We sent this message out to everyone close for whom we could compile good contact information:

Our kids recently staged a protest on the front porch, complete with picket signs.

Our kids recently staged a protest on the front porch, complete with picket signs.

We are always looking for better ways to keep in touch. Seems the only time we reach out to the people we care about the most is when something big is coming up.

Speaking of big things, besides the usual parental sensation we get from five energetic children, here’s another layer of meaning to this Mother’s Day….

What’s do the signs mean?
In hieroglyphics, it says there’s a bun in the oven.  That is, Christa is on the nest, due November 14th!  (Six is a nice even number, don’t you think?  Conclusive, I’d say.)

What we need from you:
An avalanche of prayer — that it’s a boy!  Judah needs one more male around.
Besides, we are surrounded by baby excitement these past months:  In our small group, two new babies born, two more coming soon, two foster care adoption placements, several miscarriages, medical troubles and concerns.  Please pray for a healthy baby, pregnancy and delivery, no matter the gender.  (Please remember to request comfort for Christa’s friend Willow as she grieves last month’s stillborn, her second in a row.)

In other news
Lana starts Kindergarten in the fall.  She’s deliriously eager.  Ada has a slight fever.  She’s just delirious, mostly at night when every shadow throws her into a panic.  Zella has developed her own language.  Little Tolkien, we call her.  Perhaps she is actually surrounded by invisible elves who alone understand what she’s carrying on about.  Tirza is full of life and mischief.  It looks like her twos will be surpassed only by her threes when it comes to testing boundaries.  She’s off crayons for a while after four incidents in the last two days.  She has a low, throaty chuckle that reminds me of The Shining.  Judah walks around attempting words like “hello”, “ball”, even “hat”.  He teeths badly and gets at least four molars at a time.  He’s affectionate to mom and babied by his sisters.  I’ll be glad when he is de-throned by an even younger tyrant.

Besides incubating the latest little Flannery, Christa ran a new MOPS chapter this school year, maintained her photography small business and kept the household from going to all Edgar Allen Poe.  She recently shaved her head for Saint Baldrick’s day and to have an excuse to do something drastic in response to grief — for children we’ll never meet, for friends and herself.  Last night she caught up her family photo albums and looks forward to time stopping soon so that she can ever scrapbook again.

I (Brian) feel like I’ve been in a cave for the past six months.  I am free from the intense project that held my focus since September.  Now that I have a little more time, I intend to reconnect with the good people I know — children playdates, dinners on porches, phone calls and long talks about bright ideas or deep dreams.  I’m terrible at planning and scheduling so let me know if you are better at it or if you just went ahead and scheduled something for us.

With love,
-Brian and Christa Flannery with Lana, Ada, Zella, Tirza, Judah and more!

Zella is behind the curve for speaking.  Tirza has been using complete sentences for months.

Besides Judah, Zella is the only sincerely incoherent one.  It’s a funny similarity between her and Ada who slurred everything until a couple of weeks ago even though Tirza (11 months younger than Ada) is clear and articulate.  We even made appointments with speech therapists for Ada when her younger sister lapped her.  The professionals said that no matter what Tirza’s doing, Ada was on-track for her age.

Now that Ada has mostly joined Lana and Tirza in the toddler eloquence club, they all take turns trying to interpret Zella for our sakes.  “What did Zella just say?” we ask them.  Sometimes we offer rewards:  “I got an entire candy bar for the girl who can decipher, ‘myloppa grash flup flup shosha-bik’.”  Remember the character Mumbles from Dick Tracy (Dustin Hoffman portrayed him well in the 1990 film)?  That’s Zella.

Her facial expressions remain vivid, especially when her eyebrows say, “Don’t you understand me?”  Maybe she thinks it’s all a game:  Everyone else yammers on with seemingly arbitrary syllables and then Mommy gives them what they want.  She doesn’t need to study the phenomenon further.

Tonight, the interpreter role took a funny turn during our ritual post-bedtime vigil (Mommy or Daddy has to guard their bedroom door, ready to thunder when someone starts singing, hitting or wandering the room).  We must depend on Tirza and the other girls to translate from Zella-ese more than we think.  Zella was sitting, wide awake but well-behaved, outraged that Ada was laying transverse across her own bed, legs dangling over the edge.  I have picked up enough street-Zella to get it:  “Daddy, look!  Ada … bed!” is her abridgment of the tattle, “Ada’s off her bed”.

