Essay in The New York Times Motherlode

My new piece in the NYT Motherlode is about shifting your own expectations in the middle of a child’s anger. What is the goal when we go toe-to-toe with a child?

Children can’t understand how anger works unless we encourage them to wrestle it with safe people. Their attempts may be uncomfortable or excessive.

Read Teaching Your Child to Wrangle, Not Reject, Rage and share it on Facebook, Twitter or Google+.

Jennifer Pastiloff Features “The Way Things Overlap” on Manifest-Station

Those places in us we hide in shame? We can stop hiding. We can forgive ourselves. We can move on. Maybe we won’t be great, but we’ll be better. Maybe not even good, but better. Believing in others is ultimately about believing in yourself.

To read more, click The Way Things Overlap.

Then follow me on Twitter @iwritedeb and Jennifer @JenPastiloff.

Essay Questions the Efficacy of Foster Care

I have new essay up in STIR Journal about foster care.

In rural Oregon, an 11-year-old girl wearing a pair of plastic sandals walked 13 miles to a local tavern and convinced a man she didn’t know to drive her two and a half hours north to Long Beach, Wash. She was sick of foster care. She wanted to go home.

A 2011 survey reported that 13 percent of all foster children run away at least once, and another 9 percent abandon their foster homes to live with friends. When 22 percent of any child population flees the system which adults have provided to keep them safe, something is wrong. These youth may have insights the rest of us fail to see. Studies show foster care is a highway to health problems, homelessness, early pregnancy, arrest, incarceration, and sex trafficking. And those are the lucky kids. Foster care alumni are five times more likely to commit suicide and eight times more likely to be hospitalized for a serious psychiatric disorder.

Then again, decades of research show that childhood maltreatment interrupts healthy emotional, behavioral, and cognitive development, so we can chalk up the poor outcomes to abuse that occurred before these children were rescued, right?

Click the title to read the rest of the article:U.S. FOSTER CARE: A FLAWED SOLUTION THAT LEADS TO MORE LONG-TERM PROBLEMS?

“Listen to Your Mother” PDX Wowed the Crowd!

LTYM Selfie of cast

I never would have believed that getting up on a stage in front of 300 people and reading “The Secret Life of Mr. Potato Head” about a child masturbating with a vibrating toy would have flown. But it did.

And the stories of the other thirteen women who shared the stage with me, one at a time, flew too. We rocked the role of motherhood right off that stage and into the hearts and minds of those who listened. We talked about poo, and pee, and puke (requisites, all) and flight attendant voices when we wanted to scream. Our stories pondered our own mothers having sex (ew!), the need for the term neo-mom, the secrets that mothers and daughters keep from one another, and the elation when a mother’s gay children finally have the right to marry. We talked about how sad we were when our bodies tired from years of starving ourselves to be thin, refused to concieve, the grief of divorce burning into a flame bright and hot enough to forge gold with our ex in order to create a new way of being with our child. We raved about exhaustion and how we need to stop being mean to other women and trust we are goddesses all, and how losing a birthmother and finding her again is a gift that is worth the journey. We refused to accept “Your hands are full” as anything but the beauty of “My heart is full, too.” We shared our fears about post-partum anxiety, and the relief of discovering one isn’t alone; the messy beauty of finding out one is pregnant and the love of a stepfather who hugs us and says, “I’ll go tell your mom,” and we laughed, and the crowd laughed with us over the humor of teaching our children to swear, only to have them shouting “HUCK!” while trying to pull a tooth from their mouth in the middle of Fred Meyers.

Motherhood has been forever. Our stories lit up the stage for one fine day. It was beautiful.

LTYM stage bow

Top Ten Reasons I’m Grateful to My Kids’ Birth Parents

10. They treat me with respect. They understand their children love me even if they don’t.

9. They have tenacity. They’ve been beaten down, judged, dismissed, deemed inadequate, and they still stand tall. They never forget they have value, even when others act as if they don’t.

8. They grow beyond their failures. Despite having lost what matters most to them, they continue striving, even when other people try to hold them to their past.

7. They don’t judge me even though I judged them. Even though everyone around them did. Even though their children did.

6. They forgive me for being too harsh, bitchy, condescending, scolding, apathetic toward their children…or to them. They understand everyone fails some of the time. They have first-hand experience with what others deem as failure. They don’t give it too much weight.

