energy and love to a little someone who needs you.
  • These two lil’ guys can easily blend up into one cloudy motivation and feel like one in the same. After all, why not fulfil your desire for a baby by helping a baby in need?

The difference is clear when you get those near-misses, or the placements who become part of your family and then leave. To selflessly help a child, you must be prepared to let them go. To selflessly help a child, you also need to know the truth of what you want and what you’re feeling.

Two things were happening for me.

  1. My experience of miscarriage – where I looked to the future with my child and was rendered powerless as it disintegrated – set me up for a trip down Sad Memory Lane when I accepted a few placements for babies that didn’t eventuate. After much helpful reflection and discussion with Immerse and my husband, CT, I had to realise that I’d begun looking forward to welcoming “my” baby. Not a baby who needed my help.
  2. My experience of staying in NZ when I deeply wanted to return home – but wouldn’t, out of doing the right thing for my daughter – set me up for a ride on Anxiety’s Tilt-a-Whirl, where I wanted to accept a child into our family but was terrified of being told I couldn’t go home. Again. The craziest part of the ride was where I kept trying to squint into the future, trying to make decisions based on what uni Issy might want to attend in seven years.

After examining all of these feelings, I know a few more things to be true.

Specifically:

  • I’m not selfless, and I’m not a saint. Everyone probably already knew that, but it’s important to stop trying so hard to be one. This includes denying that I wish we could just have a baby already.
  • The rollercoaster is tough, especially when you’re new at this.
  • You can’t always make decisions based purely on strategy. Which is code for Not Wanting to Choose Wrong.

So now, after all that, why are we doing this?  

We’d like to help traumatised children.

We’d like to add to our family.

Yes, both.

How will this work? We are open to all placements – including those where the child might need somewhere permanent to live, so we can put our hand up if it feels right. This means I don’t have to choose anything right now. I can focus my energy on being the best foster parent I can be, instead of whether this is worth giving up Canada for. No more trying to out-think the unknowable.

Immerse knows how we feel about babies in particular and my having a baby-shaped hole in my heart. CT will take those calls. He’ll only tell me once placements are confirmed, essentially taking my seat on the rollercoaster.

CT and I have reminded ourselves that there’s still time and treatment options for “our” baby, a reality that got lost as we turned our focus to fostering. It doesn’t have to be one or the other. This realisation, and taking time to remember how much these kids need a safe place to land (rather than a foster mum with a hole to fill), has already helped me to feel more clear-headed and ready to help.

Perspective is everything. I know I’ll forget all this at times along the way, and I’ll probably fall in love with the first baby we get. I accept I’ll need to remind myself often of what’s needed from me and to acknowledge how I really feel.

But it’s a start.

Hello, chicken!

This past weekend, I laughed, I doled out crackers on a mermaid plate, and I answered a thousand knock-knock jokes with the punchline, “chicken in your face!” We’ve officially completed our first foster placement.

Little J, or “The Rock” as my tween Isobel nicknamed him, came to us for two nights of respite (respite is the type of care where you take a child for a short stint to give his carers a break). At 3 years old, he was a happy chappy who didn’t mind climbing right into our car, although he went quiet for the ride home. We kicked things off with a snack and showed him his room, and pretty soon he was deep into the toy box. Of all the nicknames offered, he chose to call me “auntie.” So far, so good.

CT came home after 5pm, and J was immediately chatty and keen to play with “uncle.” Issy seemed to grow up instantly, easily taking on the role of older sibling. (She had assured me beforehand that she was “good with 3-year-olds” thanks to time spent with her cousin, and she was!) We successfully navigated the local supermarket so J could choose a favourite cereal, and he adopted Issy’s old dinosaur toy as his “baby.” Like any 3-year-old boy might, he roared like a tiger every chance he got, liked to exercise the word “no!” over things like needing to go toilet, and started declaring everyone “you, chicken!” (As in the bird, not a judgement of how brave – or not – we were.) We watched Moana (his favourite movie) and had pizza. It was all going SO well.

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J’s favourites from our toy collection. That’s a dummy camera phone on the left – we’re not totally crazy.