Piercing the serenity and my self-satisfied interpretation comes Tirza’s echo, clear and distinct:  “Daddy, look!  Ada … bed!”  Tirza is laying on her back on the top bunk.  She cannot see Ada.  She is not tattling.  She is just repeating Zella for anyone who needs a semantic boost.  This becomes a game:  Zella sentence, Tirza translation.  After a few rounds, I restored the silence of bedtime.  No one’s in trouble.  I’m impressed, not angry.

Tirza and Ada have a creepy behavioral nuance:  Fits that escalate into shrieking tantrums.  If they get mad enough, they will pull their own hair and fingers or otherwise harm themselves.  Then they come to us for comfort because pulling their own hair out hurts.

The self-mortification is a weird quirk about foster children that we expected to bypass by adopting infants from foster care.  Here’s a weird mystery of the universe:  Instability and trauma affects children even while they are in the womb.  Hoarding, textbook-severity tantrums, hurting themselves, and other problems can show up in children who have been safe, well-fed and carefully attended since birth.

Unless they are hurting someone else or blatantly defying us, we try to influence behavior by ignoring the bad.  If they think pulling their hair and waving their arms wildly while yodeling will win them attention, they are wrong.  If we do anything about it, we send them to another room where they can be as loud as they want.  When they are ready to be quiet and kind, they can rejoin the party.  No comfort is given for self-inflicted wounds.

The party is an important part.  We shouldn’t neglect everyone and then banish the loud ones to throw violent self-mutilating tantrums in isolation.  We want to reinforce good behavior with attention and praise:  Make the baseline existence in our home a happy, fun adventure where chores are matter-of-fact transitions between play times.

“What a fun time we had with all these toys!  Now it’s time for snack in the kitchen.  We can eat as soon as the toys are put away.”

“Yummy.  That was good food.  What do we do next?  Wash our hands?  Sounds good.  Put our dishes away?  Okay.  You kids sure know what you’re doing.”

“What a great day.  Now it’s time for bed.  Pick up all the toys you want to keep.  If you want, Mommy and Daddy can clean up for you and give all your stuff back to the store to sell to someone else.”

“Now that our room is clean, what do we do to get ready for bed?  Who has their pajamas on?  Who wants to try potty first?  If you get all ready, you get a penny to put in your bucket.”

We get most of these ideas from the Love and Logic series of parenting books.

How did we find out about Love and Logic?

When you sign up for foster care, they give you a long list of forbidden disciplines. They never say what you CAN do when children misbehave. They would hate to endorse a technique and then have some Child Called It kind of maniac take it too far. If you push them, they will hint at some practices that are benign enough to never be considered abuse.

If you’re sick of walking on eggshells between abusively stern punishments and codependently enabling your out-of-control child dictator by letting them get away with everything (also forbidden), they will let you in on a secret: Love and Logic. They don’t officially endorse it (more liability-dodging) but a good social worker will mention it to an exasperated parent.

The idea is to bypass a disciplinary model of negative reinforcement for misdeeds. Instead, logical consequences follow every action, good and bad. Loving attention attends every moment of the childhood, even the sad times.

It is easy to find consequences for delightful behavior (throw a party! clap and cheer! extra dessert or snack or treat! balloons? kazoos?). It is easy to love your children when they are angels. It is hard to come up with a creative but appropriate logical consequence for bad behavior. It is nearly impossible to love your miserable brats when they are hurting each other, themselves and the furniture (or eating the checkbook or hiding the car keys or pulling jagged tin can lids out of the trash and feeding them to the baby).

Nothing is more powerful than genuine love expressed constantly without pretending it comes in response to a perfect child. “I love you so much because you never do anything wrong,” is the worst thing you could say to a child. How about, “I love you all the time. I’m sad when you break the rules but I’m glad you can always come to me about it.”  Expressing love because it’s the right thing to do, not because you always feel it warm and fuzzy — that’s a miracle.  That’s what you have to do.

Nothing is better at setting boundaries to a child’s behavior than the logical consequences that live on those borders. “Whoa! That was too loud. I think you can spend some time in the quiet chair to remember your inside voice.” (The quiet chair is nearby the parent and may be a little boring but nothing uncomfortable.) “Wow. You hit your sister very hard. I think you need to give her a hug and kiss. Can you get her a treat to make her feel better.” (Maybe the offending child’s favorite treat is what they have to give the injured child — give and forfeit.)

Not a clever veil for abuse:

Like anything, it can be taken too far. It would be pretty horrible to combine the language of logical consequences to abusive punishments. (“Uh-oh, you looked up from your porridge. Now you get to spend another day locked in a briefcase.”) Even worse, combine superficial expressions of love with an abusive nightmare. (“Oh, there there, sweetheart. I know the welts hurt a lot. I bet they wouldn’t be so bad if you didn’t make Mommy so angry, honey. I love you so much, especially when you remember never to talk.”)

