Tuesday, April 27, 2010

What does it take?

Recently, I was reading Faith A's blog at Adoption Under One Roof about what it takes to parent a traumatized older child. The comments got me thinking about my own answer to that question.

My list goes something like this (and I certainly don't possess all of these qualities, though I strive for them):

- Honest acceptance of your own personal history and mistakes.

- Gallows humor.

- A strong belief that no life is ever "ruined".

- Street smarts.

- Endurance.

- The ability to parent today for the sake of today - an acceptance that it might not "work out" in the long term and the child may end up in residential treatment, embroiled in legal problems, or otherwise struggling and that your decision to do this work now doesn't depend on any "result".

- A healthy skepticism of the system.

- Scientific curiosity. Why is my kid doing this? What happened right before he did this? What environmental factors can I change and how does he respond when I do?

- Empathy for the depth and range and duration of grief.

- Being cool with being different so you can weather the occasional social isolation of adopting an older child with "issues".

- Chemistry: one person's problem child is another person's "special someone". I can confidently say that, had I known the full facts of his case before I met him on his own terms, I would not have offered to parent T. And yet the three of us "clicked" and that natural chemistry ignited a deep mutual affection that gets us through things none of us would have signed up for on the face of it. We fit like puzzle pieces.

- Understanding that how far someone has come depends on where he started.

What did I miss?

Friday, April 23, 2010


I'm not really one for assigning essential qualities based on gender. But being T.'s parent has got me thinking about attachment and bonding and the role that gender plays in a new way.

Tim and I are very different people, so of course we have different dynamics with T. But that aside, I think it's accurate to say that T. is psychologically preoccupied with his female caregivers, and his anxieties about abandonment tend to attach to women. His mother left him when he was four days old and didn't reenter his life until he was 14. He has grown up by stringing together a series of temporary living situations, all of them headed up by single moms. Each of those situations ended in a way that was traumatic for him, and he missed and longed for and felt angry with the (female) parent who couldn't keep him anymore.

I didn't really think about any of this until I noticed that T.'s behavior was a little off recently. Like all teens, T. is pretty moody and he gets frustrated and angry sometimes at parental guidance. But recently his anger seemed to be running deeper and lasting longer than it usually does. It felt more fundamental.

I was musing over why he was being so unusually unforgiving, and I started to wonder if maybe it had to do with a recent change in our routine. Last week, I had a business trip, and I was away for three days. When I returned, I was really busy at work, and I left the morning and after-school rituals to Tim, whereas we usually share those duties. Tim is frankly the far-better parent in terms of day-to-day consistency and there is plenty of warmth between him and T. Regardless, T. was getting more Tim and less me for awhile. During this time, he started avoiding meals - he skipped breakfast, and often grazed at will then dodged dinner. He also started to direct angry barbs at me. He'd be sweet with Tim, and then when I got home from work the mood would suddenly sour. Something seemed to be seething beneath the surface.

I made a point of giving him more attention. I got up early, made his breakfast, and left it in his breakfast spot. He stumbled through the kitchen, did a double-take, noticed his breakfast sitting there, gulped it down, muttered "thankyou-" and staggered into the shower. He never says thank you for his breakfast! A clue. I drove him to school and picked him up. The next day I did the same. That night he invited me to watch a movie with him. At bedtime, he came and gave me a winning smile for no reason. He was just happy that I was looking at him.

Ugh, stupid me. He missed my attention. He's been so grumpy lately, and his behavior has required some extra monitoring and discipline. I forgot to think about the fact that he's ATTACHED to us. When we aren't there, he misses us. And we aren't interchangeable - he needs me, and he needs Tim. Tim is patient, nurturing and he does all the cooking. I'm the crisis-fixer, and he talks to me about clothes and girls and the warts on his finger. We represent different dimensions of his reality.

The other day, he came into the living room. He said he wanted to ask us something. "Would you say you guys ever fight? Do you ever...disagree?" he asked. He wasn't being cute - he was almost angry when he said it. He followed with "What would you say about me if you DIDN'T like what I was doing, and I wasn't around? What do you say to each other about me?"

