Wednesday, December 28, 2011

THE GIFTS OF THE LUCHS


Those of you who have read my book know that I am the oldest of four siblings who survived abuse and serious neglect amidst terrible poverty followed by two years in a bleak county orphanage.  Then the miracle happened.  We were all adopted, ages 4-8, by a young clergyman and his wife in the college town of Athens, Ohio. 
Each year during Christmastide, the season of love and gifts, I look back in gratitude as I remember the gifts our adoptive parents gave the four of us.  A few years ago, when they died, I scribbled down a list of what the Luchs gave us.  The occasion was mom’s death and I began by asking, somewhat oddly, what we were owed from the division of their modest estate.  This was my answer.
What did they owe me or my siblings?  Nothing.  What is given early in our lives, as in any other investment, accumulates interest and grows as no later investment can.  The best that parents can give us (their love, their nurture and care) is given in the first years of our lives.  At the end of their lives, whether our parents leave us millions or a few thousand or nothing does not make that much difference.    
This is what the Luchs gave me and my siblings from our first years with them.  A safe home.  A loving home. The absence of the terrible fears we had lived with and that too many children must live with today.  They provided an environment in which the wounds of our first years could be mostly healed. 
More than that, they saw that we got wholesome meals and the best health care available.  They read to us, fed our interest in words and books and ideas. They were hopeful and positive models.  They affirmed life, took joy in life.  They made it possible for us to learn correct, well-spoken English. They taught us good manners. They insisted on discipline and taught us the value of honesty.  They took us to concerts, saw that we got music lessons, delighted in our progress and subjected their best friends to our childish recitals. 
As I recently reviewed the dozens of letters the four of us sent them through the years, two constant subjects emerged.  The first was money! Even though we all worked at various part-time jobs from our early teens we always seemed to need cash or loans until we had completed our educations and were on our own. 
The second subject was expressions of gratitude.  I found many in our letters over the years.  Here are some samples:

From me as I graduated from college:  “At 21 I see more than ever what a great thing you did for the four of us.  I realize more as I grow and mature what a gift you gave us.  I may not always act like I appreciate it, but down deep I do.”   

From my brother Mark while teaching choral music at St. Clairsville, Ohio before he returned to graduate school to study composition:   “If it hadn’t been for you and people like Miss Ward, Miss Dunham and all my other teachers....I don’t know where the four of us would have been today…four children who had two strikes against them when they started out in this life.”

From Michael: “I shall always think of Athens as the place where I first gained the knowledge that there were friendly people in this world whom you can count on to help you.  This was the beginning of life for me.  Naturally, you and mother were the best there was to have as parents.  Few people would dispute that.” 

From Janey: “God gave me the finest gift in the world, two wonderful people like you for parents.  I’ve never had more loyal friends than you and mom.  No matter what I did, you were always right behind to help me.  I love you and mommy very much and I will never be able to repay you what you have done for me and my brothers.  It is priceless.”  

Not all adoptions succeed as ours did, though studies show that 85% of them are viewed positively by adopting parents and by adoptees.  I and my siblings think adoption is a wonderful institution that gave us a new birth and a second chance in life.  It made all the difference. The next time you hear a negative adoption story, please think of the gifts of the Luchs. 

Thursday, December 22, 2011

ARE REUNIONS WITH BIOLOGICAL RELATIVES ALWAYS WISE?




Social and biological kinship; How do we know which is which or even which is more important?  Is it possible conventional families are more about social kinship than biological kinship?   Many of us make the assumption that the bonds and common behavioral patterns in good biological families are genetic.  We do not consider the possibility that some of those similarities that we think due to our genes could well be the result of many years of shared experience, especially shared emotional experience.   In my book Children of the Manse, I use the ties of marriage and the example of the Marines to make the point that non-biological relationships (the married are not normally biologically related to each other!) and the legendary brother bonds among Marines can be stronger than those between blood relations.     

Those of us who have lived with and remember our biological families, and are then adopted as older children into non-biological families, are able to compare the two.  I was eight years old when adopted with three younger siblings and had many memories of my biological relatives, most of them unhappy.  Once I felt safe and secure in my new family, I would not have welcomed the resumption of ties with biological relatives.  That was especially true after my adoptive mother loved me into opening my heart to a willingness to trust adults again.  In time she became my true and forever mother.  I had no interest in returning to a family that had wounded the four of us when we were very young. 
 
But two of my younger siblings, Janey and Michael, did not have memories of our biological family.  As adults they were influenced by the media’s presentation of reunions with biological mothers as wonderful, fulfilling events.  Michael’s therapist also favored such a meeting, perhaps influenced by one widely read writer on adoption issues who promoted the notion that adoptees could not possibly be whole human beings until they were united with their biological relatives and clan.

I advised against such a reunion, when Janey told me what she and Michael planned to do.  I said, without thinking,

“Don’t open doors you can’t close.” 

I was also concerned that such a reunion would hurt the feelings of the Luchs, who had given us so much.  But I was overseas at the time (I am a retired diplomat) and my counsel was ignored.

Rather than making Janey and Michael whole, the reunion turned out to be painful.    It isn’t pleasant to hear your biological mother spend most of the time during your first reunion blaming only your biological father.  Or hear her talk only about her second family and show no interest in learning about you and your children.  Or that she had never told the children of her second marriage that you exist.  That information was inadvertently disclosed many years later by an uncle. 

“It was all Me, Me, Me,” my sister later told me.  “She psychologically drove us out of the room.”   Michael left the luncheon table abruptly.  Janey followed Michael outside. 

“I had to get out of that room!” he explained.  “I’m so depressed.”

“So am I,” Janey said. 

Later Michael told me, “I wanted this woman to be interesting and there was no way I could make her interesting.” 

