Today was my prep day for TED.
As it turns out, you get invited to give a TED talk (I don’t know how), and then that invitation is like your ticket to a sort of audition and group interview.
You answer questions, give your draft of a presentation after only a week’s notice, and then wait to hear from the selection committee.
If you are selected, you then spend three to four months preparing and editing and rehearsing, before performing the actual talk in front of a live audience. That’s when they make a video of your talk and put it up on the internets for all the world to be inspired. No pressure, right?
There were eight thousand things I could have spoken about, I guess, and many people gave me suggestions.
But after as much praying and pondering as I could do in only a week’s time, I figured the best thing I could do was testify about families. Because maybe that’s more important than anything else, right? That’s what I decided.
Here is the draft version of the TED talk I presented this evening to the selection committee:
My name is Emily Christensen. My doctorate is in Marriage and Family Therapy, and I have been a licensed professional counselor for twenty years. I’m also a chaplain, and I help families.
I love my job because I think there is something special about families, even difficult families, something that teaches us the kinds of things we can’t learn anywhere else.
I think there is a reason, developmentally, that we are organized into families and wrestle our whole lives with what families mean, how we fit into them, and how we are distinct from them.
It’s also true that nothing is harder than families: getting along with them, running away from them, grieving them, reuniting with them again.
Some families are safer than others, some families are louder than others, and some families are more affectionate than others. Every family is a little different, with its own flavor of cultures and traditions, and we grow up wondering about families who are different than ours. We dream about what our own families will some day look like when we grow up.
I grew up in a divorced family, and always wondered what it would be like to have a two parent family like my husband had. And it’s true that having divorced parents did make me a little skittish in trying to find my own life partner, but my husband was worth the wait. He was a New Yorker with a Master’s Degree in writing musicals, a gentle man who played violin and enjoyed crafting, and his parents still lived together in the rural Oklahoma home where he grew up with his scientist father and stay at home mother.
On the contrary, my parents never shared a bedroom during my lifetime, and divorced when I was in fifth grade. They worked with veterans, and we moved about every six months or year or so. My father was an IT guy and my mother was a medical librarian, and all those frequent moves meant that most of my childhood friends came out of books.
So that’s how we found each other, my writer husband and me. He grew up knowing who he was looking for, and just kept waiting until he found me. I grew up knowing who I wasn’t looking for, and spent years weeding through potential candidates until I finally recognized him.
He had always thought he would get married right away in college, and I had hoped I never would.
He dreamed of starting a family and having children, maybe even fostering as his family had done, while I spent years half-convinced that my genetic material should probably not be passed on to the world.
Regardless of our differences, I am glad he waited for me, and I was entirely delighted when I finally found him.
Ironically, it was family that brought us together. I worked with his cousin who introduced us, and we had a whirlwind romance of epic proportions, and were married seven months later. Because it took us so long to find each other, when we finally married he was 36, and I was 35. We decided that if we were going to have children we would need to start right away.
But at the same time, I was struggling at work with trying to discharge foster children from the hospital who had no foster home to go. I decided that I couldn’t keep complaining about the lack of foster homes if I didn’t try to become part of the solution, so my husband and I naturally spent our honeymoon filling out paperwork to become foster parents.
It takes a long time to get approved to be foster parents, and we lived our first months together in the bliss of most newlyweds: me still grieving from the death of my father, my husband getting caught in Hurricane Sandy, and then my mother being killed by a drunk driver.
We had been married only three months when I found myself to be a 36 year old orphan.
So much for family.
That’s what it felt like.
And so I distanced myself from my husband’s parents, whom I had initially adored, but now needed space from simply because they weren’t mine. They had done nothing wrong, but the natural intrusion of in-laws was not something I could bear in the wake of losing my own parents. I needed time to grieve, and didn’t want my parents replaced, even by Nathan’s parents who were nicer. It was all terrible timing.
And then, in case our new life together wasn’t hard enough, the miscarriages started.
