The following is a guest post by Kristan Cassady, Kristan and her partner Nichole are a queer Bay Area couple adopting from foster care. They are the subjects in the series THEF WORD., a very personal and sometimes funny look at what it means to adopt a kid in the foster care system. (Check out it out here.)
Most mornings, I wake up to J’s tiny fingers trying to pry my eyes open. “Mama,” He’ll say, “Didas, pease.”
At this point, I do my best to open my eyes on my own and make my way downstairs to the kitchen to get him the vitamins he so politely asked for. Before my foot reaches the first step though, J is always at my side, blanket in tow, asking to be carried down the stairs. He high fives the wall above the stairs as we go down and I imagine him as a teenager, hormones raging and smelling like a mix of BO and Axe. After he gets his three gummy vitamins, he pulls his blanket onto my lap and says, “Mama cuh-cuh.” This means “mama cuddles”. He climbs on my lap, wraps his arms tightly around my neck and lays against me. It’s the sweetest, most tender moment we have all day. It almost cancels out the throwing of shoes and utensils that occurs 10 minutes later.
In these early sunrise hours, I think about how strange it is to hear someone call me mama. I never thought about becoming a parent until I actually became one. For most of my life, I grew up in the South during a time no one actually thought gay marriage might one day be legal. Lesbians were gym teachers that no one wanted in the girls locker room. We didn’t get married and we were certainly never mamas. Yet here I was, on my couch in Oakland watching the sun rise with my son in my lap calling me mama. When this happens, it sometimes feels like an out of body experience. And as my mind wanders, I inevitably begin to think about my son’s birth mom: Is she somewhere safe? Is she watching the same sunrise we are? Does she know her son calls someone else mama?
We met J when he was still in the hospital and fostered him for 8 months before adopting him, when he was almost 10 months old. If you haven’t seen our docu-series, The F Word: A Foster And Adopt Story, now would be a good time to hit pause on this article and watch it. We documented our journey from the moment my wife and I decided we were going to build our family through fost-adoption all the way to our son’s 1st birthday, interviewing birth parents, adoptees and former foster youth along the way.
These early morning thoughts are rough, but in our household we don’t shy away from talking about J’s first parents. We honor them and the life they gave to J. Although my wife and I both strongly believe in open adoption, for the foreseeable future we only have a way of reaching relatives, as opposed to birth parents – specifically J’s biological grandmother. To add to this, when we had our initial disclosure meeting, we were told by the county workers that while J had at least three siblings, they were all in closed adoptions and we wouldn’t be able to meet them unless they came searching for J. This was crushing. From the beginning, we were committed to creating (or preserving) healthy family connections for any child that entered our home.
This is why when we finally got a text back from J’s biological grandmother we were equal parts nervous and excited. We spent months delicately texting back and forth, sharing pictures of J and wishing her happy holidays. Then one day she sent us a video of J’s oldest brother playing in a basketball game. This confirmed what all of our light facebook stalking had indicated – she was the connection to one, and possibly more, of J’s siblings. The next text we sent, we mentioned meeting up at a park in the near future with her and the boy in the video. That’s when the texting abruptly stopped. I felt like I was on the dating scene in my early 20’s again. You ask that special person if they want to leave a toothbrush at your place or come to your little nephew’s birthday party. After a minute goes by and there’s no response, you worry you’ve crossed the line, but you keep checking your phone, playing it cool, not wanting to call or send the embarrassing “did you get my text?” message. Then, you wake up the next day to no new messages and you know it: you’ve been ghosted. This time around, it stung a little bit more, but as the days turned into weeks I remembered a friend in our foster and adoptive community saying, “what your relationship is today with his birth family does not define what it will always be.”
As we waited to hear back, Nicole and I thought about how difficult it must be for grandma to meet her grandchild while he clenched the hands of his white adoptive parents. For someone that grew up in the Philippines, it must have felt like a cruel joke, the ultimate colonization. And it wasn’t the first time. Only this time not only were they white but they were queer, too. While I admittedly had secret fantasies of J’s grandmother teaching me to cook chicken adobo from scratch in our kitchen, I knew that, for J’s sake, the connection we wanted to create would go a lot deeper than family recipes. We were determined to play the long game, be patient, and reach out again when more time had passed.