I am sure there are some happy reunions among those surrendered as infants who have lived for years with no knowledge of their biological relatives.  But, despite the way the media likes to present reunions with biological mothers, anecdotal evidence tells me most such events are disappointing.  And some are painful.    




Wednesday, December 21, 2011

STEVE JOBS, HERO AND FELLOW ADOPTEE

I don’t own an I-phone or an I-pod.  I am happy with my desktop computer which is not a Mac.  But I have for some time thought that Steve Jobs is a true hero that I would, in most respects, suggest my sons and grandchildren emulate.  We have too many false heroes in our society today who contribute little that is important or enduring.  Too many heroes that are the creation of publicists in Hollywood.  Too many immature and bad-acting celebrity athletes.  Too many drug addicted rock stars.  In brief, too many seriously flawed human beings we turn into celebrities in our popular culture.  
Much has been written recently about how Steve Jobs has made our lives better, how his imagination and drive have changed our world.   True enough in some degree. 
But I like his more modest impact of electronic technology on our lives:  “This stuff doesn’t change the world,” he said. “It really doesn’t.”   Which I take him to mean it does not change the fundamental human condition, which is also true.
Here are some of the reasons Steve Jobs is among my heroes:
----Because he had the courage to follow his vision.
----Because he was a true entrepreneur who created jobs and economic wealth for many.   
----Because he has added much to the positive side of our international trade balance.
----Because he proved that our ability to compete is sound and America’s future is still full of promise. 
Steve Jobs is also my hero because he was a mature human being.  I especially admire the manner in which he kept his private life private, mostly out of public view.  I only learned the day he died as did many others that Steve Jobs, like me, was an adoptee.  At the same time I learned that Jobs, also like me, had no interest in meeting his biological parents. He referred to his biological parents as his “sperm bank” and said that his adoptive parents were his parents 1000%.   That Jobs had no interest, with one important exception, in meeting with his “real family” just does not seem right to most Americans because most of us still believe that blood trumps the connections of the heart.  Adoptive relations, too many continue to think, cannot be as close or as intimate as biological relations.  The list of pejorative terms used over the decades to describe adoptive relations is long.  Among them are “legal fictions,” “unreal,”  “second best,”  “inferior.”  Twenty-five percent of Americans still believe it is more difficult to love a child that is not your own flesh and blood.  And nearly one third doubt that children can love adoptive parents as much as birth parents.  So we and the adoptive families we are a part of are not just different, which we certainly are.  Many Americans continue to see us as inferior to biological families, which we certainly are not.  I was old enough when adopted at the age of eight to have been attached to two members of my biological family, my father and a grandmother, and my experience is that my attachment to my adoptive mother became more powerful than any human relationship I had ever experienced before.     

The 70% of adoptees who show little interest in connecting with their biological relatives seem even odder to members of the adoptee search movement.  One leader of that movement claims that non-searchers, including Erik Erikson, the father of identity studies, are “repressed.”  In general she describes non-searchers as “less inquisitive, more passive and self-denigrating” than searchers.  What a bizarre and wrong-headed description of Steve Jobs!
I think we have to honor Steve Jobs by accepting as true exactly what he actually said, which is that his adoptive parents were the only real parents he had.  He even paid his adoptive father the ultimate compliment, saying that he wanted to be the father to his son that his adoptive father, Paul Jobs, had been for him.   When, near the end of Jobs’ life, his biological father publicly expressed an interest in a reunion, Jobs said:

“….I am not prepared, even if either of us was on our death beds, to pick up a phone to call him.” 

Though he did invite his biological mother to some events towards the end of his life, there is no evidence that they formed a close and loving relationship.   On the other hand, when 27 years old he connected with his biological sister, novelist Mona Simpson, of whom he said, “We’re family.  She is one of my best friends in the world.”  
The American bias for blood over heart is rather odd given our history as a nation. 
As a New Yorker commentary put it in l993:
“The United States might be said to have a special interest in the maintenance….of adoption: metaphorically, at least, adoption is what made America great, for America’s very nationhood is adoptive….and while we honor old ties, a substantial part of our very identity consist in the ability to transcend them with new ones….in the power that the heart has over blood.” 

            That’s it.  The power that the heart has over blood.  Love, not blood, is the most powerful reality in our human universe. That’s the way I see it and it is reasonable to think that’s the way Steve Jobs saw it.    