It’s important to avoid the forbidden punishments if only to avoid betraying the spirit of LOVE and Logic. Abuse is never loving or logical. Actively working on creative reinforcements for good behavior and against bad behavior, expressed with consistent love, is a good way to raise healthy, confident kids (and satisfy the social workers too).

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How the twins acquire and digest pain differently:

The same day as Zella’s face trauma and Tirza’s doctor’s appointment for her wrist, Tirza tumbled off the concrete front porch stairs — not down but rather off the side.  The familiar cracking thud of a human child’s bone meeting concrete tipped us off that this might be a big deal.  Visual inspection indicated no bruises or swelling or compound fractures.

That night we had baby sitters so we could attend a class on foster care adoption.  (You have to stay current with your training while you’re fostering.)  When we returned the sitters said Tirza had been very quiet and still all night, keeping to herself, whimpering and favoring her left arm.  We quickly mobilized everyone else to bed and examined the arm.  No shoulder or collarbone pain or irregularity.  No bruising but she screamed when we bent it and when we straightened it.  We tried rotating it from hand-shake position to palm-up begging.  We tried bending it in a bicep-curl.  We compared her two elbows and thought we could discern swelling in the painful one.  No good.

We called the doctor’s after-hours number.  They said a nurse would call back soon.  Soon meant an hour later.  Tirza had fallen asleep on mommy’s chest on the living room couch.  After hearing the symptoms, especially how much she was favoring the arm and the possibility of swelling, they told us to bring her in to an emergency room — because they were open all night, not out of deadly emergency.  We expected a fracture or a sprain.

Nurse-maid’s elbow!  Tug a child’s arm too quickly or forcefully and the elbow can dislocate.  It may have had nothing to do with her concrete stairs tumble.  How does the doctor fix it?  He doesn’t.  It’s already fixed.  While examining her, Christa and I had accidentally popped it back into socket!  The palm-up bicep curl was the trick.  So we get to pay a doctor for doing nothing but double-checking our ignorantly lucky home medicine.

And Tirza got to spend an hour of sleepy one-on-one mommy attention. (It fit well with our class on foster care adoption issues.)

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How the twins acquire and digest pain differently:

Tirza is a wild acrobat.  She is also tough as leather.  That toughness is probably a built-in component of her recklessness but also a consequence of it.  When you climb everything all the time, you fall often and get tougher.

Zella is a slow eater.  She’s the neat one.  When the other three girls are running around hooting and hollering and starting bonfires in their bedroom, she’s usually in a corner or another room with a book, mumbling to herself.  She doesn’t really play with toys; she meticulously sorts and re-sorts them, smallest first.  She’s the one I’m terrified of inoculating — I’m sure she’s going to be the one in ten millionth child who gets enough mercury from the shot to go totally autistic.

Tirza cries all the time because she is never less than one step over the edge, earning exotic injuries.  Zella cries all the time for who-knows-why.  She cries because something invisible hurt her feelings.  She cries because she can’t get a small toy to do something physically impossible like pass through an even smaller toy doorway.  She cries when she sees trees.  She throws fits if she doesn’t feel like she has enough space.  She was the first one to notice that our small bathtub is finally too small for all four growing girls.  Summary:  Agoraphobic, claustrophobic, obsessive-compulsive autism-risk.

Did I mention they both cry all the time?  All of them do.  Tirza and Lana are the only ones we can understand when they cry:  Lana because she can talk, Tirza because she has obviously just pulled something heavy over onto herself or jumped off the top stair without a plan.

The nonstop crying is a problem:  When is a scream actually important?  Christa and I have a policy to never ignore crying … unless all remedies have been exhausted without success due to the child’s total commitment to sorrow.  Zella started crying yesterday.  Rather than run to her, I told her to come to me for comfort.  She collapsed in a ball, face down in the neighbor’s yard.  “What a fit”, I thought.

When Christa went to scoop her up, Zella cried harder, kicking her legs and flailing her arms which means “don’t touch me” in body language.  Christa persisted and held her tighter.  No longer face down in lawn, she was available for closer inspection.  A knot the size of a walnut was growing on her forehead and her left eye socket was swelling and raw from road-rash.  This was no fit:  She was hurt.  Really, legitimately hurt.  I would cry if I rode my face down the neighbor’s driveway.

We spent the rest of the night re-evaluating our policy of raising Sarah-Conner-tough girls.

Tirza has a horribly deformed wrist. There is a bump above and between the usual two wrist bones. I first noticed it six months ago after she plummeted from the top of the bunk beds (she scaled them without help, approval or even a ladder). I worried that she had broken her wrist or at least dislocated one of those small wrist bones. She demonstrated no pain from it when we cradled it and tried to move her wrist. This total lack of pain is all that kept us from rushing her to the hospital. She already had a regular doctor’s appointment coming up.

Based on her usual tank-like disposition, we were a little worried that it was a horrible fracture but she was subduing the pain with super powers. The doctor said nobody is that tough; we could schedule an X-ray to be sure. Scheduling non-urgent medical procedures takes about six months for our family these days. Meanwhile, the bump had grown.

The X-rays disproved the super power theory. (I knew we should have tried gamma rays instead.) The bump was not bone. That means it’s a growth or a cyst. There’s some small chance it’s a precocious tumor. A more common wrist problem involves joint fluid leaking into a pocket of nearby connective tissue and just accumulating into its own little squatter residence, “joint juice shanty town”.

At first this news convinced me she has cancer. I started paying a lot more attention to her when I was certain she would die in a few months. Shouldn’t we treat all our kids like this everyday? We’ll have to wait and see a pediatric orthopedic specialist to find out just how long she has left.

I mentioned the horrible deformity to a friend of mine who replied casually, “Oh yeah, my cousin has that.” His adult cousin has a wrist bump that grows slowly. The doctor says it’s nothing but joint juice and the best remedy is to wait until it accumulates for a while and then slam it hard enough to burst the bubble (with a hammer? car door?). The body will absorb the fluid once it escapes its pocket of safety.

So thank God for people lucky enough to have the same bizarre maladies as my wild-living toddlers. Maybe Tirza will live.

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Childcare and catered dinner at a handsome venue?  It almost seemed like a date night.

We adopted through Adams County, Colorado.  We are still foster parents with them, waiting to see what happens with baby Judah.  Every year, Adams County treats their foster parents to a treat:  Dinner, entertainment, prizes but most importantly, childcare.

A photo of Brad in the middle of a card trick.Entertainment of the evening was local Denver comedian Brad Montgomery, an energetic maniac who interrupts his own introduction and waxed ticklish on the merits of humor and happiness.  During his talk, a woman in the audience stood to leave, requiring the restroom.  Despite her efforts to be politely discreet, Brad asked her to leave before it was clear to the rest of the audience that she was already leaving.  When she returned, he insisted we give her a standing ovation.

A recent foster parent himself, his jokes and real-life application lasted the long drive home.A flattering photo of Brad  (He advocates leaving your coffee on top of your car with a powerful magnet to see how many ways people will try to signal you, for example.)

The chicken and potatoes were incredible.  Nobody left empty-handed.  Even if the multiple-prize raffle missed you, you probably ended up with a door prize and the flower-pot from your table.

Food and all-important childcare aside, the most impressive aspect of the evening was being in a room with hundreds of fellow foster parents.  Some of them take severely handicapped and medically challenging children.  One couple had fostered over two hundred children.  One woman had fostered over one hundred teenage girls.  Teenage girls!  (Not all at once.)  When we asked the woman at our table if she was a foster parent, she said she had been until tonight.  After six years, her 18-year-old foster son ran away from home with his girlfriend.

Hard.  Lots of hard, crazy people with amazing stories.  Makes us feel modest.  So here’s to foster parents everywhere, whether it’s one or two hundred or recently zero:  We salute you.

Lana, the oldest, is standing in her room yelling, “Mommy, you need to take care of me.”  She screams it again every few seconds between sighing sobs.  She’s in her room because she is in trouble and unwelcome to rejoin the fun in the kitchen until she calms down.

Sometimes high-density families are hard to live in.  In most families, children are separated by two, three years or more.  That means one child has at least two years by themselves to be the baby.

I was oldest of three boys.  My parents and grandparents remember the crisis in my little life when I was deposed from my throne at the age of three.

Lana was deposed at age one and a half.  Ada was replaced when she was eleven months — by twins.  Put another way, Zella’s short reign was subverted eleven days after it began.  Tirza was 14 months old before we heard that Judah existed and was a possible entry to our family.  Two days later he was with us daily.

Maybe it’s hard to grow out of babyhood at 18 or 14 or 11 months.  Twins are a special case.  They are usually separated by hours, not days, but that’s too short to really build up a sense of memorable entitlement to exclusive babying attention.  They have to wait until yet another baby arrives to feel deposed together.

So this crazy experiment of ours is to see if we can make sure everyone gets taken care of without the exclusive privilege of being mommy’s little baby for more than a dozen months or so.  Meanwhile, who’s supposed to take care of Mommy?  (Anyone take care of Daddy?)

Who says you’re limited to your own babies?

Speed Bump