Friday, August 31, 2007

Leaving Your Kid at the Fair

It's one of those nightmares that especially afflicts parents with younger children. The scenario plays something like this. You and your child (or children) are taking in a cultural, historical, or other kind of even that has drawn hundreds of people, in a location you are both unfamiliar with, engaging in activities that are outside of your normal daily routine. As a parent you shift your view for what seems like a nanosecond, and when you look to see where your child (or children) are, you discover to your immediate shock they are not within sight.

The sudden shock of that moment degenerates into a sense of terror and dread as anxious thoughts fill your mind. Was she abducted? Did she wander away accidentally or was she enticed away by a molester? Will he remember what to do in case he gets lost or become frantic with worry (as you are)?

For most parents this split-second series of mental gymnastics comes to a quick conclusion as we find our straying child, relieved that they are within eyesight once again. After the perfunctory lecture about how important it is to stay near us and not wander away in a crowd of strangers we continue our day together and all is well.

While we no longer have children that young (our youngest at the moment is eleven, and he is not these days one to wander off; in fact, he is often gripping our hand on the way), when I spend time with one of our semi-independent young adult sons I often feel like a similar response. It is no longer anxiety and usually not dread; it is more akin to wistful nostalgia, and it still feels strange to walk in your direction as he walks away in his direction.

It was that way yesterday when those of traveling to the South Dakota State Fair spent a few minutes with our seventeen-year-old son John. He has been living at a boy's ranch for the past year, doing quite well for himself, more stable there than he has been anywhere in his past, including our home, which is always a humbling prospect for a parent. We had the opportunity to see him show a horse, including a few moments before and after to chat with him. He is always glad to see us, and he has become respectful and responsible during those interactions. John, to his credit, has never blamed us for his behavior. It has never been our fault that his impulse and anger control are limited; he has always understood that it is his responsibility. John is not a blamer, nor is he a victim. He has challenges, but he recognizes them as his own, and has always expressed gratitude that we have adopted him, and he has always beenn proud to be one of our ten children. The big family thing to him has always felt right, and while he and his two birth sisters have always shared and maintained a special sense of connection, his other brothers have always been "his." Other than his issues (which at times have been rather significant), John has been a pleasure to parent because he loves us and expresses it. He has been one of our few kids not to disdain his adopted status or our parenting ability or his place in our family. He has always treasured these parts of his life.

Which is why it makes it so hard to walk away from him when the time comes. Yesterday we spent some time conversing together, took a few pictures and caught up on life details. We had hoped to spend some time with him walking around the fair, but his group's plans were different than he thought, and they were packing up (the boy's home where he resides breeds and trains work horses, which is why they were there yesterday) immediately after their showing to head back. Over the past few years with John in and out of the home he has developed a veneer of sorts so his affect is either more mature or more protective (I haven't been able to discern which), and he is more difficult to read these days. I suspect part of it is growing up, but much of it is growing up without parents or family in daily contact. It is one of the prices to pay in order for one's child to be safe to himself and others, and it comes at a high price tag.

To compare his experience in life with that of other sixteen and seventeen-year-old's is too difficult, so I often try not to. Most kids his age are still enjoying the carefree life of a high school sophomore or junior, spending time with friends, attending classes, working a part-time job, making plans for the future. John's life and future are more constricted than that; his options are fewer and his likelihood of success is less. So I have a sense of compassion for him and his situation. He spends little time worrying about or expressing reservations about his life, and I hope it is because he is more at ease about it than I am.

So we spent some time chatting yesterday, and then it was time to say goodbye. We hugged each other, said our goodbyes and left, John back to the work of packing up and we four to the task of walking through a few more buildings at the fair and then off to our car for the four hour plus ride back home. It is never easy for me to walk away from one of my children, even when it's our college-age son and the time for transition has come, there is always a pull in my heart that takes me back to other days. In those days we all left together. Those days have ceased, and we now go our separate ways.

There was a time when I believed it wouldn't be all that hard to let my kids go where they needed to go, so that I could go where I needed to go. I naively assumed that the emotions of those moments would somehow change. Over time the difficulty has lessened, but there is still that little twinge that reminds me of the connection we share in our hearts. I always have known intellectually that it's important for parents of nearly adult children to help them let go, but once again yesterday I was reminded that it really isn't that easy leaving your kid at the fair.

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Open Spaces

After a long day in the office getting ready for the barrage of activity heading our way in the next couple of weeks, I arrived home to pack an overnight bag, collected three of my children and set off to the west. It is a lovely late summer evening, and as we drove from our hilly hometown toward the plains of western Minnesota and South Dakota I was reminded of the beauty of the prairie. It has now been fifteen months since we last lived in prairie abode, and having lived for seven years surrounded by such serene geography, I find myself reminiscent of days gone by.

When we arrived in Luverne in 1999 our family was intact. Our oldest son was headed to eighth grade, and our youngest child was just four years of age. In the ensuing seven years we witnessed our intact family begin to disintegrate as first Mike and then John began to run away for days on end, become involved in antisocial behaviors and push us to the point of having them live outside of our home. Those early, nascent days, however, linger in my memory as times of relative calm and the ability to go to sleep every night knowing where our children were. We had probably two or three good years as a family before the really challenging behaviors began.

Driving through the late afternoon, sun-drenched fields on the way to our destination I am reminded of how calming are the open spaces of both physical and emotional geography. It feels less encumbered here in the plains. The lack of traffic on the highway, the quiet small towns and field after field of soybeans and corn, punctuated by an occasional farm home, give me cause to remember the point in our travels this night.

Tomorrow we will see John, our seventeen-year-old son who has now been living out of our home for a continuous twelve months. I have seen John very infrequently since last summer's assault which resulted in his departure from our home. As I think about John and the reality that he is growing up without his family to live with (although his family has frequent contact with him in other ways), I recognize that the prairiescape I have witnessed is not the only open space in my life.

From the time he came into our home at the age of nine John has been a special person in our family's life. The day he met us he jumped into my arms as he exclaimed with joy, "Dad." At the time he was a short, skinny little Hispanic boy with a Texas accent, "fixin' to live in Minnesota" with his forever family. We had been told by his foster parents and social worker that John had issues with anger control, but we hoped in the face of the reports that we might "love" that out of him. There is no question that John loves us, that he is attached to us, that we are his mom, dad and family. But we have never been able to "love" away his low impulse control, nor his angry outbursts. When he was younger we could deal with his explosivity because I could take him into my arms and control his actions, but by the time he was twelve that was no longer a possibility.

The open space I feel in my heart for John is something I sought to avoid for years. Counseling sessions, treatment center stays, police reports filed, medications adjusted, let's-try-it-again-at-home-once-again attempts ... we did everything we (and the professionals) knew to do for John in an effort to avoid his permanent departure from our home. It continues to sadden me, although I am relieved to know he lives in a place where his medications are consistently administered and where he is able to be academically and socially successful, that one of most loving and attached kids cannot live in our home, and that he is now 150 miles distant.

Tomorrow three of his siblings and I will meet him at the South Dakota State Fair to watch as he exhibits a champion horse that he has been working with for the past year at the Boy's Ranch he now calls home. It will be a bittersweet moment for me. I will soak into my soul the beauty and the capacious healing of the geography I so miss, but I will leave having recognized once again the open space in my heart that was formerly occupied by our son John.

I love John. I miss John. I do not miss his behavior. I do not miss the anxiety his presence caused our family. I do not miss the veiled and intentional threats to my safety and wellbeing. It is an open space filled with ambiguity and a wistful thought of what might have been.

Monday, August 27, 2007

They Said It Was Unlikely

When we adopted Rand eight years ago we had few assurances from any of the professionals or from the pre-adoptive home from which he was disrupted. The pre-adoptive family articulated concerns about certain of his behaviors (to the point where they felt they could not keep him, but did keep his two birth brothers). His social worker, while a very positive person, was realistic about what we could expect in terms of Rand's achievement. She didn't say it in quite so many words, but the impression I was left with was that if he was able to finish high school we could all be happily surprised. At the time he came to live with us Rand had been in a Department of Corrections facility simply because it had the only space available for him. He was in the highest level of special education classroom available and at eleven was developmentally more like a five-year-old.

But today he triumphed and proved them wrong! He and I went to his community college this morning at 7:05 to wait in line for the bookstore opening, which occurred at 7:45 (he was told it opened at 7:15, so we had extra time to wait). He gathered his books and required items and $588 later we was on his way to his first college class of his life. We wonder how the whole college thing will go for him, but he will still be living at home (so there is that security for him) and we will help him budget his student loan and such so that he will not be on his own. This college has academic support available for students who need the help, and one of our parishioners is a faculty member there (and has taken a real interest in Rand) so I think this is his best chance for post-high school success.

The way I see it is this: even if Rand doesn't succeed at the community college attempt, he will already have accomplished more than most people eight years ago thought he was capable of. He already has triumphed, and everything in the future is simply surprise blessings for him and for us.

And I suppose that's the whole point of adopting older kids. We give them the best chance they have for success, and while we cannot make them achieve we can provide the opportunities for them to do more than others have thought possible. It feels good to have these kinds of parenting moments and to know that without our presence in Rand's life he could well be another homeless, unskilled, unmotivated loss of society. Instead we are proud parents of a person who is moving forward with his life in pleasantly unexpected ways.