4. They believe in their children. They see the good and decent traits. They expect them to succeed.

3. They give their children a history. They remind them where they got their ocean-blue eyes, their wily grin. They know who their child was named for and who was there when they first crawled.

2. They answer hard questions. From the court. From their families. From the mouths of babes. Why weren’t you there for me? Why can’t I come home? Why did you choose him instead of me? They answer questions most of us would not want to face.

1. They love their kids enough to welcome them home as young adults. No matter who they are or what they’ve done.

From One Kind of Boxer to Another

Some time back, I was at an elementary school and met a little guy who was having a hard day. He had been sent to the principal’s office for hitting other children, and he was perseverating about one of his favorite topics: vacuum cleaners. Did I have a vacuum cleaner? he wondered. I said I did. What brand? Darned if I could remember.

“Maybe a Hoover,” I said.

You don’t know? I shook my head. Can you draw me a picture of it? I told him I couldn’t draw well and asked him to draw it for me. What does it look like?

I described my upright vacuum while he asked me if it was short or tall, if it had a rotating beater brush and what kind of attachments it had. Does it have an extender rod? Could it suck up a dead mouse?

I asked how old he was. He ignored me. I asked what kind of vacuum he had at home.


“That’s a good one,” I said.

Do you have a shop vac? I said I do. What brand? I didn’t know. He was incredulous.
What kind of vacuum do you use to vacuum your car?

“I don’t usually vacuum my car. What do you like besides vacuums?” I asked.

He ignored my question. Can you please draw your vacuum? He passed me a piece of paper and a blue Crayola. I asked him for a brown crayon instead.

You have a brown vacuum? What brand is it?

He watched me draw from across the desk; the image was upside down to him. That’s a funny kind of vacuum.

I kept drawing, adding a table with plates on it and a few bits of food on the floor. I turned the picture around to show him.

A smile spread on his face. Your vacuum is a dog?

“Boxer brand,” I said.

I told him I thought it would be a good idea if he didn’t hit others–maybe he could earn more time using vacuums. “You could even study them. That way,” I said, “you ‘ll be an expert, and you will be able to design better vacuum cleaners than anyone else and maybe someday you’ll design your own brand of vacuums with your name on them.”

He grinned ear to ear.

I believe it. This child’s passion could translate into that kind of success. But first he needs a little guidance.

I wanted to talk about one thing, but we end up talking about another. If we’re patient and let them lead, sometimes children come along.

The Gift I Regret

JPEG A 0566The value of a parting gift is a matter of perspective, depending on whether you inhabit the point of view of the deserted or the departed. The last gift I gave my father was arrogant and cruel, although I didn’t know it at the time. We were coming home from chemo, and his arm, swollen deep-purple red from edema, throbbed worse than the incision from the base of his neck to the crown of his head where the doctors split the skin and the skull to probe at the brain.

“Really, Dad?” I said when he told me he was having brain surgery. He was terminally ill with bone cancer. It seemed absurd to undergo such an invasive procedure given that he was facing the end.

“I don’t want that goddam thing in my brain,” he said.

He was agitated when he came back from surgery. The nurse handed him a cup of ice chips to suck.

“I don’t want ice. I want a goddam steak!”

He always was a meat and potatoes kind of guy. He probably was always stubborn too, but I didn’t notice until he got sick. He refused to ride in a wheelchair for the follow-up MRI. He wore his own thick socks, slippery on the waxed floors. It took two orderlies, one on each side, and a nurse behind him, as he shuffled one painstaking step after the other down the long hospital corridor to the radiology department. I don’t remember if Dad ever owned slippers. When I picture him as I remember him from my youth, I see his flat top haircut, blue jeans, and, when he wasn’t working, a double knit shirt with pocket over his heart, the pocket he always reached for, the pocket that held his cigarettes.

Dad in LR 1978

He held a cigarette in his right hand so consistently that it could have been a sixth finger, smoldering between his index and his middle finger (the one that carried the tip of a lead pencil from when a boy in school had stabbed him years earlier). I’d asked him to quit smoking since elementary school, when I saw a commercial with the district attorney Hamilton Burger  (played by William Talman) from the Perry Mason series. I loved Perry Mason. I loved Della Street. I loved Paul Drake. I even liked the district attorney. If any one of them had said that it was bad to eat candy, I would have believed them.  It wasn’t common knowledge—at least in my world—that smoking could kill you. Cigarette ads were still routinely shown on television. William Talman’s commercial haunted me. I pestered Dad to quit from then on.

