Tuesday, November 29, 2005

Grieving Lost Time

It has been nearly three weeks since I last blogged. My journey of the past eighteen days has included many pathways leading to the same major tributary, cynicism. A cynic is one who "is critical of the motives of others, a faultfinder," says worldreference.com.

For months (perhaps years now) I find myself plagued with questions about meaning and purpose. My longsuffering spouse has heard the near-nightly melancholy chorus too much lately. It goes something like this, "I'm not sure it really matters what we do in life. It seems to me that things will be what they will be, whether we do anything about it or not." In particular, I languish in my role as an adoptive parent as I observe the behaviors and responses of our children. When I observe positive, life-affirming actions I think to myself, "Well, they would have done that anyway." And when I experience negative, self-defeating actions I whine, "See. It doesn't really matter. It never did."

Confronted by my wife about my own abysmal thinking, I offer verbal provocation. There is, I tell her, a difference between reality and cynicism. Reality sees things as they are, while cynicism consigns the outcome to defeat no matter what. I can tell by the look in her eye that she is not nearly so convinced as I seem to be; "you are becoming cynical" is the look I receive.

And when she questions why I view the world as I do, I am often bereft of an answer. Don't misunderstand; I am not silent. I offer multiple sentences of reasons why I think the way I do. But these are not answers.

I am beginning to believe that I am less a cynic hell-bound to prove how senseless life can be, and that instead I might be a muse grieving lost time. Especially as an adoptive father I grieve the lost time. I grieve that of our oldest son's nineteen years, we were able to spend less than seven with him in our home. I grieve that we will have few good years with our sixteen-year-old son who has now been out of our home for more than a year, and whose return looks unlikely. I grieve even for our youngest sons, who have been with us most of their lives. What was it like to bring them home from the hospital? Did anyone have a shower for their birthmoms at the announcement of their pregnancies? What was it like to hear their first shrill cry as oxygen coursed through their lungs for the first time?

In the midst of the joy (and there is more joy than I can ever name), who will remember the time that was lost? Who will grieve what could have been and recollect that our children had lives before we ever knew them? Who will step into the mysterious tangle of life we call "family" to identify the residual pain?

And can this task be accomplished without descending into despondency or utter disillusionment? Time, lost and regained, will tell.

Friday, November 11, 2005

The Last Gasp of Autumn

True to my midwestern roots and current experience, I am often preoccupied with the weather. I'm not sure if this fixation holds true in other parts of the country or not, but here in the upper midwest weather seems always to be a subject of interest. Perhaps this orientation stems back to the agricultural roots of the region, or perhaps there is little else to think or talk about, but for me my natural surroundings ground me spiritually and emotionally.

I awakened this morning in the predawn darkness of my "day off." After letting our dog Gizmo out for his morning visit to the trees I showered and dressed and then went into one of our boys' bedrooms to wake up our ten-year-old. This is always a tempestuous encounter because Tony is not exactly a morning person. Sitting on the edge of his bed I jostled his curly blond hair and said, "Tony, God has given us a beautiful morning. Look at the sunrise." Through the window I could see the red- and yellow-streaked sky cracking through the morning murkiness. In response to my invitation to awaken, Tony responded, "Dad, let me finish my crossword first." My response must have been muttered surprise, because he followed up with indignance, "In my dream. The crossword is in my dream."

I smiled to myself at the innocence of childhood. I can't remember the last time one of my dreams was contenting or interesting enough to want to continue with it a little longer. Within a few seconds and with my persistent annoyance Tony finally arose a few minutes later. I coached him through his morning crabbiness to get dressed, brush his teeth and comb his hair. Three of his brothers were soon ready, so by 7:20 we were in the car on the way to school. In the 2-minute drive to school (usually we don't give them a ride, but this morning I was on my way to office to do some reading and decided to drop them off at school on my way) I revelled in the morning's autumnal beauty and reminded the boys that this would be a record-setting temperature day (forecast is for 70+ degrees in southwestern Minnesota in November ... really unusual), followed by much colder weather.

