Archive for the 'parenting' Category

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Birth Mothers, Adoption, and Art: An interview with Ann & Amanda Angel

Birth mothers are often the forgotten or ignored part of the adoption triad.  Silent Embrace: Perspectives on Birth and Adoption is a collection of personal stories by birth mothers, adoptive mothers, and adoptees. The stories cover a range of topics about adoption, open adoption, birth parent connections, and unification with children after closed adoption, focusing on the relationship with birth mothers. Here, editor of Fertile Source Jessica Powers talks to mother-daughter duo Ann & Amanda Angel, the book’s editors. Ann Angel is an adoptive mother of four. Amanda is an adoptee and also a birth mother. She placed her daughter in an open adoption in 2000.

1. Tell me a little bit about the impetus behind this book. Why did you decide to do it? Why do you think it’s important and what do you hope it achieves?

AMANDA: A few years ago, I was preparing to visit my birth daughter. Previous to that, I had been exchanging letters and pictures, so this was going to be a new experience. She was seven years old and full of questions, according to her mom. So, I wanted to see what resources were out there for birth mothers to help them prepare for such events. As I scoured the internet and library, I realized there was a real deficit of materials for birth mothers. I wanted to know what I could say, could I hug her, how do I answer questions appropriately, was I feeling the way most birth mothers feel in this situation; none of the materials out there even touched upon the birth mother’s perspective. So, I went forward with no rules in place, mentioning to my mom along the way that birth mothers need help too. They need a voice and to be recognized for the experiences they encounter as a birth mother. And from there, the seed had been planted.

ANN: When Amanda mentioned that a book of essays for birth parents would help start the conversation on how to open adoptions in healthy ways, I mentioned that I’d just completed an essay for Catalyst Book Press for a collection of birth stories. This seemed like the ideal press to play an activist role. I also thought the book could help birth mothers connect with adoptive parents because it seems emotionally healthier and more connected in open adoptions if the adoptive parents are supportive enough to step up and be part of the relationships.

2. What was it like working with birth mothers, adoptive mothers, and adoptees to produce a book like this? How did you balance artistic talent with unique voices and the importance of the message?

AMANDA:  I thought it was a beautiful discovery of the complexity of the roles in adoption. Each essay had its unique purpose, all of which helped me continue to shape my view of adoption, both as an adoptee and a birth mother. It made me proud to hold the title of birth mother, among the ranks of such amazing women.

ANN: I find myself humbled whenever I hear their stories because these writers spoke of connection and loss, finding one another in ways that sometimes work and sometimes don’t. Some of the stories were so sad and loss-filled they made me cry. Others made me laugh with the joy of connection. I found almost all of the stories were stories of redemption and they lifted my own spirit. I wish we could have included all the stories we received because it is important that we give all the members of adoption the chance to tell their stories.

3. How do you think American society characterizes birth mothers today? How has this perception developed/grown/changed over time and why is it what it is?

AMANDA:  I think our culture, at times, glamorizes adoption, especially when it comes to Hollywood stars adopting. However, I think we still forget that it is a process that involves more than just the adoptive parents and adopted child. The birth parents are often shuffled aside, whether in Hollywood or not, as just a vehicle to the end result. From personal experience, the stigma is still there. In some cases, people assume that if you are a birth mother, there must be something wrong with you if you don’t want to keep your child. In the past, it was difficult to explain that it’s BECAUSE I love my child that I couldn’t keep her. To give your child a healthy, stable environment in which to live, is a bigger gift than to subject them to an unhealthy, chaotic life. I can say, however, that in the last few years, as I’ve started to share my role, I have received more positive reactions than negative ones. My hope is that this book will “pay it forward.” The stories will help others get the word out that this is an act of true love.

ANN: While our culture encourages open adoption to help ease the adoption issues that can hurt adoptees in adult relationships, I think our culture still places a stigma on birth parents. This book helps birth parents share the truth of their individual stories in a way that I hope encourages other birth parents to come forward in ways that will help their adopted children know their origins. 

4. What is it like to make the decision to place a child for adoption? Why do you think pregnant women make that choice, as opposed to abortion or raising the child themselves? What’s at stake for a birth mother (in the whole adoption process)? For the adoptee? For the adoptive parent?

AMANDA: The decision to place my daughter for adoption will forever be one of the hardest, if not the hardest, choice I will ever have faced. I was 22 years old and ready to be a mom; circumstances had a different plan for me. In being an adoptee, I think I was lucky in seeing firsthand how wonderful the results of placing a baby could be. Even though I knew that this was the best option for my child, there were still times I doubted I could cope.
     A lot of ‘what ifs’ creep up over time. I can say that I’ve noticed an increase in what ifs now that I am surrounded by friends my age who have children and I do not. I never doubt my decision as my daughter is healthy, happy, and has amazing parents. However, I do wonder what life would be like if she were with me.
     I can’t answer why women make the choice for adoption. It’s such a personal decision that each situation is different. My best estimation would be that some women find themselves pregnant and know that this precious life they are carrying can bring so much joy and love to people who have tried and were unable to conceive. It’s a realistic and honest outlook-these birth mothers know they are not capable, at that particular time in their life, to care for their child the way in which a stable family could.
     The birth mother deals with the grief and loss that over time subsides but never completely vanishes. This has become more and more evident as more birth mothers come forward with their stories. Women who feel incomplete even though they may go on to have a family of their own. Reputation is another high stake; being a birth mother, especially in an open adoption, can be confusing to outsiders.
      Personally, I know that in the beginning of a few romantic relationships, it has been something I have shared as it is a part of my life and future. I have been told, in fact, that it is a “deal breaker.” When asked why, the responses I’ve received were usually a big sigh and an uncomfortable stumble over “It’s just different” or “It just makes things more complicated.” In addition to my personal life, I worry it may affect my career. I work as a teacher and sometimes fear that if our school community becomes more aware of my situation, some members may not be comfortable having their students in my classroom because of the “pregnancy before marriage” aspect. Although I understand how that could cause some initial trepidation, I also wish people could recognize that I made a decision that afforded my daughter a great amount of opportunity and happiness.
      For the adoptee, I think not having information of their lineage is at risk. Wondering where certain health conditions, mannerisms, or tendencies come from can be hard for adoptees to cope with. At times, there are identity issues that cannot be resolved if there is no relationship with one of the birthparents. 

ANN: From my perspective, the birth mother will go through life with the knowledge that her child is in the world. She might fear letting others know that she has a child she couldn’t take care of. She might fear how the world perceives her. But women become mothers the minute they conceive. Whether a woman aborts a child, places a child for adoption or raises a child either in a marriage or as a single parent, she lives with the knowledge of her motherhood every day of her life. I’m not saying society judges the mother, I’m saying the mother either lives with grief of loss or raises the child-either way, it’s just always with her. 

5. How can birth mothers recover from the loss? How can adoptive mothers play a role in the grieving process?

AMANDA: Time can heal a lot of the grief. Having an open adoption helped me confirm that I had made the best choice possible for my daughter. For those women that do not have an open adoption with their child’s family, support groups could be another way to work through the emotions they may feel. Our hope is that this book will become a resource of sorts for women who need to know they are not alone.

