Sunday, August 9, 2009

Another Step Forward

Phew! We spent 11 hours with T. yesterday. It's hard work figuring out what's going on in his head, but we think it went well! This process is INCREDIBLY emotional. I laugh at myself for thinking it would be otherwise. By now, we're quite attached to T. We haven't talked about the adoption option, because it's too early and anyway, he's a 15 year-old boy, so such conversations do not exactly FLOW. We could go crazy trying to figure out how this is likely to evolve - as usual, Tim is doing a great job of being really zen about it and I am not. But when I can gain a bit of objectivity, I see that what we are doing right now is valuable in its own right. Even if we never saw T. again, it's been quite profound. He has evidence now, after 15 years of frustration in foster care, that there are adults out there who think he's great and want to be with him forever. And we have evidence now that everything we imagined and hoped about foster/adopting a teenager is true and then some. It's the most deliberate, profound thing we've ever done - and that's just talking about the last two weekends!

We are getting nearly no guidance at all at this point from the DCFS social workers, and T.'s foster mom isn't totally on board- she's not resistant, but she's not enthusiastic either. She runs a good, tight ship with T. and one other boy in the home, and she's obviously a good person who raised two biological kids and a bunch of grandkids before doing foster care. We represent a bunch of confusion for her - we're white, we're intruding a bit, and we probably just don't completely make sense to her. But we're interested in adopting T. and she isn't - and my sense is that he knows the difference by this point in his life between the commitments of a foster mom and the deeper bonds of adoption, which he craves.

We were going crazy tonight trying to figure out what our next move should be - finally Tim called T.'s foster mom to deliver a casual future invitation via T.'s foster mom. But she handed the phone to T. - and in his 15-year old way he said in reply "I can come this weekend" and then "I can stay over" without really being asked. So then Tim just about busted with happiness and came running to report on this progress, which we take to be an indication of T.'s comfort with us, though we don't want to get too confident! But T. says nothing unless he wants to, so the fact that he spoke up at all is a pretty good sign.

So we planned visits for the next two weekends. I'm pleased, because I figure for a kid who has been repeatedly abandoned, followup is everything. Now I'll have to reflect on what we've learned and devise another visit that properly balances fun activity and realistic at-home chill time. Can you believe how complicated this is? It is no small task trying to convince your potential first child who happens to already be 15 years-old that you're the parents of his dreams, without lying to him or distorting the reality of your day-to-day existence!

On that note, a little post-game analysis.

Here's what we did right on the recent visit:

- I cleared all personal items and photos out of the guest room, made the bed in navy blue and red boy colors and planted Sports Illustrated and Pac 10 magazine on the night stand. Tim accused me of setting a "boy trap", but my thought was that if I were 15 and pretending to act chill in the house of some strangers who might adopt me, I'd be grateful for the opportunity to thumb through something other than Elle Decor. And it TOTALLY worked. I showed T. the "guest room" and said "If you decide to come stay with us someday, this is where you can hang out." Then later when he changed his clothes for the gym, we told him he could use the "back bedroom." We found him sitting in there in his gym clothes engrossed in Sports Illustrated 15 minutes later.

- Tim took him to the boxing gym down the street and taught him some moves. He seemed to love this. Anything athletic puts him in his element. He returned visibly more relaxed. Tim's easy-going and direct style seemed to really work for T. and Tim said boxing gave them a chance for dialogue and eye contact without being too pressured. So overall, a good bonding opportunity.

- We gave plentiful, very specific praise. He obviously craves that and responds immediately with a quiet smile to any comment that shows that we are paying attention to that which is uniquely him. Whether it's complimenting his easy grasp of boxing techniques or commenting on his rapport with animals (our cat adored him and he was very gentle and attentive to her), he has ready ears for any indication that we truly see him. By the same token, I am quite sure that the sort of bland praise that the agency people sometimes indulge - things like "Tom is terrific!" - fall on deaf ears, because they aren't backed by any quality of attention.

- We let him play video games, including Grand Theft Auto. I am sure that would not be encouraged by anyone in an official capacity, but we play it ourselves, so why lie? Maybe he'll decide to live with us just because he wants to have an x-box - that's okay with me.

- I took him to UCLA to a town hall meeting with Tavis Smiley and Dr. Cornel West for African American teenagers. Although I TOTALLY failed to anticipate the dress code and thus left T. stranded in his Obama "One Love" t-shirt while all the other kids were wearing coats and ties, he seemed to feel perfectly at ease. He took notes and even raised his hand to volunteer an answer to a question, although he wasn't called on. I think he was psyched to be on campus at UCLA - he really dreams of going to college there, and afterwards, over ice cream in Westwood, he sighed and said so.

But it served another purpose: because the event was for African American teenagers, he got to see me in a room of 200+ where mine was the only white face - which may have embarrassed him (though I saw no indication of that) but also established (I hope) that we do not expect him to "act white" or live in a white world just because he's staying with us. I don't know how much he cares - he seems rather pragmatic about the whole thing - but until now, it's clear that he's always been in Black foster families, and I feel the burden should be on us to make sure he isn't divorced from the community. Should it come to it, better that he tell me I'm trying too hard than say someday that I didn't try hard enough. Besides, Cornel West is always captivating and it was fun to share that experience and see a room full of African American teenagers who treat Dr. West like he's a rock star - girls squealing, standing ovations at every opportunity, cell phone cameras going off constantly. I think it gave T. an idea of what college can be about at it's best.

Here's what we did wrong:

- His assessment form clearly states that he dislikes onions. It seemed trivial at the time, since the assessment form is full of other far more dramatic information. And so we forgot, and so when we took him out for tacos, we assured him that the carne deshebrada tacos at our local joint are just like the carne asada tacos he wanted. Well, they're not. They have onions. Which led to poor T. painfully extracting the nearly invisible shredded onions from his beef tacos while assuring us he was okay. It's hard to get him to ask for and accept things so he would not accept ordering a second entree and I felt terrible. Then, to make matters worse, we put chopped olives in the burgers we made for dinner - and I caught T. picking the olives from his burger when he thought I wasn't looking! We really have to try harder to make food he likes. In retrospect, I see that it was not incidental that his assessment mentioned his hatred of onions.

- I TOTALLY failed to involve him in conversation about this whole process. I thought I had a script, and then I couldn't find an opening. I understand from friends who have older sons that I am not alone in my utter bewilderment about how to engage a teenager in an emotional discussion. But I feel foolish. I wanted to tell him a bit about why we're in this program (that we always wanted to build our family by giving a home to kids in foster care, we think he's great and we're happy to give him as much time as he likes to get to know us at his own pace) in a way that doesn't put him on the spot but doesn't leave him guessing. But I just UTTERLY failed to do that. I have a terrible fear of sounding like a parent, and I guess it's probably a good time to start getting over it. Thankfully I have two more weekends to try now.

Exhausted but happy - more anxious now than before as the stakes get higher because the attachment gets deeper. But that's a really good problem to have.


Heather said...

It sounds like you did a whole lot more right than wrong! I'm taking notes and I hope that's okay. I can use any help I can get. My husband and I have felt very alone as we are planning to adopt a teenage male of a different race, and your experience is making me feel not so alone in this confusing world.

Veronica Berg said...

I know it's been years since you wrote this, but I'm starting at the beginning of your blog and reading forward.

I just wanted to mention that instead of looking at what you did "wrong", it might be gentler on yourself to look at it instead on what you could "change". Positives and Changes.

As a foster kid who didn't get adopted, I just want to say, you're awesome, and thanks for writing your story.

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