Tuesday, July 27, 2010

The Weather in Our Heads

I tend to observe T. like a scientist, though I often act rather non-objective as a parent in the day to day. Several months of study suggest that he has a definite cycle. He's pretty compliant and communicative, for about three weeks at a time. Then a mood comes over him and for a week, or two, or three, he's stormy, somewhat compulsive, generally defiant and harder to reach. On the one hand, that's probably typical of many teenagers. On the other hand, we're grappling with a history of trauma, a marijuana habit, and some birth family drama. So his cycles are complex beyond those of the average teen.

I've decided to regard his cycles (and mine, because lord knows I have my own moods) like the weather. My mom's family is from North Dakota, where the weather is a daily drama. I have been there during clear spring days that ended in a blizzard, summer storms that delivered hail the size of grapefruits, and winter white-outs that leave you wondering if you're still on planet Earth. I think T., like a lot of kids in long-term foster care, grew up and grew accustomed to the emotional equivalent of life on those open plains. The fact that a day started out sunny and warm offered no guarantee that you wouldn't end up wind-whipped and disoriented that afternoon.

As a result, he's like someone who, having lived through a hurricane without any place to shelter, now prepares for disaster when he hears a few rain drops. How exhausting. Physiologically, the consequence of living that way is that he can only go so long before his system needs to power down. But life taught him that doing so is not safe, so he has trouble letting go. He can't relax himself; instead, he spirals into quasi-nihilistic episode of self-destructive behavior. It's as if he's telling himself "If I can't protect myself, I better just throw myself to the wolves."

The weather metaphor works for me too because it's as hard for me to control the factors that impact his mood as it is to control the weather. I can't prevent a call from his birth mom, stave off the intrusion of yet another social worker, deny a visit to see his relatives, or keep him from feeling let down when his best friend blows him off. Circumstances in his life are so complicated, he rarely goes more than a few weeks without a triggering incident. He is a deep, soulful person by nature and he absorbs these blows and processes them in a private place I can't always access. I try to protect him, but sometimes the elements catch up to us nevertheless. I'm making it a goal to teach him over time that the weather in our heads doesn't always have to reflect the weather outside. It is possible to build up internal resilience. You might open a door or window and let the rain come in, but when and for how long is up to you.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Year Anniversary

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.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

The Storm Has Almost Passed

Having T. and his younger brother in the same room is like touching the wrong cable to your car battery. I believe Advocate Mom saw this coming and gently warned me a few weeks ago, explaining that her boys tend recreate the drama of their early life together. Yes, exactly.

Things did calm down since my last post. Birth mama drama died down. Younger brother played video games with Tim and T. came and curled up behind me on the sofa like a cat and fell asleep with his feet in my armpit. Later we went to the movies (we took the boys to separate movies, T. to the teen requisite Eclipse and younger brother to Toy Story), and T. and I snuck off to Macy's for a few minutes to buy jeans. It's craven, I know, but hey, I have been known to distract myself from difficulty by going shopping so why shouldn't he?

Their conflict remained at a simmer rather than a boil. We came home and had cake and opened gifts. T. came into the room briefly, just long enough to hear his brother softly exclaim "This is my best birthday ever." (I swear, it's the little offhand tragedies that will kill you.) Satisfied or else plagued by horrible guilt (probably both), T. retreated to his computer and we sat and ate cake and helped younger brother load up his new iPod Shuffle with music.

I understand a few things better now. First, I have long wondered about T. where the pain is hiding. He's very strong and very private and generally doesn't bring things up for discussion until he's already resolved his feelings on the matter internally. This weekend his pain and frustration were on full technicolor display. I don't fear that kind of pain and I was grateful to see it.

Second, I have often wondered if he gets lonely here, because he's the only child and we don't know a lot of people with kids. I'm not worried about that anymore. I see that we are a built-in ever ready audience of two and the exclusivity of our attention combined with the general orderliness of our home (meals are served regularly, people behave predictably, if we say we're going to pick you up we arrive on time) is a respite for him.

