Thursday, November 04, 2010

ON THE GREATEST (NEAR-INVISIBLE) HUMANITARIAN TRAGEDY OF OUR TIME



The last couple of weeks have been big for Michael. We have been exploring his high school options and, yesterday, we all went through a visit, tour and interview at the school that we hope he'll attend for high school. This morning, as I drove him to the carpool pick-up, we had a chance to discuss our recent experiences ... and one of the topics was how he might use high school as a chance to discover something he'd be passionate about, that he'd actually want to do and decide to do in his life.

It's not something to be taken lightly. For most of Michael's life so far, he'd been told by others what to do -- from orphanage/social workers whose motivations can be more oriented to managing his existence vs. providing (long-term) guidance to us as his parents helping him transition to a new family, new country, new language and so on. Since he's stabilized in the transition into his new life, he has the chance now, I told Michael, to try to figure out what he would like (nay: love!) to do with his life -- and it is a luxury that most people in the world never have as they need to focus mostly on survival. Oh Yeah, I could see Michael's brain-gears shifting as I spoke, as he knows exactly what I'm talkin' about on that survival stuff!

The director of the school had asked what I was looking for in a high school for my son. I said, Three Things. First, the ability to understand his background and thus contextualize some of the standardized tests that the school references in assessing students. Second, an environment where Michael can blossom and hopefully discover a passion as most of his life to date had been focused on survival. Third, the ability to make him qualify for a college whose campus comes out of Harry Potter, or other similarly great-quality colleges.

One of my beloved Peeps emailed me jokingly that, based on my blog posts, I seem to be spoiling Michael rotten. Au contraire. I only usually blog about the aspects of parenting that are amusing, cheerful, etc. I don't blog about the difficult or fraught experiences that occur as a result of (1) having Michael live, as recommended by adoption experts, within clearly-delineated structures as they begin post-adoption lifestyles; (2) having to work extremely hard to overcome the delayed start to his formal schooling and then not just overcome those delays but make him competitive in the 21st century; and (3) last but not least, coping with how the skills that Michael mastered pre-adoption in order to survive are the same behaviors that make it hard to parent him (e.g., he had to learn to become independent and take care of himself -- which makes it more difficult for him to accept someone else's guidance, even if that someone else is his new Mom and Dad).

Throw puberty in the mix and, as an adoption therapist put it to me recently, multiply by three the usual turmoil associated with exploring identity.

The advantage of adopting an older child, though, is the ability to create a "New Normal" for him. For us, Michael's New Normal involves manners and respectful attitudes towards others; always finishing his school work before he can do any play; and not watching a lot of T.V. (after the first year where we did allow much T.V. for language-acquisition purposes) or playing electronic games because we'd rather not give him opportunities to go inward instead of engaging with his environment (e.g., No to PSP/game boys but Yes to model rocketry, sports and bee-keeping). Sure, he gets exposure to electronic games through other classmates' toys or at the public library, but it's not ingrained in his daily lifestyle.

Nor is the challenge of teaching him to be respectful to others and his environment a small thing. Respect? When his background has been informed by betrayal, loss and abuse?

Well, Michael has been with us for just a year-and-a-half and the result involves, so far, successfully transitioning from Spanish-only fourth grade to English-based Honor-Roll 7th grade in less than a year, and now being within "peer range" in tough subjects like math and Humanities (science is still a tad problematic, partly due to scientific jargon when he's still in language-acquisiton mode) such that he's at least a legitimate candidate for certain competitive schools. He is also polite and compassionate. And except to his parents, he is always respectful to others (let me just say that his irreverence with us is actually a deep sign of attachment--a good thing!).

Believe me, this result was not easy and I wasn't always at my Gracious Best as a Mom. Our parenting -- or family-creation -- experience can be characterized as managing-then-transcending chaos.

I want Michael to be happy but I always remember what a friend-parent said in summing up her parenting duty: "It's not my job to make him happy; it's my job to help him learn to live independently." Of course there are many ways of parenting, but this is an attitude I've found relevant to Michael -- hardly a spoiling-him-rotten approach. For the hubby and me, our desire for Michael's future is that that he be in a situation where he loves what he's doing but is also positioned competitively and not as much at risk to external forces (e.g. the economy) -- an approach that explains our focus on education, education and education. Life offers no guarantees -- that is true, but as a parent I don't find that useful. What I do find useful is what human history proves: the difference between those who become at risk to abuse or others' powerplays and those who are more in control of their lives is often ... education.

