Building Ramps

February 18, 2020

By Shannon Hanson

When we first got into foster care, I remember thinking that it would be such an amazing opportunity to get to help children become who they were meant to be by giving them love and stability. I thought that love would be enough to watch kids develop and change in ways they never had before. That they would be able to become healed and healthy and move forward as new versions of themselves. While in many ways this was a part of our experience, I had to come to terms with the reality that love, in fact, is not enough. That stability provides a basis for health but trauma changes the brain and the way the brain functions. And most importantly that relationships; real, healthy, loving relationships, were the best shot any of our kids had at a healthy life. It was then that I decided to put aside my notions of what I thought the transformations would look like and get into the business of building ramps. Because for those of us fostering and adopting children out of these hard places, we are in the business of ramp building.

Imagine I told you that a child was dropped off at our home in a wheelchair. That whatever had happened to them prior to becoming placed in our home had left them unable to walk. Whether it happened in utero or was the result of some sort of trauma after they were born, this was now their daily reality. Imagine me telling you now that upon becoming placed with us and getting love, stability, care, and a model of a healthy lifestyle I am expecting them to walk on their own any day now. To just hop up out of their chair and begin moving as if their legs just needed those three consistent meals a day and those extra hugs when getting tucked in at night. 

Now, imagine that not only is this a goal of mine but I have committed to picking the child up out of their chair and asking them to walk. Multiple times daily, I ask them to balance on their own and move their legs, watching them fall to the ground as their weight becomes too much to bear on legs that don’t have the ability to stand. The frustrations begin to mount quickly each time a new attempt to walk has been made. The relationship begins to suffer because I expected that my love and support would be enough to help them move beyond the assistance they rely on to move around. The burnout begins to take hold. Because they have love and safety and stability and yet, they still aren’t walking. What am I doing wrong? It might seem ridiculous but many of us unknowingly enter into this dynamic with the children we are dedicated to loving and protecting.

For many foster parents, this is a harsh reality. Our kids don’t come in wheelchairs that are visible to the eye. Their struggles with “walking” through life’s daily challenges may look to bystanders like defiant, intentional, maybe even premeditated action designed to rebel against this new healthy life we are trying to help them attain. What I needed was to stop focusing on the wheelchair and how to get them to walk out of it, and to decide to start building ramps instead. Do I believe that miracles can happen and someone could walk after years and years of rehab and recovery? Of course. But for now, the time I have however long it is, I am going to make sure they can wheel into any place they want to go by building ramps to anywhere they haven't been.

Reframing the ways I was viewing a child’s behavior and choices by accepting that our kids have adapted (or maladapted) supports that they have come to depend on to survive. Whether it’s trauma, brain damage, the inability to move out of the fight, flight, or freeze part of their brain, or understanding that their neglect has left them unable to move past a daily struggle for survival rendering them incapable of trusting the people around them, these “wheelchairs” our kids come to us in are not just going to disappear overnight with nurture and care. And honestly, we should never ever expect them to. What we should expect going into each placement is that we are going to tire ourselves, work ourselves to the bone, building ramps for them daily to get into every single place they want or need to go because they have never been able to get there before. We need to expect to be looking for tools, new and old, to help us with our construction. Rely on experts who have been building ramps longer than we have to help guide us in the ways we can utilize the space we have to build the sturdiest path for our kids moving forward.

Fellow foster/adoptive parents, this is exhausting! We are so tired by the end of the day because when you grow up knowing how to walk you don’t realize how many obstacles there are every day to get to where you need to go when you are relying on a wheelchair to get you there. We have to build ramps on the spot or turn around and leave because there's just no way you can make it work for today. We have to come prepared for all things because we don't know what tools we might need just to get through lunch or a visit with friends. Sometimes it’s easier to just stay home where people don't question what we are doing. Because our kid’s wheelchairs are invisible, to most outsiders looking in it is hard to understand what we are working so hard at building. To an untrained eye, our children’s struggles may just look like misbehavior, anger, rebellion, manipulation or mistrust. 

To all you ramp builders out there, you are doing the good work. The hard work that leaves your hands calloused and your body exhausted. Sometimes you want to quit because it’s hard. Too hard. And that’s ok. Sometimes you need to walk away for a bit because you just want them to get up out of the chair already. It’s been a year, two years, 10. Do we really still need a ramp to get us there? 

To all you ramp builders, you are my heroes. You do the work that never gets seen. You find yourself without your circle because they don’t understand why you just can’t chill anymore. They don’t know you've been up every night reading about ways to build these ramps. They don’t know the struggle to recover from a day of hard mental, emotional and physical labor. They don’t know the weight of all that you carry around.

But they also don’t see the look in your child's eyes when they finally enter into a new place for the first time because a long fought for and constructed ramp helped them get there. They don’t see the pride on their faces when they finally feel like they are an active participant in something they have been an observer of for so long. And they don’t know that the toughest, bravest, most amazing people may be stuck at the bottom of some stairs hiding behind anger, fear and silence waiting for someone to come alongside them and say, we can do this together.

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