I realized that living with a couple and grasping the dynamics of adult couplehood is a change for him. He has never lived with an adult man before, nor with a couple. I don't believe it's better or worse for a kid like T. to be parented by a couple versus a single parent - we just happen to be a pair, and that's how we parent. And it's not something he's familiar with. So of course he finds it weird that we're ALWAYS on the same page when we give him guidance, and of course he wonders what we say to each other about him.

I'm reminded that he needs exclusive attention from both of us. He needs to feel he has a distinct and special connection to each of us as an individual. Just one of us being away, or busy, or preoccupied (and particularly me, for the reasons I describe above) is enough to trigger his anxiety, even if he is still at home getting plenty of attention from the other parent.

Monday, April 19, 2010


T. loves being grounded. I guess if you're 16 and all your friends are busy "differentiating" while you are bonding with new adoptive parents and you want to hang out at home and feel the love, what better excuse? Perfect cover.

But this time it's a bit much even for him. Recently, we had to "ground" him for a month of weekends (grounding really just means he's lost car and ride privileges, after-school free time and the right to have friends over). Yes, it was THAT serious, though I'll skip the details - if you're parenting a teenager, you know how it is. The usual stuff.

When we told him of his month-long restrictions, he didn't resist. He was relieved, because when he was caught wrongdoing, he actually expected us to "give him back". He packed all his undershorts into his duffle bag and wrote us a baroque letter of apology stating that he knew he had failed us, felt sorry that he "couldn't handle freedom" and understood that he'd have to go back to a group home. We assured him that although we were unsettled by what had happened, calling in the dreaded "7 day notice" to have him removed was absolutely not on the table, not now, not ever. (The 7-day notice happened to him twice before, so he was just reaching conclusions based on what he's known.) We helped him put his clothes back in his dresser and took him to buy some food for his pet lizard, which seemed to calm him down.

Then, to prove our point, we drew up a contract. Part of the purpose of the contract was to show him exactly what consequences would pertain to various types of infraction - and the fact that NONE of them include being "given away."

On his final weekend of being grounded, his best friend had a birthday party. He wanted us to let him off a day early so he could go. We said no - not only because he's grounded, but also because of the nature of the party violates the terms of our contract. He was REALLY mad. We had a two-day standoff during which he tried to sabotage a summer job opportunity to get back at us. When we calmly explained that if he refused to get a job or seek out any gainful activities, he'd be coming to work with one of us (per the contract), he did a complete 180 on the spot. He not only changed his mind, but he sat right down and wrote a wonderful application and organized the letters of reference and all the supporting materials. He did this without spite, even politely asking for advice. And he took great care and pride in the application. It was a great reflection of his skills.

When he was done, to save face, he asked semi-sarcastically, "Are you happy now?" We smiled and pointed to the contract. At the very bottom, it clearly states "Smart decisions and positive behavior will result in happy, cooperative parents and may lead to bonuses and car privileges."

He looked utterly gobsmacked when we pointed it out. I offered, "I'd be happy to take you to get that t-shirt you wanted to buy with next month's allowance." He stared. He calculated for a moment. He said, "I would like to get some Levi's shorts at the mall instead. Is that a bonus?" I said, "Sure thing, it's your bonus so if you want shorts, let's go get shorts."

I'm not saying you should constantly hand out cash and prizes. But I do think that kids like T. get very accustomed to being disciplined. He's been through numerous foster homes where there are wall charts and privileges have to be earned and so on. He has generally viewed the "privileges" as the sort of things kids who aren't in foster care get every day - the right to hang out with friends, for example. The shorts, on the other hand, were definitely "extra" and they were offered happily and quickly. He didn't have to be "good" for a whole month, he just had to do a spectacular job turning his attitude around and pulling off this one big accomplishment.

