Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Running Away From Home

When I was young, maybe 7 or 8, my younger brother and I were bored one rainy day. We announced that we were "running away from home." We got the boy next door involved. We packed little suitcases and put on rain coats, and then we went out and walked around the block by ourselves with our luggage in tow. After a block or so, my brother got fretful and melancholy, but I insisted that we keep going. We made it all the way around the block before going home. I look back and admire my mom and the mom next door for treating this all with good humor, and letting us live out the "all on my own" fantasy for the duration of one very long, wet suburban block.

Sometimes lately, I feel like T is "running away from home" in a similar way. He calls now and then. He's picked up clean underpants a few times. Today, he called to ask us to retrieve his resume from our computer, add a line, and email it to him. He has always excelled at little sonar messages designed to check for sustained connection, and now is no different, really.

Of all the places he could land right now, I don't much mind where he is. He's with an older half brother whom he only met a few years ago. The brother had a very different upbringing than T, having been adopted as an infant. To be sure, he's had his struggles and as T's parent I'm not 100% comfortable with the young man's judgement. But he's a father himself, doing his best to raise his son with the boy's mother, and he takes being a father very seriously. I admire him, knowing a bit about how hard he's worked to get where he is and what it means for him to raise his son, having been abandoned by his own mother.

Most of all, my gut tells me it is necessary and instructive for T to have this time with birth relatives. I think every child who spends time in foster care longs for blood ties, for the sense of place that comes from shared ancestry. I also think that denied that opportunity to forge connections with relatives, kids like T romanticize such relationships to excess.

What's more, given his addiction, T needs to learn that blood ties are not enough to justify exploitation. In other words, even his brother will grow tired of being used and expect him to clean up and contribute to the household. As a young child, T witnessed adults using one another in the name of "family" and he suffers some confusion about how far familial obligation extends.  I think right about now, his brother is probably beginning to ask what the heck he's going to do with T in his house, not working, not going to school, and not contributing to household expenses. If T had a grip on his drug use, I'd give the brother living expenses to help offset the cost of having T in the house, but I can't right now. And it's good for T to see that no matter who you're with, no loyalty overrides daily necessity.

In a way, our present state is not unlike having a child away at college, except that T has chosen to school himself in a different way: a difficult, potentially dangerous way. But the way he's chosen, and perhaps the one he needs right now.

Monday, June 18, 2012

Other Mothers

Only one day later, and I find I have something else to say. Well, to share really, this time on the topic of relationships between adoptive family and birth family.

T has a relative with whom he was placed when he was a little boy. He was removed from her home, and the history there is complicated and I am not going to share anything about it because it's not mine to share. Nevertheless, from the beginning, it was easy to see that T both loved and respected her, and that his happiest memories were of the good times he spent with her. As I have written before, his ability to attach to me and to others owes everything to her warmth.

Gradually, I came to know her. We took him, and sometimes his brother, for family occasions with her and her kids. Both parties were reserved at first. Eventually, we got close, in the way that people do - you show up, you mark the passage of life together, and that makes you family.

When T started to fall prey to addiction, I told her honestly what was going on. I wanted T to be surrounded as much as possible by a consistent message from the people to whom he was most attached. She was great. We shared many late night text message exchanges using maternal shorthand to shore each other up. She talked about her worries and regrets and I talked about mine. We agreed to urge him to treatment and we both did our part like halves of a whole. She is his other Other Mother.

We check in regularly, so I wrote to her today to let her know that he's not at home, that he's staying in her vicinity, and that he's not doing well. She said exactly what a mother would: we can pray for him, and we can love him, but we can't help him until he wants to help himself.

She also said what any mother who has had to set limits with an addicted child needs to hear: Don't you worry, he'll come when he's ready and know that you have done all you could for now.

And then she said what a foster adoptive parent might only hope for: I hope you will still be part of our family because that's what I consider you and that's what I want.

Amen to that and bless her for saying it.

I wanted to write about this, because I  know that when we decided to be foster/adoptive parents, we found little advice about how to approach birth family relationships. I imagined such relationships would be fraught. I don't have any advice to give, but I can say that what I thought would be terribly complex and awkward turned out to be deep and sustaining. I am tremendously grateful for her. Being united in our love for him and our expectations of him has been a great gift. I remember the day over a year ago when he first realized that she and I were as one, like a two-headed Mom Machine extended over the distance between us, and he felt the web tighten around him and realized he could not play one family off the other. He was enmeshed, but in the same way that a baby wrapped in a warm blanket might be.

