Tuesday, February 27, 2018

Day in the life: 5 kids (+ foster care)

The girls are gone. I'm not ready to talk about that. 

So instead, let's talk about what it was like when they were here. As it turns out, managing all of the sheer madness logistics of having five kids doesn't afford a lot of time to document the utter chaos details of having five kids. So now the relative calm of just three kids allows me a little margin to reflect on what it actually took to do all of that and only almost die trying. I've done several of these posts in the past, and I love being able to look back on different stages of our life. We've gone from no kids to five, from two jobs, to one, back to two, from Pittsburgh to Columbus...so many different phases, so many different routines.

Maybe this is helpful to someone else wondering what's like to manage a big family and/or foster care. Or maybe it's encouraging to see the detailed struggle, to know you're not alone. But most likely this is mostly for me...to look back on someday to remember yes...we actual did that. In some ways our four months (to the day) with the girls felt like a lifetime, and in other ways it barely registers at all anymore, feeling more like a dream that we're just coming out of. I don't know if our day-to-day will ever look the same as it did from this past season, but it's worth it to me to write it down; to make it a real thing, to be grateful for, and proud of. Because we certainly don't have it all figured out, but we survived, and sometimes maybe even a little bit thrived, and that's something, after all.

(And fair warning- because this is mostly for me...it is loonnnnnnnnngggggg. It's entirely excessive, but I honestly love looking back at these types of posts and being able to immerse myself in the minutia of what life looked like at the time. It's a time-capsule of words, and I'm always pleasantly surprised at how the little things that were just a part of our normal end up being unique markers of a full life.)

5ish- This time is an estimate, because I genuinely don't have a clue what happens at this time of day, but I'm pretty sure this is about the time Dustin gets up to go work out. Wellllll this is about the time Dustin used to get up to work out. And then we had five kids. And sleep became necessary and precious, and often hard to come by. For the most part, we have really great sleepers, but they are still kids, so they're not without their quirks and struggles. So...right now, outside of random wake ups, re-tucking in, night-terror calming (we get around 1-2 of these type of events per night) not much happens at five AM. Which is fine with me, but kind of sad for Dustin (he really misses his gym routine...just not quite enough to pry himself out of bed in total darkness, or risk leaving me with five potential early risers on my own). 

6:30- Piper and Fin wake up. I realllllly want them to make it until 7. But alas...they're not having it. Sometimes they stir around 6:45, but more often than not, they're in our faces (literally, because they're about the height of our bed) at 6:15 asking if it's time to get up. I pry half an eyeball open, and mumble "HECK NO, you beasts." which must sound a lot like "I don't care, just go watch TV", because off they trot. They've learned to operate Netflix on their own, so they're happy to pack in as many pre-breakfast shows as possible. And I'm happy to go back to sleep while Dustin showers. (If it's closer to 6am I usually tell them to go back to bed, which they again misconstrue to mean MY bed, so I suffer roly-poly companions until I can't take it anymore and then send them down play on their tablets). 

7/7:15- Dustin finishes getting ready, and heads downstairs to get breakfast going. I finally get up (after stalling as long as possible checking all the crucial apps on my phone...I mean, I need to know the weather and keep my Timehop streak alive!) and jump in the shower. The wake time for the other girls is a bit of a crap shoot. Sometimes the little one is squawking (actually- just yelling "NO! NO!" because it's her best/only word) minutes after I send Piper/Fin downstairs, and sometimes I have to pry both her and her sister out of slumber. If it's an early day, the little one perches on the bathroom counter while I finish getting ready, while the big one joins the other girls in TV town. After my shower and hair, (to save time/effort, I only wash my hair every other day- a little dry shampoo and a run through with the straightening iron makes me mildly presentable). I pick out clothes, which typically means reusing an outfit from the previous day, if I'm not going to see the same group of folks. The thought of seven unique outfits a week makes me want to climb back in bed, so I aim for around four winners a week that I rotate strategically for minimal "audience overlap". Also- having foster children might not come with actual baby-weight, and yet...sigh. Turns out constant stress, and constant snacking leads to constant flushy-pushiness, so my goal in outfitting myself has been lowered to choosing things that won't inspire my foster-daughter to ask if I'm pregnant. I mostly wear a lot of scarves and jewelry to distract from anything I'm not loving- a.k.a.: my fashion/body image strategy since around 2011.

