The Holidays with Adopted Foster Kids

Holiday cards from loved ones

Holiday cards from loved ones

Here is a texting conversation from earlier this week between me and a friend of ours who has a family with two adopted foster kids, just like us:

Do you worry about the kids’ birthparents knowing your last names?  Do they know them? Our Xmas card has our last name on it…not sure if we should send it or not…

The paperwork always referred to us as the T family so I don’t think D’s parents know.  C’s does because we email but we don’t worry about him.  Are you sending it to the mom and grandma?

Yes..we don’t have an address for A’s mom.

You have had concerns about the mom right?  Maybe a regular Xmas card with a photo of just her inside?

That’s what we’ll do I think…

Safe and still thoughtful.  This s*** we do is haaaaard!

There is a lot of literature out there about how open adoption relationships–where the adopted kids maintain a connection with their birthparents–are more healthy for the kids.  That is totally true for our kids, and at the same time, the very nature of how our kids became available for adoption means that the relationship with their birthparents is a strained one, one that they and the courts decided wasn’t a healthy one to sustain in the traditional way.  And because both of our kids’ parents signed away their parents rights essentially under duress, we have to think very carefully about whether it’s safe for those birthparents to know our last name, our home town, where we work…

It’s a complicated line that we have to walk with our children.  We need to make sure they know they’re birthmoms loved them, but not create this illusion of a standard familial bond that will be shattered when they’re older.  Both of their birthmoms willingly relinquished their rights in exchange for a letter and a photo once a year.  We typically send cards and photos several times a year, but we never heard back from our son’s birthmom and after a year, the mail  came back “unknown recipient.”  Still, at Christmas time, I send a card and a photo to the only address we have, hoping someone will forward it on.  Our daughter has regular contact with her maternal birthgrandmother, an elderly blind woman who sends a card on our daughter’s birthday and usually at Christmas but who has never asked to meet her this beautiful young girl.  Her birthmom has been in and out of prison for the past seven years, and we receive regular mail from her only when she’s incarcerated.

As my friend said, navigating all of this is “haaaaard,” especially at this time of year.  I would love to provide our kids the opportunity to know their birthparents, and that might still happen at some point, especially for our daughter.  The reality though is that we have to keep our guard up and tread carefully.  During the process of our daughter’s foster care in our home, when her birthmother still had protected parental rights, it was incredibly difficult realizing that each stumble in her life was a victory in ours.  When she didn’t show up to court, we cheered inside, knowing that we were one step closer to becoming a permanent family with our daughter, and at the same time, we ached for this woman whose struggles were so great that they would inevitably sabotage any chance she had of keeping her baby.  (We were spared much of this with our son, who was a year old when he came to live with us.)  Those struggles clearly still continue today for both of our kids birthmothers.  We wish them the happiest of holidays this season, and at the same time, we must keep our family safe into the New Year and beyond.

The End of a Tradition

All dressed up!

All dressed up!

Today, we dressed the kids up in snazzy holiday finery, braved the freezing rain, and headed into Cambridge to celebrate the end of a cherished tradition in our family.  Upstairs on the Square, the eccentric zebra-themed upscale restaurant in Harvard Square is closing its doors next week, which brings an end to the annual family luncheon we hold there every June to celebrate our daughter’s Adoption Day.

Six and a half years ago, accompanied by about twenty of our closest friends and family, we showed up at the Boston Courthouse bright and early, the first case on the docket for a Family Court judge who too often had to preside over families being torn apart.  That day though, he got to bring our family together.  Our daughter was only sixteen months old, and she shined in her pink polka-dotted sun dress.  After the brief ceremony and photos with the social workers, lawyers, and judge who made our family possible, we headed into Cambridge to celebrate.  At Upstairs on the Square, we sipped champagne, and our daughter had her first taste of sparkling cider.  The purple and pink walls and the zebra-print chair cushions seemed the perfect combination of girly audacity for this feisty young girl who had already taken over our lives in the best way possible.