They said it was unlikely, but it's always fun to prove even the professionals wrong!

Friday, August 24, 2007

Loving a Criminal?

One of my high school friends left her husband and their three children a number or years ago to marry a felon in the correctional facility where she worked as a guard. I could not believe it at the time. To leave a faithful, supportive, spiritually aware man and three children to commit to a known felon was beyond belief. It's the stuff that sensationalistic journalists thrive upon, and in that case it was all, sadly, true. How could anyone love a criminal?

I still wonder about that some days, but I have to admit that I have a son who is a criminal and that I do love him. Surely it is a different situation, because I would never choose him and his criminal ways over my loving and committed wife nor over my other law-abiding, trying-to-do-the-best-they-can children. Even on their worst days my other children have not committed multiple crimes, nor been charged with adult felony offenses within three months of their eighteenth birthday. And it's not exactly the same situation because he entered our lives when he was nearly nine, with many years of neglect and abuse as his history and an organic brain impairment as the result of his birth mother's chemical usage. But I have invested years of concern in his life, have always done the best I could to be a good parent to him, and have tried to hang on to hope even when there hasn't been much.

Less than a month ago my wife and I exchanged several blog entries concerning whether or not to get on the "hope train" with Mike, the son I mention above. While I was never fully invested in the idea that there was a great deal of hope in the new arrangement (we asked one of our community landlords if she would allow him to live in one of her apartments in exchange for his working for her), but I figured we had to do it. We had to do it, if for no other reason than to quell the questions of others who intimated that we had at least a parental obligation to get him off the streets, where he had been living for the better part of four months. And so we tried that. And the experiment was a miserable failure, which I think both Claudia and I knew from the beginning. In a change from the usual way things work, in that situation I was probably more hopeful than she (usually she's the eternal optimist). I guess I have a deep need to be the martyr of lost causes or something.

Tonight we received a telephone call that suggests perhaps Mike has been involved in the manufacture and distribution of illegal substances from the apartment he lived in for eighteen days. It would explain the numerous knocks at his door (all of which were prohibited by the terms of his rental agreement, which he had been reminded of numerous times by his landlord as well as myself), the coming and going of others and the general disregard he has had for anyone's "interference" in his life. The police were in and out of the now vacant apartment today, gathering numerous pieces of evidence and preparing to have them analyzed in the crime lab. It doesn't sound good. But with Mike it never does.

And now we have more of his aftermath to bear. I am embarrassed that we put our friend, his former landlord, in this situation. Now she has to face the scrutiny of law enforcement (and she's one of the most caring landlords in our city), her other tenants have been impacted by Mike's presence (he had an upstairs apartment above a law-abiding, contented young couple), and our family's reputation will once again take another strike because of Mike's unlawful activities.

After all this I still love our son, but it is a love borne not out of hope for change as much as it is a love maintained due to the stubborn nature of my commitment. When we chose to adopt Mike we agreed to be his parents for life, and we will be. But what that means for us has to be interpreted in a much different way in his situation than for the rest of our children. What it means for us is that we have to do our best to limit his contact with our family, our home and those we know and love. His presence is deliterious at best and horrendous at worse. There is little right now that socially redeemable in his life. I will wonder, but not too long for it doesn't serve any good purpose, if it mattered that we ever adopted him. I'm not so sure the outcome would have been any different for him, and I wonder sometimes if the trauma he has caused for the rest of us has really had any good purpose.

Loving a criminal is not the best way to put it, I suppose, because it's not his criminality that I love. It is the memory of a nine-year-old, red-headed, freckle-faced hyperactive, oppositional, inquisitive child in need of a forever family that causes me to maintain a stubborn sense of love, hopeful that one day if he finally figures this all out he will know that there has been at least one constant in his life, a family that has loved him in spite of himself.

Thursday, August 23, 2007

The Morning After

One of the most important things I have learned in my life as an adoptive parent is the necessity of letting go of some things. If you've been reading the last couple of days' posts you know that things in our family's life have been fraught with tension and disruption. It is difficult to find calm in the midst of one child's adolescent rebellion and another (adult) child's failure. There was a time in my life that I would hang on to those situations, rehearse in my mind over and over what I could have done differently, chastised myself for not being a better parent (after all, kids who have good parents don't try to sneak out of the house night after night, don't use alcohol or drugs, don't run away, don't break the law, ad nauseum), and tried to find ways to rescue my son or daughter. Eleven years of parenting have taught me the folly of caring more about a person than s/he cares about him/herself. I will continue to be connected with my children, offer them assistance as I can, but I will invest no more emotional energy in the situation than they are willing to invest.

Yesterday, for example, while I was still at work our son Mike appeared at our home, asking Claudia if he could use our basement to store his belongings, as he was being evicted from his apartment at 5:00 PM. His arrival at our home was no more than an hour before the 5:00 PM deadline. Claudia had him call me. "So, Dad, do you care if I bring my stuff from the apartment to keep at home?" "Where will you put it, Mike?" "In the basement." "And you realize that if you leave your stuff here there's the real possibility that someone is going to touch it?" "Oh. But do you care if I bring it over here?" "No, Mike, I don't care if you bring your stuff to the house, but I want you to understand that I'm not going to be able to protect it for you. You're taking the chance." "Yeah, OK. I'll just put it in the basement then. Thanks."

I can tell you exactly what is going to happen. Within days Mike will reappear, needing to find something that is his. He will go the basement, find things not exactly like he left them (or as he remembers leaving them) and he will begin the inquiry. "OK, who took my CD? Dominyk, did you take my CD? Ricardo, I know you took my CD." And then he will proceed to rummag through other's rooms and belongings in an attempt to find what he himself may never have brought in the first place. It is an irritating process, one with which we are well familiar, and so we will then tell him, "Mike you took the risk. We warned you about that." He will not remember, he will become frustrated, and we will have to ask him to leave our house, which he will do in a fit of anger and disgust.

But for now Mike is seemingly content as can be. He is no longer living in an apartment where he is "constantly being watched" (his impression) and where the landlord is trying to "get him in trouble." We don't know where he is staying, but he seems content, so I am not going to worry much more about that right now. I will let that go.

And then there's Salinda, whose multiple day rage has eventuated in a therapist's and doctor's appointment yesterday, and which seems to have resulted in a happier existence for her. And let me tell you, if she's happier we're all happier. She is now speaking civilly to us and her siblings, and there is a sense of calm that is present again. Perhaps it was the scare with the police visit, or the opportunity to make some progress with the therapist, or the mutual agreement to revising her list of consequences ... whatever it was, I will not try to make sense of how it all came about. I will let that go and simply be glad we are in a better place.

For an introspective perfectionist like myself, letting these kinds of things go does not come naturally. My tendency is to try to perfect, to prevent the "next time," to anticipate upcoming stress so as to stave it off. I have discovered, however, that my personality has to be directed in new ways if I am to survive the roller coaster ride of parenting.

It is the morning after a really bad few days. I have let go of many things, until next time arrives. And next time always arrives. But so does the morning after.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Waiting to Leave ... Leaving to Wait

Have I ever blogged before about how ironic life is? Yeah, I know I have, and this morning I reflect upon the ironies of last night in our family's life. We have a fourteen-year-old daughter who is impatiently waiting to leave our home beacuse it is such a bad place to live, and we have an eighteen-year-old son who is leaving his apartment (after less than a month) to wait who knows where for the next place to live. When he was fourteen, Mike said many of the same things Salinda tells us now: we parents are too strict, we won't let our kids do anything, we are too controlling, we don't trust them, they can't wait until the day they can leave. We've heard it so many times that it hardly registers anymore when someone who is fourteen decides to spew their billious gall in our direction. It is always a bit irritating, of course, because after last night's whole debacle it is the awful parents who go to work feeling sleep-deprived while the horrendously mistreated child in question gets to sleep the morning away.

It's strange, really, that on the very same night we have one child desperately seeking to leave our home and another child who is desperately trying to find a way to get back into our home. It's one of those odd moments, when parents must do all we can to provide safety for a kid who doesn't want it and to maintain distance from another (now adult) child who seeks the safety of a home, even our most despicable home.

I realize I sound a bit cynical as I type these words, but I hope I am less cynical than I am realistic, and I hope I can continue to remind myself that for both of our children currently in crisis it really isn't about us or our parenting techniques. It is really about the place they find themselves in life. If it must be this way (and with most adolescents and young adults, I suppose the story is vaguely familiar to parents who read this) at least both of them have parents who choose to love them even when barraged with hate and disdain. At least they are growing up in a home where they are not neglected, beaten for defiant behavior, or subjected to sexual or chemical abuse. And that's more than can be said of the early home environments from which they came. Not much consolation on the morning after a night like we've had, but it is something to hang on to.

Nothing Good Happens After Midnight

The parenting maxim "there's nothing good that happens after midnight" has been once again confirmed in our household. After a day of increasing agitation and verbal engagement (limited, though intense) our fourteen-year-old daughter informed us last night that she going out (even though she is currently grounded because she was gone two complete nights a week ago without our knowing where she was) and we couldn't stop her. We have already come to the conclusion that if she is intent upon leaving, it is true that there is little we can do to stop her. And if she had simply left while we were sleeping, the night would probably have been uneventful.