Wednesday, December 14, 2011

AS THE CHILD IS FED SO WILL SHE EAT


                                    AS THE CHILD IS FED SO WILL SHE EAT

We are reading a lot about obesity these days, especially and of most concern for our future, childhood obesity.  I owe normal weight without much effort and good health over a lifetime to the nutrition programs of my adoptive mother. 
Mom’s nutrition program was strict and specifically designed to restore the health of four children (me and my younger siblings) who had suffered neglect and abuse followed by two years in a county orphanage where the diet was mostly cheap carbohydrates and never included a fresh salad.   But much of her regime would be appropriate for any child today.  I describe some of that program in my book Children of the Manse.  Here is an excerpt:
“When it came to our health, our new parents spared no expense. On the other hand, carbonated soft drinks were never available in the manse. When we ate out, which we did rarely, hamburgers and French fries were not on “our” menu. Baloney sandwiches slathered with yellow mustard — the main course of school lunches at the children’s home — disappeared forever. The Luchs put baloney in the same category
as carbonated drinks and hamburgers and French fries. They were unhealthy and because they were unhealthy, they were not available.”  Yes, it was widely suspected in the l940s, seventy years ago, that many of what we now know as fast foods were unhealthy. 
The 1940s Department of Agriculture poster with the seven food groups was posted on our kitchen wall and we sometimes discussed it.  Mom’s health program was reinforced in a university sponsored elementary school I attended.  There we also discussed nutrition and the students, under adult guidance, took turns preparing a hot dish for lunch.  Over half a century later I sometimes make my favorite recipe from those days, a lima bean casserole.
I am an admirer of Warren Buffet but I wish he would sell the stock he has held for many years in Coca-cola.  Good investment?  Yes.  Good for the health of our nation?  No.   We have known for decades that sodas, especially in the Big Gulps that are drunk today, are not good for us.  As we grapple with obesity among our young, we will soon learn just how bad they are.    
A major emphasis of my adoptive mother’s diet for us was fresh fruits and vegetables.  A bowl for fruit in the kitchen was always full, mostly with oranges, bananas and apples.  Potato chips and other popular snacks were not available in the manse, but there was always a “relish” dish if we were hungry before dinner was served that included sliced carrots and celery and green peppers and, as a treat, ripe olives. 
Guess what my favorite snacks are today?  Fresh fruits and vegetables and a good salad of fresh vegetables I consider a necessary part of my every noon and evening meal.  I happen to live in the southern Willamette Valley of Oregon which grows a cornucopia of first quality organic produce of all kinds.  With the possible exception of France, I have never tasted better fresh vegetables anywhere.  If you want to hook your children on fresh vegetables, pay the extra to buy great tasting quality organic produce.  Their health over a lifetime is surely worth it. 
Well, you’re just lucky, you say?  Your good health is because of your genes.  Really?  I know of only two biological relatives amongst 25 or so that managed to live to the age of 80 and some, including my maternal grandmother, were obese.  It’s more likely I and my three siblings owe our normal weight without much effort and good health all through the years to my adoptive mother’s early nutrition program.  That program established food preferences and good habits that have lasted a lifetime.  We thank you, Mom!

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

ARE REUNIONS WITH BIOLOGICAL RELATIVES ALWAYS A GOOD IDEA?ON

           

Social and biological kinship; How do we know which is which or even which is more important?  Is it possible conventional families are more about social kinship than biological kinship?   Many of us make the assumption that the bonds and common behavioral patterns in good biological families are genetic.  We do not consider the possibility that some of those similarities that we think due to our genes could well be the result of many years of shared experience, especially shared emotional experience.   In my book Children of the Manse, I use the ties of marriage and the example of the Marines to make the point that non-biological relationships (the married are not normally biologically related to each other!) and the legendary brother bonds among Marines can be stronger than those between blood relations.     

Those of us who have lived with and remember our biological families, and are then adopted as older children into non-biological families, are able to compare the two.  I was eight years old when adopted with three younger siblings and had many memories of my biological relatives, most of them unhappy.  Once I felt safe and secure in my new family, I would not have welcomed the resumption of ties with biological relatives.  That was especially true after my adoptive mother loved me into opening my heart to a willingness to trust adults again.  In time she became my true and forever mother.  I had no interest in resuming relations with a family that had wounded the four of us when we were very young. 
 
But two of my younger siblings, Janey and Michael, did not have memories of our biological family.  As adults they were influenced by the media’s presentation of reunions with biological mothers as wonderful, fulfilling events.  Michael’s therapist also favored such a meeting, perhaps influenced by one widely read writer on adoption issues who promoted the notion that adoptees could not possibly be whole human beings until they were united with their biological relatives and clan.

I advised against such a reunion, when Janey told me what she and Michael planned to do.  I said, without thinking,

“Don’t open doors you can’t close.” 

I was also concerned that such a reunion would hurt the feelings of the Luchs, who had given us so much.  But I was overseas at the time (I am a retired diplomat) and my counsel was ignored.

Rather than making Janey and Michael whole, the reunion turned out to be painful.    It isn’t pleasant to hear your biological mother spent most of the time during your first reunion blaming only your biological father.  Or hear her talk only about her second family and show no interest in learning about you and your children.  Or learn that she had never told the children of her second marriage that you exist.  That information was inadvertently disclosed many years later by an uncle. 

“It was all Me, Me, Me,” my sister later told me.  “She psychologically drove us out of the room.”   Michael left the luncheon table abruptly.  Janey followed Michael outside. 

“I had to get out of that room!” he explained.  “I’m so depressed.”

“So am I,” Janey said. 

Later Michael told me, “I wanted this woman to be interesting and there was no way I could make her interesting.” 

I am sure there are some fulfilling reunions among those surrendered as infants who have lived for years with no knowledge of their biological relatives.  But despite the way the media likes to present reunions with biological mothers, anecdotal evidence tells me many such events are disappointing.  And some are painful.    