Each year, we’ve returned as a family of four, and each year the staff remembers us and makes us feel incredibly special.  Last summer, they even wrote “Happy Adoption Day” in chocolate sauce on her dessert plate.  So when we heard last week that they would be closing their doors at the end of the year, we made a reservation to celebrate for the last time today.  When we were getting ready to head out the door this morning, our daughter suddenly realized the finality of our lunch plans.  “I want to keep celebrating my Adoption Day there Daddy,” she said, and when I assured her we would find somewhere new to celebrate, the look of understanding in her eyes as she hugged me and told me she loved me made me realize just how quickly these years have flown by.  She’s growing up so quickly, and I’m so proud of her blossoming, complicated, healthy identity.

Zebras!

Zebras!

Seven years ago, I agonized over where we would celebrate the big day, a process I repeated two years later with our son (he has his own Adoption Day restaurant in Boston’s South End).  It had to be the perfect restaurant: classy, but not too classy that they’d look down on us bringing young kids in; a delicious menu that would offer them variety as they grow up, but a kitchen staff that would still offer pasta with butter if necessary.  Most of all, I struggled with selecting a restaurant that would still be there in ten, twenty, and thirty years.  I had visions of us celebrating at the same spot for years to come, well into their adulthood.

Now that that isn’t really possible for our daughter though, I’m not as concerned as I thought I would be.  Maybe I’m maturing along with my kids, secure in the understanding that our family is stronger than the dissolution of a celebratory tradition’s trappings.

Jumping on the Bandwagon

I have a very short commute to work, only three miles.  I’m on the road a maximum of fifteen minutes depending on traffic, and I relish those fifteen minutes of morning NPR news.  I’ve realized that like most news programs, Morning Edition follows a certain format.  I tend to be in the car at the same time every day, and during those fifteen minutes, I typically here NPR’s exploration of the conservative point of view.  During the government shut down a few months ago, I spent my short drive to work getting all riled up by some boneheaded Republican explaining why toying with people’s livelihoods was good for the country.  Still, it’s NPR, and I’m addicted.

This past week, my short listening session was dominated by a case in the Massachusetts news about our state Department of Children and Families (DCF).  This is the agency formerly known as the Department of Social Services, and it runs the foster care system.  Every so often DCF is in the news, usually for an event gone wrong, and such is the case with Jeremiah Oliver, a five year old boy living in an abusive household who went missing a few weeks ago and is presumed dead by authorities.

The timeline of events is ripe for criticism: the family came under DCF scrutiny as far back as September 2011.  A social worker who has since been fired failed to make monthly visits to the home.  Jeremiah’s older sister finally told a school guidance counselor about her mother’s boyfriend Alberto Sierra, a man who had been terrorizing their home for months.  When the authorities finally stepped in, only two of the three Oliver children could be found, and the anti-DCF firestorm began.

Both of our children are adopted through DCF.  Our kids both came into foster care at birth, so they were certainly spared many of the horrors most of the older children in the system have experienced to get them there in the first place, but I have a strong affection for the work that these social workers do, work that is incredibly hard, unrewarding, underpaid, and all-too-easy to criticize.

In Massachusetts, DCF has an Adoption Unit filled with social workers whose goal is to advocate for pre-adoptive families as they move through the process of welcoming a foster child into their home with the hopes of becoming a “forever family” for that child.  These are the DCF social workers who have the easier job, relatively speaking, and we hear it’s where many social workers end up because it’s one of the rare positions within the agency where they get to experience happiness and joy in their work.

Most of the social workers at DCF, including a good friend of ours, work on the other side, the side that deals with stepping into families and making the decision whether or not to separate children from their parents.  The work is devastatingly hard, and there is no end to the shock these social workers experience anew walking into homes where parents are simply unable to care for the children in the ways that they usually very much want to.  And when a social worker must make the decision to take a child away, these parents do not typically relinquish their children willingly; some are violent, most are belligerent.  The emotional wear and tear on these people who do incredibly difficult work is unending.

The outrage over Jeremiah Oliver is that our system failed this little boy.  I wonder though how we failed our system.  Perhaps the fear-mongering news reports are correct and this social worker was an inept freeloader taking lazy strolls through town when families like the Olivers should have been watched far more closely.  Or maybe this worker was extremely overworked, as reports suggest that she filed several grievances about an increased case load, and couldn’t possible do her job effectively without compromising some other aspect of her own life.

