Tuesday, November 22, 2011

November, 2011-- Jacob, six feet tall

Six feet tall—with permanent teeth

Nine years ago, when our oldest son Jacob was seven, I wrote a column about his permanent teeth. The infant I used to carry tucked snugly in the crook of my arm is now a kid who runs around at recess with permanent teeth. The thought is startling. I am beginning to realize this growing thing isn’t temporary. It keeps happening. Just when I get used to a new phase of parenting, it ends and turns into something else.

And now Jacob is taller than me. Not the kind of taller where people say, “Wow, could it be that you’re taller than your mom, now? Stand back-to-back, let’s see.” No, that type of taller lasted about four days, until after one long night’s sleep, it seemed, when Jacob woke up six feet tall, but still 120 pounds.

Six-foot Jacob lopes around the house, his long legs striding back and forth over that line between childhood and adulthood. In some ways, he’s simply a larger version of the seven-year-old with the new permanent teeth—he asks permission before taking a second serving of dessert; he needs to be reminded to pick up his towel off the bathroom floor; he’s as excited as the rest of the kids to see his toddler cousins on an upcoming trip. But in other ways, that seven-year-old Jacob is fading fast as I glimpse the man my son is becoming—he keeps his own lifeguarding schedule and drives off to work; he refrains from commenting on how pathetic I am with electronics and simply troubleshoots; he looks into his future and is making plans that have little to do with Bill, me or the rest of the family.

When Jacob was seven, I wrote: While his arms and legs will continue to grow, his two front teeth are as big as they’ll ever be. And it makes me wonder what else about him is permanent. His quiet, thoughtful personality seems pretty well set. He’s not one to grab center stage and I doubt he ever will be.

I was right—Jacob was quiet and thoughtful at seven; he’s quiet and thoughtful at 16; and I am certain he’ll be quiet and thoughtful at 40.  It is so strange to go back and read it now. Some parents, who are significantly more organized than I, have well-chronicled baby books and scrapbooks of their children’s lives. We don’t have family photo albums; most of our photos aren’t even printed. They sit in a folder on my hard drive, organized—thanks to iPhoto--  by season and year. But I also have these monthly 800-word pieces of writing that are the window into the mind of a younger mom, of younger kids, and through these pieces of writing, I see where my children and I have been together. 

My challenge with parenting has always been to appreciate the now of it. I breastfed my babies with an eye to preventing allergies and childhood sickness. I practiced letters and sounds with my preschoolers so they would be ready to read. I saw the boys’ (and now the girls’) early-grade school mistakes as opportunities to teach important life lessons about responsibility and character. My motherhood has been spent with an intentional approach to shaping my children and pointing them in the right direction. I have had days where I have felt wildly successful at this, and other days where I have felt abject failure, but through it all, I have always mentally flipped ahead the calendar of each child’s life to see where my good or bad parenting of that day might land that child.

And now, for Jacob, all my shaping and pointing are pretty much done. We have 21 months left with him until he leaves for college. While I can see flashes of that seven-year-old with the sprinkling of freckles and new permanent teeth, I know that the rest of the world cannot. The rest of the world looks at my son and says,  “This is who you are,” without comment on who he was in the past, or what he might become in the future. And I am learning to do the same. Jacob is smart and funny. He’s interesting to talk to. He beats me in ping pong, but I can give him a good game, and we should play more than we do. We joke about how opposite our personalities are, but we know we have a lot of similarities too-- an affinity for Frisbee, listening to NPR’s This American Life, and reading accounts of near-death experiences. He is my son, but he’s also a person I enjoy living with, and if everything about him now fused permanently, and he didn’t develop beyond where he is, he’d still be in great shape. And that makes it easier for me to live in the now, because I’m not too worried about who he is going to become.

Jacob. Still with those same teeth he had at age seven. Sometimes he comes to me for advice; sometimes I go to him.

I’m 5’7”; he’s six feet. We look up to each other. And I hope that will be permanent.