My dad without a cigarette? Unimaginable. There were always a couple of cartons on top of the refrigerator, waiting for him to slide another package out the end, to tuck the pack in his left breast pocket.Dad smoked for years, even when he was so sick with cancer that he could hardly raise himself out of his recliner. Even when he was so weak he could no longer walk to the bathroom. (He damned well wasn’t going to rent a commode or buy a urinal; he used an emptied coffee can.) He expected to beat cancer. Who could blame him for hoping? He was 59.

Fifty-nine years old, and I was driving him home from chemo that warm July day. He’d stopped driving a couple weeks earlier; he knocked the mirror off of a parked car when he wandered out of his lane. He didn’t want to kill somebody, he said, so he let me drive him after that.

“Pull in and stop right there,” he said. “Will you run in and get me a carton?”

“No, Dad.”


“I’ve never bought them for you. I’m not going to start now.” Recently, I’d said yes to other things. Yes to fixing his coffee so he could drink it through a straw. Yes to sponging his lips when he was too tired to drink. Yes to helping him fumble his penis into an empty coffee can so he could pee. On that particular righteous and awful day, I said no.

He nodded softly at me and opened the car door. I watched him stagger thirty feet to the storefront. He pulled the glass door open as if it were lead, as if he had not spent his entire adult life falling trees and packing out deer, as if the door required the last bit of resolve he held. He waited in line behind two redneck punks in sawed-off pants and red suspenders. They jostled one another and bullshitted with the clerk while my dad stood in line, wobbling with the effort it took him to stand.

I sat in the driver’s seat and watched him as he made his way to pay. He leaned on the counter for support, handed over the money, and took the carton of cigarettes from the clerk. He shuffled slowly… slowly… slowly back to the car, clutching the Benson & Hedges 100s to his chest as if they were gold. It was the last carton he would ever buy. It contained the last pack he would ever open. The last cigarette he would ever smoke. Maybe I hoped he wouldn’t ask. Maybe he knew that I refused out of love. Maybe it was fair. I had always thought of my unwillingness to contribute to his habit as a gift. But the last time he asked, I wish I’d said yes.  
JPEG B 0657

Move. Move. Move.

This week’s theme for Jane Ann McLachlan’s October Challenge is relationships. So many of our relationships are the result of proximity. We meet someone because they live, work, or play near us. I began thinking about how my many moves have affected my ability to establish, maintain, and release relationships.

From birth to high school graduation, I moved at least fifteen times, but probably closer to twenty. Most of those moves meant a new school, new teachers, new friends. When you have so many people and places changing in your world, it’s hard to have a clear narrative of your own life, let alone of the people who are constantly passing by.


When I began writing my memoir about two years ago, my memories were a jumbled mess. I could hardly remember what had happened when. I had a slightly better recollection of where certain things happened. I began visiting the exteriors of places I had lived, so that I could figure out the order of my memories. I still have gaps, but each time I revisit a place I have lived, I build a little more structure on which to hang my past.

Between the ages of 18 and 20, I lived in eight more residences before landing in Vancouver, Washington where I started attending Clark College. Within a couple years, I got pregnant.

My twin sons and I moved eight more times before we settled in Oregon when they were six. During those years, I had a number of beater cars: Ford Mustang II, Chevy Capris, a green Ford Pinto, a yellow Ford Pinto, Buick Skylark, and a Mercury Zephyr. I had a bunch of jobs, too, working my way up from Dairy Queen to Bonneville Power to the Social Security Administration to becoming an electrician’s apprentice in Local 48.  

When my sons and I moved to share the home of my husband-to-be on the 13 acres he owned, we found the consistency I’d always sought.For the first couple of years, all was quiet. Or as quiet as any home with two working parents and twin boys can be. And then, the other children began to come. Some left. More came. It went on like this for a decade, by which time, our family looked like this: 

foster family home - Names removed

In thinking about how proximity begets relationship, I can’t help but believe that my early childhood changes: learning to adapt, make anew, create a family out of whoever was close, promoted my later life choices. I was adamant that my sons would have stability and would finish school in the place they started. They would know the constancy of both their parents actively participating in their lives. And they did.

