Friday, February 26, 2010

Adoption Isolation

Sometimes I have the sense that adopting a teenager is so unusual, it makes us a social oddity and a subject of speculation. I had a breakfast meeting this morning, and a client asked the inevitable "do you have kids?". I said yes; he said, how old?; I said 16; he said he was suprised; I said, we just adopted him, and then....well, you know how it goes. The conversation kind of dies while the other person tries to figure out how to make sense of what you just said. Awkward.

Life in a fishbowl makes me acutely aware of what I call adoption isolation: the feeling that you're in uncharted territory and while everyone seems to have an opinion, very few actually have any idea what older child foster-adoption is really about.

We're a biracial family now, and the difference in our physical appearance is probably one factor that gives people pause, but the predominant reaction is to T.'s age and, secondarily, to the fact that ours is an open adoption, meaning we know and spend time with his relatives.

People ask us outright all the time why we would ever want to adopt a teenager. I tell them teenagers still need parents. There are 12,000 kids in long-term foster care in Los Angeles, and 7,000 of them are over the age of 12. Of all the kids adopted out of foster care in LA over a ten-year period, only 3% were T.'s age or older. One in three kids in long-term foster care who "age out" end up homeless. One in five end up in prison within two years of leaving foster care. T. knew all that and he spent two years searching for adoptive parents against the odds, going to adoption fairs and trying his painful best to make a good impression on strangers in the hope they'd rescue him from the odds.

Kids in long-term foster care who can't return to their birth families need parents. Is that really so hard to understand? Even though they aren't "little" anymore, they are still children - they can't work, they don't have the full cognitive capability necessary to make adult decisions, they are vulnerable and malleable. They want, need and deserve protection and guidance. They aren't gross; they aren't damaged beyond repair. They have special needs, and satifsying those needs can be really profound!

Those who don't balk at the idea of adopting a teenager balk at our choice to be in contact with his birth relatives. I believe in the merits of open adoption, particularly for older kids. It's very difficult - there are enormously complex issues of divided loyalty, unresolved trauma and loss, cultural differences and more. T's birth mom probably hates me, but we talk. We do our best, so he can integrate his past and present. I want the stability we provide him to be a home base from which he can explore his feelings about his birth family and understand where he came from and make sense of his history. But the idea of a family that combines blood and adoptive ties confounds people more than I expected.

Here are a few other juicy questions we commonly field:

Why would you want to adopt a teenager?
Read: Teenagers are gross.

What happened to his family?
Read: There must be a sordid story here and I want to hear it.

What do you call yourselves? Foster parents? Adoptive parents? (This from his school counsellor, prompting me to reply "We call ourselves parents" in my best don't-fuck-with-me tone of voice that made T. laugh with delight.)
Read: You're not his real family.

On some level, I probably like to be different, to make unusual life choices - and I know I have to accept that doing so implies some degree of self-isolation. But if I were advising someone else who wanted to foster/adopt an older kid, I'd tell them to get ready for a lot of intrusive questions and grow a thick skin. And I'd tell them to seek out other adoptive parents of older kids, because some days it feels like there are three other people on the planet who understand that this is just another way to be a family, and that parenting is parenting, no matter where the kid comes from.

Thursday, February 11, 2010


We're coming up on T.'s sixteenth birthday soon. Milestones can be tricky things and this one has him in a reflective mood. We were bracing for some difficult behavior - Christmas, in retrospect, was really rough, as he processed all sorts of emotions and divided loyalties. But T. is a regular mind-blower and he's in a different frame of mind lately- one more befitting of an 80 year-old than a 16 year-old.

Last night, we fell into a most unexpected conversation. I was trying to head off some brewing mischief he's concocting for his birthday, and he was trying to earn a little money by finding extra chores he could do. In jest, I said, "You can tell me the secret you're keeping and I might pay you for that!"

He loved that and agreed immediately. I said, "Okay, we'll cover our eyes while you tell us, so you don't feel embarrassed." Somehow that opened the most astonishing floodgate of confession.

It began with a pretty ordinary sort of teenage secret, related to his birthday. Apparently that went so well, he moved on quickly to some huge and long-impacted private torments. One minute we were clearing the table and joking around, and the next, we were listening quietly to some harrowing details of his younger life. He followed with a strict instruction "Just listen and don't SAY anything!" We stayed quiet, and just showed him warm eyes and a soft expression. A little further down the conversation road, we offered a few quiet compliments about his exceptional wisdom.

We all came away happy, rather than sad - most unexpected, because his early life is a study in every conceivable kind of child abuse. Sometimes for traumatized kids still reeling and in pain, I think telling means reliving - but in this case, the telling of it was different from the living of it. He and Tim reorganized the kitchen cabinets afterwards, and that sort of mundane togetherness seemed the right transition back to everyday life. He was able to release what he needed to tell and we were able to show him, by staying calm and warm and quiet, that he can set those burdens down and nothing about our life together will change.

He's nesting now. He's incredibly long and lean (more than six inches taller than me now!), and when he winds his long limbs around us or moves in for a quick hug, or to touch foreheads as we do now at bedtime, I find myself holding my breath sometimes as if trying not to startle an exotic wild animal. He's taken over the house with his teen detritus, and established his own strange patterns of feeding and other daily routines. He brings little bits of his past now and then - a photo of his mom, a fact about what happened to him- and adds that to the insulation he's building around himself.

It's humbling to watch. Sometimes I think we are like the stagehands in his life. He is like a great actor, the star of his own life, but he had no reliable place to perform and nobody to pay consistent attention before. We construct a comfortable, intimate place for him where he can act out what needs to be aired. When he's done, we appreciate. And then he rests. My favorite times are when he rests peacefully, knowing he spoke and was heard.
Site Meter