Today is the day one year ago when we did our first weekend visit with T. Starting on that July day, we went on to do 17 consecutive weekend visits with him; we endured one moment of crisis when he got mixed up in some serious trouble we weren't sure we could handle; we overcame our doubts and visited him through a brief and frustrating stay in a group home; we made ourselves a thorn in the side of county child services, and finally it worked and they let us become his parents, exactly 34 weeks ago, on the day he moved in. Seventeen weekend visits + 34 weeks of living together as a family = one helluva year.
To me, family is in the lived experience, not the shared genes. Potential parents and older kids "picking" each other strikes me as a near miracle and one I'd really like to convince other people to consider. There are thousands of older kids waiting in long term foster care (seven thousand in Los Angeles alone) who can't return to their original family or relatives and many of them long for a home and for parents and to be somebody's precious person. T. used to be one of them. Today, he proudly introduces us as his "adoptive parents." He obsesses over the latest Nikes, brags about his prowess playing x-box live, pushes the boundaries we set for him, tickles and hugs us and wakes me up early on Sunday morning to tell me the latest teen gossip from the night before. It's not "done" and it's not easy, but it has momentum. We'll be family to each other for always.
It reminds me of science. Once, for a job, I interviewed a research chemist. He described disease as a keyhole, and likened his work to investigating tens of thousands of chemical "keys", seeking the one that would fit the disease target exactly. He said it always seemed incredibly unlikely and at the same time inevitable that he'd find a match, and that science depends on the confidence that eventually one will emerge.
Our relationship with T. feels like that to me. He'd been searching for adoptive parents for two years when we met him. We had only just signed up to become potential foster/adoptive parents. We met him at the first "meet the kids" event we ever attended. I looked around the room and thought, well, I feel like I could parent any one of these kids (all boys, all between about 10 and 15). I had long planned to be a foster/adoptive parent to an older child and I was ready so it wasn't too hard to envision. Then I saw T. and something inside went "Fascinating!" He smelled good to me. His eyes showed a busy brain, and his facial expression showed tremendous (probably excessive) self-discipline. The slight tremor in his hands gave away his fear and the tremendous importance he attached to being adopted. I couldn't stop thinking about him.
The first three months after he moved in were hard. He wasn't used to feeling attached to authoritative adults. He understood rules, but he hadn't experienced the coercive emotional pressure of love. It was confusing to him. It made him feel trapped, to find that he cared what we thought. We worked through it. We continue to work through it. We aim for a mix of flexibility and consistency, but really it's mostly sheer innate compatibility that works most of the time.
I'm a broken record on this point, but I feel tremendous awe about parenting him. A good friend of mine said recently "it's his ego that saved him" and that struck me as being very true. He was born tiny and sick and addicted, passed through various homes while he survived those early years, then endured a very turbulent middle childhood being passed from one home to another and mistreated in ways that we've only begun to discover. At some point, when he might have broken, he decided "This is shit. I'm going to find something better." And he did. He doesn't feel grateful to us - he feels satisfied. He was right.
I do love the frank honesty of parenting a kid like that. It's as if we met in the middle of a vast, busy, often indifferent world and looked at each other and said "Okay, what have you got?" We all acted polite for awhile, and then we had to put our emotional cards on the table. We might have expected to be overwhelmed by his problems. He might have expected to be cruelly disappointed or rejected - that's what adults had taught him to expect. Instead, it turned out that we had the potential to create a soulful, life-altering connection to each other. We get how to crack each other up. When we fight, we understand how to make up. We know each other in a deep way, as if we have known each other for much longer than we actually have.
I do think people are spooked sometimes by the "knowing" child. Our cultural cliches of family suggest sometimes that parents are all powerful, while children are naive and unformed, and the process of parenting is one of transmission, of values and knowledge, from parent to child. Kids like T. are not like that. It's a much more democratic process of negotiation. He knows a whole lot of things I will never have the misfortune to understand. I know things he could care less about. We have to sort out tremendously complicated issues together, like how he feels about his birth mom, and why he should follow our rules, and how to balance love and loyalty to more than one kind of family.
I LOVE being that kind of parent. It makes me a better person. Nobody told us this was a good idea, and a lot of people told us it was impossible. But it totally works for the three of us. It makes me think that the world is a much more nuanced, multi-dimensional profound place than I would otherwise have realized.