ANN: Adoptive mothers can help birth mothers through the grieving process by sharing information even in a semi-closed adoption. If the adoption has been opened, I think the adoptive parents can serve as a bridge between the birth mothers and adoptees. In my own experience, sharing photos and connecting on occasion is especially important when an adoptee might back off and need time and space to work relationships out. The relationship is extremely complex and all involved need to be patient and sensitive to one another. I also think adoptive mothers can be supportive if they know an adoptee is searching for birth parents. In those cases, when a birth parent refuses contact, the adoptee will need to heal from loss once again. I can’t imagine being in a position where you feel you have to do that alone while an adoptive parent remains unaware. Given that, it’s also important that the adoptive mom provide a safe environment where an adoptee feels he or she can talk about searching.  

6. What role do you think art & literature can play in the grieving process for all members of the adoption triad (since all parties have usually experienced a loss)? What role has this book played in your understanding(s) of birth, adoption, and motherhood?

 AMANDA: Art and Literature offer a different perspective on our stories. As artists, we have a certain idea on how our work will be perceived; however, people’s interpretations vary based on their own personal experiences. Through this book, I’ve realized that I am not alone in my role as  birth mother. There are many women in the world that share a similar experience and have now put their story into words to help others. This book helped me appreciate my relationship with my birth daughter and her parents even more than I already did. I have been so fortunate to know how my decisions impacted their lives in such a positive way. It’s also given me the confidence to become more public with my role as a birth mother, in hopes of helping others.

 ANN: When we share our stories through art and literature, we share ideas and experiences that can lead to healing. These stories can also lead us to open our hearts to nontraditional ideas of family that enrich the lives of all involved. Working on this book has made me realize even more how important it is for me to encourage open expression of loss and grief and joy. It’s taught me how generous birth parents can be and I think it’s made me communicate more openly about adoption with my adult kids and their non-traditional families.  

7. What are the best resources out there for birth mothers, adoptive parents, and adoptees? What resources are there in particular for adoptees and birth mothers going through the reunification process?

 ANN: In most cases, contemporary adoption agencies encourage open adoption for the sake of the adoptee. Many counselors are trained to work with all in the adoption. But I think it’s imperative, if a family member wants to work through adoption issues with a therapist or counselor, that they make sure to seek help from someone experienced or trained in the complexities of adoption, perhaps touched by the experience themselves.   
  There are resources to help families create open adoptions such as Lois Ruskai Melina’s The Open Adoption Experience – A Complete Guide for Adoptive and Birth Families. David Brodzinsky has also written a landmark book, Being Adopted: The Lifelong Search for Self, that discusses the psychological and educational implications of adoption on a child through adulthood. 

  Our book, Silent Embrace, Perspectives on Birth and Adoption, fills a resource need because it addresses the complex emotional responses of all in adoption. I think it would be especially valuable for those who find their adoption records will remain closed. But the book serves all in an adoption triad because the essays reflect such a broad, intensely personal and honest response to the issue of parents and origins in adoption. Each story can help readers consider what a healthy relationship is and how we can navigate that relationship over time. 

Ann Angel is a professor of writing at Mount Mary College in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. The editor of Such a Pretty Face: Short Stories about Beauty (Abrams/Amulet 2007), she is also the author of several biographies for teenagers, including the forthcoming Janis Joplin, Rise Up Singing (Abrams/Amulet 2010). Ann is the adoptive mother of four children, including her daughter Amanda, with whom she edited her most recent collection, Silent Embrace: Perspectives on Birth and Adoption. Please visit her website at

Amanda Angel is an elementary school teacher in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. In 2000, she placed her daughter in an open adoption. Since then, she has become an advocate for both birth mothers and adoption. Although she has written plays including Three Rocking Pigs, a children’s musical produced for Marquette University, Silent Embrace: Perspectives on Birth and Adoption is Amanda’s first book.

Dreaming as the Summers Die

An essay by Terri Elders

“Still she haunts me”-Lewis Carroll

I figured something special might be happening that July morning in l948 when Mama appeared in the bedroom doorway, brandishing her boar-bristled hairbrush in one hand, my not-too-faded red plaid dress in the other.

“Skip the shorts and shirt today,” she said, handing me the dress. “Company’s coming for lunch.”

“Who?” I asked, puzzled. I couldn’t think of anybody important enough to wear my Sunday dress for, but I slipped into it, and stood quietly while Mama tugged the brush through my snarls.

I had just turned eleven. No longer in pigtails, I hadn’t yet mastered pin curls. So I wore my hair shoulder length and loose around my face, with bangs that forever needed trimming. Maybe I’d learn to set it with bobby pins before I started junior high that fall.

I waited for Mama to answer. “It’s Nana,” she finally said. “Nana, and maybe Jean.” I looked up sharply. Jean was my “real” mother, and I hadn’t seen her for years. I glanced across the bedroom at my older sister. Patti and I, just a year apart in age, had been adopted by our “real” father’s sister and her husband in l942, when we were five and six. Patti yawned, and then threw me a wink. Nearly a teen, she was more interested in boys than family gossip.

“Can I go over to Jimmy’s?” I asked, as Mama patted my bangs into place.

“Okay. I’ll send Patti over to get you when they get here. Just don’t get too dirty.”

Jimmy lived three doors down and was my best friend. The two of us would climb a towering maple tree to his roof where we would sit for hours, endlessly arguing. I favored the Brooklyn Dodgers and Doris Day. Jimmy loved the Giants and Peggy Lee. I liked Jack Benny, he Fred Allen. Though we rarely agreed, we relished our debates.

A few days earlier we had perched on the roof to watch the July 4 fireworks from the Los Angeles Coliseum. Some evenings we sat up there for hours with Jimmy’s telescope, searching for UFOs. We even argued about the merits of the planets. I favored Jupiter, he Mars.

I’d be glad to see Nana, Jean’s mother, who always wore sweet gardenia perfume and talked about how she conferred with spirits at her spiritualist church. But I barely remembered Jean. I knew my Daddy Al, of course, Mama’s brother, because he visited from time to time. Jean, though, was just a shadowy background figure, referred to in disapproving whispers. She drank, I’d heard. Or she had mental problems, whatever those might be.

She and Daddy Al had ma Continue reading ‘Dreaming as the Summers Die’

A letter to my beautiful daughter, Ana Lucia

Nonfiction by Gretchen M. Packer

December 13, 2007 

Dear Ana Lucia,

Hi my sweet girl!  It’s been an exceptionally busy day and every ounce of my being is exhausted.  I just changed you, gave you your pacha, sang an off-key lullaby to you and put you down in your crib.  I’m beat.

Still, I am compelled to write because this day was a monumental one in your life.  For that matter, in my life as well.  I want you to read this knowing it was written today, the day I first laid eyes on your birth mom. And the day your birth mom first laid eyes on me, your Mom.  I hope when you read this, many years from now, my words will convey the enormity of today’s events and the undeniable fact that you are much loved, Ana Lu. 

This was the day I met your birth mother.  Wow.  I.  Met. Your. Birth. Mother. Today. 

