Category Archives: Emotional Health

Dating my Daughters- It took me 32 years, but I finally learned how to date

I was never a big dater.  Historically, I have had one of two extreme reactions when encountering someone with the potential of a romantic connection- crush and obsess or run the other way. (Or, in some instances, crush and obsess, then run the other way.)

As I got older, I kept hoping I would become someone who “dates”, but it never really happened.  Even in the early stages of my relationship with my now-husband, we didn’t stay in the dating phase very long.

It’s funny to say that I didn’t really learn how to date until a few months ago when I began dating my daughters.

When we adopted our son three years ago, I got to do what I am good at.  I got to fall hard and fast for my son.  I crushed majorly for this boy, and everything moved so quickly, which made it even more intensified.  With my girls,  it hasn’t looked the same.  For dozens of reasons, it has had to be gradual, careful, and slow.  I knew that if I came across too strong, I would freak them out or shut them down.  But I didn’t want to be stand-offish or seem disinterested either.  Ahh! How do I do this?!”  I realized early on that I needed to learn how to date my daughters.

I worked hard at it and, after 32 years, I finally figured out a few things about dating.  So in the spirit of generosity, I will share my findings with you.

  1. Be attentive, but don’t smother or overwhelm.  When we first met the girls at a park, I wanted to run over and begin connecting immediately.  But that was about me, not them.  So I tried stepping back, but still engaging.  I let them come to me, and when they came, I was ready and eager to receive them.  Luckily, they didn’t have phones or I am sure I would have been blowing them up.  I couldn’t see them every day, so I couldn’t really smother.  It forced me to slow down, which also made me more attentive and purposeful.
  2. Make appropriate amounts of eye contact, but don’t stare.  This was hard because, of course, I was mesmerized by their sweet little faces, and I wanted to remember every detail about them.  But I knew that if I stared at them, it would be weird.  So no staring. (Or at least wait until they are asleep.)  When they did engage me, I looked right into their eyes so they could see they had my full attention- that there was nothing more important to me in that moment.
  3. Keep things light and fun.  DON’T GET TOO SERIOUS TOO FAST.  When dating, if things get too intense too quickly, the tone is set.  In my counseling office, I have seen this lead to an unrealistic expectation of relating that often results in conflict and tension.  When it comes to kids, it is important for adults to remember that trust and connection are established initially through positive, warm interactions, not big DTR’s the first time you meet.
  4. Physical intimacy should not be forced and it should occur in stages.  I am affectionate.  I love to hug, and it is not uncommon for me to want to put my hand on a shoulder during an informal conversation.  But there is a natural progression to physical intimacy that is important to honor.  It’s not just about me, so forcing my way of physically relating onto others (especially children with trauma) is not just inappropriate; it could be harmful.  Physical boundaries may be something people need help with if there is a history of inappropriate relating (both for kids and for grown ups), so asking permission is healing and empowering.  Asking “Would you like to high five or hug goodbye?” reminds the other person that you value their boundaries and aren’t trying to take power from them.
  5. Saying “I love you” too soon may seem desperate or insincere.  As I have stated, I fall fast.  I crush hard. I love easily.  But I had to find other ways of telling my daughters how much I care so that when I said “I love you”, they would not only believe it; they would rest in it.  I wanted to be able to back up my words with tangible examples of my love and commitment to them, and that takes time and work.  My husband and I decided not to say those words for a while when we got together because we had said them too quickly in the past.  We had to find other ways of communicating how invested and connected we felt.  And when we finally said it, we knew we meant it.
  6. Doing fun and exciting activities too often during the early stages sets an unrealistic precedent for the future.  If your first date is a flight to Mexico on a jet, it doesn’t bode well for your bank account or your relationship.  For my first date with Dave, we went to Moe’s.  It could only go up from there.  We made a decision not to woo our daughters with presents and extravagant outings because we weren’t trying to impress them.  This wasn’t a fling.  We were in it for the long haul, so going to parks and hanging out at our house felt like real life.  And that’s what we wanted to build with them- a life.
  7. Don’t shut out your friends and family when you start a new relationship. (or two)  It’s easy to isolate when you are dating.  It is important to pour into new relationships, but over time it can become secluding and alienating.  For us, exclusive bonding was and still is crucial.  We need to solidify our roles in our children’s lives, and that takes priority over incorporating other new dynamics into the system right away.  But because of our deep desire to stay connected to our loved ones and invite them into this process with us, we have had to find other ways to include them- sending updates, texting pictures, asking for prayer, looking at family photos, Facetiming, and casual group activities without too much pressure or expectation.  We don’t want to do this alone.  And we want to model community to our girls.
  8. Past relationships need to be honored and not minimized.  When starting a new relationship, we don’t usually want to dwell on past loves, but if we don’t at least acknowledge them, the relationship will suffer.  Making it clear from the beginning that there is room in the relationship for the past creates an environment that is open and promotes healthy relating in the future.  My children have all had lives that precede me.  So has my husband.  This in no way minimizes my relationship with them, and talking about the past when it comes up teaches them that it is not “off-limits” and it doesn’t threaten what we have.  It makes it stronger and more authentic.

