Wednesday, August 25, 2010


This week, T. had his wisdom teeth extracted. For months, he has been asking after this appointment, checking up on it, anticipating it. This whole little drama of the wisdom teeth illustrates some interesting aspects of being an older child in foster care, transitioning to adoption.

To begin, his keen attention to this appointment with the oral surgeon struck me as a vestige of the feeling he had in foster care that he had to take care of himself and keep track of his own needs. He seemed anxious that we might forget about the appointment, a remnant of a general mistrust of adults.

We also did not quite anticipate the complexities of what it means to be pre-adoptive foster parents, in terms of the legalities. In order to have his wisdom teeth extracted, we had to speak with three different social workers (he has a caseworker and an adoption worker, and at some point in this process, one quit and another went out on extended sick leave so we had to begin anew with a replacement). The social worker needed to give us a form which we needed to give to the oral surgeon and then return to the social worker to take to a judge, to obtain a signature before we could have the teeth extracted.

One day shortly before his appointment, he also commented that "in the system" (which is how he refers to foster care), kids must see the dentist once every six months and foster parents must turn in papers from the dentist to the social worker, who in turn must show them to a judge. He mentioned that he's surprised, now that he lives with us, to see that we sometimes let our own dentist appointments slide a bit. We aim to get our teeth cleaned about twice a year, but our approach is inexact. "I spent so long in the system, I thought EVERYONE was required to go every six months," he commented quietly. "I didn't know you could make your own appointment and go when you want, like you guys do."

Most of all, it's been fascinating to take care of him today since he got home from the oral surgeon. When he returned (Tim was the one to take him to the appointment) he gave me what I call his "angry baby look" - a steady glare that basically means "Help! Can you read my mind?" It's a demand to intuit his needs. He was in pain, and that made him angry and confused. "How would you like to get in our bed and we'll bring the television in and you can watch movies?" I asked. He stared. He nodded. We moved the television and propped him up on pillows. He got suddenly very small, not at all like his day to day stubborn teenage self. He wanted to be spoon fed his dinner and desert. He let me rearrange his pillows and adjust his head. He called for ice cream and water and Advil. He mumbled "thank you" for each small favor. He seemed excited that I offered to stay home from work in the morning. (For a brief moment, he went wild with power and demanded that we go out and get him a milkshake at midnight, which we gently declined to do.) I am not sure he has ever been sick and allowed to burrow in a parent's bed before. He had an awkwardness and vulnerability that appear once in awhile when he is learning, a little late, what it's like to be so loved.

I think sometimes it's in these very small moments that he lets himself absorb kindness. I suspect it's also at these moments that he catches a glimpse of what he missed out on during his early childhood. Grief, relief, surprise, tenderness and embarrassment all pass across his face all at once.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Good at Family

One of the things I admire so much about our foster/adoptive teenage son is what I think of as his skill at family.

It is beyond comprehension where he acquired these skills, unless you either accept that such things are innate, or decide that it's possible to learn positive skills through negative examples. In any case, I believe he is good (and getting better) at key aspects of family life: attunement, organization, reconciliation, and play.

Attunement: To me this means knowing how to get in synch with another person. I am pretty sure he developed this capacity through trauma - I'm sure it's quite useful when you're living with a severely abusive adult to be able to read and respond to their moods. However, he's able to carry this skill forward in more healthy environments. We noticed it early on. If you hum a song, he picks it up three rooms and way and finishes the tune. If the mood tilts too far in one direction, he'll switch it up to establish equilibrium. Sometimes he'll start an argument, just to get us back on the same page - he's like the princess with the proverbial pea under her mattress if there's something that needs to be aired and he won't rest until it is.

Organization: There is seemingly no end to the chaos that a life in foster care can wreak. T. has been in sixteen homes. He's had multiple caseworkers. Some of his case files are in another county, on paper, and thus not accessible to his current caseworkers. His birth family, for various reasons, had severe difficulties such that the whereabouts of his father and his siblings was difficult or impossible to track. He told me recently that he's not sure how he's actually related to the person he calls "grandma"; he's pretty sure she's his second or third cousin. Perhaps in response to all of this upheaval, he's quite orderly. When he first came to us, he was TOO orderly - I believe the clinical term is "overly compliant." After that eased up, he became just garden-variety organized. He keeps his important papers in a neat stack in his desk drawer. He remembers dates and appointments and names. He knows the phone numbers and birthdays of all his nearest and dearest by memory. He's taught me that children need organization, and that lack of organization is a cause of significant anxiety, especially for traumatized kids.

Reconciliation: Living in close quarters with others produces intimacy and some bumps and scratches. I greatly admire his capacity to resolve the inevitable misunderstandings and hurt feelings before they fester. He has bursts of temper like any teenager. But if we sit still on the sofa afterwards, he circles back repeatedly, "pinging" us with little attempts at reconciliation. If we respond with openness, eventually after a few "pings" he settles in for a "big talk." He doesn't get up until everyone has said their piece and we've moved along. Often he stays on to chat a bit, euphoric from the feeling of having been heard. It's a great skill, one that really surprised us the first few times we saw him in action following a conflict.