Ana Lu, I can tell you with absolute confidence that your birth mom loves you more than you will ever be able to imagine.  I saw it.  I saw it in her eyes, read it on her face and felt it in my heart; she loves you immensely.  Love that only a birth mother can know.
I want to start by explaining to you that it’s not typical for the birth mother and adoptive mother to meet.  Typically, the adoptive mother remains in the States while all of this is transpiring.  When you were three months old, I relocated to Guatemala.  I wanted to witness your first roll, the first time you clapped your hands, your first steps. I couldn’t leave you in the orphanage.  I wanted you to know what it felt like to be held while you drank from a bottle so you could feel the warmth of my body next to yours.  I wanted you to hear me sing lullabies to you so you could hear what love sounds like. I wanted to look into your eyes so our hearts could speak to one another.  You are special.  You were not just one of many children in an orphanage.  You have never been forgotten.  You are my baby girl and I needed to be with you.  So one day I was a seemingly normal adoptive parent enjoying pictures of you via the Internet in the safety of my own home.  And the next day I quit my job, packed up my bags, assured your father this was the right thing to do, hugged my friends goodbye and moved to Guatemala.

I moved here about a month ago, to a country thousands of miles away from the familiarity of home, for an undetermined length of time, so I could raise you.  Now I wake up to those delightful little dimples of yours every day. Love that only an adoptive mother can know.

Guatemala is still recovering from a bloody civil war.  It has an astonishingly high crime and murder rate and it is not uncommon to walk down the street and see people carrying guns, being mugged or street fights. Many things here are foreign to me-a country with different laws, a different language, an unfamiliar currency-to name a few.  Before I relocated here, I had never spoken more than 200 words in Spanish.  I had never heard of a Quetzal.  I had never lived without a car.  I had never been the racial minority.  I had never been a mother, much less a single mother.  I was scared when I first moved here.  And the truth is, sometimes I am still scared.  Yet, I will continue to embrace it all to be here with you.  Love that only an adoptive mother can know.

How did your birth mom and I meet?  The Guatemalan government requires any child placed for adoption be brought to a health clinic for mandatory DNA testing.  The clinic performs the test and then takes a picture of the child and birth mother together.  While the health clinic we went to today is nearby where you and I are staying, it is important for you to know that it was not easy for your birth mother to get here.  Here in Guatemala life is much more demanding.  Your birth mom had to take a day off from work, which put her at risk of losing her job.  Bosses frown upon special requests, and this was a special request.  In Guatemala, jobs are scarce and workers are plentiful.  So your birth mother risked losing her job coming to the health clinic today.  Love that only a birth mother can know.

Your birth mom also had to arrange a ride to and from the clinic.  She drove 3 hours from rural Guatemala to the city, waited 2 hours in the clinic, met your adoptive mother and then drove three hours back to her home.  She did all of this for you.  She went through this entire process and consequently heart wrenching experience so that she could place you “officially” for adoption.  So that you could begin your life with your adoptive parents and have all the opportunities living in the United States has to offer.  Love that only a birth mother can know.

Your birth mother and I traveled far for you, Ana Lucia.  And your Papa has as well.  Right now your Papa is living in the States.  He is working to support our family so that I could come to Guatemala to raise you until the adoption paperwork is finalized.  You just saw your Papa for Thanksgiving; he will be back in a few weeks at Christmastime; and then he will visit us every other month for a two-week period for the next four months.  Thanks to modern technology, we can call him via the computer nearly every day; we can see him, and he can see us.  It’s so fun watching him watch you!  He watches in complete awe as you show him your newest trick, rolling from front to back.  And although we are so fortunate to have this technology, I can see in his eyes and hear in the catch of his breath how much it pains him to be separated from us, but it is what has to be for now. 

I digress.  This morning, intimidated and self-conscious about meeting your birth mom, I was comforted by the feel of you nuzzled against me in the Baby Bjorn I was carrying you in.  The health clinic was filled with Latina woman.  Half of the women are birth mothers and the other half are the foster mothers bringing the infants they are fostering to be DNA tested. It’s very rare to have an adoptive mother here at the clinic so mine was the only white face in the crowd.  It was such a great experience for me to sit there, as the minority.  I had to learn to get comfortable with being uncomfortable.  Interesting, huh?  I distinctly remember thinking this is how minorities must feel all the time.  I wonder if this is how you’ll feel as you grow up.  And I wonder if you’ll talk to me about it.  I hope you do. I will do my best to ensure you have Latina role models in your life that you can talk to about such things, but sometimes I worry that may not be enough.

Not being fluent in Spanish sometimes makes things very difficult for me when we go out in public.  I will take Spanish classes once I’m here for another month or so, when I feel more settled.  I plan to speak Spanish to you in the States because it’s really important to me that you grow up bilingual.  But of course that means I have to master it myself first! However, today, there at the clinic, high school Spanish is all I had.  It is what it is, so I spent most of the day nodding and walking in whatever direction someone pointed me. 

I had seen your birth mom in pictures so when she showed up I knew it was her.  She wore a denim skirt with a white top and her hair was pulled back in a scrunchie.  There was a woman alongside your birth mom.  At first glance I thought she was a taxi driver, but after seeing them together it was obvious she knew your mother pretty well.  Having this other woman there was a blessing because she was very outgoing. The woman motioned to your birth mom to sit two chairs down from me and she sat between us.  Your birth mom didn’t make any eye contact with me.

I know your birth mom and her friend were talking about me, but I had no idea what they were saying.  Shortly afterward, her friend turned to me and while gesturing toward your birth mom said, “Ella es pobre.” (She is poor.)  Then she said, “Ella no tiene dinero. Es porque no nena.” (“She does not have any money.  That is why no baby girl.”)  I believe your birth mom had asked her to try and explain to me why she placed you for adoption.

I had you out of the Bjorn and cradled in my arms.  I lifted you upward while looking at your birth mom’s friend in my wordless attempt to ask if your birth mom would like to hold you.  I asked your birth mom’s friend because your birth mom was very shy and was not comfortable making eye contact with me.  Her friend asked but your birth mother declined, looking at her hands.  Perhaps she felt strange holding you in front of me.  I waited a few heavy, awkward minutes, glanced over at your birth mom, and again invited her to hold you.  She declined.  After a few minutes your birth mother looked to her friend and nodded.  She was ready.  So I passed you over to your birth mom’s arms.  At first you fussed, but when she bounced you, you quickly settled and then got cozy in her arms.  Your birth mom looked at you with such intensity, soaking in every aspect of your beautiful face and holding your hand in hers while stroking your little fingers.  That is when you looked your birth mom in the eyes and blessed her with an enormous smile.  Enormous smile!  You are just so beautiful and when you smile, Ana Lu, you light up inside.  That light is contagious to all of us who are fortunate enough to bask in your rays of sunshine.

Your birth mom was visibly comforted.  There was an audible sigh of relief as if it was the first time she breathed since setting foot in the clinic. I saw her soul change.  She was no longer apprehensive or picking at her hands in shameful fretting.  She saw your smile and she was now content. 

She needed you to tell her you love her.  She needed you to tell her you will understand why she placed you for adoption.  Your smile communicated all of that.  And let me tell you, my sweet girl, usually you make us work for your smile.  But today it was as if you knew, as if you knew that your birth mom would have peace in her heart if she could just see you smile.  You’ve always been an “old soul,” Ana Lu.

As you became more comfortable in her arms and she more comfortable holding you, her embrace became tighter and tighter.  I watched as she ran her finger gingerly over the cleft in your chin, your beautiful chin that looks just like hers.  Then she cuddled you into her chest, put her head down and wept.  I watched as your birth mom held you and hugged you one last time.  The pain in her heart ran strong.  It was clear she was savoring these last moments she would see and hold her daughter.  Love that only a birth mother can know.

