Saturday, September 29, 2012

The Darker Side of Me

I don't like to use "psycho-babble" but I do want to try to capture a thought I've had as we transition to being the parents of an adult. I've long thought that, in the way all of us have a dark side, mine is so-called "co-dependence". I'm very sensitive to other people's suffering, I have a habit of trying to "help", and I get frustrated when the target of my "help" doesn't respond as I hope they will. I put other people's needs first, downplay my own, and allow myself to get overextended until I'm at the point of illness and/or resentment. Not pretty, and not unusual. You probably know the type. I suffer an excess of objectivity in my awareness of my faults. :)

As a foster/adoptive parent, I sometimes worried that my desire to parent in this way could be reduced to a grand act of co-dependence. Perhaps from a certain perspective, it can. But I prefer to think that being T's parent has been the single greatest opportunity in my life to become fully aware of my unappealing tendencies, and my gifts, in equal measure. My natural, totally genuine--and largely unexpected--love for T is a force beyond myself, and helped me overcome some of the limitations in the way that I love.

If you tend to want to "help" and "advise" others, being the parent of a teenager is pretty great. They need a lot of help and advice! Up until I was a parent, my desire to "help" and "advise" generally found unsuitable targets. But I learned with T to ask "would you like my advice?" and "would you like my help?". To my delight, the answer was often yes! But sometimes it was no, and learning to ask and accept the answer was good practice.

I think T and I came together so we could both work at and learn through things unique to us: in his case, he needed to learn attachment, and I was a good choice for him in that way--I'd venture to say that my more dysfunctional personality traits actually helped a bit in terms of attachment, because some of his anti-attachment behaviors are so extreme, being slightly off-balance myself probably caused me to hang in there beyond reason.

I know I needed to learn to give up control, being a classic type A control-freak prone to trying to fix the world, and he has been and continues to be a brilliant lesson to me in that regard. In the abstract, I would have thought that my control-freakiness and my love for him would coincide, causing me to be EXTRA controlling when it came to him. In fact, what I found is that the thing that most trumps my desire for control is parental love. It causes me to be gentle. It causes me to empathize with the struggles he's having, in such a way that I am forced to recognize that they are not "fixable". I am on his side, not my side. It causes me to accept him as he is at his moment, simply for the pleasure of his personality, without asserting an ego-driven need to "improve" him. I truly treasure who he is, regardless of behavior.

My relationship with him is also unusually honest, which is an antidote to the narcissism of co-dependence. I think perhaps this stems from the fairly radical confrontation with truth required for a child of his age to find adoptive parents. There are things we can do, and be, for each other, and things we cannot, and we've spoken about that boundary many times. Both parties went into it with our eyes pretty wide open.

And of course, the irresolute nature of his substance abuse problem means that I've had to accept that things simply are what they are. I cannot change it, I cannot fix it, and I cannot live with it in my house. That probably sounds like a simple realization to some people, but I had resisted reaching it in other relationships in my life, and it took parenting him to bring me to greater clarity.

Perhaps I was unwittingly drawn to parent him because of my darker side, and perhaps he was driven to bond with me because he recognized a co-dependent that he could "hook". But I found the experience of parent/child attachment to be perhaps the one thing I have experienced in life strong enough to force both the clarity to recognize the weakness in that dynamic, and the commitment to try to allow both people to grow toward something freer and more genuinely loving. In the way that all parent/child relationships evolve, ours has evolved toward greater day-to-day distance and, paradoxically, greater recognition. Both counter my darker side, and, I hope, serve his true needs.


dcorey said...

Coming out of lurking to say that this post really spoke to me (although many of yours do). The paragraph regarding your typical need to control being softened rather than strengthened as you parented T - I hope that's where I'm headed too (I think deep down I am, although I wouldn't say its absolutely true yet). My kiddo is younger (6 when we became a family) and has only been family for a year and a half. I'm thinking I'll hang on to your words in an effort to guide myself as we keep figuring out what it means to be mother and daughter.

Lulu McCabe said...

Thanks for your comment! Good luck! You might enjoy this: when T was 15, he looked at me one day and said "I feel like you're trying to control me." I said, "I am! You're right! I'm scared something bad is going to happen to you and it's going to be my fault." He nodded sagely and said "Yes, I understand. But you can't control everything that happens in life. And it has nothing to do with you. You have to trust me to take care of myself." Out of the mouths of babes!

Last Mom said...

This parenting gig is so hard. It really plays on all your issues and quirks. Add in trauma? Yeah. My daughter was 9 when she came to us and I worked hard to teach her that parents are in control. Now she's almost 12 and I need to gt her to take some independence back. Complicated, tricky stuff! I hope I can do this upcoming parenting traumatized teen years thing with as much grace and acceptance as you have.

Anonymous said...

Thank you so much for sharing you experience. Last year we started the journey of adopting a 19 year old who desperately wanted a family.

He has been placed with us since January and it has been a roller coaster.

Two weeks ago he announced to us that he is not interested in adoption, his behavior towards us was full of red lights and indication of his feelings but we were told by case workers and therapists alike that he was "testing" us to see if we were here for real.

All we can come up with is the hope that we had provided him with opportunities that will help successfully transition him to independent living next January when he turns 21.

I am not so sure I would like to start all over again with another kid, as his case workers assure me he is the most difficult case the have ever had and that other kids are easier to deal with, I somehow don't believe them anymore.

As I read your posts, I admire your courage and strength, I am not sure I would have the compassion and love to go through what you guys are going through.

marythemom said...

I believe God matched my children to me both for their sake and mine. Your description of your personality sounds very similar to mine, and raising these kids had a positive effect on my personality, relationships and parenting style. I have always said that the rougher side of my childhood helped me be more empathetic and more therapeutic to my children's needs. I know that in a lot of ways I was exactly what my children needed too.

Your comment about the controlling part of your personality really resonated with me, and while I think my children need some of that control, it is definitely something I need to be aware of as they mature. It's especially hard with my (chronologically 17yo) daughter who is NOT maturing into a teen (and probably never will).

Thanks again for another insightful, thought-provoking post!


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