Transitions

For the most part, I consider myself a pretty smart person. I like to think I have some accomplishments to back that statement up. On the other hand, sometimes I am not always so quick on the uptake. For example: Over the years, as if on schedule, my kids would regularly  get into some kind of trouble at these times of year:

  • The beginning of the school year
  • Winter break
  • Spring break
  • The end of the school year

After seven? eight? years of them losing outings and other privileges at these times, it finally dawned on me that: a) There’s a pattern here! and b) All these times have something in common: they are all periods of transition.

It took me roughly forever to understand how hard transitions are on my kids. However, once that light bulb finally went off, it wasn’t hard to understand why. I know that most of us don’t do well with transitions. But consider: If your foundational years often consisted of a (not very fun) game of “Now You Live Here, Now You Don’t” (and its spin-off, “Who’s Your Momma/Daddy? Well, Not Me, Anymore”), it makes perfect sense that any shift in context, however slight, would bring up deep wells of anxiety. And, as with most of us, our expressions of anxiety aren’t always the most constructive or useful.

I think the depth of my kids’ anxiety became clear to me when I realized that the “acting up” happened even during a supposedly positive transition. I could understand the boys getting out of hand when school starts—that’s no fun for anyone, guaranteed to bring about low moods and rebellion—but why would you “mess up” the beginning of summer vacation? (Or even, as on their second visit here, why you would act so nuts on New Year’s Eve that you get sent to bed at 8PM and miss the party?)

Lesson learned: Anxiety has no value judgments. It doesn’t discern between “good” situations and “bad” situations. There are only “scary” situations, however benign they might appear on the surface.

So, after those seven? eight? years, I was finally able to start taking a step back when one or (usually) both kids started going to their crazy-acting zone. I was finally able to remember to look at where we were not only in personal circumstances, but also on the calendar. It makes a world of difference to be able to say, “OK, school starts next week and you’re acting like a nut. My guess is that the change is making you anxious, even if you feel like it’s not .* Let’s assume that’s true and see what we can do about it, before you get yourself into any trouble.”

*(Other lesson learned: Kids aren’t always so good at self-evaluating anxiety. Shocking, I know.)

When I remember to take it, this approach has generally proven to keep things much calmer, and allows for a better conversation around limits: “Here’s what will work during this transition period, and here’s what crosses the line.” I know I am really fortunate, but I find my kids respond really well when we lay out the acceptable behavior paths and the consequences for straying from that path. It helps minimize the straying in the first place, and keeps things under control if a consequence needs to be delivered somewhere along the way. It also, I think, helps bring down the anxiety somewhat in the first place.

The beautiful thing about transitions is, they end. What was the “scary new thing” soon becomes “the thing,” and we get into our groove—at least until the next transition presents itself.

Next: Pain

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Harm

As a rule, I try not to make gross generalizations based on my own experience. But I think it is safe to say that for most, if not all, parents, one of their worst fears is their child coming to harm. The situations and people who can cause harm to your child—whether accidentally or on purpose—are too numerous to count, let alone comprehend..

And then there is self-harm.

I am uncomfortable, and unsure, about the level of detail to reveal. I believe that the full story is my son’s to tell. I will say that over a period of about two years—fortunately, very occasionally in comparison to many of his peers—my son chose to take out his sadness, negative self-feelings, and rage, and attack not the perpetrators, but the victim: himself. His own body.

In over 10 years of parenting, nothing has come remotely close to the kick in the gut experienced—daily, hourly, sometimes more often—during this period. It was the most of the seven stages of grief—the ones before acceptance—coupled with terror, coupled with self-recrimination and guilt. It didn’t matter that the deep-seated causes of his pain happened, almost certainly, years before he first walked through my door. It didn’t matter that every parenting workshop, advice book, and mentor trumpeted the line “Good enough is good enough—you do not need to be perfect” over and over.