Our eleven-year-old son (most recent addition to our family and born in Guatemala) said, "Why dad? Why colder?" I explained how this would be the last gasp of autumn and that winter is just around the corner. Once again I reflected on the joy of childhood. When the first question of the morning is why does it get colder in November in Minnesota, you know the day isn't going to be so bad.

I am reminded this morning that as a father of a family continuously growing older, these days of childhood innocence are fleeting. These years, like today's last gasp of autumn, will soon be the substance of remembrance, so for today, for even this one twenty-four hour period of time, I think I'm going to enjoy it while I have it.

Wednesday, November 09, 2005

A Microcosm of Diversity

This past weekend I helped chaperone a group of seven middle-schoolers at a JUMYs (Junior United Methodist Youth) gathering for our Annual Conference (the geographical designation for United Methodist churches, in our case, Minnesota). Because I know these youth pretty well (I've watched them group up over the nearly seven years I've been their pastor and now they are actively engaged in our confirmation process which I teach), I am a bit oblivious to how unique a group they are.

In fact, I wouldn't have even thought about it much, except for what one of the main stage speakers had to say. The speaker is young, musically gifted and easy to listen to. It's not surprising that he is a popular speaker for teenagers across the country. Telling us about his life as the third of three children, he was humorously reflecting that sometimes the last child is "forgotten." In his case, he came upon baby books for two older siblings, but didn't find one for himself. Asking his mother, she responded, "By the time you came along we were way beyond that" (or words to those effect), to which the speaker said, "And now you know why I sometimes thought I was adopted."

As the adoptive father of ten children, I became immediately internally defensive. While his comments were not meant to be derisive or hurtful, I wondered how many of those in the crowd of 900+ had been touched by adoption and how his words may have been damaging. I have wrestled with his comment for several days now and have decided to let it go and chalk it up to ignorance on his part. After all, adopted children do have memories, they do have baby books, they do have memory books; they are not a simple commodity added to family as an afterthought, as his naive comment suggested.

His comment spurred me, though, to realize the diversity in the group I and two other adults were chaperoning. Right away I recognized that three of the seven kids had been adopted as older children (two of them my own children, one from another family whom we influenced to adopt older children). These three children are all children of color: one African-American, one Mexican-American and one Guatemalan-America. Of the remaining four kids, only two come from a "traditional" two-parent family home. The other two kids are being raised by single mothers with at least one other sibling. Even we chaperones were a diverse group: one single mother (divorced after nearly twenty years of marriage), one married mother who has a professional life (she is a physician), and one married father (me).

As this awareness began to dawn upon me, I realized how fortunate I am. In the sea of white faces (this is, after all, Minnesota, where even in the midst cultural changes we are overwhelmingly a white group) at this major middle school church gathering we were a microcosm of diversity. It made me feel good to know that through the ethos and spirit of my denomination and the local church I pastor, we are a place of inclusivity, a taste of what God's realm is. Not only do I as a pastor talk about the gift of diversity, but as a person and as a community of faith we are beginning to reflect that value.

What began as an irritation to me (the misperception of what adoption really is like) became an opportunity to see something bigger.

Tuesday, November 08, 2005

"It's the Economy, Stupid"

The 1992 Clinton campaign was able to maintain focus (and eventual electoral success) by repeating this four-letter phrase (allegedly initiated by James Carville, one of Clinton's close advisors) frequently. And, lest you fear reading furter, this blog is not a political diatribe. It does, however, create an opportunity for me to recreate the phrase for my use. My contention is that much of the misunderstanding afoot between social service workers and their clients (read this as you will; it could include "older children" waiting to be adopted, their birth parents, or the adoptive families in which they will live) has to do with socio-economics. So, I might say it this way: "It's the socio-economics. Duh." [I would prefer to refrain from salaciously attributing "stupid" to social services professionals].

Here is what I mean. In the USA there are basically three socio-economic groups: (1) those living in poverty, (2) those who are middle class, and (3) those who are wealthy. For more on understanding poverty see Ruby Payne's A Framework for Undersatnding Poverty or her website at: http://ahaprocess.com/

Payne's work should be required reading for all social services professional and all adoptive parents of older children. She masterfully describes the mindset of those experiencing poverty (whether generational or situational). Although she does not reference adoption in her work, there are several principles that I extrapolate as an adoptive parent of older children.