I felt the pull toward her injured heart.  It was as if an enormous magnet pulled me toward her pain.  I could feel only a part of that pain she was feeling, but was left crippled for hours.  I will never be able to imagine the enormity of the pain she felt today.  Nor the pain she will feel years from now when she knows it’s your birthday and she wonders where you are and what you’re up to.  Just a glimpse of the inherent everlasting pain of a mother placing her child for adoption left me sobbing uncontrollably tonight after we got home.  I cannot begin to imagine the wound left in your birth mother’s heart today after she got home.  Love that only a birth mother can know.

There was a moment when I truly thought I should get up and walk out of the clinic.  I had an overwhelming visceral response to the pain that I sensed among all of the birth mothers in that office.  I felt tremendous guilt for having opportunities that your birth mom and the other birth moms in that room never had.  All because I was born in the United States and they were born in Guatemala.  What an injustice!  I felt dirty and ashamed.  I just don’t understand why we all can’t have the same opportunities.  Ugh.  There I sat in my prim white skirt, black top with matching shoes and you in the Baby Bjorn.  The Bjorn is $120 and while could easily be one months’ pay for many women here in Guatemala.  I had the urge to stand up and convey my respect to this room full of women with tortured, grief-stricken expressions on their faces.  Ana Lu, I wanted more than anything-from a place deep, deep within my soul-to give my sincerest apology to them, to your birth mother, because I am blessed with opportunities.  I thought about running around the room and giving one woman my earrings so she could feed her family for two weeks, giving another woman my sweater so she could feed her family for eight weeks.  I wanted to give away everything.  My necklace, my clothes, my shoes, the baby carrier, anything I had in my pockets until I stood there naked, shedding the skin I felt so dirty in.  The skin that made me feel unworthy of sitting in this room among some of God’s strongest souls.  I wanted to be naked.  I felt I needed to be naked so I could feel an ounce of the vulnerability that I know birth moms feel; the vulnerability as a mother placing her child up for adoption; the vulnerability as a citizen being judged and persecuted by society for the choices she has made; and the intense vulnerability as a woman living in a male dominated culture where it would not be uncommon for them to have to walk this torturous walk again.  I thought if I could give them all that I had, if I bared my body and my soul then maybe they would forgive me for being gifted opportunities that they never knew. 

Maybe if I sent each birth mother in the room enough money to feed, clothe and get medical support for all of the children in that room, maybe I could spread some of the fruitful opportunity I’ve been so fortunate to receive.  Maybe their lives would be different, maybe your birth mom could feel the joy in caring for you that I relish every single day we’re together.  My heart was torn, a primitive response, to a once-in-a-lifetime experience.  My heart ached from the weight of the conflicting moral battle going back and forth in my mind.  I was losing clarity.  I did not know what was right and what was wrong; nor what was destiny and what was irony.  My mind started rapidly cycling through the possibilities, equally rational and irrational.  I want to care for these women and children!  But I don’t have the resources to care for all of these women and children!  But I cannot benefit from such an injustice! But I need to find a way to make things right! But I cannot change the world!  But she’s my daughter and I will not let her go!

And there we have it.

All of my confusion and doubt melted away within seconds as reality pierced my heart like the ease of a hot knife slicing through cool butter. In the end, I cannot change the world.  In the end, you are my daughter and I will not let you go.  Clarity arrived.  As did Destiny.  I whispered repeatedly to myself, “But she’s my daughter and I will not let her go.  But she is my daughter and I will not let her go.”  I reflected on the fact that there are many children in need of loving families and there are many families in need of loving children.  But you-you, Ana Lucia Packer-are my daughter and I will not let you go.  For everyone who wins, someone loses.  And I will have to learn to live with that.  Love that only an adoptive mother can know.

I sulked, sitting silently and cowardly in my chair with my head bowed and tears streaming down my face.  I prayed for strength.  I prayed that the women in that room, especially your birth mom, could feel the tremendous respect in my heart and that they would know that I sat there, humbled by their selflessness and their fortitude.

I prayed to maintain a healthy perspective of you and your birth mom’s future relationship.  I felt many emotions when looking at your birth mom-reverence, gratitude, sorrow, guilt and at times, even jealousy.  I wanted to be her.  I wanted to be your biological mother so that you would know how deeply and truly you are loved.  So that you would never, ever doubt my unconditional love for you.  So that I too would have a chin cleft, beautiful brown skin and speak Spanish fluently.  I fantasized that you were 5 years old and we’d look into the mirror together and I would proudly exclaim, “Mira!  Tienes que de mi!” (“Look!  You got that from me!”).  We’d giggle as we played with one another’s hair and sang songs in Spanish together.  I love you with all of my being and sometimes I just think maybe if you looked more like me you would never ever question my love and devotion.  You would always know that you are my daughter even though when you look at me you see my blue eyes and fair skin staring back at you.  Love that only an adoptive mother can know.

After all the tests were run we took a taxi back to the hotel.  As I sat with you nestled against my chest and kissed your sweet little dark peach-fuzzed head, we were peaceful and content.  I pushed my nose against your head and took a deep breath.  I inhaled your sweet baby smell and giggled.  Then a couple of teardrops fell.  Filled to the brim with gratitude they dropped down upon your little head as I thanked God for choosing me, a completely imperfect person to be your mother.  Love that only an adoptive mother can know.

I noticed out of the corner of my eye that the driver was watching us in the rearview mirror.  When we arrived at the hotel he stopped the car, put his hand on the headrest of the passenger side, turned around and unequivocally declared, “You will be a good mother.” Those six words, from his prophetic heart coupled with his peaceful tone, sent a surge of relief to my core. 

I am sobbing again.  It’s time for me to change into my PJs and call it a day.  I’d like to leave you with one last thought.  Please know, Ana Lu, know that since the day you were born you’ve received love, an unconditional sacrificial love, that some will never, ever know.  You’re cherished, you’re adored, you’re treasured, you’re celebrated.  And my goodness, my sweet Ana Lucia, you are loved. 

Love that only a birth mother and an adoptive mother can know.

Gretchen Packer relocated to Guatemala in November 2007 to raise her adoptive daughter, Ana Lucia. After living together in Guatemala for 13 months, Ana Lucia and Gretchen moved home to the States on December 21st 2008 to join Gretchen’s husband.  Although they miss Guatemala dearly, Ana Lu is happy to be home with her Papa. Gretchen Packer is a Pediatric Nurse and a freelance writer. She lives in Redwood City, California with her husband and daughter.

Bought a Pack of Cigarettes Today

a poem by Nicelle Davis

At this distance, street lamps are reduced to strands of Christmas

lights strung between windows

where televisions are erupting like fireworks from the eyeholes of

track homes. A lit cigarette reflects

as a birthday candle off the surface of my windshield. Fighter jets

pass as the slowest moving stars-their

engines low moans-loud as breath in my ear. A semi-truck passes

as a streak of light chasing flight. Beneath me, red

ants are carrying the body of a black ant to their underground city.

If  I didn’t know hunger, I would think they were leading a funeral


procession-if I didn’t know limitation-I would think the world

was in celebration of loss.  It is


cold. Tonight. Please. Let me clarify.