Third, I have always loved his gentle touch with younger kids but it has dimension I didn't appreciate before. He volunteers at the hospital, where he plays with little kids who've just had surgery. He soothes and plays with my baby nephew like an experienced nanny. He is generous and gentle with his friends' younger siblings, letting them come over and borrow his things. I always assumed that this nurturing streak must reflect the way he cared for his brother. But I see now that it has a quality of atonement. He isn't capable of expressing that gentle side with his own brother: a deep, cutting irony. My guess is that he feels he failed when they were young and bad things happened. At the same time, he believes that, had his younger brother been a different, better child, things wouldn't have been so hard.

I often think with T. that nothing is all good and nothing is all bad. There is pain and anger in his good behavior: if I'm perfect, then people will see that and finally love me. There is honesty and resourcefulness in his bad behavior: see, this is who I really am and this is how I get by - how ya like me now? He intended for this weekend to be about the first part of that dichotomy, to impress himself and his birth mom with his generosity. It turned out to be about the second part, about showing us who he really is and where he comes from.

All weekend, he's been checking my eyes. While he's on the phone with his birth mom, while he's haranguing his brother, or threatening to punch him out, or twitching with frustration as if he's got a bad case of emotional hives, he keeps checking my face. His expression, a half-smile with a wince, is hard to describe. It's part claustrophobia, part desperation, part humor, part shame. Most of all it's a very intense question mark. "What's happening to me?" I spent a lot of the weekend just looking back at him with an expression that I recall. It's the way my mom used to look at us when we had the stomach flu. It means: Nothing is wrong. I'm here and it's okay. This moment will pass.

Saturday, July 17, 2010


So see previous post, where I expected this weekend to suck big apples. It didn’t take long for the BFD to kick on (birth family drama).

1:30 Younger brother arrives T. covers his face with his hands, yells “get away from me” when his brother tries to hug him. Looks at me and says “Can you buy him some clothes?! Look what he’s wearing!” Younger brother looks at me with his gentle smile, a little bit of heartbreak in his eyes.

1:32 Younger brother says to T. “Have you talked to mom?” T. says no, she isn’t speaking to him right now (she stopped speaking to him four months ago because he was visiting some other relatives he grew up with and didn’t go to visit her). Neither boy has ever lived with her, and T. only met her for the first time when he was around twelve. Younger brother turns to me and says “I told her I didn’t want to live with her and she told me to get out of her house and I haven’t talked to her since.”

“It’s good that you’re able to talk about what you want, even if it’s not what she wants to hear,” I say. “I know you guys will be close again some day.” I’m about to pat myself on the back for finding anything to say at all, when T. ruins the moment: “NO! She’s got problems!” he yells.

2:00 we go across the street to get McDonalds for the boys and return to find that T. has phoned their mom and left her a message. In turn, she called back and left an angry insulting message on his voicemail. He’s wound up, in the high-anxiety trauma place he goes when he panics. He wants to play the voicemail for me but finds he deleted it. I suggest that he let things go and focus on enjoying the time with his brother. He walks away – he’s not listening.

It suddenly dawns on me. That’s what this visit is about. He wanted to have his brother over so that he could show his mom that he’s a good son, and that he’s keeping the family together. Then maybe she won’t be mad at him anymore. Oh crap.

2:10 I go in the tv room to find T. has called his mom again. “Just listen to me!” I hear him saying. “Stop yelling! Can we at least come visit you? We’re here together.” I stop in my tracks. She hangs up on him. I quietly wave him into the other room.

2:11 I try explaining in a quiet loving way that we aren't going to take the boys to see their mom this weekend – although I’ve spoken with her on the phone, I haven’t met her. I don’t know whether younger brother is allowed unsupervised visits with mom, and T. hasn’t seen her in years. The situation is too volatile today because he and his mom are upset. I try to say all this without implying any disrespect or unwillingness to facilitate a visit some other time when we’ve all had a chance to plan it together. Of course, T. shuts it down, tells me he’s not listening to me, it’s none of my business, and he means me no disrespect, but he doesn’t want to hear my input on this topic. He storms out.

