Saturday, April 28, 2007

It Hardly Seems Worth It

I am the primary cook in our home. We've been married just about eleven years, and most of those years we have had children living in our home, so I've cooked a lot of meals and a lot of servings in this time. Tonight as we gathered to eat dinner together there were just eight of us, although our youngest son has strep throat and didn't join us at the table because he wasn't feeling well. Our youngest daughter is at a friend's for the day, so it was only seven of us at the table.

It's been more than three years now that it hasn't been all twelve of us together at meal time, and I miss those days. During the years when we were all home together (before Kyle graduated high school and Mike and John began their individual and joint stints into delinquency), evening meals were quite an experience. Our youngest kids were still young enough that food would often be flung hither and yon (or hidden under the table). Our oldest kids often bickered (my how Kyle and Mike, brothers by birth could antagonize one another). It was really quite a production, apart from even the purchase of groceries and the food preparation, service and clean-up.

But I remember those days with fondness because in the midst of all the stress and conflict we were together. We knew on a daily basis what was happening in the lives of our kids, and even when meals were emotionally disastrous, we had been together. While I do not miss the extra work (physically and emotionally) all that entailed, I do really miss having us all together. It is unlikely that we will all be together again, except for special occasions (holidays), and maybe not even then much any more.

I'm finally learning how to purchase fewer groceries, prepare less portions and better anticipate what food items will be more readily eaten than others. We are adjusting (after eleven months) to a home that has a considerably smaller kitchen and dining area than our previous parsonage did. I have adjusted -- very nicely, thank you -- to the decrease in bickering, the hidden and flung food.

But what I haven't adjusted to is the change of not seeing each of our children nearly every night. It feels somewhat lonely and incomplete to me. I'm not sure our remaining children notice it much anymore, but we keep the memory of our other family members alive by remembering them by name in our pre-dinner grace each time we gather to eat. So, while they are not with us, they are "present," if that makes any sense.

I thoroughly enjoy cooking for our whole family, and those days of cooking for twelve of us evoke pleasant memories. Cooking for only seven people hardly seems worth it!

Thursday, April 26, 2007

I Guess We're Not That Unusual

I am in Nashville for a three-day church-related business trip, the second of four in a two-year period in which we are strategizing ways to encourage young adults to consider ordained ministry as a viable option. One of the most delightful parts of meetings like this is the opportunity to meet others from around the country. Our group of twenty is a diverse one in all the ways you might think -- gender, age, cultural background, geographic location, and all the rest.

Tonight at dinner I had the opportunity to sit by a young (he is nineteen, younger than our oldest son, so that makes me feel a bit dated) man from south Texas. His surname, physical characteristics and accented English lead me to believe he is of Hispanic ancestry. As we were talking, I made mention that Claudia and I have considered that when we retire we might like to move to a south Texas town and use those years to interact with Mexican-American folks. I explained to him that my wife is fluently bilingual, had lived in Mexico for a couple of years as a lay missionary, and that together she and I have worked with the migrant farm worker population. I casually mentioned, as well, that we have five children of Hispanic origin, and that we have been disappointed that we have not been able to nurture a desire for them to learn (or continue to speak, as the case is) the Spanish language.

He smiled and said in a very kind way that there are very few Mexican-American young people who speak Spanish in his part of the world. Their parents typically speak both English and Spanish, but young adults of his generation and younger typically speak only English. Often, he said, their parents only speak English in the home. It seemed natural for me to ask, so I did: "So, Robert [note that his name is anglicized, as well], are you bilingual?"

"Actually," he said, "I learned to speak Spanish because my pastor only preached in Spanish. I learned just English growing up, so if I wanted to talk with my pastor, I needed to understand the langauge."

I find that very fascinating on several levels. On the most basic level, I have learned once again not to foster stereotypical impressions based on what I perceive on the surface to be true. Although he has a Hispanic surname, is of Hispanic ancestry and is from south Texas, my young friend was not a native Spanish speaker. I have also learned that even in native Hispanic culture it may be that children are not learning to be bilingual. And I've learned that maybe our children of Hispanic descent may not be that unsual after all in their lack of interest in speaking a tongue that is native to their birth parents and grandparents.

