Tuesday, December 22, 2009


This week is predictably rough. Christmas is such an emotionally laden season ANYWAY. We figured it would trigger some difficulties. Mmmmmmmmm.

I could pick a number of things to write about today, but I'm gonna go with what another adoptive mom of older kids from foster care calls "birth family drama."

Earlier this week, we met T.'s cousin who cared for him off and on from age 3 through about 9. As I expected, she was very warm and pleasant when we met her. She has several birth kids of her own, and we met up at church where we dropped T off to attend services with them. He was removed from her care by the county, but he loves her very very much and says she was like a mom to him.

In the county records, this cousin abused him. But in his perception of things, she loved him in a way his birth mom never did. And he's right - both things are true. He entered foster care when he was three days old and was passed from foster home to foster home (sometimes staying just a few weeks in any particular home) until his cousin took him in for as long as she could make it last.

He can still recall in great detail the time she took all the kids to TGI Friday's on Christmas Eve, and the taste of her gumbo. He was baptized at her church, with her guidance. She gave him some of the touch points kids need in order to form an identity and a sense of being precious to someone. He also bears scars - physical ones, on various parts of his body - she inflicted in the name of discipline. And deep emotional wounds, not only from the mistreatment, but from the trauma of being removed from her home by the county.

For people who wonder why one would encourage a connection to an abusive parent, I'll just say that it's due to her that he has any ability to form a loving bond at all. He texted me from church: "I missed them so much! Thank you. I luv you guys lots."

This is an aspect of older child foster/adoption that is probably not for the faint of heart. Our county mandated parenting classes actually did a great job of preparing us for this part and explaining why one must never criticize a child's relatives nor prevent them from keeping in touch provided the circumstances are reasonably safe. They encouraged us over and over to provide opportunities for the kids to visit with the family from whom they were removed, in the interest of promoting and supporting loving attachments under safe circumstances - even up to and through an adoption. So I texted him back "She's lovely and warm as you described her. I feel honored that you introduced us."

I mostly get it. Life is complicated. I grew up in a strict Catholic school where extreme punishment was still the norm - we had to sit after school for more than three hours in first grade because one kid had thrown half a hot dog in the trash can. The parish priest once forced a boy who misbehaved to bundle up in wool sweaters, then run the track in the hot sun until he got sick. Child abuse? Yes, certainly. But it was a very unfortunate cultural norm that strict Irish priests brought with them from the homeland. So it's not that hard for me to understand that T. suffered the hand of a parent who believed that whippings were in his own best interest. Adults can get their heads all turned around about what's okay to do to kids. Sometimes it takes a long time for intervention to happen. Meanwhile, the kids have to attach to someone.

To her credit, when the county first interfered, she attended all their parenting classes and jumped through all their hoops to try to keep him. It didn't work - she was poor, she was caring for several small children, she had an abusive boyfriend at the time, and things fell apart. But he saw that she really, really tried. It gave him hope and a sense of dignity in all the filth of his years in foster care.

So back to this Christmas. Inspired by his lovely visit with her at church, T. asked his cousin if we could come over to drop off presents on Christmas Eve. She said she and her kids might be going out to the desert to see some extended family and "invited" him to come along. Though when I made a follow up phone call, her plan was vague, she wasn't sure which day this week is Christmas, and it seemed that T. had more or less invited himself along.

The desire to body block all disappointment in his life is overwhelming and impossible. When he figures out he's not going to have a happy family reunion with his relatives this Christmas, I'll acknowledge and name the disappointment and grief - briefly, because that's how he is. And then I'm working on a salve concocted from distraction (I happen to have this fabulous back up plan!), explanation (it's not personal, she loves you very much and things are just chaotic with all the relatives) and momentum (we'll see them next week at church - let's get on with our holiday).

All humans needs to attach and we may attach to some very flawed fellow humans in the course of it, but without any attachment, we shrivel up and die, at least spiritually. She made him feel that he mattered, and his ability to bond with us and love us has a lot to do with the love he felt from her earlier in his life. I'd like to stuff her stocking right now for not being clear and specific with him when any reasonable person could see how high the emotional stakes are for him, but she has her own problems, her own story, and her own blind spots.

Monday, December 14, 2009

An Un-Christmas List

T. is making his Christmas list - very sweet, since he typically loathes asking for anything. And last night, after he went to bed, he snuck out, ostensibly to get a drink of water, but we caught him tip-toeing (as lightly as a 6'2" teenager can tip-toe) in to the living room to look at the Christmas Tree. It inspired me to write down a list I've been keeping in my head: the list of things that kids stuck in long-term foster care don't have.