7:30/45- I get Miller up. He probably wakes up sometime after 7, but he loves to laze in his crib (sweet, smart boy) so I don't rush to get him until I'm ready. I carry the little kids downstairs (one of my favorite bits of having "twins". They're so sweet to each other in the morning- whichever one is up first loves to go greet the other one and start their day together). We get everyone settled at the table for breakfast- typically serving up some mix of sugar-laden carbs (pancakes, donuts, oatmeal, cereal...), eggs, and fruit. While they eat/spill milk everywhere, Dustin focuses on making/cleaning up food, unloading/reloading the dishwasher, while I finish packing lunches for 1-3 girls, depending on the day, plus the 2 grown ups. (Thank heavens for daycare-provided lunches for the littles. Two more PB&J's might put me over the edge). Keeping track of the weekly tally of who only likes pizza goldfish, who won't touch a veggie straw, and who needs their cheese cut into circles NOT squares, is an exercise in futility, so I do my best and tell them if they don't like it, they can offer to trade food with someone who loves them more than me. (I kid. I only think that). They all get a handwritten note with a sticker and a pun they don't understand, because that's what I love about parenting, so I put some effort towards my own joy too. 
8- The girls can get themselves dressed, some just require more prodding than others. I lay all of their clothes out the night before (including uniforms for the big girls) so it's supposed to be easy. But inevitably someone (Fin) doesn't like my choices (or even more maddening, no longer likes her own choices) so we have to endure tears and last minute swaps. I also always get their socks mixed up, which is a grave injustice in their minds, so I spend a few minutes repeating my "I WILL NOT ARGUE OVER SOCKS" mantra each morning, hoping it may sink in some day. Miller requires a full-on chase and pin-down routine to get in his clothes, while our littlest girl happily sheds her jammies and lets me wedge her belly into the accidental crop-top dujour. I do ponies for the foster girls, and sometimes convince Piper to let me brush her mop (Fin is on her own. #curlyhairproblems). In a perfect world, I'd like all of my kids to be presentable, but in all honesty these days I prioritize the foster girls. There is such a stigma with how kids in care look (as a reflection of how well they're cared for) so I hate the idea of them looking like ragamuffins- even if that's a sign of them being completely typical kids.
At this point it's time for me to yell "GET YOUR SHOES ON" twenty-seven times to everyone, and no one at all. While they're busy forgetting what footwear is, I'm also getting the girls' school needs in order: backpack, homework folder, lunch, coat, extra boots for the playground, extra pants in case of an accident, hat, gloves, waterbottle, snack, library books, special projects, permission slips, tuition checks...The works. I check our dry erase calendar to make sure I haven't missed something crucial. With five kids, two schools, and three different schedules (based on the day), it can get a little hard to keep track of who needs to go where. If it's a Tuesday or a Thursday, Piper and Fin don't have school, so the routine is slightly more relaxed. My mom comes to watch them at 8, and helps with the wrangling and sock-donning. If it's a Monday, we have a little bit more time to dilly dally, because I work from home and can drop them off right at school.

