I am an adoptive parent, and my life is very different from those who parent "typical" children. To adopt, especially older children who have identified "special needs," is a process of grief. It is not only that, because there are many moments of joy and the feeling of satisfaction knowing that you are contributing to the well being of a child who might otherwise be quite "lost." But it is an experience of loss.
For those who have infertility issues or who are single parents seeking to form a family through adoption, the process is a reminder of somehow being "different" than "most" other people. For older children experiencing adoption, there is often a sense of loss and wonderment, fantasies about the "right adoptive family" or the "nearly perfect birth family" from whom they were summarily wrenched, for no apparent reason. There is the sense of loss that comes from always being "different," a stereotype often unwittingly reinforced by relatives or friends who don't quite understand. Those are the kinds of losses that therapists and authors and speakers often identify. They are to be expected by nearly all adoptive families at some point or another.
But there are other losses, too. Subtle losses that are often kept deep within the heart of an adoptive parent for fear that he or she will be misunderstood, or characterized as selfish, or judged by those who prefer to regard adoptive parents as veritable heroes at all times and place, because it easier to praise what you don't understand than to get close enough to embrace the "realness" of it.
I have been reminded in the past couple of days of the places I will never go as an adoptive parent.
On Friday night while waiting in the Nashville airport for my flight to board, I happened to notice a rapidly walking father and son. It was a delightful sight, actually. Here's the image: African-American dad and son. Dad, in his late 30's, is dressed professionally in a navy blue business suit striding intently toward a yet-to-be-discovered airport gate. Son, about nine years of age, dressed in the same navy blue business suit, carrying his dad's brief case, a half-stride behind his father, equally paced and intent on their destination. They are picture-perfect likenesses of one another, separated by only twenty or so years. My children and I bear no physical resemblances (for which I am sure they are grateful!) My children will never dress like I dress, nor will we walk at a similar pace with a similar level of intensity toward a similar goal. It is a place we will never go.
This morning after worship I was delayed by a few minutes in order to talk with a parishioner. It was one of those vocation-related things that I could not delay nor hurry any faster than it could be. I spent the pastoral time with the individual in question, prayed with him and realized it had taken more than thirty extra minutes. I knew that I would have at least two children awaiting my return, but I did not realize four of them were waiting to ride from church with me. Nearly everyone (and I'm hoping it was everyone, but I'm not sure) had already left the church, but as I departed the sanctuary and moved toward the narthex to head toward my office, I encountered our eleven-year-old son. His sweaty hair and askew shirt framed an angry, reddened face. "Where in the h--- have you been?!" he inquired of me.
Unhappy that he was using inappropriate language in "church" space I reminded him that it was not OK to talk that way, whereupon he lambasted me at the top of his voice with relentless fury. "I've been g--damn, motherf------ waiting forever for you. I want to go home!" In a terse voice of my own I commanded him to come with me to my office so that we leave the church and go home. His angry tirade followed us, as I tried to explain that my job as a pastor is to respond to people's needs, even if it occasionally meant that I (or he) might be inconvenienced, reminding him that he could have left thirty minutes earlier with his mother. His irritation was unquelled as we finally left the church and headed to our car. As we walked to the car I realized that yet in the church (though in a different part of the building) was one of our congregation's finest families preparing with one of their sons for his Boy Scout Eagle Court of Honor celebration this afternoon. The contrast was striking to me, as I realized another place I will never go.
I had been invited to attend this afternoon's Court of Honor, so I asked one of our thirteen-year-old sons (who happens to be presently a Boy Scout) to come with. He declined. I explained, "Well, you are a Boy Scout, and it's appropriate that you attend another scout's most important honor. You really should be going, you know." "Yeah, well, I'm not sure I know where my uniform is, and I'm supposed to wear that, I think. Do I really have to go? Will you be mad at me if I don't go?" Realizing that forcing him to attend would do nothing but make my experience an unhappy one, and that his careless approach to the whole matter would probably only embarrass the other scouts in the troop, I simply dropped the issue.
It was a wonderful celebration this afternoon. The Scout in question is a superb example of responsibility, and reflects in so many ways the best of what Scouting has to offer. His parents have been dedicated to his success, he has been a willing respondent, and the church was filled with proud relatives and friends. Toward the end of the ceremony (which was hosted by his older brother, himself an Eagle Scout) his father and mother were called to the front, where they received recognition for having devoted themselves to their son's success over the years. It was a delight to experience their pride and joy as together they celebrated a great achievement.
But it is a place I will never go. We can barely get our scouting son to the weekly Monday night meeting. It is a perpetual struggle for him to find his uniform, to participate meaningfully in the fundraisers, to keep up with what everyone else is doing to earn the current badge, to ascertain whether or not he has signed up for the next campout or activity, to know whether he has done what he is supposed to do. As I glanced at the other parents and other scouts with their well-deserved patches emblazoned upon forest green sashes, I was reminded that as a parent of a special needs scout, his achievement level will be non-existent in comparison to his peers.
The Scoutmaster (who is one of the finest Scouting leaders I have ever met) shared a few statistics with the group. Of 100 scouts, thirty will drop out within a year or two of their entering the program. Of those thirty, less than 8 (I can't remember the exact statistic, sorry) will ever achieve the rank of Eagle Scout. Of those thirty who remain, less than one will ever appear before a juvenile court judge. Scouting does great things for so many kids ... but it is most likely a place I will never go with my son.
In my own sardonic way I chuckled to myself. I have a son right now who is on the brink of being one of the thirty who will not progress in Scouting (and not because his parents do not encourage him, and on many nights "force" him to keep his commitment). I am the parent of a child (who was not a scout) who is currently in jail, and spent many times in his adolescence appearing before a juvenile court judge.
The places I will go as an adoptive parent of older, special needs kids is very different from the places other parents may go with their children. I will not have pinned to my lapel an Eagle Scout father award. I will not stride through an airport with a younger, look-alike shadow accompanying my journey. Instead, I will attend parent-teacher conferences in which I am reminded that my son "really needs to focus more on the material." I will spend most Monday nights arguing about why he should go to his Troop meeting. I will send letters addressed to "County Law Enforcement Center." I will sit in a courtroom and hear, "The State of Minnesota vs. ----- Fletcher." I will continue to ask another of my sons, "So did you apply at Burger King today?"
The places I will never go.
And, oh, those I will.