Sunday, June 14, 2009

Meeting the Kids for the Fist Time

Wow, today was a big day. We did our first weekend event with the kids – washing dogs at a rescue pet event in Torrance. (By coincidence, the dog washing event took place just a few blocks from where I was born, off Torrance Avenue.) I didn’t catch all the logistics, but it seemed to be some sort of benefit, hosted by a do-it-yourself dog washing facility. The idea was that pet owners could bring their dogs by and pay to have us wash the dog for them, and the money would go to a pet rescue organization. I’m not sure the people running the benefit even clearly understood that we were volunteers from a kid rescue organization, and that the kids with us were from foster homes. The customers clearly didn’t – they just thought we were professional dog washers! Which was somewhat hilarious – because these kids don’t have dogs at home and don’t know the first thing about washing one – and somewhat tragic – because it clearly illustrated how much more attention goes to rescuing pets than rescuing people.

But that aside, here are some fresh first impressions:

I’m excited to say: the kids were exactly as I imagined they would be! That’s a huge relief, because I was afraid my imagination and reality might collide in an uncomfortable way – that somehow the kids would turn out to be different than I expected and I would feel cold feet as a result. Well, that didn’t happen! There were only a handful of kids there, and for the most part they were painfully shy and generally lacking social skills. But they were sweet and familiar. They were what I’ve had in mind all through this process. We gravitated to the boys, rather than the girls, as I expected we would.

The adults kind of tended to hang back, unsure how to engage the kids. Not knowing what else to do, we got a few kids organized in some dog-washing activity. In our little group, we had two boys both about 15 years old. One was very skinny and tall – at least 6’2" already. The other was about half a foot shorter and somewhat disabled with a speech impediment. The first boy stood for almost an hour in an empty dog-washing stall waiting for someone to bring him a dog to wash. He seemed accustomed to waiting. The other boy hung around the driveway until some unknowing customer pulled up and handed him a leash with a medium-sized matted dog on the end of it. He was letting the dog drag him all over the facility when I caught up with him and suggested we head for the stall his friend had commandeered. He nodded yes and looked really excited and terrified. Next thing we knew, we were in a little dog-washing cubicle with a sink, a blow drier, two tongue-tied teenage boys and a frightened tangled mutt.

The kids, who barely acknowledged my presence otherwise, responded to every suggestion and instruction. I was struck by the realization that they were hyper-attuned to every word I was saying even though they never looked at me. I imagine they were somewhat mortified by the social pressures of the event, and so relieved to have a job to do and someone to help break it down into manageable tasks and a clear division of labor. I also had the sense that they are accustomed to having women tell them what to do all the time – perhaps because they live in group homes, which tend to be staffed by women.

With us, the two boys were shy and withdrawn. With the dogs, they were incredibly gentle and even a bit timid. They held the dogs so gently, and brushed their fur so carefully. The taller boy took his task very seriously and performed it well with a gentle-but-firm touch and a quiet manner that seemed to calm the dog. He set the temperature on the water, running the water over his wrist while he adjusted the knobs to be sure it wasn’t too hot or too cold so carefully that I wondered if he had some experience warming a bottle or bathing a younger sibling - his manner was like that of a practiced parent. The other boy seemed panicked by the leash and the difficulty of holding the squirming dog in the sink, and reassured when we showed him how to lather the dog up and use the scrubber to get him clean.

We washed three dogs together. Each one went back to its owner still a bit damp and rumpled. The dogs seemed aware they had just received something therapeutic but not quite cleansing, but the owners were oblivious that anything had been other than professional. They just zoomed off with their beloved pets, in their comfortable cars.

When it was over, the boys sank back into themselves, milling around uncomfortably, declining attempts at conversation, and looking generally unsettled. The agency had a pizza lunch for everyone. When the boys only picked reluctantly at their pizza, I wondered whether they weren’t terribly nervous. After all, what 15 year-old doesn’t lunge at a pizza under normal circumstances? But I suppose nothing is normal about a situation like this one and despite everyone’s best attempts to keep the atmosphere light, they must have felt scrutinized.

None of this is getting me any closer to explaining how excited I feel. We vowed to proceed with measured deliberation, attending a few more events before further discussions with the agency about hosting one of the kids. But I know we’re going to do it and I can hardly wait.

These kids are obviously not going to have easy lives and nothing we do for them will reverse their early misfortune. They are hungry for attention, highly reserved and perhaps mistrustful, and plagued by all sorts of difficulties. But they are so obviously deserving of some comfort and so brave to do what they did today. And doing whatever is required to give them a home seems so natural and so logical.

We’re having dinner with some good friends tonight, and I know they’ll ask about the event, and our plans to adopt. I know they think of it as an “alternative” to having a “real” kid of our own. One is a teacher, and she has sound advice about choosing a younger kid, to give us more time to influence. She’s kind and insightful, but I know I’ll feel like we’re missing each other. I won’t be able to explain why these kids are the ones for us, and I won’t know how to talk about the alternative parenting that we have in mind. We’ll make a joke like we always do about how we just really like the tricky teenagers, and then we’ll change the subject. And that will be it, until someday, we introduce our friends to a shy, agonized teenager who has come to live with us for awhile, and we all figure out how to break being a “family” down into a series of manageable tasks like we did today at the dog wash.


Lauren said...

I hope that all agencies give you a "job" like this to do. Sounds like it could be very awkward otherwise, and working together on a task could be a great ice-breaker! I think my partner and I will gravitate towards boys as well. But in a few years, who knows!

Did any of the foster parents here (or that you've met through this process at all) have biological children? And if so, how long did it take for them to introduce their biological children to potential adoptive children? I doubt they would be brought to this initial meeting.

Lauren said...

I hope all agencies provide a "job" for you to do on the first meeting like this. I feel like it would be very awkward otherwise, and having a common task to work on together may help break the ice. I think my partner and I would gravitate towards the boys as well, but in few years, who knows!

Did any of the potential adoptive parents at this meeting (or anywhere else throughout this process) have biological children too (or other adoptive children)? If so, how long did it take before they introduced their existing children to the potential adoptive children? I doubt they were at this first meeting.

Lulu McCabe said...

Hi Lauren. Yes, we met some foster/adoptive parents and "mentors" (people who commit to supporting an older child in foster care without a full-time placement) who had biological kids. In some cases, they had kids at home. More often, the kids were grown and living away from home. The program we did encourages weekend visits for several months before a full-time placement, so I imagine that they introduced everyone during those weekend visits, enabling a gradual transition.

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