I didn’t see it at the time but it’s ironic and a little sad for me to recognize that the stability I strove for on their behalf was compromised when we became a revolving family system comprised of additional children who started their lives in families other than our own.


Morning Routine: 2001

Three a.m.
I wake up spontaneously. Stare at the clock. When I’m writing the first draft of something, I leap up, but this week I’m on an edit, so I roll over and go back to sleep.

Five a.m.
Something nudges me testing the receptiveness of an early morning probe. I slap it down. Any minute a teenager will poke his head in asking for gas money.

Two-year-old Jonathan calls from his bedroom. “Mommmmeee. Mommmmeee..”

I get up. Bang on the bathroom door. One of the teenage boys is in there counting zits or applying toilet paper to tiny nicks. I try to see through the half inch hole made by the broom handle when they tried that Bruce Lee trick. It just looks dark in there. “Do you have the light off?” I ask.

“Mom, there are laws against peeping.” he says.

“You’re gonna think peeping when I remove the door so I can get INTHEREWHENIWANTTO!”

I rescue the toddler from the crib. Never mind he could scale his way out with a bottle in one hand at ten months. When you’re two, you have to be lifted up…but only when you ask to be. Never in busy parking lots, on fast escalators, or in clothing stores that have lots of low-hanging racks on which to swing.

I start coffee.

The three high school boys head out the door. They holler afternoon schedules over their shoulders. I remind them not to say “pissed off” even if they are. Their expressions remind me I’m so lame.

Four middle-sized kids crunch through bowls of cereal.

I pour the two-year-old a cup of juice. Put on Lion King. Throw in a load of laundry. Go back to the bathroom. Occupied. In my nicest shrill-evil-mother voice I demand she vacate.

“I’m washing my hair,” she hollers back.

“Mommmeeee… Go-go.” The two-year old wants to watch Inspector Gadget.

“Earth to ADHD warriors. Come in please.” For some reason, taking medicine and doing chores is more palatable when children are permitted to be warriors, monsters or ninjas with nineteen syllable names they can pronounce perfectly, despite not being able to utter “please” at the dinner table.

I dole out Concerta and Wellbutrin to ensure two children will make it through the school day. Sign my daughter’s behavior sheet for Special Ed. Brush hair out her beautiful eyes. She shakes it back.

I race to the bathroom. Vacancy! I pee. The two-year-old bangs on the door.

“Mommmeee… Ayee.”

Alice in Wonderland. Not the cartoon, the one with Whoopee Goldberg as the Cheshire Cat. Two-year-olds have trouble deciding which movie to open their day with and hey, if he wants some delusional, drug-induced fairy tale, far be it from me to stand in his way.

I run upstairs (not upstairs at all, but a mobile home adjacent to our home) and make sure my mother-in-law’s schedule is in order. Set her pills out in plain sight so she won’t forget to take them.

Hubby gives me the one-eyebrow waggle. He thinks it’s sexy in a Jack-Nicholson-when-he-was-young-and-virile kinda way.

“That thing gets any bushier, “I say, “you’re gonna need a license for it.”

Seven fifteen.
Eat, children, eat. A child’s appetite is inversely proportionate to the amount of food a parent thinks they might consume. Buy three large deep dish pizzas…nobody’s hungry. Buy one…everyone’s starved. My middle-sizers purposely eat slow so they can slurp the milk from the bowl at the last minute. This despite years of nagging that drinking from bowls will cause your tongue to lap backward like a dog’s.

I lock one dog in the kennel and two in the back hall. I kick the four middle-sized kids out the door in time for them to run up the ¾ mile hill to catch the bus. They have time if nobody starts an argument. It’s a little known fact that the hip bone is connected to the jaw bone. If the jaw bone gets going, the hip bone is paralyzed. Some break dancers accommodate for this by wearing baggy pants that appear to move when they shuffle their feet.

I turn on the computer.

Seven forty-five.
Supervise the two-year-old making his own toast, so he doesn’t dip the knife back in the peanut butter after licking it. Or electrocute himself.

I let the dogs out of their respective holding cells. Feed them. Throw in another load of laundry. Stare at the mound of unfolded laundry from the day before. Pray for a vision of the Virgin on my sofa. I’m pretty sure if the vision was there, the laundry would auto-fold.

