A few friends with adult children who have read this blog have given me the same feedback: “Stop being so hard on yourself. All parents feel what you’re feeling. You’re doing a good job.”
Let me first respond that I know I’m doing a pretty good job. And I know I’m absolutely not perfect; no parent is. I’ve had my fair share of moments with the kids that I don’t want anybody witnessing, as has my husband, but for the most part, we are doing the right thing by these kids. Still, given the nontraditional make up of our family, I have to constantly question the dynamics at play in shaping our children’s identities. I know the trials and tribulations we experience every day are completely normal, and it’s also true that those experiences are magnified under the many lenses of our family’s marginalization. When that is combined with my own screwed up pathology stemming from the dysfunction in my own family as a child, as well as struggling with my sexuality during my adolescence, the result is a parallel but very different parenting path from those within dominant groups. In detailing our experiences on this blog, I’m not trying to garner praise for our family lifestyle, but instead provide a parallel point of view that might help everyone to empathize with others who might have it a little harder.
To move away from some of that psychological rambling, let me illustrate with something concrete. Our son came to live with us after a year in foster care. During that first year, he was provided a loving, deeply religious home, and one that saw a revolving door of probably a half dozen children over the course of his first year. It was probably about as stable a foster home there is, and it was still one that probably made for a pretty confusing environment for him and the other foster kids. The family had three biological daughters of their own, all nearly or newly adults, who helped their parents provide this important space for children in need. Our son’s transition into our home was text book according to the Department of Children and Families. We made the necessary visits at the prescribed times of day for approximately one week, and then he quickly moved in to our home over the course of one weekend. On Friday, his foster family brought him home to spend the day with us, and later that night, we returned him to the only bed he had known for the previous year. On Saturday, we repeated the process with the exception of us picking him up in the morning. Then on Sunday morning, Father’s Day 2009, we picked him up and we never brought him back.
We were overjoyed to be welcoming our second child into our home, and the actual trauma this must have caused him barely registered for us at the time. His foster family was lovely, and over the course of the two weeks we spent with them, my husband and I had already composed a list of behaviors we needed to immediately change. At the top of that list was the way our son threw–literally across the room–his sippy cup when he was done drinking. We went out to dinner that first night as an official family of four; we walked to a local chain that is super kid-friendly and let the familiar staff coo over the latest addition to our family. We ordered our food, the drinks arrived, and after taking a few sips from his milk, our son chucked his drink at the party in the next booth. As my husband hurriedly retrieved the cup, I looked at our son and sternly whispered, “We do NOT do that in this family.” This of course prompted immediate tears from our new son.
My husband and I tell this story still to this day as a way to provide mild entertainment at dinner parties. Our friends know that I surely have a case of undiagnosed OCD and making a huge mess like that in a restaurant of all places is enough to send me hurtling over the edge. Thus, the story provides for some polite laughter–or hilarity depending on how much wine we’ve been drinking.
I don’t think much about my relationship with our son in those early months was cause for frivolity though. Those first few months were difficult for all of us. Although his foster family suggested he was a great sleeper, he regularly woke up in the night for us. He had a lot of trouble “listening to our words,” choosing instead to try things for himself and only stopping when he got hurt or we freaked out. And he cried. A lot.
This all makes sense of course, and we had done as much reading as we could about transition periods for older kids in foster care. It still hurt though. My husband was better about giving our son the time he needed to understand that this was no longer a temporary family; I on the other hand took it personally that he wasn’t immediately doing a little tap dance and singing, “I Think I’m Gonna Like It Here” from Annie. We had adopted our daughter through foster care too after all, and she had bonded to us immediately. Of course, we took her home straight from the hospital; she had known no other parents besides us, no home besides ours. Still when the turbulence regularly struck in the beginning with our son, I wondered if I’d ever feel like he was really mine.
Let me interject here that I know this may come across as incredibly self-indulgent. I mean there are people who adopt foster children with significant emotional and behavioral problems, and our son had nothing other than attachment issues going on. I remember in our training class with DCF we had to respond to various case study scenarios. In one, the teacher described a hypothetical five-year-old boy who had recently come into our home and just smeared his own feces all over the bathroom walls. “What would you do?” she asked optimistically. “Before or after I’m done throwing up?” was my reply. My fellow would-be foster parents laughed, but I was completely serious.
And this knowledge likely impaired my ability to bond early on even more significantly. I knew that our son was a great kid, a lucky match in a troubled social welfare system. So why wasn’t I more thankful? Why wasn’t I singing Daddy Warbucks’ ballad “Something Was Missing”? As some people have pointed out, I can be pretty hard on myself. But I really was having trouble feeling for our son what I felt for our daughter. When I broached the subject with my husband, he was far more pragmatic than I: “Of course I don’t feel that way about him yet; he just got here. I trust that I will feel that way in time; I trust that you will feel that way.”
So I waited.
I shared stories about how crazy different our son is than I expected him to be, and lots of friends with biological children shared similar stories. This helped a little bit. I talked about the issues with my therapist. That helped some more. I watched my husband develop a more meaningful connection with our son, and I tried to not let jealously overwhelm me. I saw our daughter so thankful to have a new brother to
boss around play with, and I knew that my time would come.
And it did. I can’t pinpoint the time that it happened, but it happened. My son and I are bonded together now, and we have a lot in common, although not the types of things that fathers and sons typically brag about. We both have a similar disposition of anger in that we each lash out at the people we love when we are hurt. When he’s upset, he’ll say whatever he can to make sure we are as angry as he is. This is a little trick of manipulation that I may or may not use on my husband from time to time, and I’ve even used the power for good to teach both kid about the ramifications of their behavior and choices. We also share an energy that sometimes leaves my husband and our daughter panting. When we’re in the city, my son and I can be found about three blocks ahead our familial counterparts: we nearly speed walking, muttering, “We’ve got places to be!”; they strolling along at a geriatric’s pace, enjoying the sights and paying no mind to time.
We still have our moments of depravity–lots of them–times when he brings me to the edge of my parenting patience and then pushes me right over that precipice. And in those moments, I have to ask if this is a result of that displacement he experienced at a year old, or possibly because of the doubts I had about our relationship when he was so young. My husband and I have to consider these factors, and we have to consider how healthy it is for us to treat our kids the same as our friends treat their own biological kids. Are we providing them a normative experience by doing so, or are we dismissing their individual needs? Every parent asks some variation on these questions, and we all get the answers wrong about as often as we get them right.
So no, I’m not posting these musings to convey how hard I am on myself, even if I know I could often tread a little lighter. And I’m not hoping to engender some sort of sympathy about how rough life is. Our life as a family is exhausting–just as everyone’s life in a family whether traditional or otherwise is exhausting. We just all exist on different plateaus, and I hope this helps illuminate that fact just a little bit.
I’m hopeful that readers keep this all in mind if you choose to keep visiting these pages. Things are just different, not necessarily easier or harder. This is especially true when I write about the internal homicidal rage that is inspired by my son saying he wants to wear sweat pants to school every day. I mean, seriously, sweat pants?! Maybe my son knows how this drives me nuts, and he chooses to deliberately push that particular button to send me into that free fall that every parent knows so well, a free fall that feels devastating and life altering as it’s happening, but that seems silly and insignificant in hindsight. Because when my son comes trotting home after school in baggy sweat pants that are caked with mud, a huge smile plastered across his face as he chases me for a hug and I scream, “Do not touch me with those dirty hands!” I realize that life is exactly as it’s meant to be, that when my husband and daughter and I were a happy family of three we didn’t even know the something that was missing was him.