Tuesday, November 15, 2011

LISTENING TO A CHILD

My biological paternal grandfather lived next door to me and my brothers for three years and paid no attention to us at all.  I have not a single memory of him.  The same grandfather, known for his piety and daily Bible reading, had eight grandchildren in the local county orphanage five miles from his residence.  He did not visit even one of them once.   
Shortly after I became a fostered child at the age of eight, I and three siblings were taken by our new foster parents to visit maternal grandparents some 300 miles away.  I rose early in the farmhouse on the first morning after we arrived and my new grandfather invited me to walk with him half a mile or so to milk his cow.  I tell about that first morning in Children of the Manse.
“We walked side by side along the unpaved county road in a fog so dense it seemed like we were the last two human beings on earth.  At first I could hear only the scrunch of gravel under the boots he called artics, but soon we were talking with each other.  His voice was friendly.  He asked me about my school work and what I liked to do.  He didn't talk a lot about himself.  He asked me question after question.  He seemed to be listening closely to what I was telling him.  Being with him was like being with Lonnie (my much loved biological father) because Grandpa Coulter seemed to be genuinely interested in me and that made me happy.  I decided I wanted this new grandfather to like me.”
                         The Difference in Grandfathers
What a difference in grandfathers!!!  My biological grandfather who lived next door to me and my brothers took on interest in us at all.  My foster grandfather showed interest in us from the day he first met us.    
The two men otherwise had much in common.  They both began their adult lives as rural school teachers.  Both had raised families of six children, boys and girls.  Both were avid readers and both had active minds.   But one paid no attention to his biological grandchildren at all.  The other engaged his foster grandchildren at once and he  listened to them.       
Sadly, Grandpa Coulter died four years later.  But something strange happened.  We were with him for only a month each summer for four summers and yet he became, in my mind and in the minds of my siblings, the most important adult in our lives other than our adoptive father and mother.
Why?  I think mostly because Grandpa Coulter took an interest in us.  He taught us how to sharpen a scythe with a whetstone and how to build an outdoor fire place with cement and rocks from the river and how to repair a fence to keep our rented pony from escaping.  He took us to work with him, one by one, in his 1937 brown Chevy and shared with us his favorite brown sugar sandwiches.  He took all four of us at once twice a week to a power house on his property that pumped three modest oil wells. 
While pumping the wells, he explained how the gas engine machinery worked, and gave us the whole history of the great “oil excitement” that took place when he was a boy and oil derricks were so thick they replaced forests of trees in Clarion County, Pennsylvania.  Titusville, where oil was first pumped with steam technology, was less than 100 miles north of his farm.  He talked about Colonel Drake, usually credited with the first productive oil well, as if he was a friend.  He took down from a shelf in his power house a treasure, a small bottle of oil from that well.  But most of all he who had so much to teach us also listened to us.  That’s how he became our true and forever grandfather.      

Thursday, November 3, 2011

BE GLAD YOU WERE ADOPTED

I’m glad I was adopted.  I wasn’t always glad I was adopted.   I did not like feeling different from my school friends, especially in my teens. But as I became an adult and developed self-confidence, I did not mind being different.  And then, later, I began to see some advantages in being adopted.  I’ll discuss two of those advantages in this blog and return to this important theme later. 
More Opportunities to Learn  
The first reason I’m glad I was adopted is that adopted children have more opportunities to learn.  They will even add points to their I.Q. in their new adoptive homes.  This is because the socioeconomic status of adoptive families is higher than non-adoptive families and even higher than the families from which most adoptees come.  Adoptive parents are likely to be better educated, more successful in their professional lives, and to provide better role models for their children.  Adoptive parents are also more likely to create a stimulating environment for their children and give more support to their children’s education. 
There were no college graduates in my biological father’s eastern Kentucky family.  He himself quit school in the 4th grade.  My biological mother’s family was working class.  She quit school to marry in the l0th grade.  The social workers who handled our case feared I and my three younger siblings would be overwhelmed in our new adoptive environment.  But we thrived.   I was starved for books after two years in a county orphanage that had no books. One of my early impressions in my new adoptive home was the presence of books everywhere, on open shelves, behind glass cases, on tables, in boxes, and on desks.  My new home was two blocks from a university; we attended a university-sponsored elementary school, were read to most days, and were taken to concerts and given all the cultural advantages a small university town in southern Ohio could offer.
                          Intelligence and How to Get It
Richard E. Nisbett, Distinguished University Professor at Michigan in his 2009 book, Intelligence and How to Get It, concludes that being adopted adds 14 points on average to a child’s I.Q.  Those adopted into middle class families gain 16 points and those adopted into upper middle class families, 20 points. 
If Nisbett is right, I and my three siblings were 20 point winners.  The result is that three of us have college degrees and two of us earned graduate degrees.  My sister, whose IQ is equal to that of her brothers, did not finish college (it was the l950s!) only because she decided to marry instead.  Of our nine children, eight are college grads with degrees from Wesleyan, Cornell, Tufts, and the Air Force Academy.  Six earned graduate and professional degrees from Georgetown, Virginia, Texas, and Ohio State.  
The Example of Steve Jobs
The second reason I am glad I am an adoptee is that we try harder.  Most of us grow up feeling different and because we know that we are different from the norm, we feel -- or are made to feel-- inferior.   Adoptees are outsiders.  They are evidence of failure, a falling short of what our culture thinks is supposed to be.  They don’t quite belong. 
So to prove our worth, like Avis we try harder.  The result is that adoptees are often high achievers.  The incredible history of Steve Jobs is only the latest case in point.  I don’t wish to presume to analyze a complex and gifted man, but I’ll bet that at least some of the amazing Jobs focus and fierce drive came from the perception of himself as an adoptee who felt (or had been made to feel) different and  therefore, in the minds of some, inferior.  Feeling different is OK.  But being made to feel inferior is not OK.  My point is that many adoptees, probably including Steve Jobs, feel they have something to prove to the mainstream of American society.   Their worth.   
Steve Jobs had other qualities I admire.  He kept his private life private.  He refused to become a celebrity in an insanely celebrity-focused popular culture.  He spoke highly of his adoptive parents.  While he did form a bond with his biological sister, he did not seek relationships with his biological parents, insisting the parents who raised him through the years and loved him were his true mother and father.  That is not a reality many Americans are yet ready to accept, including some adoptees who argue that you cannot possibly be a whole human being without forming bonds with your biological family.  I especially liked that Jobs said he hoped he could be as good a father for his children as his adoptive father had been for him.  That’s the way I feel about my adoptive mother.
 Steve Jobs is not alone as a high achiever who happens to have been adopted.  So was the founder of Wendy’s fast food chain. So is the founder of Domino’s Pizza.  And so is Larry Ellison, co-founder and CEO of Oracle.   And many others. 
There are other reasons I am glad I was adopted.  I will discuss those in future blogs. 

