Tuesday, January 30, 2007

In Praise of Resolution

Over the past decade my sleeping patterns have gradually changed. In my 20's and 30's I was a night owl, especially during my college years when 1:30 AM seemed to by my average bedtime. During my seminary years, with the accumulated stresses of working nearly full-time and attending to my graduate work full-time, I discovered the need to work diligently in my academic pursuits from 10 PM to midnight, before rising early the following morning to head off to work. Since marriage and fatherhood over the past ten years, I have become an early riser, which has surprised me more than anything else in my life, I think. As a child and teenager I loathed my mother's early rising habits and made an unspoken vow that I would never get up early enough to disturb my family with vacuuming or putting away dishes at 4:30 or 5:00 AM. But, my ways of being have changed and now that I'm in my 40's I find early morning to be my most productive part of the day.

This morning I woke up early, even for me. At 5:00 AM I was wide awake in the frigid darkness of a frosty, subzero Minnesota morning. Much as tried I could not convince myself to fall back asleep, so at 5:15 I was readying myself for the day, arriving at my church office before 6:30 to attack the day's projects. While I may feel weary a little earlier than usual tonight, I have reflected upon why the early morning spurt of energy, and I think I have some of the answer.

It is not simply that I am in a different stage of life. And it's not only that early mornings are the best times for me to focus without the interruptions of family life or telephone calls. This morning I have felt energy because of yesterday's court date. Typically court dates leave me feeling dissipated, discouraged and seeking a womb-like atmosphere in which to retreat. As I explained in yesterday's blog, however, I sense a great deal of relief in knowing that our sixteen-year-old son is in a safe, productive environment for the next eighteen or so months of his life. While I understood cognitively the relief this might provide, today I am experiencing the emotionality of this resolution.

For years now we have lived with the uncertainty of never really knowing what might happen with or to John. Our family life has been impaired by his mental health issues, our sense of stability never in place for more than a few days or weeks at a time, our anxiety levels ebbing and flowing, but mostly increasing as time has passed. During these years we have advocated, moderated, mediated, cooperated, alterated, and mitigated on his behalf. But our role has changed, and I am more relieved than I realized. It is only now that I am beginning to recognize just how much stress I and our family system has endured in order to maintain a connection with our son.

Don't misunderstand what I'm saying. We will continue to maintain a connection with John. He will always have a mom and dad and siblings who love him and care about him. We will always be "home" for him. But now we have a reprieve from the threats (implicit or explicit), the deception (naive or intentional), the behind-the-scenes terrorism (planned or unplanned), and the nagging sense of failure in spite of our hardest fought battles to reclaim his life.

There are only so many ways a family and parents can attempt to reclaim a child's life, and parents and families should always diligently, faithfully, arduously work in that direction. But then there come the moments when a child begins to slip into a new stage of life toward adulthood where he or she must make the decisions that most significantly impact him- or herself. While children (no matter what their chronological age) always needs parents in their life, as they grow up they begin to need parents in a different way. This is a relief for both the child and for the parent and is not, I am discovering, something for which either need feel much guilt.

I am at that stage with John, and today I am filled with praise for the gift of resolution.

Monday, January 29, 2007

Another Opportunity for Humility

As I trudged through the fluffy, falling snow this morning at the steps of our county's historic court house, I wondered how it would all go. It has been several months since we have seen our sixteen-year-old son. That last time we saw him he was handcuffed and anklecuffed, escorted by law enforcement to a hearing in which we had no conversation and virtually no eye contact. Punching the "2" on the elevator display gave me about fifteen seconds to think about it. I stepped out of the elevator to see our son face-to-face (it's not a very large waiting area). His face brightened, and he immediately stood from the place where he was sitting with his mom (Claudia and I arrived separately today) to greet me and give me a hug. His warm, robust, stocky body embraced my cold, snowy, equally robust but significantly taller frame as I enveloped him in my arms. "It's good to see you again, Dad," he said. "Good to see you, too, son," I responded.

John has always made it easy to love him. When he is appropriately taking his medication, and when he is calm, he is a warm, loving, open child. Our other "special child," our soon-to-be-eighteen-year-old has not so blessed our life, so it's always more difficult to interact with him. But John has loved us since the moment we met him (actually, even before he met us face-to-face, through telephone calls and letters and such), and in spite of his aggressive and angry moments, we have believed that he values us and loves us.