Friday, November 11, 2011

November, 2010-- It's not infatuation

At a recent meeting with all the players in our foster daughter’s case — social workers, attorneys, birth parents, adoption experts and Bill and me— I was asked to give a summary of Teenaisa’s progress since our last meeting, three months previous. I told the group all of Teenasia’s recent successes—being promoted up a level in both gymnastics and swimming; scoring a goal in just about every soccer game; behaving well (for the most part) in school and at home; scoring on grade level in reading and math. Thinking about how far Teenasia had come in the past three years, I smiled.
            “You’re really infatuated with her, aren’t you?” asked a man in the room who had made it clear in previous meetings that he did not want Teenasia to be adopted by Bill and me. He said it with a sly smile and clearly meant it as an insult— using the word “infatuation” in place of “love” to suggest our feelings for T were surface only.
            I looked at him, but did not respond. His words were so off base that they didn’t even sting. Infatuated. Thinking about it later, I could have responded that I wish I were infatuated with Teenasia. Infatuation is quite a bit easier than love.
            Infatuation comes early in a relationship, before we know the person fully. During the infatuation stage, we delight in a person’s good qualities; everything about the person is sparkly and new. Talents are lauded as unique and remarkable, while troublesome behaviors are dismissed as quirks and eccentricities. Infatuation is a fun stage — it’s most delicious when you’re dating the person, but I found the feeling of infatuation to be lovely with each my babies (including toddler Teenasia) as well.
            Love, specifically parental love, has little in common with infatuation. Parenting and loving Teenasia has been the most difficult endeavor Bill and I have faced as a couple. At the same time, it’s been the most meaningful and rewarding experience of our marriage. Many times, parenting Teenasia, I have been grateful for my background as a distance runner. Competitive runners understand that satisfaction and pain can exist simultaneously — that a good race does not always mean a pleasurable race. So it is with parenting. Loving a child rarely involves cruising along, unthinkingly. Parenting is an intentional loving response to the needs of a child — and the more complicated the child’s needs, the more difficult it can be to discover what the loving response must be. To keep with the running analogy, parenting a child with complicated needs is a race with a lot of hills.
            In our effort to parent Teenasia well—to love her most effectively, and in a way that best brings out the Teenasia she needs to become — Bill and I have read piles of books on children with a history of trauma. We’ve scoured the Internet for information on children whose attachment to primary caregivers has been broken or compromised. We’ve networked with other adoptive families and have pumped friends who work in the foster care or adoption fields for information and assistance. We’ve prayed.
            In doing the often-exhausting work of trying to love Teenasia as she most needs to be loved, I have experienced along the way, a fear that borders on terror that I lack the giddy sense of head-over-heels love for her. I recognize and appreciate her gifts but am not charmed by them; I see her failings but cannot brush them aside. Yet, in any given day, more than half my thoughts are about her. The most serious conversations that Bill and I have concern the possibilities in her future. When she shows progress, my heart leaps for joy. When she backslides, I am flattened.
            There have been times when my fear has risen to the point that I have wished that I could trade in the depth of feeling I have for my daughter for something sweeter and lighter. But that is not who I am, and it’s not what she requires. Infatuation, breezy and exhilarating as it may be, cannot last. It either withers into nothingness and evaporates entirely, or it is replaced by love.
            To love is to respond to the needs of another. And the more we know a person, the more we understand his or her needs — both small and profound. In just a few cases in each lifetime, we are privileged to actually see what another human being may need to become more fully him or herself. Just a few times in a lifetime, another person’s survival is dependent on us being able to recognize who that person is, in the depth of their being.
            And what is parenting but reaching into the soul of a child and pulling out the true person who resides there?

            Sorry, sir, that’s not infatuation. It’s damn hard work. It’s love.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

October, 2011-- Parenting best practices

Do you have a parenting best practice?

