Child. It’s National Adoption Month. Because a lot of what I write has a bit of an edge to it, people might think I’m cynical about adoption or disappointed or disillusioned. And they’d be right. But I also feel grateful, lucky and amazed. Same person, different days? Maybe.
The truth of the matter is that adoption isn’t for everyone but it’s for more people than you might think. In fact, it might be for you. This is a picture of me and my dog, Jak, a puppy my husband bought for me to celebrate my graduation but also, I really think, to take my mind off my growing grief about my infertility and how inaccessible and impossible adoption seemed for us at the time. We’d gotten shooed away from Lutheran Social Services because our mixed marriage (Christian-Jewish) made us ineligible to adopt from most countries. We were mortified and discouraged at the local adoption process — scared to death by the list of possible ‘conditions’ we were told we might encounter. (Remember this is a long time ago — things have changed for the better.)
We ended up adopting three kids from Nicaragua — in the most serendipitous way imaginable. But that’s another blog post.
So maybe you want to be a parent but haven’t figured it out. Here’s why you ought to look at adoption ….. of a child (well, maybe a dog, too).
1. Adoption is exciting. If life is a box of chocolates, adoption is a crate. You don’t know what you will get. There’s no predicting.
2. Adoption makes you happy right away. If you have been wrestling with infertility, you can put all that heartache away. If you’re stuck on how sad you are because you’re single and childless, presto chango. You decide to adopt. You will be immediately happy.
3. Adoption makes people think you are selfless. If you are like me, you are unlikely to ever be called selfless in any other situation. So that’s kind of cool.
4. Adoption gets you out of yourself. You have to think bigger, think smarter, be more aware, assume less, and listen more.
5. Adoption gives you purpose. Why? Because you are offering to become the parent to a child without a parent. Is there something more important than this?
6. Adoption reminds you that falling in love isn’t a once in a lifetime experience. It can happen over and over until you have all your bedrooms and more filled up.
7. Adoption cracks open your ethnocentrism. If you are white and your children are brown or black, you will feel the rage and indignity of racism for the first time in your life. You will understand 1000% more about the world than you did before.
8. Adoption gives you children who love you because you loved them when no one else did. It takes a while for them to realize this but they eventually do. They also learn that love without action is just words.
9. Adoption lets you blame genetics for stuff you don’t like. Birth parents don’t have this little trap door. And that’s kind of cool.
10. Adoption creates the family you’re yearning for. Creating a family through adoption is a stiff term for being open to chance and luck, believing in yourself and being ok, truly ok in your heart, with what life brings you.
Adoption could be for you. Think about it. Don’t be freaked out or scared or think you’re not good enough to be a parent to a kid without parents. You’re plenty good enough. Really. I know what I’m talking about.
Today’s mission was to buy #1 son a pair of work boots so he could stop flap, flap, flapping to work as a weatherization specialist. He is, of all of my kids, the least conscious of looks, fashion, community standards….you get my drift. This doesn’t mean that he is ascetic in any way. He loves material things — especially video games and tools — he is just missing the proper attire gene. I blame it on adoption.
So after the Packers beat the Jets today, off we went to Farm and Fleet, the five of us — #1 son, #2 son, #1 son’s daughter, the husband and me. Together in the car. Ridiculous. Two grown men in the back seat squeezed up against a four year old in a car seat.
We are now Back to the Future. #1 son, sensing that I’m really needing to upgrade him….like needing to do this so I feel better as a mom kind of needing….starts hovering around the $149 work boots. It’s a game for him. Sort of like ordering lobster in every restaurant we ever walked into just to see if we’d make good on the “order whatever you’d like” directive. (We didn’t.)
The Dad points him to cheaper boots and then goes to look at snowblowers with son #2 whose threatened move to Madison in January means that we will have to shovel our own snow! Oh no!
#1 son pushes – again just for fun and because, obviously it’s worked in the past – but I’m firm. He duck walks and crawls on the floor to try out the cheaper – well, let’s say, less expensive – boots (because this is what he does when he’s insulating attics) while the same middle aged guy holding a pair of jeans keeps walking by looking sidewise at us. I didn’t even think about it until this minute — older white lady arguing with an Hispanic guy crawling around on the floor of Farm and Fleet about what boots to buy. We continue to entertain.
