Adoptive Dad 26: Step Towards Independence but Not Aloneness

Last night on Nov 13 was a big step for my 4-year-old boy. He slept by himself in his own bed, in his own room for the very first time. This morning when I saw him, I asked him, “Did you sleep in your own bed last night?” He beamed with a big smile and was so proud of himself, raising his hands in the air to celebrate and saying, “Yes, I did! Yayee! And I wasn’t lonely!” I gave him a high-ten and told him I was so proud of him. It was such a huge step for him in his process of growing up. I know there are a lot of various theories about co-sleeping, whether should or should not and until what age. Having our son sleep in our bed was a judgment call we made because sleeping in company for him helped him to rest much more than if he were by himself. And repeated good night’s rests were essential to the healing of his body.

Leading up to this significant night were many conversations about how sleeping in your own bed and in your own room was part of growing up, that there was nothing to be afraid of and his bed and room were especially for him. There were several attempts by him to sleep on his own but they were not fulfilled. He found himself back in our bed. We didn’t forced or pressure him. We gave him the choice if he wanted to sleep that night in our bed he could or if he wanted to try sleeping in his own bed he could. My wife would read to him his night time story, say his nightly prayers with him and sleep in his bed with him until he fell asleep.  But many times, he would get up and come back to our bed. We knew he would do it when he was ready for it. We talked it over with him many times before he finally did it. But as we were coaching him, he asked a question that stumped me: “So growing up means being alone?” “Well, no, that’s not it,” I said, fumbling over my words because I knew what the physical action of no longer sleeping with mommy and daddy as a family symbolically looked like – what sleeping in his own bed alone looked like. Of course this made me think about the importance of growing up as an individual and progressively developing one’s independence as not equating to being alone. And yet, I’ve wondered how much our culture promotes that exact message, that our highly valued form of individualism actually creates more aloneness.   And, what would it essentially mean to communicate to a child that you’re growing up into your own person which means some separation from mom and dad as life progresses and yet you’re never really alone or detached from mom and dad on a meaningful, practical level? I said to him that, “You’re not alone. Mommy and Daddy are always here for you.” Those are the words. But as something physical has been removed from him (a physical thing that meant a lot to him in these early years of his life), I feel the importance of emphasizing something else that’s physical, tangible that conveys to him that he is not alone – that familial community is still essentially a part of his life and to the development of his identity. I want to convey to him in a felt way that increasing levels of independence and individualism doesn’t mean finding yourself in a vacuum. I believe a strong, loving and healthy family (as healthy as any family can actually be) and being deeply connected to that family is insurmountably vital to a person, especially to a young soul that’s growing up.  I don’t want him to think that independence means aloneness.  The two don’t have to be equated.

Well, you may think that perhaps him sleeping in his own bed for the first time is more of a significant step for me than it is for him!  Yeah, it is.

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Adoptive Dad 24: A Disturbing Adventure

I wanted to take my 2.5-year-old son on an adventure in Stanley Park, Vancouver to find a big head, about the size of a person, carved out of a tree trunk. I showed a picture of it that I found online to my son. He immediately got excited. I asked him if he wanted to go on an adventure to find this “Big Head,” and he was ecstatic. This is my and my son’s first time to Vancouver. My wife’s second time but she had not been to Stanley Park.

When I showed the picture of the carved head to a staff person operating a tour service in Stanley Park and asked her where I could find this, she was shocked that she had never seen this before. That made finding it more intriguing.  I asked the woman at the information booth and she said, “Finding it will be tough, but I can point out the area it is located in.” The mystery enticed me even more to find this head, accentuating the feeling of going on an adventure with my son. She marked it off on the map for us and off we went! I showed the map to my son, told him this was our “treasure map” and pointed out the spot on the map. He would from time-to-time hold the map, walk with it, and pretend to read it. He ran on the trail, chasing me and me chasing him. We saw colorful ducks.  We saw a swan sitting in a huge nest it made for itself. We came across a turtle, held it, and took pictures with it. A very well-mannered raccoon kindly approached us, and we took pictures with it. After an hour and a half of trekking, we finally came to the area. I said to my son, “We’re here. The Big Head is in here somewhere. Let’s look for it!” That’s when we entered the unexpectedly disturbing.

