Accomplishment

While I love thinking about the ways my kids and I are alike, I think it’s also important for adoptive families to celebrate the differences between parent(s) and child(ren). The similarities say, “You don’t need bloodline to share habits and traits. That’s part of being a real family!” And the differences say, “You don’t need to be exactly alike to be a real family!”

Plus, given the many ways my kids are different from me (examples: their crazy good looks, their hair, certainly their athletic ability), it gives us a lot more to talk about.

Here’s a big one: their drive to accomplishment.

Given that I’m not Protestant, it’s probably not surprising that I don’t have a Protestant work ethic. I don’t think there’s a Catholic work ethic, but if there is, I don’t have that, either. Were my father alive to read this, he would probably argue that I don’t have any work ethic at all.

My theory—I’m very good at theories—is this: I was one of “those kids” who got straight As without even trying. That was pretty much my claim to fame all through elementary and high school. But I can’t say I ever saw any connection between accomplishment and happiness. If anything, they were opposite: The more I accomplished, the more I was teased and isolated. A great report card can’t compete with daily taunts of “nerd” and “teacher’s pet.” Shoot: I didn’t even like most of my teachers.

Result: Being able to accomplish has never held much value to me.

So it’s been a little strange to raise two little people who are—I’m pretty sure this is the technical term—“accomplishment lunatics.” They want to do everything—and more to the point, they want to excel at everything they do. In one of those weird ways your kids provide a mirror-image of your reality, for his first two years of high school, Daveon (who didn’t, at the time, know about his father’s effortless academic success) consistently declared to anyone who would listen that he “needed” to get a 4.0 and was going to take a range of honors and AP classes to boot.

Daveon has many wonderful qualities. Being a 4.0 AP class-type student is not one of them.

Daveon also held on to the idea of being a major league baseball player long after his peers had let go of little kid fantasies. Never mind that he was an average player at best. Also never mind that he never picked up a bat or ball outside of his team’s scheduled practices and games. Not once. I believe he subscribed to the Harry Potter school of “magical accomplishment without effort.” Maybe that’s why he liked the books so much.

Mark, meanwhile, went a different route. For him, accomplishment equaled stacking as many activities as possible on top of one another. It seemed like any time he saw, or heard about, or possibly even dreamed about, someone doing something, it became the next thing he “had to ” try: skating and ultimate Frisbee and basketball and violin and knitting and capoeira and …

At one point in about fifth grade Mark’s schoolwork was getting kind of iffy, and his behavior was even worse. I told him that he had too much going on and needed to pick one sport and one musical/artistic activity. He burst into tears and was inconsolable, moaning, “I never thought I’d have to make such a hard decision.” If you’ve never had the pleasure of watching a Mark meltdown … let’s just say, if the skating thing doesn’t work out, he has a bright future in telenovelas.

I’ve never been really sure what to make about my kids’ feeling that they need to do it all, conquer it all. Maybe it’s a self-esteem thing? Delusions of grandeur? A little bit of both? Or maybe there’s a genetic component, which is interesting to me.

Fortunately—at least from my perspective—both kids have eased up somewhat on the “must do must win” viewpoint. Daveon took a few years off from baseball, and when he joined his college club team this year, he made it clear that it was just for the love of the game, whatever the results. What’s more, he actually snapped at me recently when he thought I was pushing him to get better grades. I suppose is some kind of victory—although, given his first term report card, it’s fair to say that maybe he’s gotten a little too comfortable with letting go of those 4.0 dreams.

Meanwhile, as reported earlier, Mark has settled into a routine of school/skating/lather/rinse/repeat ad infinitum that he plugs away at week by week, term by term. Based on how often he complains about not having any free time, I think we’re safely past the activity-stacking phase.

I’m not sure what it says about me as a parent that I consider it a success that my kids are happier doing less. I’m sure my father is rolling his eyes from the great beyond.