The first one was a surprise, and painful, and shocking, and traumatic, because we didn’t know what was happening.
The second one was painful and heartbreaking, but at least we understood what was going on.
The third one was painful and frustrating and gut-wrenching, but we knew it might happen.
By the fourth one, we had tried not to expect it, but then when it happened again, we grieved the loss of hope as much as the loss of our child.
We had tried so hard to start our family, and done everything they told us to do, and endured the most intrusive testing you can imagine. Knowing we were older and racing the proverbial clock, we hadn’t waited long between pregnancies and just tried again as soon as we were cleared to do so. Ultimately, we found out I had ovarian cancer, which sent me to surgery for a full hysterectomy – plus some – which saved my life, but meant there would be no more miscarriages, and certainly no more hope of having our own biological children.
Now, let me be clear: you cannot foster just because of fertility issues or to replace children you have lost. That won’t work. It’s not fair to the foster children and it’s not fair to you.
But, it was something my husband and I had already committed ourselves to before all that happened to us, and with time and healing, we were ready to move forward in re-designing what family meant to us.
Or so we thought.
We fostered more than seventy children in four years. Some of them stayed only a few hours, and some of them stayed for several months. The most we ever had at one time was nine, and that was when we had two extra pairs of twins while their foster parents were on vacation.
When the children came to our house, they came with nothing. It would take about $1500 to get them the things they needed: clothes, underwear, pajamas, shoes, and school supplies. That doesn’t even count things like toys or birthday gifts or trying to pull off Christmas with children who land in your home in the middle of the night right before the holidays. Then, when the children left, they took everything with them, so it wasn’t like all those supplies we had built up were an ongoing investment for ourselves. Everything went to the children, and they left our supply closets as empty as a field devastated by locusts.
It was a near-impossible task, providing for these children, much less trying to function together as a family. Many of the children who came to us did not know how to sleep in beds, or use utensils to eat their food, or even how to take a shower. There were practical challenges, like laundry for ten people, or keeping the dishes done fast enough we could eat the next meal, or tying six pairs of preschooler shoes, or cutting 120 tiny nails every week. Besides that, there were more appointments than could fit on our calendar, between physical therapists and speech therapists and counselors and medical specialists and caseworker visits.
Fostering was exhausting.
But those children changed our lives.
We thought we knew so much, and had so much to give, but it was them who taught us. They taught us what sacrifice means. They taught us what nurturing means. They taught us what love means.
And six of them stayed.
Alex came first, with long red curls down his back. He was picked up from the local casino, where he had been found wandering naked looking for food. He slept for three days when he first came. He was four, and only spoke with echolalia, repeating everything we said but not being able to converse on his own. That was our first clue that he had autism.
Anber came next, a little brown baby on our doorstep in the middle of one night. She came from the casino, too – my little casino babies – where she had been locked in the trunk of the car while her mother was inside prostituting and buying drugs. She had never had consistent caregivers, so she didn’t trust us even though she was just a baby. She arched her back away from us when we tried to pick her up, and when we made her bottle she wouldn’t let us feed it to her. She did it herself, even pounding herself on the chest to burp herself when she was finished.
At first, these two little ones were other people’s children who came to us to be cleaned up and fed and taken to visits while Nathan and I continued our married life. But as other children came and went, and those two stayed, they very slowly began to feel more and more like family. When I went through another round of chemo, they endured the experience with us, just as children would have if they had been born to us. These kinds of experiences over time helped transition us into feeling more like family, because that’s what families do: they endure hard things together.
About two years into our fostering experience, I was at the DHS office to do some paperwork for some clients, and I was approached with a question about how to help a little deaf girl. I’m Deaf, if I forgot to mention that. ASL is my language, and I was completely reliant on interpreters until I got cochlear implants, which opened a whole new world for me. That’s why the workers came to ask me about how to get this new foster child into services and what she would need in a placement. All I could think of was how hard it would be to train an entire family to sign so that regardless of services, she would have access to language and culture that she needed at home, too.
