Tuesday, September 7, 2010


One of the not-so-nice aspects of foster/adoption, and I'm sure it's true of parenthood in general, is that I don't think it's particularly good for one's romantic relationship. What's good for our relationship: Vacations to far-away destinations. A little extra money left over at the end of the month. Uninterrupted sleep. Heedless date nights where nobody is worried about getting home. What's not so good? A 6'4" teenager who wants to come watch cartoons in our bed because he's psyched about finally having parents. Who doesn't really like to go out much, and definitely not at night. Who follows us around, poking and tickling and teasing us gently about our middle-aged figures. Who believes we exist solely to gratify his needs. And who is so damned enchanting that we have trouble declining any opportunity to spend time interacting with him.

We are often tired, our capacity for intimate communication more or less exhausted by the intimate relationship we've been building with our new teenage son. We are exhilarated, but we aren't always exhilarated at the same time, or in the same way, and we often lack the time to catch up with each other's feelings. Co-parenting is a more emotional, less rational undertaking than I anticipated. There's a lot of parenting from the gut - perhaps the more so with a traumatized kid. And making decisions from the gut is hard to do in concert with someone else. As we get closer to T. it's easy to feel like we get further from each other.

With children by birth, I think we allow for that to a certain extent - the partner who gave birth is assumed to be recovering, and breast feeding and so on give physical expression to the intense and exclusive mother/child bond that's developing. With an older child, it's easy to go into it with an assumption of total democracy - we'll each attach to the child at an equal pace, and we'll parent from a common set of standards. But that now strikes me as profoundly unrealistic. Even though there isn't the intense physical dependency of infancy, the psychology of how an older child attaches to new parents (and they to him) is, in my experience, extremely complex, nuanced and idiosyncratic. It cannot be equally apportioned between two parents. It's much more organic than that. I've been thinking lately about the fact that a child doesn't really bond to a pair of adults - he bonds to one adult and then one other adult. Both adults have to earn it, and neither can cash in on the other's success.

That's not all bad. That dynamic also produces an objective awareness of each other that wasn't there before. Right now, I'm watching Tim and T. repair a game console together. They're hunched over a bunch of machine parts with a handful of screwdrivers and their heads are nearly touching. Did T. ever have a male parent who would put aside work to show him how to repair a beloved toy? Most definitely not. It's a great thing to see, and I notice how patient and calm Tim is, and how competent, and how T. responds to that with calm concentration. I can see Tim through T.'s eyes in a lovely way.

But there is also a mountain more labor to be done, and a heap of problems (some of them very complicated) to be solved that just weren't there before. Whereas before we were two adults who did our own laundry and mostly ate out, now we are surrounded by heaps of dirty basketball shorts and concert t-shirts, fielding constant demands for more chips, juice, breakfast cereal, and frozen pizzas. And they can't drive! As someone who hadn't parented before we decided to adopt a teenager, I am shocked at how much time one spends taxiing a child from one place to another. Moreover, the passenger is not often pleasant and polite - more likely, he's tired, stressed, hungry, hot, overstimulated or otherwise in need of soothing and attention, while you're driving.

I also feel like it's easy to feel blamed or to blame onself as a new adoptive parent. If my relationship isn't going well, I start to wonder: Do I lack good boundaries? Am I failing to make time for my partner? Have I become overly identified with T.? Am I too controlling? There are so many stereotypes one can internalize and indulge.

We often laugh and say "when we're eighty, we're going to look back on this time as the very best part of our lives." And right now, there's a satisfaction in knowing that, but there's also a very real difficulty in getting through it without denting or just neglecting our partnership.
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