I’m in an empty lot-next to a suburban neighborhood-alone

leaving you-

that is-three vacancies placed next to a thousand homes. When


I say


“a” cigarette, I mean “mine.”       When I say “my”

windshield, I mean “the car’s.”

There is distinction in ownership.


Guilt belongs to me. You gave me HPV, but I took it willingly-

wanting to believe in the religious alchemy of becoming one

flesh-put on cancer like relief. Impossible. Love. For me. There are

places in the sky untouched by shine. And this is what I focus on.

But must search for these rare absences between structures made

for together. Looking for dark


I catch sight of a couple making love in an upstairs window. The wind

is a torrent; I am wet from its intangible hands on my thighs. We are


done with each other. I recognize. I drove this far out of town to hide

from our son that sometimes I choose cigarettes over tofu and sit-ups.


I understand my mother better at moments like these-know how she

could drag the body of a deer under her car for miles, because she had to

get away and needed all her available concentration to obey the directives

of traffic signals.


Stop. Go. Slow.


I imagine the naked man in the window is being given direction. I have

nowhere to go. Tonight is your turn with our family. Ours is a separate

matter. You tell me I’m leaving too fast. I say,

I can’t think right with the pain of my own teeth at my hands. I need to


stop eating cancer-

need to read books about spiders saving pigs to my son-

need to stop dragging a corpse every time I search for

a place to be. Quiet night. Birds


are sleeping in their twig cages built from the down of other birds. Harvested

from bones. Their chicks blanketed in another’s insulation. I long for


the friendship of morning, to see its red currents seeping through my closed

eyes. To see myself divide. To have my shadow self-

proportioned as a little girl with giant arms reaching for warmth. Again. I wish


to make comrades of variance. Light and shadow never stop touching. Again.

I flip a lucky. Spit the yoke of mucus. Wonder if this leaving will ever end.


 Nicelle Davis lives in Southern California with her son J.J. Her poems are forthcoming in, The New York Quarterly, PANK, Two Review, and others. She’d like to acknowledge her poetry family at the University of California, Riverside and Antelope Valley Community College. She runs a free online poetry workshop at:
Check out Poetry Editor Tania Pryputniewicz’s interview with Nicelle Davis on She Writes as well as earlier work we ran by Nicelle, From What I Understand About Quilting on ectopic pregnancy.



Stars and By a 25 Watt Bulb

Poems by Laurie Burks Klemme


        “Are you sure every who down in who-ville is working?

        Quick! Look through your town! Is there anyone shirking?”

          — Horton in  Horton Hears a Who by Dr. Seuss

 Tall stalks of corn sway a threaded foot

to the darkness, and with or without the headlights

looking them over, a raccoon, opossum, a mouse

in the road survive another uncharted night…


and we are here, even the stars see it,

we are here, lights fallen out of the sky,

off to raise our young, our stories, and

the gods we’ll leave, having passed by briefly,

having been the small creatures behind

the round yellow eyes, having been,

for a moment, a big noise passing…

to be these bright exceptions

to the sky’s prevailing nature,

stars to define the sky’s


unoccupied space between lights. At the first

red flashing stoplight in town… her heart is so full

it could blow open as she asks if he believes, and he

explains the burden of words.


By a 25 Watt Bulb

Lately, my son knows the bunny from the bear,

Curious George, Big Bird and Ernie, the bright

world of chewable, washable rattles that live

along his crib. Even the bars’ shadows intrigue

his little fingers and he never tires of

the bears on beach balls that dance

above his head. And when he’s really

happy, he smiles broadly, coos and kicks

his feet. This morning, I woke up

so happy.    


And there is time still to teach him

about the other world, if he needs to know

flies crawl out the nostrils of other

little boys, that another baby boy on

the thin shoulder of his mother hasn’t grasped

a rattle, been lulled in the warm light of

a 25 watt bulb and a dark shade, gone to sleep

to the even creaking of a wicker rocker. Time

to imagine her heartbeat, that it probably          

sounds the same, keeping time like mine.                        


And there is still time to teach him   

to tell time, to make change, time zones,           

his own name, black and white, election

politics, voting your pocketbook, the virtue in

getting along, buying on sale, and deferring

to the experts. And then, the passion

of one Christ, his one cross, and what he’ll need

to know: grasshopper, lady bug, and fly.


Laurie Burks Klemme lives in Iowa City where she earned an MFA from the Iowa Wriers’ Workshop, has taught approximately 100 writing courses, written poems and essays while no one was looking, and spent the majority of her time raising twins alone. She wants it known that she is in no way sentimental about motherhood. It is simply the most challenging, exhausting, gut-wrenching, and important thing she has ever done. Now that her children are graduating from high school, and moving on, she is excited to be doing more of other things. After 15 years of research, writing, and plenty of avoidance, she is finishing a novel that explores the complexities of illegal immigration, family, and vocation.

Birth Day

by Stephanie Tames


On the Epiphany my father went fishing. It was the day I was born, January 6, the day the Maji reached the Christ child in Bethlehem laden with gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. He drove to the Chesapeake Bay to an area he favored with a rock jetty, carefully picked his way along the sharp-edged rocks until he found one flat enough on one side to make a comfortable seat, and settled his gear and canvas bag into various crevices nearby. It was a bright and windy day, neither too gusty nor too cold, a perfect day for winter fishing for striped bass. The surf pounded against the rocks but it was still low tide when my father arrived so the spray from the plumes of cold salt water did not reach him. He kept a careful watch on the tide and the sea’s slow progress as it covered the rock jetty. He had come close many times to being stranded on the jetty as the tide rose and it was too cold that January day to risk getting soaked by the winter sea.

The story has become a family favorite. Everyone thinks it’s funny: as soon as he was told my birth meant another girl – the third in a row – my father gathered up his fishing gear and took off for the two hour drive to the bay. I guess he thought that since family and friends were watching his two older daughters and son he could take advantage of the time. He loved fishing.

I don’t think my mother thought the story was funny. Whenever it was repeated she would set her jaw tight and her lips would thin into what for my mother was neither smile nor frown but the expression she assumed often and which I imagined meant she was somewhere deep inside her head. She would stare at my father who would be telling this story, acting like he was George Burns on stage before an adoring audience.

I can imagine other families with this story: the father, like mine, guffawing, puffing out his chest as he told how it was just another kid, no big deal, the mother interrupting, telling her side like she was Gracie Allen, how she was screaming with labor pains and told him to get the hell away from her and he took her literally; how he’ll pay for that trip for the rest of his life (audience laughs), how he was really only gone a half-day and was back by evening visiting time to take all the children to see their mother and lovely baby sister with long dark hair.


My mother says that she and my father agreed on two children: a boy and a girl. And it happened. My brother came first, then a few years later, my oldest sister. My mother was happy. But just three months after my sister was born, my mother found herself pregnant again. She was depressed. Her health suffered. So when the baby came she asked but was denied a simple operation to tie her fallopian tubes, to wrap the tubes with thread pulled tight like a present so sperm swimming with speed and purpose can not reach the waiting egg. For my mother, it was the only thing she ever wanted.

She knew then she couldn’t take any chances. And she didn’t. But the diaphragm failed her and so did counting the days when an egg floated inside her and she was pregnant again. My father liked the idea of a big family; it was proof of his virility although he would have preferred that his virility made baby boys instead of girls.