But she chose to play her cards differently last night. Instead of a sneaky getaway (her recent norm) into the furtive shadows of the night, she decided to leave loud enough that we could hear the door shut. Still we were prepared to let her go. It was when she went into the backyard and began throwing rocks at our bedroom windows that I decided the line had been crossed. It is one thing to deliberate defy your parents' request and sulk away, it is another to taunt, possibly awaken the rest of the household and attempt to damage property. Claudia asked what I wanted to do, and I did not hesitate. "Call 911."

Within minutes a law enforcement officer arrived and spoke with us. She was respectful, attentive and gave us the limited options we already were aware of. Since there had been no physical attack she could not be removed from the home (verbal threats are not sufficient), and since the officer had not actually spoken with her upon her arrival (Salinda was lurking in the shadows outside and ignoring the officer's request to speak with her) she could not be held for "fleeing an officer." A few minutes later the officer left, after telling us that we should call if Salinda showed up.

Within minutes of the officer's departure Salinda re-appeared. Marching through the house in a defiant stance she waited until she saw the police car pull up outside our home and then darted back into the night, further taunts from an angry adolescent. The officer searched the backyard, but to no avail, so she once again left.

Within minutes we could hear the shades in the downstairs bathroom rustling as Salinda crept her way back into the house. Stomping up the stairs again she haughtily sneered, "You guys are dumb." Oppositionally marching to the living room where we had been sitting she turned on the television (it was now long since the time we allow our kids to watch television). Claudia went to our bedroom to once again call law enforcement and returned in time for the barrage of verbal missiles hurled in our direction.

"I can't believe you guys are going to adopt again. You're the worst parents in the world. It will just be two more kids who have to run away."

Amidst nasty, foul four-letter words and assertions she barked her rage over the din of the television. The police officer, with whom by this time we felt quite familiar, entered our home, went directly to the living room and confronted the situation. Salinda was defiant and rude with the officer as well, so the officer raised her voice, ordered her to sit down on the couch and physically moved her there. In the minutes to follow we were able to hear just how bad it is to live in our house ("Just look at it, it's an awful place to live"), how she does not want or need our love ("I dont love them; I don't want their love"), and how her seventeen-year-old male friends are "good people, they've just made some bad choices."

The officer gave Salinda the "you have to respect your parents even if you hate them" routine, telling her that the seventeen-year-old in question may be a good person but that he has been arrested numerous times and doesn't seem to figure out how to stay out of trouble. By this time it was well after midnight. The monologue continued for the better part of 45 minutes, after which we told Salinda she could go to bed. Stomping through the kitchen she asserted her final note of anger of the night as she slapped off with gusto the lights in that part of the house.

Salinda knows that if she becomes physically assaultive we will call the police again. She knows that if she damages our property we will press charges. But she also knows from years and years as a witness to the antisocial actions of two of her older brothers (including her birth brother for whom she has always been a champion) that parents in this situation are very limited in what they can do.

So once again we will be hostages in our own home, a place so bad no one should be forced to live there and with parents who are so awful that they cannot be given respect or from whom no love can be received. And this morning the worst parents in our community will be at their respective jobs, working to provide food, clothing, a place to live and guidelines to help her become a decent human being who will one day be independent from the pernicious grasp of such a bad family. On mornings like these this independence day cannot come too quickly.

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Homeless Again

Claudia called me minutes ago to report that our son Mike is once again without a place to live. He has until 5:00 PM tomorrow night to vacate the apartment he has been living in for the past eighteen days. He has consistently refused to abide by the lease, and after more than three specific warnings he has done the same thing again and again.

His landlord has been more than generous over the past three weeks, and we are thankful that she gave him the chance to earn the opportunity to have a permanent address. While I am not surprised at this outcome, I need now to ready myself for the accusations we will receive from Mike. It will not be his responsibility or his fault. In some way it will be either Claudia's or my fault that this did not work out. And he will, of course, beg us to live in our home now that he has no where to go. But that's something we just cannot do.

So, once again, Mike is homeless. And he is out of options. And so are we.

Where Parenting and Vocation Meet

Vocationally I am an ordained minister, so by definition my work life is a significant part of my family's life. Were I one day to discern that my most faithful response to God would be a vocational change, our family would remain deeply involved in the life of the church (somewhere) anyway, but I have a unique role. Most of the time I love knowing that my children can be a part of my "work" life, seeing what God has gifted me to do and benefiting from the advantage of being children of "the pastor." This role has been helpful, especially when the special needs of a child become all too apparent.

What pleases me so much about my current pastoral appointment (and this was true of my previous church as well) is the degree of support that is accorded Claudia and me and our children. Because we have been open about our family's uniqueness, we have healthy, open exchanges with parishioners who find themselves involved with our children. From all I can tell when there is an issue, the adult in question is compassionate, kind and complimentary, while being candid at the same time. This is a true gift that not every community of faith exhibits. I have heard too many horror stories from other adoptive families (in which neither parent is a pastor) in which their church life has subsided or completely dried up because they or their children have been misunderstood, mistreated or brushed aside. I am grateful that this has not been our experience.

Tonight is a case in point. One of our church families has a child the same age as Dominyk, and this week during Vacation Bible School their child had an unpleasant encounter with our son. The other child appropriately asked Dominyk to share the markers he was using, and he refused. After a few more requests, his response to the child in question was, "I have a scissors, and I'm not afraid to do bad things with it."

Appropriately, the parent told me of the situation and asked if she had any reason to be concerned. I offered my apologies, but had to think about my response to her question. Well, yes, she had a reason to be concerned, because no child should have to hear those kind of words, especially not in a church setting. But, no, she didn't need to be concerned because Dominyk has no violent history at all (but then again, violent words are not to be taken lightly either).

I explained that Dominyk does have some antisocial tendencies (he's borderline Asperger's, but doesn't meet enough of the criteria for that diagnosis, but the antisocial aspects do apply to him), but he has no violent history. I asked if her child felt threatened and was relieved to hear that she did not. The parent said she took time to explain that Dominyk has a disability that causes to act in ways that are not OK and that next time a way to avoid further conflict would be to walk away or to tell the teacher so an adult was aware of the situation.

I cannot express in words how grateful I am for the kind and thoughtful approach of this parent! There was no blaming (we've received some of that in the past in other situations), there was no expectation for some kind of immediate behavioral transformation. Dominyk was understood to be a complete person, along with his disabilities, and the other child does not feel endangered, but rather, I am hoping, empowered to understand that people with emotional disabilities are not to be feared but to be treated respectfully.

The down side to my vocational life is that the peccadilloes of my family's life are often on display. Because of the public nature of my pastoral life (and because we have also chosen as a couple to be transparent and open about our lives) there are moments which make me feel a little threatened. Most of the threat is self-induced as I ask myself questions like, "I wonder if my children's behavior will negatively impact my ability to be a good pastor?" or "What is going to happen to my reputation, which is really all a pastor has in establishing and maintaining credibility?"

Fortunately I have to ask myself very infrequently these days because I serve God with a remarkable group of people who respect what Claudia and I do as adoptive parents and who are supportive of our work. For me the juncture between parenting and vocation is a close one and almost always a benefit.

Monday, August 20, 2007

Additional Evidence That He Doesn't Really Get It

One of the most frustrating parts of having a son with a mental health diagnosis is that those looking in do not understand its reality. Most of our kids have the ability to maintain themselves well enough in public that those who see them only in these venues must think that we overexaggerate when we describe what it's really like to live with children who have challenges.

When, for example, our reactive, defiant, oppositional son Tony visits his grandmother's (my mother's) house, he holds it together very well. Perhaps it is because he is the only child and his needs for complete attention are readily met, or perhaps he feels the need to be especially good when he's with her or perhaps it's not even that intentional on his part. While it is good to hear that his behavior has been great when he is there, often the news is delivered with a bit of questioning as if to say, "so there must really be something wrong with your parenting or his home life because I've never seen him act like that."

Our fourteen-year-old daughter, even at her snippiest, has the ability like a chameleon to treat her friends, their parents and other adults with appropriate respect. She displays more-than-acceptable public behavior, so when we might allude to her rebellion or to her opposionality, we sometimes get looks that say, "it must be really awful in your home for her, then, because that's not what I have experienced."

The best example of what I'm talking about, however, is our son Mike. His FASD diagnosis is lost on many onlookers, because he presents very well. He is personable, able to carry on a relatively intelligent conversation. He has learned to be fairly charming and likeable. But when it comes to the more sophisticated levels of brain functioning he is not able to compete with others his chronological age, nor is it likely that he will ever be able to. I was reminded of that again last night when I talked with his landlord. In the midst of our conversation, in which she expressed frustration that after three warnings Mike still did not seem to understand what it means to have no one in his apartment, she said, "Mike told me what he expects a landlord to do." "Oh, really?" I asked. "Yes. He told me that a landlord installs cable television, internet access and telephone service." I smiled knowingly and said, "I'm sorry, he just really doesn't understand much about life, does he?" "And he's not interested in getting a job, has no food in his refrigerator and is not going to be able to pay his utilities," she said pensively. "That's what Claudia and I find so frustrating, too," I said, "that he doesn't really understand what this is all about, but he is unwilling to listen to anyone, and he believes that he is absolutely right."