After two months went by, our patience paid off. She texted us wanting to meet in a park with all of J’s siblings. This was it. The opportunity we had been waiting for to have a more expansive family that truly reflected our son. When we arrived at the park, we searched everywhere for his grandma and other kids that resembled J. As we continued our search, grandma called and said she was running late. She gave us descriptions and names of the other people to look for. It took some time, but once we found them we introduced ourselves, and there was an instantaneous rush of excited hands tickling J and running their fingers through his thick, curly hair. J grabbed his oldest sister A’s hand and pulled her into a field so they could run together. When grandma arrived, she casually mentioned that she hadn’t actually told anyone we were coming. Whoa. We get it though: what if we hadn’t shown up? What if we didn’t want openness as much as we thought we did?
As we introduced ourselves to everyone, we learned that all the siblings had been meeting up every few months for years. We began exchanging phone numbers and emails as pictures of all the kids were being taken. As we chatted with other parents and guardians, in the distance I could see J in the arms of his sister. They were taking selfies together, giggling and soaking each other up. It was so damn beautiful. The kids all came back to the picnic table we had settled at to eat pizza. J stood on the bench close to his grandma. As he put his tiny hand on her shoulder she asked for a kiss and this sweet child leaned right in and planted one on her cheek.
She lit up. “You’re a sweet boy. And you’re very handsome.”
J looked back at her. “Eeeeeee!”. He contorted his face and screeched at the top of his lungs. Everyone at the table laughed.
I know this probably seems like an ending to a modern day “Brady Bunch” episode. And I’m sure I’m leaving out a few awkward moments where J threw a can or three of bubbly water at his brothers, not to mention our own fumbles as we were asked to share J’s birth history with people we just met. Memory is fickle.
J fell asleep as soon as we started the car and were making our way back to Oakland. Nicole and I eagerly shared all the different conversations we had at the park. We were so excited to cultivate these relationships, but we realized we didn’t want to wait a few more months for the next visit. We wanted to normalize these meet-ups with everyone as soon as we could, for J’s sake. After all, we all lived so close. Couldn’t we invite a family for dinner one night? Meet up with another family on a weekend? So we started reaching out, making plans separately with everyone involved.
As summer approaches, spending time with J’s siblings has become one of our top priorities. Two weeks ago, we took A out for dim sum. She and J picked up right where they left off in the park: snapchat filters, dancing to Baby Shark and playing with each other’s hair. Last weekend, his brother and his family were over for dinner. J grabbed his brother’s hand as soon as he entered and pulled him into the back yard to play basketball. This upcoming weekend, we’ll attend his oldest brother’s graduation party.
We know that adoption is complicated. Transracial adoption from foster care is complicated. It’s messy, it’s layered, and it’s also rich and beautiful and transformative. We have ideas about how we want to raise J, but we know we’ll slip up, or get caught in our own routine. Or we’ll just get tired and forget to stay vigilant in all the ways he’ll need us to stay vigilant as he grows and begins to experience racism. But right now, having his siblings be a constant part of his life fills us all up. Both Nicole and I are fortunate enough to come from wonderful families. Families who love us and cherish the time they spend with us and with J. With that being said, we recognize that our privilege of being white is not his. Before Nicole and I started the process to create our family, we were committed to speaking out against white supremacy and racial injustice of any kind, but this takes on new urgency when you’re raising a child of color. We also see how the grief, and often the trauma, that children suffer when they are separated from their birth family is often invisible and goes unacknowledged. I’m grateful that as J grows up, he will be hard pressed to remember a time that his birth family was not a part of his life. My hope is that this connection will help him to hold love and loss at the same time. I recognize the value his birth family will have in his life is great, and it is for me too, because without them there would be no J. This will forever inform my thinking about what family means and what family can mean. In the end, the more people there are in this world loving our son, the more this becomes the kind of world I want to live in.
Two of my kids are headed to Camp New Heights this summer to participate in their advanced athlete track. Camp New Heights is a great wellness camp for athletes as well as for kids who are just started a journey with physical fitness. They have two, four or six week summer programs for campers aged 9 through 17, located in Santa Barbara, California. Programs are personalized to fit individual needs with the focus of helping each camper build a better version of themselves and reach new heights. While at camp, they get to live in dorms at the beautiful University of California, Santa Barbara campus and are exposed to healthy habits, mentally, emotionally and physically. Today I’m chatting with founder and director Stephen Bean.