8:15- I ask everyone (again) to GET THEIR BLESSED SHOES ON, WHY IS THAT SO HARD?! While throwing in a quick load of laundry (to run while we're gone), or finishing loading the dishwasher. Everyone scrambles to find their very most favorite toy that they absolutely have to have to occupy them for the 3 minute drive to school, and we're (finally) ready to roll. Dustin and I do a quick "who's driving who in what?" caucus, and load everything up accordingly (trying very hard not to forget something crucial like my laptop, or can of Coke Zero). No day is typical- but more often than not, the littlest is crying because she hates getting in the carseat, Miller is screaming because he wants the other parent to drive (no matter who it is that day), Fin and our bigger girl are arguing over who's turn it is to get in first, and also YOU ARE TOUCHING ME AND LOOKING AT ME AND MOMMMMY MAKE HER STOOOOOOOP, and Piper is getting in the backseat, quietly buckling herself, because she is my favorite. Between screaming fits, Miller will now demand to listen to "Yeah Yeah Yeah", because he's whatever comes after a millenial, which means he only knows a world in which the car stereo operates directly off of his emphatic whims (In my day, we had to listen to local radio commercials, and we LIKED it!).

8:30- If it's a Tuesday/Thursday, my mom drops our foster daughter off at school and hangs with the other girls for the day, so we only have to do one dropoff. But M/W/F one of us drops the girls off at school, while the other does the daycare dropoff. The girls don't love going to before/after care, (school doesn't start until 9, so they go to a "wraparound" type program for a bit) but they usually settle in without a complete meltdown. Miller does the dropoff with ease most of the time, but our little girl hates it. She always settles within minutes, and loves her day there, but the transition is understandably hard for her. 
Because of all of the logistics, Dustin and I don't carpool much. Most days it's impossible to get through the AM and the dropoffs and still make it to work on time, but on Tuesdays/Thursdays, we tend to drive separate so that one of us can be sure to leave on time for pickup (in case one of us has later meetings). Plus it's become almost customary that someone, somehow is sick or has an issue of some kind each week, so having two cars gives us a little more flexibility to react to emergencies. The commute downtown is around 30-40 minutes, so we aim to be in by 9, but we're thankful for an office culture that understands the idea of a "buffer".

9- Work: meetings, email, more meetings, more email, and the occassional water cooler convo. (Except at our office the water cooler is actually a keg. #agencylife). I'm super-fortunate to be able to work from home one day a week, so Mondays I just call into all my meetings, and connect with coworkers via instant message or Slack. This has been my norm since having Miller- and it's been like a safety-valve for our lives- just one day a week where things are slighly less likely to topple. All the kids still go to school (for me, working from home with kids around is really just doing two things poorly), but it saves me commute time, and allows me to knock out little tasks like switching a quick load of laundry here and there. I honestly kind of hate working from home (I crave human interaction, and don't love being surrounded by house projects silently begging for attention when I'm trying to focus on work) but I'm thankful for the flexibility all the same. Plus, now that we have foster kids, this WFH day has become a necessity in order to make their visitation schedule work (more on that in a bit).

Noon- We both pack our lunches, and nearly always eat at our desks or during a meeting. Occassionally we take advantage of a little time together (perk of a shared office!) but romantic lunches are pretty few and far between, as we race to get all of our work done within actual working hours (a losing battle most days). 

3:15- The girls all have a few weekday commitments that we coordinate- cheerleading for three of them is one day a week after school, one has counseling one day a week instead of aftercare, and one has speech therapy every other week- either at home or at daycare. Those are mostly on auto-pilot, but sometimes just require a text here and there to make sure everyone is showing up to the right place at the right time. 
4:45- The girls' school runs aftercare until 5:30, which means one of us has to leave by 4:45 in order to get them on time. They're almost always the last to be picked up, so I hate being any later than I have to...while simultaneously lamenting that 5:30 isn't really late by any normal working-parent standards. It's probably the hallmark of a private school serving mostly stay-at-home parent households, but it's still really frustrating to feel like we have to let one group of people down every day just to make things work (cut out of work early, or be that mom screetching into the parking lot trying to beat the clock). Fortunately our jobs have been really understanding. The exact times of our arrival and departure are less important than our actual productivity. We work really hard to make sure we're available to our teams, even if we're can't be physically present for every moment (text, IM, email etc. make that doable), and we'll put in extra time where we can to ensure everything is completed. I'll often take my final call of the day from the car, or one of us will hole up in the bedroom finishing a meeting while the other wrangles and gets dinner going. The flexibility and understanding of our employer, not just of foster care but of being a working parent in general has been crucial in making our life work. Yes, it's a system that leaves me feeling pushed to the brink every day, but their commitment to work-life balance means it is doable, and I'm immensely grateful.  