Sunday, October 30, 2011

ON AVOIDING LABELS

In the literature that discusses abused and neglected children you will find the term “parentified child.”   What this Latinate mouthful refers to is a child that circumstances have forced to grow up too soon and assume adult responsibility for younger siblings. Adults is this child’s life are at best inadequate, at worst simply not present either because they are frequently absent or have abandoned their children altogether.
I was such a child.  Our father was often in jail or prison.  Our mother simply left us alone without any substitute care or protection at all.  She did this a number of times and according to her older brother and her younger sister, once left us alone for an entire week.  So I had to become a caretaker of siblings of four years, three years, and eighteen months.  I was five years old.  It was a big job that I carried out more or less successfully.
If my childhood took place today and not decades ago, my reward for looking out for my younger siblings would be to be labeled a “parentified child”.  In today’s literature of child abuse and adoption I am described as a difficult creature.  When I and the siblings I cared for are fostered or adopted, I resist turning over my responsibility to two strangers I have not yet learned to trust.  Rather than have social workers and foster or adoptive parents appreciate the role I played, I am made to feel I am standing in the way of forming new family bonds.       
My siblings and I had nearly ideal foster parents who soon adopted all four of us at once in less than a year.  But even they, with graduate work in psychology, failed to understand or appreciate the role I had played.  Instead of patiently understanding and supporting the transition I was making as I began to trust them, they resented having what they saw as a rival eight-year-old parent in the house.
The Most Difficult Part of the Transition
I think the most difficult part of the transition to a new foster home for me was learning to accept that as these new adults became our parents, relations with my siblings would change.  The bonds that had helped sustain us through years of neglect and shared danger began to weaken.  My siblings began to act as normal siblings do, at times cooperative and loving, but also at times competing with each other and challenging me.  I saw this rejection of the parental role I had played as a rejection of me and I took it hard.  I describe that conflict and its resolution in my book Children of the Manse.
I think social scientists and social workers like to use scientific sounding Latinate words because they think it makes them seem more professional.  But pinning a label on a child such as “parentified” also has other effects.  It works to turn an individual and unique child into an abstraction.  It creates a false sense of understanding that somehow removes the need to listen carefully to a particular child.   Also, since the label “parentified child” seems often to be used in a pejorative sense, it has the additional effect of seeming to blame the child for behavior he could not avoid. 
I am not opposed to classification when that helps to clarify and understand as long as it does not obscure the uniqueness of each child or seem to blame the child for his behavior.    There are better words to describe the likes of me and other children who have had to grow up too soon than the pseudo-scientific and Latinate label “parentified child.”   I would suggest using “child-parent” instead.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

WHAT TO CONSIDER BEFORE BECOMING A FOSTER PARENT FOR ABUSED AND NEGLECTED CHILDREN

AN OPEN HEART
Most important for success, do you have an open heart?  Are you able to give love? Are you willing to accept being pushed away when you are trying to offer love?  Are you willing to love a child who at times seems to be supremely unlovable?  In extreme cases, are you willing to hear the words, “I hate you!” and continue to love the child?  Are you willing to wait for years before your investment in loving is appreciated?  My foster mother told me it took a year before I would accept her hugs and two years before I would hug her.  Among her friends she spoke of me as “My little ramrod.” But she won me over with her love. 
                                           KNOWLEDGE
In my experience knowledge is the second most important requirement for successful fostering and adoption.  Are you willing to inform yourself, to attend classes and seminars and read the literature on foster care and adoption, on abused and neglected children?  My foster mother was an elementary school teacher with work in child psychology.  She told me years later that she needed everything she had ever learned to help me. 
                                          THIS IS MY CHILD
Will you be prepared to speak and act as mother (or father) of the child or children from the moment they enter your home?  I and my three siblings had met the Luchs only once before we arrived at their residence two weeks later.  Our new foster mother kneeled down, put her arms around the four of us, and her first words were, “Mother is so happy you are here.”  A cousin was present and described that scene years later.  “It was as if in that instant she suddenly became your mother.  I’m sure the way she repeatedly spoke of herself as mother that afternoon and forever after made it easier for the four of you to begin to accept her as your mother.”  
                                             ORDER IN THE HOUSE

