Monday, June 27, 2011
As the parent of two teenagers, I not infrequently discover new shades of meaning of the word “discouragement.” Even in my most realistic (and I read everything I could get my hands on while my husband and I waited to adopt, to be sure that my expectations would be realistic) parenting dreams, I never could have imagined the challenges that the teen years would bring. And it’s not even sex, drugs, firearms, or running away, the kinds of things I was ready to worry about. Who would have thought the field of opportunities for parent-child conflict and misunderstanding could be so vast? Who could have anticipated, e.g., how much self-assurance it would take not to be deeply offended by my teenagers’ tenacious conviction of my utter stupidity? And running along with the friction, in the background, is the awareness that such conflicts will soon be replaced by the calm of their absence.
“Vast” is a word that also might describe the doubts, the questions about the future, that plague the parents of teenagers, “Will they become responsible, considerate adults?” “Will they be able to take care of themselves, have jobs, pay their bills?” “Will they have close, healthy relationships?” “Will they ever learn to hang up their towels?” And, “Why didn’t I make this parenting decision rather than that one?” or, “Is there anything at all that I can do about it at this late stage?”
Getting out of this pit of discouragement and doubt only seems possible, paradoxically, when I am able to throw out the questions and evaluations, to drop the story line, to spit in the face of these most consequential concerns, at least for a little while, and only observe, register, imbibe, my sons’ simple physical presence. I am rewarded when I can manage just to savor the sensory data: their forms, their eyes, their whiskered chins, their mannerisms, their non-childlike voices, even those characteristic teenage olfactory features of which I try to get them to be less free in sharing. Once I can just acknowledge this physical presence with gratitude, any positive interaction can, and sometimes does, follow.
Physical presence. Being there. Above all, it has been this physical presence with which I, their second mother, have been blessed for all these years. It is exactly the same presence of which, during this time, their birth parents have been bereaved. As I face a time when my children will be on their own, away from me, I wonder again what that absence must have been, must be, like for their first parents.
Yet, at the beginning of my children’s stories, their presence in my life was not, of course, physical at all. It was their birth parents, with no involvement from their present mom and dad, who brought my children into being. I wonder if they, these creators, are sometimes able to see this event, this piece that is missing from my own parenthood puzzle, as a nugget of indestructible joy, buried as it might be beneath the landslide of adoption grief.
As I watch my children grow up, my parents (myself!) age, my extended family grow and shift, I am forcefully reminded of how life’s only certainty is change. And yet, in another sense, everything that happens actually is permanent, or at least can never be undone or subtracted from but only added to. I think that’s why forgiveness can be so difficult, especially if we mistakenly believe that it means trying to “annihilate” the offense. It’s why, despite what the “amended” birth certificate would suggest, adoptive parents don’t ever completely replace birth parents. It is also why a reunion of an adoptee with his or her birth parent(s) does not undo the adoption. And it’s why something of my children has remained all this time with their birth parents, and why the physical presence, and what flowed from it, that I’ve enjoyed with my sons, as sweet babies or as sometimes obnoxious teenagers, will always be with me.
Soon my teenaged sons will be out of this nest where I’ve wanted so much to nurture and protect them. I face the task of letting go of each one as a child and of getting to know him as an adult. I admit that I’ve had visions of them saying, “I don’t need to be here any more and I’m out of this lame, un-cool family. “ I admit to a nagging little fear that after all this time of getting to know them, they will become, as they strike out on their own, more like strangers. Already we divide, for example, on the quality of TV shows and on what makes something funny.
It’s not a pleasant thing for the people we love to seem like strangers to us. We feel close when we feel like we know them and they know us. Yet, because we are always growing and changing, it seems that every relationship has an element of being a stranger, of needing to discover who the other person is. This is reassuring because it means it’s ok if we don’t know as much as we’d like to about them, that we can always continue to learn. It’s also reassuring, I’m convinced, that whatever strangeness may appear can never completely revoke that gift of physical presence, once bestowed.
As my sons move out into the world, establishing their own identities and getting busy with their lives, I wonder about the level at which we will stay in touch. And I wonder how it will be for them and for their birth parents if and when my sons want to get to know them. I hope that they won’t be afraid to claim their original shared presence, calling on it to counter and heal the years of absence, of strangeness. I am hoping also that if and when this happens, I will remember to be steady in the face of the strangeness I might feel and always to cherish the physical presence I drink in today.