The area was just off the main path. A couple of dirt paths led into the woods. The paths criss-cross and wound this way and that. So we wandered around in there, looking at the picture shown online and tried to find the tree trunk with the giant head. Inside the woods, I was reminded of Fangorn Forest in Lord of the Rings – Two Towers. There were other people in the woods as well. My first thought was that these people were also here looking for the giant head! We followed one or two of them, thinking they knew where it was, but it turned out that they would back track the way they came. In fact, there were quite a number of individuals meandering in these woods. They appeared to be walking aimlessly. Of course, I think we appeared to be walking aimlessly as we searched for this head. Some individuals that sat on logs and others wandered. I thought they were there for some solitude. There was a tent pitched in one area. And there were some that walked together in two’s. After 20 minutes of us searching with no success, an older man approached me.

“What are you looking for?” he asked.

I kind of didn’t want the reward of discovery to be taken from me, so I didn’t say I was looking for a giant, wooden head, carved in a tree trunk. “We’re just looking around,” I said with a smile.

He took a couple steps closer and said, “This area isn’t safe.”

That was weird, because I thought, Well, what are you doing here then? “Not safe from what?” I asked, thinking maybe he was referring to animals, like snakes, or the ground being too uneven and slippery. But again, what was he doing here then?

“What?”

“Not safe from what?” I repeated. “What’s not safe here?”

“This area is for men,” he stated.

Now I was puzzled.  I looked around the woods. “What do you mean it’s for men?”  Were these guys monks?

“You figure it out.”

My wife, who had been searching in another spot not far from me, approached. I said to her, “He says this area is not safe, that it’s only for men.” My wife had the same surprised, puzzled look I had.

I asked, “Why would an area for men be unsafe.” I know. I wanted to really drill in on this and get to the bottom.

“This is place is for gay men,” he clarified. “By law, you have a right to be here, but I’m letting you know that it’s not safe for your wife and your son. You should stay on the main path.”

I politely thanked him for letting us know, because we were clueless about what we walked into. I suddenly did notice that there were only men in this area.  We came across more than a dozen. I was reluctant to leave still, because we had an adventure to accomplish with our son! But nonetheless, we started to make our way out. And sure enough, as we were about to exit the area, a man who was wrapping up his tent shouted something belligerent at us. Once we were back out on to the main path, we saw one stranger walk up to another stranger, exchange a few words briefly, and walked off into the woods together.

My wife and I were disturbed by the experience. I was extremely perturbed that a group of people could capture a beautiful, public area for themselves for their diabolical purposes, adulterate it, and prevent others from being able to share this place. This was Stanley Park, one of the main attractions of Vancouver! We had more than a legal right, by law, to be there.  We had an inherent right to the beauty of the place that is part of this earth.  The man who warned me was respectful, but he made it clear to my family and me that we were not welcomed. We didn’t belong, as that was reinforced by the other man shouting at us. There was a part of me that wanted to finish our search for my son, but I didn’t know what we could’ve walked into while peeking around in the woods. So we did the prudent thing and walked away. My heart sink the most when our son asked where the big head was, and I told him that we couldn’t find it. We couldn’t complete our adventure.

Nearly three hours from the time we started on our adventure, we made our way back to our rental car and drove to our next destination – the famous Totem Poles in Stanley Park. When our son got out of the car, he saw the totem poles and said, “I found the big head!” He ran to the wooden totem poles with the many large heads carved into them, thinking that was what we had been looking for all along. My heart was lifted at seeing his joy and his sense of completing our adventure. On our drive back to the hotel, he said with reassurance, “Daddy, Daddy, we found the big head.”

I replied, “Yes, we did.”

Adoptive Dad 23: But I’m Not Like You

Dear Josiah,

My little Jai Jai, adoption is something that is still not understood very well these days. Adoption is not common. So, one day when you go to school, some of your schoolmates or friends might ask you questions that could bother you. They aren’t being mean. They just don’t understand. Some of your friends may ask you, “Why don’t you look like your daddy?” They may say, “I look like my daddy. People say I have his eyes.” You might feel bothered, maybe even hurt, and wonder, “Why don’t I look like Dada?” You might say, “Dada, I don’t have your eyes. Mine are rounder and yours are narrower. Dada, I don’t have your hair. Your hair is black and straight, and mine is brown and curly. Dada, I don’t have your nose. Your nose is bigger. I don’t have your eyebrows. Yours are bushy and mine are thin. I don’t have your height. I’m going to be so much taller than you. (And you will be). I don’t have your color. You’re darker and I’m lighter. You look Chinese, and I don’t.” I know one day you will likely have these questions about your differences from me. And they are all true. Our differences may make you feel bad and that you would want to have the same traits as your Dada as other kids do with their daddies.