When our daughter was an infant, she qualified for Early Intervention services due to the at-risk circumstances of her birth, circumstances that led her to become a foster child in the first place.  Over the three years that she was involved with Early Intervention, I contacted our state legislatures a half dozen times about threatened cuts to the program.  Our leaders did in fact raise the minimum delay percentage over those three years, a short-sighted measure that would cut costs by effectively shutting out babies and toddlers who used to qualify for services but would no longer.  Taking kids out of safety net systems like EI help ensure that these kids have a fighting chance.  If we don’t take care of these kids early, we end up taking care of them later in life, either in prisons or homeless shelters or public assistance.

This is the mentality our country has about social services though.  We don’t say out loud that kids should pay for their parents’ poor choices, but our legislation and personal positions on funding often speak volumes.  In the case of Jeremiah Oliver, it’s so easy to grab the pitchforks and light the torches, but what are any of us really doing to make sure that our welfare system actually has the resources available to it to protect these kids?  We can create new guidelines and oversight and add to the list of unfunded mandates–a list that I am far too aware of as a public school teacher–but without the money to back it up, we’re still going to burn out our social workers and make it impossible for them to do their jobs, the same thing that is happening to our teachers.

It’s absolutely a tragedy that this little boy is missing and possibly dead.  Should the social worker have done more?  Yes.  Could the social worker have done more?  I don’t think we can know without more information about the specifics of her job, her case load, her supervisors, her support staff…She failed to follow certain protocols, but were those protocols put in place by bureaucrats who never asked whether or not they could be legitimately carried out?

Let’s just hold off on jumping on the bandwagon of hatred.

Exploring the Margins on Television

Watch this show.

Is anyone watching Masters of Sex on Showtime?  I just watched the season finale, and it’s pretty brilliant.  It’s definitely way more than simply Mad Men with frontal nudity.  It touches on all issues of gender and sexuality; the final episode last week delved into universal pap smears for women, male myths about sexual dominance, and the ways in which a contraceptive pill would impact women’s liberation.  Lizzy Caplan needs an Emmy for her portrayal of Virginia Johnson, and I’m sure they’ll try to shuffle the superb Allison Janney into a guest starring category where she’ll win by a landslide.  (FYI: Allison Janney is superb only when she’s not singing.  For evidence, please listen to a song or two of the original Broadway cast recording of 9 to 5 the Musical.)

Janney’s supporting role as a sexually starved upper class wife to a closeted gay man (as solidly performed by Beau Bridges) obviously struck certain chords in me.  In the season finale, I couldn’t keep my eyes from welling up with tears as she and her husband explored the various conversion therapies available to them in the mid-twentieth century.  It’s a story we’ve all heard dozens of times before in a variety of media.  Our recent societal fascination with exposing the underbelly of nostalgia for the more wholesome days of the 1950s and 60s is a favorite of shows like Mad Men.  My husband and I watched the recent HBO film Behind the Candelabra a few months ago, and watching the dramatization of Liberace’s self-hatred and deprivation was far too ghastly for us to actually enjoy seeing Matt Damon play a gay man.

This constant barrage of how awful it was (is still in some contexts and locations) started to feel a little much tonight watching that season finale of Masters of Sex.  This fall I started teaching professional development for teachers in anti-racist professional practices.  The work is rooted in helping both students of color and white students see the ways in which our society conditions them to prejudge others and themselves.  One of the many teaching suggestions of the course is that when we are teaching students about the racial atrocities of our past–the institution of slavery for example–we always couple these lessons with the significant positive cultural contributions of the oppressed group.  I just finished teaching Alice Walker’s The Color Purple for example, and my students are paralleling Celie’s journey from oppression to independence with actual stories of blacks surviving the Jim Crow South without the aid of a white savior.

Tonight, I started to feel that the balances were a bit out of whack in my personal television viewing habits when it comes to the oppression of homosexuality and women.

While I’m a fairly somewhat emotionally healthy thirty-six year old man who is a publicly gay man living openly with his husband and two children, there was a time I would have done anything not to be gay.  I remember meeting my first group of happy gay men when I started doing community theater as a senior in high school, and one of them finally asked me about my sexuality.  I told them that I was attracted to men but that I couldn’t imagine my life without a wife and kids.  Thank you America for implanting that dream in my mind at such an early age that I struggled so much with coming to terms with the realization that I would live my life on the margins.  (Did I already write about this on my blog?  I can’t remember!)

