I’ve decided that raising children is a little bit like the rides at Disneyland — some are exhilarating but relatively peaceful, like one of my favorites, the Peter Pan ride, flying over the village at night, not quite sure what you’ll encounter, but knowing it’s not too scary. And some are more like the roller coasters — Space Mountain– you can’t see where you’re going, you’re thrown from side to side, you feel like you’re dropping off cliffs and climbing mountains. Those are really exciting, and I love roller coasters, but they’re also terrifying, and you’re never sure how you’ll feel from one minute to the next, or even at the end of the ride. You’ll just know you made it through.
Raising my youngest was a bit like the roller coaster ride. She had a lot of issues to deal with right from the start. Because she was a different color from me and her sister and her other mom, people were always asking about that — was she my foster daughter? Oh, how good of me to adopt her. Did I do her hair? Could they tell me some products I should use? Would I like them (perfect strangers) to do her hair for me? She must look like her dad (she didn’t have a dad in our family), because she sure didn’t look like me.
And then there was the adoption issue. Some adopted children don’t really need to know much other than that they are loved by their adoptive families. Other adopted children need to know about their birth families, who they are and why they gave up their child, and there is no peace inside them. One parent of a second grader, who was also African American and adopted by a white family, told me that he thought adopted children often had a hole inside them, that they tried to fill any way they could, by the need for attention, by drugs, alcohol, whatever they could find. My daughter is very sensitive, and seemed to have this hole. She needed to know, needed to understand, needed to fit in, and it just wasn’t easy in our family.
She was (and is) a very outgoing person, and from a young age my friends remember her sitting on a stool in the living room waiting for everyone’s attention so that she could sing her song to us. The breakup of her other mom and me made life difficult because we didn’t get along, and she had to start full time preschool at two years old because of child care issues. Luckily she loved being with other children and the great teachers, although the transition to and from preschool was always traumatic, tears and tantrums. But she did make a lifelong friend at her school, and plans to have him be an important part of her wedding next summer.
When she started school, it was a little early as well, so she had many difficult moments just because she was young. I remember teaching in my classroom a little ways away from hers and hearing wailing coming from that area of the school. The students in my class all knew it was my daughter, and we wondered what it was this time. Her teacher was a very patient and loving person, and I’ll always thank her for that.
She adapted to her many challenging situations by having many “moms”, usually the parents who worked in the office. She visited them many times a day with this or that illness or cut. Other “moms” were the parents of her friends. She also got very creative with her imagination, and “stretched” the truth as a fairly young child, perhaps as an attention getter. I don’t think I reacted quickly or strongly enough, because this became a bit of a habit for her. She was impulsive, active, and had a phenomenal memory, a definite force to contend with. She seemed to have a kind of street smarts that was amazing, but conventional learning was challenging, so I tried having a friend tutor her, and later she went to an after school learning program, and we had IEP’s in middle school. None of these helped her much, but there seemed to be no neurological reason for her difficulties.
When she was thirteen, her birth mother found her on MySpace (where she was claiming to be older), and contacted her. Unfortunately, the mother wanted nothing to do with me as her parent, and it got tricky, because it was so much for my daughter to handle, and she was falling apart. So the birth mother ducked back out of the picture and left her hanging, which made matters worse. She felt she had been left twice, and just had so many feelings about it, that she fell into depression and anger and all the behavioral things that went with those feelings.
We worked hard to find a therapist, I have to give us both credit for that. As angry as she was, as defiant as she acted, she continued to try each therapist I found. I think we went through at least 4, who did not really help at all, until I was able to find an African American woman who knew about adopted kids, and was willing to accept what we could give. She was so patient, and so present, and my daughter got close enough to her that she continues to be a therapist for her, and the therapist was dedicated enough that she reduced the fee to a nominal one when I couldn’t pay anymore because I got cancer and had to quit work.
I am so thankful for the wild ride that I have had with my youngest daughter. She has taught me so much. She did not finish high school, for a variety of reasons, and still searches for a way of being schooled that works for her. She is a wonderful dancer, but would not pursue that, for reasons I don’t completely understand, but was able to find herself a venue for dancing that did suit her — dancing in church for special occasions. She spent some time writing to a boy in a correctional institute in the south, so much so that I feared she would run away to be with him, and I started a novel about it, just so that I could have the worst scenario in front of me and have some (fake) control over the ending. She had so much anger for so many years, that I feared I would have to let go of her altogether because I couldn’t take the stress of her behavior towards me. That was also the time I was getting cancer, so I was suffering and hurting in all of my body and emotions, and it was hard to separate things out. I decided all that I could do was pray every day for her life to get better. But she taught me how to work hard to advocate for her, she taught me how to let go when she was not ready to accept my help, she taught me how every human being has a path to travel, and we cannot always help them on their path. Sometimes all we can do is be there to listen and testify and love.
When my oldest daughter had a baby, and my cancer diagnosis was confirmed, things began to change. My youngest became a wonderful auntie for the baby. Because she was not in school and did not have a job, she was able to help babysit, which was much needed, and then she was able to get a job in her old school as an aide in the kindergarten. She became kind to me, checking in with me, helping with the dog. In fact, when I had my bone marrow transplant, she had to live in our house and take care of the dog full time because we had to move closer to Stanford for a month. She still struggled, and still had many issues to resolve regarding old habits, but she hung in there even though persistence had always been a challenge in certain areas of her life (not when she wanted something, however!).
Now she is bravely living far away from home. She has found a wonderful partner who is a lot like her in many ways, and her complement in others. She is getting ready to work as a full time babysitter, and to figure out some learning for herself that will be just up her alley. She is becoming organized, cooking, and has run her own household. She is learning to be financially responsible. She is the best communicator in our family in many ways, and keeps touch with all of us, including her grandparents who also live far away. She sets up vacations, our get togethers, and is planning the wedding she didn’t get to have when she married her husband. She has been in contact with her birth mother on her own terms, and has even found out some information about her birth father. I don’t even need to write that novel I started any more, and am ready to start a different one, that shows how hope and faith and the possibility of change are real and important things to remember as a parent. I knew I liked roller coaster rides, but I have to admit, I’m always glad when I get to the end safely. I suppose It’s really only somewhere in the early middle of the ride (especially for her), but I can see that no matter how bumpy and exciting, she has what it takes to make it all the way, and that’s all we want for our kids, isn’t it?