Tales From the Road

by Sue Badeau

Have you ever taken a road trip? With children?

Two boys in the car using a tablet PC, younger boy sitting in the child safety seat

If so, you understand the importance of packing a well-stocked tool kit so you’ll be
prepared in the event of a flat tire, dead battery, or other roadside challenge. The right tool kit may have life or death implications. Traveling in hot, dry climates with long stretches of road between rest stops requires different tools and supplies (extra water!) than traveling in the blistering cold and ice of the northern regions of Wisconsin in winter (blankets please!).

In a similar way, families fostering or adopting children, as well as the professionals
who work with them, need to have the right tools to make their journey safe and
healing for all. My husband and I have parented over 75 children – through birth,
adoption, foster care, refugee hosting, and kinship care. Many have complex trauma
and/or medical special needs. Along with shorter road trips, we’ve taken coast-to-coast camping trips with our children half a dozen times! We learned many life lessons on these trips, and drew from those experiences to write our book, “Are We There Yet: The Ultimate Road Trip Adopting and Raising 22 Kids.”
It has been a scary, challenging, thrilling, joyous, confusing, frustrating, and rewarding journey from the first day until today – one that we would definitely repeat if we had the opportunity – and yet one that we were not always prepared for. When we set out to become parents, my husband and I thought we had a pretty complete tool kit. I had a college degree in early childhood education; he had experience as a youth counselor and coach. We had friends who were parents. We had attended conferences, read books, babysat, and observed. We were ready to rock and roll on this journey of parenthood. Quickly we learned that parenting children whose lives have been challenged by abuse, neglect, medical conditions, community violence, separation, loss, and a depth of grief we had never experienced would take more than the usual spare tires, jumper cables, and maps required for most road trips.

Today I’ll share a few thoughts about road trips – and a few lessons we’ve learned along the way. When I speak at the A Place in My Heart conference, I’ll share a bit about what we’ve learned to pack in our own parenting tool kit to help you think about what you might need for yours, or for the families you work with.

“Let’s go.” The most important lesson about successful road trips is that they require
action. One of the best moments of any road trip, is getting everyone loaded into the
vehicles and pulling out of the driveway. We may not know what lies ahead, but we’re on our way.

In my role as a consultant, parents or workers often describe a challenging situation related to a child. Their question goes something like this, “Is this a normal developmental thing, or is it adoption-related, or should we have her tested for other issues?”

Sometimes it’s hard to tease out the root cause underlying the words, feelings, and behaviors children present. We can get stuck in the mud of confusion. Paralyzed by the fear of doing the wrong thing, we do nothing. Children are further traumatized as a result. While it is important to do our best to understand what is going on with our children, we cannot be afraid to act. We must forge ahead, applying parenting
strategies designed to foster attachment, nurture healing, and support healthy development, even when plagued with unknowns and uncertainties.

“I will go before you.” The best sources of information for planning a road trip are not always found in travel guides, but rather by talking to others who have been down that road before us. We need others as mentors, guides, and companions. We need their leadership, expertise, experience, and fellowship. Throughout our journey as foster and adoptive parents, such travelling companions have helped us learn how to cope with a child on a feeding tube, a pregnant teen, a son in prison, and a dying child. What a precious gift to have such companions to go before us and travel with us. Foster, kin, and adoptive families need these connections. Support groups, both in-person and online, buddy-families, respite providers, mentors. Families will have a more successful journey when they are able to learn from and share in the experiences of others.

“Slow down!” We live in a fast-paced world; we’re used to everything being instant, from the news to text messages – we never want to wait. Yet, sometimes, the best advice we can heed is the voice inside that is urging us to “slow down, go at the pace of the children . . .”

In our journey, we’ve learned that there are two ways to travel: to focus on the destination, or to enjoy the journey on its own terms. Each road trip will be filled with delays and detours. But when we focus on the journey, these detours can become “teachable moments,” not simply hassles to be endured. Sometimes we discover that what we thought was a detour is actually the best way after all.

Our children may not achieve developmental milestones at the same pace as other children. Healing from trauma takes time. Do not rush the process. Give children time, give parents time – time to attach, to heal, and to thrive.

Let me illustrate these life lessons with a couple of stories from our own family journey.

Father and son walking during the hiking activities in autumn forest at sunset

On one trip, when the kids were small, we hiked in the Appalachian Mountains. We covered a short distance on an easy walking trail.

I noticed many hikers passing us equipped with everything needed to make it to the top of the mountain. I grew envious. As I looked over my motley crew, my eyes fixed on my small son with cerebral palsy – a child who was predicted to never walk – picking his way along the mountain path.

My eyes filled with tears. I realized that he was every bit as successful as the pros with their fancy equipment. I learned an important lesson that day: it’s not about getting to the top, it’s about putting one foot in front of the other, and continuing the climb.

Sometimes, while on our journey, we get into accidents. The second story I’ll share involves a road trip with one of my daughters and her infant son. At three in the morning, I was getting sleepy and fighting my eyelids as they threatened to close.

The next thing I knew, I was in a ditch, upside down, pinned between the steering wheel and door. My grandson was crying and my daughter was unconscious. I was terrified that we’d never get out. Who would see us at this hour? From time to time, I’d see the glimmer of headlights on the road above. No one stopped.

Finally, a trucker stopped. He couldn’t fix us, but he stayed with us until an ambulance came. We all survived, although some scars remain.

What touched me so deeply was that the trucker stopped and stayed – not knowing if we could be fixed. It cost him time and set him back on his route. I think of him often when I get discouraged that I can’t always “fix” everything for my children, or when I don’t see complete healing from the damage and injuries they sustained by all kinds of brutal early life experiences. I’m reminded to look beyond the “wreck” – to see hope and possibilities for healing, just as the trucker did for us. I am reminded of the value of being the one who stops and stays even in the midst of seemingly
impossible circumstances.

These are just two of the lessons we’ve learned from taking road trips with our family. The precious memories have endured. We’ve also learned that, when travelling, you better take along a really good tool kit because, inevitably, you’ll
experience flat tires, get lost, the brakes will quit, etc. I hope you can join me at the A Place in My Heart conference on November 7 in Wisconsin Dells. I’ll share a bit more about our tool kit to help you think about what goes into yours.

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