It is hard for me to blame someone who has a brain like Mike's. I am not excusing his behavior or his socially unaware expectations; I simply try to explain so others understand that his thinking process is not like everyone else's, and regretably, he is so impaired that he doesn't even recognize it.

That's why I've said many times that Mike's biggest liability is his IQ. He scores quite high on intelligence testing, because that part of his brain is unhindered from its ability; but it's not the injured part of his brain that is tested, so on paper it appears that he should function much more normally than he does. Unfortunately society has little time for individuals with invisible disabilities. Society assumes that the individual in question is a liar, or a manipulator or a malingerer. It has been only in recent decades that larger society has understood much about disabilities like what was formerly called mental retardation, so I guess I'm simply asking too much for society as a whole to understand something less tangible, like FASD.

The only way society has been able to deal with this impairment with any sense of effectiveness is through the criminal justice system. And that's the real crime, because people with brain malfunctions shouldn't be consigned to a life (or portions thereof) of imprisonment for something they really did not cause, nor for consequences they cannot seem to understand.

Sunday, August 19, 2007

You Gotta Know It's Not a Good Sign ...

when your eighteen-year-old son's landlord comes knocking at the door at 9:00 PM on a Sunday night.

Three weeks ago we arranged with one of our community's landlords to allow Mike to live in one of her apartments on a trial basis, in exchange for his working for her as needed. Her expectation is that Mike would get a job, follow her rules and eventually become responsible for his living arrangement.

It is not working out very well. One of her explicit rules is that Mike can have no one in his apartment (other than his parents) at any time. Tonight is the third time he has done so; he has been confronted by her on each of the three occasions and warned that if he does not follow her rules he will be evicted. He is not currently seeking a job, and he is often unavailable when she tries to find him to work for her. She has been very gracious and has sought to give him the benefit of the doubt time and time again. She has been patient, she seeks to understand more of his diagnosis (FASD) so that she can be fair and just. Her biggest concern at this time is that the people he has been inviting into his apartment are young teenagers (13- and 14-year-olds) whose parents are trying to find them. She does not want the reputation of being a landlord where minors can hide out from their parents.

What is apparent to me is that Mike is spending time with people this age because this is really his developmental level as well. He is chronologically eighteen, but developmentally more like a fourteen-year-old. It does not seem strange to him to be with kids this age because this is how he functions. He is not ready for adult responsibilities, but in the eyes of the law he is an adult and will be held accountable as any other person over eighteen. He is not ready to live on his own, hold a job and assume mature responsibility, but his options are limited. He cannot live with us because of his criminal record and the negative sway he has on our other kids. He qualifies for no assistance or social services programs because his diagnosis is not deemed by professionals to be debilitating enough (if only they really knew and understood).

While I talked with the landlord in her vehicle, Mike came into the house to get some food to eat (we could see him eating at our kitchen table). Even in the midst of her frustration, she was kind enough to offer him the time to eat. She is really a compassionate person, which is why it bothers me that she is in this situation with our son. It is a helpless situation because while I want to advocate for Mike's best interests, I want to respect the ways in which she has already gone above and beyond to reach out to Mike. I hold out little hope that he is going to change, but do I want him to be homeless and on the streets again?

In the final analysis she will have to decide what she must do, and whatever her decision is Claudia and I will respect it and thank her for offering Mike this opportunity. I wish I had some hope that things would turn around, but the conversation I had with Mike when I came back into the house offers me little hope:

Me: Mike, do you understand that you cannot have anyone at your apartment at any time?
Mike: Yeah, but it was pouring rain outside. I didn't want them to get all wet.
Me: But Mike, you know [her] rule. You can't have anyone there. Ever.
Mike: It's not that big of a deal.
Me: I guess you will have to decide whether it's a big enough deal or not. If you want to have a place to live, you cannot have anyone there. Ever.
Mike: [Exasperated sigh]. So do I have a place to go to for tonight?
Me: You'll have to ask her. She's waiting outside to talk to you.
Mike: What am I supposed to do? Just get in her vehicle and expect that I'm going back to the apartment?
Me: Yes, you need to get into the vehicle and she will tell you what she has decided.
Mike: Oh, OK.

See what I mean? He doesn't even have the social awareness to know how to handle a situation like this, in which his "home" is on the line and "all" he needs to do is make sure none of his friends are ever in his apartment. He doesn't know what to do in the confrontation cycle to resolve things. He is simply clueless. But society doesn't cut a break for someone who has organic brain damage caused by his drinking birth mother, because thinking society doesn't understand how someone his age could be so delayed. He must, after all, be a liar or dishonest or something, because surely he understands what the rules are.

I'm not so sure. But it's not a good sign, and it doesn't bode well for Mike's future.

Some People Want to be Miserable

There's at least one thing I've learned in my life: there are some people who want to be miserable. For whatever reason they feel more validated or more connected to reality by feeling bad or by making others feel bad. I know because I spent a number of my adolescent years doing the same kind of thing, although I had not particular reason that I recognized for doing so. I learned, though, that it provided a great deal of attention through the entreaties of others as they attempted to "reach out" to me. Fortunatley I have long since moved past that stage of my life where being miserable provides enough reward (negative though it be) to perpetuate its existence.

Negativity (a phrase I first heard used excessively several years ago during one of John's or Mike's numerous residential treatment stays) breeds a life of its own, as the individual continues to decline further and further into the abyss of meaninglessness. There comes a point for most individuals where enough is enough, and if their mental health is stable enough, they can pick themselves up from that point (often with the help of others) and move to a new chapter of life. But until that time comes -- and it's a highly individualized experience, unique to each person -- there is only so much others can do. In fact efforts to intervene too frequently and/or with too much intensity usually backfire, because the person seeking misery is provided only more opportunities to feed upon the intensity of those interactions.

I wonder if that might be the place where our daughter is at this point in her life. For whatever reason she feeds upon misery. She loves to feel bad. She likes to make it sound like it's her parents' fault -- our rules are too unreasonable (not an unusual mantra for an adolescent) or we don't understand her (ditto) or perhaps it's even racial (we are white and she is Hispanic) or it's because she was adopted and if she had only been able to stay in her birth family (we've heard this multiple times) her life would be oh so much better. She loves the attention her self-imposed misery brings upon herself; it gives her opportunities to "prove" to her friends just how bad her life is, and how awful her parents are to live with.

I ask myself whether she might be acting differently if we had made different choices with her older brothers John and Mike years ago, but I cannot believe that violating our foundational principle (that we do not disrupt our adoptive parenting lives even when kids are out of control) would have taught her anything better. I wonder whether she or I had developed a closer relationship earlier on if this rebellion could have been staved off (but I do not believe we had a bad relationship early on; in fact, she and Mercedes on a number of occasions have traveled with me on church-related business as a means of having time together). I become irritated because I wonder what else we might be able to do ... we have tried consequencing (but nothing means as much as the opportunity to have negative feelings "validated"), we have withdrawn privileges (but her friends are there to enable her poor choices), we have set limits. It has been to no avail.

My desire to be "self-differentiated" is being sorely tried, especially knowing how blatant her defiance has become. I mean, if I were fourteen and wanting to really sneak around at night, I would, after bidding my parent(s) goodnight, slip out to see my friends and then make sure I was home and in bed by the time they awakened (especially if there were up at nearly the same time every day). I would then be able to make my parents believe I was doing what they wanted (receiving the benefits pertaining thereto) as well as see my friends.

I really think there are some people who want to miserable. But I'm not one of them. And I'm going to do my best not to be, even when this behavior drives me crazy.

Saturday, August 18, 2007

The Peculiar State of the Adolescent

If you have read Claudia's blog of early this morning, you know that we have had yet another less-than-honest incident with our oldest daughter, who is fourteen. We said goodbye to her last night as she was ostensibly on her way with another friend to a third friend's house to spend the night. Early this morning (as in 2:00 AM'ish) Claudia and I were awakened to hear from friend number one's mother reporting that her daughter (friend number two) had been picked up by law enforcement (presumably for breaking the community curfew), but that our daughter was not with her. She did not know where she was. So Claudia especially, and I a bit, had our sleep disturbed once again for the umpteenth time, wondering if she was safe, but wondering even more why on her first night off grounding she decided to break our trust once again. We know that in her mind we probably would never know that she hadn't been at the friend's home all night; she took a risk and it didn't turn out for her this time.

Claudia made a couple of telephone calls this morning after we were awake for the day, letting known friends of our daughter's know that we were aware she was not where we thought she was and asking them to simply call if they knew her location. Claudia handled most of those details, our daughter finally called and told us she wouldn't be home until she found one of the friends' missing cell phones (which apparently our daughter had lost). Claudia told her to get home immediately and we would help her find the cell, but she refused.

Finally, at 2:30 this afternoon she came into the house, bearing our mail from the mailbox with her. With no words or verbal confrontation (one of the blessings of raising an introvert child) she proceeded to prepare herself some lunch. I bit my tongue from verbal engagement and simply asked that she let her mother know that she was back home. After lunch, and here's the peculiar reminder to me of the complexity of adolescence, she promptly sat down in front of our living room television and began to watch Hannah Montana, a program designed for "tweens." (Of course we have a somewhat delayed nineteen-year-old son who watches the same program, so it's not that unusual for our home; it just seems unusual that a nearly fifteen-year-old rebellious child who in most every other way is "normal" would be amused by such a program).