Principle #1: Almost without exception older adopted children come from an experience of poverty. By very definition, neglect (of whatever variety ... physical, social, emotional, spiritual, mental, medical) is an outcome of poverty. When there is not enough of whatever is needed, you find poverty.

Principle #2: Most older children will not be adopted by those already in poverty, nor by those who are wealthy. It's fairly apparent that those already subsisting in deprivation are not in a position to adopt an older child. And those who are wealthy and interested in adoption are typically seeking (and can pay the high costs associated with) the "perfect infant."

Principle #3: Most older children will be adopted by middle-class persons. I surmise that many middle class people who choose to adopt older children have themselves experienced some version of "poverty" early in their own lives. Because these parents understand the grinding pain of lack and have discovered the opportunities middle class living offer, they are inclined to want to reach out to others, often the most vulnerable, society's children.

Principle #4: Middle class families who adopt older children import into their lives an experience of poverty. Middle class parents adopting children whose experience of life has been of lack and a survival mentality will face inevitable hurdles. Payne does an excellent job in identifying those value clashes, including the role of relationships (people are possessions to the poverty-stricken), the way discipline is administered (the poverty mindset assumes no behavior will change; the focus is upon forgiveness and penance, following some form of physical discipline; the reward is food); how money is handled (the poverty environment lacks a motivation to save money, but to spend immediately because you don't know how long you will have it this time).

Principle #5: Social services workers are middle class persons with a middle class agenda. By very definition a social services worker is middle class. He or she will have, at minimum, a college degree, and will typically earn (though it may not seem like it at times) more than an individual living in poverty. The social services system is built upon a middle class value system ... responsibility, cleanliness, self-sufficiency.

Principle #6: Because a middle class adoptive family imports (with the adoption of older children) a poverty mindset into their lives, social services professionals may make some erroneous assumptions.

Erroneous assumption "A": This family has no business adopting this/these older child/children. When the social worker visits and experiences the culture class between poverty and middle class values, the assumption is that the adoptive family is somehow ill-equipped to care for these "special needs" children. This assumption may arise without regard to the adoptive family's excellent references, clean background checks and appropriate home study, all of which generally affirm middle class values (whether that is good or not is another blog for another time).

Erroneous assumption "B": The adopted child/ren are deliteriously affected by such a placement. Social services professionals may not understand that transforming the socio-economic vantage point of previously neglected children is a long process. It is arduous, and it will take the resources of many committed people and systems for any success to accrue. Well-intended, intelligent, committed, middle class parents need the support, not the criticism or disapproval, of the social services system in this process of transformation. Bottomline: children coming to middle-class families with a history of neglect have the best chance for moving away from generational poverty in a family with personal and community resources (mental, emotional, spiritual, as well as material). Long-term foster care and/or institutional settings do little more than displace the eventual return to poverty. If society's goal is assisting the poverty-stricken children to a life of responsibility and self-sufficiency, the best chance of that happening comes through primary relationships with those (adoptive parents, in this case) who form the fabric of our society's "safety net."

Erroneous assumption "C": Family size and poverty go hand-in-hand. As the father of a large family (we have ten adopted children), I continue to be surprised by the assumption that large family = deprivation. The fact is that large family is not a middle-class value. The middle-class value is roughly equivalent to the number of people one can comfortably seat in a mini-van, which allows for two parents and four (five at the most, and even five is questionable) children. Moving beyond that number violates some unspoken rule of middle class living (see Payne for more on the "rules" of socio-economic condition). Social service professionals may project their own feelings ("I don't know how you do it; I have two kids, and I just can't keep up with them"), may betray their own need for freedom ("You do how many loads of laundry a day?") or may voice their own unspoken fears ("It must cost a fortune to feed that many kids").

Erroneous assumption "D": Social services professionals may assume that the adoptive parents are as poverty-stricken in mentality as the children they have adopted. I have personally experienced this attitude too many times to assume it is unusual. As a well-educated (bachelor's and master's degrees with half of a doctoral coursework completed), well-placed professional in my community and vocation, it is insulting to be told, "We have gas vouchers so that you can visit your son" in foster care, or "We have some funding at the county level so that your family can take him out to a movie." Because one's child is in pain and manifests a poverty-orientation does not mean that the adoptive family is the source of that outlook.