The phone rings. A salesman wants to sell me a new windshield.

I tell him he doesn’t sell the the kind of shield I need. He can’t find the response to that on his super-duper-cold-call-sales-teleprompter card they gave him, and hangs up on me.

“Mommmmeeeeee. Me-ow.” Cats. Yes! God Bless Andrew Lloyd Webber. I can grab a quick shower. I’ve got my lather and rinse down to a few seconds less than the “Jellicle Cats”.

Unless it needs a rewind.

The Fork in the Road

Until eighth grade, my brother Jimmy and I hung out together: building forts, camping in the backyard, riding mini-bikes, catching frogs and fish. I was bossy; he was mean. We got in trouble for bickering, but I still tagged along with him and his friend Tim to go fishing or play football in the field behind our house.

After dark we played a game of reverse hide and go seek where the seekers climbed in with the person who was hiding until the last person, wandering the neighborhood alone, stumbled upon a writhing pile of kids who launched themselves from the hiding spot, screaming, “Bloody Murder!” Everyone ran until someone was tagged. That summer, I got a job cleaning kennels at Blue Cross Veterinary Clinic.
IMG_2531 (2)I mixed fifty-gallon garbage cans of dry kibble with #10 cans of wet food, and then served the mixed glop to the dogs; filled the water and food bowls, and cleaned the litter boxes for the cats. On some occasions, I assisted the doctor in surgery, handing him tools while a cat lay stretched out on its back, each limb tied to a corner of the stainless steel table.My favorite job occurred each spring when people brought in baby deer when the doe had been hit by a car. We had a half dozen spotted fawns in a cyclone fence kennel out back. I heated formula, poured it into baby bottles, then held a bottle in each hand as the fawns sucked vigorously two at time. The waiting fawns rose up on spindly hind legs, trying to nudge those eating away from the bottles.

I saved my earnings to buy a two-year old buckskin filly named Star Catcher. I was mesmerized by the way her coat shone in the sunlight like a copper penny.
Star and Deb 1974 FairI spent my free time doing homework, working, or walking to the little pasture and barn I rented for $5 per month. Although they didn’t have much money, my parents gave me a bankbook with an open loan—the balance was usually around $125 dollars—to pay for hay, feed, and veterinary costs. They wrote the balance off a time or two as a Christmas or birthday gift, but mostly I worked to pay the costs associated with having a horse: riding lessons, horse shows, going to the county fair.

I often babysat my little sister Charlene. By the time she was three, I’d prop her on the banana seat of my pink Schwinn and pedal us to the barn. I knew almost nothing about training horses, but I read everything I could get my hands on at the county bookmobile that parked in our neighborhood every other week.

Star Catcher’s eager disposition and my inexperience were a good combination. She came running from the field, nickering when I called her name, no oats or grain, happy to see me. Charlene would play on the bales of hay or pick flowers in the field while I lunged Star until her response to voice control was impeccable. Even without a halter or lead rope, she would back or sidestep with a verbal command.I tapped beside her jaw and she would lower her head so I could lean across her neck, then tapped again, and she lifted my lean eighty pounds to slide from her neck to her back. I lay back on her, my belly skyward, head on her rump, watching the clouds, feeling her move under me as she grazed. When she was safe to ride with a bridle in the field, I began taking her on neighborhood roads.On hot days, my friends and I rode our horses five miles down the old highway to the river. When we arrived, I’d strip Star’s saddle and blanket, climb back on, and swim her out into the cold mountain water until I was waist deep on her back, only her head and neck visible, black tail snaking out behind us like inky kelp. Star Catcher replaced Jimmy as my constant companion.

The summer after eighth grade, I started going with a boy next door. Kyle had the broad shoulders of a swimmer. He wore square black glasses perched on his slender nose, framed by blue eyes and blond hair. His ruddy lips seemed to mark high school trumpet players. He was always busy with jazz and marching band, but he made time for me. That cinched it. Between a horse, a job, and a boy, there was no time in my life for my brother. By then, Jimmy was smoking. Within a short time, he was using drugs. I hardly noticed; he was no longer in my field of vision, not even on the periphery. I didn’t feel the loss until years later. If Jimmy missed me, he never said. He was a prime example of Newton’s first law: he was headed for trouble and would continue at the same velocity and direction until he crashed.