June 13, 2012

Unanswered Questions

The boys and I wait patiently at the county social worker’s office, watching the clock slowly ticking 5 minutes, then 10, then 20 minutes past the appointed visitation time.  In anticipation of seeing their birthmother, the 12-year old had proudly brought his report card with straight A’s to show her, and his 10-year old brother brought some artwork that he had drawn, complete with hearts and a stick-figure boy holding hands with his stick-figure mom. 

Every Wednesday afternoon we sit in this room with its outdated furniture and bilingual public-service posters on the wall, the boys squirming in their seats with excitement about seeing their mom, me wondering what to think and feel.  I know that if she doesn’t come, they will be terribly disappointed.  Should I gently remind them not to get their hopes up?   If she does come, they will be loaded up with candy and cheap toys, and their mother will be unable to prevent their unrestrained energy and boisterous behavior from getting out of hand.  Should I calmly admonish them beforehand to be on their best behavior?  Either way, whether their mother comes for her weekly visit or not, experience has taught me that I will be facing some behavioral challenges for the next few days:  either from their anger at being broken-hearted once again, or at their frustration and confusion from being reminded that they cannot live with the woman they love.  Unfortunately, there isn’t a single thing I can do to change the situation.  So I wait quietly with them, saying nothing.

As the minutes continued to pass with no sign of her, it gradually became apparent that she isn’t going to come for her visit after all.  While I’m sitting there wondering how long to continue waiting, and at what point I should say something to these boys in my care, suddenly, with devastating grief, rage and disappointment, the artistic one violently crumples up his beautiful drawing, throws it on the floor and furiously shouts, “I hate her!”  His older brother stuffs his report card into his backpack and angrily mutters, “Whatever.”

How should I respond to them?  What could I possibly say in this situation that would be appropriate?  From a very young age, many children are taught the 10 commandments in Sunday School, especially every parents’ personal favorite: the fifth commandment which says, Honor your father and your mother, as the LORD your God has commanded you, so that you may live long and that it may go well with you.”  I know that I shouldn’t add to God’s Word, but doesn’t that commandment really mean, “Honor your father and mother if they are honorable, and trustworthy, and wise?”  How can I encourage these boys to honor their mother, when she is irresponsible and consistently makes poor choices that negatively impact their young lives?  How can I inspire them to not lose heart, to hold onto their youthful optimism and hope, to forgive this significant adult in their lives who frequently lets them down?

In an effort to dispel myths and negative innuendos, modern-day “experts” have compiled a list of acceptable terminology related to adoption.  It’s called Positive Adoption Language or PAL.  For example, instead of saying that a birthmother “gave up” her child for adoption, the more appropriate phrase would be that she “made an adoption plan” for her child.  This is a wonderful trend that I wholeheartedly support; adoption should be perceived and spoken of in a positive way!  When children are young, especially, it’s important to tell and retell them their adoption story using affirming, supporting words. 

When I was visiting a friend of mine a few years ago, her daughter, who had been adopted, showed me her lifebook, a photo album with pictures and stories that tell her personal story of where she came from and how she came to be a part of her forever family.  Right in the middle of the book, the little girl pointed to a picture of a busy street in a faraway country and explained matter-of-factly, “My birthmother wanted to make sure I was safe, so she left me on this corner where she knew someone would find me.”  As shocking as this was to hear from a young child, I realized that my friend had given her child an amazing gift:  she had taken a sad, negative story and clothed it with Positive Adoption Language.

But what happens when the child becomes old enough to understand that most mothers don’t leave their children on street corners?  That abandoning her baby was surely a heart-breaking, tragic moment in that birthmother’s life?   It will be impossible to sugar-coat the facts indefinitely.

And what about foster children who know their story first-hand and are currently living it?  These young boys know that their mother is seldom sober.  They’ve frequently been locked out of her apartment while she “parties” with her ever-changing stream of boyfriends.  They have been disappointed countless times when she makes promises that have not been kept.  It would be naïve and insensitive for me to put a positive spin on their difficult, painful experiences.  I wish I could preserve their innocence just a little bit longer.  I would do anything to be able to protect their youthful hope and child-like faith.  How I pray that their grief and disappointment never have the chance to harden their hearts and turn into bitterness and resentment.

The waiting room is now silent, but the “I hate her!” scream still echoes in the stillness.  I truly don’t know what to say or how to respond.  So I quietly take the hand of the younger one and lead the boys outside to the car for our long drive back home.  Tonight when I’m tucking them into bed, I will remind them that even when earthly parents fail, their Heavenly Father will never stop loving them.  Perhaps when the emotions aren’t quite so raw, I can ask if they would like to pray for their mother.  I know that I will most likely face this same situation next week and for many Wednesdays to come.  But I also know that I will continue praying, asking the Lord for wisdom as I face these unanswered questions.

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