All that mattered was that my little boy was a victim of repeated attacks. And that, out of deep buried pain and shame, he was the perpetrator.

The reactions were, to me, astounding. His school—the one that trumpeted the line over and over to incoming parents, “Trust your kids to us during their time here. We will hold them.”—threatened to kick him out. (For what it’s worth, they did eventually kick him out, for an entirely unrelated reason.) The then-therapist told him, in front of me: “I’m not going to tell you not to do this behavior. If you want to do it, go ahead and do it.”

Needless to say, this wasn’t exactly the message I wanted to communicate.

It did reach a point where I finally said: “As your dad, I can’t see that loving you means just sitting here watching you hurt yourself and not trying to do anything about it. But if you tell me, ‘Dad, yes, the way to show you love me is to just let me do this, and not try to stop it or come up with alternatives or anything,’ then I promise I will.”

I think that conversation (maybe) helped. Something about giving him the power to define the loving action made him, I think, see that having a dad who sat back and did nothing might not feel so good after all.

In any case, that interaction seemed to mark the start of a turnaround.  With the help of some very wonderful people and the good thoughts and prayers of many more, my son did get past that period. My own internal “recovery” took a while longer, but I was eventually able to move past “constant vigilance” mode, looking for danger signs. If any of the “wonderful people” is reading this, I can’t thank you enough.

The experience of trying to find the authentic path to caring for my child also reinforced for me the importance of self-care. Current and future parents, lesson learned: When you are centered, and grounded, and calm, you can be present in a way that is simply not possible when “life” takes over. Engaging in self-care, whatever that looks like for you—nights out, vacations, naps, “grown-up time,” it doesn’t matter—not only helps you stay calm in the face of crisis. I firmly believe it may be one of the most effective ways of helping prevent crisis in the first place.

Your kids inherently love you, and you love them. Most kids are pretty good at loving themselves, however battered and bruised that might appear. Make sure parent loving self is part of that equation.

Next: Transitions

East Coast

For most of our time together, the “East Coast” was sort of a mythical place to my kids. Having a father who is the California expatriate, there was something magical about stepping off a plane and being surrounded by the entire balance of the immediate Sadusky family: four sets of aunts and uncles, a gaggle of eight cousins, and, in the center of it all, the one-and-only Grandma Connie. Even after 10 years of hearing from, talking to, and visiting, the “East Coast” has its own special place in the boys’ hearts.

Making this connection wasn’t exactly a piece of cake. In the middle-class, Mid-Atlantic, mostly-very-Catholic world of my blood family, the reality of me adopting two boys, of a different race, as a single gay man, did not exactly follow anyone’s script. And in my middle-class, Mid-Atlantic, mostly-very-Catholic blood family, folks are not exactly shy about letting you know when they disapprove of your off-script choices. Loudly.

Given that, I consider it a blessing (if not a minor miracle) that over time everyone has stepped up and embraced the kids both physically and emotionally in ways that have been wonderful to behold.

My father was actually the first one to extend a welcome, and our first trip back East, about a year after the boys moved in, was to see him solo. Given that my parents were married and living in the same house, this would have required some FBI-level logistics. Unfortunately, Dad solved that problem conclusively by passing away about two weeks before our trip.

Mark, on hearing the news: “Awww, I wanted to meet him.”

It took about another year before my mother made her first overture towards my new family, and gradually the rest of the pack followed suit. Since that time, we have made the trek back east at least once yearly. All four sisters and their families roughly within an hour of my mother—who is still in the house where we all grew up—so it is fairly easy to plant ourselves somewhere central and make visits to most or all of the homes. We usually try to time the trips to some occasion: We were either there or just missed both my youngest niece and nephew’s births in August, and we hit a couple of eighth grade graduations a couple of Junes ago. Although we usually travel in the summer, one year we made an exception and flew out on New Year’s Eve to celebrate Daveon’s early January birthday with the East Coast family—at his request. It was his only winter birthday with snow. (As it turns out, a couple of years later, we made a flight right around the same time to attend my grandmother’s funeral—a slightly less joyful January visit.)

