Other NT Families

Through some combination of chance, coincidence, and “that makes perfect sense,” a large portion of our family circle through the years has included a variety of nontraditional (NT) families. It’s almost as though kids from alternate family structures have a sixth sense and can feel each other out. I would call it the NT-family-kid version of gaydar, except my gaydar is so exceptionally lousy (read: always wrong) that I’m not sure such a thing exists.

Whatever the cause, my kids have certainly bonded with a proportionately large number of kids from “like” environments to our own. As examples, I will pick two of each kid’s best friends over the years

Daveon’s first best friend when he moved to Oakland was Quinn. The first day Daveon went to elementary school at ASCEND, Quinn took Daveon under his wing and showed him the ropes. As Quinn later put it, “I remembered what it was like to be the new kid at the school, and I didn’t want Daveon to have to go through that.” (Yes, Quinn was and is a sweetheart.) Daveon and Quinn were pretty inseparable during the first few ASCEND years, and though their paths later moved apart, they still see each other a couple of times a year and remain close.

Quinn’s mother is Tammy. His grandmother, Tammy’s mother, is Esther. Quinn lives with Esther and her husband, Dave. Tammy’s father was Esther’s first husband—Dave is husband number two. Quinn considers Esther and Dave his parents. Tammy lives around the corner and they see each other pretty much every day.

So what, exactly, is a traditional family again?

Fast-forward a few years: In high school, Daveon’s first best friend was Michael. Like Daveon, Michael ran cross-country and track. Also like Daveon, Michael is adopted. His parents, Mike and Melinda, adopted Michael from birth. Michael’s biological parents are in the area and he sees them once in a while. Melinda’s sister also has an adopted son, who is her (the sister’s) biological nephew. That nephew/son, Ali, went to the same high school as Michael and Daveon (at the time) and was also a cross-country/track runner. So you had Michael, Ali, and Daveon, as the adopted runner brotherhood.

For what it’s worth, Quinn is mixed-race Mexican, Michael is mixed-race Latino, and Ali is black. What is the saying about like attracting like?

Meanwhile, Mark’s best buddy in elementary school was Siddhartha, and his best buddy in middle school was Carmen. Siddhartha’s birth parents are divorced (or split up—I’m not sure they were ever married), and each has remarried and has had a second child. So Siddhartha splits his time between his birth mom, step dad, and little brother, and his birth dad, step mom, and other little brother. Carmen, meanwhile, has it pretty simple: She is the adopted Chinese daughter of a single white mom, Becky. She also plays a mean ragtime piano. (Shameless plug: I give Carmen a shout-out in the ragtime post on my other blog.)

I could go on (and on, and on), but you get the point. I’m pretty sure that in none of their classes did either of my kids stand up and say, “Hi. I’m adopted and part of a cross-racial, single-parent family. Anyone here can relate and want to be friends?” It just … happens.

Even white, WASP, originally from Michigan Aunt Leigh has two mixed race boys by her Chinese-American partner, Uncle Marty. Come to think of it, I’m not sure I can think of one “birth mom + birth dad + kids all of the same race under one roof” family in our circle. Maybe it’s something in the water, maybe it’s a sign of the times. Or maybe it’s time to reexamine our sense of normal.

Next: Weekly Visits

Coaches, Mentors, and Other Parental Stand-Ins

For the next section of posts, I go beyond our tiny four walls and take a look at the many people and organizations who have—for better and worse—played a part in our family story.

To kick things off …

Some of the most fun—and in case you’re wondering, I am being sarcastic—you will ever have as a parent is dealing with the many flavors of folks who take on pseudo-parental roles with your children. This group includes babysitters, coaches, counselors, aunts and uncles, “aunts” and “uncles,” and many others. I would generally not include teachers in this category, since they play a pretty specific role in most kids’ lives. But depending on the teacher/student relationship, they could easily qualify as well.

Some of these parental stand-ins will become your child’s best friends; some will become yours. In a perfect world, at least one or two of them fall into both categories. This is rare—the job description is so different between the two.

