I started this in October 2012 and tried periodically to finish it, but I guess it just needed like seven months to “bake.” That, and it’s freaking long.* It takes a long time to make this many words semi-coherent (which I hope I’ve managed to do). So here’s your “tl;dr” in case you only want the adoption update and not the ten-hour journey through my psyche:
In a few months, we plan to move a few hours away to a different county in California. Once there, we’ll restart the process of understanding the local public and private adoption resources, particularly focusing on foster-to-adopt programs. When Addison is between five and six years old, we hope to foster-to-adopt a sibling set of two kids. Maybe a five-year-old and a two-year-old. Or a six-year-old and a three-year-old. Or possibly a five-year-old and twin babies. Or . . . you get the idea. There’s an endless number of specific combinations, but we’d like the older child to be around Addison’s age.
For those not familiar with the foster care system, age 5 is kind of a magic number (well, not “magic” in a good way). When a child reaches five, they are considered an “older child” and are less likely to be adopted. Enter us.
So that’s it. Seriously? That’s what took me seven months to articulate? Here’s the trip down the rabbit hole if you want the whole experience:
Last weekend [last October] Addison met her new cousin, baby Brayden. For the last couple of months before Brayden arrived, Addison totally noticed that something was going on in Aunt Rish’s tummy and she was getting a little impatient. ”Baby come out!” “See him!” She was pleased to finally be able to see and hold him. So I was only mildly surprised when on Monday she said to me,
“Hope you get a baby in your tummy.”
“Yeah, a baby ‘pider.”
I think we dodged a bullet this time, folks. I thought she was already going to start demanding her own squishy little sibling. Thankfully, she’s really into arachnids and insects. But if my growing up years are any indication, the demands for a brother or sister will start eventually and be persistent. I remember my brother and I being insistent about our need for another sibling, no doubt because we each wanted an ally in our battles against one another.
So I figure I better finish this “new life story” so I have something to tell Addison when the questions come, even though I’m not completely sure how to tie all these disparate threads together. I hadn’t quite meant to leave this story in such a mournful place, amidst all the doubts and fears. Those doubts covered a variety of issues — a lot of them about the specific difficulties of adopting – but at that point my neck issues, which in August made doing almost anything, much less childcare, impossible, were looming large. It was really hard to think about adding another little person or two to our lives when the realization that at almost any moment my mobility could be drastically reduced was so fresh. Still, I couldn’t deny that I had been having feelings much stronger than those doubts for many months.
Synergy. It’s the only word I could come up with. Various elements coming together in a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts. In parts I and II, which seemed decidedly unconnected, I was just starting to map out a new vision of how past life experiences I had mostly separated mentally were actually inextricably linked. There was my work at CORE with youth in foster care. Stop. Then there was my prisoner work. Full stop. Then later there was my work as a parent. Even though I have made avoiding fragmentation one of the central themes of my life, and have always wanted that oneness to be reflected in an overlap between my work/home/inner life, in practice, mothering has been quite distinct from studying incarceration — unless you draw a parallel to our desperate attempts to keep her locked up during “quiet time” so that she doesn’t trash the place. (Come to think of it, there is probably some useful philosophical exploration of the concepts of retributive vs. restorative justice in childhood disciplinary tactics. No, stay on topic.) But when the idea of adoption, and especially adopting through foster care, started to seep into my psyche, it was like watching many little puzzle pieces fly together magnetically. They were still all jumbled and in need of sorting, but they were clinging tight.
I thought about how often foster care came up in my thesis interviews, enough that my co-investigators and I were kicking ourselves for not having included any related questions in our quantitative survey. Many of the men had spent time in foster/kinship care; sadly, some of them could barely distinguish their time in juvenile detention from their foster care experiences. And now some of their children were similarly experiencing foster and kinship care while their parents were incarcerated.
Early on, I read this passage in You Can Adopt: “Parents sometimes hesitate to tell children difficult details of their personal histories (conception from rape or incest, a parent in prison). But most secrets eventually come to light. And when they do, the fact that they remained secrets tells the child that he or she should feel ashamed. Adopted children need to know their entire life stories, not just the good parts.” I thought about how I have spent the better part of the last decade learning how to discuss these difficult topics with sensitivity and fairness. And I considered that with a little practice and guidance I could learn how to translate what I know about these topics to a child’s language, so that they could look on their pasts with compassion and forgiveness rather than anger.
In short, I realized that all this work I’ve been doing over the last decade was both an end in itself, and the beginning of something else. Something that I’m pretty certain will be the most taxing and trying experience of my life.