It's an un-Christmas list, because I think Christmas (if you're into that kind of thing) should be frosting, it shouldn't be food. In other words, whether it's just a special day spent with family or a longed-for present, Christmas should be about something a little out of the ordinary. But in our experience, kids in foster care often lack the "ordinary". There are deficits, not just in terms of love and security, but also in terms of experience - the kind of experience that, within the limits of affordability, kids should be able to expect.

Neither T nor any of the kids he's been in foster care with have had any of the following:

- a parent that you know won't "give you away" if your behavior is challenging (this, he tells us, is the difference in his mind between a foster parent and an adoptive parent)

- photos of yourself around the house

- a bicycle

- a pet

- driving lessons and the opportunity to earn a license during your teenage years

- parents to help you line up internships and after-school jobs

- regular good-night kisses

- a homemade lunch to take to school

- someone to say "I love you" every day

- a key to the front door

- a normal social life

- the ability to invite another kid over to your house after school

- a bank account

- a suitcase (we learned that when foster kids are moved from home to home, their possessions are almost always loaded into plastic garbage bags)

- an opportunity to help plan a family vacation (most of the foster kids we've met in LA have never been outside of the county)

- a chance to go someplace on an airplane

- a choice about what kind of food to eat for dinner

- an adult who says "I apologize" when they make a mistake

I could add to this list for days. This year, T. will get an iPod and a turtle (he told us he doesn't believe in Santa, but if it will help him get an iPod, he thinks he'd like to make a list for Santa this year and he's dropping very heavy hints about the turtle).

Over time he'll also get a lot of the things he's been missing, having spent 12 of his 15 years in foster care. We'll introduce these things gradually to avoid overwhelming him. When we mess up, we'll say "I'm sorry". And when he messes up, we won't "give him away" as he always phrases it. We'll visit his relatives on Christmas, because they are important to him. And we'll wear our pajamas to the movies on Christmas Day, because that's his dream. Over time, I hope we'll fill in a few of the potholes that foster care left in his life. And all I want is the chance to have him with us for long enough to try to do that.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

It's a Boy

It's done! On Friday at 3:00, the adoption caseworker called me at work and left a message "A meeting finally happened and you've been approved. You can pick him up today and he can live with you in a permanent placement."


We begged out of work, hopped in the car, and two hours later (traffic!) he met us at the door of his group home with the few possessions that weren't already at our house packed in plastic garbage bags and a huge grin on his face. We hopped around impatiently while they got his birth certificate and immunization records together - and then we drove home, ordered in Chinese, and (at his suggestion) carefully ironed all his t-shirts and jeans and hung them in his closet before heading to bed.

I thought it might go that way - that we'd tussle with this tangled bureaucracy until we thought our heads would explode, and then one day it would be over with a whisper. And it was. I mean, we still have to go through the process of finalizing the adoption, but that part seems minor compared to the task of getting foster licensed, finishing our home study and our mandated parenting classes, filing countless papers with the state and the county, and doing four-and-a-half months of consecutive weekend visits with T. while he got bounced from one temporary foster placement to another and we argued, begged and wheedled in order to get him permanently placed with us.

I really don't know how people stand to get licensed to foster/adopt if they aren't already attached to a particular child (we met T. and then learned we'd have to do all this in order to adopt him). I am ashamed to say I probably would have given up. If anyone ever says of adoption that it's "having kids the easy way" in my vicinity, I'll kill them.

I'm sort of without words to describe what it's like. I didn't know it was possible to love another person this much, in this way. I suppose any parent could have told me.

Last night, driving in the car, T. asked me for a sip from my water bottle. He rarely does that, because he's a neat-freak germaphobe. I gave him a sip and he turned sideways in his seat in the dark, the way he does when he has something important he wants to say and he wants to see my reaction. Then he said, "Thank you." Confused, I said, "For the water?" He said, "I mean, thank you for EVERYTHING." I smiled and said, "Oh, um, no problem!" He said, "Thanks for the water, too." And that was it. Five minutes later we were back to discussing curfews and his bike route to school.

He needn't have thanked me. There's nothing altruistic about adopting him - it's deeply satisfying and we enjoy life with him more than we enjoyed life without him. It's not about us doing something for him - it's about the three of us doing something together that seems kind of impossible, but we actually did it, and we're all kind of looking at each other now like, whoah, we did it! What now?

A side note: some friends asked if we had any preferences regarding adoption "etiquette". For anyone who finds themselves in similar situation, this post said it better than I ever could.
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