I cannot count the number of times as a parent (especially as a person who became a parent through adoption) that I feel like I have not been quite adequate for the task. As an adoptive parent it seems like the ante is upped because of the need, whether internal or external, to do a good job in recompense for the early years of neglect or abuse your child has suffered. That context makes the moments that seem like failure feel all the more painful, and those moments that seem like success taste all the more sweet.
Our oldest son has brought me both the most painful and the most sweet moments of my parenting life. I have never really been able to figure out why that is, but for some reason much of my personal sense of parental worth has stemmed from my relationship with him. I wonder if it's because he was the "test case" for me early on, the difficult child who needed a father figure, and so I devoted so much of my time and energy to help form his spiritual and moral base, a gargantuan task when you meet someone only for the first time when he is eleven.
Along this journey of a near-decade I have had moments of deep and abiding pride, as well as times when I have felt an inner sinking feeling, wandering in the quagmire of self-doubt in a lonely land with few others to understand my paternal plight. The past three years have been in many ways the most difficult for me. When Kyle left home after his high school graduation in the fall of 2004 for his first year of college, it nearly killed me. For the previous six years we had nearly daily contact (although a significant amount of that time was spent embroiled in chaos or conflict of some kind), and I always had a good sense of "where" Kyle was -- geographically, emotionally, relationally. As the time came for Kyle to move into the next stage of his life, I tried to prepare myself emotionally for the sense of loss I would experience. I understood mentally and logically the need for him to take those next steps, but my I understood emotionally what a huge risk it would be. A risk for me, not for him.
The risk, succinctly stated, was this: once Kyle had the freedom (he had spent years demanding) of his young adulthood, would that mean a rejection of me as his father? For the first time since he left foster care at the age of eleven, he would be able to choose whether his family in general, and I in particular, were worth maintaining connection with. That we were helping to finance his college education certainly helped the risk factor, but didn't guarantee anything emotionally.
I tried to assuage myself with my own memories of college, perhaps the four best years of my life. I reminded myself that a kid like Kyle could have been in such a worse situation in life than attending a private college. Over and over I told myself that I needed not to hover over his life like "helicopter parents" do, but allow him the space to figure out for himself what mattered. But it has been a very difficult emotional journey for me, and frankly, it turned out to be much harder than even I anticipated.
When someone you love and have invested your life in is no longer as accessible, the anxieites increase. Worries, some substantiated and many unsubstantiated, flood the worry-ridden soul. Questions arise, often with no good answers. I spent many sleepless nights trying to move on beyond my sense of loss, wondering what the outcome might be.
Here it is three years later. And yes, I still miss having Kyle around (he's not here this summer as he decided to remain on campus and work there). I still have moments when I wonder if all the time I invested really mattered. Occasionally I still worry. But then I have moments like last night.
Yesterday after returning home from our camping experience, I headed to the metro area to pick him up for the weekend. (Long story involved here, but he asked to come home, so I offered to give him a ride). Soon after he hopped into the car we were engaged in a warm, enjoyable conversation. I listened as he told me about his summer job, the few groceries he had left (hint, hint, Dad), and what he's been doing with his friends.
By the time we stopped for dinner we were talking about his future. Kyle's major is elementary education, and while I think he will make a fine teacher, he is not so convinced. In particular, he is concerned that teaching will not provide him the income he really wants in life. So I said, "You know, Kyle, you really should consider telling other people the story of your life."
"Yeah, right, like anyone cares about that?"
"Well, in the right circles people would love to hear what you have to say, especially about how you spent a few years in foster care, were adopted at the age of eleven, and now you are successfully getting ready to complete your final year of college."
"Like who, Dad?"
"I mean like adoptive parents who are parenting challenging older children. They need to hear that it matters and that kids like you can have a successful life because of parents who don't give up and push their kids to do something good with their lives."
"You mean talk about foster care and stuff I don't even remember anymore?"
"Well, yes. And actually, if you don't remember being in foster care that's probably a good sign, because it means that since that time you've had a normal enough life to move on."
"Or it could mean that I've just repressed it."
"Yeah, Kyle, that's probably true, too. You know it wouldn't hurt you to begin working through some of that emotional stuff of your early years of life. You know hot women find emotionally aware and sensitive men very attractive."
[Large, face-filling smile and guffaw] ... "Well, I'd rather be gay."
"Are you sure you're not? That would be OK, too, you know."
"Yeah, right Dad. I think I know that I'm not gay."
"But really, Kyle, you need to think about telling others your story. It could be a really good thing for you and for other people."
"I'll think about it."
This is a just a snippet of our conversation, but I arrived home feeling like I did something right. That Kyle at the age of 20 and I, his father only nine of those years, could talk openly about subjects that matter, seems like a mark of success.
I told Kyle that it might be at some point we might add to our family again. "I told Mom after Ricardo that was it, but then I started telling her, 'You find me another Kyle, and I might consider it.'"
"Right. You want another kid who's going to be a pain in the butt for the first four years he lives with you."
"Uh, Kyle, I think it's a little more than four years. How old are you now?"
[Smiling]: "Well, if he comes at the age of eleven, he's not going to ever take my place. I'll have to show him who's in charge."
"No one is ever going to take your place, Kyle. You will always be the oldest, and no one can ever displace you."
"I'm not threatened by that, Dad."
Smiling to myself, I said, "That's good. You don't have to feel threatened," but I thought, "I'm not so sure I believe that, son. But it's OK. I'm glad you feel a little threatened, not because you will ever lose your place in my heart, but because you love me enough to wonder."
Sometimes I feel like I did something right.