Unfortunately, by the time we started our East Coast visits, the boys missed not only my dad, but also several of the “grand old ladies” of the family, including Aunt Bett, Aunt Phine, and Cousin Betty. (I grew up around a lot of Italian women. The men all died young, which may be why the women seemed so generally cheerful.) The boys did get to meet my grandmother, Mom Mom, before she passed at age 100. They have, as cousins/nephews will, formed different types and levels of bonds with the various aunts, uncles, and cousins, some of whom they stay in more or less regular contact with through the wonder of Facebook.

As a sign of the connection, on our last trip to the East Coast, each kid spent time there separately. Daveon went first by himself while Mark was finishing school, and after Mark and I joined him, Daveon and I took off for a few days to look at Northeast colleges. It was quite an accomplishment that kids who came into a family as preadolescents not knowing “Who is my parent?” would within a few years—as teens, even—willingly and eagerly look forward to spending solo time with the extended family.  I am glad that “East Coast” is available as a resource for them, and hope they and their cousins maintain close bonds as they become the next generation of adults.

Next: Hard Parts: Harm

Weekly Visits

The old proverb (as well as the Clintons) say, “It takes a village.” I take old proverbs seriously (the Clintons, not so much), and here is just one example.

During the first year we were together, my kids and I had the great good fortune to enjoy regular weekly visits from not one, not two, but three of our family aunts and uncles. Each person had a regular night. The boys knew pretty much by heart whether the day was going to be an Aunt Leigh night (I think those were Wednesdays), an Uncle Jim night (Thursdays?), or an Uncle Herman night (Tuesdays). Except for the occasional illness or out-of-town vacation, these visits were as regular as clockwork. As you might imagine, they were “treats” that the kids looked forward to week by week—almost as much as dad did.

Each visit had its own flavor. Uncle Herman was the playmate, spending most of his time on the floor with the boys while dad was freed up to cook, work, and clean. While I’ve never exactly embraced cooking, working, or cleaning, it was certainly easier to do when the kids were trying to put someone else in a headlock for a change.

Uncle Jim divided his time between kid play—“the claw” was a regular feature, much to my kids delight (the boys are now 19 and 17, and we see Uncle Jim once, maybe twice a year; and if the four of us are in the car and I’m driving, I still have to tell them to knock it off with all that “claw”nonsense)—and grown-up talk with dad, providing badly needed conversation that didn’t include the words “Spongebob” or “time out” or “phonics.”

And Aunt Leigh … well, basically, Aunt Leigh took over, cooking, cleaning, mending, probably getting some teeth brushed and hair combed in there as well. When Aunt Leigh was in charge, dad could read the paper or take a nap.

Lesson learned: For every uncle in the picture, make sure you have a few aunts.

As if it had been prearranged, after almost exactly a year the visits pretty much ended across the board. Uncle Herman had a new guy and soon moved to Santa Cruz. Uncle Jim took a job in Boise (welcome back to California, Jim! Long overdue!). And Aunt Leigh and not-yet-uncle Marty bought a house that required as much time and energy as any kid—at least until she had two of her own.

But the imprint of that early contact is indelible. The boys see Aunt Leigh only occasionally, Uncle Jim less often, and Uncle Herman not at all. But all it takes is a mention and they can go on with favorite moments, “remember when …” stories, and general good vibes in connection with the name.

We have had many other “regular visitors” who either were (Max, Uncles Cedric and Ray), or became (Christina) family, but I have to give a special shout-out to those early pioneers, who stepped in during the period when this whole “family” concept was a bit of a wild card. Their presence helped create the needed sense of security and smooth down some of the rough edges. All of us, especially dad, were in better moods and on best behavior with other grown folks around—and I will always be grateful for what they brought to the table (which sometimes included pork chops  Thanks, Leigh!).

Next: East Coast