Overall, the boys have had some pretty wonderful folks guiding their athletic, musical, and personal pursuits. Because many of these folks have become long-term, integral members of our family life, they will get separate mention in other posts. Here I present a few episodes that stand out. These were maybe not so wonderful—some comical, some a bit less so:

  • We start with the babysitter who took the kids to the corner store to buy, I kid you not, ice cream, candy, cookies, and soda—all in the same afternoon. And I don’t mean one kid got two of those things and one got two others—each kid happily* recounted the story of how he scarfed down ice cream, candy, cookies, and soda, in roughly a 4-hour window. Said babysitter also turned our kitchen into a science lab to make play-dough creations that involved just about every pot and pan we owned, as well as a fair amount of the sugar, salt, flour, food colorings, and other assorted ingredients. All well and good, except this young person apparently assumed our science lab came with a custodian, since all of the above-mentioned items were left out, and dirty, and often dripping, spilled, dusting, or otherwise splattered all over the place. (* Of course they were happy. The sugar high lasted three days.)
  • On a more serious note, there was the director of a boys’ mentoring program who called Daveon a “sissy.” And then, when we met, denied it. Daveon may have his flaws, but when we comes crying down the hall and crawls into my lap—in school, in front of everyone—I’m pretty much going to believe whatever he says is wrong. During the meeting, the program director also said, “You [Joe] are Daveon’s father, and I’m his father, too.” Whoa there, cowboy. I can’t exactly remember the last time you fed the kid, or took him to the emergency room in the middle of the night, or even cleaned up his baby-sitter’s play-dough kitchen mess. But if you ever want to take on any of those tasks, please call me.
  • And finally, the only issue I ever had at the middle school I otherwise loved: The coach who insisted Mark really, really wanted to play basketball, and couldn’t we work something out? Mark was heavily into skating at the time, and doing dual sports was not an option—we’d been there, done that, and unless your idea of a good time is a kid who’s exhausted all the time, stressed because there isn’t enough time to get school work done, and falling apart at home on a regular basis, this wasn’t an experience I was eager to repeat. So Mark, as he did in the past, had to choose, and he chose to continue skating. The coach actually got the school principal involved, who emailed me to see if there was some way that we could work with Mark’s “great interest.” Of course there was: Mark could choose basketball over skating. He did not. The punch line, of course, is that the first thing Mark said to me was, “I don’t really want to do basketball anyway. The coach just keeps pressuring me.” Because, you know, nothing speaks to “great interest” like the push from otherwise caring adults.

Next: Other NT Families

WMCLP

This last entry under “lessons learned” covers a topic that extends well beyond parenthood. But like many things in my life, it took parenthood to teach me the lesson. So here goes …

It was one of “those days”: On top of the usual routine of work/chauffeur/cook/etc., this one included volunteering at the kids’ elementary school, grocery shopping, and—why not—a trip to the vet. Not to mention needing to get it all done in a few hours to be home in time for a conference call. Which meant that—of course—the SUV in front of me was trying to set a new slow-speed record, and the (I’m sure very nice) fellow shopper insisted on walking with her cart directly in the center of the aisle, and was apparently very concerned with getting exactly the right brand of toothpaste. Which involved careful study of the 50 brands on the side of the aisle she was blocking.

Being the wise, gentle, calm Bay Area dude I am, I wanted to ram her cart, ram the SUV, and probably holler at a few puppies for good measure. Because, you know, MY DAY SUCKED.

And these, dear readers, are my white middle-class lady problems.

A few years ago, my friend Pete told this story: He was a trainer at a large credit card bank on the East Coast, and he was training a bunch of 20-somethings in, you know, credit card bank stuff. The training was not going well. Pete’s stress level, heart rate, and voice were rising, and then he thought:

You know, this is annoying, but at least I am not suffering in war-torn Bosnia. And I’ll bet that right now there is no one in war-torn Bosnia who’s thinking:

You know, this is annoying, but at least I don’t have to teach credit basics to a bunch of 20-year-olds.

