Expecting the Unexpected with Guest Renee Hettich

Parenting is often full of the unexpected. This week’s guest, Renee Hettich, has 25 years of experience parenting children with histories of adversity as a foster, adoptive and kinship parent through which she has learned to expect the unexpected. Listen in as Renee shares with the Mental Health Mamas about some of the things she’s learned along the way as well as both the unexpected challenges and joys her children have brought her over the years.

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Serena: Hey Everyone, I’m Serena.

Tina: And I’m Tina and we are the Mental Health Mamas.


Serena: Welcome to No Need to Explain, we are so glad you’re here.

Tina: First, as always, a quick disclaimer.

Serena: We come to you NOT as mental health professionals or experts in the field, but rather as the parents of kids who struggle with their emotional health.

Tina: If you or someone you love is experiencing a mental health crisis, please seek professional support. You’ll find a variety of resources in our show notes and on our website, NoNeedToExplainPodcast.com.

Serena: For any of our regular podcast listeners, you know that in my family things often do not go as planned.

Tina: Serena, I love your family and hope that I am not offending you when I say….that is an understatement.

Serena: OK, yes, that is true. And yet, we do try to laugh about those moments and perhaps learn from them as well. Today, we are excited to introduce our guest to you who is a fellow mama and has definitely learned the art of expecting the unexpected. In fact, she has written a book called, My Kids Know More Than Me! And lesson one is “Expect the Unexpected”.

Tina: We’ve invited Renee Hettich here today to share with you some of her lived experience as a parent, as well as her expertise as a social worker and her work around trauma and Adverse Childhood Experiences (we sometimes call that ACEs). This is an important topic that touches almost all of our lives in one way or another and Renee has so many valuable things to share as both a context and a content expert that we’ve decided to split this into two different episodes. So today’s episode will focus on Renee’s lived experience.

Serena: Renee, welcome to the podcast!

Renee: Thanks so much for inviting me. This is such an important opportunity to talk about the unexpected and I’m just honored to be here.

Serena: So let’s start with Lesson One from your book, “Expect the Unexpected”. You write, “My life plan has certainly taken many twists and turns that were never expected. As a child, I dreamt about finishing school, getting married, living in a beautiful home, excelling in my career, having two healthy children and being happy. My real life, however, looks very different from my childhood plan.” Tell us about your “real life”.

Renee: Right. Thanks Serena. So for the past twenty-five years I have been parenting children with histories of adversity as a foster parent, adoptive parent and kinship parent. Kinship parent means that I’m caring for a young person who is not my biological child or adopted child but just happens to be a family friend. And all of my children, over the last 25 years, have brought unexpected challenges and unexpected joys. So I just want to kind of highlight some of those things.

So, you know, my first daughter was a planned adoption from The People’s Republic of China. And I was on the plane headed to China and all I could think about was I just wished my child was healthy and I can deal with anything else, right. Two weeks before I boarded the plane they told me she’s a healthy, happy little girl who is 11 months old and then I got to China. I met her Sunday night outside of the elevators on the 11th floor of our hotel room. And our first night together was very quiet but I was very concerned. She was very tiny. She was 11 months old. Only 15 pounds. She was wearing clothes that I had sent to the orphanage ahead of time for a newborn child. That’s how tiny she was at 11 months. She immediately refused to eat, she was restless, something didn’t seem right. The next morning she continued to refuse to eat and we boarded the van to go adopt her at the government offices. And she just very quickly began to deteriorate and she became limp in my arms, lethargic, not responding. It was terrifying. So I alerted the professionals and we got whisked off to a local children’s hospital. And the medical care there was about 40 years behind us.

Tina: Wow.

Renee: Including no running water, by the way at this hospital.

Tina: Oh, geez.

Renee: But you know what, they saved her life. There’s no question about it. She had multiple medical challenges that have continued throughout her childhood and that was very unexpected, right. On the plane my expectation was this healthy, happy little girl and when I got there she was, you know, deathly ill. Another day she may not have made it. You know they think that early start in her life with severe deprivation for a year in the orphanage with starvation and physical health issues then brought a life long of challenges and unexpected realities to our family. And we continue to adapt to the uniquenesses of my daughter. And we’ve learned a lot about resilience from her. So she certainly brought a lot of unexpected joys and challenges to our family.