II. For whom?
“Those who choose to adopt a child do so with a great deal of hope, but their expectations are usually internally driven, and may not be based on the realities of the situation.” — Adopting the Hurt Child, p. 16
In my study (admittedly, still limited) of foster/adoptive parents, I have concluded that these “internally driven expectations” are critical. It seems that often unhappiness arises because of internal expectations that have not been made explicit. Adopting the Hurt Child certainly makes the case that a large number of the foster/adoptive parents they encounter have had unrealistic expectations. Later in the book they make the point that “parents who adopt a child who is missing a leg, for example, don’t expect love, stability, and permanency to recreate a limb. They simply expect to help the child secure the best prosthesis and cope well.” Unfortunately, most youth in foster care are dealing with more complex emotional issues — things that love, stability, and permanency may ameliorate over time, but most likely will never “cure.” As I start to build my little toolbox of strategies for dealing with the tough times ahead, “Don’t expect a new limb” has become my simple reminder to examine the reasonableness of my expectations.
Deconstructing my expectations has inevitably led me to one crucial question: For whom are we doing this?
- Is adopting for me, to fill a hole that having no more biological children left in my heart?
- Is it for Addison because she should have a sibling to grow and play with?
- Is it for ”our family“? (A sort of amorphous concept but one I have heard myself voice before.)
- Is it for the children, to give them a better opportunity than they would have otherwise?
And finally, which of these motives are more predictive of a positive experience navigating the foster/adoption system? (Note to self: Do literature search.) (Note to readers: Feel free to answer/speculate in the comments — I’m curious if you have any thoughts/experiences!) What I know at this point is that I have felt the need to actively let go of reasons 1, 2, and 3; if 1, 2, or 3 occur as a byproduct of helping some children in need, we’ll be thankful for that little slice of mercy. But the first three all inherently place expectations on the child (that they will fill a gap, a hole, be a sibling, meet our needs somehow), when #4 is really all we can guarantee — that we will provide them with opportunities for love and stability that they might not get elsewhere. “We have to fill our own gaps,” I remind myself (though, luckily, we’re not completely alone in that).
At first glance, letting go of motive #1 seemed impossible. My desire for another child runs so deep; surely, I would always feel some secret, idealized hope. But one day I realized, No, I have a precedent for this. This prisoner work I undertook so long ago, I did only to provide greater opportunity to another group in need. It wasn’t to meet a need in me, although I have experienced many wonderful byproducts. It wasn’t for external validation since I was met with more criticism than support initially. It wasn’t for any monetary gain (that probably goes without saying, ha!). I did it because I saw a need and I wanted to help. I know I can do that again. I have to remember, “I have a precedent for this.”
Letting go of the idea that another child would somehow meet my needs has ultimately changed the whole landscape. When we first talked about adoption, we both thought we wanted a baby. Who doesn’t, right? But as my baby hunger subsided, I realized that if I could reframe this whole process around the needs of the children, it was likely that the babies in foster care were least likely to need us, based on the simple fact that others would want them. When I looked into all the different foster programs, I was excited by the possibilities: older kids and sibling sets; 30-day shelter care for newborns; intensive teen programs; aftercare-type programs for 18-21-year-olds to help in the transition to adulthood. This not only changed the landscape of what type of children we might take in, but it also opened up the timetable. We could take in a child Addison’s age or a little younger. Or we could provide shelter care for infants when she’s a tween. Or we could have teens or young adults when she leaves for college. For the first time, it began to occur to me that perhaps my life’s work will fall as much (or more) in the foster care system as the criminal justice system. And that this first step will be just the beginning.
When I started to feel little inklings that maybe more of my future work would be with foster care, I was not immediately taken with the idea. More than a little reframing was in order; a process that ended up being almost as much a theme for 2012 as “stronger.” In case you haven’t noticed, I have invested an awful lot of my time, energy, and passion in work related to incarceration and I’ve had no shortage of future plans in that regard, next steps for when my children were a little older. Suddenly, all that felt like it was being upended in a call to something slightly familiar, but still very different. To complicate that even further, it was the ultimate fusion of work and family. In a way that I had never fully conceptualized until I started picturing myself in that role, I realized what an impossibly difficult thing we ask of foster parents: Be a mother, but also a semi-dispassionate case worker. Welcome them, love them, integrate them into your family, BUT facilitate them rejoining their original family if at all possible. Provide them with stability, right up until the moment that they are taken away. Talk about emotional and cognitive dissonance . . .
How do I start preparing myself for the reality of that? This was my starting point, I think: I won’t be their mother. Not at first; maybe not at all. All I can do is to mother them. If I define myself as their mother, make it a noun, the system/their other parents/the judge could easily take away that identity. But they can’t take away the mothering acts that I will do for them, regardless of how long or short our time together. This Christmas on a rare foray into fiction, I read the first Harry Potter book. I’m glad I did as it had this little tidbit right at the end, “To have been loved so deeply, even though the person who loved us is gone, will give us some protection forever.” It’s a pretty thought, endowed with some mystical power in the book, but I also believe there’s truth there. So I’ll tell myself that, too: “I won’t be their mother, but my love will give them some protection.” And at the very least, I will teach them how to brush their teeth, something my old friend Tina did not learn until she was 11, years into her stay in foster care. (Or perhaps Neal has taken over all dental hygiene forever; either way, teeth WILL be brushed.)