What inspired you to start a wellness camp for kids?
I previously worked at a weight loss camp for kids, and I was shocked at what I had discovered: The camp I worked for was not providing any information to the campers–it was simply a calorie restrictive program that caused kids to lose weight rapidly (not in a healthy way), form a negative association with food, and not learn anything to help them succeed once leaving camp. Following that experience, a camper’s father reached out to me to see if we could come up with a camp that could really help kids. We set out to build a camp where kids could feel empowered to make healthy decisions based on information and feedback. Camp New Heights is designed to give campers access to vast amounts of information and knowledge that they can take home with them and share with their families, friends, and communities.
What are some of the challenges that you see kids today facing when it comes to wellness and self-care? What is unique to this generation?
Bob Dylan talked about “the times they are a-changing”, but we’re at the point where the times have definitively changed. Today’s generation faces all of the same growing pains that were faced 20-30 years ago, but now there is the added pressure from social platforms that is hard to encapsulate. Today’s kids face pressures from their peers and a whole social environment that we never knew as kids. It’s hard to not value yourself against your peers when there is a quantitative measure of likes and comments on various social channels. The advent of computers, phones, and social networks has allowed both kids and adults to somewhat isolate ourselves from our friends and family. This ability to isolate can be dangerous because it can lead to a downward spiral and removal from friends and activities that were once loved. The ease of use of technology has been detrimental in this regard since it’s important to stay connected with friends and family members with tangible social contact. The ability to decipher and interpret facial expressions, emotions, and other context clues are so important to having healthy relationships. The distance that technology adds to our relationships can make the ability to interpret these complex idiosyncratic behaviors a lot harder.
How can parents inspire their kids to care more about personal wellness?
Parents should approach personal wellness by not only modeling it, but also using empowerment to encourage their kids to take ownership of their personal wellness. Gone are the days of “Do as I say, not as I do.” Parents have a ton on their plates as it is, but it’s critically important that they take time to address their wellness needs.
I believe that each journey towards health and wellness looks different. Due to the variability in the journey, it’s important for parents to expose their kids to a wide array of activities. A kid may not like the idea of running a mile, but perhaps they love sprinting for 100 meters. By providing opportunities to try and experiment with new activities, kids will be more likely to find something that they really enjoy. It’s important to provide positive feedback to kids attempting something for their first time. After all, there was a time when Michael Jordan had never held a basketball.
In regards to food, it’s super important to expand the palates of kids as early as possible. If kids only eat processed food that is enhanced with sugar to provide a palatable taste, the child’s taste preferences will develop around that flavor profile. There are so many resources available for healthy recipes for breakfast, lunch, dinner, and plenty of in-between snacks. It’s important to try new meals and foods as a family, and just because a parent doesn’t like it doesn’t mean the child will think the same thing. I didn’t have an avocado until I was 23 years old simply because my parents didn’t eat them. Be just as adventurous with your food as you would be with trying new activities.
You have two tracks, one for kids just starting on a fitness journey, and one for more seasoned athletes. What are some of the benefits of working with these two groups concurrently?
We believe in the philosophy that no matter where you start, we can all grow. We cherish the ability to bring together groups of kids who might not cross paths while at school. Working with these two groups concurrently allows us to highlight similar struggles and achievements. Bridging the gap between beginner and advanced is really shown in our group sports activities when we see such a wide array of skill levels that learn to work together as a team. The beginner and advanced groups have tons of opportunities to work together and we see some of the most positive peer reinforcement in these moments.
What are some of your favorite success stories from campers?
