Saturday, April 26, 2008

Reflections on Family

Me, my dear wife G, my dear son M, and my dear foster daughter K

We began grieving the loss of our baby girl, K, the day she came to live with us.

I imagine that most-- if not all-- of us have experienced this kind of grief. It’s the type of grief that comes with terminal illness of a loved one, for example. It is the pre-loss grief of a loss that is possible, or probable, or inevitable. It is both grief for the loss, and also grief for the grief; it is grief for the loss of so much joy that we might experience in the time we have with our loved one if only we weren’t already grieving.

My wife, G, and I have been foster parents for a number of years. We adopted our son, M, after foster parenting him for thirteen uncertain months. By the time K arrived, we knew well that in the course of a foster-adoption, anything could happen. K moved to our home from another foster home because she needed a potential adoptive placement.

Yet, while M's adoption had been considered a straight-forward one, even in his case I had walked into the Children's Services office one day when he was about a month old (totally unsuspecting), and received news from his social worker that she had found a suitable birth relative to care for M. Birth-relative placements give children a greater chance to maintain ties with their extended birth family, and thus are often considered ideal. But whether or not this move was ideal for M, it meant we’d be saying goodbye. "He will be moving to her house in two weeks" the social worker told me that day. And though the relative changed her mind the day of M’s move, it was forever etched in our hearts that everything was bound to change in an instant.

When facing such uncertainty, emotional survival mechanisms kick in. One job of the human brain is to protect our fragile emotional state. A disequilibrium of the emotional system can be tolerated for a short period of time, but then the brain must do its job to regulate. Otherwise, the other systems of the body-- and ultimately, human survival-- are threatened. The human mind is capable of great trickery to achieve this end. When M was six months old, Halloween came ’round. G and I waited until the day before Halloween to make his costume. In our minds, Halloween came into existence on that day when it was no longer “the future.” Somehow, we had to cope with the uncertainty, and limited vision did the trick.

M's adoption was finalized seven months later. We did not celebrate M's adoption until 31 days after it was finalized in court. The 30th day was the last day of the appeal period. Over time, the difficulties and pain of the foster-adoption roller-coaster faded from our memories. When G and I learned of K, we were able to joyfully say “yes” to her placement with us.

But the day she was placed in our arms, we all went home emotionally exhausted and took a family nap. I awoke with tears in my eyes, my heart heavy and throbbing at the thought that this moment- ANY moment - could be our last together. In that moment, I thought of K and also her birthmother who were both grieving losses that had already occurred.

It has been about a year and a half. K is a beautiful, stubborn, rough-and-tumble, curious two year old.

Our lives were all complicated very much in August, when we were scheduled to move to a state across the country. K's foster care case was originally scheduled to be closed in May. Likely, this would have opened the door to our adoption over the summer. Unfortunately, a variety of court delays have prevented resolution. K's ability to cross state lines have been semi-limited, except on a temporary basis when the court would allow a short-term travel order. So G and our children did not move with me. They continued to live in our old state indefinitely, while we awaited news. In October, we received news that the court was opening a door to adoption based on the history of the case. K's ability to travel for longer periods expanded, though she can be called back to our old state at any time. The court agreed on multiple counts of permanent parental deficits regarding K's mother. However, the case is under appeal, and won't be heard in the court of appeals at least until late summer or early next fall. Our lives remain very much in limbo, and in my brain, I sometimes protect myself by assuming that the other shoe will drop.

K and G and I have been participating in a therapy together to help encourage her attachment to us. It is not a traditional attachment therapy, nor is it among controversial attachment therapies. It is a behavioral-response therapy that helps me and G respond to K from a position that makes sense to her given her early trauma. This helps K to feel safe, and then we can begin to work on healing from there. Like me, K has to keep herself protected even as she loves and attaches. Though she isn't able to cognitively understand that her life is in limbo, on a cellular level, she has learned to accept impending loss as a permanent state. She has loved many people before coming to us, and she has lost all of them.

Once upon a time (and not that long ago), the child welfare system felt it was best to prevent kids from forming attachments and learning to love their caregivers because of the very "limbo" we are discussing. However, this was so incredibly damaging to children, that this social experiment was finally put to rest. The brain development of children depends in part on the development of early attachments. Whether or not K stays with us, her brain needs the opportunity to attach so that her neurological system can develop properly. Unfortunately, K's early life history makes attachment feel emotionally (and thus neurologically and thus physically) dangerous for her, and I believe that our periodic separations through this last year have on some level been re-traumatizing, which I previously feared but am uncovering layer by layer now in the therapeutic setting.

