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.