My season of dating my daughters is coming to a close soon.  As fun as dating is, I look forward to the relief and comfort of making a symbolic and formal commitment to them.  I remember so vividly a conversation Dave and I had one night before we got engaged.  I felt angsty and unsatisfied about this “in-between” stage of our relationship, and he looked me right in the eyes and said, “This stage won’t last forever.” I felt such relief and peace in that moment.  I hope my daughters feel that soon, too.  In the meantime, I will enjoy this stage for what it is.  And I will keep falling more and more in love with my daughters.

The call that changed my life and broke my heart

grief pic 1

I will never forget where I was when I got the call.  My breath was labored and I held on to my stomach tightly as if it were going to escape out of my body, my hand serving as the last line of defense.  The voice on the phone, a female police officer, filled me in on procedural matters since I was the one who made the initial report.  As she talked, I searched for hope in her voice. I yearned for her to use the word “attempt” or “false alarm”.  I didn’t know if it actually happened, only that it could have. I prayed it didn’t, but deep down, I knew.  The officer was talking with such sterility and dispassion, even annoyance.  Just another day at the office, I thought.  I needed to hear her say the words.

I mustered up the courage to interrupt her detached protocol and interject the question I never wanted to ask.  “Wait. I just… Are you saying she’s dead?” My voice was filled with a desperation I could not mask despite my efforts at remaining professional. “Oh, I’m sorry.” she replied in an embarrassed tone.  “I should have… Yes, her attempt was successful.  She’s dead.” I doubled over in pain, my hand once again trying to push my insides back in my stomach.  I wanted to fall down.  I wanted to throw up.  I wanted to disappear.  This can’t be a real, I repeated to myself over and over again.

Wake me from this nightmare.

But I wasn’t sleeping.  It was real.  And it was excruciating.  Everything felt like a fog, but one thought rang out through the haze.  I will never be the same again.  I never wanted to be the same.

 


 

There are moments in life- frozen seconds of time- that define and change us.  Experiences that cause life to be divided into two parts: before and after.  The day my client committed suicide was one of those days for me.  As the three-year anniversary came and went a few weeks ago, my body remembered the feelings I felt that day.  So much has changed since the day when everything changed. The memory of it feels like an old friend I haven’t seen in a while, but once reunited, we fall right back in step with each other.  Familiar, but aged and weathered. Comforting and excruciating simultaneously. Grief is like that. Unwelcome and painful, yet sacred and intimate. I long to forget, but I fear forgetting because I need to remember. To feel.  To honor.

I imagine the person I knew. I picture her standing on the cement wall by my old counseling office, looking into the stream below and swaying slightly to the music blaring through her headphones.  No more.  I hear her voice greeting everyone in the waiting area as she enters, eager to connect. Desperate to be heard.  No more.  I see the other side of this person, the darker side, sitting on my couch unable to pretend any longer.  Broken.  No more.

As a counselor, I witness the desperation and grief of others often. I find myself asking, “How could this happen?  Why would a good God allow people to suffer to the point that death feels like the only relief?  Is there anything anyone can really do to help in the presence of such hopelessness?”  I don’t know the answers, but I do know this.  There is no time when I feel more dependent on God and more desperate for a Savior than in the face of grief and tragedy.  I don’t want to avoid pain because that would mean I am avoiding connection and relationship. And it would mean missing out on an opportunity to participate in the most powerful collective experience that exists- human suffering.

In light of our nation’s recent collective grief experience as we mourn the death of Robin Williams, I hold my own grief tightly and remember.  Suicide impacts so many, and this very public grief of a legend and dear friend from afar connects millions to the grief of losing someone to suicide and dealing with the aftermath and the questions and the confusion.  I pray for his family, his friends, his fans, his counselor if he had one, and all those who feel hopeless and trapped.  There is a psalm (34:18) that says, “The Lord is close to the brokenhearted and saves those that are crushed in spirit.”  I can’t understand why things happen the way they do, but I take comfort in believing that in our darkest moments, the Lord is close.  And there are people who care and want to walk beside you.

Thanks for letting me walk beside you, C.  It was an honor.

Why my son will never watch Pete’s Dragon: Viewing movies from an adoptive mother’s lens

lens picture

We all have lenses we put on to see the world.  Some of them we choose and others we are born into.  Being a white,straight, middle-class American is a privileged lens for me.  Being a woman, a working mother, an adoptive parent, a counselor, a person of deep faith… these lenses get a little more delicate and sensitive at times.