Next: Competition

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Alike

One of the fun things about adopting older kids is discovering the ways you and they are alike. Since these little people already have personalities, and there is no shared bloodline, it’s a pleasant surprise when your kid acts a certain way or expresses a certain trait and you think, “Wow. Just like me.” It’s always a kick when I ask Mark to get the tablecloth out of the cabinet, and he can’t find it, even though a) it is bright red, b) it is the only tablecloth in the cabinet, and c) it is actually the only object in the cabinet. And then to think: “Gee, when I was a kid, I also could never find things that were right in front of my face!” (This is a true, if not especially flattering, example.)

Here are some other ways Mark and I are alike:*

Alike, but he's way cuter!

Alike, but he’s way cuter!

  • We are both great rule-followers, mostly because we hate getting in trouble.
  • We are very private and reveal facets of ourselves to another person only to the extent that that person makes us feel safe to do so. So for example, when Mark took up violin while still at ASCEND, he was very careful to tell that fact only to … other kids he knew who played the violin. Self-promotion is not exactly our strong suit.
  • Remember how I mentioned in my previous post that Mark loves predictability and gets anxious around the unknown, when he has to plan a day or event, when everything isn’t precisely mapped out? Alike.
  • And boy, are we both lazy. This might sound silly, given how busy Mark’s days are (and mine, for that matter). And make no mistake, when there’s something to be done, we get it done: If the day’s to-do list contains 10 items, we will go through 1 to 10 in order. (This ties in to the rule-following thing. I’m actually pretty sure that the main reason both of us overcommit to so many activities is that it’s the only way we would get anything done. But when the coast is clear, when there isn’t something we have to do—plop. Inertia as a lifestyle.

As for overlaps with Daveon:

Also alike ... and he's also way cuter!

Also alike … and he’s also way cuter!

  • We both live pretty much in our heads. Over the years I’ve consistently tried to encourage him to breathe, relax, feel what’s going on in his body. These are exactly the words I’ve heard from therapists, friends, and myself (to myself) over even more years. For what it’s worth, I’m not sure my efforts to get him into his body have been any more successful than my efforts to do so for me.
  • We also both feel hyper-responsible for doing things right, have a distrust of authority, and correspondingly struggle to allow others to take care of us. We take care of you. Both in high school and now college, I’ve heard countless stories of the friends Daveon has consoled over breakups, breakdowns, self-harm scares, and more. Which is a mirror of the role I typically play with people in my own life. On the plus side, we are the best friends you will ever have, given how we morph to others’ needs at the expense of our own.
  • Daveon and I share the feeling that we are “different” and will be rejected by others. Consequently we often get—or at least feel—rejection. (The whole “creating your own reality” thing.)
  • We smile a lot, more so from a sense that we should always put on a happy face than from actually feeling happy.
  • We love fantasy—hello, Harry Potter—and have escapist fantasies and dreams.

For kids who don’t share our bloodlines, I think it’s important to look for and comment upon ways that we are alike. It reinforces the truth that connectedness and belonging transcend genetics, and for me at least, it helps me “get” my kids at a deeper level when I can draw these kind of connections. (I’m much more patient with Mark about the invisible tablecloth than my father was with me … maybe not so much with the laziness.)

You can even make a game of emphasizing similarities with other family members, genetic or not. One sister and I now regularly share stories of how Mark and my niece mimic each other in quest of the (lovingly bestowed, of course) title of Family Airhead, while Daveon showed his family loyalty by carrying on a longstanding tradition on my mother’s side of needing a brace for scoliosis for a few years. (Apparently carrying on the tradition of serving lasagna at every family gathering was too much work.)(And yes, his spine is in the clear now, thanks.)

And even if drawing these kinds of comparisons isn’t important in the end, it’s certainly a lot of fun.

*I attribute, right or wrong, my similarities with Mark to the fact that we share the same birthday. In another one of those magic family coincidences, our birthday is … this week! Happy Birthday to use.

Next: Accomplishment

Mark

Part 2 of my perhaps misguided attempt to describe each of my kids in less than 1,000 words. Luckily, I only have two kids.

Today’s topic: Mark.

