After several really tough weeks, we are catching a wonderful week with T. Complex as he is, he does have really admirable skills at relating when he's relaxed enough to implement them. He designated Sunday "family day", and planned (and executed) a pleasurable day together. That stretched into a peaceful Monday, and a playful Tuesday evening out as a family. Knock wood three times right now if you're reading this blog.
This moment in our foster/adoptive journey seems a good time to capture my present thoughts about what is and is not as we expected it to be. When you are adopting an older child from foster care, you tend to do a lot of reading, fretting over worst-case-scenarios, and searching for advice. There isn't a lot written about such families. We read books, scoured the web, and took county-mandated parenting classes. Some things turned out to be more true than others.
This is the beginning of a list of advice/stereotypes we heard before we became T's parents, and what turned out to be true for us. I hope this will help some prospective foster/adoptive parents who are in the early stages of reading/listening/imagining.
TRUE: kids coming from long-term foster care have a lot of problems.
Okay, this is true. But I HATE the way people say it! Of course our kids have a lot of problems: often they've been abused - sometimes severely. Their developmental needs have been neglected. Sometimes they've struggled to get enough food to eat, or to find a safe place to sleep--for years on end, perhaps even during infancy. Those are big problems! They produce big symptomatic behaviors. (I've found it to be absolutely true, by the way, that a kid will show you how he feels, by trying to make you feel that way too, because he may not be able to tell you.) So I always struggle with this one. In my opinion, the important thing for someone contemplating foster/adoption of an older child is to be really frank with oneself about whether or not you have a high tolerance and compassion for "people with problems." Some people do, some don't and it isn't about being a good person. It's probably just about your point of view.
NOT SO TRUE: he'll have trouble with bonding and attachment.
We read A LOT about attachment disorders and trouble with bonding. This has not been our problem at all. He was not quick to attach, but when he did, it was like a million tender tentacles reaching out to grab you. We are exceptionally close, even when things aren't going well. T taught me that being someone's parent isn't a legal or biological situation - children MAKE you their parents. They have within them a natural dependence on adults that drives them to attach, and if that capacity can remain more or less healthy (which by some miracle, it did in him, although he suffered other deep sustained injuries) they will bond to you so strongly that you will never again doubt that you are their parent, regardless of the legal or biological circumstances. We struggle with behavior issues, separation anxiety, and a lack of impulse control - but never with a loose or fragile bond. I know many adoptive parents DO struggle with children's difficulty in attaching, and in no way do I wish to detract from that reality. I just mean that it did not turn out to be our reality as I expected. Every situation is different. We wasted a lot of time fretting over the wrong thing in this case.
NOT SO TRUE: You need to work hard to facilitate and strengthen ties to birth family.
Okay, I know this is true and so essential for a lot of foster care situations. But I overprepared for this one, and overreached the goal a bit. I think we tried too hard at first. It took me some time to understand that what T. really needed was to know the door was open to have contact with his birth family and that we would support those relationships and never (ever!) criticize his birth relatives. However, this does not mean that he actually want us to make regular visits happen. He's satisfied with very occasional visits - the relationships are more distant and, in some cases, a bit more superficial than I really understood at first. It took me some time to ascertain that my role was not to deepen those relationships - it was to honor them, and to supplement them by cultivating a deep relationship with him myself.
NOT TRUE AT ALL: Adoption is just another way of making a family.
People used to say this to us a lot. They don't anymore - LOL. I feel strongly about this one: older child adoption, particularly traumatized older child adoption, is very profoundly different than other ways of making a family. I think talk about how "it doesn't matter where a child came from" is total nonsense, and worse, invites adoptive parents to feel very isolated when their experiences have nothing to do with those of their friends raising bio kids. I've found that I need friends who neither think it tragic/horrifying that T has "problems", nor that we are "saviors" for adopting him, nor that what we're doing is "just like" traditional parenting. I find it much more helpful to think of parenting traumatized older children as a kind of extreme sport, a pursuit one should train for in a specialized and rigorous way, and something one should expect to hurt, sometimes a lot.
TRUE: A child will grow and change at his own pace.
I'm certain after nearly two years with T that the surest path to insanity is to try to "fix" a traumatized, troubled kid. He will grow and change as he is able, when he is ready, and we are just like fertilizer, providing the nutrients he needs to do that work. There is no other alternative. I cannot prod, poke or provoke him to change. I must not "need" for him to change. And at exactly the moment that I give up completely and think things can't possibly continue as they are, he will change. T made me realize that children are change. That's their nature. The added complexity of raising an older kid with a trauma history is that T's development is extremely unpredictable. We can't pick up a book about time-tested wisdom for helping him navigate from teething to toddlerdom. He is all over the map. He jumps back and forth by years, sometimes decades, in a single day. He's like a cat that is sometimes a kitten and sometimes a lion and sometimes a house cat.
NOT SO TRUE: As transracial adoptive parents, you are going to need to work hard to make sure the child stays connected to his culture.
That's sound advice in general, like a lot of what we encountered before we were T's parents. T made this one very easy for us. We fretted over it a lot before he came to live with us, and it turned out to be very low on our list of things we ought to have worried about. He has a robust, healthy sense of himself as an African American young man, and he has no problem letting us know what we need to know in order to facilitate that. His friends are all Black, he takes African American studies classes, and we frequently talk about race and racism at home. We didn't have to work hard to keep him connected - he showed us where to hook up and that was it. He is interested in our cultural identities and expects we're equally interested in his. In this way, being his parent has qualities very much like a deep friendship or a marriage - he came to us already formed in some ways, and we fit our differences together.
NOT SO TRUE: the child will test you over and over again.
At various times when we've been going through some difficulty or other, someone (a therapist, a caseworker) has said "Oh, he's testing you," or even asked him directly "Are you testing them?" I find that somewhat simplistic. I'm sure it's often true that kids test their adoptive parents, in extreme ways. But in our case, I know in my gut that T is rarely testing us with his misbehavior. He misbehaves because he has faulty self-control. It has nothing to do with us. I think it's important to recognize that.
TRUE: the child is doing the best he can.
I'm a broken record on this one as any reader of this blog knows. But this simple statement by Foster Cline is my constant mantra. It is so true. Once in awhile, when we're really having a tough time, I even say to T "I know you're doing the best you can." It is so important to keep this in mind. I wish his teachers and his social worker would operate from the same assumption - it would change everything.
NOT SO TRUE: adopted kids feel grief about being adoption.
In our parenting training, we were counseled a lot not to be too quick to celebrate adoption, because it is, at best, a mixed blessing and kids naturally grieve the loss of their birth family. I think this advice conflated two different events - the loss of birth family, and adoption. For T, there was a very long lapse of time between losing his birth family and "getting adopted" (in his mind, he "got adopted" when he moved in with us) - time he spent in multiple group foster homes. So for him, adoption is a huge accomplishment. It truly carries no stigma, and has little to do in his perception with losing his birth parents. He feels he proved something to the world. Adoption represents escape from foster care and everything he associates with foster kid status. Of course he feels enduring grief about losing his birth family. My point is simply that the grief and his feelings about adoption are two entirely separate things - as I suspect they might be for other older children coming from extended foster care.
My list could go on and on...I'll stop here, but please feel free to add your own thoughts and I'll probably continue this list over time.