Are you willing to establish schedules and programs and keep to them?  The Luchs believed in the importance of predictable schedules and programs as one means of restoring our physical health and fostering our emotional security.  Meal times, bed times, daily bath times, piano practice sessions, and when not in school, nap times, were fixed.  There were few exceptions. 
ARE YOU WILLING TO INSIST THE CHILDREN CONTRIBUTE TO THE HOUSEHOLD?
We participated in household chores from the beginning.  Every four days was our day.  On that day we were responsible for setting and clearing the table for the evening meal and, assisted by an adult, doing the evening dishes.  We made our own beds daily and picked up our rooms.  We took part in lawn care and major cleaning projects, usually family affairs on Saturdays.  As we grew up, more was expected of us.  The boys maintained a coal burning furnace and were primarily responsible for the cultivation of a rather large vegetable garden. 
                                 BOUNDRIES AND POWER STRUGGLES
Are you willing to establish and insist on the observance of firm boundaries and limits?  Your foster children will test you again and again.  You will need to choose your power struggles carefully because you cannot afford to lose them.  You and your spouse must win.  I remember one such struggle during which I was sent to bed from the family table without supper.  I resolved to fast, drinking only water, and imagined the Luchs would soon be their knees begging me to return to the family table.  They won.  I returned 24 hours later on my own. 
                               SAVE TIME AND ENERGY FOR YOURSELVES
It was relatively easy for my adoptive parents to save time and energy for themselves because we were all in school (the two youngest for mornings only) within days of our arrival.  They spent their mornings together, often collaborating on writing projects. 
Because our adoptive father had had TB as a young man and then suffered from undulant fever contracted in the Middle East, the Luchs took daily naps.  When we were not in school, we were also required to rest quietly during the early afternoon.  I think that rest period was good for our health and know that it nourished my love of reading and learning. 
                                         REASONABLE EXPECTATIONS
Are you willing to keep your expectations reasonable and flexible?  The children may have talents you do not and you will likely have talents they do not.  Do not expect them to fulfill your ambitions but do be alert to whatever gifts they have, and provide for the development of those gifts.  When a school music teacher pointed out that the four of us had musical talent our adoptive parents did not, our parents immediately arranged for the four of us to begin piano lessons and tolerated the daily cacophony of forty fingers fumbling through “Teaching Little Fingers to Play.”   That early music training has so enriched our adult lives!
                                               COMMUNITY COMMENT
Are you willing to put up with gossip in the community?  Some in our small town thought the Luchs could not afford to adopt four children and some were sure the adoption would not work.  A few even feared we might murder the Luchs in their sleep. 
                                         SOME OTHER CONSIDERATONS:
1. Are you able to listen to a child, to learn from and pay attention to a child?  Each child is unique, which means that parenting yours will require careful listening and the tailoring of all programs to that child’s specific needs.      
2. Except for your spouse, are you willing to say and to act as though the children are Number One in your life?  
3.  Are you willing to make no promises to the children you can not keep?  Abused and neglected children have heard too many false promises, which is a major reason they have difficulty trusting adults.  
4.  Can you identify and reach out for sources of support?  You may wish to begin working with a professional counselor before the children arrive.  My mother found support among her teacher colleagues.  
5.  Are you and your spouse willing to resolve your differences in a mature manner and especially to avoid raising your voices in argument in the presence of the children?
THE BIG EIGHT FOR SUCCESSFUL FOSTERING AND ADOPTION
In my experience the BIG EIGHT personal qualities for successful fostering and adoption are: compassion, empathy, commitment, and perseverance; a sense of humor, knowledge, common sense and wisdom.  That’s asking a lot but if you have most of what it takes and are prepared for the challenge, healing a wounded child is one of life’s greatest adventures and most rewarding experiences. 


Saturday, October 22, 2011

THE “X” FACTOR: HOW NEGLECTED AND ABUSED CHILDREN BECOME SUCCESSFUL RESILIENT ADULTS

It seems unlikely we shall ever resolve the forever debate about the relative influence of our genetic inheritance versus our environment.  The pendulum of the debate seems to swing back and forth through the decades as new information becomes available to us.  Lately, it seems, the score is even at 50/50.     
But I have often wondered why we limit the discussion to environment and heredity.  Isn’t there a third or X factor?  I mean, heredity and environment are certainly the major influences in our lives.  But are we, as individuals, no more than the sum of our genes and environment?  Are we not actors in our own lives? 
Our genetic inheritance does set limits.  We can’t all be Bachs or Einsteins.  Environmental influences, on the other hand, provide the opportunities for development within those limits, which are not as limited as we sometimes think.  Now if you are a determinist who believes that your genes or your environment or, more likely, some combination of the two, not only set the boundaries but determine your life, the game is over.   There is no role for you and no place for human freedom.  But if you believe, as I do, that you, your choices, your efforts, can make the big difference, your role is of critical importance.
                        Why Are Some Children Resilient? 
Which brings us to this fundamental question.  Why do some who have had abusive and difficult experiences as children go through life thinking themselves victims “born to lose,” and too often end up repeating the sad histories of their biological parents?  Why do others, often described as resilient children or adults, manage to use their early experiences as motivators to overcome those early traumas and go on to create productive and rewarding lives? 
At age 14,  just beginning my own quest for self-understanding, it was upsetting to learn that psychologists held out little or no hope for human beings with an early history of abuse and neglect such as mine.   The books I borrowed from my adoptive father’s study predicted I would lack self-confidence.  I would have a dead emotional center and much difficulty in intimate relations.   At first I accepted what I was reading.  After all, it was in blocks of authoritative black print on white pages and these men and women were professional experts.   My immediate reaction was despair.   
But my second reaction was to rebel.  I would prove them wrong!  I would not repeat the sad histories of my biological parents.  I would live a productive life, find and marry a girl of my dreams.  I would father and raise normal children that I would not neglect or abuse.  I would succeed in my chosen profession, whatever that turned out to be.  All this and more of the good things in life I eventually achieved.         
I am not saying the psychologists were all wrong.   I struggled to maturity, fighting battles not everyone faces, strongly believing I could overcome most of the negatives of my early life’s experiences.   I did not do this alone.  I had the support and love of an informed and wise adoptive mother, my own in-house therapist.
                          The Most Important Factors     
Now I have just described two factors that make a resilient child and adult.  Studies show that the resilient believe they can choose their own path.  They believe they can take matters into their own hands and overcome their past.  They can imagine a better future and believe they can make that better future real.  They believe they can make the difference.     
The second factor is a mentor or mentors.  These are mature, admirable, and trusted adults.  Such mentors are capable of offering love, and modeling what it is to be a fully developed human being.  Most important, they believe strongly that the child they mentor can succeed.  Mentors can be foster or adoptive parents, therapists, pastors, coaches, or teachers.  They can come in fact from almost any walk of life.  There can be more than one for no child can have too many adults interested in their welfare.  What is essential is that they are capable of offering loving support, that they model what it is to be a fully developed human being, and that they believe in the child.  But support and encouragement is what mentors can offer.  Their efforts unaided cannot heal the child.  That hard and lonely work must be done by the child himself.   
   The Process Described
Maya Pines, in an l984 article in “The American Educator” described the process that resilient adults had to go through to heal the emotional wounds inflicted on them as children.  Her description fits my own experience.
"In solitude and separateness, they sorted out and ordered their chaotic world into some sensible whole, drawing from their chaos a lasting, sustaining inner strength.... Their sense of being different, unique and alone may have provided them with just the (right) foundation for (the) independent, intuitive thinking and autonomous behavior that they needed to protect their sanity and fend for themselves."
Pines concludes: "It is precisely the lonely task of ordering their disruptive lives and coming to terms with feelings of alienation or separateness which allowed them to develop such strong feelings of self-trust, a firm sense of who they were and of what they could --- and had to do in life.” 
Other Characteristics of the Resilient
More recently Gina O’Connell Higgins in her book Resilient Adults—Overcoming a Cruel Past identified additional characteristics common to many resilient adults.
Among these are:
…A strong spiritual center though most of the resilient do not participate in institutional religions. 
…The ability to support their faith in themselves and a better future imaginatively through reading and other experiences of the arts.         
…Eventually, a special pride in having overcome their past, a victory that made them stronger than they would otherwise have been. 

