Friday, August 29, 2008

The Befuddling Mystery of Human Connection

I understand why some choose a life of isolation and separation from others. It is not a healthy or rewarding way to live, but it is safe to protect oneself from emotional pain and fear of rejection. One of the myths of my childhood and youth that has been shattered is that relationships, with all of their complexity, will one day be easy to form, nurture and maintain.

I have been reading a lot recently in the sphere of family systems theory. The research initiated by Murray Bowen (and others) in the 1950s has in the past decade come to forefront of the therapeutic community (as well as the faith community, which is where I experienced my first exposure to the theories). Basically family systems theory posits that family units function as units, or systems. It is, therefore, important to see the big picture of a family's life and functioning (their process) rather than simply isolating the dysfunctions of a particular person in that system.

It is a fascinating theory, really, because it offers a great deal of hope to those who are feeling burdened or overwhelmed by the relationships in their lives. One of the principles that I continue to benefit from is the one that says it is important to know how you are (to be "self-differentiated") in the process, to remain connected with those whom there is conflict and to avoid completely severing the relationship (emotional "cut-off"). I think this principle is a good one for any parent, but especially for adoptive parents who inherit the family systems and genetic predispositions of people we often have never met. And when one considers that the reason many children enter the foster care system is because of dysfunctional (often extremely, seemingly irreparable family dynamic dysfunctions) systems, it is apparent that the mystery of human connection is multilayered and befuddling mysterious.

As you may have gathered from reading recent blog entries, I am currently navigating the emotional complexities of our oldest son. It seems ironic to even type "emotional complexities" because he would understand himself to be pretty simple and basic in the emotional field, but I am referring more to the level of our interactions than his perception of who he is.

He is a college graduate, a young adult, who has succeeded in many ways. From the day we met him on a foggy December day in Washington State nearly twelve years ago, I recognized in him a potential for something great. He came into our lives blazingly angry, defiant and convinced that he could raise himself better than any parents. His early years were characterized by just such a life. We learned from his paperwork that at the age of four he was getting himself up with an alarm clock to go to kindergarten (which is one of the reasons he is at least one calendar year younger than those in his educational process). He was responsible for the daily cares of his three younger siblings, so he was parentified early on his life. His coming into our lives was a challenge for all of us.

And for whatever reasons, I became his guide. It was really less of a parent at that point than a caring adult (it took him some time to call me "Dad," and even longer to call Claudia "Mom"). I was quite self-differentiated then, and it was quite easy to know myself. After all, I knew who I was and this eleven-year-old simply needed to be cared for and hopefully won over in time. I had patience and I could wait. What else could I do? I knew my role was to be a loving parent, which didn't mean overindulgence, but kindness, compassion and direction, with clear boundaries of right and wrong. And it worked. Gradually he began to trust me and my values, and although we had regular altercations and differences of opinion his emotional life settled and he began to be likeable (some days). Without intention, almost by happenstance, a bond began to form, and I found myself loving a child whose anger and anxieties continued to resolve.

In the latter years of high school that bond was sorely tested on a regular basis as he struggled to gain independence, and I (it was mostly I in those days) sought to erect appropriate boundaries. His contention was that the boundaries were too great, but as I talked with other responsible parents in the community, I learned that my expectations were not all that different than others. We got to high school graduation four years ago proud to see him having done so well for himself, wondering how the outcome might have been different were it not for us. Four years ago this week we brought him to college and left him, wondering how this new freedom would all go.

It was, undoubtedly, more difficult for me than for him. It was not that difficult for his mom who was relieved to have one of the stressors in her life relieved. It was not that difficult for him because he had been ready to leave our home since the moment he arrived. But it was very difficult for me to renegotiate the changes that this transition made.

I've done my best with it, but it has been a continual series of painful moments in letting go. I have come to believe that parents can, in fact, care too much for their children. We cannot be too committed (after all, everyone needs someone in their life to always be there), nor can we be too unavailable (that does not compute with the parental tendency of some to "hover). But we can become so involved in our child's life that we lose ourselves.

And that, says family systems theory, is when anxiety rises and relationships become fragile. I wish I could write today about how to move beyond that, but I am not there. Distinguishing between closeness and distance in relationships is a challenge, especially when dealing with a child-now-adult whose emotional history has been scattered and challenging.

And so the only conclusion I can come to at this moment is that I love my adult son, and that I need to find a way to figure out who I am in this whole befuddling relationship.

No comments: