Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Hand-Me-Down Parenting

I'm having a great time lately being one of E's parents. After his recent struggles we've settled back into an easy rhythm of weekends at our house, while he spends weekdays in his program nearby, punctuated by mid-week visits from us. Throughout the week, we have facetime video calls and a volley of text messages, very much the way one might with a child his age away at college, except that he's in a transition-aged youth program for young adults with mental illness. He's doing great.

I think we're still in a honeymoon phase. I jokingly think of us as his hand-me-down parents; it was only when T grew up that E decided he had the right to have us all to himself. He finally trusted us, because we had "belonged" to his older brother already. So now he wears us around proudly, his older brother's hand-me-down parents.

Being E's parent is so very different than being T's parent! He's a more casual, more loving, more emotional kid. He expresses himself freely; there are few surprises. He is very aware that he needs support to get by in life, and so he accepts help readily and doesn't resist interdependence.

I'm not a good compartmentalizer. When T was living at home, it often felt all-absorbing. After T moved out, I focused more on my career, and had the chance to quiet the emotional part of me and indulge the analytical. But as E became more and more dependent on us, I've found myself distracted from my job much more. Dormant emotional instincts have reengaged. This unexpected chapter of my life in which we are hand-me-down parents to E has me riding a wave of profound feeling.

There is something about parenting traumatized older kids that highlights the highs and lows, the beauty and injustice in the world. This is part of why I hate it when people tell me that what we're doing is "good" and "wonderful" - it's not charity work, and we don't sit at a comfortable distance bestowing benefits on our kids. We are right down there in the shit with them, trying to figure life out, and it's hard, and we're not always good at it, and a lot of what we see makes us mad or sad. The kids are so innocent, and we are so imperfect.

When someone tells me that we are "such good people" for foster parenting older kids, I get mad, because I feel like they are telling me I'm not REALLY a parent - I'm just a nice person, a selfless volunteer. And I know that's wrong; foster parenting isn't charity work, it's just an alternative way to build a family. However, foster/adoptive parenting IS different than other kinds of parenting; among other things, the daily contact you have with pain makes it different. No kid enters the foster care system without enduring tremendous loss, often over a long period of time. So to be fully present in the lives of foster youth is to be fully present with suffering and its aftermath. And that makes it life-changing and mind-altering.

That doesn't mean that kids like E are sad and depressing. In fact, E is by nature a tremendously joyful person. He sings constantly and he lives to crack people up. But his reference points are painful. Just passed a Raleigh's burger joint? He went there once when he was living with a relative, for the only meal he ever remembers eating in a restaurant, and he really loved it, but he never went back because he was removed from her home shortly thereafter because she beat him. Want to know what his favorite color is? It's grey, because the group homes he grew up in had to give him $40 a month for clothes, which isn't much, and he found that if he bought everything in one color, whatever he had always matched. He's not trying to make anyone feel sorry for him when he says these things. He's just referring to what he has experienced, and a lot of his memories will make you really feel things.

Over time, loving and living with a young person with so much wisdom and experience makes me tender, although by nature I tend to be tough. At work lately I get jumpy. Casual banter and petty problems and office politics seem particularly soul-less. Dinner parties or book clubs feel hopelessly superficial. I get impatient more quickly. I covet and hoard the time I spend alone with my family.

I've been in this state before, when T was younger and new to us, so it feels familiar, and I know now that it's temporary. It's my way of being a mom, going a bit feral to better leverage my instincts to connect with and care for my kids. I treasure it. Such times suspend me in a state of emotional awareness and heightened consciousness, clear the bullshit and highlight my priorities. They wear me out, but they lift me up, high enough to catch a glimpse of life from beginning to end.

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