But I will say to you, “Jai Jai, you have Dada’s corky laugh and silly sense of humor. You might not have Dada’s mouth, but you have Dada’s cheesy smile. You don’t have my arms and legs, but you have my silly dance moves. You’re affectionate like I am. You love to love like I do. You like superheroes like I do.  You like books, comics, and cartoons, like I do (or maybe I like them like you do!).  You like art, painting, and drawing like I do. You like martial arts like I do.  You like ketchup like I do.  You have my curiosity and will explore everything. You have my imagination and will dream up anything. You have my spirit and will live life as an adventure.  You have my faith, as even now you like to learn about God.  You love your Mama like I do. You do outrageous things that drive your Mama nuts like I do.  And yes, you will grow up to be different from me in many ways, and that’s okay, because you will become your own person.  In whatever ways we are alike or not, you are my son and will always be.  But I do want you to be different from me in one way, that you would be a far greater man than me.”

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Adoptive Dad 22: Power of Permanency

Exactly a month ago, we adopted our little foster son after raising him for 2 years and 20 days! It took some time for me to process over for what the legal conclusion of adopting our son meant to us. The weightiest factor that sunk in was that we couldn’t lose him anymore. For the two-plus years that we raised him, there was the possibility looming in the back of our minds that he could leave our care. Within the fostering life, anything can happen until it is made legal – an unknown relative steps forward to fight the case, a new judge takes over the case, no attorneys get into the picture, biological parents appeal the termination sending the case to an appeals court… My wife and I had given up our first foster son after raising him for 8 months and 1 day, and, boy, did that wrench our hearts! We were proud of his biological mother for doing what was right to get her son back, but it was still hard after loving a child as your own. I still remember the look on his face on the day I delivered him over to his birth mother. Loving with a disclaimer that you may lose the one you’re loving is part of foster parenting, and it’s a risk that is assumed with full awareness. But, man, it’s hard, especially after raising a child for over two years. I think loving and losing is one of the hardest things in the world. Although, we do it all the time.

Permanency is powerful, isn’t it? It means getting married with the intention that you and the other person would never leave each other or break your commitments to each other. It means investing into a relationship with someone who becomes your best friend, and you hope to be best friends for life. It means having a parent-child relationship and not fearing that you should one day lose your child or that the child would lose you. Permanency translates to us as lasting, enduring, or unending. The permanency of relationships – permanency of love – is not only something we deeply desire. It also grounds us, giving us a kind of stable framework for our lives. I think we crave for permanency, because deep inside of us we have a desire for eternity, for good things and genuinely loving relationships to last. I pray for permanency of love in everyone’s lives. We can work hard to gain success, wealth, accolades, fun, and gadgets, but investing into loving relationships that become lasting is crucial. I’m deeply glad that God promises to never stop loving us. I love that my wife and I can’t lose our adopted son and that he can’t lose us. As a new adoptive dad, I celebrate the permanency I have with my son, whom we named Josiah.

Foster Dad 21: Want the World to Know

Dear Peanut,

Two years ago on this day, July 30, you came into our lives and a new story began. You are now two years and ten days old. It started with a call from our foster agency that told us there was a little boy in the hospital looking for a loving mom and dad. We said yes and drove to the hospital within an hour. Your mama went into the NICU to meet you while I waited outside with our other foster son, like an expectant dad in a waiting room. I waited for an hour and a half before I got to see you. You looked like a peanut, hence your nickname. The first word I used to describe you was, “spirited.” When you were sad, it was dramatic. When you were happy, you were exuberant. When you were excited, you were passionate. Spirited. You didn’t sleep or eat well for the first six months. We worked hard at creating a safe, warm, and creative environment for you so you could rest and feel confident in exploring your world. I wanted you to know you were loved by your mama and dada, yes, but through us also by God.  So many people love you, including your Jei Jei. I wanted you to have the freedom and desire to be curious, to explore, experiment, and enjoy the things in creation and culture. So throughout the first two years of your life, we regularly took you to the L.A. zoo, the Aquarium of the Pacific in Long Beach, and The Huntington Library. You explored the world of nature and art. At 20 months old, you could recognize a statue from going to The Huntington Library, and say, “Sta-ue,” or a painting and say, “Awtwok.” You could point out a gazebo and say, “a-ebo.” You can experience something wonderful and say, “Beau-iful.” We introduced you to music in the park, at festivals, through videos, at church services, and by singing with you. You’ve watched bears with us in Alaska, played at the beaches in Maui, and been to geeky comic conventions.  You’ve ridden a horse in Arizona and you’ve ridden a favorite train in the mall. As of a month ago, you love going to Disneyland where you enjoy the rides and the musical shows. It’s really funny to see you amazed. Rarely do we see you in complete silence. But when you watch a show that has music and dancing, you are silent and motionless. You hardly blink. You love to sing and dance. Some mornings, you get up from bed and want me to dance with you. You learn my corky moves very well. You’ve learned to “pray, pray” before meals and to have your nightly prayers with Mama before bedtime. I am thrilled to introduce you to this world, though it can be a tough world. I want to shield you from the ugliness, some of which is in me, but I know I can’t shield you forever. I can show you that there is also tremendous beauty in this world by God’s grace and how you can deal with the ugliness.