I must admit as an Anglo I have wondered whether we are depriving our children of their cultural heritage. I've occasionally wondered if perhaps we are harboring an unrecognized racism or ethnocentrism that inhibits our children from wanting to grasp the language of their forbears. (Of course, I have not been interested in learning the German of my ancestors, although I'm only three generations removed from that language, but somehow that has seemed like a different issue).

It's an interesting world, and I have Robert to thank for helping me realize that we're not as unusual as I thought as adoptive parents of children with Hispanic origins.

And that's nice to know!

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Experiencing Abundance: Unexpected Gifts Along the Way

Many of you who read this blog know that its primary focus is the inner life of an adoptive parent of ten children. Some of you also know that I am by vocation a United Methodist pastor. (I have another blog, albeit very sparsely blogged to date, where I write from that vantage point). But there are times (often, actually) when these worlds merge together, and it's hard to know where is the most appropriate place to blog this colascence. This time it appears here.

As part of my Sunday message two days ago, I preached a bit about two foundational ways of viewing life: through the eyes of scarcity or of abundance. The Scripture text in question was the account of Jesus on the seashore, beckoning his fallen disciples from their fishing activity, to find restoration. The account is one of my favorite passages because of the strong redemptive theme. But an underlying nuance is whether to trust God for abundance or to live a shrunken life of scarcity. (In the text Jesus observes that they have caught nothing, and then asks them to throw their net on the other side of the boat ... in that interchange the disciples can choose whether faith leading to abundance or cynicism resulting in scarcity will be their theme. They choose faith ... and are blessed for their trust with a huge catch of fish, 153 to be exact).

I waver in my life between an attitude of abundance and scarcity. I grew up in an environment of scarcity where each day was questionable and fraught with anxiety, so my predilection is to be what I call realistic (it's not what my wife calls it, however), but which often slides into cynicism. With the strains and disappointments of parenthood (both in myself and in those whom I seek to father), much of the last ten years has caused me to wonder if I have wasted my time and the time of my children. Sadly I am also a perfectionist, and perfectionism and parenting are not a good mix, so suffice it to say that my parenting journey has not always made me feel very positive.

The last few days, however, are threatening to quell my anxious bent toward scarcity thinking. On Monday evening I met with those people in our congregation who make staffing decisions, along with an individual whom I consider an exceptional missional match, to interview for a 3/4-time Youth Director position. I have been in my current congregation since July 1, and God has blessed us with wonderful momentum. Statistics (attendance, giving and such) are up and it could be described as an "era of good feelings." The process of inviting the individual in question to interview with us has been a plodding, though intentional, one. I offered to the hiring group my thoughts regarding salary and other compensation, wondering whether they would be willing to agree to it. I was surprised by their generous, abundant response (it exceeded my expectations), which allowed me to offer the Youth Director candidate an appealing compensation package. There's something about abundance that makes the heart sing, and I found myself grateful to God to be witness to the interaction of the past nine months that has made this possible.

This morning, on my way to the airport to depart for Nashville, where I will be engaged in church-related business, I obsessed with what I anticipated to be a cramped, irritating flight. My flight was on a commuter flight -- you know, the smaller planes that have two seats on either side of the aisle and non-existent head room and leg room -- and I dreaded the prospect of sitting for two hours with my arm and leg constantly bumping against my unsuspecting seatmate. I was to be the recipient of an unexpected gift along the way. Of the entire flight, I was the only person who did not have someone sitting next to me. So instead of a physically gruelling and emotionally frazzling flight, I had the opportunity to experience some limited freedom without having to worry about the comfort of the person next to me.

You would think by this point that my mindset would have been prepared for another unexplained gift of abundance, but I must confess I have been caught in the trap of scarcity for many years. After retrieving my luggage, I got into the Budget Rental Car line, number ten in a meandering line of consternated-looking people. As ten minutes turned into twenty and twenty into forty-five, I joined the misery of the others waiting in front and behind me. As I glanced at the Avis area and the Dollar line and then the National line, all of which had no more than one or two people waiting at a time, I could feel my soul knotting upon itself. Because I wanted the best price, I made my reservation through Budget and I chose a compact car, and the waiting process only made me more irritated as I anticipated my 6'2" frame crunched into a Ford Focus navigating between Mapquest and travel in an unfamiliar city. "Not only do I have to wait forever, but while waiting I have to anticipate the discomfort coming my way ... and all that while paying $35 a day" were my thoughts. Finally I reached the counter, where the pleasant person retrieved my reservation information and told me there were no compacts available, but that she could offer me something larger for the same price. You can imagine my surprise when I got to the stall and discovered not a Ford Focus, but a Chevrolet Uplander (a van larger than our Chrysler minivan at home). I could only smile and shake my head at another evidence of abundance in my world.