So well that CT and I both forgot what was actually happening. We should have realised when he showed zero enthusiasm for his bed with Moana sheets – a boy who seemed in all other ways obsessed with the Princess of Motunui. We should have braced ourselves when we unpacked his things and saw that he hadn’t brought any favourite cuddly toy or blanket. This was not a boy who knew us, at all. We had met him literally hours before, and now he was meant to sleep here, with strangers, without his mummy or anything familiar, and without any say in it. When bedtime came, despite eagerly brushing his teeth, he suddenly wasn’t a happy chappy anymore.

I sleep never ever. This my bed never. I want my mummy!

And the most heart-breaking, sobbing, angry protest:

NO! I go back to my home!

At 10pm, slumped over one arm of the couch, J finally passed out from exhaustion. Nothing we did had helped, and we’d tried everything – from reassurance (“only 2 sleeps!” and “you’ll see Mummy soon!”) to acknowledgement (“I’m sorry this is hard”) to choice-giving (“you can leave mouse toy here or bring mouse to sleep with you – you choose!”) to CT reading stories aloud “to himself” with J’s approval, while J peeked over his shoulder to look at the pictures and glowered at us whenever we smiled his way. Issy had long retreated to her room with the iPad, an unfortunate recurring theme as the weekend went on.

Ultimately, CT pretended to get ready for bed and go off to sleep (in reality, sequestered with our way-too-active dog in our bedroom), and when I pretended to leave the room to brush my teeth, J conked out. Forty-five minutes later, when we were sure he was deeply asleep, we moved him to his bed, his little face still fixed in a frown.

During that tense evening, as CT and I grasped at idea after idea, I knew little J was scared and homesick. But the full depth of it only sunk in the next day, when CT commented:

He didn’t feel safe enough to sleep.

And there it was – full reality check. We’d learned all about “felt safety” in our training – the full and deep-rooted knowing that you’re safe – and now we’d seen, in real life, the absence of it. Of course the Moana sheets hadn’t helped. How could they when he didn’t feel inherently safe? When the illusion of trust and the easy comfort of play and toys had given way to the need for security at night, the absence of felt safety for J had become painfully obvious.

The next day, J awoke bleary-eyed, but quickly brightened over his Rice Krispies and resumed calling us all “chicken!” We had a full-on day of playing, snacks, more Moana, juggling Issy’s activities, a few more “no!”s before his sneakily planned nap in the car, and lots and lots of toy trains (a godsend lent to us by a friend, who delivered them to our door on the first night with at least half the magic of Santa Claus). As we all bonded over Sticky Face (thanks, Herding Chickens!), playing tag and teaching him how to put Minion plasters on his imaginary hurts, he began to use pleases and thank yous. By bedtime, he still didn’t want to go to sleep, but this time it only took an hour of light piano music, three stories, two new options of Issy’s old cuddly toys, a compromise with a cracker, and my pretending to be really sleepy for him to suggest:

How about I go to bed?

Um, okay! So he did, with both cuddly toys in tow. And I sat by the doorway where he could see me until he closed his eyes. This time, Issy was still awake when he went down, so we got to have our own story and cuddle time.

CT put it perfectly when he summed up our weekend with a tone of wide-eyed shell-shock:

We were ill prepared.

Definitely understandable coming from a man who became step-father to Issy when she was 7, skipping the toddler years, but also very true. I’d parented a 3-year-old in the past, but never one who didn’t know me or feel safe in my home. We’d been trained, but things looked different in real life. We’d let ourselves be lulled into thinking that J was just fine at a stranger’s house, happily playing parent to a toy dinosaur, when of course, he wasn’t. We had also vastly underestimated how challenging it would be to parent a threenager and a tweenager (and a dog!) at the same time.

By the time J went back on Sunday, CT, Issy and I could all agree: He was a lot of fun, and we were exhausted. And we kept wanting to call each other “chicken.”

What would we do differently? Expect a long night. Set the bar lower in terms of what success looks like – falling asleep on the couch is still falling asleep, and the child is still safe. Plan activities that don’t end up alienating tween daughter because they’re too toddlerish. Introduce squishy, super cuddly toys as soon as the child steps in the door (give or take an hour) so they can find some comfort in Monkey or Bear later on, if they can’t find comfort in these strange new people.

It was great to meet little J, and based on his glowing review of “I liked that home!” I think he had fun. Thanks, chicken!