And then I moved from that adoption to my second daughter who was also a planned adoption from China. And actually her adoption went very smoothly, everything went along, everything was kind of expected. She did have extreme developmental delays. She also lived in an orphanage for a year. And you know, at nine months old she couldn’t hold her head up, she couldn’t roll over, she couldn’t interact. But what was unexpected in her was this miraculous resiliency. Within two months she went from unable to hold her head up to walking around the kitchen. And in two months she grew two inches, two pounds and two shoe sizes.

Tina: Wow.

Renee: And now she’s a college athlete. So I think the unexpectedness was the overwhelming quick response she had to a nurturing home and how resilient she was.

Tina: So let me stop you there. I’m just gonna interject a little bit and say, so Renee, that sounds like a lot of agility as a parent to adapt to all these circumstances, right?

Renee: Right.

Tina: Yeah.

Renee: Yeah. I mean the flexibility you need as a parent to juggle all the balls in the air as they’re falling around you. You know, it certainly makes life interesting. You’re absolutely right. I mean, the expectations I had going in for my first two daughter’s adoptions, you know, were grandiose and probably pretty naïve. And then the reality of meeting the needs of these two children who had very unexpected challenges. Both of which, these two young people are incredibly resilient. But you as a parent also have to be resilient and be ready to change and adapt and be open. So yeah, absolutely.

Serena: Mmhm. But then you weren’t done.

Renee: I wasn’t done. You know, there’s three additional children that came in to my family very unexpectedly. So you know, two and done was the plan, right?

Serena: Right.

Renee: I was working for an adoption agency and the agency called and said, we have this little guy in Guatemala that they couldn’t find a family for, which in my mind was unimaginable. So I said, I’ll find a family. And I hunted and hunted and I could find no family who would consider this little guy, so I finally said, I’ll be his mom. So I hustled, right. A lot of paperwork, a lot of hoops you have to jump through to adopt internationally. I got it all done, moving forward, matched with this little guy and then his birth mother decided to parent. And I was thrilled for them that this little guy and his mom will remain together but I was also devastated at the same time because I was ready to become the parent of another child. Then of course it didn’t take long before the agency called again two days later saying, you know what, there’s another little boy who they presume came into the world prematurely. We don’t know for sure but he was very tiny at a month old. And asked me to bring him into our family and I of course agreed immediately. Nine months later I was in Guatemala picking up this little guy who is not a little guy any more. He’s now 14 and he’s almost six feet tall and becoming a young man. And it’s exciting but challenging to adapt and be flexible around that. But he also brings these incredible talents and he’s gotta be the funniest kid I’ve ever met. He keeps our house laughing, that is for sure. So his adoption was completely unexpected and it’s brought great joy to us.

Tina: And so...was that all?

Renee: That wasn’t all. So I think the next two situations are probably the most unexpected and have probably been the most challenging for our family. You know, I really wanted my son to have a brother and I felt prepared to parent another child. So I decided to pursue the adoption of a little boy who was almost 8 who had a hand deformity and an arm deformity. I thought, well I can do that, right. And you know there was trepidation, I was a little concerned, there was little information coming out of China about this child. The adoption agency was very withholding of information even when pressed by me. You know, they just kept saying, he’s just a little guy with some developmental delays from an orphanage, you know, that’s it. Otherwise he’s a healthy little guy. So we all traveled to China and I would say within the first 30 seconds of meeting him at the government office in China, I knew that our family's lives had been changed forever. Because I knew in that moment that this child was a multiply disabled child who was gonna need life-long care. He’s profoundly autistic, spina bifida, he does have an arm deformity, heart condition, functionally non-verbal, mental health issues of OCD, sensory sensitivities...I mean the list goes on and on and on. You know, and I think his challenges have created the most challenge in our family. I think the difference between the expectation going in and the reality was so wide that it’s very difficult to be that adaptable and that flexible, right. All my other kids were very unexpected circumstances but not to the extent that this young boy is for us. So he certainly has created challenges not only for me as the parent, but for his siblings, right, who expected a little brother who they could hang out with, play games with, you know, watch movies with and that just isn’t the case. His adoption has certainly brought joy but a great deal of stress to the family unit.

