Most of us have things about our family – medical history, substance abuse, family dynamics, and so forth – we wish we could change. In the Patton family, my family of origin, we have skeletal issues – bad knees, bad shoulders, back ailments of various kinds, etc. If I had given birth to my children, I might have passed on one or more of these problems. Pattons also tend to be shy, artistic, athletic, and intelligent (in the way that school performance measures intelligence). Intelligence in our family has not always translated into finding lucrative careers or stable relationships, but, on the whole, we’ve done pretty well for ourselves. Serious mental illness and addictions have not been problems for us (thus far).
In choosing a life partner, one also chooses to live with the partner’s health history and other issues. If you have biologically-related children together, you choose to roll the dice with your combined genetic make-up, hoping your child inherits all the good qualities of both parents and none of the bad.
But what about adopted children? I think it’s fair to say that most of us who adopt babies are so desperate to be parents that we don’t think long-term about the health histories we are handed by social workers and attorneys – health histories filled in, typically, by young mothers with little to no idea about what ailments afflict their extended families, much less the family of the biological father. We adoptive parents know we cannot expect a perfect child. And we can’t wait forever for a child who fits some idealized description. We are grateful – SO GRATEFUL – to be chosen at all.
Then our adorable baby grows into a toddler, a child, a teen, and a young adult. Inevitably, along the way, he or she manifests traits and medical issues that have absolutely no connection to that which is familiar to us. We are cast into unchartered waters and set adrift to figure out the best course of action.
If we are lucky to have an open adoption, we can seek help from birth family. But it’s awkward. How do you ask: Does mental illness run in your family? Has anyone struggled with addiction to alcohol or drugs? Are you aware of learning disabilities or differences in your family?
I suppose, if you have a close enough relationship, these types of questions should not be that difficult. It’s all in the family, right? Personally, we have been very blessed in two of our adoptions to have just that sort of trust in each other as parents in different ways. Even the hard-to-hear answers are easier to accept because there is love.
But, I will admit, there are times when I want to tuck tail and run. I didn’t ask for this. I wanted a child to love and raise who would be successful in school, who would enjoy family times together, who would aspire to great things, who would seek physical health, who would love ME in return. Too often these days, I hear just the opposite: “I hate you and I hate this family.” “I don’t want to be in school.” “I have no goals.” “Leave me alone!”
Have I failed as a parent? Have I failed to embrace some essential something about my child(ren) that is so foreign to me that I cannot grasp it? Sometimes John and I huddle in our bed at night and say to each other: “We love them so much. We can’t mess this up.”
But a new day dawns and we start again with renewed hope, new strategies to try, and a determination to keep putting one foot in front of the other – just as we expect our children to do.
There will be unexpected laughter. There will be moments of connection between child and child or adult and child. And best of all, there will be times when a child’s love leaks through a crack in his or her wall of feigned indifference and lands squarely on one of these less-than-perfect parents.