As a result of learning yesterday about his desired school's curriculum, Michael plans now, among other things, to study Mandarin. His current favorite class is actually Humanities because it is using China's history as a base for integrating culture, history, politics et al. The other evening, Michael worked long and hard into the night translating ideograms into English for his homework -- not a single complaint as he was really fascinated and intrigued by Chinese writings. Now, he wants to learn Mandarin -- brilliant, right? After all, China's already showing itself as a major global force in the 21st century.

With hindsight, I find it breath-taking that my son has decided, all on his own, that he wants to learn a Chinese language when, just a year-and-a-half ago at age 13, he was struggling with a topic like subtraction.

It's also breathtaking because Michael's experience shows yet again the largeness of a child's potential. That when a child's potential is not limited, that child can go much farther than even anticipated. Unfortunately, this also shows just how huge is the tragedy when children are neglected or abused. The existence of about 147 million orphans worldwide continues to remain the greatest humanitarian tragedy of our time -- something that has existed for a while but doesn't necessarily get the attention of one-off devastations caused by typhoons, earthquakes and other natural disasters.

I believe the pervasiveness of orphans' existence requires, among other things, certain shifts to how we view adoption and parenting. Adoption, by itself, is not the ideal solution (addressing the problems that cause children to be orphaned is the ideal solution since many orphans exist not only because their parents died but because their parents cannot afford to keep them). But I want to push adoption today because 147 million children is too many falling through the cracks as social and governmental policies around the world are insufficient.

Specifically, I am pushing adoption as something that might be considered by people who -- unlike the usual candidates for becoming adoptive parents -- had never had that much interest in being parents. This is my category, by the way. Up until literally the time that the hubby and I began exploring adoption, we had never discussed becoming parents. We weren't that interested. But we thought, Well, maybe we can do this, we have room in la casa, etc. And, sure, we were willing to try our best to be as good parents as we can be. But this is significant: we had no prior interest in parenting. We just didn't want to not be able to help out someone when we could; as we said to a neighbor who asked why we were looking at adoption, "It's the right thing to do."

Is our motivation good enough for being entrusted with a child's future? Perhaps not ideally so. Ideally, the adopting parent is someone who ... actually wanted to become a parent! But 147 million orphans -- that is indisputably TOO MUCH! The hubby and I often joke about ourselves as parents: We will never be the "best parents" out there, but we're better than nothing. Really, that's our threshold for ourselves as parents. But we so far seem to be doing as good a job as, or not mucking up more than, many of those who did become parents because they wanted to be parents. So, I'm all for encouraging those who had never felt strong desires to be parents (but who've got some common sense and are generally caring individuals) to ... consider becoming parents. There unfortunately is no substitute for what all children should have: a good family.

By the way, one of the controversies in adoption is the notion that adoptive parents go into it because they want to help "save" a child. This isn't what I'm talking about -- my suggestion that even people who'd had no prior interest in parenting consider adoption is not the same thing as entering into a relationship to save someone. It's just that I and my husband are living proof that this point of view as well can help generate new parents for the too-many who need Moms and Dads. So if you're reading this and have never considered parenting before but have perhaps the capacity in you, think about it.

Last but not least, the brilliantly-complicated nature of parenting is very similar to (my) poetry: One gets out of the experience what one puts into it. As with my experience in poetry, I have received a lot of blessings from the parenting experience that I never expected because I'd been willing to make a sincere effort to do a good job. Savior-hood is not at all in the equation. I have become a better person -- I have benefited! -- because I became a parent. If I did anyone a favor in this experience, it was moiself.

147 million orphans. Michael sometimes gets into phases of repeating various English words or phrases. 147 million orphans. To quote Michael's latest phrase-fetish, "What a shame."

147 million orphans. What a shame. I rarely write poems about Michael. When I write poems from my adoption experience, what surfaces are mostly the children "left behind." If writing poems is minimalistically creating a metaphor for what's urgent in one's experience, these neglected children are what rises to the surface of my lines. And they should: 147 million orphans. What a bloody shame.

So for you out there for whom this message might resonate: if even I can be a Mom, you can be a parent, too. Please consider it. 147 million orphans -- what a shame. Some of the children are waiting HERE.

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