You discovered a lot by age 2 and 10 days. You can sing most of the ABC song, the classic version and the Usher version!  You can count to 14. You know at least ten colors. You know all the Avenger characters. You’re obsessed with Superman and Spiderman. You like pretending to be Superman, having me fly you through the air while you extend your arms straight out. You even toot the theme song! You’re great at using your imagination. You like to wrestle me on the bed, jump on top of me on the bed, and push me off the bed so you can roll off the bed and land on me. You like to hug other kids you just meet, maybe because we’re always hugging and kissing you. Your favorite movie is Frozen, which is the only movie you’ve seen. You get excited at Disneyland when we say we’re going to see Elsa. Don’t worry. It’s totally fine for boys to like Elsa. You like Mickey and Goofy. You spontaneously dance, like you have music in your heart. You like doing things together – Play-Doh, Legos, playing with blocks or trains, dancing, singing, drawing, painting, reading (especially pop-up books), and reading from your children’s Bible. Your favorite go-to story is David and Goliath. You really, really love bubbles, watching bubbles, blowing bubbles, making bubbles… You are a very picky and peculiar eater. Your favorite foods are spaghetti, pizza, hot dog, spam, chicken, egg, fries, sashimi, edamame, and most things with soup or sauce. You hate vegetables, and will pick them out no matter how small they are. I mince the vegetables finely to blend it into the sauce to “trick” you into eating your greens! You skipped the baby food stage. And milk is your absolute comfort food. You really don’t like going to bed. You fight it every night and it drives your mama nuts, because it will take her up to 2 hours to get you to sleep. But it’s because you don’t want the day to end. You want to play and live! Your tantrums are apocalyptically terrible! We’re teaching you about calmness and peace, and you’re learning about limits and patience.  You’re getting there.

One day you will read this. And it may be at a time when you question whether you’re really our son and if we’re really your mom and dad. I understand if you have to wrestle with this. You’re not our biological son. We didn’t start off that way. You being born was a miracle in itself. God knit your soul and body and brought you into this world. Never doubt the miracle you are. Then God sovereignly placed you into our lives. Though biology does not connect us, our love united us. The love between a parent and child is unbreakable. I can’t love you anymore than I have and do right now. Even if you had my biology, it wouldn’t change a thing. I can’t tell you how much it melts my heart to see you love your mama and me. Now, we’re looking towards formally adopting you. But that’s just paperwork. Because your mama and I adopted you in our hearts and into our lives a long, long time ago. You can be sure that you were never without a family. Some stories begin differently, but they’re really great stories.

I can’t express to you how proud I am of the beautiful, little boy you’re becoming. I can’t express to you how excited I am about the man you will become. I can’t express to you how deeply honored I am to be your father. And I want the world to know it.  – Love, DaDa

Foster Dad 20: You Don’t Have to Be Here

The child attorney told us, “You don’t have to be here,” a statement that echoed what all the other attorneys, FFA social workers, and DCFS social workers told us, that we don’t need to be present at the court hearings regarding our foster child. Our current DCFS social worker repeatedly reiterated to us that foster parents don’t attend court hearings, trying to tell us that we don’t have to attend and it is unusual that we do. I don’t know how true that is, but it’s what she tells us.

I think the attorneys and workers perceive that it’s troublesome for us to attend the hearings. Today, after waiting for 4 hours for our case to be called, the court broke for lunch and had to resume in an hour. I told the child attorney, “Okay, we’ll go get lunch and come back.” That’s when she stated to us, “You don’t have to be here.” I replied to her, “This is important. We want to be present.”

There’s not much as foster parents that we can offer to the legal proceedings of our foster child. As foster parents, we are service providers in the system without rights, authority, or voice. Besides one update form we can fill out before each hearing, there are no other documentations we can submit to the court. When we enter the courtroom we’re told to sit on the backbench against the wall; we’re not even on the other side of the barrier which marks the inside area of the courtroom. We sit in the spectator section, not actually a part of the case. When we’re there, we don’t get to speak on behalf of the child. We sit quietly in the back for the duration of the hearing, which lasts anywhere from 5 to 30 minutes, and then we leave. We can spend our entire day in the waiting area for our case to be called, and sometimes, it gets called last. But we have been at every single court hearing. So why do we attend the court hearings?

