When my spouse, Snip, and I became preadoptive parents to 4-year-old Bryan, and his almost
6-year-old sister, Karla, we had missed all of their significant infant and early childhood milestones– like the first smile, word and step - memory and story foundations on which families build their life narrative.
Well, almost all. Both our kids still had their baby teeth. The beautiful thing about teeth is that not only do they come in – which we had missed - but they also fall out.
It was a matter of time before Karla had a loose tooth. And this happy event would lead to yet another childhood rite of passage – the Tooth Fairy.
The kids had come into our home from foster care three days before Karla’s 6th birthday. The day of, we sang “Happy Birthday” and Karla happily shoveled a piece of chocolate cake into her mouth. With her third forkful, she uttered a little “oompf”, and into her hand, she spit a chocolate-covered baby tooth.
Time froze with Snip and I realizing our new family was experiencing “a moment.” Then we started cheering, high-fiving each other and the kids, and babbling on about the Tooth Fairy. One look at the two baffled faces starring back at us and we knew that our kids weren’t feeling the happy vibe.
The thing about being parents to kids who were taken from their birth home due to neglect or abuse is that traditional family rhythms are either missing, broken or skewed. Even the Tooth Fairy, a harmless fantasy figure that most of us grew up knowing without even knowing how or why we know it, simply didn’t resonate with our children.
Snip explained to Karla why her bloody little tooth was so important.
“Karla, it’s great! You put your tooth under your pillow, and in the middle of the night, the Tooth Fairy comes into your room, goes under your pillow, takes the tooth, and leaves you money.”
“But how does the Tooth Fairy get into my room?” asked Karla in a shaky voice.
I chimed in, oblivious to her growing alarm, “Oh, while you’re sleeping, she comes right in through your window!”
Karla stiffened, and in a firm voice said, “I don’t want that Tooth Fairy girl in my room. I don’t want anyone going under my pillow.” She crossed her arms; her face a stone mask. Suddenly, the joyful celebration popped like an over-inflated balloon.
Karla and Bryan had suffered significant toxic stress while living with birth parents who had struggled with addiction, homelessness, domestic violence and incarceration. These issues were compounded by the trauma of suffering from neglect so profound that Karla had spent her toddlerhood knocking on neighbors’ doors searching for food.
Eventually, the then three and five-year-old siblings came to the attention of child welfare. Karla and Bryan were removed, shuffled through a year-long series of foster care homes before being placed with us as their “forever family.”
Snip crouched down next to Karla and gently took her hands, “You’re right, Karla. The Tooth Fairy doesn’t have to come into your room, honey. We can make a big sign that says, ‘Tooth Fairy: Karla’s tooth is in the mailbox. Please take the tooth and leave the money. Thank you.’ And we’ll hang the sign on our front door.”
One poster board, several jumbo markers and sparkly stickers later, a large Tooth Fairy sign was taped to our door. We turned on the porch light. As we tucked her into bed that night, a still wary Karla asked me to close her window despite the summer heat.
The next morning, Karla woke up and acted like it was just another day. She ate breakfast, brushed her teeth, did her hair, and took her vitamin. She acted as if, “Yeah, that whole Tooth Fairy thing, I’m not buying it and they can’t trick me.”
Finally, she nonchalantly opened the front door and went out to the mailbox, lifted the lid to find a pink envelope with her name on it. She ran back into the house, with wide eyes yelling, “She came! She came! The Tooth Fairy came!”
Inside the envelope was a note from the Tooth Fairy with a crisp one dollar bill. ‘Dear Karla, Congratulations on losing your first tooth. Love, the Tooth Fairy.’
Three more teeth came out over the course of the year with the Tooth Fairy making special deliveries to our mailbox. In a move that surprised us, Karla put the fifth tooth not in the mailbox but under her pillow. She didn’t fall asleep until way past midnight, her vigilance finally overwhelmed by exhaustion.
Joy creased her gap-toothed face the next morning when she found the tooth replaced with a dollar bill. And in that moment, for the first time in her young life - a life that had been marked by heartbreaking losses - Karla discovered the power of magic.
Tooth-by-tooth Karla was learning how to trust – her new life, her new family, but most importantly, herself.
That was priceless. Even better, she had 15 more teeth to go.