Feeling guilty, I throw in a package of socks. #1 son tries to hit me up for a new hammer and a tape measure. You know, work necessities. Dad’s already put the kibosh on that and because I’m a firm believer in a united front, I also say no. Of course, he should buy those things on his own. (Left alone, I would buy him the hammer, the tape measure, and possibly a level, a sander, and a power drill. They’re work-related. He’s working. Thank God. We should buy him tools to celebrate!)
“Where are the socks?” (Mom)
“They’re not here.” (son #1)
“Dad, you must have left them.” (son 1) “No, I gave them to you.” (Dad)
(Mom thinking) We need to get the socks or I’ll feel bad about the boots.
What changes? Nothing changes.
This is a story about going back. Adopted kids going back to their country of origin is a rite of passage – or maybe a right of passage. Our three adopted kids are all from Nicaragua. The oldest, Nelson, lived in an orphanage in San Marcos; the other two, Joe and Jhosy, both lived at Rolando Carazo Children’s Center in Managua. Of the three, only Jhosy has vivid and true memories of living in the orphanage. She was nearly seven when she left; her brothers were toddlers.
She’s sitting there in the red shirt, waiting.
So when we went back to Nicaragua in 2004, we wondered what it would be like for her, returning to a place she knew so well – that she had left just ten years before.
I don’t know how she felt. I just know what I saw. I watched the little girls run up to her and beg to use her chapstick and wear her hat. I watched her walk through the room where she used to live, pointing out what used to be where. I watched her sit on the bench where the infamous ‘how can you resist this orphan’ picture was taken years ago – the one that made us move heaven and earth to get her adoption finalized.
I watched her maybe ‘get it’ for the first time.
How many children there were. And how right it would feel to pick one up and walk right out the door. And figure out the rest later.
You’re probably thinking I set the bar pretty low. Yeah. I guess. But look, if your kids aren’t dead or in jail, you’ve got something to work with. Granted this leaves out being maimed, ending up homeless, being pursued by a street gang, and numerous other ills. All pretty serious outcomes, but none quite as bottom line as dead or in jail.
It’s important to have outcomes. In my other life, I advise nonprofit organizations on how to establish and measure outcomes. I encourage them to be realistic, yet ambitious. I convince them to put numeric targets on their outcomes like this: 85% of first time juvenile offenders will not re-offend within a year – that kind of thing.
When I started out as a mom by having a baby when I was 24, I never thought twice about outcomes. I just assumed my little girl would grow up, get educated, be happy, go to college, get married, all that jazz. And she pretty much did. But when I became an adoptive mom, somehow my brain got infected with the idea of outcomes and my ‘let it be’ approach to childrearing vanished. From then on, I was all about results. Well, more accurately, I was all about worrying about results. Would they learn enough at school? Would they be well-adjusted? Would they go to college?
And then while I was carefully moving my family through some cracked version of a logic model, reality happened. Special education meetings, suspensions, fights on the bus, fights off the bus, fights through the bus window, middle of the night phone calls, oddly flashing lights in front of our house, doctors, lawyers, helpers, institutions and a lot of Holy Crap. Of course, they grew out of all this and are decent adults (which is one way of saying that their problems are no longer fun size if you get my drift).
Anyway, in the midst of all this, maybe somebody said to me or maybe I said it to myself in an out of body experience, “But, hey, so things are terrible. Life sucks. And your beloved adopted children are a mess. IS ANYBODY DEAD OR IN JAIL?” And the answer was NO – to both questions. If nobody’s dead or in jail, man, I can greet the day with a smile.
You think I’m kidding. But I’m not.
I just looked out the window to see my son and his 4 year old daughter walk up the front steps to our house. He was ahead of her by 3 or 4 steps and she was following. Walking home from the park, I guess. Both were about their business. He walked and he expected her to come along. Wasn’t looking back. Wasn’t holding her hand – although he’s not an unaffectionate guy. He wasn’t worried that she was dawdling behind him and would be standing still while a huge SUV powered down a driveway and flattened her into unrecognizable form. Didn’t think twice about it. That’s what Dads are good for. They don’t worry about shit all the time.