Besides reframing what it will mean to be a “mother,” I had a fair amount of work to do in reframing my own abilities. As I mentioned in part II, after the emotional collapse that was my miscarriage, the story we began to tell each other was that adoption would be too tough for me to take. I wouldn’t be able to handle its difficulties with anything approaching equanimity. But when God sends you a message — you will be an adoptive parent! (subtle, no?) — there’s nothing else to do but strike all those other stories from the record. Apparently, adoption will not be too tough for me to take. Also, I will be able to handle the difficulties with something approaching equanimity. Obviously, “I can do this.”
Of course, getting that message loud and clear and actually internalizing it are two different things. I had to keep digging to get at the root of this idea that I would be unable to handle adoption. I think the root is this: A deep depression is always right at my door; that is, if it’s not already camped out in my room. This always seemed to be a perfectly reasonable assumption. After all, I clearly recall my first depressive episode being when I was 6 years old. And then there were things all along the way until it all got really bad in my late teens. Have you ever tried to get life or health insurance with a history of clinical depression? There’s a litany of questions perfectly calculated to remind you of what a mess your psyche has been. I’ve had to answer a lot of insurance questions over the years; it’s no wonder that I have held on to the belief that a deep depression was always right around the corner.
But here’s a few facts I need to tell myself more often: it’s been almost 14 years since my last really catastrophic depressive episode. In the subsequent years, I have had only two real episodes: after the miscarriage and after Addison’s birth, both things that sometimes make even “normal” people depressed, and neither approaching anything like what I have experienced in the past. I’ve been to almost 4 full years of therapy/group counseling in the subsequent 14 years. Now that it’s been more than a decade, I no longer have to answer insurance questions about it. According to the actuarial tables, then, I am cured. Also this small thing: I experienced a miraculous healing and deliverance from nearly every symptom of mental illness that I experienced from age 6 to 20. It’s too bad I’ve struggled to say that so loud and clear all these years. So I need to accept this: “I don’t have a major depressive disorder anymore.”
IV. Ambiguous loss
“If [the parents'] decision to adopt stems from personal loss — loss of a birth child or infertility — they must assess where they are in their own grief cycle to maximize their ability to help their new child. After all, adoption is about loss, and facing that loss is one of the first steps in the child’s healing process. It is, therefore, critical for parents to take stock of how bereavement is handled in the family so the child’s loss can be addressed appropriately.” — Adopting the Hurt Children, p. 80
I have been a fan of ambiguous loss theory since I first stumbled on it while researching a paper on young couples dealing with chronic illness, but it took on even more personal meaning during my miscarriage. (I wrote this during that time, although I never mentioned that a miscarriage was what prompted those thoughts.) Ambiguous loss was first applied to various relationships in which a person may be physically present but psychologically unavailable (like dementia or traumatic brain injury) or physically absent but psychologically present (like soldiers missing in action or incarceration). It has since been more broadly applied to situations in which we may encounter loss that is invisible (in some way), difficult to articulate, or unresolvable. Pauline Boss, the theory’s creator and patron saint, believes it is the most difficult type of loss because “there is no closure; the challenge is to learn how to live with the ambiguity.”
It would be hard to overstate how huge this concept is when it comes to adoption and especially adoption through foster care, where many children may have faced the loss of multiple families, homes, schools, cultures, even cities or states. Eventually I will have to turn my attention to how I can help any future foster or adoptive children deal with their own ambiguous losses, but over the last year I’ve been focused on what it will mean for me as a foster parent. I remind myself, “There is no closure. Period.” Although I have always felt like I have a high tolerance for ambiguity, looking back I see plenty of time wasted by looking for “closure.” What is closure, anyway? And why have I so often told myself it was necessary or desirable? I’m not going to make the same mistake this time. When a child comes into our lives, only to leave again, I want to hold them in my heart while still moving forward. There is no closure, not really. And even if there were, why would I want it? Wouldn’t it be closing off a beloved child?