Except my family could sign.
And so that’s what I told them: bring her to my house.
That’s how we got Mary.
Her mother had been picked up for shoplifting again, and had medications she was abusing that weren’t hers, and had neglected Mary’s medical care and getting the help she needed for her ears. Mary lost her hearing when her father threw her against the wall as a toddler. When we got her at age five, she had almost no language. She didn’t smile, and they thought she was cognitively delayed. But I knew language was everything. We taught her sign language, and we got her hearing aids, and then cochlear implants, and put her back in Kindergarten again since she hadn’t heard anything the first time. I sent her to the deaf school to be immersed in ASL, and to the mainstream school to experience the interpreted environment, and took her to Deaf culture events like Silent Dinner. Everything changed for Mary, and her face lit up, and she turned out to be a very smart little girl who wasn’t cognitively delayed at all once she had language.
We didn’t know we would adopt any of them. That had never been our plan, even after the miscarriages. But when you fall in love with children, and when they are already home after living with you for two years, how can you send them away? When we found out Alex and Anber, and then later Mary, were not going to be able to return to their biological families… of course we said we would adopt them.
Oh, and that’s how we got Kirk and Barrett. We were signing adoption papers for Alex and Anber, and the worker told us about two boys her office was worried about because one of them had cerebral palsy and one of them had fetal alcohol syndrome, so they would be hard to adopt.
They were worried about the brothers being split up, and about them growing up in shelters because of their disabilities, and they had already been moved several time to different foster homes. It was a sad story, and they only needed a family.
Of course we said yes.
How could we not?
Now, I know when you hear this story it sounds like we were just suckered into so many children, but I promise we didn’t just bring them home like puppies. We know they are not Happy Meal toys; we can’t collect them all. Seriously, I promise we said NO. Every. Single. Day. We said yes to seventy-plus children for fostering, and we said yes to the six we adopted, but we said no to more children than I can count, some children I met, and some I never met, and all of them I still dream about for leaving behind. It haunts me. We set the boundaries we had to for the children already in our home and for our own self-care, but there are so many more children waiting for families.
But that was the day we said yes to Kirk and Barrett. Here’s what was different about them: they were the only two we didn’t foster. We took Kirk and Barrett directly as an adoptive placement. I mean, we dated them first, to be sure they matched well with the other children we already had. It meant we found ourselves with three six year olds and two three year olds, somehow suddenly becoming a family with a set of rainbow triplets and mismatched twins.
That’s how, Nathan and I – married only two years – found ourselves with five children.
Except that the same week Kirk and Barrett moved into our home for trial adoption, Anber’s little half-sister was born. That’s how we got Kyrie, who is adopted child number six.
Because of the alcohol and drugs her mother did while pregnant, Kyrie was born without an airway. They told us she wouldn’t live, and her twin sister actually passed en route from the jail where they were born to the hospital where I was working as a chaplain. I was paged to the NICU to bless a deceased baby, and to hold the other baby while she died. I didn’t know then that the baby I was holding was my own, the little sister of Anber whose adoption had just finalized, until the mother arrived from the jail. I had to call for another chaplain because of the conflict of interest, and watched from the parking lot as little Kyrie was life flighted away from me to another hospital.
But that’s how she was the only child we have that I got to see on the day she was born.
And she didn’t die.
I mean, not yet.
I mean, she’s on palliative care, and it’s a hard thing we have done as a family.
She has oxygen and a gtube, and has had one surgery after another, spending most of the first year in the hospital, and still more surgeries every six to twelve weeks. She has endured more than what any adult could handle, and that has been her trauma.
We have grieved because we thought since we got her at birth, she would be our one child who didn’t have the trauma issues the others have had to face because of what they have been through. But trauma can start before birth, and she has had medical trauma since birth.
