Sunday, April 06, 2008

The Places I Will Never Go

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.


debbie said...

and again, you amaze me and again, i wish i could attend your church just for the privilage of hearing you speak.

when i adopted my children, as infants, the powerful medicine men said to me, if you raise these children with the idea you wil cure them, you will always be disapointed, if you raise them with the idea that you will manage their care and their lives, you will be happy. i did not at all understand at that time, what they meant, it sounded almost cruel, but now, i get it. the love i give them involves structuring their entire life. what a challenge!! and i am getting stronger everyday because of them.

Linda B. said...

Being an adoptive parent really is a different world, isn't it. You have written this beautifully so that others may understand a little bit better. Thank you for that. We all will be richer for you sharing this. If you don't mind, I would like to link this post to my blog. ( would like my family to read this.

Bart said...

Linda, I would be happy for you to link this post with your blog. If it will help others understand I am glad to be of service.

quilted family said...

This is very well done. I do a lot of training with foster/adoptive parents and I would like to use some of this in training them. Whether I used it verbatim or did a synopsis of your post would that be permissible? I already direct them to some of these blogs that I read but I don't know how many go there. This is important stuff that you talk about especialy for those who think that "love" will fix everything. I already use a multitude of examples from our own family but I think bringing in others' experiences helps also.

Mary said...

When we first began attachment therapy with our children, our therapist kept telling me that we have to go through a grieving process first. I didn't quite understand what she meant, but as time went on, it became clearer to me. Gone are those dreams of some achievements - such as the Eagle Scout award. But they are replaced with other dreams, maybe not as high, but dreams nonetheless that they can achieve. Thank you for writing this, as it does explain so very well how things are "different" for all of us.

Bart said...

Hi, Beth ... please feel free to use this or other blog postings as you see fit. Encourage those who listen to you to check my blog and provide them with my attribution, please!

quilted family said...

Thanks Bart,
I truly love your writing style and I will attribute it all to you of course. I am now planning to do an actual show and tell on these blog resources in my next training. I will actually go on-line and project it onto the big screen and take people through it step by step so they can see the incredible experience out there just waiting to be tapped.

Granny said...

Foster Abba sent me over.

I won't bore you with my story except to say that I know whereof you speak when you talk about the places you won't go.

Until recently, I was raising my three great-granddaughters and I've experienced, on a smaller scale, most of what you described.

I don't know what to say except that my heart goes out to you and the children.

Ann (aka granny)

Bart said...

Hi, Ann ... thanks for stopping by! (And I find individual's stories quite interesting ... so you wouldn't bore me with yours).

Ours said...

I just discovered your blog, and will visit here again and add you to my list of favorites.
My husband and I are also adoptive parents of a child in the foster system. Our daughter was adopted at a young age. We are currently , however, fostering 3 teenagers, and another special needs youth...and isn't it interesting?

HopewellMomSchool said...

I loved about Scouts. My son and I struggled with this one. I really felt it helped him--when he would allow it to. He tore up the uniform shirt. I got another one free from another family whose boy had outgrown it. He destroyed the belt and so on. In one troop [yes, we had to try more than one] which was justifiably proud of its impressive numbers of Eagles, he talked in the most disgusting terms possible of sex just to get thrown out. Another, smaller troop took him....he succeed for a while. Then realized he was conforming and started acting out again. I knew "the talk" would happen. I gave him an out. I refused to drive him any more. Surprisingly, it helped. The pressure he put on himself over being different was too much. Left at home on his own, he has surprised me by using [at appropriate opportunites] ALL of the good he got from Scouts. The leader of the last troop, calls and leaves a message now and then, encouraging him to return. I am grateful for that.
The places I won't "get to go?" Eagle Ceremony, sports award banquets, maybe even graduation. The places I unexpectedly get to go to? Moments of his emerging wisdom and maturity. As the visa add says "Priceless"
Great Post

Sunshine said...

I was directed over here by FosterAbba too. Thank you for sharing. What you say strikes a chord within me too. We have struggled so much with our two girls. One of the commenters mentioned the grieving process, and I've been going through that as I realize that some things may not ever change, no matter what I do. (