That, my friends, is called perspective. It also explains why I love Pete so much.

In any case: So I’m in my car, and the SUV speeds up at the last minute to make the last tenth-second of the yellow light, which means I get stuck at the red. And I can already see that the train crossing is coming down that’s going to block me. And—of course—it’s one of those two-mile long freight trains, not the speedy Amtrak—and …

Wow. If these are my problems, my life is pretty good. I’m in the car I own, having just left the awesome school where my kids—who are also awesome—attend. And I just left a grocery store where they have 50 kinds of toothpaste because that’s the world I am fortunate enough to live in. And when—very long train aside—I get home, it will be to the house I own, from which I am able to work and support myself and my family. And oh by the way, Oakland and the Bay Area are really pretty and have great weather.

Given this as the backdrop, my “problems” are, as I now like to call them, white middle-class lady problems. Which, hey—no knock on white people, or middle-class people, or ladies—I’m in most of those groups. (There’s a term that’s since come up to describe the same phenomenon: “first world problems.” But I think mine is funnier.) And problems are problems—or, at least, annoying. That’s real, and there’s no sense trying to deny or it. But perspective helps. And when my brain is actually working in perspective, we have it pretty good.

Next: The Village: Coaches, Mentors, and Other Parental Stand-Ins

Communication

I know what you’re thinking: He’s writing a book about raising two boys, and he includes a section on communication? I thought this was supposed to be nonfiction.

Hey: Just because something is important to our story as a family, doesn’t mean we’re necessarily good at it.

This certainly isn’t for lack of effort. I have tried every which way from Sunday to stress communication with my kids:

  • Ask for what you want.
  • Let other people know how you’re feeling.
  • If somebody’s doing something that bothers you, tell them (preferably nicely).
  • If you do something wrong, admit it.

I’ve used all the tricks: If you keep saying, “Gee those just-baked cookies smell good,” you can dream about them all you want, but they’re getting wrapped for the school fundraiser. If you directly ASK for one—assuming we didn’t just come back from ice cream—it’s yours.

It makes sense that the kids would have trouble asking for what they want. Their early experiences taught them two contradictory lessons:

  1. You can’t have what you want (in that context, safety and stability).
  2. Adults are not to be trusted, so if you want something, you have to figure out how to get it on your own.

We’ve spent a lot of time on this last one—in the first year, Daveon regularly raided the refrigerator rather than just telling me he was hungry—and I think we’ve chipped away at at least a few layers. If you end up in relationship with one of my kids in the future, drop me a line and let me know how they do with the asking thing.

Communication rule #2: If you are sick, or tired, or stressed, or whatever: SPEAK UP. If you act like a nut, you will get busted for acting like a nut—that’s just how we roll. But if there’s stuff going on that’s making it hard for you to avoid nuttiness—a headache or an exam tomorrow or a couple nights of poor sleep—I will cut you a good deal of slack. But I can do that only if you tell me what’s going on.

As I like to say: Of the million jobs I signed up for when I became a parent, mind-reader was not one of them.

Which brings me to the most challenging—and maybe most important—aspect of communication I have tried to get across to the kids: If you mess up, admit it. I know this is hard for all kids—but for kids who got bounced around a lot, I think it brings up a particular terror. Messing up = moving out, another separation, another loss. This is what the “kid mind” believes, even though the moves had nothing to do with their behavior. So it becomes even more difficult to get the point across that everybody messes up, it’s normal and OK, and the best thing to do is just let someone know what happened.

To encourage this kind of communication, I try to do two things: One, when I myself mess up with the kids (shocking, I know): Come clean quickly and simply. Walk the walk. And two: Adjust consequences for behavior that’s reported honestly. If you come clean about something that would normally be a level 5 crime—say, the time one kid filched a few dollars out of the petty cash stash—because of your honesty, we’ll move the consequences down to a level 2 or 3. Or even, as in this particular case, drop all consequences entirely.