After I was born my mother asked again, she said she begged, but the doctor refused to tie her tubes and two years later my brother was born. Whether it was her pleading that softened her doctor’s heart or my brother’s congenital heart defect, my mother finally left the hospital happy: three gifts, a boy and a knot around each of her tiny tubes.


We wanted to be Joni Mitchell’s Ladies of the Canyon. It was the late ‘60s and early ‘70s and we talked endlessly in a fog of pot about giving up our pampered city lives to live in communes, bake bread, reject the values that made our parents complacent and uninformed. We went to protest rallies, experimented with drugs, and took many lovers to beds on old mattresses thrown on bare wooden floors. We didn’t think about birth control. At least at first. But one friend, then another, got pregnant and we realized we didn’t want to be Ladies of the Canyon just then.

They must have sensed my mother as a kindred spirit, these young women, friends of mine but mostly of my older sisters, who always ended up at our house where my mother would help them not have babies. You had to know how to work the system and you had to have money. My mother had both. All it took was a psychiatrist who would certify that a pregnancy would be detrimental to the mental health of the mother and a doctor willing to perform the procedure. In the city it was easy to find both. It took time, however, and once it was too late. It was my cousin and she had come to live with us the year before. She hadn’t been getting along with her mother, my mother’s sister, but she fit perfectly in our big house and big, loud family, until she got pregnant. The other girls came to our house in their flowing long skirts and layers of beaded necklaces, sat at the kitchen table, and gave my mother all the details. But my cousin waited, withdrew. She didn’t want to tell her story. I don’t know why. Her mother came to take her back to South Carolina where she stayed indoors so the neighhbors wouldn’t know what she had done. There’s an old proverb: “a small town is a vast hell.” The next time we saw her she said she never looked at the baby, that it was wrapped up tight in a white blanket and given to someone waiting nearby, that the nurses gave her pills to dry the milk in her full breasts and sent her home. She didn’t come back to live with us.

My mother and I didn’t talk about whether or not I was having sex, or whether she approved. All she wanted was to make sure I wouldn’t get pregnant. I guess she didn’t trust birth control pills or trust that I would take them. She talked to her doctor and together they decided I should go to the hospital for a procedure and while there the doctor would place a tiny piece of metal shaped like a “t” in my uterus. There was no need for remembering. Pregnancy would never be an issue.

That night, still groggy from the hospital, I had a dream where I opened the front case of the big grandfather clock in the hall of my parents’ house and out tumbled hundreds of chubby naked babies smothering me under their weight.


It’s barely a twinkle in his father’s eye, that’s what the doctor said to me from his seat between my legs. All I could see were eyes: his head was hidden under a white cap pulled low over his forehead. I could see his mouth forming words behind a mask that came up well over the bridge of his nose and tied high on the back of his head. He was old. It was his eyes, the only thing I could see, that told me how long he had lived.

The waiting area was crowded. There weren’t enough seats, people stood, leaning against walls. Some were so young, others looked old and worn out. Boyfriends and husbands and maybe some brothers looked uncomfortable, out of place. They kept pushing their sweaty palms down the front of their pants like they were trying to wipe away this place and glancing at the clock on the wall, counting down the hours until they’d be out in the pure light of the day away from the oppressive room, outside where they could finally breathe deeply and fill their lungs full to bursting, relieved that for them it was over.

The week before I had come in my Joan & David heels and Evan Picone suit and carried a small jar of pee in my purse. My purse was the same color as my shoes. You had to have a test before they’d put you on the schedule. I walked from the subway station but couldn’t find the office. Now I was late for work and my feet hurt. I was afraid my pee had gone bad but I had to give it to them, hand my little jar to the young woman at the counter and ask please if they would confirm what I already knew. When I walked in everyone shifted, looked up from the magazines they weren’t really reading or stopped their whispered conversations. I felt their furtive gazes. We all knew why we were there. The next week as I sat in the room in those same seats waiting my turn, I looked at every new face that came through the door and watched as unsteady hands held out jars of pee as bright as the sun.

You don’t have to take off all your clothes. Just from the waist down, that’s what they say, but leave your socks on because your feet will get cold. Lay down on the table and put your feet in the stirrups. You’re draped in white. I looked down my sheet-covered body between my legs and could see the doctor’s head, his mouth moving under his mask but I couldn’t hear anything he was saying. I looked at the nurse, she took my hand, said it was alright.  That night I dreamed again of the grandfather clock and babies, all plump arms and legs like tootsie rolls, tumbling out and spreading across the floor.


When we got married, my husband and I didn’t talk about if we would have children, or when. There were a lot of things about our lives together we didn’t discuss. I had long since given up the tiny “t” in my uterus, been on and off various brands of birth control pills, used condoms and diaphragms, not used anything. Didn’t really think about it. I dressed in my suits, high heels and matching bag, went to work every day happy with my job, the paycheck, the way I felt. When it happened, I knew immediately and I knew it wasn’t right. Like my mother I did not want it, did not want it in the deepest part of my being.

I don’t remember how we made the decision. I don’t remember what my husband thought, if he needed convincing, if I threatened to leave, if I screamed and cried.  I know he didn’t make the decision. It was me. Just me. I knew that it wasn’t a twinkle in my eye. I don’t know if it was in his.


In Japan women visit Buddhist temples to pray to mizuko jizo, tiny statuettes that represent the babies they aborted.  It’s not that they brood over whether they made the proper decision to have an abortion but to help the spirit safely cross the river that separates the worlds of life and death. Sometimes women dress the mizuko figurines like newborns and pour water over them to quench their thirst.

My mother was afraid of the water but she went with my father to the bay to fish and after some time she came to love fishing, too, although she never lost her fear, a fear of drowning of one sort or the other.

When I was young I liked to stand at the edge of the surf and feel the pull of the water and the sinking sand under my feet and dream that the earth wanted me and to prove it with each wave I sank deeper as the earth drew me to its core. I wasn’t afraid of filling my lungs with sand and salty water. But before I slipped beneath the surface I pulled myself from the earth’s sucking hold and dove into the waves and played in the surf as my father stood fishing nearby.  Later, he taught me to fish and I too came to love standing by the water and casting my line as far as I could, from one world to the next.

Stephanie Tames is a writer, longleaf pine needle artist, and yoga instructor living in southeastern Georgia. Her publications include Self, Parenting, the Washington Post, and the Atlanta Journal Constitution. She has essays forthcoming in the Nature Conservancy Magazine. She is also a regular commentator on Georgia Public Radio.)

In the Dark, About Waves, and First: Waiting

by Suzanne Swanson

In the Dark

You’re up there nursing, up in the tiny windowed room tacked onto the back of the house, the flash of sunlight a solid memory, the neighbor’s yardlight etching a shadowy wallpaper of black walnut branches.  When you’re sitting there rocking, the two of you shading into each other’s skin, camouflaging each other, and he slides into sleep, his palm flat against your breast, you could stay there forever, listening to the noise a floor below, not caring that you’ve been doing this for over a year, you’ve missed every event in the world that began at his bedtime.

 You think about forgiveness.  It bubbles in you, like fish breathing, naturally.  You are so generous.  Fed by the great mother, you feed.  Your good will sparkles and hums in the tiny space and sneaks out the uncaulked cracks between the windows and lights on anyone you choose.