5:30/45- Pick up the kids. My mom handles pickup of our foster daughter on T/TH, so that again saves us one step. And daycare is open until 6 so that gives us a little more leeway (/room for traffic to ruin our evening). The little kids are usually in a great mood, happy to grab a snack from the bowls on their way out, and jabber on the way home (Miller, every day: "I had fun wif my friends! I play Yegos!") The girls are typically pretty exhausted. School (+ before and aftercare) is a long day for them, so by this point they are wiped. The morning is characterized by packing up everything they own and begging them to cooperate; the evening is unpacking even more things and stepping over them as they have literal meltdowns on the kitchen floor over being asked to hang up their coat. (I caaaaaaan't...my legs aren't woooooooorking.) We have a picture checklist to help remind them what needs to be done, and we try to give rewards for participation, but most days it's still just one more task when their already at the brink. I simultaneously don't blame them and completely loath it.

6:00- Dinnertime! This is pure survival at this point. There is food on the table every single night, and outside of that, I make no promises. Gourmet is of course out of the question- we aim for a least marginally palatable, and slightly nutritious- but prioritize easy and kid-friendly above most else. It's impossible to please the tastes of seven people, and I'm not entertaining different menus, so I try to make something at least most of us will like. We teach them all when you're part of a big family you're not always going to get your fav meal; Humor me with a couple of bites of vegetables and some protein and you can fill up on popcorn later
With time being of the essence and moods being questionable, typcially we don't even try to cook dinner in the evening. We make things in advance late at night or over the weekend so that all we have to do each day is reheat. We've been incredibly blessed with friends and family offering to make us meals, so usually once a week we have something that someone else has prepped for us. We try to make things in bulk too, so we can have one dinner last two days, or at least get us an extra lunch or two.
The kids "help" set the table (argue over who gets which fork, and demand to carry their own plate), we pour alllllll the milk (following very elaborate child-created rules regarding character cups and lid colors) and we all sit together at the table. They all yell and flail their arms to be the first to pray, which misses the point almost entirely, so we typically sing "God our Father" at least three times to appease them all. Sometimes one or two of them will offer a unique prayer (Cliff's notes: "God, thank you for our milk cups, and for my pony dart toy, and for my sister, but not all of them because sometimes they are annoying to me. Please, can we have Christmas every day? Amen."). We all talk about our day, while Dustin and I incessantly enforce various manners-guidelines (roll up your sleeves, put your napkin in your lap, say "please, mama", don't interupt each other, do you have to make that noise when you chew?) All of us participate in endless choruses of USE YOUR FORK! to the littlest monster. They all know the rule that you don't ask for seconds of anything until you've eaten the rest of the things on your plate (knowing the rule and following the rule are slightly different...but...). If they refuse to eat (rare...but it happens) we save their plate, and they get another shot at that same food later when they're hungry. One out of five meals ends with at least one kid sitting on the stairs for a time-out due to wild behavior (or just epic stubbornness), but for the most part it's an actual enjoyable time to spend time together...if you ignore the mess. 
Mondays are wildly different because of visitation with the girls' bio family. We have to be there at 6, so I pick everyone up from school earlier than normal, and give them a quick dinner so one of us can get back out the door by 5:15. Our bios usually keep eating, while one of us gets the girls ready for visit (a change of clothes is typically required just to shed the mess of the day, and in any case, it's important to me that they look cute/nice for their visit. It matters to me far more than anyone else, so it's definitely an inconvenience of my own doing, but I just really want their parents to know that they're well taken care of. And honestly, visitation comes with all kinds of emotions...for me, for the parents, and for the kids...it can be awkward, emotional, and even just a hassle. So if putting them in matching outfits can up the fun factor, and make an event out of something less than ideal, then I'm doing it.

