Treading Water

A friend and fellow parent was over at our house a few days ago. She listened as John described the recent challenges with our five children – learning, transportation (to five schools), social, athletic, etc. She responded, “Your problem is volume – too many kids. All you can really do right now is tread water.”

When John reported this conversation to me, the image of treading water stayed with me. It was reassuring. I shouldn’t expect to accomplish great things – to move forward – in my individual life. I was doing all I could do under the circumstances.

As I lay in bed, I imagined myself at a beautiful white sand beach, floating in the bright warmed-by-the-sun ocean water. Suddenly, the peacefulness of the image was interrupted by shouts from the shore. Skye had buried Becton up to his neck in sand! He was immobile and the tide was coming in. Skye stood by laughing.

K.J. sat a few feet away, ignoring the commotion, fully dressed, arms folded, refusing to speak or to engage in the family activity.

On the other side of the screaming child, Emily lay on a towel, oblivious to the fact that she was burning in the sun. John was trying to talk to her about raising her SAT/ACT scores so she could go to the “college of her choice.” Emily put her earplugs in and turned up the volume on her iPod.

Where was Journey? In a panic, I scanned the beach. Finally, I spotted her off in the distance bending to examine shells. It would never occur to her to think about safety or to ask permission before wandering off.

Skye had now entered the water and the undertow was pulling her out to sea.

Do I dive in and swim like crazy to pull Skye back to shore? Do I run down the beach to bring Journey back before some stranger walks off with her? Do I race to dig Becton out of the sand before the next wave drowns him, and then hold him in my arms to calm his fears? Do I then turn to punish Skye for her hurtful behavior? Do I approach K.J. and coax him out of his isolation? Do I rush lotion to Emily or intervene in the battle between father and daughter?

No matter which urgent issue I choose to address first, I will hear complaints that I did not reach someone else soon enough. I’d have to be an octopus with very long arms to be treading water right now. Truth is, there isn’t really even enough time to get in the water. I’ll be lucky if I remember how to swim by the time the kids are grown. Or, as another older mother said to me: I’ll be so senile by the time the kids are grown, it won’t matter that I’ve forgotten how to swim.

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I wrote the foregoing piece as a light-hearted way to express the frustration of these days. But I want to make sure you know I haven’t given up.

Before I was married, I met an older gentleman who worked with John. The man and his wife had adopted two children who were, by then, grown. The children were no longer a part of his life. He was bitter and angry. He shared how different and difficult the children had been from he and his wife. Having never thought much about adoption before, I left the conversation feeling that adoption must be a very bad thing for everyone involved.

Years later, when I was married with small children, I had a similar conversation with another adoptive father. He and his wife had two biological children, but had adopted a young girl with a difficult past. She had grown up and run away. This father, too, was bitter and angry. He had nothing good to say about adoption. As far as he was concerned, the daughter was dead to him. He would focus on his “own” children who were successful and well behaved. I left that conversation committed to figuring out what had gone wrong so that I would not repeat it.

I have a different water analogy for my journey. I am a ship’s captain, steering a course among the rocky waters of genetics, nurture, individual personality, special educational needs, teenage hormones, and whatever new storms may appear. But unlike the fathers I talked to years ago, I have a number of co-pilots. They include John, of course. But they also include my children’s other parents who provide insight into my children’s personalities, talents, strengths, and weaknesses. These co-pilots ease the burden of the work. I am strengthened – not just by my commitment to my children – but by my commitment to them – the first parents. We went on this voyage together. Even in the case of Becton’s closed adoption, we took him with the hope that we could someday know his original mother and father too. When that day arrives, I want to be able to hold my head up high and say, “This is our son – yours and mine. We are so proud of him. I know you will be too.”

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