And now that I do professional work in this area for racial identity development, I struggle with waiting for my kids to deal with this in their own ways.  We are doing everything we can to show our daughter that she is a gorgeous young smart black woman with incredible potential, yet there will come a time when she will wish she looked like the images of beauty she is assailed with in commercials and television and movies.  (It’s already happened in some ways sadly.)  We’re doing what we can to show our son he is far more than a preternaturally coordinated athlete, and at some point he will probably feel little more than a mascot for his white friends in this suburban town.  Tonight I wonder how much of this is due to the well-meaning lessons on slavery and racism they will sit through over the course of the next dozen years in school.  How often will they here about the horrible ways in which dark-skinned people were relegated to less than human beings.  How will they feel when they realize it was written into our country’s constitution?  How far will it set them back?  I know I’m tired of hearing about all the ways in which gay people were are forced to hate themselves.  How quickly will my daughter learn to detest the ways in which people of color were deemed intellectually and socially inferior to the white race?

While an accurate shared history of oppression in any minority group is important, at some point–some point soon–we have to let it take a back seat to the joys and happiness of celebrating who we are and how we have made this world better.

Sad Gay Dads

NOT the composer of The Lion King

There’s not much to report at this time of year from our family.  We run from holiday event to holiday event, all the while juggling the regular insanity of after school ballet/gymnastics/music lessons.  The most notable event took place in the car yesterday as we drove more than an hour to a birthday party in New Hampshire.

The other night, we watched the excellent HBO documentary Six by Sondheim.  For the long car ride on Saturday, I shuffled the songs on my Sondheim playlist since he was on the brain.  The kids have been indoctrinated with enough musical theater at this point that we can play “Name That Show” with them.  The kids can name Xanadu, WickedLes Miserables, Oklahoma, and more in about six notes, but Sondheim is a little more nuanced than they can typically handle.  They’re pretty accurate after a few bars of West Side StoryGypsySweeney Todd, and Into the Woods, and from time to time they can even guess Sunday in the Park with George.

Yesterday though, my iPhone shuffled in “You Could Drive a Person Crazy” from Company.

Our Son: “This is The Lion King!”

Me: “I am so disappointed in you.”

Him: “What?  It has the same beat!”

Try not to call Child Protective Services right away.  We’re already sick over it.  We’ll do our best to right this wrong as soon as possible.

I’m Coming Out…again and again and again

On two occasions this week, people were politely suspicious of my relationship with my children.  These are constant reminders of our marginalization.

Late last week, I had the chance to give our morning babysitter the day off and walk the kids to school myself.  We met up with a new neighbor a few doors down who has a little boy in my son’s class.  We started chatting on the one-block walk to school, and my neighbor said, “Your wife is very nice.”  I was pretty confused of course, and then he explained that he often walks to school with her an my kids in the morning.  “Oh, that’s our morning babysitter.  The kids actually have two dads.”  He looked a little confused.  “I have a husband.  We’re married.”  I wiggled my ring finger to show off the band of gold that many claim is destroying this country.  “Oh!” he said sheepishly.  Things proceeded pleasantly from there, and they even stopped by our little party the other day.  (I guess my liberal ego should be somewhat flattered that he assumed I was married to a much taller African American woman about ten years my senior.)

Then today I went to drop my son off at music class.  My husband typically does this, but I know I’ve met this teacher once or twice.

“Hello!” she said jovially when I walked in with my son.  “Thank you for dropping off your brother!”  I may look young, but I don’t think I look that young.

“Oh, I’m not his brother.  I’m his dad.”

She sat there slack-jawed.  “But I’ve met his dad…”

“You’ve met his other dad.  He has two.”

“Huh?”

“I’m married to their other father.”

Pause.  “Oh!  Now I see!”  And she begins laughing hysterically as I bid goodbye to my son and walked out the door.