It's perplexing to have a daughter away from home the entire night, not where she is supposed to be, her location unknown to us in a series of defiant, independent moves, arrive home to engage in pre-adolescent television programming.

It's in these moments that I remind myself that perhaps she isn't as grown up as she wants us to think she is, and that we need to continue to exercise patience and love in the midst of setting boundaries and holding her responsible for her behavior. I am grateful to have a spouse who is able to take primary responsibilty for this child of ours, peculiar as the state of adolescence is.

The Ironies of Life

The longer I live the more I witness the connectedness of life, often in ways that surprise me (though I'm old enough I shouldn't be that surprised any more). Today Claudia, Rand (our nineteen-as-of-yesterday-year-old son) and I traveled down to our county's law enforcement center (aka "jail") to finish up fingerprint paperwork for our upcoming homestudy update. Every time I drive by the law enforcement center I am reminded of the men and women inside serving time for overstepping society's boundaries. In particular, I always think of our son, Mike, who has spent two stints in this location in the past three months.

I have been to the Law Enforement Center a total of three times before today ... once to accompany Mike to get his fingerprint work done, prior to his jail time; once to attempt to lead a worship service, which was an abysmal failure; and a third time to visit Mike while he was in jail, on what happened to be my birthday. Today's trip was for less intense personal reasons, but the memories of my previous three visits always do something to make me a little ill at ease, especially knowing that I may well be visiting Mike again in this facility or one like it in the near future.

Anyway, we arrived, got ourselves buzzed in through the secure doors to wait in the lobby area, where we knew we would have a wait before being summmoned to the third floor (the same floor and location where I accompanied Mike several months ago, and a door away from the visitation area where I visited Mike while he was an inmate. There is something about the stale air of the jail, coupled with the secured doors clanging shut behind you, that remind the hapless visitor that life is on hold in a place like this. There are no windows for outside light to balance the harsh fluorescent lighting, no fresh breezes to dispel the muskiness created by numerous adult males (and fewer females) in small enclosures. The fingerprint room is the same room in which incoming inmates are processed. Bins of bright orange clothing and booklets of "Inmate Guidelines" on cold metal shelves surround a standard-issue desk with a plexiglass protective shield. The fingerprint machine is computerized, a much more sophisticated version than the last time I was fingerprinted with ink for Ricardo's adoption several years ago.

As I departed the waiting area on first floor for my fingerprinting, Claudia had just begun a conversation with a young man who asked if we were there for foster parenting licensure. She explained our situation, and I was a bit disappointed as I left not to be able to be part of that conversation. Disgorged from the elevator on third floor, I walked to the right, waited for the customary buzzer sound that indicated I could push open the large doors and was met by a corrections officer, who ironically enough, is our next-door neighbor. My fingerprints were complete in a matter of minutes, and I departed the area, glad to be moving back to the ground level of the facility.

Arriving back in the waiting area I was able to have a more extended conversation with the young man awaiting his fingerprint process. He and his wife serve as volunteer chaplains in a juvenile facility a number of miles from our community, a place where two of our sons have had stays within the past year. When we mentioned John's name he immediately said, "Oh, yeah, I know him." We didn't pry too much about his knowledge (sometimes we just don't want to know), but his diplomatic response was that John had always treated him fine. We didn't bother to ask about his knowledge, if any, of our son Mike.

It turns out, ironically (or not?) that he and his wife desire to become foster parents because they, too, are compelled by their spiritual commmitments to be engaged in the welfare of troubled children and youth. We encouraged their desire to proceed in that direction, affirming the value of people of faith rising to the opportunity. We explained in succinct terms how much our adoptive experience of eleven years has changed our lives, and mentioned that we are preparing to adopt our eleventh and twelfth children.

It was an hour-long experience full of ironies -- from my memory of Mike connections, to the visit we had with another person seeking a similar experience to ours, to the next-door-neighbor processing our fingerprints.

I have heard it said, "God is in the details," but I'm more likely to believe that "God is in the ironies." There are some things that are just too "coincidental" not to notice, and not to wonder if it is God's quiet way of saying, "Well done."

Friday, August 17, 2007

Taking Care of It Himself

Our eighteen-year-old son Mike, who has more than a thousand dollars in fines and restitution to pay as a result of illegal activities showed up at our home just in time for dinner. Tonight was dinner on your own at our house (which means each person makes their own meal as they see fit), so I had only a few brief interactions with him. We first talked briefly about his state identification card, which I presumed to have come in the mail yesterday. He opened the envelope and then said, "They screwed up." "Oh?" I said, never one to have much confidence in the bureaucracy that is Minnesota state government. "Yeah. Look." I opened the letter and attachment, which displayed the legal consequences for his auto theft charge (as a juvenile last November). At that time it was ordered by the court that he be not allowed to have a driver's license for one full year (Mike has never had even driving school or a permit to this point). So what I looked at was the judgment on that account; evidently they misunderstood his application and now he has yet another excuse to find no job.

The other interaction involved his using my cell phone to see if he could find a friend to hang out with tonight. Evidently it doesn't yet bother him that he's been living in an apartment for three weeks without any income to provide for his utilities, his food (most of which he eats with us, which is fine with me) or for his future.

As he returned the cell phone I said, "So, anything new for you?" He simply shook his freckled head and said, "Nah." "Too bad," I said, as he walked out of the room. A few minutes later I saw him in our kitchen where he asked if he could use my laptop to check his Myspace. I said, "No," which brought about a confused look on his face. A few seconds later he followed up with an appropriate question (which I thought might have an obvious answer), "So, is there anything I can do in order to use the computer?" I said, "Mike, you need to get a job." Shaking his head again he began to move from my presence, as I found myself saying, as kindly as I could, "Is that something you need some help with?" He mumbled to himself, so I asked him to repeat his response. "No. I can take care of that without your help." "OK," I said. "Just checking."

And that was pretty much all we had to say to each other today.

And each day that I talk with Mike -- and I guard myself from being sarcastic or rude to him -- I feel a little better with what might become the eventual outcome, his homelessness or trip back to jail. I do not feel better because I want to see my son in jail or because I want him living from friend to friend (especially with fall and winter months in the distance). I feel better because I know in my heart that I am doing everything I possibly can to help him. He simply refuses to comply, as has been the sad story of his life with us for the past nine years. The saga yet continues, but I have to allow him to take care of it himself, for my involvement is unwelcome and unhelpful. And while that is really what he has communicated all of these years, as a juvenile it was about what was in his best interests, not what he wanted. Now it is about what he wants. And what he wants is to take care of it himself.

Stepping Back Into the Past

Yesterday afternoon our three youngest kids and I set out for one of the summer's final Fletcher Family Friday Fun Day experiences. We traveled back to historic Fort Ridgely, where we visited earlier this summer, but this time to stay in the Farm House overnight and do some hiking during daylight hours (last time it was so unbearably hot we didn't do any hiking). I hate to say this (because I would kind of like to keep the secret to myself, in case we want to return there again and have a similar experience), but our overnight in the Farm House was $50 well spent.

The location is about a mile or so north of the main historic site and park area, where most camping sites are located, and we had the entire area where we were completely to ourselves. Although there are campsites located near the Farm House, no one was camping there last night. So, even though we had to walk 500 feet to the nearest running water and bathrooms with modern facilities (including showers), we had it all to ourselves. The House itself is divided into three areas, a dining area (plenty of room for up to 8 people at the table), a kitchen of sort (no running water, of course, but a microwave and dorm size refrigerator) with a nice counter area and a couple of comfortable chairs, and a sleeping area with three double-size beds. (There's even an air conditioning unit in the bedroom area, although it was so pleasant last night we didn't need to use it).

While I had to contend with the very typical sibling squabbling between the two youngest boys (an almost continual banter punctuated with shrieks and occasional physical encounters), our youngest daughter is nearly always enjoyable to be with. She and I hiked a while last night together, and she explained to me that she is "really getting into this sistering stuff," which I affirmed, because both Tony and Dominyk can benefit from a patient sister, that's for sure.

On the way back home this morning we stopped by another historic site, the Harkin General Store, where the kids got to hear about what it was like to purchase items at a store in the 1870s in pioneering Minnesota. Our interpretive guide for the visit was engaging, although Dominyk's idiosyncracies made all of us shudder with irritation. Dominyk's special needs do not allow him to understand how others might misunderstand what he is saying, so when we walked by the area in the store that sold tobacco, he had to report that he and his brother have smoked twelve cigarettes in the grove. I'm not sure how much truth there is to this assertion, but Dominyk does not have the social sophistication to understand how such a report to a stranger is inappropriate. The guide took it in good spirits and simply said, "Well, I'll leave that you and your dad to figure out." Part of the issue may also be that I neglected to bring with us his morning medication, so I guess I have to bear the responsibility for his embarrassing outbursts.

We talked on the way home about the change in lives over the past 130+ years. The trip from Harkin General Store to our home today took us about 45 minutes, whereas in 1870 the trip would have a three-day adventure. While I also enjoy stepping back into the past, I never tire of returning to the benefits of 2007, with my laptop, the internet and technological advance. Moments spent close to nature (as in last night's camping trip) with children is something I hope my kids remember for a long time as a positive thing. (I really hope their memories focus on the positives and not the constant redirection and occasional frustration on my part in orchestrating these kinds of events).