I like that.
It took me a while to realize that one of the greatest powers of a parent is the ability to make a child afraid. The converse of this is to make a child brave but I don’t think parents can do that. I think children are naturally brave. But I do believe that parents can make them afraid.
We take our granddaughter to swimming class every Sunday morning at the local Jewish Community Center. It’s a small class of maybe seven 4-year olds. Our girl sits in her pink bathing suit on the edge of the kiddie pool, her hair in a pony tail, a big grin on her face, her skinny body shivering, while she waits for Teacher Brittney’s instructions. She’s ready. She’s on it. She’s game. We are in the grown-ups’ pool swimming – when we end a lap we stop and look over at our little kiddo. She smiles.
But not all is so well. One kid’s mom is rubbing her daughter’s back every second of swim class, comforting her. Another’s is actually in the water, crowding out the instructor and the other kiddies. They tell their kids it will all be ok and the minute they say that, the kids are worried. Really worried.
Dads don’t ever bother with reassuring kids. (At least the dads I’ve known…..granted there are a lot of different kinds of dads). For the dads I’ve known, it’s like. “Oh, it’s time for swim class. Go swim. I’ll be over here in the hot tub. Come get me when you’re done.” It’s the matter of factness of it that just stops fear in its tracks. Gee, Dad is cool about it. Why should I worry?
Last week, I listened to a psychologist explain that a kid needed two things to develop a phobia – a genetic predisposition and someone to teach them to be afraid. And I think I’ve done that – muscled my fearfulness into the middle of something and made my kids afraid when they didn’t need to be. But I’m grateful that my kids have a dad who never thought about risk or danger or kids getting concussions on the playing field. He never made a big deal of anything. He was casual in his expectations, a lot like his own son walking up the stairs just now with his daughter trailing behind him. He had confidence. He believed life is safe. He imparted this belief to this children. Why would anyone be scared? It’s all cool. Go do stuff.
I think this is one of the big unspoken benefits of dads – their ability to impart little pieces of courage – that eventually, I think, add up to big chunks of courage. It’s a gift – albeit kind of a weird one – a gift of being careless and carefree. And having confidence. It’s a big deal.
Old County Stadium. Fall 1996. Brewers playing the Cleveland Indians. Mom, Dad, and 3 of 4 kids sitting about 20 rows up to the right (looking down) of the Indians’ dugout. Beautiful fall evening. Mellow.
“DENIS!” “EL PRESIDENTE!!” Arms waving wildly, my husband stood up to yell at Indians’ pitcher Denis Martinez as he walked back to the dugout at the end of an inning. Denis quickly looked up and then disappeared under the dugout roof.
Howard had warned me that we were going to be seeing the great Denis Martinez pitch – Denis Martinez, the pride of Nicaragua, the first Nicaraguan to play major league baseball. El Presidente. But there was no heads up on how nuts he was going to act at the ball park.
“Come on,” he said, grabbing Jhosy. “Come on, we’re going to meet Denis Martinez.” Jhosy, who’d tuned out the game after the national anthem, rolled her eyes. I leaned over. “Why are you taking Jhosy down to meet him? She doesn’t even like baseball. In fact, why are you going at all?” Meanwhile, people in the seats around us joined in an unspoken WTF?
Standing up, taking Jhosy by the hand, he said, as if it made more sense than anything in the world, “I’m taking her because she looks the most Nicaraguan.” The other two kids – both Nicaraguan themselves – looked at me and each other and then turned back to the game. They were used to this kind of thing. Their dad acting nuts in public. They’d long ago given up on the idea of blending in, I could see that.
I can’t believe he’s doing this, I thought to myself. Such a spectacle. Ridiculous. And these kids — the whole section was looking at us. Howard managed to get down to the front row right next to the dugout. He picked Jhosy up, hung her over the edge (how he managed to do this without security coming after him I’ll never know) and yelled in Spanish, “Denis, look at this Nicaraguan face!” “And there are two more up there. Look, look!” Martinez did look, ever so briefly. We waved. Thank God. It’s over, I thought.