You’re up there putting him to bed, and you know he’s tired, he’s been rubbing his eyes for an hour and shouting at you in indecipherable syllables.  And he grabs at your shirt to get at you, but after a few gulps, arches and tries to make an escape on slippery stockings.  Or, he does quiet and finally, after a long wide gaze at your breast, finally his eyes flutter shut and you breathe deeply, deliberately, to answer your impatience and only after counting to, say, 200, do you rise and sniff his fine hair and turn him so delicately into the crib and as soon as he touches the lambskin you bought just for him he stiffens his arms and bends his knees to all-fours and begins to wail betrayal.

Whether you heave him up to start over or turn and let him crywhatever you’ve decided, whatever you doyour spit sours in your mouth, your teeth clamp down hard on the growl in the back of your throat.  You try to think about forgiveness, for your teeth, for his size.  Let this child know I am just weary, let him know I am only one.  Let him settle here, please, in the arms of the witch, the one who loves him.


About Waves

Ranae wants me with her when she has her baby.  I say yesyes unless it’s that weekend I’m at the North Shore.  It has been too long since I saw Lake Superior.  Of course, she says, I know that, I know.  Besides, she’s been in premature labor, and no one imagines she will make it til then.

She calls me the morning of her due date, calls me in Duluth where I am tearing up my sister’s carpet to reveal scarred maple.  We are waiting for afternoon warmth to drive up the shore.  Ranae says her water broke.  She feels ready.  She wants to stay home as long as possible.  We talk again at lunchtime.  Nothing new.  We are mildly shocked at the distance between us.

The waves at Gooseberry wash over us as soon as we leave the car.  Breakers shush in at an angle, curl like pages slowly turned.  They boom like the ocean.  My daughter says, the thing about waves is, they never die.  It is impossible not to think of Ranae, think of how we all came through water.

I have never liked the idea of riding the wave, staying on top of whitecap, contractions, changing cosmos.    The wind is not benevolent; it simply wants the waves to exist.  The woman lost at sea is half-fish, a mermaid who breathes in water and in air.  She swims close to the rocks, she delivers her infant to safe harbor.

We hike to the falls and back, leave the waves and return.  Some of us see a beaver.  It is an autumn day beyond the perfection of blazing leaves.  The fire dies in rustling ashes on the forest floor.  We drive in quiet back to the city.  There is no answer at Ranae’s.

I am sleeping.  The phone rings with the odd trill of someone else’s house.  Ranae is on the other end.  She has a daughter, 8 pounds, 3 ounces, so beautiful, already nursing well.  She was complete when they got to the hospital.  She could immerse herself in push-rest-push.   Now she is worn, she is floating.  A gray mist falls on the lake, drawn like a curtain over the lapping water. 

 First:  Waiting

Once, barely morning,

I had to go beyond

the windows, left you

in our bed, pulled on

my everyday uniform, loose

over the drum-taut

belly-baby, called

the dog I barely tolerate

for company.  Walked

the alleys, watching

for the line between

dark and light. 

SUZANNE SWANSON is a mother of three and a St. Paul MN psychologist specializing in pregnancy, birth, postpartum and mothering.  Her book, House of Music, was published by Laurel Poetry Collective ( She is also the author of a chapbook: What Other Worlds:  Postpartum Poems and has been published in many literary journals, most recently Water~Stone.

Lydia Stewart on child abuse, parenting, and children’s rights

In 2008 Sonoma County received 10,051 calls to their child abuse hotline. 2,638 reports were serious enough to require investigation. 174 children were removed from unsafe and abusive homes.


April is Child Abuse Awareness Month in the United States. One organization that works directly with families and children on this issue is the Santa Rosa based non-profit California Parenting Institute (CPI). Lydia Stewart has been on the Board of Directors for the past 8 years and board secretary for a year.  A recipient of the CPI Volunteer of the Year Award, Lydia lives in Sonoma County with her husband and three boys. Lydia started off by admitting she’d just recently stopped referring to CPI as a non-profit agency, but a “social profit” agency. By the end of the interview, I understood what she meant, given CPI’s array of community class offerings from Teen Parenting to A Star is Born to Parenting with an Ex-partner.


How did you become involved with the California Parenting Institute?


When my first son was 6 months old, I took an infant massage class offered by CPI. I was interested in taking parenting classes, but I noticed they were all listed to run for times during the day. So I said, “Why don’t you call yourselves a stay-at-home parenting organization?  How are working dads or moms ever going to be able to take your classes?”


The instructor I made the comment to said, “Why don’t you join our board? We could really use someone with that kind of direct input…” And so I did (join the board). Making weekend and night classes available was my first focus-and now we offer night and weekend courses.


And while I’ve always loved being a stay at home mom, I’ve noticed that one’s focus is limited. You still want to feel like you’re able to do something and be able to broaden your focus. Volunteering at CPI makes me feel I’m making a difference in the whole community and in the world at large.


Can you talk about some of your favorite projects you’ve been involved with?


We started a program called “Open Closet” with the understanding that we served a broad spectrum of families from the wealthy to the homeless. For awhile we had a 1000 square foot warehouse our parent educators could walk into and pick and choose items from high chairs, strollers and books to toys and pacifiers for families in need. A family, for example, might be just about to get their children back from foster care and need furnishings or equipment for the children or even clothing for the parents.


At the end of the year we’d have a garage sale, earning up to $2000 dollars we reinvested in CPI to broaden our offerings. “Open Closet” not only gave people the opportunity to give, but provided relief to families in need. We no longer run open closet because two years ago we merged with another non-profit, Children’s Care Counseling, and found we needed to use that space for offices. Now in addition to parent classes, we are able to offer therapy. We have 12 licensed therapists ranging in cost from free to a sliding scale. We get many referrals for severely abused children. We have the ability to send licensed therapists for in-home visits for parents and children in a variety of traumatic situations.  For example, in a recent incident involving a car accident in which both parents were seriously injured while the children looked on from the back seat, CPI was able to send a therapist to the home.


We also have a literacy program, work with the Boys and Girls Club at Southwest Health Clinic, and provide space for the Breastfeeding Coalition of Sonoma County (which does advocacy work and employs lactation specialists). Some of our classes include Dad’s classes for teenage Dads, and Raising Daughters, Raising Sons; we also host Teen Mom classes at Southwest Health Clinic in Santa Rosa. In addition, we provide supervised visits for parents who do not have custody of their children so they can visit in a safe, supervised space. Our “Star is born” program helps families with their newborn infants up until that infant has become 2 years old. You can take a class at 0-3 months, bring your baby and get to know other moms while you learn about ages and stages and child development. Classes continue for 3-6 month olds, 6-12, and 12-18 month olds, and you can form your relationships with other moms. As we all know, it is those relationships that help you get through motherhood.


We do a lot of advocacy work, lobbying for children’s rights. Birth certificate fees are the only monies in California earmarked specifically for preventative care for children. Our Executive Director, Robin Bowen, presented at the legislature and drew attention to how important it was to reserve this money for preventative care like the classes offered at CPI. Grace Harris, Director of Programs, is also a part of the Sonoma County Mental Health Coalition on behalf of children’s mental health.


How do most families come to be served by CPI’s programs?