Thursday, August 16, 2007

Remembering What It's Like

It's hard to know what it means to be a good parent. Like so many other things in life that really matter, there is no standard textbook of website that gives parents the answers they need, so much of the parenting task is really based on intuition and instinct. And much of that, for better or worse, results from our own patterns that developed while we were growing up. With young children it's not difficult to evaluate our parenting skills. As they are learning to walk we guide them, then eventually free them to stagger forth in their first steps of independence. When it's time to start pre-school or kindergarten we can just our parenting acumen by the degree to which we release our child's care into the hands of another trusted adult. In grade school we make some assessments (right or wrong) about our parenting based upon how well our son or daughter complies with our appropriate requests about bedtime, snacks or homework.

But when adolescence visits our home, first sporadically as an occasional guest and then consistently as a household intruder, it is much more difficult to know whether our parenting role is effective or helpful or rewarding. Relying as we did in the first years of our child's life on intuition or instinct is not always a very useful mode, because so much changes in our relationship with our child. Although the changes creep up on us over a number of years, it always seems like a surprise the first time the angry, tear-filled words greet our ears: "I hate you. You are the most embarrassing, most disgusting parent I know. All my friends think you're too strict, too." (The sentence is not always worded this way, but the vehemence with which it is delivered is pretty typical across the teenage landscape).

With all of its fury and confusion, the landscape of adolescence is littered with unwelcome changes, relational questions and an unidentified disregard for all that has been familiar. It is these years that parents, more than ever, need to remember their own teenage years and at least find some moments of compassion, reflecting upon how difficult they can be. There is the temptation on the part of parents to throw up our hands in frustration, relinquishing complete autonomy to the emerging child-adult. Parents are often preoccupied with proving that they are right, to the damage of the changing relationship. (I like what our friend Pat O'Brien, Director of You Gotta Believe!, an adoption agency in Coney Island, NY, says: "If the choice is to be right or to be kind, always be kind" ... I've paraphrased, but you can hear the meaning).

Our daughter who will soon be a high school freshman causes me to remember what it's like to be a teenager. Externally she has all the reasons in the world to be happy -- she is attractive, gifted in athletics, gets good grades, knows how to relate socially with friends. Internally, however, she is a different person -- moody, vacillating between anger and giddiness, doubtful, perplexed, irritated. While she has never taken a personality inventory, her resuls would probably indicate that she is most like her father, an introvert with deep feelings and a fairly "grey" (versus black and white thinking) worldview. I think sometimes that's why I do my best to keep my distance from her these days. It reminds me too much of my own dispiriting adolescence, and I'm not sure I want to relive that pain (or have that pain inflicted upon me) all over again. When I was her age I wanted to be left alone so that I could crawl into the protective womb of my existence (as an introvert it really isn't as much about social isolation as finding the time to simply have some space from others), so I try not to invade her life. I remember what it's like, and I hope my distance isn't perceived by her as rejection.

It's one of those ambiguous moments as a parent of a teenage daughter. Since my wife is most involved with our daughter's life, I don't want to overwhelm her with dual parental inquiry, but at the same time I often wonder if I'm being irresponsible. To afford her to emotional space I think she requires might be perceived by some as an aloof, uncaring relationship. But sometimes I think the most meaningful gift I can offer her is to simply give her the space she seems to need.

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

The Gift of Self-Differentiation

As I often do when I am driving from one location to another, I asked msyelf, "What is one of the most important learnings you have discovered in the past eleven years of adoptive parenting?" I could (and may in the future) cite numerous learnings, from the practical (how to cook for a family of twelve) to the legal (what needs to change in the social services and legal systems so that adoptive parents and their children are treated with respect?) to the mundane (just how many loads of laundry a week do we process in our home?)

Perhaps the most significant learning, though, is the gift of self-differentiation. I first discovered the concept of self-differentiation in my vocational life in one of many trainings I have received over the years. I am fortunate to have been connected with a denominational system which provides a great deal of opportunity for continuing education, the benefits of which flow over from my pastoral work into my personal life. The gift of self-differentiation has been a foundational insight to me in my work as an adoptive parent.

It stems from the work of Edwin Friedman, a rabbi with provocative psychological insights, who is now deceased. His work is at times insanely difficult to understand, but his principles have proven life-savers to me over the years. His contention is that those of us who work with people (and adoptive parents certainly qualify of that account) need to be both connected with others, but clear about who we are (i.e., "self-differentiated"). It means, in a practical sense, understanding that while we have primary connections with our significant other and our children, we are not our significant other or our children, nor are they we. In the face of conflict the natural human response is fight or flight -- to engage in conflict to the point of engendering further dysfunction or to move so far away from it that we are no longer engaged at all. The key is to be connected, but to understand ourselves. "Emotional cutoff" is a negative way of dealing with conflicted situations, and it usually is verbalized something like this: "If you do that, you don't need to talk to me again!" or "One more time, and I'm out of here," or "if that's the choice you make don't bother coming home."

Friedman says that we need to allow others to make the choices they will make, offering them our counsel along the way (so we aren't abdicating our responsibility for nurturing or confronting our child/ren), reminding our child/ren what our stance is and why it is, and then stepping back enough to allow for emotional distance (but not absence). He does not advocate walking away ... ever. He advocates being confident in ourselves, knowing who we are and allowing others to do what they feel they need to do. The key is to find the balance between distance and closeness in the process.

I doubt that I could have survived the Mike saga of our lives were it not for the gift of self-differentiation. He has (knowingly or unknowingly, I'm never really sure) pulled us through so many things I would never have thought possible. His ability to maneuver his way through the social services system as a minor still amaze me. He had the ability to manipulate his therapist, social workers, even professional residential treatment staff. The result would often be that Claudia or I would become the ones under scrutiny. And so we received the numerous "recommendations" of the "professionals." Maybe if we were just able to spend a little more time with Mike he would change. Or if we didn't have so many children in the home. Or if he felt like he was really loved, or really nurtured, or some other kind of hooey that really didn't apply to us. Perhaps we could benefit from a parenting class. We even were subjected to one naive social worker's mantra: "Well, not all parents can parent all kinds of children, and not all kinds of children can be parented by the all parents." Whatever that was supposed to mean, it only left me angry and embittered when she knew that our parenting commitment was to be Mike's forever family no matter what, missing as she did that the dysfunction she "sniffed" had more to do with Mike's early years of abuse and neglect than anything that was occurring in his present, permanent family.

There have been many moments when I have questioned myself. Have I done enough? Have we consulted enough professionals? Would it have been different if we had invested thousands of dollars we don't have in attachment therapy? If Mike had received his FASD diagnosis earlier (we finally were able to finalize that by the time he was 13) would it have mattered?

But I have quit asking myself those questions. I know that I have done all that I could have done for Mike. We worked the social services system as best we could on his behalf. I do not know what else we could have done, and I am not interested in spending too much time reviewing that history, because it would make no difference now. Some parents might by this point in time push a child such as Mike out of lives, and say, "Well, boy, you're on your own now. We've done all we could do for years and you haven't responded successfully."

We haven't said that. We have said, "Mike, you have made choices that do not allow you to live in our home, but we still are your parents and we still care about you. We will help you get to your court hearings, we will help you find a place to live, we will drive you to job interviews, we will find a way for you to get to a job. But you have to be willing to get a job."

Mike still has no job and displays little interest in finding one. He is not interested in our helping him on that front. He will soon be evicted from his apartment because he has no way to pay for his stay nor for his utilities. He has no money for food (he is welcome to eat with our famiy at meal times, and he often does) and he has no money for laundry (he is welcome to use our washer and dryer, both of which are currently not working while we await a service call). But we will not enable his decision to remain a victim of life and responsible for nothing.

There was a time when I didn't know how a parent could "do" this to their son or daughter. But the gift of self-differentiation has taught me that not only is it OK, it is the best way to help others in life be responsible for what they need to do. Nothing Mike has ever done (nor will do in the future) will cause my ties to him to be severed ... he may choose to walk away from us, but we will not walk away from him. This is self-differentiation, and this has saved my life!

Monday, August 13, 2007

For Those Who Are Frustrated With Older, At-Home Teenagers

I feel compelled to write a few words for those who are frustrated with older, at-home teenage children. Whether you are frustrated with them or with your response to them, I want to take a few retrospective moments to share with you some hope.

When our son Kyle graduated from high school in 2004 my wife and I had very different reactions. Kyle's years with us (he arrived at 11 and began his freshman year at 17) were one-third of what a typical family would experience. Claudia was relieved; I was devastated. In the six years he had been with us Kyle and I had developed a close relationship, even though the year or so before he began college we were engaged in emotional turmoil on a regular basis. One of the most difficult weeks of my life were the days leading up to our taking him to college and leaving him there. I had heard about and read about the difficulty it is for some parents at that point in their child's life, but I had no way to anticipate the real grief I would feel in those moments. It has taken me a full two years to get beyond my sense of loss and grief.