I work at a Fortune 100 company, and one of the phrases tossed about quite a bit is “best practice.” Different departments or plants within the company look at others doing similar work and determine what is the most effective strategy for completing the work with better results, lower cost or less waste.

Parents have best practices as well. While every family operates a bit differently, there are ways of handling common childhood situations that are more effective than others. As in business, the best practices of parenting produce better results— kids who live up to their God-given potential. The lower cost is rarely a financial one—usually a best parenting practice saves sanity, not money. And less waste in parenting won’t necessarily prevent materials from entering a landfill. Instead, less waste refers to less wasted time and energy.  It’s rare that one parent would naturally stumble upon all the best practices of parenting—just as managers need to travel and meet with others in their field to learn best practices, so do parents need to talk to one another and learn. Knowing that amid the daily shuttle to soccer practice and dance lessons, meeting time with other parents might not come often enough for most of us, I emailed some of the most capable parents I know and asked them to share their best practices. Here are their words:

Best Practice: Building self-esteem:

Maurita and Mike, parents of two girls adopted as preschoolers, sometimes worry about their ability to build a healthy sense of self-esteem for their daughters. “I think adopted kids often have a little hole to dig themselves out in regard to self-esteem,” Maurita said. “We all know how crucial it is for girls to have self-confidence and self-esteem,” She explained that she heard a celebrity mother commenting on the suicide of her son, and the mother explained that parents cannot give their children self-esteem, that it must come from within the child. Maurita said the words stuck with her, and when her daughters achieve something, she uses the words, “Aren’t you proud of yourself?” She then re-states what they did to achieve the honor. “I tell them that I’m proud of them as well, but only after I lead with asking if they’re proud of themselves.”

Best Practices: Communication

Maribeth, mother of five children ranging from kindergarten to high school, said that taming adolescent “snippiness” is easier when she responds to an ungrateful remark by saying, “I think what you mean to say to me is. . .” and then modeling the correct response (‘thanks for cooking dinner, Mom’) to the child.

Nikki, mother of two, finds that strong communication doesn’t always need to involve actual talking. She just purchased a journal that she and her nine-year-old daughter share. One person writes her thoughts and feelings and then leaves it on the other’s pillow for a response. “The idea is that sometimes things are hard to talk about face to face and it's easier to write our feelings,” she said.  “Sometimes, it's easier not to look someone in the eye and to say what we really think when we can carefully choose our words.”

Amy, mother of three, has found success in whispering. “Rather than yell, I whisper,” she said. “It intrigues them. It pulls them closer to me and I can get them to cooperate better. Plus, I feel better about myself than when I yell.” 

Carolee, a family therapist, has this suggestion for parents: “When a parent makes a request of a child, the only appropriate response is either ‘Yes, Mom,’ or ‘Yes, Dad,’” she said, noting that many moments of talking back, whining and defiance could be eliminated if parents would hold to this. “If you ask your child to do something and he or she talks back, take time to practice the ‘Yes, Mom,’ response. Re-state your request five times and expect the child to answer appropriately, in an appropriate tone, five times. They’ll catch on and soon it will be a habit.”

Best Practice: Reducing wheedling for privileges

Amy, of the whispering, does not allow any electronics to be used before 6:30 p.m. “Once it’s 6:30, if homework is done, you can watch a show or play a game, but nothing until that time. No one ever asks because they just know that’s the rule.” 

Patty, mom of four has a similar rule that eliminates the need for negotiation. “No more than 30 minutes a day of screen time. You choose the screen—TV, computer or video games, but that’s it.”

Denise and Arthur draw their line at dessert. “We felt the kids were taking dessert for granted and eating too many sweets,” she said. “We made a rule that they can only have desserts on weekends. We’ve found it makes our kids appreciate the treats more and it prevents them from asking for dessert on the other days because they know the rule.”

Best Practice: Building a faith life

Carol and Jamie, parents of four, said that not compartmentalizing their faith has helped their children. “We talk about God and faith throughout the week,” Carol said. “It’s not just something saved for Sunday. I might have a candle lit on the counter on a Wednesday night and a child will ask me why, and I’ll explain I’m praying for a friend’s surgery.”