And then the last unexpected joy… Again, this house was full. And then we were out on a Sunday afternoon and my daughter gets a phone call from her best friend, who informed her that he is now homeless and had nowhere to go. And he was a junior in high school at the time. So on a Sunday evening at 11pm I picked him off the street and he’s been living with us ever since. So he’s been with us now four and a half years. Completely unexpected, turned on a dime, had minutes to get ready for this young person to join our family. You know, and again, he’s brought these incredible new experiences to our family, great fun, great joy, but challenges as well.

I’ve learned from each one of these kids. I learned from the expectations and the unexpected challenges. And I think it is finding the strength and flexibility as the parent to adapt and to really, you know, break through the expectations and really embrace the unexpected.

Tina: For sure. Yeah, so we’ve known each other awhile and until I read your book I did not know about all these things and I certainly do appreciate all your candidness about all of it. And I wonder if you could share a bit about the actual adoption process and what that looked like for you? You know, the kind of before you met the child thing. Is it a lengthy process?

Renee: It varies. I can say to you for inter-country adoption or international adoption, it’s a predictable system with a lot of unpredictability within it. So I know that for every child that gets adopted, every family has to go through a similar process. We all have to have a home study investigation completed by a licensed social worker that says yes, this is a safe home for a child. We all have to be an approved adoptive family. And then once we do that because we’re adopting a foreign-born child we then have to get approved by the United States Homeland Security Citizenship and Immigration Services. So that takes...that’s a process you have to go through for approval. And then once you’re approved by our government, you then have to be accepted by the foreign government whether it’s Guatemala, China, South Korea, wherever you’re adopting from. So once you’re approved by that country, that’s when you can start being asked to consider a child for adoption. And then once you’re matched with a child you travel to the country, adopt the child and immigrate the child into the United States. Every adoption follows that same path for inter-country adoption. I’m not speaking about adoption from foster care. I’m not speaking about private adoption. International adoption we all follow that same path. It can take as little as 9 to 12 months or it can take as much as 5 years. My adoptions...the quickest adoption I did was about a year and a half and the longest adoption was actually my first daughter which was 2 and a half years.

Serena: So knowing that long, kind of drawn out process and all of the, you know, pieces that go into it and all the delays and the unexpected things that come up I can imagine there are so many feelings wrapped up in the process of adoption for you. So how do you manage all of that?

Renee: Yeah. You know, the adoption process is an emotional roller coaster, right? You’re excited about becoming a mom but you’re fearful of the unknown and the unexpected. You’re anxious, you’re joyous, you’re surprised, you’re frustrated, you’re concerned, you’re trepidatious. Can I parent this child? You’re worried. I mean all of that is just continual as you’re waiting, when the child arrives, even 20 years later I’m still on this emotional roller coaster.

But I think the one thing that people really don’t understand and acknowledge in adoption is most people think it’s a joyous bringing together of a family and it is! But I think it’s also important to know that all adoption comes from loss, right. It all comes with great sadness because your child loses their birth family, the birth family loses their child. In my case, my children have lost their country of origin, their language, right, their culture. So it’s this joyous bringing together of your family but it also contains tremendous loss. That is something that you as an adoptive family navigate through and support life-long for your family and for your children.

Tina: Yeah. Yeah. Like you said, that is probably the piece that hardly anyone ever really recognizes and I appreciate you acknowledging that deep sense of loss that comes with adoption. And, yeah, as we all know being a parent is hard. Harder for some of us than others. And when things were not going well in my house I really struggled to verbalize that. You and I have talked about this before. Finally I kind of settled on saying to my kids who were not displaying the best behavior, “I love you, but I do not like your behavior right now.” I think it’s something that all parents struggle with at one time or another, and of course these are the things we only say directly to them, right? Yet it’s, you know, we don’t really feel comfortable even talking with other parents about it so it’s a weird part of our world. So tell us about your experience with this.

