That Dude I Call Dad

It’s Father’s Day and I’m feeling nostalgic. Today was the first time that T wished Carl a happy Father’s Day for no other reason than it just hasn’t been on her radar as something a daughter does. She texted him this morning just before 7am and said, “Happy Father’s Day [heart emoji, heart emoji].” We don’t need these somewhat silly excuses to be reminded that we’re loved by and connected to her, but let me tell you, it also doesn’t hurt. Getting positive affirmations from T is like when your junior high crush told you he/she liked you; it feels special.

T’s biological father passed away 7 months after she moved in with us and though they had minimal contact over her 16 years, his passing had a perceptible impact. It was like her fond and mythical fatherly memories had been vanquished. She had just reconnected with him a few months earlier with the help of her therapist and they had talked on the phone a few times. Prior to this reunification she had spent time with him a handful of occasions and her recollections of him and their time together were positive and happy. She seemed to show no interest in raking him over the coals for abandoning her, nor any acknowledgement really that he had. “Dad” was always the good character in the play of her childhood.

When T first moved in it was absolutely fascinating watching her build an emotional portfolio for Carl. She could not figure him out. When he was traveling for work she would always sniff the backrest of the couch where he sat and say, “Smell right here! It smells like Dad.” She would study his hands, tell him his nose was too pointy, jokingly pretend to nurse from him, and put his socks in her mouth. He was a curiosity to her. T would always say, “It’s weird…Mom you’re like a dad, and Dad is like a mom.” She meant that he was the affectionate one.

A few months after T moved in she started to have huge meltdowns. During that time I hypothesized that she was experiencing and feeling her feelings for the first time. It scared her and she was ill equipped to deal with the emotional commotion. This played out in full blown tantrums, not unlike a toddler, with lots of sobbing and wailing in the dark many nights. Carl would be the one to sit and console her, physically rocking her for hours. In those instances I was grateful to have a parenting partner who had initially said the opposite of “sign me up” for these difficult days, but showed up when she needed him for no other reason than because he loved her.

In calmer times when things were going fine, I had to busy my brain against the sharper edges of jealously that he got to be this hero, while my position had been filled many times before and with ongoing disappointment and repeated hurt. T had a blueprint for what a mom was and she was an ardent skeptic with an air tight case that I would shake out to be any different. Just my existence (not me personally) represented a composite of her previous maternal caretakers. This is phenomenon that is not unique to our family and is prevalent for many kids in foster care, but I did not know that at the time.

Watching Carl fall deeply in love with T and she with him has been one of my greatest joys. She calls him specifically (not me) to just talk and say “hi” and I’m beyond content that she seeks us out separately for her needs. Need something accomplished that seems impossible? Go to Mom. Need a cheerleader and to hear how capable and worthy you are? Go to Dad. What a gift to give a child! Roosevelt said that “Comparison is the thief of joy” and I believe that to be largely true. I no longer compare my relationship with T to Carl and T’s relationship, but rather actively lean into the differences. She needs us both.

My relationship with T during our first few years as mother and daughter had nauseating complexity. Perhaps I’ll write some other time about the affects that had on my relationship with Carl. For now, I can say that as a family we’ve fallen into step and sometimes I feel like I can’t take it all in. Being one of her moms will forever be my sincerest gift and profound life lesson. I’m still giddy that she has allows us backstage passes to bear witness to her life and journey. Oh, and she has Carl in her phone as “The Dude I Call Dad”.

 

She’s Baaaaack

And just like that, she’s back. We’ve had regular contact with T for about two and a half months now and my heart feels full again. Our reunification happened when T called me out of the blue on a Tuesday afternoon and said that she needed some papers signed for housing purposes and asked if she could come by the house to get my signature. I was home and of course said “yes”, slightly suspicious, however, considering she’s 19 and a legal adult, why would she need my signature? I decided not to ask. With T I’ve learned it’s better not to do too much questioning and just see how things unfold. I would later learn, per her confession, that she made up the signature thing as an excuse to see me.

When she came through the door 30 minutes later I immediately hugged her and told her that I missed her. We chatted a bit to get the nerves and awkwardness out from not seeing each other in a while, coming off the heels of our last interaction which was pretty volatile. The last time we had spoken (the only exception being exchanging niceties on Christmas) was at a family mediation from which she stormed out of rage on wheels when she realized she wasn’t going to get what she was demanding. I decided to can work for the day (I work from home) and go to lunch with T at our favorite neighborhood spot to play catch up.  We talked about little things, we talked about big things, but mostly I think we both just enjoyed being in each other’s company again and sharing some laughs.

Since then we’ve settled into a routine of her popping by after school to watch Netflix, use our wifi, and get a little food in her belly. I love going about my business in the house and seeing her sprawled out on the couch talking to her new boyfriend on the phone, watching TV, or taking a nap. I think all human beings deserve to feel cherished and that they matter, but particularly children that come from foster care and most likely got a false start in this department. There was a time when T was practically allergic to our positive affirmations. Her coded messages of inadequacy seemed impenetrable, but now she embraces our compliments and generally says something funny like, “tell me more” or “I know, I’m awesome!”.