There’s another aspect to our communication life. I have and continue to regularly check in about—and ask the kids to talk to me about—where their heads are about alcohol, other drugs, and sex. I really encourage them to let me know if/when they feel they want to explore any of the above—and certainly if they already have. I try to explain that the goal is not to then punish them, but to see where the thoughts/behaviors are coming from and decide what the next steps might be, to best ensure that they continue to move forward in a healthy way physically, mentally, and emotionally.

We’ll see how this all plays out. Hopefully our communication story won’t turn out to be fiction in the end.

Next: WMCLP

Diversity in Schools

Memo to elite private schools: I don’t care how good it looks on your calendar, or on the cover of your annual report—if you’re not able to handle a diverse population, please stop trying to pretend that you are.

Not that I have any strong feelings about this.

I will describe our specific school experiences in detail elsewhere, but for now let’s just say that where school choice was concerned, there were some amazing successes—and some notable fails. Said fails boiled down to one thing: My kids have particular needs and issues, and the schools were unable or unwilling to deal with them. This, in and of itself, is not a problem—there are many days where I struggle to address my kids’ needs and issues, and I live with them. And of course, a private school can define itself however it wants, and can put together a student body that embodies that definition. But man—and I write this with the best of intentions—these schools could really do us all a favor by not accepting kids who don’t meet that definition.

In case you don’t know, elite private schools require an extensive amount of parent writing on the application—you’d think I was the one who was enrolling. Being me, I tried to be as honest and detailed as possible in my responses, figuring that the school should know who they were getting. I made—or tried to make—it clear that each kid experienced particular background circumstances, and because of these circumstances, there are issues. And just like in any relationship, if you’re going to take the person, you get the whole package.

Either I wasn’t honest enough, or someone didn’t read carefully enough, or other factors were at play. In any case, on more than one occasion, the school accepted my kid, who accepted the offer to attend, and—the relationship didn’t work out.

Which brings me to: The Bay Area is a wonderful blend of races and colors—that’s a big part of the area’s appeal, for some of us at least. Private schools here make a great show of incorporating that blend into their student bodies. I think they are sincere in their intentions, but they may not always be super-sensitive regarding what they are really looking for. From where I sit, there’s a certain student profile—in terms of background, family structure, personality, behavior patterns, academic ability and approach, etc.—and for most of these schools, they’re pretty much equipped to deal only with kids who fit, or at least come close to, this profile. The good news is, you can find those kids across the racial/ethnic—and, to a lesser extent, socioeconomic—spectrum, so a school can still have its calendar and have a functional relationship with all of its students.

For those kids outside the profile, trying to fit in at these schools is a futile exercise in “square peg, round hole.” And, at the risk of sounding defensive, it’s not just us: I’ve talked to other parents of private school kids who are just “outside the profile,” and everyone shares similar stories of struggle and frustration—with the students, staff, administration. In some cases, we have left, voluntarily or otherwise. In others, we have chosen to stay. But it’s a lose-lose either way, and this takes me back to: You can slice and dice diversity a number of ways—where big chunks of a kid’s life are involved, I humbly submit that an organization should have a very clear concept of how its slicer works. And then not try to pretend otherwise.

This is probably mean, but I have to close this section with a story about our visit to one school that, fortunately—in my opinion, anyway—my son chose notto attend. During the open house, the very white school made a great show of their embrace of diversity. The admissions director kept mentioning how “we” love “our” diverse students—without seeming to realize that if there is a “we” that’s doing the embracing, clearly the “diverse students” are something else—a “you” or a “them” or, who knows, an “it”? Not clever.

This was followed by a student who told the story of a peer, an Italian exchange student who loved soccer. After some big victory, said student rushed onto the field and kissed the team captain. And while this was “a little weird,” it showed how much the school embraced diversity.

Second memo to elite private schools: If your open house audience includes any gay members—and remember, this is the Bay Area we’re talking about—calling a kiss between men “a little weird” may not be the smartest PR strategy. Not to mention the diss on Italians. If you had told any of the (straight, married, usually old) Italian guys I grew up with that kissing each other was weird, they would have introduced you to a concept we affectionately called “break-a you face.”

Next: Communication