Renee: Yeah, it’s so interesting that you say that at the very end about, you know, even parents don’t talk to each other about it, right. And I think even more so when it becomes an adoptive or foster family because, you know, we made the choice to build our families in this way. So quite often, you know, as we experience challenges and voice them, what we get back from the general population is, well, you asked for this, right? You knew what you were getting into and that just, you know, puts up that barrier even more for adoptive and foster families to come and be open about the fact that, you know what? This is hard. Because adoptive and foster parents are supposed to be super people. That’s how we’re supposed to be. That’s how we’re portrayed, right? That we’re super-human parents. We’re professional parents. We’re supposed to… So this makes it harder for foster/adoptive families to say, you know what, this is really hard for me because of the expectations. We just talked about expectations. Because of the expectations of our society and who we are, our own personal expectations, right. We are trained parents. We are supposed to be able to do this. So I think it makes it a little harder even for us to say, you know what? This is really hard. And it is. It’s the hardest job. And when you’re parenting children who have, you know, adversity in their histories, developmental disabilities, mental health challenges, physical health challenges, learning challenges, it even makes it more complex.

So, you know, I think what you’re talking about in terms of, “ I love you but”. I think our society portrays all parents, particularly foster and adoptive parents, though we’re in love with our children, we like them and we love them all the time. You know what? That’s not true. I mean there are times, I always love my children, but there are times I don’t particularly like them. And that’s OK. I think we need to allow parents to acknowledge that and be OK with that and accept that. That there are gonna be times when it’s not fun, right? It’s a challenge and I don’t necessarily like you right now and that’s OK. Because some of our kids have some, you know, mental health challenges, behavioral challenges, learning challenges that even make it more difficult to connect. You know, quite often, I don’t know about you guys but for my kids I sit back and I’m perplexed by their behaviors. I’m challenged with them, I’m upset with them, I’m angry, I’m worried. I’ve got all of these emotions going through me and a lot of that prevents the connection I want. In the professional circles we call it “blocked care”. We just can’t seem to connect with our kids because of that block or that feeling of failure as a parent. That worry of can I actually parent this kiddo. And again I think it’s OK to have those feelings and I think we have to acknowledge that and allow parents to sit there in that and empathize and support them through it.

Tina: Well and I think we always tell our kids, all feelings are valid, right? Have all your feels and you know, just be appropriate about them. And I feel like that is a double standard because we do not, we cannot feel all of our feels all the time. So, yeah. Feel your feels! For sure.

Serena: Yeah I really relate to that, that feeling of not knowing what to dao and...thank you for normalizing the struggle that parents don’t always know what to do. And we’ve said it before, actually we were just talking about this before we started recording today that kids don’t exist in textbooks and there's no one-size-fits-all manual for parenting. And so we’re all just doing our best, just trying to figure it out as we go but thank you for normalizing that for us. So, your life, we know, is very busy between all of your work...maybe busy isn’t even the right word but between all of your work commitments and trying to meet everybody’s needs including your own, right. So, as we know, finding ways to fill our own cups or finding things that renew us is so very important. So tell us your take on self-care and what you personally do.

Renee: You know I think it’s critical that we as parents are resilient, right. We always talk about our kids being resilient but if we as parents aren’t resilient, we’re not gonna be able to take care of our kids who have physical needs, mental health needs, developmental challenges. We just won’t be able to do that. And then I think a long time ago I learned the most important lesson about that. 25 years ago I was a foster parent and two weeks before Christmas arrived a five-year-old and a two-and-a-half year old who had horrific experiences in their birth family, terrifying experiences in their birth family. And they came to me off the street with nothing. And then two weeks later their baby sister was born and I picked up a newborn at the hospital. So I was parenting this terrified five-year-old, an 18-month-old who was scared and a newborn. And of course the two older children brought a respiratory infection into the house because they were sick and I quickly got it. And you know, I was so busy parenting these three young children, a newborn and two very traumatized children and I was supervising the birth mother’s visits and case workers were coming in and out of the house. So the beds had to be made and the dishes had to be washed because here comes the case worker, right? And I was working full time. It was a crazy time and there was not a moment in the day for myself and I could not recover from this respiratory infection. I just got sicker and sicker and sicker and sicker. As I was trying to parent these kiddos and do my job. So at one point I finally went to the doctor because I just, I couldn’t even catch my breath, right, my whole chest hurt when breathing. And her response was, I’m pretty confident that you have leukemia. Well now that’s a wake up call! It was terrifying to think that, you know, she felt I was gonna lose my life to this disease and I said to her, you know, I just think I’m run down from all of the things that are happening in my house. Let’s give it a couple of weeks and see if I can take some time and recover. And that’s when I stepped back and really started to take care of myself. And I did get through it. I did not have leukemia. I truly was so run down physically from trying to manage everything that I was that ill. And I think from that experience I quickly learned how important it is to take care of myself to take care of my kids. And from that day forward, at least five out of seven days a week I take a half hour of my day and I exercise. And my kids know that 30 minutes is mine. You only interrupt me if there’s blood.