I know there are so many situations where birth family and foster/adoptive family are not able to come together, where one party or the other can't or won't extend themselves to build a bridge or where the opportunity to have any relationship at all just isn't there. It's just sheer luck that we experienced otherwise. Sometimes it takes more than one mother to mother our kids, and I love T's other Other Mother.

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Good-bye, for awhile

T came by to get a suitcase of clothes today. It's good-bye, for awhile, though I've learned never to count on any one reality remaining so for too long. He is going to stay with a half-brother for a bit having shorted out of his substance abuse treatment program. That may last a week, a month, or a year. Last time I wrote, he was doing well in recovery - but that came to an end when he went missing for several days and started using again, descending into a relapse worse than what preceded treatment.

He's been staying with a friend for the past week figuring out what to do next, as we would not let him move back home unless he got himself some kind of help. We tried a few things - an intervention with his long-time counselor; setting up (and paying for) sober living housing; reaching out to a local reverend who met with us to see if T might be ready to take some steps toward recovery; a wrap-around service through his psychiatric provider that would offer transitions to independent living, and even offering T terms under which he could move home. He is not willing to accept any of the options we've been able to present. Over the past year-and-a-half, he's moved from smoking weed most days to pursuing a high nearly every waking moment, sometimes via harder drugs. He insists that his drug use is not a problem, despite the fact that it has resulted in expulsion from school, arrest, probation, the loss of two jobs, the end of most of his friendships, and the evaporation of virtually every penny he's ever earned or been given. The path he's on may take his life, or it may eventually drive him into recovery, but there's no telling how long that might take.

It's very hard to reach the conclusion that a child can't live at home anymore, and I am sneaking up on acceptance by telling myself that we'll take this week by week for now. Our goal has been to show love and consistency, avoiding anger or attempts to shame him into compliance, while still enforcing firm boundaries. I feel a lot of grief at losing him (losing him in more ways than one), but I truly believe I have done my best for him and I have not added to his pain by shaming him or making him a backboard for my anger and frustration. I have certainly felt a lot of negative feelings, and I've taken them out on unsuspecting mental health providers, random colleagues at work, and other drivers during my morning commute (not to mention Tim). But we've managed through much self-education to keep our relationship with T focused on two things: love, and boundaries. I will always be his adoptive mom, and I will always stand on the side of sanity and sobriety so that someone who knows and loves him deeply can, hopefully, be a beacon if he decides to try to make it ashore.

This gives me a chance to reflect on a new aspect of older child foster/adoption that I haven't experienced yet: the inevitable parting with a child. We will always be T's parents, but given his age, even without the level of drama we've sustained for the past year or so, a transition to parenting him from a distance was unavoidable. I have a deepened respect for all foster and adoptive parents who are willing to open their hearts to a traumatized child--especially an older child--whom they know will one day leave, often in complicated circumstances. It is not the same as parenting a birth child who grows up and moves away, because (amongst other differences) it is unlikely that the child will take a linear developmental path such that they transition out of the home in a way that leaves everyone feeling resolved and satisfied. (Because of his age, unsuspecting friends keep asking us if T is headed to college this fall, and if he's happy with his girlfriend. It's like they come from another planet. If I had a penny for every time someone has said to me this year "But he's doing well, right?" I'd have enough to buy a nice dinner. I don't even know what "doing well" means anymore!)

This kind of parenting is crisis parenting, with very bad odds of "success" if you care about conventional definitions. It is a set up for pain, especially the pain that comes of deep empathy with a child whom life has handed a shovelful of bad luck, and who struggles with the behaviors and fault lines that trauma produces. Even setting aside the realities of addiction, kids like T have terribly complicated issues with attachment--and so, by the same token, their detachment (a normal part of late adolescence) is likewise complicated. Add extremes of substance abuse and underlying mental health issues to the mix, and it has been easy to see for quite some time that whatever transition he eventually made to living outside the home would be very turbulent. Nevertheless, I would make the same choice again to be this kind of parent. I love him for all the things that I've been able to recognize and appreciate in him, all the qualities and characteristics that are his very own, beyond the pain and the distracting behavior. It is profound and it is necessary; T could be a young man in crisis with no parent to love him, or he could be a young man in crisis who can raise his head above the chaos now and then and see that he is loved. I do think it makes a difference.

I may blog less often for awhile, but I will still be here, and I do intend to stay involved with kids in foster care. We might even parent a second child someday, though Tim says it will have to be a girl next time. :)

Site Meter