Andrea and Greg set aside time for service with their teens, serving at a meal program or working in a homeless shelter. “Kids need to experience living the Gospel by feeding the hungry or comforting the poor firsthand,” Andrea said. “It’s not something we can expect them to do when they’re adults if we don’t do it with them when they’re young.”

Sunday, September 11, 2011

September, 2011-- Upcoming adoption of Teenasia

Her name is Teenasia.

After more than eight years of writing about our foster daughter, “T,” our family will finally be adopting her on September 30, in the same Children’s Court where we spent countless hours in hearings as her biological parents were offered chance upon chance to meet the conditions for her return. For eight years, I have protected her privacy as a foster child with the simple “T.” With her adoption comes the same freedom to use her name that I have for our other three children. She is Teenasia. She has always been Teenasia. She will be our daughter on September 30, 2011, just as surely as she became our daughter the cold March night in 2003, when she was first placed with us as a toddler; just as surely as she remained our daughter even when we were twice required to give her back to her birth family for another try. 

Our joy is so deep that it bubbles up in unexpected places: A spontaneous adoption rap begun by the boys in the middle of what would normally be a mundane Monday night enchilada dinner; little Jamie’s 12-foot long, taped-together, construction paper portraits of everyone in our extended family, including the pets, with stars around Teenasia’s face. Teenasia tells everyone she can about her good news, and the playground supervisor congratulated me in the parking lot this morning. “She is glowing,” she told me. In a recent paragraph Teenasia had to write for her spelling challenge words, she managed to link together neglect, annual, basically and contract among others, to effectively tell the story of her foster care journey and upcoming adoption.

With any adoption comes a list of needs on the part of the adoptive parents. Parents adopting infants need a bouncy chair and a pack-and-play; they need diapers and fuzzy-footed sleepers. Parents adopting from oversees need a passport and plane tickets. And what do Bill and I need, adopting our almost 10-year-old, who we have parented, off and on, since she was one?

We need a sacrament.

Every major life event comes with a sacrament and while baptism works very well to mark the adoption of an infant or small child, Teenasia was baptized and received her First Communion more than a year ago.

A sacrament is an outward sign instituted by Christ to give grace. As we adopt Teenasia, I look back on the past eight years, and see Christ’s presence in so many of the events that brought Teenasia back to us. I have felt God’s grace in the people sent into our lives to support us during our difficult times. I have seen God’s grace embodied in Teenasia, who is making her way back to her true self after enduring profound trauma. 

And that’s why I want a sacrament for the adoption itself— give me fire, water, holy oil, vestments, a ring—some outward sign that what is going on here is sacred; has always been sacred. Our church fathers were wise indeed. But with more church mothers—especially foster adoptive mothers--  we would probably have the Sacrament of Adoption.

Our adoption of Teenasia will feel closer to the sacrament of marriage than an infant baptism. Bill and I understand the commitment we are undertaking and we are choosing to go forward. Teenasia, too, will need to commit. Her new life will be one of learning to trust— halfway through her childhood— that from now on, she has a forever family. She will need to learn to believe that this love will not go away. Her childhood so far has been punctuated with the question marks given to her by the Bureau of Milwaukee Child Welfare and a legislative system that does not respect children’s need for permanency. Our family will need to work together to extract these question marks that have lodged in her soul like stubborn fishhooks.

On Teenasia’s adoption day, the courtroom will be packed with friends and family. Teenasia will wear a gold-hued dress embroidered with delicate flowers. Bill and I will make promises to our daughter, and our other children will read statements of love, as witnesses. Teenasia will make promises to us.  We will give her a gift—an outward sign of our love and fidelity. I expect that God’s grace, which has carried us through, will be palpable in that room.

The moment of Teenasia’s adoption will be sacramental.

Let the church say Amen.