2:30 Tim gets both boys playing video games. By sitting his considerable presence between them, he’s able to get them off the phone and settled down a bit. If the first hour of this weekend is any indication, I’m going to need a week to recover.

I generally have a ton of compassion for T.’s birth mom. But today, I’m out of patience. I feel like telling her that these boys are not her boyfriends. They are children. They aren’t equipped to play this game with her where she accuses them of not loving her enough, leaves them nasty voicemail messages and hangs up on them when they call. It’s not fair at all to expect them to chase her and win her over. She wasn’t there, and they needed to survive and they have done the best they can. If she would free them to feel good about that, it would do them a whole bunch of good.

T.’s younger brother is the one with the more obvious behavioral symptoms. But it’s T. who, because he has a capacity to deeply repress things and extraordinary skills that make him high functioning in many respects, is far more volatile than his brother. His younger brother shows his pain on the surface and a lot of people help him through it. T. keeps his buried deep inside and when it bubbles to the surface – when his life catches up with him – he unravels and gets completely manic. He tends to be an utter control freak even on good days, and the chaos of his relationship with his birth mom pushes his controlling tendencies right over the edge. He tries to use his cognitive skills to solve the problem on his own and he can’t. It won’t ever be fixed. As that dawns on him, you can see him swept up in a vortex of horror as he realizes that all that pain didn’t go away after all – it’s sitting right there waiting for him.

3:06 An old friend of Tim's calls out of the blue. His art framing shop is overwhelmed with business and he wants to offer T. a job for the rest of the summer. The mood lightens. T., excited by the prospect of making money, comes back to the present. I am flooded with gratitude. Kindness and support in parenting T. come from the most unexpected places and at the oddest times.

Parenting Kids Who Parent

So this is the weekend T.’s brother comes to visit. As happens from time to time, it turns out my intuition on this has been mostly wrong so far – or at least one-dimensional.

I thought T. might secretly want his brother to come and live with us. At the moment, I think he’d like nothing less.

It started like this. I said something like “What shall we do when your brother is here?” And T. said something like “Shut up and don’t talk to me right now!”

Interesting. I tried again “I thought we could plan something fun for his birthday and it would help me to know what you have in mind.”

“It’s up to him,” he said. He went in the other room and sent me a text message. It read “goodbye.”

He is generally a sensitive and responsive, if strong-willed, kid. It’s unusual for him to shut something down so completely, or to be so abrupt. It actually struck me as funny, which perhaps says something about my ill sense of humor.

Tim and I gave it a few days, then tried again. We started with logistics. “So we got permission to pick your brother up at his group home on Saturday. What time do you want to head out there?”

“I’m not going,” he said.

“Okay, wait a minute. You INVITED him, right? Do you still want him to visit?” I asked. He said yes. Mistaking his refusal to do the drive for common teenage laziness, I said “You absolutely are going with us to pick him up. He’s your brother and he doesn’t know us very well. It’s his birthday and he’ll be happy to see you.”

“I’m not,” he said. “I’ll stay home and clean the house to get things ready.”

An offer to clean? MOST unusual. “Let’s talk about this.”

“I don’t want to talk about it!” he said. “He bugs me! He really bugs me! Just DO NOT make me go pick him up!” He started pacing, making tiny tight circles on the floor.

I laughed. “Well, great, now I understand a little bit better. It sounds like he’s annoying to you.”

“He’s so annoying! You don’t even know. Sometimes I even want to hit him.”

I said, “Well, yeah, that’s pretty normal. This is going to be an interesting weekend. Let’s come up with some ideas for things to do so he doesn’t get on your nerves.”

“I don’t have to entertain him,” he said. “He can just be here and do stuff. I don’t have to do everything with him.”

