As my family life was blossoming, my younger sister’s life was derailing. Arrested on federal drug charges, Wanda was serving a five-year prison sentence while her son Thomas lived with my parents. Trying to help as much as possible, but living two hours away, I began to see the toll caring for a busy four-year-old was having on my parents, especially my mom who was fighting her own terminal illness. I could see that Thomas was going to be more than they could handle due to the effects of his early childhood.
After some discussion, my husband and I felt there wasn’t another option for Thomas. Thomas would need to come live with us. So, just a few months after welcoming our new baby girl to our family, we also welcomed Thomas.
From the get-go things were a challenge. Thomas had experienced a lot of negative things in his short life and I really didn’t have the tools to handle all of the issues. Even though she was in prison a thousand miles away, Wanda challenged my decisions and my parenting frequently. Somehow, we muddled through it and things seemed to go well during his kindergarten year.
However, when we transferred him to a different school, it was evident he needed some additional support. A busy, hyper child, who struggled to understand personal boundaries, we had him tested for ADHD and saw some profound positive changes for Thomas once he was on medication. While his mom wasn’t pleased that we’d had him tested, Thomas himself was excited about the positive effects the medicine had on his life. He told me, “Aunt Julie, I like those little pills — they help me.” After a while, Thomas began to make friends, do better in school, and have a more positive attitude.
Even with the ADHD diagnosis and treatment, parenting Thomas was still a challenge. He and my son Morgan really clashed. And because Thomas needed so much, it really affected my relationship with Morgan. And really, I think I had unrealistic expectations for Morgan. I expected him to understand why Thomas was there and to appreciate all that he had that Thomas didn’t. I didn’t realize how much more Morgan needed because he, too, was experiencing all of this change and chaos. Those expectations and the impact of Thomas living with us on Morgan is something that still hurts me very much today.
It just really wasn’t easy for any of us. We all looked forward to the summer months when Thomas would spend extended time with my oldest sister, giving us time to refocus on our own family. And my heart ached for Thomas who had experienced so much trauma at such a young age, was separated from his mom, and never really felt like he had a home even though he lived with us for four years.
When I look back on that time, I realize how unprepared I was to parent a child from a tough place. We were just beginning to find our way as a family, when Thomas came to live with us and the challenges he presented were difficult. I wish I had access to more resources and had more tools to better meet his needs.
While difficult, I do think we provided Thomas with the consistency and unconditional love he needed during a difficult time for him. Even though his mother loved him very much, sometimes her drug dependencies got in the way of her parenting abilities. We showed Thomas what it was like to be in a typical family, experiencing all the things a child should — Boy Scouts, riding bikes, family vacations, and much more.
Letting Thomas go was equally difficult and almost a relief at the same time. When he lived with us I was stressed out and tired. My heart still aches because I love him and miss him, but I’m really happy to note that today Thomas and Wanda are reunited after five years apart. My sister is now married, in a healthy relationship and recently welcomed a baby girl into the world.
Looking back on our experience, I know I would have taken in Thomas again, but I don’t know that the rest of my family would make the same decision. It was a challenging time and affected us all. I know I would tell others considering taking in a relative to ask for help and utilize resources. I’d tell them to think about the impact it will have on their own children and let them know that they are just as important as they were before the other child came along. And finally, I would tell them to pray. I know at times, it was the only thing that got me through some of the challenges we faced.
Julie Lynn (Mills) Carpenter is 42, married to a man who was made just for her. She is a mother to four amazing children and grandmother to one beautiful boy. Carpenter works at Youth Emergency Services in their mentorship program and she finds generous, positive, caring people to place in the lives of youth in her community. She believes she has been blessed to find work that is rewarding and helps her make a difference in this world.
This article was shared with permission by EMK Press