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.