Uh oh. I got an inkling. After all, T. has recently mastered the art of having a social life of his own - something he was mostly unable to cultivate in his many years in foster care. “But you will be here this weekend, right?” I asked. “I mean, you’re not planning to go hang out with friends, right?”

“Um,” he said. “I’m NOT going to just be here in the house with him. I'm a teen. I need to get out and do things. And he makes me REALLY MAD. I’m not his parent and I don’t have to take care of him all the time. I did that. I had to take care of me AND him when we went to foster. He gotta do things for himself now.”

Well, there it is. There are these moments when he says something – usually when he thinks he’s ranting and raving in a sort of casual bratty way when these nuggets of pure truth pop out. You just feel it in your gut. Bingo.

“Oh!” I said. “So let me see if I get this right. You had to take care of him for a long time and you were just a kid yourself and it must have been really hard. And probably you felt like you had to be a parent and you didn't want to. So now you want to make sure you don't have to be the parent again.”

“Yeaaaaaaaah!” he exclaimed.

I said, “Okay, great. We’re the parents here, right? So he’s coming to visit, and you’re going to be kind to him. But you're right, you don't have to act like his parent. You have your own life. We'll be here and we'll be in charge.”

Home run. A flood of relief. Singing, dancing. Came and flopped on our bed and wouldn’t stop talking at bedtime. Next morning we both got huge bear hugs before breakfast. Crazy love.

This is so counter-intuitive. I know it sounds like I’m letting him get away with murder. I know he’s being slightly cruel to his brother and we’ll have to manage that. I know he’s being outrageously impolite. But I also know it’s the right thing to do in the way I know most things with him, right deep in the middle of me for no rational reason.

We’re buying a cake and an iPod Shuffle for his brother and wrapping it up with a card with T.’s name on it. I feel like we’re supposed to take away the burden of parenting, grease a sticky emotional situation with a good present and a cake and a sleepover. And the whole weekend will very likely suck big apples. But in the big picture, this is exactly what he needs – he needs to experience the common order of hierarchy in the family where everything isn’t his fault and his responsibility. He dreamed of this and longed for it for a long time and almost got too old to get a chance to turn over the burden of parental responsibility to actual parents. But he managed to get himself some proper parents and by god, he’s going to grab every minute he can get to be the kid. He's going to be jealous and immature and express his guilt and sadness about what happened in their early lives in really awkward ways, and that's okay, because it's the best he can do, and it's a whole lot better than the overly compliant, parentified, repressed kid he used to be.

But this weekend is still going to suck big apples.

Thursday, July 8, 2010


There are so many meaningful things to say about being a foster/adoptive parent to a teenager, but its also just really fun:

- I currently have a command of the lyrics to popular songs that defies most members of my demographic.

- It's fun living with someone who still watches cartoons but also knows how to read a subway map and navigate in the car.

- Thanks to T., I can do the dougie and the charlie brown, and I even invented my own dance move, which I call "the scarecrow".

- I love Monday nights when we go to the movies in our matching pajamas that T. bought for us for Christmas.

- I really like shopping with him. He has great taste and his teenage obsession with switching up his style now and then is great fun. Adults should try it more often.

- When he's happy and wants to show it, he tickles my feet, bites my nose, or pulls on my hair. I grew up an eldest and I'm not used to being teased. It makes me feel great.

- I am a total jock, and I finally have a live-in competitor who keeps me striving. So far this year I broke one finger playing football with him and another when we took snowboarding lessons; we also tried surfing, rockclimbing, bowling, hiking and this summer we've planned to try indoor skydiving and waterskiing.

- I know how to play Fight Night, Madden 10 and Wii tennis now.

- Taken with the right amount of humor and distance, the ups and downs of teen social life are like having a soap opera play out right in your own home.

- We always have Doritos and ice cream in the house now.

I think there's a lot written about the difficulties of fostering and adopting teenagers and perhaps not so much about the joys. I'd love to hear from some other parents about what you do for fun.

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