Because there is something significant we can offer at every proceeding: our presence. Although we don’t have any legal standing to contribute to the hearing, any rights or authority to defend the child, or legal position to advocate for and fight on behalf of our foster child, our consistent presence is powerful. Our silent presence communicates volumes to the court that we are serious about the well-being of our foster child and we are committed to caring for him. After changing judges four times, the child’s attorney three times, and the DCFS attorney twice, we are present. Sometimes the DCFS social worker is there and sometimes the biological parent(s) is there and sometimes they’re not, but we are present. At one time it’s one courtroom. At another time it’s another. We are still present. We are the one constant in the ever-changing, twisting, and fluctuating nature of the case for our foster son.

The fourth and regular judge eventually recognized our enduring presence in the courtroom. I remember the day when she invited us to enter beyond the barrier and take a seat at the table in the inner courtroom. That physical crossing of the threshold signified to us that we had become someone significant in the eyes of the court. We still had no rights, authority, or voice in the actual case, but we were no longer on the outside looking in. Our presence was recognized. The judge has asked us if we have questions, thanked us, and, for certain matters, even apologized to us. We have no say in the case, but we sure have a presence on behalf of our foster son.

I know sometimes we face situations where we ask ourselves, “What can we do?” or “What can we say?” and the reality is that we may have very little control over the juggernaut of obstacles or trials before us. But one of the most powerful things I believe we can do is be present for the things that are important to us. Our presence has the power to convey our commitment, care, and love. It communicates that we’re involved and invested. We’re not removed, indifferent, or aloof. Others may come and go, conditions may go up and down, situations may twist and turn, and time may be drawn out to where others don’t stay, but our presence remains. Presence means in the simplest and profoundest way, I am here. And to the most fragile things in life in the most trying or complicated of times, I am here can mean the world.

Foster Dad 19: Emotional Capacity

I hadn’t written about my journey as a foster father in a while, and the thought of getting back into it after so long felt daunting. It had to do with my emotional capacity. After my first foster son reunified with his birth mother, there was more for me to process than I expected. My wife and I developed a great relationship with the birth mother. She was very thankful for what we did and encouraged us to stay in her son’s life. We visited about once per month for the first few months to encourage them, but it was harder for me than I would’ve guessed. I think I was depressed for the first couple of months after the reunification. How can you not be when you genuinely love a child as a child is supposed to be loved and then suddenly to not have him in your care? At the same time, we took in a second foster son, for those of you who remember me writing about it, and I had to shift gears to be there for this little one, whom we named Peanut because that’s what he looked like when we took him from the hospital. There was a lot going on inside of me. As I was trying to emotionally find respite and sort through all that was going on inside, I found blogging about my foster parenting to be emotionally draining. Usually writing is a good thing for me, but at the place where I was at, it took more out of me. Instead, I found other creative avenues to process, mainly through painting and writing a story (which turned into a novel and should be coming out in print soon).

What we do as foster parents, and if done right, requires a lot of giving of ourselves. I think sometimes you can be so committed to something, give all you have to it, and not realize how much you gave. The quantity and quality of what was given is not in question, because some things (like children who come into your care) deserve that kind of giving. But we’re not invincible, and we’re not limitless. We have an emotional capacity. We all have a different capacity. It’s important to be aware of when that emotional capacity is low or empty. Some of us keep doing what we’re doing while running on empty without change or recourse, and that’s dangerous, even self-destructive. We have to not only know how to recharge our emotional capacity in terms of quantity, but grow in our emotional state in terms of quality – to become more mature than where we were before. And, it’s no defeat to sometimes have to admit that some things require more emotional capacity than we actually have – perhaps pertaining to certain relationships, situations, or conditions. We’re not invincible, and we’re not limitless. But we are pretty resilient. The human spirit was designed to bear more than we sometimes expect. Wisdom is required to understand your emotional capacity and what’s needed to replenish yourself.   Replenishment means knowing what is restful for your soul. Doing nothing is not always the most restful thing for the soul. Doing what replenishes is restful. Maybe it’s reading a good book, going to an art show, enjoying a jazz band, writing a short story, or having dinner with that friend who always refuels you. Most of all, it’s prayer. Prayer is that communication with the Divine, the ultimate creative Being who not only knows the inner-workings of your soul but is masterful in forming and healing it. If you don’t know what to say, one of the most powerful opening lines in a prayer from a soul running on low is, “God, I’m tired.” If we don’t know how to replenish our emotional capacity or if we simply neglect it, we cannot go on doing the most important and necessary things we’re meant to do, like pursuing our calling, living out our vision, or loving someone who desperately needs our love.