And in that moment, I believe we all learned a valuable lesson. He learned that family life is a two-way street. And I learned that the "BAT" model of parenting (bribe-and-threaten) that I read about on one of my favorite blogs is completely brilliant. I jest, but no, seriously.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Hit and Run Love

As a foster/adoptive parent of a teenage boy, I practice what I call "hit and run love". I learned it from T. It works best with him to sneak in a hug after some shadowboxing, or peck the top of his head when he's on the computer.

Recently, he devised a new favorite joke: he holds out his arms and gives me a big hug, and then yells "Stop touching me!" and smiles. It's probably only funny if you were here when he wouldn't let us touch him at all, when even an accidental brush made him jump.

He loves to tickle us. He's also a big one for playing with our hair, especially if he's sitting in the back seat of the car. He licks the side of my face sometimes, which is his substitute for a kiss. He thinks it's funny because we can yell "Ew! Gross!" and make like we aren't showing affection.

Recently we went for a late-night walk around the neighborhood. He was chattering in a cartoon voice. Eventually a narrative emerged. He was a sports announcer, and I was the "champion of the world." He grabbed my fist and held it aloft as he carried on in his goofy voice "Ladies and Gentlemen! The champion of the world! How DOES she do it? Ladies and gentlemen, not with violence. She does it with WORDS and HUGS and KISSES! That's right, WORDS and HUGS and KISSES!"

Inside, I had one of those "Is this really happening?" moments. After all, most of the time, he lets me know that my parenting is annoying to him and we leave it at that. I played along, acting the sports announcer myself. "Ladies and Gentlemen, we go behind the scenes at home with her personal trainer, T. Now, T., tell us how you do it? How does she train?"

He said, "Well, at first, I thought just WORDS were enough. I didn't think hugs and kisses were REQUIRED. But she came with the hugs and kisses ANYWAY. And now it's words AND hugs and kisses! That is how she does it!"

We made riotous sounds of fans going crazy in the stands. T. in his fictional role announced to the world that from this point forward, there would be no more violence - that words and hugs and kisses would prevail. We danced around like boxers.

Ten months ago when we met him, I would NEVER have imagined him at play. He never smiled. He answered every question with one refrain: "It don't matter." His eyes told an incredible story and he was extremely keen. You could just about hear him thinking. But he was not an obvious comedian, and he had the mournful air of someone who has seen too much.

Being with us has not changed him - it hasn't been nearly long enough and I'm not so vain as to take any credit for whatever happiness is showing now. Everything we see now was part of him all along, but he was holding it in reserve. It is mind boggling to me how much he was able to hold inside. The T. we met last year was like an iceberg, showing a tiny tip above the water, with enormous depth beneath that we didn't even get to glimpse until about six months into our relationship with him.

Comedy and tragedy are flip sides of the same coin and they are dual strains in T.'s personality. He has turned out to be wickedly funny. He uses humor to bond, to say things he can't say with a straight face, to act like a much younger child when he needs to get that sort of parenting, and to smooth things over with peers. His sense of humor reminds me of comedians like Jim Carrey (homeless as a child). He's that kind of funny. It has an edge of anxiety to it, and grows out of intense vigilance and keen powers of observation. It will serve him well, I think.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010


Living with T. often reminds me of the time after my grandmother died. She was my favorite person. Grieving her death was more profound and complex than I expected. I experienced a sense of wonder, as well as distress and yearning. I was preoccupied. Valuable things seemed to matter more, while invaluable things - a tedious assignment, a boring dinner party - just defied my focus. I was annoyed by friends who used to please me, and bound to people with whom I didn't ordinarily share a close friendship.

Like other children whose early lives are full of trauma, T. has experienced a tremendous amount of grief. He lost his connection to his mother the moment he was born and taken away from her. His father, whom he never knew, was murdered when T. was in grammar school. He lost the younger brother he tried to protect for years when they were separated by the foster system. He lost the extended family who cared for him when he was taken away from them. He lost his friends when he was moved from one foster placement to another. He also lost a lot of his childhood as various adults divvied up his life and compromised his security.