Too cute

Too cute

To get the obvious out of the way: Mark is a figure skater. This statement covers about 75% of his reality. For at least the past three years, he has faithfully gone to the downtown Oakland ice rink, every day, for two or more hours after school. On Mondays and Fridays, he also goes for two hours before school. And for good measure, he tacks on three hours on Saturdays. Starting at 6AM. Needless to say, the day Mark got his driver’s license, the quality of dad’s weekends increased exponentially.

Mark has advanced six skating levels (out of eight) over this three-year period, for which the technical skating term is “wow.” In 2013 he came within three spots of competing for the national title for his level, and after a disappointing finish in 2014, he’s putting the pieces together to achieve this goal this year.

As I say, he’s a figure skater. (When people ask me how he got into skating, there’s a funny story I like to tell. I’ll write about that later. The real answer is, I have no idea.)

Did I mention Mark is a skater?

Did I mention Mark is a skater?

Mark lives in a world of what I like to call “cheerful self-centeredness” coupled with a healthy dose of obliviousness. Whatever scars he has from his early experiences—and I know they’re there—they don’t seem to cut very deep. Until a few years ago, in fact, he thought that the last foster mom was his actual birth mother—never mind that she was his fourth placement.

Chillin on a boat

Chillin on a boat

In many ways Mark and his brother could not be more different. He is a big, strapping kid—at 15, he hit my height, and he wears a larger shoe than me—and he lives much more in his body than in his head. He plays the violin and is addicted to game, reality, and cooking shows (plus, more recently: zombies)—very highbrow stuff indeed. I used to say he would spend all his free time in front of the television if I didn’t make him get up once in a while, but since his school began requiring all students to have iPads—a sin for which I will never forgive them—he now he spends proportionately less time watching TV and proportionately more in his room with his Wi-Fi-connected tablet. Exclusively doing homework, I’m sure.

Musical Mark

Musical Mark

One way Mark and Daveon are definitely alike is that they share an absolute terror of being in trouble. Neither boy can remember anything “happening” to them in their past in terms of abuse, and the records don’t contain anything specific. But it’s clear that, whether as the result of specific incidents or just the accumulated effects of trauma moving homes so often, “doing something wrong” is a scary place to be avoided at all costs. For Mark, this first revealed itself one weekend morning when I went to wake him up, and couldn’t find him. He was five and had been in the house a few months only, and all my alarms went off. Where was he? What if he wandered off? What if he was too scared about this new living situation and ran away?

I’ll never know what prompted me to look under the bed. But there he was, still asleep on the floor (carpeted, fortunately—we sleep downstairs, and those floors are cold). I asked him what happened, and he told me he wet the bed. I was curious why he didn’t just come get me, and then one of those “inspired parent” moments hit.

“You used to get in trouble for wetting the bed, didn’t you?”

Big nod.

“Did you get spanked?”

Another nod.

So hiding—and probably freezing—was a better alternative than whatever “being in trouble” might bring. More subtle, teen-appropriate displays of this aversion continue to this day.

Two thumbs up!

Two thumbs up!

Another way this anxiety used to reveal itself was Mark’s obsessive need to know exactly what was expected, what was coming up, what would be happening, and when—a total clampdown on the unknown. One of his recurring questions was, “After we are done [whatever we are doing], what are we going to do next?” Never mind the fact that the thing we were doing was going to take three hours, and we were only five minutes in. Inquiring minds needed to know.

This has lightened up quite a bit as Mark’s gotten older, maybe (hopefully) as a result of understanding that we can kind of go with the flow and make things up as we go along, and nothing bad is going to happen.

Or maybe he just got tired of my sarcastic answers, which usually involved some variation on, “After this, we’re cleaning all the rooms in the house. With toothbrushes.”

Magical Mark

Magical Mark

Mark can be kind of monotone and withdrawn in new situations, especially around adults. But put him in an environment where he feels safe and happy, and he completely lights up. His passion and focus are remarkable to see, and however big he gets he will always be my lovely little boy.