It's a strange thing, really. Am I experiencing abundance because I am simply more aware of it than I have been in the past? Or could it be that these are a series of gifts from a loving God who is trying to get my attention? I'm not sure how all that works, so for now I am simply going to accept the unexpected gifts along the way and thank God for another opportunity to have my personal foundations rattled a bit more.

Friday, April 20, 2007

It's Not What I Ever Intended

It's a difficult thing to make choices based upon foundational principles, because it creates an additional bind that most of us would prefer not to have. Most of us are fine with making decisions as long as we can, at some point in time, back out of them if necessary. That kind of decision-making does not necessarily emerge out of deeply held convictions.

When Claudia and I chose to adopt, we did so from very solid foundations. As committed Christians, we didn't have to look far for biblical justification for caring for the "orphan, the widow and the dispossessed." Both the Hebrew and Christian scriptures are filled with such admonitions. As people of faith with sensitive social consciences, we didn't need much convincing of the social evil that "kids aging out of the system" involves. And while we did not (and still do not) consider ourselves all that special, we believe that adopting children from foster care is something that God calls us to do and something that God blesses.

We intended, from the beginning, to prevent children from facing homelessness when they reached the magic age of majority, eighteen. (I often wonder why eighteen has been established as the age of majority, but that's the subject for another blog another day). So, suffice it to say that it feels pretty bad to know that our most recently-turned 18-year-old son is technically "homeless." He doesn't realize that yet because he's only been away a couple days away from the half-way house from which he was expelled, and I'm sure in his mind he's thinking that eventually the law or someone will catch up with him, but technically he is "homeless."

He is homeless because social services has no legal responsibility or concern for someone who is legally an adult. He is homeless because his probation officer has no viable options for him, unless (or until) he reoffends, and this time as an adult the consequences will be much more severe. He is homeless because Claudia and I cannot allow him to live in our home with his drug-using, thieving, negatively-impacting-our-other-children ways. It's makes us uncomfortable knowing that he is "on the loose," beause we have too much experience from the past which reminds of the numerous times bikes, medication, money, family valuables, and other items have been pilfered from our home.

But mostly it makes me uncomfortable because it strains my own foundational principles. I mean the reason we decided to adopt children in the first place is to help prevent homelessness. But I'm beginning to realize that having a home is as much a decision the child/young adult needs to appreciate as it is for the parents/adults to provide. There have to be some bases of trust and cooperation in order for any home to function in a healthy way.

This is not what I ever intended, and while I don't like the bind it puts us into, I have to believe that morally it is as important (if not more important) for us to ensure the health and tranquility of our other minor children who still have important years of growing up ahead of them.

Thursday, April 19, 2007

A Very Pleasant Morning

The past couple of weeks have been very difficult for our youngest son Dominyk. (And when things are difficult for him things are difficult for his classroom, his teacher, his paraprofessional, his siblings, and those who participate in church groups with him). We have had the double-whammy of dealing with the changes spring brings and with a medication change. When I was told years ago that spring often triggers children with mental health challenges, I mentally wrote it off as little more than folklore, but having witnessed those natural, biorhythmic changes in several of our children over the past few years, I am now a believer. A decade ago (with only two young children in our home at the time, still our two youngest, although they are now 11 and 12) I also had the luxury of poo-pooing the usage of prescription medications in children. I joined the throng of those who criticized lazy parents and over-eager prescribing physicians. But, I must confess, I am now a believer (albeit a reluctant one) in utilizing medication as necessary to help improve the lives of children and their families. Let me be clear ... I think medication is not a first resort, and not a solitary approach, to providing care for challenging children. I understand, however, its necessity and its helpfulness in the big picture of things.

So, the past few days have been difficult. Emails from the schools, reports from the PCAs, our own observations have confirmed that things are awry with Dominyk's medication regimen. He will see the psychiatrist again early next week, so we are looking for some alteration that will provide some level of control for him and some level of comfort for the rest of us. Until then we just try to endure and be patient.