A couple weeks ago I mustered up the courage to let T drive us to lunch for the first time. She managed to get her learner’s permit last year on her own and passed the written test on her first attempt; I hadn’t managed to be in passenger seat since. T obliged me in taking only the side streets and I thought I handled it all very well (later reports to her father would show I was a basket case and made her nervous). Her driver’s test is next month and I’ve tasked my husband with being her coach; I know my weaknesses. We stocked up on groceries for her after lunch and off she went, back to her young adult independent life.

The raw parts of T’s life, past and present, aren’t pronounced to outsiders. I’m learning what it looks like to be the parent of a young adult not under my roof (baptism by fire as always) and I’m cherishing this new chapter, just as I have the other chapters, though at  times arresting and hard. Three years later things are coming into focus for us as a family, and the lingering affects of our unconditional love and commitment to her are showing. Being the parent of a teenager and empty nester at 31 is totally bizarre, but I wouldn’t trade it for anything. I’m grateful times infinity to be one of her mothers.

The Beginning

I’ve been a parent for 1,033 days. This isn’t the beginning of my story as a parent, but it is the beginning of me processing it fingers to keys style. I’ve wanted to write about our family from the day our daughter moved in, but for a million crap reasons I didn’t. Today I’m inspired so here goes nothing! I think I’d regret never telling the story that’s so uniquely mine and my version of it in my voice. I imagine I’ll unpack and sort through things here as they’re happening in our family, as well as share glimpses and context from before, but first a brief sequence of events explaining how we got here…

I met our daughter at the gym where I was coaching gymnastics in 2013. She was 14 at the time and a staff member at her group home had put her in gymnastics classes because he recognized her natural athleticism (it’s hard not to!). She demographically stuck out to me like a sore thumb- not a lot of 14 year old girls starting gymnastics for the first time in my tenure as a coach. I was almost immediately drawn to her in ways that I still can’t really articulate, just feel.

Several months later I became her coach. I learned then that she lived in a group home, and occasionally she would dispense spotty stories about her birth family and life outside the gym. She was an anomaly to me, but I felt a certain urge to shepherd her in a capacity beyond coach to athlete so I fervently inserted myself in her life in places I deemed lacking. She worked out at the gym with me on weekends; I organized social hang outs for her with some of the older girls on the team; I jumped through county hoops to get approval to have her over to our home for hangouts, movie nights, and eventually sleep overs. The therapist at her group home noticed that I was showing interest in her and asked me to attend one of the team monthly planning meetings. That’s when I got curious about what it would look like if we were to foster her. The rest is kind of history as they say, which is still crazy to me. My husband actually remembers the story better; it’s all kind of an mental/emotional blur. I joke that I had pregnancy brain during that time.

In August of 2014 she moved in with us and in February of 2016 she was adopted. There’s of course been a few handfuls of lifetimes of things that have happened in between then and this post, but it feels like she was always in our lives. I imagine most parents feel that way about their kids- hard to remember life before them. My husband (now 35) and I (now 31) had never talked about fostering or adopting (nor kids for that matter) and to be perfectly transparent I was completely ignorant to the idea. I thought it was something “good people” did and I didn’t consider myself in that merit category, which I now know to be completely ridiculous thinking. We see fostering/adoption simply as a different way to make a family. And actually, I feel a fierce maternal instinct for our daughter that is void when I think about having biological children. I knew that I wanted to be HER parent.

Parenting an older child from foster care has hands down been the hardest thing I’ve ever done (like unbelievably-hard-you-can’t-even-imagine-want-to-set-fire-to-everything-hard), but also the greatest and most profound. The three of us had no idea what we were in for and I’m glad because collectively we likely wouldn’t have done it, but I would do it all over again. Some of the stories here may be scary because she’s had some difficult behaviors, but it’s never been more than my husband and I could handle. And we always tell her she’s more than her behaviors or the sum of them.

Our story may be atypical, but it feels one-hundred percent natural. Kids need parents. Period. It’s been our experience that kids that have spent extensive time in foster care need parenting well into their early adulthood more than most and in unsuspecting ways. The fact that our daughter could attach to us in such a compelling way is rare and special. I’m awestruck and thankful to be the one she’s chosen to meet her previously unmet needs from earlier stages of life. Whatever beyond fortuitous/grateful/appreciative is, that’s what I feel to know our daughter. She’s wildly hilarious, wise, has the best smile, nurturing, intuitive, and she’s chosen to call ME ‘Mom’. Wow! Our life together is messy and complicated, but I feel so rich in the opportunity to bear witness to her life.

I feel passionately about the representation of older children in the foster/adoption narrative because it’s less common, but it does happen! And for some people like me, when you least expect it. You don’t know something until you know something, right? Oh, and in case anyone was were wondering the ‘adoption’ part of things for us didn’t really change our day-to-day lives, our commitment to our daughter, nor her stability in remaining in our home. It was more a technicality that actually proved to be particularly agitating for T. Stay tuned.