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!