For me, the idea of becoming a mother through adoption started when I was in high school. I took a class on early childhood development where I learned about the impact on a child’s brain when deprived of loving touch. That’s when I read David Pelzer’s book, "A Child Called It." I read all his books and recall being horrified by what he endured at the hands of foster parents. I remember thinking, “I can do better.”
In 2017 my husband, Peter, and I spent our first wedding anniversary at a shelter visiting three sisters who would become our first foster placement. They were 6 months, 18 months and 3.5 years old when we met them. In total, we’ve had the privilege of fostering five children. We adopted two, Phoebe and Geo.
We got the call for Phoebe when she was just 2 days old. She was a beautiful, premature little nugget who came into our life like a thunderbolt. When you’re a foster parent, that’s what it feels like because everything is different in a moment. You’ve got a new child in your home to care for and love, and a new biological family to advocate for.
Phoebe faced several challenges as a baby. She was born with brain damage, which has since been diagnosed as cerebral palsy. She struggles with sleep disorders, asthma, sensory issues and celiac disease, all of which we’ve learned over the years. I’ve had doctors and therapists tell me that without the early intervention she received, she probably wouldn’t have been able to eat without a feeding tube or be able to walk. We just celebrated her fifth birthday with her jumping on a big bouncy castle, eating gluten-free cupcakes.
Our son, Geo, is a walking miracle. Geo had a hard life before us. Even though I didn’t meet him until a month before his fourth birthday, it feels like he was always written in my heart. I think about reading "A Child Called It" and deciding then that I wanted to help. It’s like I was saying “yes” to Geo on that day.
A month after turning 4, Geo was diagnosed with a rare adult form of leukemia. We didn’t know what his future looked like at that point, and we’d only known him for two months. Without hesitation, Peter and I decided we would help him through his treatment. Being in the hospital with cancer was not even the scariest thing he had been through. He hasn’t allowed trauma, cancer, autism or any of his medical difficulties hold him back. When I think about all he has faced, I am in awe of his strength.
Motherhood was the catalyst that turned me into who I was supposed to be. All the things in myself that I needed to find and refine were birthed out of motherhood. I’ve had to fight to be an effective advocate for my children. Even the ones who went home to their biological family. Motherhood is a fire that burned away the dross and left me with something beautiful. That comes with a lot of breaking cycles, taking myself to therapy and recognizing when I needed help with my own anxiety. I had to help myself so that I could help my kids better.
Through our journey managing Phoebe and Geo’s unique needs we were introduced to Arizona’s Children Association’s Neurosequential Model of Therapeutics (NMT). It has been life changing to look at my children’s brain maps and see the areas that were affected by the trauma. We now understand how what has happened to them in their lives impacted the way they operate and why they may revert to certain behaviors when triggered.
Arizona’s Children Association has educated and given us tangible ways to help our kids. That’s something we didn’t get from traditional therapy – there was obviously support, understanding and validation of feelings, but not the next step of “what do we do about it?” That was the missing piece for me, and we found that with NMT. It unlocked the mysteries of our kids’ brains and gave us a fighting chance to truly help them. I’m not a medical professional or a therapist; I’m a mom trying my best. But now I can see that Geo and Phoebe have thrived under the caregiving model of NMT and we are so thankful for that.
Kids, in any capacity, are not completely safe from trauma. Whether we are talking about medical trauma, something they saw on the news, the drills they have to do at school to stay safe or accidents we could never plan for, kids are not going to live trauma-free lives. We need to accept that these things impact our children and the way they see the world and interact with others. We need every parent and provider to help make a more compassionate world. One where our kids are not seen as the sum of their behaviors but seen for all they truly are. A world where they are safe to be themselves.
My advice for anyone looking to foster or adopt—jump in. Children deserve a safe and loving home. Educate yourself on trauma and what it does to the brain, as well as secondary trauma. Be brave! Brave enough to love bio families and build a relationship with them. Brave enough to sit in your own uncomfortableness so you can learn and grow and help. Expect the unexpected, and be brave enough to face whatever comes. It will be hard work, but there is nothing on this planet more worth the effort.
On this Mother’s Day, I would like to honor the mothers that have impacted me the most. My own mom who would drop anything to be by my side when I need her. My sisters, who are fierce mothers in their own wonderful ways. My stepmom, who loves me as her own. And, of course, the first mothers who made my magical children. Thank you all.
Liz Richardson is a medical advocate mom.