Some are court ordered. Some come on their own; they may have lost their kids, or be a family going through divorce, or simply struggling with one particular issue (positive discipline, sibling rivalry, tantrums; maybe they have a new baby and want information on how to be a better parent).  Most of the Sonoma County judges will order parents filing for divorce to take one of our courses, such as Parenting with an

Ex-partner which helps people learn how to parent as divorced partners. Through the Kid’s Turn program, therapy is available to everyone in the family.


A good number of women come our way via The Living Room, which is a Women’s Day shelter, as part of getting back on their feet. The Living Room opens at 6 a.m. to provide breakfast, then offers lunch as well, since most shelters aren’t able to offer much past a bed to sleep in. Computers are on-site for the women to use while they put their lives back in order.


Where do you see CPI heading?


Given the economy, we’ve had to lay some people off and cut some programs. Donations are down. But the backbone is here-I mean, CPI has been here for over 30 years. We are able to still offer services. And here’s an interesting fact: 80 percent of all donations come from people who make less than $50,000 a year, so often those with money don’t donate.  And you have to think about the trickle down to families and children: as the economy goes bad, the need for our services becomes greater.  When the money is gone, parents have less patience and there’s likely more yelling, more temper flares. So it is sad we actually have more kids we need to see and less money to pay the caregivers.


Can you share an inspiring story or two with us?


As you know, April is Child Abuse Awareness month. Once we invited Victor Rivers to speak to a room full of health professionals, sheriffs, detectives, etc. Rivers, an actor well known for his role as the Hulk, spoke about his childhood during which he was severely abused (tortured, hidden in the closet, his food withheld).  His message was that it takes only one person to change a child’s life. For him it was a teacher who told him he was valuable. Today he is a father and a successful hero.


Another speaker we featured once was the father of a son murdered in a gang execution. The son, while delivering pizzas as a college student, was killed by a 14 year old gang member. At first, the father, a world banker, was angry. Then he started thinking about it: “You know it was my responsibility too…what am I doing to help these kids who feel they have no other opportunity. I am just working and giving my kids what they need…We are actually responsible for all children…” And this father eventually became best friends with the grandfather of the 14 year old who killed his son and the two of them lecture together on forgiveness.  The 14 year old was the youngest boy ever tried as an adult. The father has forgiven him and made it clear the day he gets out of prison there is a job waiting for him in his firm.


You can take a tragedy and make it joyous, and make something good of it. You get to choose when something bad happens to you how you want it to play out.


Can you share a story or two about individual client successes at CPI?


I can refer you to Director of Programs Grace Harris, MFT. Here are two stories from her files:


1. One mother we visited earlier in the year after referral from a medical provider seemed anxious and worried.  She said she was losing patience with her son and he wouldn’t listen to her.  It turned out that this mother was grieving after the death of her own mother in [another country].  She had wanted to go see her, but was in the process of getting her permanent residency papers and was told she could not leave the country.  Our parent educator referred her to a Spanish speaking hospice provider to help her deal with her grief and the mother found that quite helpful.  The mother later admitted she was not playing with her son as much as she did before the death and she felt guilty about that.  Our parent educator told her about going to the library with her curious son and also gave her ways she could let him help her around the house.  It really helped their relationship improve.  As the mother began to feel better she was encouraged to participate in our Kindgergym classes.  This gave her an opportunity to meet other mothers.  By the time the holidays arrived, she was feeling a lot better and was able to bring a traditional dish [from her country] to the Kindergym Posadas celebration and to tell everyone how much she loved that dish when her mother made it for her.


The case that most touched me this year was that of a mother who had been an addict from the age of 13. She became pregnant when she was 27 and although she was very bonded to her daughter, she struggled to overcome her addiction to drugs. Her daughter was placed in foster care and then in kinship care with an aunt. The mother continued in her recovery program and began to take classes at CPI. She has been clean and sober for 2 years and requested extra help with her now 7 year old daughter. The mother felt very guilty about the years her daughter had spent in alternate care and thus, had a hard time setting limits with her when she behaved badly. She wanted her daughter to know that she really loved her. The mom benefited by viewing [a video] about Positive Relationships. She did not have a model of affection and positive attention. She learned to really pay attention to her daughter when she wanted to tell her something. She loved learning to praise the positive things her daughter did and said it was easy to find those things. “She is polite to other adults, she gets herself ready for school in the morning on time and she helps me pack her  lunch.” She also was “getting used to” sitting close to her on the sofa when they are watching movies together. Mom also bought some board games they could play together and found out that her daughter still enjoyed being read to.


Mom also learned that she could guide her behavior by giving clear and calm instructions. She learned how to think of consequences that would fit misbehavior and how to apply those consequences consistently. When her daughter really misbehaved, she enforced time outs in her room. Mom continues to be committed to being clear about her directions. She said she now understood that being a mom meant “being the one who makes the rules.”


This mother and her young daughter are doing amazingly well. They have a close and affectionate relationship. The daughter feels safe in her home with her mom and the mother feels more confident in her role as a parent. The mother is grateful that she was given more than one chance to be in a recovery program and feels that parenting support has let her turn herself in to a good mom. Our parent educator described this mom as “very caring and responsive to  suggestions and feedback.” She believes this mom and her daughter will continue to have a happy and fulfilling life together.

–Grace Harris, MFT

Director of Programs, CPI


Any personal experiences for you Lydia, with your work over the years you’d like to share?


I had an experience once with Open Closet. This family got their kids back, and I helped them move in their furniture. I felt that sense of one degree of separation. This mother had started using drugs at 13, got pregnant at 15, made a few bad choices. I just felt how close it was: I could have been her. That was really hard. But it sure made me happy to come home to my husband and my kids and my duplex.


What is your vision for you?


Every time a paying job position comes up I consider it, but I still have young children. In two years maybe I’ll be ready! I feel like as a stay-at-home, you don’t always see the opportunities.  But let me end with a quote which hangs in my kitchen above my sink where I can see it and remember it, not only about my child, but all children. Every year we have a Harvest Dinner and Live and Silent Auction at Rodney Strong Vineyard to raise money for CPI where we give out a 100 Year Award, which consists of this framed verse: A hundred years from now it will not matter what my bank account was, the sort of house I lived in, the car I drove, the kind of clothes I wore, but the world may be much different because I was important in the life of a child.”


Lydia Stewart will be speaking at The Twin Hills Union School District Faculty Meeting and the PTA  to present all the upcoming activities for the month at CPI and will be hosting an informational outreach table at the 2010 Non-Profit Conference by the Volunteer Center of Sonoma County: March 26, 2010 at the Hyatt Vineyard Creek Hotel. For more information on the conference: call the Volunteer Center: 573-3399


For Child Abuse Prevention Month, CPI will be offering a number of free events, such as Disciplining without Spanking, Grandparents Parenting Again Luncheon, and the Toolbox Class. Speaker Robin Karr-Morse, author of Ghosts from the Nursery, Tracing the Roots of Violence, “offers a shocking but empowering message: to understand violent behavior, we must look earlier, before adolescence, before grade school, before preschool-to the cradle.” For more information on Karr-Morses’s presentation, email


CALIFORNIA PARENTING INSTITUTE “Happy Childhoods Last a Lifetime”

Grace Harris, Director of Programs

3650 Standish Avenue

Santa Rosa, CA 95407

(707)585-6108 x 103



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