Friday, October 21, 2011

MAKING THE TRANSITION EASIER FOR FOSTER CHILDREN


Plan an “ice breaker” or two for the first day
We --- two brothers, a sister, and I arrived at our foster home two weeks before Halloween.  On the trip up from the orphanage the social worker stopped to refresh us with a glass of cider. When we expressed interest in them, she bought each of us our choice of Halloween masks, what we then called “false faces,” and a large pumpkin.  Because we were anxious and shy, we asked if we could wear the masks into the house to frighten our new foster parents.  Somehow, without any planning at all, they and we were suddenly playing a game of hide and seek with the masks in which, when they found us, we would ask, “Who am I?” and our new foster parents had to name us.  If they got our name right, we had to remove our masks.  If they did not, we could continue to wear our masks and hide again.  But that was the last unplanned activity during the first weeks of adjustment to our new home.

Our foster mother had arranged for a boy my age to play with me and my brothers.  He and his father arrived with two large boxes of toys and games which entertained us until supper time during which the four of us all talked at once (the rule in the orphanage was silence at meals) and “ate vigorously.”   After supper, in our first family project, we carved a pumpkin on the kitchen table.  We delighted in digging our hands into the squishy center of the pumpkin to remove the pulp and offered lots of advice to our new foster father as he carved the pumpkin. After we had all bathed (four at once in a large tub!) and put on new pajamas, our foster father placed and lighted a candle in the pumpkin which he carried to the hall outside our bedroom.  For the first few weeks the four of us slept together on beds in a single room after which Janey, the youngest at age four, was moved to her own bedroom adjacent to that of our new foster parents. 
     Introduce the children to their new environment
through an Orientation Week
Our first week was carefully planned.  The morning after our arrival, a Saturday, my new mother walked me up to a grocery store to shop for my first ever birthday dinner the following Monday.  Then we all walked to our new school where we met the art teacher and the principal and toured the school and borrowed books from the library.
During the rest of our orientation week our after school activities included a stroll through the campus of the university a few blocks from our house, a visit to the tree nursery where we would develop a large vegetable garden, a tour of the church we would attend, our first physicals by the family physician, and a visit to the apple farm of friends of the family where we gathered apples and black walnuts.  On our second Saturday we all marched up to the main street of town to buy new clothes and shoes and had our first haircuts in a real barber shop.  These were institutions and activities that would be important in our lives. 
Introduce the children to the rules, schedules and routines of their
new household and culture during the first week
Our day began that first week and ever after in the kitchen with a spoonful of cod liver oil washed down with freshly squeezed orange juice, a luxury our foster mother considered important for recovering our health.  We were given napkins and our own napkin rings, a novelty for us, and taught how to use them.   We were introduced to the schedules and routines of our foster home.   Meal times, bed times, daily bath times, and when not in school, nap times, were fixed.  Each day had its own rhythm.  Monday, for example, was laundry day.  Tuesday was cleaning day.  We spent Sunday mornings in church.  Predictable schedules and routines are an important means of restoring physical health and fostering emotional security of wounded children and will contribute to your own mental health. 
                 Involve the Children early in clearly Defined Household Chores
Introduce the children to household chores during the first month.  Every four days was our day.  On that day we were responsible for setting and clearing the table for the evening meal and, assisted by mom or dad, doing the evening dishes.  We made our own beds daily and picked up our rooms.  We took part in lawn care and major cleaning projects, usually family affairs on Saturdays. 
Organize Some Family Fun Activities during the first weeks
In addition to trips to an apple orchard and a tree farm, we enjoyed trips to two state parks in the area during the first weeks where we were allowed to run free through the fields and woods, a joy not permitted in the tightly regimented orphanage from which we had come.  In today’s world there are many other possibilities for family outings. What is important is that everyone participate, that the children truly enjoy the activity, and especially if they are boys, that the activity be vigorously physical.  Provide suitable athletic equipment for the children at once and locate a park or place nearby where they can use it.    Wear them out if you can!   More generally, keep them busy, challenged, and fully occupied, whenever possible in creative activities.   
 Involve your extended family and friends
If you have one within reach, involve your extended family in your fostering project.  As our adoptive mother became in her language and her actions our mother the afternoon we arrived, so did our extended family accept us at once and over time would wrap their arms around the four of us.  We were made to feel we were a part of the clan.  Involve also your close friends and your communities, religious or otherwise, in the nurture of the children.  No child can have too many adults interested in his or her welfare. 
Treasures
The children will probably arrive with personal treasures.  Mine were a green fountain pen given to me by my biological father the last time I saw him at age five, and a photo of my much loved maternal grandparents.  Help them protect their treasures.  They will like you for that.  Treasures are an important element in letting go of the past.  
Document the First Weeks
Keep your camera ready and try to spend a few moments in your now very busy lives documenting those first days.  They pass quickly and will not come again.  My mother kept a journal during our first ten days together, which is why I can write about our own transition in such detail.     
Expect the first months to be exciting and exhausting.  As the Luchs put it in a letter to family and friends, “The first month was a bit rough on the old folks and we presume even rougher on the children.”  But a year later Mom wrote, again to family and friends, “Well, we come to the end of the happiest year of our lives!  We never realized how much we were missing until we had the children.” 