There are so many that I wish I could write you a dissertation explaining each one. I’ll cherry pick a few that have really moved me and reinforced the reason we started this camp:
We had a camper last year who was entering his senior year of high school. This camper was a wonderful person and a natural born leader. This camper exuded confidence, but confided in the staff that he wanted to lose weight so that he could try out for his high school’s soccer team. We set out to give this camper the best route to go about his goals. This camper became a leader among his peers in advocating for his food choices and never gave less than his best in any workout. This camper never starved himself, but simply made great food choices. This camper stayed with us for the entire six week summer session and left down 40+ pounds. We weren’t so concerned about the number on the scale, but we were delighted to hear him comment on how comfortable he felt running, on his ability to breath easier, sleep better, and how he generally felt better doing everyday things. This tangible feeling for him reinforced the choices he made. I nearly cried when he sent me a message in the middle of the school year that he not only had tried out for the team, but was selected to be on the highly competitive Division I school team.
My other camper story comes from our first year in which we had a camper join us who had no real exercise experience. This camper was not overweight and was actually underweight by traditional standards. This camper came in with an incredibly open mind and was just a sponge for information. The camper enthusiastically tried every camp activity she could over her four-week stay. The camper took the nutritional advice to heart and–much like the camper in story one–remarked on how great she felt after each meal. The camper started to put on some muscle which she was very proud to show her parents on move-out day. However, I haven’t even hit my favorite part of this story which comes from her decision to take the swimming class. This camper had never swam before and was actually very worried about her lack of swim experience. The transformation was like a fish to water. In a matter of days, this camper was doing 1:15 per 100 yards front crawl in the pool (which is quite impressive). This camper went from never entering a body of water to a legitimate freestyle swimmer. The camper reached out to our swim instructor a few months later to let her know that she had won her apartment complex’s swimming race.
I’ve got a million more, but those two stories solidify why we do this camp.
What is unique about Camp New Heights?
I think what makes us unique is our holistic approach to health and wellness. Our approach encompasses the understanding that each camper is different from the person standing next to them. I think the diversity of campers we have is something that makes us incredibly unique. We have campers who are attempting to make their schools’ varsity teams and we have campers who have never exercised or played a sport. We aren’t obsessed with a number on a scale or how many reps somebody can rip. We’re here to celebrate the cognitive recognition by campers that they feel better. We strive to empower campers to be able to be intrinsically motivated about their health and wellness. Allowing campers to make connections, make decisions, and reflect on their choices are what ultimately lead to intrinsic ownership.
I think our staff is next level, as well. We go to great lengths in our hiring process to find the best people who are capable of creating a great experience for our campers. We actually have an acceptance rate for staff that sits below 1%, so technically it’s easier to get into Harvard (5.4%) than it is to work for Camp New Heights.For kids to have access to JT, our Sports and Human Performance Director, is awesome. JT has worked with everybody from middle school athletes all the way up to NFL players. I also think it’s important that all our staff members are live-in, and there are no corporate office staff members that the kids will never meet in person. All of our staff are here enjoying the experience right alongside the campers.
What do you hope that campers take home with them?
I hope that campers leave camp feeling empowered and equipped to continue their lifestyle journey outside of camp. I want campers to feel that they have gained knowledge about nutrition, exercise, and physiology. In addition, I also want them to cherish the social and emotional skills they have cultivated at camp. The ability to live among their peers in a dorm prior to college exposes a whole new set of social and emotional learning moments. We have a limited cell phone policy, so this provides tons of opportunities for them to interact and learn from their peers. I want each camper to leave with renewed self-confidence in every aspect of life. Above all else, I want campers to leave having had the most fun they have ever had over summer break.
I’m huge fan of Stitch Fix. I’ve used them for over 5 years and at this point, a majority of my wardrobe is comprised of Stitch Fix clothes. They truly have the best jeans. Every pair fits right out of the box. If I went to Nordstrom’s, I would probably drag 12 pair into the dressing room just to find one pair that fit, but Stitch Fix has some kind of wizardry magic happening. I have a ton of cute tops and dresses from them as well.
My girls have watched me open Stitch Fix boxes for years and so they were thrilled when they found out they now have an option for kids. I signed them up right away, because my experience has been so positive. Both of them went through the online quiz and outlined their personal style.India, because India is always extra, also created a Pinterest board to give her stylist more guidance. From there, a stylist gets to know them and had-selects 8-12 items based on style, size, and budget.