I don’t typically let these things get me down.  I usually try to get in front of the issue and make sure it’s really clear to all of the kids’ teachers and coaches that they have two dads and that they’re both adopted–mostly in the hopes that the adults involved don’t say or do something inadvertently stupid.  I guess I missed at least the music teacher though.

People don’t mean any harm by assuming I’m not gay.  What gets me a little down is the opposite: assuming someone is gay isn’t quite as harmless, and it’s probably why most people err on the side of heterosexuality.

An Intimate Gathering with 90 of Our Closest Friends

IMG_3361A few weeks ago, I threw out the idea of a holiday open house to my husband.  As is typical of these endeavors, I had the idea all worked out in my mind well in advance of even broaching the topic as an off-handed thought.  I knew exactly how we could make it work, when we would do it, who we would invite…this would be a terrific opportunity to see the friends that we love and that we don’t get to see often enough.  What came out to my husband though was, “What do you think about us having a little holiday party?”  He agreed, which was an important part of my manipulative plan, and then a few days ago after I had planned every thing out I informed him that our guest list was at 87.  His response: “Do not tell me this.  I don’t want to know.”

I knew things would work out. We’d planned on an all-day open house; people could start arriving around 11:00 am and we’d welcome people until 6:00 pm.  We’d provide the beverages, and we asked our guests to bring some food to share.  By this morning, the guest list had exploded to nearly one hundred guests, including approximately 40 kids.  My husband’s blood pressure skyrocketed, but I had worked out all my stresses the day before.

When we went to pick out a Christmas Tree at a local farm yesterday, I spent the entire time miffed at our son who was wearing sweat pants with huge rips in the knees, something I hadn’t noticed until we got in the car.  When we got home, I screamed at the kids until they started cleaning their rooms and my husband relegated himself to the out of doors prepping the tree for entry.  Soon after, we got the tree inside, fed the kids lunch, and bedded down for our weekend nap time.  After nap, the kids bounced out of bed with the excitement of decorating the tree, and we spent the evening putting on ornaments, each of which hold a special place in our hearts.  Some are from my husband’s departed grandmother, others from his estranged mother, and more from my mother who died a few years ago.  As we placed the Santa on the top of the tree that was a pinnacle of my mother’s annual beauty of a Christmas Tree, I blinked back tears in my eye as the entire family shrieked with glee.

Then the tree started tipping over.  Some fancy footwork and a cat-like reflexes kept us from losing more than a few ornaments, and my husband went to work righting a very strangely grown tree.  Several curse words and headaches later, the tree looked beautiful again.

This morning, we woke early to prep the house.  The kids helped as best they could while my husband set to work cleaning the bathrooms and kitchen.  I whipped up some a fancy Bloody Mary recipe, bathed the children, dressed them in their Christmas finery, and we were ready to receive our first guests.

The first friend to arrive was one we hadn’t seen in quite some time, over a year, and we were so glad to have her over.  A woman of color who lives and works in our town, we had a lot to catch up on.  Since she arrived shortly after 11:00 am, we were alone with her while our kids played upstairs for almost an hour.  It was so great to catch up with her and share some of our similar experiences raising kids of color in this white suburb.  At this point, I knew it was going to be a great day of reconnecting with old friends and deepening new friendships, something we virtually never get to do in our current life.

Then a steady trickle of friends showed up, and the morning hours peaked a little after noon with several dozen people in our home.  My husband and I looked around and noticed a fairly diverse population.  My husband, who has just completed a course in racial identity development, felt like a proud white ally as he made a point of spending time chatting with some of the people who might feel marginalized in this environment, like the Asian family who just moved in down the street or the family of a Muslim woman I befriended in a professional development course this summer.  Then the bi-racial families started arriving, and we were convinced this is about as diverse as this suburban town gets for a holiday gathering.

I’m not sure our kids noticed the various colors present at our party.  They had a great time playing with their friends (our son’s bed took quite a hit when one of the more rambunctious boys took to jumping on it with a splintering creak and our daughter who is normally starved for estrogen in her family relished in creating a “girl’s only” zone in her room).  At some point though, I think they’ll be able to stop, take a look around at our circle of friends, and find safety and comfort in the diversity that reflects the make up of our own family.

Today was a marathon of enthusiastic hosting, and my feet are killing me.  And it was all worth it.