Perhaps the sense of loss is there for many parents, adoptive or not, but for me the loss felt uniquely difficult for several reasons. The biggest reason related to the whole attachment-loss cycle that psychological theorists speak of frequently. Because Kyle came to us at the age of 11, and because he had spent many of his successive six years (with us) threatening to disconnect, to leave and never talk to us, and the like, I really didn't know how it would all turn out, and it drove me crazy with concern. Although my departure for college when I was his age was really not that much different (I was as disrespectful and as selfish to my own mother), it was the adoption-related piece that made it so much more difficult for me.

Now, three years later, I am long last at peace, and grateful to God for the journey. I am better equipped now (after Kyle's appropriate departure and with Mike's and John's less appropriate departures) to let go of my other children as they grow to the point where it is their time to discover young adulthood away from the family home. I have come to discover that letting go is not a permanent state, and that without that necessary step in the parenting process (not to mention the maturing process for the child in question) is inhibited.

Kyle was home for the weekend, and it was delightful to have him as a guest. He is calmer, more relaxed, more grateful and a better example to his siblings than ever before. (He's always been a pretty good example of how to lead a successful life, but the edge he used to manifest has been softened by his semi-independence). He is living in the way that we have taught him over the years, and I am grateful simply to know that he is a good student, content, law-abiding and moral.

Four years ago I didn't know how it would turn out, and as my wife often reminds me, "the final chapter isn't written yet," but at this point enough has been written that I am grateful I have had this particular book to read (and help write) over the past ten years.

Sunday, August 12, 2007

In a Most Unlikely Place

One of the things I have become more keenly aware of over the past ten or more years is the way in which adoption-related themes are present in the many forms of media. It probably shouldn't be, but it still catches me by surprise when adoption is mentioned or referenced in a movie, book, newspaper article or website.

Last night Kyle (our oldest son) and Ricardo (our thirteen-year-old, most recently arrived son) took in a movie, Rush Hour 3 . They raved about it afterwards, so you probably know how I experienced it. (I have also discovered over the past ten years that movies my children think are awesome probably leave me feeling a little disappointed). There were some interesting fight scenes, the standard car chase and evil-man-climbing-up-the-side-of-a-large-building scenarios, but overall I felt the film deserved its low marks from critics.

That being beside the matter, I was surprised at several of the adoption-related themes in a most unlikely place, a Jackie Chan movie. Warning: if you intend to see the movie, spoilers follow, so jump over the remaining portions of this entry.

In the movie the main character, Jackie Chan, who is the stereotypical LA police officer comes into contact with his "brother." In the beginning of the film this seems a fitting descriptor, because both he and his brother appear to be similar enough physically for this to be the case. The "brother" is Chan's antagonist, the criminal. Midway through the film others discover that the two are brothers, and Chan explains that they were both together in an orphanage early in life, that they watched out for each other, and so they have been "brothers" for many years, although their lives have turned out very differently from one another's.

The most gripping (pardon the pun) scene occurs when the two of them have been battling in hand-to-hand combat on the Eiffel Tower (I told you it wasn't a very plausible movie). Chan's brother begins to fall over the edge, Chan reaches out to grasp his wrist, and they engage in dialogue for a few seconds. During these seconds Chan implores his brother to accept his help, to move toward safety and to leverage himself using Chan's grip as an anchor. Angry words are hurled at Chan by the brother as he pries Chan's fingers away from his wrist, bids him farewell, and falls to his death by crashing through a newstand hundreds of feet below.

It is scene that is reminiscent of what many of us who are adoptive parents face. Figuratively we reach out to a child or children, offer them the security of our embrace, grasp their wrists to help pull them from what they have faced. Our strength and anchoring ability can give them the opportunity they need to find safety. Some children accept our firm grasp, use it to their benefit and find what they need for a happy, contented life. Other children feel our grasp, even when in the face of imminent demise, and refuse to be so reached. They reach up with their other hands, pry our fingers away, and tell us in myriad ways that they would rather "die" than accept our offered attempts to save their lives.

I remain more convinced than ever that parents of children with attachment issues need to extend the grasp. We cannot wait for the child or children to reach out to us, we need to take that initiative, whether they want our presence or not in their lives. Parents must be the initiators, and we must hang on tightly, even when their determined fingers attempt to pull away from our grip.

But I remain more convinced than ever of a second thing, too. While parents are the anchor, and while parents must be the initiators of security and kindness, the child must choose to accept the gift offered. The child has a responsibility to benefit from the parents' care, but it is a choice he or she must make. Ultimately, the one who cares the least in any relatioship (parental or otherwise) has the most power, because she or he is the one who decides what to do with the offered gift.

As an adoptive parent I have experience both reactions. There are children in my life who have accepted (not always as a first response, nor as a consistent one, but a general one) my offered "grasp" on their lives, used my anchored place to propel themselves forward and are finding success in life. This warms my heart. And I have other children who, for whatever reason, have done everything in their power to peel my loving hands away from their furtive wrists. They find life difficult, but probably do not make the connection between their rejection of opportunity and their circumstances. In any case, my task as a parent will to be always offering my anchored support, my parental grasp of love, even if some are unable or unwilling to receive its benefits.

Saturday, August 11, 2007

Fletcher Family Friday Fun Day, Redux

Yesterday we had an abbreviated FFFFD, since I needed to be in the metro area to pick up Kyle (our oldest son) for the weekend and be back in town for dinner with my family at one of our parishioner's homes. I decided we would hit two of the area county fairs in the morning, arriving back home before 1:30 (I needed to make the salad we would take with us in the evening, and then I needed to leave before 2:00 to pick up oldest son).

We began our trek in St. Peter, MN, at the Nicollet County Fair. 10:00 AM at the county fair is not exactly the prime moment for attendance. Only two of the food stands were open, there were few people visiting exhibits or the barns, and there was one dairy judging exhibition in progress. We checked out the 4-H exhibits, wandered through the children's petting barn and several other animal barns before departing by 11:00 AM for the Brown County Fair which is held in New Ulm, MN. Not much bigger than the Nicollet County Fair, the Brown County Free Fair had a little more activity and reflects the cultural history of this part of the state in a more pronounced way. New Ulm (as you can tell from its name) was originally a German settlement more than 150 years ago, and it is a heritage the town continues to capitalize on. At one of the food stands there were numerous ways to order sauerkraut, including a sauerkraut burger, hot dogs with sauerkraut, 2 hots with sauerkraut and bread (a traditional way to eat the stuff) and the like. I smile when I see the ways a community's ethnic heritage is celebrated, so I enjoyed that part.

The best part of our Brown County Free Fair visit, though, was a presentation by the Minnesota Raptor Center. Dominyk especially enjoyed the one-long presentation, and he was especially proud of himself for remaining so settled after the presenter with the birds reminded the audience that wild birds become anxious when there's a lot of distraction. We were able to see and hear about the American kestrel, the great horned owl, the red hawk, and the bald eagle. It was an interesting program and made me feel like I was doing something productive and educational with my kids on this FFFFD (which is always one of the primary goals of the experience).

The interactions of the four kids with me was continually irritating, and I am reminded once more of how good it will be for all of us when school resumes in less than a month. We are all crabby and needing more structure and more time away from home and each other.

The Difference $17 Makes

Here's the chronology: Eight days ago I met with our son Mike face-to-face for the first time in weeks. We went to our county social services agency who told him they had nothing to offer him as an adult (in terms of housing). Claudia and I arranged for Mike to live in an apartment where he would work in exchange for at least part of his monthly rent. Seven days ago I took Mike to purchase basic household necessities, but not groceries (telling him that he was welcome to join our family at mealtimes to eat with us). Six days ago we saw Mike at church with the film guy Mike, after which they joined us for Sunday brunch at our home. Five days ago Mike ate with us. Four days ago we did not see Mike for more than a few minutes. Three days ago I took Mike to his court appearance in a neighboring county, where he was assessed a fine of $280, to be paid within thirty days (or else more jail time). Two days ago Mike worked for his landlord, and he earned about $17. We did not hear from Mike until one day ago when he called Claudia several times asking her to pick him up so that he could get his check cashed. Since he is now using his older brother's bike (with permission), and since there was no rain, and since he has seemed to get himself to other people's houses (including our own at mealtimes) quite easily over the past week or so, she said, "No. And I think, Mike, that you should be saving that money to cover some of your fines so that you won't end up back in jail again." We have not heard from him since.

Mike is such an in-the-moment, short-term thinker that I'm sure he isn't even remembering that he has accumulated now nearly $1,000 in fines to be repaid (this before his arraignment on adult felony charges coming up in September), none of which he has even begun to repay. He has refused to find a job and has refused our help in assisting him find a job. But for Mike, as long as he wakes up today feeling free it is enough. And when he does not pay his fines, and when he finds himself back in jail, he will be once again surprised at his location. It will not be his fault. It will be the fact that he didn't have an ID so he get a job (he now has one on the way), it will be that we wouldn't help him enough, it will be that he was falsely accused of the charges that subjected him to the fines (although he admitted guilt in every charge).

My prediction is that Mike will continue to try to contact us in order to get his check cashed, that he will avoid being near us if/when he gets the money, and that he will hear from him when he is in imminent need. In the meantime, I will remind him of his upcoming appointment next week with the court services officer who will make a pre-arraignment report to the court, try to encourage him to seek employment and do my best to be non-anxious.