Tina: My kids used to say, they had a teacher that said, blood fire or vomit. Those are the three things. You can interrupt me for blood, fire or vomit.

Renee: Right. Yeah. And they learned, right? They learned that that was my 30 minutes and I needed that 30 minutes. You know, and I’ve incorporated other things as I’ve gone along. I also know that at least part of my end of day, every day is quiet. Just a time for me to be quiet, nothing going on. Sometimes that might be at midnight when the kids are finally settled, but still, right? I think the other thing that was important was that I finally let go of, the house doesn’t need to be clean, right? The beds don’t need to be made. It doesn’t matter that the sink is full of dishes, which by the way, right now the sink is full of dishes. That’s not what’s important. What’s important is that I have time to regenerate and then I spend time with my kids. You know my kids aren’t gonna remember the dishes full in the sink, they’re gonna remember that we went for a hike, right? Which by the way, is also a part of my self-care. Nature is key. Getting out into nature, taking hikes by myself, with my kids. We were just talking about that in the car today with my daughter that when our house gets really amped up, as you can imagine with five kids in it, I’m like, OK, let’s go. And everyone piles in the car and we take a hike. And almost immediately you can just feel the energy go down. Yeah. It’s really about finding what helps you get grounded, what regenerates or gives you resilience so that you can then take care of your kids. But it’s so key particularly when you’re parenting kids who have unexpected challenges whether it’s learning, whether it’s mental health, physical health. You need the energy. You need the resilience to help your kids be resilient.

Tina: Right? Not a choice. It’s not a choice and if, you know, if you don’t take care of yourself, life will make you take care of yourself as we just heard.

Renee: Yes.

Tina: So, as we start to wrap up today’s episode, I’d like you to, if you could respond to one of the other passages from your book. This part is written to your daughter and you say, “After you, my first daughter, nearly died in a foreign orphanage, I had found my purpose. I learned that I was powerful and my actions were consequential. I could make a difference in the world.” Tell us about how your daughter’s adoption changed the direction of your career.

Renee: Yeah, I think it changed not only the direction of my career, but the direction of my family. Would I have five kiddos in this family? No, I wouldn’t. Would I be, you know, supporting adoptive and foster families for a living? No, I wouldn’t. Before she arrived in my home I worked in school districts procuring grant funds, making a difference, right? Bringing opportunities to kids. But you know, when I held her and we almost lost her in the hospital in China, once she was healthy I couldn’t get out of my mind all the other children that lay in these orphanages dying or ill or without a parent. So I knew at that moment that I had to devote my life and my career to children without parents and to make sure that every child had a nurturing, supportive, loving parent. So, when she got healthy I went back to school again, got another degree, got a license as a Master Social Worker and have been working in the field of adoption now for 17 years. 11 of those was actually placing children from foreign orphanages into families and then the last five and a half years supporting families post-adoption. So, yes. Without a doubt, you know, her joining our family has changed everything. She’s the one that was powerful and she’s the one that has impacted every other child I’ve touched since that moment.

Serena: Mmm. That’s amazing. So Renee, thank you so much for taking the time to share some of your story with us and our listeners. We are so grateful for your vulnerability and openness and all that you are doing to help make the world a better place.

Renee: Oh, thank you. It has been a pleasure to share my stories. I always enjoy talking about my kids.

Tina: Well we always enjoy talking to you. And so podcast friends, you will not want to miss our next episode with Renee in which we continue the conversation and share a bit about trauma and Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs). We are, as always, grateful to all of you for listening and supporting us. You can help us out by visiting Apple podcasts, leave a review, and subscribe. Please, please, please share with others. You’ll also find more content on our website, NoNeedtoExplainPodcast.com.

Serena: And this is your gentle reminder to take good care of yourself while you are also taking care of your people.

Tina: Thanks so much for listening!

Serena: Bye!