My wife and I have recently completed (yet another) spirited discussion about whether or not adoptive parenting really matters. I suppose it is a discussion any couple could have about raising children, but there are dynamics that make adoptive parenting unique. To the fore, of course, is the issue of environment and genetics. Is it nature of nurture that makes the biggest difference in lives of growing children?
Until I became an adoptive parent I was an ardent proponent of environment (nurture). Virtually everything I studied, all the speakers I heard in the course of time, even my own religious and spiritual persuasions had led me to believe that nurture was the all-important key to productive, successful living. I will always remember the words of our first-arriving son's social worker who tried her best to convince me that genetically our son had a number of strikes against him. His birth mother, after all, had been diagnosed with Attention-Deficit Disorder, Conduct Disorder (which brought her into numerous conflicts with authority figures and eventually the legal system), and had an array of chemical issues stemming from alcohol to marijuana to God knows what else. Even as Diane the social worker articulated her concerns, I convinced myself that nurture would trump nature every day. Experience has encroached upon my idealism.
Now, nearly nine years later, I must admit that nature holds a powerful sway in the life of all growing things. In fact, over the course of the past twelve to eighteen months, I have succumbed to an ideology that says nature is everything, that nurture has little to do with eventual outcome. I have felt reinforced with significant anecdotal evidence: one son in a treatment center after numerous runaway episodes and little progress for months at a time, a second son following a similar path but in a different location, a third son leaving the family nest for a first year of college and necessary (though painful) emotionally self-distancing techniques. And, of course, there are the regular challenges of children yet at home who continue in a path of defiance and disregard for parental guidance. These have been excrutiatingly difficult months in my life for a number of reasons, the most significant I now recognize as the crushing of my philosophical predispositions. From the predisposition of believing that my efforts as a devoted, competent, invested parent mattered, I have come to believe that what I do matters little. My nightly mantra, as my spouse will quickly confirm, has been, "It doesn't really matter what I or you do, Claudia. It's all in the genes. It's hereditary, and we cannot change it, we can only endure it and prepare for the inevitable."
To live under the burden of such fatalism is, indeed, devastating. It has meant the emotional equivalent of breaking from the frontlines of battle and running for self-protective cover, oblivious to the possibility of success and convinced of the inevitably of defeat. To live in defeat is not to live but to rehearse the throes of impending death.
Which, perhaps, is why I understand the dilemma our sixteen-year-old son Mike faces. He has been, on and off, but mostly on, in a treatment center for well over a year now. His progress has been checkered, with moments of success and great periods of non-compliant failure. His current stint in non-compliance finds him stuck in an intractable situation. He chooses not to make any progress because he feels any attempts he makes will be met with setback. Why try to make progress, he tells me, when to do nothing offers a more predictable result?
Today we had yet another meeting with Mike, his case worker and two of the staff members at his treatment center. Prior to meeting with Mike the five of us decided that Mike needs to find success somewhere, even it means we decision-makers have to surrender our need to win. We have developed a new plan which we have shared with Mike as a way for him to get himself out of the treatment facility. I asked for a few minutes to talk with Mike alone before the others joined us. (Claudia demurred at the invitation to join the conversation). I explained to Mike that we wanted him out of treatment, but that he needed to show the others around the table that he was willing to work with the revised goals. "At this point, MIke," you have no negotiating tools, no bargaining chips at all," I told him. "You need to have something -- a pattern of success and compliance -- to convince the others that you need to come out. And Mom and I want to help you get to that point." That's what I told him. But I had a decision of my own to make, perhaps the more significant one contributing to the dynamic. In order for this plan to succeed, I have to decide whether what I do as his father matters or does not matter.
On the way out of the meeting, Claudia said to me, "You're going to save him, aren't you?" "Yeah," I said with a wry smile to myself, "I believe I am." In that moment (a result of several other moments leading to this time and place) I had to reclaim my abandoned presupposition: that nurture matters. That nurture triumphs history and genetic predisposition is an ideal I am returning to, with reservation, hesitation and the acknowledgment that failure is a very real possibility.
The choices are clear. I can consign myself to a lingering death wish, characerized by resigned disappointment, enduring what I anticipate to be the inevitable negative outcome. Or I can choose to live a precept I once knew and hazily remember: that redemption is always a very real possibility, and that what we do in life matters. I can choose death or I can choose life. Once again I choose life.
Does it matter? Once again I'm ready to find out.