Over time, both my mother lens and my adoptive mother lens continue to sharpen.  One realm where I find them rear their heads often is in the consumption of entertainment.  Frequently in movies, especially children’s movies, adoption is depicted as the unfortunate result of tragic death or appalling deception toward the biological parents. Typically along this story line, caregivers and adoptive parents are portrayed as evil or unkind in some way and the redemption comes when the hero is reunited with his or her biological family, or at least differentiates from the adoptive family in some symbolic and permanent way (e.g. throwing one’s evil adoptive mother off a cliff).

Watching some of the same movies I enjoyed as a child with an adult lens is eye-opening enough, but when I put on the lens of adoptive parent, I am doing two things at once.  I am viewing them critically for appropriateness and deeper meanings, and I am also trying to see them through my son’s eyes.  At times, I can almost feel his brain moving, trying to make sense of how his own story fits or doesn’t fit.

Although this is in no way comprehensive, I have put on my adoptive parent lens to provide some examples of themes I see in certain children’s movies that relate to adoption- 2 themes that may create tension and confusion for adopted children and a third theme that I see as positive and even hopeful.

Theme 1: Birth Parents are Gods or Royalty

Risk for Adopted Children: The tendency to over-romanticize birth parents, leading to tremendous let-down and confusion.

Hercules: The evil uncle kidnaps baby Hercules and tries to kill him. Good people find him and raise him, and as soon as there is reconciliation with the birth parents (who happen to be gods), there is no more mention of the kind, loving adoptive parents again. Hercules always felt different, and it all comes together for him when he learns he is the child of immortal beings.  He spends the rest of the movie trying to “earn back” his god-like status so he can live with his birth parents on Mt. Olympus.

Tangled: Oh Mother Gothel… She gives ME nightmares. A horrible witch steals a magical baby, creates a codependent and abusive parental dynamic with her and exploits her child in exchange for youth. Rapunzel longs for the Magic Lights that occur on her birthday every year, which she later learns is her birth parents’ commemoration of their little princess who was stolen from them.  Redemption happens when Rapunzel finally learns the truth, stands up to her evil adoptive mother, and is eventually reunited with her birth parents (the king and queen) after her adoptive mother shrivels up and falls out of the tower.  Bottom line- Rapunzel is going to need to A LOT of therapy.

tangled

Theme 2: Social service systems can NEVER be trusted.

Risk: Foster care and adoptive children may become mistrustful of anyone connected to government services or law enforcement and believe they must stay in negative situations because no one will help them.

Despicable Me:  In many ways, I love this movie.  I love the transformation of Gru and the moral of the story that love can soften even the nastiest of people… But let’s not forget a few things about this movie.  The orphanage the girls come from is oppressive and abusive and the social worker punishes them with a “box of shame”.  They are exploited for financial gain, and treated like property when Gru walks in and takes custody of them without any formal process. (Job title: Evil Villain.  Sounds like a great placement for three little girls.)

despicable me

Pete’s Dragon: Don’t get me started. My sister reminded me recently of how horrific this movie is. A sweet orphan boy is bought like a slave, physically abused, treated like property, and the only thing keeping him from having to go back to his ruthless adoptive family at the end is the destruction of his “bill of sale”.  Yuck.  If you think of this movie fondly and want to keep it that way, don’t click on the hyperlink on the film title.

Theme 3: It is natural to feel conflicted about being adopted.

Benefit:  By seeing this in movies, adopted children are given permission to wrestle with this struggle and to honor the complexity and tragedy of love and loss.

Tarzan: Ironically, this may be my favorite children’s movie about adoption.  Orphaned baby is found by a female gorilla and adopted as her son, and, despite the obvious species difference, is embraced and loved.  My favorite part of this story is when his wonderful adoptive mother gorilla gives her son room to explore his origins without making him feel guilty or choose.  In the end, by giving him the room to do this, he chooses to embrace both his biological humanness (by marrying Jane) and the environmental and familial influence of his gorilla community and family.

Star Wars:  I think we can all agree that Luke and Lea were better off being adopted.  Finding out his father is Darth Vader is not an easy pill for Luke to swallow, but he wrestles with it and grieves the father he never knew and even finds room to love his father for who he is now instead of holding on to a fantasy of who he once was.

star wars

 

There are many more examples of movies that depict adoption both in positive and negative ways.  My motive is not to dampen anyone’s viewing of these movies or force any agenda.  My intention is only to provide a lens that I didn’t have two years ago.  And since this is one of the lenses my son will use to see things through for the rest of his life, I will too.  And I pray that he will stretch himself to put on other lenses that are not as familiar to him so he can learn to see the world from other perspectives as well.

I want to be a critical consumer; an attentive parent; a thoughtful woman; a follower of God; an ally to the oppressed and marginalized, whoever they may be.  This means I will have to be uncomfortable at times and stretch beyond my own worldview.