It is humbling, really, to know that after all this -- the numerous out-of-home placements and interactions with professionals along the way -- that John still loves us and knows where "home" is. It is gratifying to know that we mean that much to him, but perplexing because his behavior does not allow him to dwell in the place he knows to be home. Claudia and I have battled for years to know whether the behavior is "cannot" or "will not," but that doesn't matter any more.

It doesn't matter anymore because today's hearing established that he will remain in permanent foster care until the age of eighteen. While we were waiting for court to begin, I was sitting next to John at the tables front and center. In those brief moments I reminded him that we loved him, even though he couldn't live at home right now and asked him if he understood what was being recommended (that he not return home). He said he did understand. I asked him if he liked his placement (where he's been before), and he said he did. "I'm glad that you do, John, because it's the only place where you've had success in the past, and I'm glad that you have that chance again," I said. He nodded mutely and then said, "But I'm really gonna need you guys to help me." I said, "How do you mean?" (not adding what I was thinking in my mind, "Well, sonny, our opportunities to help you have long since faded"). "I mean you're both really smart, and you can help me once I'm done at the Ranch." While I offered him no assurance of that possibility, I simply nodded my head and told him I appreciated his proferred respect.

We shared a few other conversational snippets until His Honor arrived. Within minutes the judge decided he needed to get on the record testimony from one of the parents. In a nano-second decision-making process, Claudia and I decided that I would be the one taking the witness stand. And so I stood to be sworn in and experienced yet another humbling (humiliating? ... I'm still not sure about this one) moment. The judge's paralegal assistant is a member of my congregation. So I stood before the courtroom and was sworn in by one of my parishioners in a matter that legally required parental "admission" that John could not remain in our home. I answered the questions asked by the attorney and stepped down.

Fortunately -- and it hasn't always been this way -- this time I was able to step back to my chair without feeling shamed or humiliated by the process. Perhaps it is because the system finally has enough documentation to believe that somehow John's behaviors are not his parents' fault or perhaps because of his age John is no longer seen as a vulnerable child ... but for whatever reason it was a relief today to be able to "admit" that what John most needs is not ... well ... us.

In the past that has been a difficult thing to admit. Over the years past we have fought to maintain John's connection to our family, we have taken him back home time after time in hopes that this time it might be different, we have forcefully argued that attachment-disordered children need contact with their families.

The past few months have changed my orientation on the matter. Emotionally I have been able to let go of those things I cannot change and control. I have let go my sense of parental failure and disillusionment. I have given John back his life to do what he, along with others now in his life, can do. Legally the issue has also been resolved today. It is humbling to recognize how little -- and yet how much -- parents can offer a troubled child. There is one thing, though, that I will not let go. I will not go of John as a person, as my son, as a sibling to others in our family. I will not let go of the hope that John's "home" is always with us, even if he does not reside with us. And that may well be enough.

This is not what I envisioned eight years ago, but this is yet another opportunity for humility, for even though John has no contact with his birth father and limited contact with his adoptive ("real" in our definition) father, he does have a heavenly father. And for that will have to be -- and it is -- enough.

To Be Present

As I was driving to the office this morning I pondered my situation in life, seeking to organize the many fleeting thoughts erratically assaulting my brain. I thought, of course, of my work-related responsibilities and tasks, considering how to best organize my week, mentally checking off the numerous "to do's" that still remain from previous weeks, as well as he new ones that have surfaced. In my work life, I suspect, I am not that much different than most of us. There are certain tasks each week that need my attention, others that ought to be accomplished and still others that await resolution. Most of us make sure the necessities are covered in our work responsibilities and then we go from there. I try to be clear with mysefl and others that my work life is the third priority in my life.

Having made the requisite decisions about my work life, my mind slipped to the second priority of my life: my work as husband and father. I should append that phrase by adding that it isn't always "work," because, as with anything that really matters in our lives, there are moments when the work produces joy, accomplishment and contentment. But those positives are typically the overflow of intentional work and attention; they don't simply happen. And, as I often do, I began to assail myself with thoughts about our two most challenging children. [Last week when I was speaking at the Minnesota Fatherhood Summit on "Fathering the Special Needs Child," I suggested that we should refer to our special needs children simply as "special children."] Perhaps I should speak of our two "most special" children at this point.