Mark in his natural state

Mark in his natural state

Next: Alike

Daveon

Asking a parent to describe his or her kids in a few hundred words is like reading the Cliff Notes to Shakespeare—it can work, but you lose a lot in the translation. Nonetheless, since they are the raison d’etre of this book, I will attempt to give a snapshot of each kid. Hopefully I can convey at least a bit of the kids’ truly colorful natures, however muted they might come across.

We start this week with Daveon.

Cutest, part 2

Cutest

Several years ago, I once told Daveon he was my prince. He looked at me as though I had called him my warthog. But I meant it. Lots of kids go through adversity, and lots of them rise above to become leaders, creators, and inspirers.

But only Daveon is Daveon.

Studly

Studly

When the boys and I met in December 2002, Daveon was a month shy of his 7th birthday. He had been placed in his current foster home two years prior—it was, at the time, his 7th home. (You read that correctly: seven homes in less than seven years). County records for foster kids are notoriously sketchy (prospective fost-adopt parents, take note), and Daveon’s were no exception. They contained almost no information about why he had to move so often, other than to state that there were “problems with the placement.” In this phrasing, “placement” is code for “supposed caretakers.”

Here is a representative case from one of Daveon’s placements: The foster father took Daveon with him to the gym. Daveon—we’ll assume he was in the child care, not on the weight floor—was making a fuss, so the father brought him home. And left him there. Alone. Daveon wandered outside through the garage, and locked himself out.

He was three years old at the time.

Hey you!

Hey you!

Daveon has always been small for his age—his birth mother stands 4’ 9”. He is (deep breath) a runner, dancer, DJ, saxophonist, and rapper. He may also be in the running for world’s greatest Harry Potter fan, having read all the books, watched all the DVDs (in additon to movies 4-8 in theaters), and listened to all the stories on CD, most of them twice. For years he played little league, and baseball was his sport. He was, by his own admission*, a mediocre player at best, and when everyone got older and the stakes were higher, he decided it just wasn’t fun anymore. So he quit—in the middle of a season, in the middle of a game.

Award-winning

Award-winning

(* Full disclosure: Daveon only made this admission when he got a little older. In his early years he fashioned himself an all-star, which would make him the only all-star never to get a hit in a season.)

A lot has changed over the past couple of years, but for most of our time together, Daveon’s most notable trait was that he tried. Very, very hard. Often too hard. He wanted good grades, lots of friends, people to like him. He—for reasons that are pretty easy to understand—hated when anyone was mad at him, and when younger would run to the corner of the classroom and cry if a teacher reprimanded him, however gently. Ironically, or maybe not, while for many parents the goal is continually to encourage their kids to be more responsible, self-disciplined, and goal-focused, for Daveon it has been in many ways the opposite: trying to get him to relax, to understand it’s OK to mess up, to believe that there’s someone (really, a lot of someones) here who will carry the load, and all anyone asks is that he do his best—but not his TRYING VERY HARD best.

Please?

Please?

Other things have changed over the years, generally for the better. When Daveon moved in, he had a slew of food and environmental allergies, and now he has none. Though still small, adolescence helped him catch up from “tiny” to “low normal.” When we scuffle—you know, once every other year—it’s about dumb teenage stuff that’s “appropriate” for his age and stage. Which, ironically, is a healthy sign. His behavior is that of a “normal” teenager.

Hmmmm

Hmmmm

Daveon has, as you might guess, had a number of challenges over the years, many based on negative self-image and self-directed anger. He is the classic example of the kid who figured it was his fault he got moved around so much, so there must be something wrong with him. I will write more about this later—for now, suffice it to say he sometimes expressed his negative feelings in ways that ended up harming him and making his path more challenging.

Skater boy

Skater boy

But through it all, Daveon has always been a kid willing to listen, to accept responsibility, to work at change. That’s where the “prince” comes in. There have been times we’ve needed a break from one another for the sake of everyone’s sanity, but I’ve never been more impressed by anyone tackling—and, fingers crossed, overcoming—their demons as I have by my little big man Daveon.

Next: Mark