Friday, August 10, 2007

More to the Story ...

If you haven't read Claudia's blog yet, you need to do so before you read any further. And if you haven't read my earlier blog entry of the day, you should probably do that first, too.

If you've clicked through both of the above links and have read those entries, you are now ready for the following details.

Today is Friday, which means it's Fletcher Family Friday Fun Day, so in a few minutes we'll be heading off to take in a couple of county fairs. More on that later with pics ... but as Dominyk (our youngest) was getting ready this morning I asked him what he thought about having two new brothers. He thinks it sounds good. When I further inquired he said because he likes to play, and the younger of the two likes to play, also. Dominyk has always been the youngest, so now to have a new youngest will be interesting, but he's in favor of it.

Ben (aka "Jimmy") who is fifteen smiles when I ask him what he thinks about having two new brothers, and then adds his own version of what he's heard over the years ("we have too many kids already"), but by the look on his face I can tell that he is prevaricating.

So, those are two affirming responses to our announcement last night. Here's more details about our two new sons with auspicious names, Napoleon and Wilson. When I first heard their names memories of world history were evoked as I thought of the diminutive French leader and the League of Nations President. Napoleon (he goes by "Leon") is twelve and Wilson (he goes by "Wilson") is eight.

Based upon their description, they have fewer identified issues than any of our other children have had. We have learned through experience that sometimes the reports do not or cannot have all the details that parents learn through living with a child, but they have no diagnoses and do not have a long history of abuse or neglect. Our understanding is that they have been stable in their foster home and that they have two older siblings, both of whom will not be available for adoption.

Our family will expand its definition of multicultural as well. Currently we are a Hispanic (American Latino and Central American), biracial, and caucasian family, and now we will add a fourth identifier, Asian American. The boys' heritage is Laotian, although they were born in the United States, where they have lived (presumably) since birth in Texas.

It is always an exciting venture to become a parent. While I will not have the experience of supporting a spouse in times of growing pregnancy, midnight runs for unusual food selections and the excruciating pains of labor, we are "pregnant" in a different sort of way. And we are happy.

Contrary to Perception

If you read my wife's blog you know something is up for our family. She and I have agreed that it will be her blog that gives details, so I won't be any more specific at this time, but our upcoming announcement casues me to reflect upon a misperception that we have faced many times over the past eleven years of our adoptive parenting experience.

It was a perception I was reminded of last night while Claudia and I were meeting with an individual who has a role in our family's upcoming change (I am trying to be ambiguous, can you tell?) She said, "When I visited your family last week I was surprised that with seven kids still living in your home just how calm things were." The perception many people hold is that families with more than 2 children must by definition be places of chaos, where parents are constantly harried and children neglected because there isn't enough time for each one.

It is, in fact, a perception I held myself for the first thirty-some years of my life. I grew up in a family where I was the only child for seven years, when a sister became part of my life. Our family home was quite small, and I remember the feelings of intrusion I had in those early years that someone else was coming in to rival my position with parents, grandparents and family friends. Things have worked out just fine, and now I enjoy the time I have with my sister when she is able to be back in Minnesota from her abode in Rochester, NY (her husband is a professor of botany at the University of Rochester, where she also works in conjunction with him. They both have earned Ph.D.'s, so I am proud of both of them).

Growing up in the 1970s I knew very few large families. The largest family I ever interacted with was my mother's cousin's family, which included four children. Looking back, I remember thinking how odd it would be to have more than one sibling. There were, in my broader family history, multiple children settings, as my father's family consisted of thirteen children (my grandmother gave birth to her first child in 1922 and her last child in 1946!). In the communities in which I lived and went to school, there were two other large fammilies that I knew. One of them was a faithful Catholic family (which in those days meant many children) comprising ten children (I believe). The other was a family formed through adoption of older kids, something virtually unheard of it in that era in the small commmunity (population 2200) where I went to high school.

It was a multiracial family, and at least a couple of the kids had recognizable emotional challenges. Even then, during my high school years, I was intrigued with the possibility of what adoption could do for kids otherwise forgotten by society. I'm not sure, but I have a feeling that is where I acquired my first sense that adoption could be a marvelous gift. I think I might have even pondered in my heart how one day I would like to provide that opportunity to kids caught in the grips of foster care. While I never knew the kids in that family very well, I did have classes with at least two of the brothers, so I knew them to be good-natured (although troubled) kids who did their best to fit in (like all kids in high school do) in a community where traditional family and social mores were the norm. Even as I type these words I can picture the two brothers in question sitting in study hall. Funny how some things lodge in the memory bank.

I couldn't imagine in those years of my life, nor in the two decades that followed, what it must be like to have "that many" kids in one house. How in the world could two parents handle the stress, the pressure, the financial expectations? How would a child ever grow up feeling like she or he had sufficient attention or care provided with so much competiton? What of the social stigma that comes with that number of people residing together? Where would everyone sleep, eat, play, watch TV? My perception was that large families were to be pitied, questioned, even ridiculed. With thoughts of population control (one of the big pushes of the 1970s especially) dancing in my head, I believed large families to be irresponsible, careless and foolish.

Contrary to perception (even my own), living with more than two children in one household is not as chaotic or stressful or damaging as I thought it might be. I do not have time in this blog entry to enumerate the multiple ways that our lives are enhanced and enriched by the gift of multiple children. Most of our children are growing up to be responsible, caring, loving citizens of the world. They have learned what it means to share time, money and attention with others. They do not feel neglected (any more than any child at times feels), they do not feel deprived, they are not negative about having multiple siblings. I bear no guilt for having irresponsibly populated the earth since these children were born in my heart not from my loins.

A case in point involves the announcement to come on Claudia's blog soon. We announced details to our children who were home last night, and each person (even our rather moody fourteen-year-old daughter) expressed joy and anticipation. Our oldest son who has sometimes been less than enthusiastic about changes like this (early on he felt he would receive less or have less time when our family life has expanded) thinks it's a great idea, too.

If you have wondered about large family life, whether it's good for a child or not, I invite you to consider our family. We are not perfect, there are moments of stress (as in all families), there are times when the dollar has to stretch further than we would like, but you will find a relatively happy bunch of kids who are growing up in an environment which is never lonely, deadly silent or boring (even if they claim to be bored on occasion). You, whomever you might be, have an open invitation to visit us to see for yourself that contrary to perception a large family is a viable, even a very healthy option, for children, especially children who have experienced early years of abuse or neglect.

My perception has been changed over the years. If you have a negative perception of large families, I hope we might be able to change yours, too.

Thursday, August 09, 2007

It's Nice to Be An Expert ... About Some Things

I forgot my cell phone at home today when I went in to the office, so by the time I got home at 4:00 PM there were six voice mail messages for me, five regarding Tony (who has been at Grandma's for nearly two weeks and at Boy Scout camp a week before that) who is now homesick and wants to come home tonight (which I can't immediately facilitate because it is 4.5 hours north of us). The other message was from our 20-year-old college son Kyle. I knew that Kyle wanted to talk with me because Claudia IM'd from home to let me know that he had called her for my office number. I assumed it must be important if he was unable to wait until I retrieved my cell phone later today, but since I didn't hear from him I moved on to other things. He left a message, though.

"Dad, this is Kyle. I need you to call me because my friend is trying to convince me of something, and I think he's just full of crap. He's trying to tell me that before Noah there was no rain; it was just dew or something that watered the earth. I'm telling him that I don't believe that. Who's right? Call me when you get this message."

I had to smile with joy as I am reminded once again of how literal and linear of a thinker is my son Kyle. He has little time for nuances, likes facts, the bottomline. He likes to be right. And when it's a question regarding some facet of religious life I am the source he looks to, which is complimentary since he is a student at one of the finest self-identified Christian universities in the nation. He has plenty of professors and other friends he could rely upon for the solution to a dilemma such as his, but he typically chooses me as his final authority, which makes me smile as well as feel humbled.

"Hey, Kyle. It's dad."

"Did you get my message?"


"So, who is right?"

"I hate to tell you this, Kyle, but your friend is correct."

"What?! I thought God finished up everything on the seventh day, got things rolling?"

"No. God rested on the seventh day."

"OK. So God finished on the sixth day, right?"

"Well, not exactly. The Bible says that's when God finished the creation, with the highest creation being humans."

"So where does it say there was no rain until Noah?"

"If you look at the first few chapters of Genesis you will see indication that there was rain. The Bible talks about dew and about waters welling up from the earth to provide moisture, but there really isn't any talk about rain until Noah."


"In fact, part of the underlying idea is that what made Noah's words so controversial is that he was telling people the earth would be flooded, and the people had never heard of such a thing, had never even seen rain, so that when it began to rain they were shocked. That's part of the shock element of that account in Genesis."

"Dang. Now I'm going to have to tell him that he's right."

"Sorry, Kyle. Maybe you should read the Bible more often than your friend."

"I don't think it's because he's been reading the Bible. I think someone told him that."

"Well, he's right."

"OK. Thanks, dad. See you tomorrow?"

"Yep. See you then."

Tomorrow Kyle will be coming home for the weekend, which his siblings and parents look forward to. It is nice to have a son at this point in his life, so much an adult in his own right, and still a son who thinks his dad is an expert ... at least in some things.