That’s the thing about adoption, though: it brings a new child into your family, but it doesn’t take their family away from them.
Even Nathan with his still-married good parents, and me with my divorced (and now dead) parents, and our children who have other parents besides us – all of this is part of what family means, part of the attachment that makes it possible for us to connect with others, part of who we are no matter what we have endured in our circumstances.
And we’ve tried to remember that.
Because when you have foster children come into your home, they have hard questions about the experiences they have endured and the biological parents they love regardless.
It’s a lesson that teaches you to truly separate who a person is from what a person does.
But if we are going to tell the children their parents are good – so that they will believe they themselves are also good – and that their parents love them – so that they will believe they are love-able – even if they made bad choices – so that they believe their own mistakes don’t condemn them to repeat the past – then we have to act like we believe it.
And that means connecting with, modeling for, and inviting their biological families into our family the same way we invited their children into our home.
So, with careful boundaries and safety always paramount, we got creative with how to include their biological families as part of our family, safely.
They are extended family to us, just like Nathan’s parents.
We mourn the passing of them, just like my parents.
We include them in ways that are appropriate and healing, giving our children opportunity to maintain healthy attachment while navigating the rough waters of accountability and forgiveness as part of their development – rather than dumping it on them when they suddenly turn 18 some day.
That means we have continued playground visits with Alex’s father just as he used to have when he was our foster child before he was our adopted child.
That means Anber sometimes talks on the phone to her mother in prison.
That means when we are driving downtown and see Mary’s homeless mother walking around, we pull over and give her some food.
That means that when Kyrie’s grandfather is driving his big rig through town, we meet him at a nearby McDonald’s so that he can hug the miracle toddler we share, the one he held in the NICU while we waited on placement papers to have permission to get to be with her during those impossible days.
That means that we invited Kirk and Barrett’s mother to their adoption, and honored her for the courage it took to show up that day.
It would be easier not to do any of it. It would be easier to pretend that adoption cuts them off from those people and gives them to us, as if it were a transfer of ownership.
But these children are not objects. They are people. And they are people who had families even before they found me.
We are just the foster – now adoptive – parents. We didn’t have anything to do with why the children came into care. We haven’t lived their hard lives and can’t judge why they didn’t get their children back. But we know families, and we know that matters more than anything.
Just because the children can’t return to them to live doesn’t mean they stop being family.
It matters. Attachment, which we can only get through those kinds of ongoing relationships like with our families, is everything. It affects our development, our interactions, and our future relationships.
We keep our children safe. To have visits, just like when the children were in custody before being adopted, the parents must agree to be sober and clean during a visit and we also ask them to be supportive of our parenting since the children physically live with us. It’s not easy, this kind of co-parenting.
But as the parents are able to do this, they have more and more access to the children we share, and that is a beautiful thing.
It breaks my heart, I’ll be honest. It’s a painful thing to watch children you love run to the parents who got to carry them in their bellies and birth them and smell their baby hair those years ago before any of them had me.
But those “other parents” – who were the first parents – they hurt, too, when the visit is over and the children come running back to me, when they hear the children call me Mama, when they see their children climb into my van to go with me to my home.
But they do it, and we do it, because it’s good for the children.
We do it, together, as one large family, because it is good and right.
That means, when I hate the holidays because my parents are dead, and because I am too introverted for that much public celebration, and because I am exhausted from working the ER full of people who also hate the holidays,
then I will look into the eyes of these children I love, and give them the only present they want: their family.
I will carve out a day in the busy-ness of the holidays to prepare our holiday meal, and we will transport it to a building other people rent for wedding receptions, and we will drag in holiday decorations.
And then I will watch, as my children put up decorations with their other parents.
I will watch as they set a long table with food we brought to feed all of us, together.
I will clear the table and do the dishes, while they scamper off to play games and do crafts and sing songs.
I will serve dessert while they exchange presents.
I will cry while I watch them laugh.
Because it is a beautiful thing, this miracle we call family.