Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Tuning In . . . and Tuning Out

It was the strangest thing. On a Catholic radio program the other day, the host was venting her outrage over a story about an adoptive parent who was trying to “return” a teenager to the adoption agency. The radio host was angry that the adoptive parent would “give up” on the fifteen-year-old, rather than get him the help he needed. Here’s the story.

Keep in mind, this was not a simple case of food hoarding or back talking, which could be dealt with readily in therapy. The youngster had molested a 6-year-old boy and a 2-year-old girl, branding him a “sexual predator.” Therefore, the social workers informed the adoptive mother, if he remained in her home, she could no longer be a foster parent to others or allow her three grandchildren in her home. So she chose to try to dissolve the adoption, so he could be placed in a home where he would not be around younger kids.

I knew the radio host well enough to drop her an e-mail after the show with a different perspective. The sad truth is, some kinds of abuse can be healed only in isolation. In these cases, placing a child in a home without other children is not only the reasonable thing, and – even if it means separating a child from siblings – it is in the end the kindest thing as well. For both the “perpetrator” and his potential victims.

However, there is another important point to address here as well. Here it is: No one – no one – outside a family is capable of rendering a better judgment of its internal dynamics than those who are struggling inside it. This is especially true for foster- and foster-adopt families. Adopting an older child is not for the fainthearted or the overly sentimental, and it can require an extraordinary amount of structure and self-donation. Not only do you have to endure the occasional sleepless night when a child is sick or the baby needs feeding, you have to find ways to “tune in” in order to prevent – night after night after night – an older, traumatized child from harming himself or others while you sleep. Chances are, nothing will happen – but if it does, it is not the child who is to blame.

To avoid becoming overwhelmed, the parent has to find ways to keep her head above the water.

· Prayer is vital, both for your own peace of mind and for guidance. You cannot expect a child to attain peace and quiet until you have achieved it yourself.

· Taking breaks is crucial. Kids with severe emotional needs cannot be left unsupervised for even a minute. Therefore, finding a support system is important. Crack open that state subsidy check and hire a sitter, then go take a nap.

· Never relinquish your parental judgment in favor of someone else’s, no matter how well-meaning or seemingly qualified. Not your mother, not your best friend, not a radio host. Not even a social worker. They may relieve you from time to time, and offer situation-specific advice. However, it is up to you to figure out what your family needs to function – and even if you’re still trying to figure it out, your instincts are bound to be more accurate than those of someone who sees the kids only occasionally. It’s up to you to set the plan, and trust that over time it will all work out.

. Above all, don’t attempt to compare your family (or your child) to someone else’s. Families are like snowflakes – you have to get up close to appreciate the differences.

Parents need to form a sort of detachment from outside pressures to chart a steady course for their family. It may mean losing (or at least straining) a friendship or two, or enduring withering glares from other parents who do not understand your situation. It may even mean tuning out a lecture from a kindhearted but misguided preschool teacher who thinks you are “neglecting” a child because he doesn’t use proper table manners (you’d be happy if he would stop stashing cottage cheese in the closet). Each day is an opportunity for humility.

But it is also an opportunity for grace. The other day I got an e-mail from a church acquaintance who had noticed a change in my son. “I remember how hard it was for you to sit through Mass when you first got the kids. Then the other day, I saw Christopher beaming proudly as he held Sarah’s hand and practically skipped back to the pew after giving his offering to Father. What a change – and all because of your effort. I thought you would want to know that the love you are giving those kids really shows.”

So, if you are in the middle of a difficult parenting situation, take heart. Each day is an opportunity to place ourselves in the hands of the One who has led us this far, to believe that this is one more chapter in the book of our lives – and to hope that, as the pages turn, the story will get better.