At the end of our fourth therapy visit, K fell down and bumped her head. The therapist and I watched in awe as K came over to me, crawled onto my lap, and put her head against my shoulder for a whole five minutes while I soothed her. K has always enjoyed being held, but she also keeps her body at a distance from mine. Though G has enjoyed K's attempts at closeness on occassion, K has always kept me at arms length. Remember, love and attachment does not feel safe to K, whose brain has been hardwired during a series of losses in her life. While K has not yet approached me for this degree of closeness again, I trust that we will be able to work together toward that end. K is attached, but it is terrifying to her. The very act of being attached to us, of loving us, and being loved back, makes her feel insecure. She has walls built around her heart for protection, just like G and I play mental trickery on ourselves to make the future disappear so that we too can feel more protected.

I pray that K continues to find peace in life and that she increasingly finds real love and attachment not only safe, but also fulfilling.

I love K so much it hurts. When I watch her laugh, when I see her playing with M, when she runs at me with wide-open arms, I choose joy. But it is painful for me too. There is a place inside me prepared to be her forever mother, and another place inside me (which I go around pretending doesn't exist, for my own sanity and so that I can attach and parent normally), that must be prepared to never see her again. This is what I would call a legally-induced multiple-personality disorder.

In a way, this is the immediate reflection of the struggle of all of us, as mortal beings: to love when it means losing, to love even though it means losing. Look around at any human being near you. They too are afflicted by this universal condition. We all are. We love, we lose, and somehow, we love again.

I'd like to write some reflections here on foster care, adoption, foster-adoption, and adoption reform periodically in the months to come.


Seppie said...

I know there are some differences (really, nothing compares exactly to the foster/adoption system) but it's interesting to me that the emotional tenor can be so similar with divorce and custody stuff. And to a great extent, that emotion is caused by the fact that we have to put our lives and the lives of our kids in the hands of a court system that is by nature imperfect -- we aren't in control of the decision-making, and the people who are don't know us and all the facts and facets of our lives.

Masasa said...

Yes, the family court system is very hard on families. It is not perfect and the power it holds has the potential to both destroy and create, to protect and to damage.

In fact, some of its imperfections are created to protect families from other imperfections. K's birthmother's rights are protected to the fullest extent possible in the current system, in order to prevent the far-from-perfect system from unecessarily terminating the original mother-daughter relationship of K and her birthmother.

On the other hand, meanwhile the prolonging of this process will in fact make a full blown "radical attachment disorder" a possibility in K's life if she is returned home eventually to her first mother, with whom she no longer has a relationship and whose ability to support her development and a healthy attachment is questionable at best.

One of the interesting dynamics at play here is that the court CAN NOT take into consideration anything having to do with K's current situation. The trial that took place this last fall and the appeals that will be heard hopefully before next fall will have nothing to do with us or how K is served by her current placement with us.

The only thing that can be considered is the evidence about whether or not K's mother is capable of safely parenting her. Not even of parenting her well. Just safely parenting her to the best knowledge of the court.

Perhaps this is one of those areas that differs from divorce-related custody issues. In the case of foster-adoption, the foster family is not a legal party to the case. We have no attorney, our interests and certainly K's interests as they pertain to us are not considered.

The judge is being asked to make decision's about K's life in a way that essentially exists in a bubble outside of the actual life she is living. Perhaps this is legally necessary to protect the interest of her first parent-child relationship (more on that later), but very, very, very weird. And also potentially dangerous even as it protects her and most of all, her first mother, in another way.

I don't believe that reform can perfect any of this. I think this stuff will always be hard because families are complex, dynamic units, and court systems must be somewhat static in order to create necessary stability when all hell breaks loose in a family.

But I do believe reform is one important piece in a larger picture.

sf said...

It's also hard on other family members --- of course, not as hard, but still, who feel all the attachments and also worry for the best interests, physical, and emotional well-being of the kids in their extended families.

Masasa said...

I'm sure it is very hard for you.

sf said...

I was not trying to imply it's as hard for non-parents in the family just that it is hard.

Masasa said...

I believe it.

Masasa said...

P.S. Two of G's nephews have been particularly worried. They have gotten to know K very well and become very attached, and they worry a lot about her leaving. Poor young, sweet souls, A and A are always checking in about whether there is any news. They say things like, "When will we know if K gets to stay?" and "They [meaning the courts] can't take K and M away from each other...they are too attached" and "That would be so sad if K didn't get to stay." Bless their hearts.

sf said...


Susan said...

I found your blog via the MDC forums and read this post with my heart breaking for you an your family. Bless you for having the love and strength to be a foster family!