Back in our seats, Howard flush with triumph, the rest of us with acute embarrassment, we turned back to watching the game. Then a whistle from the Cleveland dugout. Denis Martinez stepped out of the dugout and motioned for Howard to come back down. Then he tossed him – not one, not two, but three signed baseballs – “Con carino de Denis Martinez.” Amazed, the people around us applauded as Howard came back to our seats and tossed each of our amazed kids their own signed ball. Howard was as happy as I’d ever seen him. He’d delivered for his kids. He did.
Here’s a picture of Denis Martinez pitching a perfect game. Pretty handsome guy, don’t you think? Very Nicaraguan.
Reposting this piece because a certain dog found some particular balls tonight to chew on. Oh well.
So yesterday I was sitting at the statewide CASA (Court Appointed Special Advocate) Conference and a speaker looked me in the eye and said, “Well, if you’all are into rescue, well, that’s a different matter.” And I wanted to stand up and say, “Hey, not me. I don’t do rescues. I am like way too advanced in my thinking to fall into the ‘let me rescue the poor underprivileged child’ trap.” Shit. Could she tell somehow that I was a rescue refugee?
There was a time when I thought if I had an extra bedroom – wait, an extra bed, oh, wait, space to put an extra bed – I could take in another child. Because I once said to my husband, in a fit of some kind of Mother Theresa episode, that as long as there was another place at the table, I was willing to take another child, a statement that he has never let me forget – taunting, sometimes, even – I guess I am from the Duggar camp. I would have adopted 19 kids if I’d had the chance. I didn’t, thank God.
I don’t think it was even a matter of coming to my senses. Once we adopted child #3, I was just outta gas emotionally. And logistically. And probably financially (although I tried never to look at that inconvenient truth). But the rescue thing is big in the adoption world. When we adopted our kids, friends would congratulate us on having saved our children from terrible lives in Nicaragua which was true enough in some ways but subverted the core of what we had done – which was to figure out how to have a family by bringing kids into it from a foreign country.
So within about two weeks of becoming a CASA, I looked at my CASA kid and how extraordinarily messed up her life was and how basic stuff wasn’t getting done and, worst of all for me as a mom, how she wasn’t happy, and I thought, “Hmmmmm. I’ve got that extra bedroom.” And within minutes, I’d figured out how I could straighten out the school problems, the health issues, how to get her feeling ok about the world, engaged in positive activities. I could see her coming down the stairs to dinner. And truth be told, at that point in time, it was only my husband saying, “Don’t even think it” that stopped my moving train.
But it was so right to stop it. My CASA girl needed people — but she needed HER people. She didn’t need another substitute – no matter how well-meaning. She needed her own people back. My job was to help her get back to her people. My job was to make things work so that they people who love her and the people she loved could be her family. I guess I understand this now because I know more about how kids yearn for their people. My adopted kids were happy and robust and healthy but their yearning for their people is always just inches away. We’ve filled in. We’ve done ok. We love them. They know it. They still yearn.
My CASA girl yearns. My job is to help her find her way back.
Note: A CASA is a Court Appointed Special Advocate whose job (volunteer) it is to advocate for the best interests of a child in foster care.
Anything Crocker Stephenson writes, I read right away. Love his writing – how he gives readers a seat across the table from a crack addict – and I trust his eye. He is, as my grandmother would say, just right as rain — or maybe it’s good as gold. Or both. So when he started the new series in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinal, Lives Torn Upside Down, about three families struggling in the foster care system, I was all over it. http://www.jsonline.com/news/milwaukee/103251879.html I was really excited to see this issue on the front page, partly because I’m an adoptive mom of three but also because I’m a CASA (Court Appointed Special Advocate) for a teenager who has been in foster care for 2 1/2 years, surviving six placements.
So far, the articles have tracked the course of three families – two women seeking reunification with their children and a married couple wanting to adopt the foster child they’ve cared for since birth. The articles focus – and I’m so grateful for this – on the human impact of the child welfare system – the delays, staff changes, permanency plan changes and how these things mystify and frustrate everyone involved. But the other overarching focus is on the question of parents’ rights vs. children’s rights with the theme seeming to be that the ‘system’ is putting parents’ rights over the best interests of the child. I think here we are missing something really, really important.