6:30- The evening routine varies a lot by day. Tuesdays we have small group with our church, so we jammie everyone and pack 'em up to get to bible study for an hour or so. Thursdays we have family dinner, so we head to my mom's right after work/pickup, and enjoy messing up someone else's house for a change.
Evenings when we're home, the kids get to play (/tear the house apart) while we do all of the evening chores. They can almost be trusted to play on their own for a few minutes...they have to be in the playroom/living room so we can see and hear them, and we've recently locked the cabinets so they can only dump out around half of their toys at any given time. The little kids usually play in their pretend kitchen, flip through books, or race their baby strollers around the house in a fast and dangerous loop. The big girls typically make up some complicated scenario involving Barbies and Beanie Boos, which starts out promising and devolves into arguing nearly immediately. Our littlest lady likes to be held all the time, so pretty much from the minute we get home, we're holding her, or explaining why we can't right now. We make it around 5 minutes at a time without someone getting in trouble for hitting, taking a toy, doing something mean, or breaking some other rule. So we intermittently discipline and break up fights, while also trying to tackle the to-do list. Sometimes one of us will play while the other cleans up, and starts on the next days' lunches and dinners, sometimes we'll both skip the chores and just hang out, but we have to at least get dinner cleaned up immediately or we end up with an even bigger mess on our hands. There are about 10,000 things that need to be done to make the next day a success, but we also have limited time with our kids, so it's a struggle to know what matters more. We try to make the most of our time together, but it's really daunting to leave all the prep to the post-bedtime hours, so it usually ends up being a mix of fun and work. They do all like to cook, so often we can get them involved in chores so we can kill two birds with one stone. (fun game: everyone dig through the mountain of laundry for your own clothes!) Thankfully none of our kids really have homework, so we really just have to make time for weekly reading and a special project here and there (honestly...still kind of a struggle). There aren't really words for the chaos that is bathtime, so we limit that to pretty much one weekday, and one weekend. (I could do a full post on the logistics that are required to pull that off- I swear I won't though- but it's mostly just a lot of dividing and conquering, "don't stand up/drink the water/open that door/pour that on your sister" reminding, spill cleaning, naked-kid chasing and diaper/jammie/hair detangler assembly-line running). If we're especially fried we'll allow a show or a portion of a movie, but we try to save those for the weekends (and the wee-hours of the morning, obviously).
If it's visitation night, one of us (usually Dustin) is with the bio kids doing that same routine, while the other (usually me) heads down to the county office for an hour. I sit in the lobby and wait while they visit, usually catching up on work or (more likely) social media.

7:30- We start to prep for bedtime. (On visit day we get home around 7:45). We encourage them to help clean up their toys- it's a bit of a losing battle, but the con of having a playroom in the main part of the house is that it can't be a pig-sty. We assign jobs in order to decrease the arguing ever so slightly, and have each kid put away one category of toys (you get puzzles, you do baby dolls etc.). Then we get jammies on, and brush teeth. We try to take kids upstairs in shifts because five of them in the bathroom is at best a mistake, and at worst a disaster. Only about one of them can be trusted with toothpaste, so we supervise the full operation. If everyone cooperates, we settle in for books. They all love reading so it's a great wind-down activity, and a motivator to keep them on track through their nightly tasks. We usually allow one book per kid- because they all want to listen to all of them it takes a while to get through them...sometimes we'll split up and do a few books for the little kids and a few for the big kids, but mostly they like being in one big pile (well- except if someone is sitting in their spot/hogging my lap/touching them. Then they hate it. But also refuse to split up).

8:00- Bedtime. The little kids go first, while we wrap up books with the others. The littlest one hates going to bed, and can't be reasoned with, so regardless of the amount of snuggles/songs we provide, it's still a solid few (10?) minutes of screaming once she's in her crib. Miller usually toddles off without a problem, but has been getting more difficult recently (he seems to just now be learning that bedtime means funtime is over). Then we tuck in the big girls...they all share a room, so they tend to think of it as a slumber party every night, which can (obviously) be a problem. They giggle and goof around for as long as they can get away with and we give reminders about the rules (no talking, stay in bed, go to sleep), and pray we only have to go in three times to tell them to knock it off. (We eventually threaten that they won't get shows in the morning, hoping they don't take advantage because then we'll have more early morning companions than we might prefer).