What are some lenses you wear that shape how you view entertainment and see the world?  What movies should I re-watch from these lenses to foster deeper understanding and challenge me to expand my perceptions? Help me see things through your eyes.

 

 

 

Why I cry at weddings

neely wedding

Dave and I attended the wedding of dear friends this weekend. Weddings are very present in my life right now. My sister got married a few months ago and my sweet cousin who is like a sister to me is getting married soon. There is something about weddings that fills me with energy and life. Maybe it’s the symbolism of new beginnings and the formal act of commitment, but whatever it is, it gets me every time.

Inevitably, EVERY SINGLE TIME, I cry.

I am a fairly emotive person (notice choice of words here- displaying emotions and being labeled “emotional” have different connotations), and it is really no surprise that I cry at weddings. But as the tears formed in my eyes at the wedding this weekend, I thought to myself, “What is it about this moment that is producing this emotional response?”

So I have come up with some reasons why I cry unapologetically at weddings.

1) There is a force that is present at weddings that is bigger than any person or relationship or scenic backdrop.
From my experience of attending probably 50 weddings in my life, there is a tone of reverence that I have felt at pretty much all of them. Regardless of religious or spiritual affiliations, I feel a sense of awe and an acknowledgment that something special is happening here; something powerful. Something magical and miraculous.
Because of this, the weight of what is happening seems to descend on not just the couple, but on every witness. Some people take a breath. Others shift slightly in their seats, feeling uncomfortable with the weight of what is occurring. And many of us cry. The heaviness of the moment becomes overpowering, and I give in to it freely. After all, I love a good cry about as much as I love a good wedding.
2) Weddings are a reminder of all that is good and pure about love.
Before I was married, weddings were a reminder of all that I hoped and prayed for one day. Now they are a reminder of what love can be. There is a naivety about love that exists at weddings, not based on avoidance of the reality of love and how hard relationships can be, but with a focus on how beautiful it can be when we can put aside our jadedness and hurt and insecurities. “Perfect love casts out fear.” That is what weddings feel like to me. An act of reckless abandonment that is risky and even unwise in some ways, but courageous and inspiring.
The reality is that marriage is hard. There are many days when the simplicity of the love I felt on my wedding day feels miles away. For some people, relationships may be crumbling and it is hard to believe there is anything good and pure about love or marriage. But I think that’s why we need that day. We need that moment. And we need reminders of that moment to sustain us.
3) Weddings represent a culminating moment in a journey of experiences.
If I attend a wedding, it usually means I have some history with one or both people getting married. I have likely seen them grow and mature, sometimes since childhood and other times only a few months, and I have played some role in their journey.  This category is what usually defines how intense my crying is at a wedding. The more emotionally invested, the more I cry. I experience a flood of memories and feelings about this person or couple as I sit in front of them or stand next to them. (That’s the hard part. I am usually standing next to the people who I am closest to, which means the entire guest list witnesses my extreme emotional response and the retrieval of the Kleenex tucked discretely into my dress or bouquet.)
Although some people have a tendency to make things about them that are not about them, I don’t think that is the case here. I think it IS about them. It is about everyone. All of these people assembled in the same place at the same time because this couple drew them together. And for the rest of their lives, the relationship the couple has with each wedding attendee will be impacted by this shared experience.

And finally, here’s the clincher for me…

4) Guys cry at weddings.
I try to be someone who avoids perpetuating stereotypes about women being emotional and men being logical, but I have to be honest- men crying impacts me differently than women crying. I have seen my share of crying in my counseling office and have worked hard to master the “welled eyes” moment (the “I really feel like crying because you have touched me sincerely with your story, but if I cry, I may make this more about me and take the focus off of you, so I will hold it in, but if you look closely, there is moisture in my eyeballs” moment). But when a man who typically tries to present as strong and logical and composed sheds a few tears, my self-control leaves the room with my mascara.
This is another example of the overwhelming force and weight of the act of marriage. Even people that typically control their emotional responses (dare I say avoid them at times) succumb to the moment. Not all guys and not all the time. But if, by some miracle, I have managed not to cry at a wedding and then I notice the groom’s cheeks are wet or the father of the bride gets choked up or the sweet uncle doing a reading takes a long pause to regain composure, I’m done.

 

So yeah, I cry at weddings. I’m okay with it. I feel no shame in expressing my emotions, especially when witnessing the formal act of love and commitment by people I am invested in. I encourage you to give yourself permission to cry at weddings, too. Don’t hold back. It’s like an altar call at a Baptist church. Don’t sit in your seat with sweat dripping off your forehead as your heart tries to run out of your chest. Just let the spirit move. But I’m warning you: Once you go up to that altar, you never go back.

wedding toast 1