I’m here to report that it has been a huge success. They somehow manage to totally nail each of their individual styles. India likes to dress a bit older than her age. She likes trendy tops, cute dresses, and jeans. Here are some of her outfits:
India loves Stitch Fix Kids so much that at the beginning of the school year, her first week of back-to-school outfit picks were exclusively Stitch Fix. Karis is a fan of glitter, unicorns, and message tees. You can see how different her clothes are from her sister’s, but her stylist manages to give her exactly what she wants.
I love Stitch Fix Kids because they make it so convenient for me as a busy mom. Someone else is picking things out, the boxes are sent to the house where the girls can try things on, and then we can send back the rest in a pre-paid envelope from our mailbox.
If you’d like to try Stitch Fix Kids, use this link to get $25 for any new parent account that schedules a kids’ first fix!
Rates of anxiety and depression in children have increased in the last decade. This is a topic close to my heart, since I suffered from generalized anxiety disorder as a child. I had the chance to interview Dr. Micaela Thordarson, a child psychologist at CHOC Children’s, to review some of the warning signs and treatment options that parents should be aware of when it comes to kids and anxiety.
What are the symptoms of anxiety in children?
Kids who suffer from anxiety can often experience overwhelming worry and anxious thoughts, but Dr. Thordarson emphasizes that this is not the only symptom. In fact, some symptoms may not look like anxiety at all. “Some kids might show irritability or avoidance. They may refuse to do things, or complain about doing things. They may be easily frustrated,” she said. Dr. Thordarson explained that perfectionism and a fear of being judged negatively are common traits for anxious kids, so they can either give up easily or procrastinate because they are so concerned with failure. They may be so terrified of failure that they won’t even try something new.
Kids with anxiety can also display restlessness, fidgeting, difficulty paying attention, and difficulty falling asleep. “For some kids, anxiety can show up as frequent stomachaches or headaches not otherwise explained by a medical condition,” she said. Children who complain of frequent ailments or who seem to obsess about their own health might be suffering from anxiety. She warns that when kids stay home from school due to physical manifestations of anxiety, it can strengthen the response pattern. “If in doubt, send them to school,” she said. Parents need to communicate with their child’s school nurse if they have concerns that anxiety is presenting itself as physical ailments.”
How do we get kids to communicate anxious thoughts?
When kids experience anxiety, we want to help them process things verbally. Oftentimes, kids avoid their anxious feelings, which can lead to some of the symptoms of stomachaches or irritability. We want to shift to helping them talk about it. “Ask your child to share about feelings and then provide immediate praise when they are willing,” Dr. Thordarson advises. “Stay away from reassurance. Don’t say ‘you are going to be ok’ because it takes that child’s safety and places it in your authority. Doing so can also make them feel dismissed, or that they cannot trust you to hear them. Rather, ask them questions as a coach.” Dr. Thordarson recommends asking questions like “How do you know this outcome will come true?” or “What are other ways this can come in?” Reality testing with our kids can be beneficial. We can walk them through scenarios that are playing out in their mind and help coach them to favorable outcomes.
What is the difference between a child who worries a lot, or a child who is just shy, and a child with generalized anxiety disorder?
If there is no change in external circumstances, behavior or performance, but if a child is in a lot of distress, they may be suffering from anxiety. “If a child seems to be upset, anxious or crying more often than not, if they are they taking longer to get things done, if their grades are changing, if they are avoiding friends, if they are in nurses office . . . these would all be signs that getting help is needed.”
In terms of differentiating shy children from social anxiety Dr. Thordarson suggests parents look at the degree of their child’s refusal to engage. “Shy kids might warm up eventually. If they maintain anxiety the entire time, it might be a sign.” She also warns that social anxiety may look like a heavy reliance on social media for social interactions, because it’s safer to interact behind a screen, if a kid does not have the social skills or confidence for face-to-face interactions.
How can social media impact anxiety?
Dr. Thordarson believes that the social skills used on social media or on video games are VERY different than real life. “It’s developing a very small toolkit and letting everything else stay underdeveloped. If something doesn’t go well on social media, the child loses their entire community. They don’t have a social backup plan.” She also thinks that kids who are trying to avoid homework or chores or interacting with parents are going to dive into these realms of alternate reality, which can be a sign of avoidance behaviors. “It’s an escape that is comfortable, where kids don’t have to face their fears or anxieties. It sets up a system of reward in the brain.”