But his grieving isn't just sad. It has many, many dimensions, and I see just the tip of the iceberg. His grief makes him wise in certain ways. Sometimes it also makes him excruciatingly irritable. Often it causes him to be quite controlling - it's as if he wants everybody to slow down and follow the rules, so maybe the world will stop and his losses won't continue to mount. He gets exhausted easily - school in particular is just too much for him sometimes.

He also has trouble letting go and being happy. When he gives in to joy (which does happen much more often these days), the transformation in his face and his energy level catch me off guard. At those times, he is a person I don't often see: a boy. I suspect that much of the rest of the time, the person I see in the day to day is troubled by tremendous guilt and fear.

His grief is palpable this week because he just had an overnight visit with some relatives. The communication with them leading up to the visit was poor, the plan for the weekend was chaotic, and their commitment to T. and their interest in him are both tenuous. We went through with it because he initiated the visit and maintaining ties to them is so important to his identity.

The most painful part of these weekends is trying to manage the way they hand him off from one relative to another even during a short visit - it mimics the way they passed him around from house to house during his early childhood. But he loves them - one of his cousins, in particular, "as a mother" - and seeing them at least establishes a sense of continuity in his life. Of course it also reminds him of hurts and losses I can barely begin to catalogue. So it's complicated.

One upside of these visits is the progress we've made in terms of handling the return landing. Last Christmas, he basically crash-landed after a visit to his relatives and it took weeks to resolve the divided loyalties and displaced anger. This time, he was happy to be back. He can go away and come back. He can have a birth family and an adoptive family. That's a big lesson.

He'll grieve for a long, long time I think. As he gets older, I hope two things will happen: that he'll meet more self-aware people who have sustained significant losses themselves, and that he'll catch a break - wide swathes of life when nothing much changes and nobody important dies or disappears from his life.

Thursday, April 1, 2010


I'm mad today, at everybody, and I feel like writing about it. In the words of one of my fave bloggers, sparkly pink cupcakes to all y'all...(and my apologies because I cannot remember which one of you geniuses coined this, so if it's yours, claim your credit!)

...to the English teacher who has apparently been sending T. out of class for misbehavior but not sharing this information with anyone. More love to him for turning our calm attempt to discuss how we might work together more effectively into a self-indulgent venting session.

...to the city of Los Angeles, which has allowed retail marijuana shops to flourish all around us (eight within a block) while still enforcing criminal penalties for possession. Trying to keep these kids out of trouble when their parents and older siblings can pick up weed as easily (more easily) than they can buy a gallon of milk seems nearly impossible some days. It feels like a giant mousetrap that threatens a parent's sanity.

...to T.'s primary caseworker who calls us every so often and tells us she must "log a visit" asap, and expects us to accomodate her schedule, including on weekends. More love to her for showing no interest or affection for T., for belittling and interrogating him at every opportunity, even when we assure her that we've already handled his behavior. And extra special bonus points for speaking to him critically about his birth mother. Every time she visits she leaves me with a pile of sparkly pink emotional mess to clean up.

...to my boss who is being passive aggressive about letting me take time off to get T. settled and attend things like therapy appointments and social worker visits. If I'd given birth I would have been out for months, but since I adopted an older kid instead, I have to beg, borrow and steal every litttle bit of time I need right now.

....to T.'s birth relatives who refuse to call me to confirm and coordinate the plan for his visit this weekend. Do they not understand how high the stakes are for him? Christmas went this way too. They tell him he can come, then refuse to return calls or texts required to work out arrangements. And how much do I feel like leaving my kid off for a visit with someone who won't call me back? About as much as I feel like telling him I can't get this worked out for him, then dealing with his crushing disappointment. AAaaaaaaargh!!!

...to T., who is wallowing in a sneering, leering hormonal stew right now and who argues if you say the sky is blue. He's been an absolute delight throughout his spring break, since neither fishing, camping, nor horseback riding have met with his princely expectations. I know, I know. To quote myself quoting my MAPP instructor, "parent the need, not the behavior". Hah. Hard to do this week.

Mmmmm. I feel better already!
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