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

YOU ARE FREE TO BECOME

In my adoptive father’s study were many fascinating books.  At age fourteen I was drawn to his collection on psychology and especially to the books that discussed human psychological development.  Sometimes what I read troubled me.  As I was just beginning my quest for self-understanding, it was upsetting to learn that psychologists held out little hope for human beings with an early history of abuse and neglect such as mine.   
I was introduced to the notion that what happens to you by the age of eight determines your future for all time.  I arrived at our new foster home with three siblings just in time to celebrate my eighth birthday.  The books I borrowed from my father’s study forecast that I would lack self-confidence.  I would have a dead emotional center and much difficulty in intimate relations.   I would fear abandonment and have to live with a strong sense of vulnerability.   I was likely to suffer a lifetime of depression.  One psychologist actually recommended that those with a history such as mine should not marry.
The worst news in the psychologists’ books was that I was different from my peers, which at age fourteen I wanted very much to deny.  More than anything else, a teenager wants to be like other kids, to conform to their standards, and to belong to the world of the young.   Those who have never had the experience of knowing they are different in adolescence will have difficulty understanding how sweet the word “normal” sounds to a teenager who fears he must stand outside the group, feel isolated, and suffer loneliness.                                                                                                  
                                                I Have No Future
At first I accepted what I was reading.  After all, it was in blocks of authoritative black print on white pages and these men and women were experts.   My immediate reaction was despair.    My fate was determined and there was nothing I could do about it.  Any possibility that I could be a fulfilled and happy man seemed remote at best.  What I read affected me deeply.  I felt crushed by the experts and at first did not feel I could discuss what I was reading with anyone, not even my perceptive and loving adoptive mother. 
But my second reaction, which I remember came later, was to rebel.  I would prove them wrong!  I would live a productive life, find and marry a girl of my dreams.  I would father and raise children.  I would succeed in my chosen profession, whatever that turned out to be.  All this and more eventually came to pass.       
I am not saying the psychologists were all wrong.   I struggled to maturity, fighting battles not everyone faces, strongly believing I could overcome most of the negatives of my early life’s experiences.   I did not do this alone.  I had the support and love of a wise adoptive mother and the encouragement in my school of some amazing teachers.   
Again and again my mother told me, “You are talented, you are intelligent.  You can become whatever you want to become.”  All this I describe in the memoir of my early years, Children of the Manse. 
It’s doubtful that most psychologists today would make the categorical hope-destroying statements that I read in my father’s books in the l940s.  Today’s psychologists would probably agree that a history of early neglect and abuse need not be the end.  Emotional wounds can be mostly healed and many have overcome their early years of abuse and neglect to lead unusually productive and rewarding lives.    
Only once did my adoptive mother think my behavior probably required the attentions of a psychiatrist.  I was fifteen and deep in the emotional turbulence of the teens.  My adoptive parents found me moody, uncooperative, and rebellious. I insisted on wearing my Levi jeans tight and low and had begun talking and acting like the young movie star, James Dean.
                                 My Psychiatric Evaluation
There was a woman, my mother said one morning at breakfast, who she wanted me to meet.  Dr. Baird, a psychiatrist.  The mere word psychiatrist created freezing waves of anxiety that flowed through me.  At first I strongly resisted such a meeting and at great length but finally agreed to accept an appointment with Dr. Baird.  She spent half a day talking with me; observing, asking questions, and putting me through a series of written exercises.   At the end of the session I was dismissed and my mother was invited into Dr. Baird’s office.
Mom told me later that Dr. Baird began with a serious look on her face, saying, “You have a serious problem.  Your son is suffering from a difficult condition.”  Then Dr Baird smiled.  “It’s commonly called adolescence,” she continued.  “Otherwise,” she said, “Your son is a sensitive but normal fifteen year-old male.”  Dr. Baird added that she was impressed with my maturity and wished to offer me a position as a junior counselor at her camp for disturbed children the following summer.   My mother, perplexed but greatly relieved, was light-hearted and smiled a lot as she shared Dr. Baird’s diagnosis over our lunch at a Mexican restaurant. 
When I became a man I began to see my difference not as something to regret, but as something special most of my peers did not have.  I grew into looking at my early history differently.  I saw the same reality but through a different lens.    I came to realize I did not have to repeat the sad life stories of my biological parents.  I had been freed to create myself, to become my own man.   
Here are some of the things I would say to those older foster and adopted children whose backgrounds, like mine, include neglect and abuse.     
Points to Ponder
---You are not as different as you may think.  Sadly, many children experience forms of  
neglect and abuse while remaining in their biological families.
---Being fostered or adopted has its good points.  It can deepen and enrich you as a human being.  It can free you to create yourself, which now seems to me life’s most exciting adventure. 
---Don’t feel sorry for yourself.  Don’t let yourself become a victim.  Come to terms with your difference.  Accept it and make something positive of it.    
---Get help with your anger, which was one of my issues.  Anger can only hurt you and can even destroy your chances for future happiness.   
---And, finally, do not lose heart.  Never surrender to despair, never give up hope.  It is never too late to heal.   You are free to become.