She asserts that setting limits is an extremely important aspect of parenting. “There should be limits on every type of screen source and there should be periods of forced unplugged time, even through high school. There should be limits like no phones at the dinner table, or no phones in the bedroom. When you are glued to your cellphone and constantly getting notifications, you always know when you are left out, and it reinforces the idea that you have to be connected and available all of the time.”
If a parent is concerned about their child’s anxiety, who should they reach out to?
“There is never a harm in having an evaluation,” says Dr. Thordarson. “You can start with your pediatrician. They are likely getting lots of consultations so most have a referral list.” The American Academy of Pediatrics has been making a push to train pediatricians in conducting the conversation on mental health. She says the OC chapter especially has been working on stocking members with toolkits and referral lists. Schools can be another resource. “Schools might have onsite resources, including counselors, which could be good if your child’s anxiety is school-related. Parents can also call the number on the back of their insurance card to find additional resources available to them.”
What is the difference between a counselor and psychiatrist?
It can be hard for parents to know what kind of support their child needs. A psychiatrist is most often a medication manager. “It is unusual for a psychiatrist to offer therapy,” says Dr. Thordarson. “They are generally looking at treating mental health from a medication standpoint.” Most other mental health clinicians (licensed marriage and family therapist or LMFT, social worker, psychologist) are licensed and provide psychotherapy, which will help with coping skills and anxiety reduction. “For mild to moderate anxiety, the most effective therapy, even over medications, is cognitive behavior therapy, or CBT. This short-term, goal-oriented therapy takes a practical approach to changing patterns in your child’s thought process and increasing coping skills, and thus changes the way they feel. ”
How do we model healthy ways of dealing with anxiety to our kids?
Parents should talk about their own worries out loud and how you address them, Dr. Thordarson says. “Walk your kids through your own process. For example, ‘I was nervous to go to work today because of my big meeting. What I did was, I went any way and I told myself that I would be ok.’Narrate your internal coping process out loud. Join them, and help them cope.
Over the past few months, I’ve been engaging in conversations around women and sexual desire. We’ve been particularly talking about the issue of low libido, which seems to be a very prevalent issue for women my age. I’m also noticing that women are dying to talk about this. Sarah and I announced we were doing an episode on low sexual desire and our podcast facebook community lit up with comments and questions from women who experience low sex drive. (If you want to read through that conversation, you can join the closed Selfie community here.) It may be one of the most-commented conversations I’ve had this year, and I think there is a reason for that.
For so long, a woman’s lack of desire has been seen as this trivial thing. In American culture, women aren’t necessarily socialized to see themselves as sexual initiators. Men are supposed to be the ones chasing, and women are the ones either refusing or “giving in.” This trope is as old as time, and it’s also dangerous. Even worse, women who ARE pursuing their own sexual pleasure in assertive ways are labeled as bad. Men who are keenly interested in sex are just men. We have all kinds of words to pathologize women’s sexual interest.
As a result, a lot of women have resigned that their low libido must just be normal (or at least, not a really big deal.) Millions of women suffer in silence, ashamed to discuss their sexual pleasure. When something troubles men in the bedroom, we address it. We see ads on billboards and on tv making sure men know how to achieve an erection. On the converse, women talking about sexual desire is often censored. For example, ads about erections are served up to families during the superbowl. Ads about vibrators aren’t even allowed on facebook.
And it’s not just our cultural norms where the gender differences are apparent. There are a myriad of medical options for men with sexual desire issues. For women, there is only one. In addition, insurers don’t cover women. For decades the majority of US men with prescription insurance have received coverage for medications that treat their most common sexual dysfunction. Today 98% of commercially insured men have coverage for these treatments. So why don’t women have equal benefits? (There is a change.org petition asking this very question if you’re interested in signing on.)
Doctors are also well-versed in erectile issues but many doctors have not been educated in HSDD, and most aren’t even asking. If you want to a doctor well-versed in HSDD, the Right to Desire website as a telemedicine component that can allow you to talk with a qualified doctor who gets it. It is estimated that 1 in 10 women suffer from unwanted low sexual desire, and those numbers certainly seemed consistent in the conversations I’ve been having. If you want to learn more, check out the Right to Desire website.