Play: One day when T. was telling me some anecdote about a previous foster home, I had an epiphany. He was talking about how he'd been disciplined, and what he'd done wrong to deserve it. I knew him when he was in that foster home, and I was familiar with the environment there and what his life was like then. "You know what always bothered me about that house?" I said. "I think parents have to give guidance. It's part of what we do. But we also have to bring the fun. That house didn't seem like there was much fun going on." He looked surprised, and he agreed. We play alot. T. likes to lick us by surprise sometimes - he'll sneak up and lick us on the cheek just to hear us squeal. He hides sometimes when we come home so we have to look for him. He loves to flop on our bed and tickle our feet, and he's very quick to pick up a silliness and turn it into an inside joke. We sass each other and tell each other the things that nobody but your family will ever tell you, like "your feet smell." He's just fun.

In all the writing about foster/adoption of older children, I think the basic skills of family living are often given short shrift. We navigate many complicated issues with him, ranging from substance abuse to grief about the relatives he's lost. His skill at attunement, organization, reconciliation and play are a big part of building the day to day bonds that support doing that work.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

My Fantasy Baby Shower

I went to my fantasy baby shower today. It was awesome, because I made it all up. Something about attending my third office baby shower of the summer got me started. (At each one, I'm invited to give thoughtful "welcome baby" gifts to people I barely know. I'm really not bitter or jealous - I'm totally happy for them. But I can't help but notice that when T. arrived, not one person said "congratulations" or felt it was a gift-giving occasion, and I find that a harsh commentary on the stereotypes that pertain to foster/adoption of older children. So I indulged my imagination a bit.)

My baby's no baby, so here's how my imaginary baby shower went down.

First, the 8 or 10 other people out there who adopt teenagers showed up. We read each others blogs, so you know who you are. There were gay and lesbian parents, straight parents, single parents. There was beer. Real, cold beer. There were a lot of war stories and also some kinda sick jokes.

You know what nobody said? Nobody asked me where his "real" family is. Nobody asked what race he is. Nobody looked at me with sadness because they assume that I can't have a bio baby. Nobody told me I have to put him on a wheat-free diet, or asked me if he gets good grades, or told me that "all parenting is the same no matter where the child comes from." Did I mention the beer?

Hell, since it's my fantasy baby shower, I'm gonna say T's birth relatives came along too. We're all gonna be seeing alot of each other on holidays for awhile so I guess they decided to show up and make friends. They took a pass on raising him, but today at my imaginary baby shower, they decided that they still want to be a supportive presence in his life. They brought banana pudding. He loves their cooking.

T loved his baby shower. He's been part of every decision we've made about becoming family to each other, so it was only right that he attend his own baby shower. He thought it was hilarious, as he often finds amusement in observing my awkward attempts at first-time parenting. He loves to dance, so there was dancing.

There were also really good presents. One foster adoptive mom gave us a gift certificate to Costco. "You won't believe how much juice they drink!" she said. Another gave us a gift certificate for iTunes. "Encourage them to listen to music on headphones," she said. "That's the closest you're going to get to some alone time for awhile." Somebody else offered to come by on a Saturday night to hold down the fort while Tim and I went out for a dinner date. Oh blessed relief.

My folks were there (they'd come in real life, for sure, and they did send a popcorn machine when T. moved in, to their credit). Tim's parents came too (in real life, they are confounded by our choices). Even his brother (who, in real life, recently said to me of our adoption "So what should I call him? Step-nephew?"). But here's the kicker: the neighbors (the same ones who, in real life, called their attorney when we told them T was moving in) showed up. They looked me right in the eye and said "We're sorry, we were racist narrow-minded bigots." Then they had a beer and got down.

As my fantasy baby shower drew to a close, T's socialworker came up to me. "We 're going to get out of your hair now," she said. "Let you do your thing." She slapped me on the back. "Thanks for stepping up!" she said. "And good luck with all this." Then she drove off into the sunset.

Now that was some good daydreaming.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010


Tonight just a quick post to capture a conversation we had tonight. We were out for a late night walk - I pay T. $3 to "train" me by jogging around the neighborhood before bed a few times a week. I get my exercise, and he gets to chatting. Rather like driving in the car, being side by side in the dark, rather than face to face at home frees the tongue.

So tonight, we were talking about why I'd like him to get involved in activities. But I was also trying to explain that this is a goal, not a criticism. So I added something like, "You know, you've accomplished a lot. You found yourself parents and got adopted your freshman year. That's huge. That's bigger than any high school accomplishment I've ever heard of. That's just so impressive."

And that's when he said: "You feel me? You know what the social worker said? Back when I was living at Ms. (former foster mom)'s house? The social worker came and she and Ms. (former foster mom) were sitting in the living room. I said I wanted to be adopted. And they said "Oh, people don't adopt teenagers. People want to adopt LITTLE kids." Man, I just went in my room. That made me feel so bad. Like, I'm gonna be in foster care forever? For my whole life? Like I'm gonna die in foster care. That just makes a kid feel, like, so hopeless."

Yes, exactly.
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