Today is Dominyk's eleventh birthday. Last night he discovered that his birthday celebration were going to be different than he had been anticipating. And for Dominyk those kind of changes are catastrophic. He moaned and wailed and cried for a long time before falling asleep last night, a tired conglomeration of disappointments.

This morning I woke him up early with a "happy birthday" greeting and offered him the opportunity for breakfast out if he would get ready without complaint. Within minutes he was up, in the shower, and cheerfully readying himself for the day. It was enjoyable witnessing his preparation and his contented demeanor, a stark contrast to the gnashing of teeth eight hours previous.

Stepping out into the crisp stillness of a southern Minnesota morning, I noticed the sun cresting the trees and anticipated the warmth of a lovely day. As I called for our ever-errant dog to come back into the house, Dominyk sat in the car, awaiting our departure. Dropping his brother Tony off at his school bus stop a couple of blocks later, it was just the two of us. I rattled on, like only parents can do, about the past eleven years and how we had known him for all but nine months of those eleven years. We talked about the fuzzy pink snowsuit he wore the first January day he entered our lives ten years ago. And then, to add some reality to our verbal patter, I said, "Yep, eleven years ago today your birth mom was pushing you out."

In a split-second he turned to me from his outside-oriented visage and with a smile on his face and a mischievous glint in his eyes, he said, "Yeah. Uhhhhhhhh." [It's difficult to put into words in this medium the sounds of an eleven-year-old boy attemting to replicate his perception of the sound of childbirth].

By the time we arrived at Burger King (his choice for breakfast, not mine) to eat our sausage, egg and cheese croissants, I was grateful for what was turning out to be a very pleasant morning.

Monday, April 16, 2007

The Educational Stigma of Adoptive Parenting

Now that Claudia and I have passed the ten-year mark of fostering and adopting, I have been reflecting on what I have learned in the past decade. I can't begin to elucidate in one blog entry what this learning adventure has been like, but I can confidently say something about the social stigma of adopting. This is counterintuitive, I know, because so much of what the public hears about adoption via the media is positive. That certainly is a good thing, but sometimes the good publicity only makes the stigma more apparent. I guess what I'm trying to say is this ... when we began the adoption journey I did so with a sense of deep fulfillment in providing what I considered to be a relatively healthy family life for kids who needed committed adults in their lives. Philosophically I'm sure most of society would agree that adoption is a noble, significant action on behalf of the world at large and of children more specifically.

Adoptive parents hear things like: "I respect you so much. You are doing something I could never do." "Adoption is such a noble thing; it takes a special person to do that." "You are doing such a good thing for your children; I'm sure they really appreciate it, don't they?" Well-meaning people who don't quite get it try to affirm what adoptive parents do.

But the stigma is built through other, less obvious, insidious ways which cause adoptive parents to doubt their decisions or question their ability. It is, for example, frustrating to hear your child's classroom teacher identify specific areas where your child is not succeeding, with the clear implication being that if only the parents were more involved in his or her life, things would be different. I find it ironic that if teachers, who have bachelor's and master's degrees and are "professionals," and who spend seven or eight hours a day with my child -- if these people are unable to address my child's specific needs, how is it that a parent, who typically has less time and less training, is going to be the educational savior of the academic year? Do they not understand that many adoptive parents are dealing with more foundational, taxing issues in their child's life? Do some naive teachers not understand that by the time my ADHD, borderline autistic son arrives home after hours in the classroom he is tired and unable to focus on additional homework that "he didn't get done in school today"? My son is not like every other fourth grader, and while I am not seeking to justify his slipping academic life, there is only so much I as a parent can do when both of us are tired and seeking moments of respite.

I am in no way anti-education. I am myself well educated, having worked the various educational levels halfway to a doctoral degree. I value education, support the difficult work classroom teachers encounter and understand that there are certain competencies children need to attain along the way. But why does my son's or daughter's educational success (or lack thereof) seem to rely so heavily upon the parents? Could it not be that my child's special needs will not allow him or her to achieve at the same level as other children who have emerged from healthier genetic or environmental origins? Where is the acceptable balance between expecting children to do well in school and the realistic acknowledgment that not every child will excel in similar ways? And why is it always the parent's fault when the educational system or structure does not work for a special needs child?