Children truly love their birth parents. They love them when the birth parents are addicts, when they’ve neglected them, and even when they’ve been abusive in other ways. They love them — and I know this firsthand as an adoptive mom — even when they have no conscious memory of them. Adopted children, mine and millions around the world, have a sadness, a longing, a hunger of memory, that is unfathomable to those of us who grew up with our birth parents. And this sorrow – this big sad hole – hurts them in a lot of ways. It’s a rare adopted child who can even articulate this – but the effects are manifest in depression, substance abuse, employment problems, relationship issues. Don’t get me wrong — adopted kids love their adoptive parents. Our kids love us and we know it and are glad for it every day. But still, we know…..there’s that missing piece.
So when we decide that “Oh, gee, this foster kid’s mom is never going to get it together, let’s terminate her parental rights,” we had better have a pretty damn good explanation to give that child when he/she asks why. And it can’t be some namby-pamby, “Your mom loved you very much but she just wasn’t able to take care of you.” That response – which makes the adults feel magnanimous and non-judgmental and thus is often hard for them to utter because of their own opinions about the birth parents – just won’t cut it. The adopted kid will think (but not say) “Why didn’t you help her more?”
So I guess to assume that reunification is evidence of parents’ rights trumping kids’ best interests is to shortcut the analysis into opposing teams. If we are supportive of parents regaining custody of their kids, then we’re for parents’ rights. If we support quick TPR and adoption, we are looking out for children’s best interests. It’s so not that simple. It’s so much more complex and deeper and longer term. To understand the choices, we have to understand the pain – everyone’s.
Given the choice, I’d probably pick a rosy story over a true one. I was entranced last week listening to Scott Simon, the host of Weekend Edition, read an excerpt from his book, Baby We Were Meant for Each Other, a book he’s written about the adoption of his two daughters from China. http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=129375629.
It sounded a lot like my beloved daughter’s story of when she first met her own baby girl in a hotel in China. I knew this story and I loved hearing it again.
But it kind of pissed me off. I wanted to send Scott Simon an email to tell him….”Honey, you have no clue.” All of the cuddly kitten, love at first sight, and this….it took us just three days to bond. Oy.
So today, while also watching a big storm roll in over Lake Superior, I noodled around the adoption blog world which has basically two hemispheres – the hysterically happy and the massively therapeutically-involved. Our life with our four kids – three of them adopted from Nicaragua – falls somewhere in the middle. Long stretches of the mundane interspersed with absolute joy and on your knees weeping. Is this fun? Do you want to be an adoptive parent? I’m smiling. It’s wonderful. Really. Would I kid you?
So the best thing I read today was a very long essay about adoption disruptions. This is the oh, so hidden, and unspeakable underbelly of the adoption world. An adoptive parent giving a child back! Oh no. What evil, uncaring person would do that? Well, take a look at this essay and you start to get it — how hard it is to raise terribly wounded children.
“The Myth of the Forever Family: When Adoption Falls Apart,” Dawn Friedman, Brain,Child Magazine.http://www.brainchildmag.com/essays/summer2010_friedman.asp
I love Dawn Friedman for writing this.
Good people trying their hardest can fail.
We shouldn’t judge them.
They’re not crazy about each other at the moment. They’re kind of going their separate ways. But I can predict, as sure as the sun will rise tomorrow morning, that when push comes to shove, one of my adopted Nicas will throw down for the other. No questions. No analysis. They are each other’s – ‘just call and I’ll be there.’
And thank God.
Thank God we were smart enough to know that the greatest protection we could give our kids was their own little coalition. Each one has two other people who are in the same boat – adopted, from Nicaragua, raised as Jews in Milwaukee by a gentile mom and a Jewish dad. The smallest minority on earth, maybe, but not one of them is alone. Ever.
This is a picture of the three of them taken about 6 months after Jhosy, our daughter, arrived. You can already see her position in the hierarchy. And you can see in their little happy faces — they had it going. Our kids — they ended up in our laps for who knows what reason — they figured it out. They are connected.