When I first wrote about ambiguous loss back in 2008, I was grappling with how to memorialize my lost child, a child that was invisible to virtually everyone but ever so present to me. Eventually Neal came up with the perfect memorial: he suggested we each write our “final” thoughts in a beautiful notebook. After using the notebook (a going away present from my dear friend Marshay when I left D.C.) as our wedding guestbook, we had continued to write notes and messages in it for each other. It seemed like a fitting place for a final memorial to our first child. The only problem was that I couldn’t bring my usually verbose self to do it. Neal went first, writing three beautiful pages of love, light, and hope. He crafted it over several days in January 2009, ending with this thought, “We look forward to families that transcend the limitations of this world.” As moved by his words as I was, all I could manage a few months later was an entry that started like this:
We agreed that we would both write in this book as a way to memorialize and grieve the loss of our first child. I find that I cannot do it. I thought that it would offer a final resting place for so much sorrow, but it feels wrong to bury that sorrow. Every time I think I’m moving on, this pang comes as if that moving forward negates the importance, even the existence of the child that I already loved. . . . I don’t really know how to bring either this entry or this chapter to a close gracefully. I just know that I’m getting out of bed in the morning, I’m teaching a class, taking a class, teaching Relief Society, having neck surgery, smiling, crying — all vestiges of my pre-baby life.
To be honest, after we wrote these entries, I seldom wanted to read them. The notebook now represented pain. While I had been the primary writer before, Neal began to write more often and I virtually stopped altogether. In fact, I remember once actually putting it under another book so that it would be obscured from my view. But as I’ve asked myself this very concrete question, How am I going to deal with the ambiguous loss that we will intentionally introduce into our lives?, I have come back to that notebook often. Even though a place that had previously been a source of comfort now carried sadness in it, with time I could appreciate a new type of comfort it offered. It became a concrete place to go with my sorrow, and then to emerge from it. It offered peace of mind, knowing that I didn’t have to cling so hard to my grief for fear that I would forget altogether. There would always be a place to remember. (Months later, this blog became another memorial.)
So that was my first answer to that question of how to cope: Create a place to remember each child that comes into our life. A new entry in our book? A painted handprint? I’ve heard of people who have figurines (probably not a good match for our minimalist tiny-house dreams) or wear necklace charms (doubtful since I couldn’t even get in the habit of wearing a wedding ring) or plant trees (maybe, if we have our own yard). Only recently did I learn that creating a “loss box” is a strategy to help adoptees work through their feelings. I’m not sure what form our place of remembrance will take, but I know it will be essential for me.
The second coping mechanism I’ve been pondering is something I wrote about over a year ago: Escape. I’m certainly still a work-in-progress on this whole fun/escapism thing, but I’ve figured some things out in twelve months. For starters, I like to have a TV show, just one, that I keep close tabs on. I have gone through periods where I watched no TV at all and periods where I watched a TON of TV. I think what adds considerable enjoyment to my life is having one that I look forward to each week. Lately, my show of choice has been Project Runway (ironic, no?); I mourn for its glory days on Bravo, but I still enjoy it when paired with Tom and Lorenzo’s commentary. I think I would prefer a dancing show like So You Think You Can Dance?, but there were just too dang many episodes each week so I had to cut it off. Besides that, I enjoy reading a weekly advice column from Slate‘s “Dear Prudence.” With our upcoming move to the mountains (a town of 2,600 people!), other fun things I’ve been doing here (the beach, occasional restaurant visit, etc.) will require some reworking, but I think I’m on a good track. It doesn’t hurt that Addison is getting more fun all the time (always interspersed with frustration, of course). (How clinical does this paragraph make “fun” sound? Sheesh.)
The third coping mechanism is easy to say, but hard to do: Focus on what I can control. Interfacing with the criminal justice system over the last decade has certainly given me a primer on frustrating, exhausting, often heartbreaking bureaucracy, but I know we’re putting ourselves on a collision course with a lot, LOT more of that. So I need to, in every stage and situation, focus on what I can control. Rereading the above passage out of our notebook reminded me of some of those basics: I can get out of bed; teach my classes; fulfill my church assignments; smile; cry (fingers crossed on avoiding the neck surgery). I can focus on mothering acts, instead of all the things I would like to change in the child welfare system. I have a precedent for this, too, after all: despite the occasional blog post advocating changes in the criminal justice system, I intentionally decided that I did not want to focus on the system per se, but rather on the individual people I could reach out to during their sojourn there.
I have a lot more reading to do on coping with ambiguous loss (this book is up next), both for myself and for facilitating that process with the children, but I feel that more than four years ago, I identified one of the key things to hang on to: There is no ambiguous loss in God’s eyes. This past year I have experienced a remarkable degree of clarity about myself, my past, and my future. I hope in reading this, and other things I will write over the next few months, it will be evident that I have learned to put words to some ambiguous losses from my past; it’s not the end of pain, it’s not quite closure, it’s a clearer way forward. I know God has been my close companion in this process, healing some things, while at other times reminding me that not everything has to be healed to be productive.
As Neal said four years ago, we look forward to families that transcend the limitations of this world. With all our doubts and questions, we are certain we’re on a beautiful path to that.
* I thought about posting this section-by-section, but for my sake, I wanted to capture it all in one place.