8:30- Herrrrrrre we go. If the saying is: "success is 90% preparation and only 10% perspiration", I'd say the key to even marginal success with this many littles, and our current schedule, is 90% preparation and also 90% exasperation (ok, maybe that last part isn't required...but it's definitely there). Dustin and I get to work on anything necessary for the next day. He usually packs lunches, makes dinner, and/or does a grocery store run. I lay out clothes, pick out the next day's jammies, get all the school folders unpacked/repacked, fold laundry, and tidy up in general. It's hard to identify the most exhausting portion of the day, but this has to be up there...knowing you have an hour of this type of work every night after a day of actual work can be demoralizing. It often feels like we're running on a treadmill just to survive. Sometimes we rebel and bail on these responsibilities...choosing to just "figure it out later"...which inevitably ends in regret, and a bigger sh*t-show than usual (which is really saying something).

9:30- We're FREEEEEEE! The world/night is our oyster! Let's catch up on a bunch of unread work-email with old episodes of The Office on Netflix on in the background! Maybe we'll even drink a lite beer! We are grown ups and this is OUR TIME TO SHINE + COLLAPSE IN A PILE OF EXHAUSTION/OVERWHELMING SELF-DOUBT ABOUT OUR LIFE CHOICES!
So, um, yeah, basically this is our only window of the day to do anything not for someone else (assuming we don't have more work to do. which is kind of a big assumption). This is hobby time, personal time, connect-with-each-other time...And (very, very) typically it turns into we're-so-tired-from-doing-things-that-all-we-can-manage-is-mindless-instagram-scrolling time. I hate that. And also need it. And sometimes...it's just all I can manage, like it or not. We each have a few projects (blogging, guitar, etc.) that we try to devote a little time to when we can, but most often we look at each other around 10 and say: "wanna watch a show?" One of us will get out some snacks (as implicit permission for the other to get out some more snacks) and we'll flip on something midly-intriguing from our DVR queue. Sometimes we'll get into a lengthy discussion about how we're monumentally screwing everyone up, and assuredly doing everything wrong. And sometimes we'll pretend we're not drowning in weary worry. Sometimes we make snarky comments at the TV because those people have some real problems.

11-Bedtime for Dustin. I either go up with him, or put on another show knowing full well I will fall asleep a few minutes in. He is a wise and responsible grown-up, who goes to sleep promptly in order to give his best to his family the next day. I am a self-destructive child who bathes in different forms of media consumption and distraction to feed an endless need for stimulation, connection, and validation.

12:15- Zzzzzzzzz
Whew. That is a lot. And yet it's no where near everything. It's obviously not every second, or minute, or even hour of details, but it's also still not representative of the full picture. Because nothing ever could be. There is a ton I'm intentionally leaving out, because it's private, or sensitive, or maybe even just beyond boring. But there is also likely a lot I'm unintentionally leaving out, because it's hard to capture the magic behind the monotony....

...The way their chubby fingers reach over their crib rails in the early morning light- silently asking you to scoop them up...
...The belly laughs they inspire with their mispronunciations of McDonald's (BaDonal's) and inability to differentiate between Thanksgiving and Valentine's Day, no matter how many times we review it...
...The light in their eyes when they recognize a word in their new, "super-duper-hard" book...
...The constant counting down to "mommy daddy days" because they fully and genuinely want to be with us...
...The times when I caught sight of them holding each other's hands when they didn't know I was watching...

I could never ever do those pieces justice. But my hope is that those flashes of delight will be saved in my heart, and somehow the retelling of what we did every day will someday jog my memory and I'll recall how it all felt. Every terrible, awesome, overwhelming bit of it.  
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