Today we will be in court with our sixteen-year-old "most special" son. As I often do I began to enumerate mentally the ways we have sought to intervene his life over the past five years. (He has been with us for eight years now, but it has been only the past five that have been so difficult). We have been involved in his school life, we have taken the steps to get him involved in sports programs and community recreation. While he was living with us he was always in church, both to worship, as well as in Sunday School and youth group activities. We have worked with social services agencies, psychiatrists, psychologists, therapists, teachers, coaches, and law enforcement. We have affirmed, nurtured and consequenced.

And yet today he will appear in court with the recommendation that he remain in permanent foster care until he reaches the age of majority. We cannot argue with the recommendation. We have witnessed on numerous occasions how his behaviors have contributed to the fragility of our other childen. We have observed that he does much better in a residential setting than in a home (whether it is our home or in the several foster homes in which he has been placed over the years). His only successful moments have been in the facility in which he now lives. We cannot deny him or the rest of our family this opportunity for success.

But it is still painful to recognize how little effect the multitude of attempted interventions has produced. I wonder often whether the outcome would have been much the same had we not worked nearly so hard on his behalf over the past eight years. It is, of course, a fruitless mental meandering, because there is no way to assess what "could have been." As my strong spouse reminds me (and these are my words but represent her sentiments expressed to me): every child needs parents who will do all they can do for him or her, even if it doesn't appear to have made any difference. She also reminds me often, "But it's too early to know. We have to wait until they are in their mid-twenties or thirties before we'll have any evidence of success or failure"). And she is right.

But what has made these eight years (and especially the intense previous five years) "enough"? I mean, why would we (and we do) encourage other parents to take on such a task, of parenting children who have been traumatized, abused, neglected and relegated early in life to the margins of society? What, if anything, have we done "right"? To the objective observer the answer to that question may be, "not enough."

However, I continue to learn that sometimes the only (and perhaps in the ultimate sense the most important) thing we have offered our sixteen-year-old "very special" son is to be present. In all these years of painful wanderings and disarray, we are still here. We have not walked away from him. We have not abandoned him. Our home is still his home, even if he is unable to live with us. His birth sisters are still our daughters, and he will always know where to find his "family." Whether he recognizes it or not (and I believe that he does), we have provided him with permanency.

Perhaps being present is not enough if parents do not do everything else they can possibly to intervene on their child's behalf. Technically, I suppose, a minimal presence could be constituted as benign neglect if it is not undergirded with every attempt to reach the child. But having been down that road time and time again, today I am feeling that to be present is enough.

Sunday, January 28, 2007

Two Months Later

Well, it's been more than two months now since I have publicly shared my adoptive parenting life via the blog. A number of people have asked why I haven't blogged and wonder if and when I'm going to resume blogging, so here is a bit of an explanation. As things have continued to unwind with two of our sons (currently out of the home due to behavior issues), I have just not had the motivation to blog and open myself up to unsolicited criticism or critique. While I have hoped that my blog would be helpful to other parents facing difficult times with their children, there have been moments when I have not been emotionally resilient enough to take the risk of posting my thoughts in the blogosphere.

I know there are risks inherent with the blogging process, but I do not blog to solicit therapy or unsolicited advice. I am, of course, always interested to hear from other parents who share similar experiences or concerns, or from those whose goal it is to encourage ... but, I have to admit, if it is professional (or even non-professional) responses I seek, I do that in direct ways by consulting those whom I know and trust.

And so I have struggled to know what to do. Do I continue to blog knowing that my emotional state may be further distressed by comments I might receive, even though there are those who have found my thoughts helpful ... or do I discontinue blogging in order to protect myself?

That you are reading today's blog evidences the result of my thought process. I will resume blogging, because I think I have something valuable to offer other adoptive parents and take the risks inherent in this medium because I think my experience is one that is worth sharing ... not necessarily because my experience is unique or exceptional, but precisely because there are other parents in a similar situation who might find my thoughts helpful. Of course my decision is not solely altruistic, because I have found blogging a marvelous way to express my thoughts, and I have received many positive responses along the way.

So, for what it's worth, I am re-entering the world of blogs today.