100 Days of Hell

Hmmm, is this a yard sale?

I slowed the van a bit and squinted at a fence near the road ahead. Balloons of all colors and shapes were hanging there, bobbing back and forth with the movement of the breeze. What is even going on here? We were meandering along a back road near our local discount grocery store, but the color and movement of the balloons had distracted me. Finally we passed the fence. The building nearby was a small, conservative school. A large message was scrawled in marker across the propane tank outside the structure: “100th Day of School“.

“It’s the 100th day of school.” I said flatly to Austin. Likely, there were 100 balloons hanging to celebrate this marker – over half the year had been completed. The 100th day of school meant that we were officially closer to the beginning of summer vacation than the beginning of the current school year. “It’s the 100th day of school and (E) hasn’t even been allowed inside a classroom since last March.” My voice stayed monotone, but inside all the frustrations of the past 10 months came churning up all over again. E was our eldest. He had special ed services that he wasn’t permitted to have in-person for almost a year. He was failing several classes, mostly due to his lack of cognition; he could barely manage the virtual platform the district had chosen for the middle school. If school had been open, his special ed assistant would sit with him and work on these sorts of issues. I had been through it so many times – trying to accept the COVID shutdown situation and make the best of it, reminding myself that many others were experiencing exactly the same thing – then going through internal fits of rage because our school board refused to let our kids back into the building. The school shutdown had consumed the past 10 months of our lives. I had no free time; I was now iPad police and teacher to all the kids, whether I wanted to be or not.

100 days of school? No. 100 days of bulls#!t, 100 days of hell! I thought to myself. Thankfully, so many other children in our district were now failing that the board was being forced to send us back out of necessity.

Let me be clear, I know we have it good. No one in our family is sick, no one in our immediate family has died, and we have had a steady income source for the entire pandemic. Are we living in hell? Nope, definitely not. However, the past 10 months have rivaled our foster care days in the amount of stress we have been managing; most of which is connected to our difficulty accessing education for our kids. We live in a three bedroom, 1400 square foot row home that we have been expected to turn into a schoolhouse for our five district-aged kids. Thankfully, the private preschool we normally attend has been open most of the time for our youngest, sixth child. Four of our district kids are elementary-aged, and two are special ed and are supposed to receive 1:1 support for a portion of the day at school. Try putting these young – some cognitively challenged, some behaviorally difficult – kids on iPads for school in our small house. It’s been nothing short of a nightmare. Our brief respite for the month of November when our elementary kids were allowed back for a few days was nice. But it was short-lived. Then came the third shutdown.

For some of our adopted kids, the iPad interfered with attachment. Everything was a control battle; me pitted against the teacher. I was continually at a disadvantage because I couldn’t be on all five Zoom calls at the same time. I often didn’t know whether the teacher had actually instructed my child to work inside this app or that one, or if they were lying to my face and skipping out on their assignments. The frequent lying and power struggles, coupled with the frustrations that come when trying to teach young children on a digital device, finally led me to my wit’s end. With Austin’s agreement, I ditched the iPads for three of our kiddos and started working with whatever physical textbooks I could get my hands on; truancy warnings be damned. We had to make it through this sane and actually learn something this year.

I have found the homeschooling approach to be quite effective for attachment-building with our daughter. Anecdotally, I have heard the same from some other adoptive parents in my network. For a child who struggles to connect with and trust his or her caregiver, the homeschool approach removes the distraction of other adults (whom our daughter prefers to bond with rather than me), and makes me, her caregiver, the source of all her help. Want freetime to play this afternoon? Sure, you may have that as soon as you finish this math assignment. Don’t understand the math assignment? Well then, I guess you’ll have to ask me to help you. I will help you. I am your source. And I’m on your team. I want you to get to freetime just as much as you want to get to free time (frankly, more so).

I knew things were going well (most days), but it really became obvious about six weeks into our third shutdown. Since we had shelved the iPads and started using that old-school math book and pencil, our daughter was making good progress in her multiplication skills. I was her tutor, and frequently sat with her to help her line up her numbers. Her poor fine motor skills often create difficulties in such tasks.

One morning as I sat with her during a multi-digit problem, from the corner of my eye I saw her hand slowly move to the back of my chair. Then, unbelievably, it rested on my back. She didn’t really look at me, but she was giving me a hug of sorts, in such a way that it seemed she didn’t necessarily want to admit it to herself. This was her way of saying, “Thanks Mom.” In that one moment, I felt like COVID and the school shutdown had nothing on us. Even though it had put us through the ringer, we were winning. We might not be winning at all our academic assignments – which we rarely ever fully completed – but we were winning the emotional attachment battle. Ours was a much more difficult, and much more important battle for our family to fight.

On January 25 all of our children were finally permitted to return to the classroom. It has been one LONG year since the school shutdown of March 2020. I have tried to utilize our time together as best as possible, though many days involved lots of stressful moments for everyone. With so much time apart so suddenly, we have needed to make room for intentional bonding in the remaining hours of our days. And so, our adoptive journey continues. COVID, you are losing in our family.