Principle #7: Social services professionals need to see adoptive parents as resources in the goal of transitioning children from (generational or situational) poverty into lives of responsibility and self-sufficiency. It is frustrating for adoptive parents to be seen as drains on the economic resources of a county's social services sytem, or to be treated as "hostile" or in some way at odds with the goals of social services. Adoptive parents see ourselves as being significant partners in the goal of social transformation. Accord us the respect and the honor that rightly belong to those who give their lives to save the world one child at a time.

So, my contention is that much of conflict between adoptive parents of older children and their respective social services agencies comes because of a lack of understanding of socio-economic backgrounds, and the inevitable clash when poverty and middle class values come face to face.

Tuesday, November 01, 2005

No Longer and More Complete

It has been a day of disarray, and each of us in our family has felt it. I felt it when I left the office early to do a few errands in a nearby larger city. It's not what I usually do on Tuesday afternoons. And when I picked up after school our fifteen-year-old son who currently resides at a Boy's Ranch, I felt it. Arriving home thirty-five minutes later I was barraged with questions about what clothes we would be wearing and, since I am the self-designated family presser of clothing, took a mound of shirts and pants to care for. I don't usually do that on Tuesday afternoons. By 5:00 PM when nearly all of us were together from various destinations, we all began to feel it. From the shrill, screeching, "No, I'm not going to wear a white shirt, and you can't make me," to "I hate this; why do we have to do this?" our late afternoon moments continued to fragment into early evening frustrations.

We changed our regular norm of life, and we are all paying. A typical evening in our home goes something like this. At three o'clock the first of the kids come flying through the door, with a muttered greeting, "What's for snack?" I'm usually home by that time, but if not Claudia handles the initial onslaught of post-educational frenzy. Snacks are distributed, the school day's stories recounted and I answer, "What's for dinner tonight?" at least eight to ten separate times. The kids settle in to finish their homework, their chore and to spend some time in electronic stimulation (email, Playstation or television). We eat promptly at 6:00, begin to clean up by 6:30 and by 7:00 find ourselves occupied with individual interests until bed time, which begins progressively at 8:45 or 9:00. By 10:00 we are all typically in bed, in various states of rest for the hours ahead.

But not tonight. Tonight, you see, it was time for our family to gather at the church for the church directory pictures. And this small change in our family's routinized life has created paroxysms of chaos.

Six years ago we did a similar thing. It was our first fall in a new pastoral appointment, and our kids were so much younger. Our youngest son was three, and our oldest son was twelve. Tonight our youngest son is nine, our oldest son is nearly nineteen, and we are missing our sixteen-year-old son completely. (He is currently "on run," which is social services jargon for "absent without leave," from his most recent residential placement).

It's funny how similar this experience is to that of six years ago. In spite of our children's age changes, the chaotic stressors related to changing the routine are as real tonight as they were then. There are similarities, but the mos glaring reality of all is that we are no longer complete as once we were. In a strange, paradoxical way, we are no longer and (yet) more complete tonight. We are missing two of the sons who were with us six years ago; they will not be in the picture this time around, and in years to come, we will always know exactly why. Ironically, they are birth brothers, though at this time in their lives, in very different places. Kyle, our second-year collegian, is pursuing a future with hope, while his birth brother, Mike, our familial renegade, is pursuing an unknown future riddled with the possibility of devastating failure. But I digress.

We are no longer and (yet) more complete tonight, because in the picture this time around there are two children standing with us who were not ours six years ago, our two sons from Guatemala, and our second-oldest son who was born in Minneapolis. So, it is a night of mixed emotions for me. Knowing that we will never again be complete in the same way we once were, and yet acknowleding that we are more complete than we have ever been is a strange realization. It is similar to what Christian theologians call "realized eschatology," the sense that in Christ all of history has been changed dramatically, but even the Christ-event has not yet been fully realized by humanity.

I yearn for the day when once again we might be fully complete as a family once again, but I am enough of a realist to know that day may never again come. The muddled ambiguity of a continuously changing family system is a painful reality. And I'm not sure what to make of it.