I confess I am being hyperbolic, for I have met many teachers over the past ten years who understand the challenges a parent of a special needs child faces. It is true to say that most of our children's teachers have been supportive, fair-minded and judicious in their communications with us. So, I do not mean to paint with a broad brush every teacher who has encountered our children over the past ten years.

But, yes, I do mean to address the stigma that parents (and not simply adoptive parents of) special needs children face from some in the educational system. Since the teacher is unable to make my child "successful," and since evidently I am unable to make my child "successful," why can't we simply agree that we will each do the best we can do without questioning the other's motives or concern? Can we not simply agree that my child has challenges not of his (nor, for that matter, of my) own choice or creation? If you can't accomplish with him in the classroom what your years of education and experience have trained you to do, perhaps I will not be any more successful as a parent than you.

And why can't that be OK? Why do there need to be subtle, stigmatic inferences ... that he isn't receiving the kind of discipline he needs at home, or that his family environment is too chaotic, or that his parents are too busy, or that he is over-medicated or not medicated enough, or whatever ... why can't it be OK that my child may not meet the educational expectations of his school ... and that it will not be anyone's "fault"?

Why can't we move beyond stigmatizing to find a realistic, humane, respectful approach that exemplifies best efforts to educate at appropriate levels, and then accept the reality of my special needs child's unique situation in life?

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Born That Way?

I haven't blogged for weeks, because I have been rather intensely and personally involved in an inner struggle. If you read my wife's blog you know that over the past few weeks we have been experiencing the drama of our manipulative, eighteen-year-old son who did all he could to get himself into a chemcial dependency treatment program.

Here's the synopsis: After his most recent return home he decided to violate his probation by leaving our home with a home monitoring ankle bracelet, eventually cutting it off and discarding it somewhere (his specified drop site has not proven correct), and finding himself back in custody. In his misguided attempt to see yet another new living environment, he was able to convince the CD assessor that he was using any substance he could get his hands on. The report was ludicrous, really, because the usage he reported would really have been lethal; in fact, the recommendation was that he be hospitalized (or at the least carefully observed) until the immediate effects of his toxicity had waned. Other than complaining of a headache, stomach ache and some sweating the difference between what he reported and the reality were very different. But, he did manage to get himself into CD treatment, which was his immediate goal. (In his muddled thinking he thought he would be able to meet up with some of his friends and that it would certainly be a better location than where he had been ... juvenile detention and immediately before that, in our home).

During "family week" (which turned out to be for us "family day," one day instead of the usual three, at the CD treatment center's direction), we learned the ways of the addict. There were few surprises in the disclosure, but the challenge for me is this: all of the "addict" behaviors described have been present in our son's life all the years we have known him (we adopted him when he was 8). The lack of attachment, foolish lying, stealing, destruction, disregard for others, disregard for the law ... all these and other behaviors existed in his life long before he used any chemicals. So, it was not the chemical usage that made him behave the way he has. These were pre-existing conditions. And, as pre-existing conditions, it is unlikely that these behaviors will cease now that he is clean and sober.

Which is kind of a cunundrum, to say the least. He did these things before he used, he did these things while he used, he will most likely do these things after his days of use.

It has been hard for me to make sense of, because the traditional CD treatment modality really does not fit our son. The traditional approach, as I understand it, is that a person who is chemically addicted behaves in these ways *because* he or she is addicted, and that once the addiction is under control the behaviors may cease. This will not be the case for our son, based upon my experience of life with him the last ten years.

And it is because his foundational and most threatening diagnosis is not chemical addiction; it is Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder. It is this pervasive condition which will continue, all of his life, to plague him. It makes me weep with anger to recognize what is the legacy of his birth mother's drinking while Mike was growing in her womb.

Mike is less an addict by his choice (although certainly he is that now); he is an addict because he was born that way. And sadly, that will not change the expectations of the legal system, it will not alter the way the rest of the world views him, and it will provide him little in the way of personal understanding.

He was born that way, but he had no choice in the matter. And what does that forebode in a society like ours where our principles of law and societal expectations are foundationally premised upon personal choice and the conviction that individuals are held responsible for what they choose to do. What about those who have diminished capacity to choose?

Those are the current inner struggles I face as the parent of a child profoundly affected by foundational choices not of his own making.