Only I can change my life. No one can do it for me. Carol Burnett
Training as a master’s level social worker requires a lot of self-assessment. My three years in grad school felt like three centuries of personal development. After learning about assertiveness, setting limits, boundaries, communication skills, self-esteem development, conflict resolution skills, parenting skills, and recovery from codependency, I realized it was time for major changes at home. I hoped Don would want to work with me to create a faithful, sober, stable, and healthy home life for us and our children.
Choosing Don was the first indication of how my own adoption loss would influence later family choices; what I began to see as having caught and spread the “adoption virus.”
Don, the kinky-haired, fun-loving man I married, not comprehending that his playfulness disappeared into gloom when not fueled by alcohol or marijuana. The husband I spent eleven tumultuous years with, swinging from intense love, joy, and passion to equally intense rage and conflict, exhausting us both.
In kindergarten, Don taught Jared to draw cartoons featuring rabbits and monkeys. Later, painting vivid flowers and jungle scenes caught Jared’s imagination. In a street mural done through Turning Point Foundation for mentally ill clients, a local newspaper article featured Jared’s charming green frog, his painting so much more expressive than any words.
The fact that we had both lost sons to adoption was part of the glue that attracted and bound Don and me. Don’s first son had disappeared into adoption when Don was only fifteen. He got his girlfriend pregnant again, and though she kept that son, their parents refused to allow them to marry. The unspoken commonality Don and I shared was grief. Our lost-to-adoption sons became the ghosts in our family life, dragging unrecognized depression in their wake.
It turned out that Don wasn’t interested in making changes – at least not with me. Right after I received my master’s degree in 1980, we split up. I thought it was the worst thing that had ever happened, but after six months of heavy depression and therapy, my darkness began to clear. I realized it might be the best thing that had happened to me.
If I’d had family support, I’m sure we’d have separated sooner, but with my mother deceased and my father abusive, I felt I had nowhere to go. Now I realize I did have options, but then all I saw was subjecting myself and Jared and Chad to our chaotic, conflict-laden marriage. That had done us no good at all.
I bought a low-maintenance home with an indoor atrium and a Japanese garden, obtained a professional position with a living wage, and set out to make a better life for myself and our children who visited Don regularly, moving between two homes. I struggled with loneliness when they were with him and the new family he soon started. When they were with me, though, I started a ritual after work. It began at the kitchen counter. Before chopping and sautéing, I turned to my clamoring boys. “You first, Jared; how did your day go?” After discussing Jared’s day, I turned to Chad. The next night, Chad came first.
Still, too many evenings I arrived home to find peanut butter smeared on the counter and ice cream melting down the cabinets. A friend suggested I draw up a list of chores with promised payment schedules for each.
“From now on, when you want money for a movie, you can earn it,” I told Chad and Jared, showing them how much they could earn for daily, weekly, or monthly chores. Next time Chad asked for cash, I pointed to the chart. Soon after, I came home and found Chad wearing my paisley apron, the counters spotless, and a broom in his hand.
Jared got into the act. “What a good job you did cleaning the bathroom!” I encouraged him. “The toilet and sink look great! Maybe just wipe that corner a little more and it will be perfect!” What a change from my usual complaints! Now we could all feel good about positive things! I loved the looks of satisfaction on the boys’ faces and sometimes even threw in an extra dollar for a Coke for a job especially well-done.
I learned to lower my voice to a whisper instead of raising it to a yell whenever our feelings grew heated. Both kids approached closer. It was far more satisfying than their former high-speed escapes from my attempts to impart parental wisdom.
The condition of our house and our relationships improved. I was making progress at raising future housekeepers, but Chad decided attending school was not in his plans. He had scored at a twelfth-grade level on the SAT given to all 7th graders. Chad, who had loved pre-school and found all the next grades boring, concluded he knew enough. High school became irrelevant to him.
In the mornings, I hurried off to my crisis caseload at Alta California Regional
Center while the crisis at home built. “Get up!” I exhorted him. Chad lay prone on the mattress he’d put on the floor. I vacillated between being the extra-nice parent and punishing him, locking his stereo in the trunk of my car to deprive him of his heavy metal music while truant.
Nothing worked. Every day, my sense of helplessness grew.
One morning, Chad emerged from his bedroom in white Boxer briefs carrying a load of Legos. Evidently, he had plans for his day. He and I bumped into each other in the hall. His Legos scattered into a shamble of sharp-edged red, yellow, blue, and green squares and rectangles on the floor.
“Pick these up!” I demanded. He crouched down to gather the Legos. Gazing at his vulnerable back, his beautiful torso, his blond hair falling onto his straight spine and angular face, my heart softened. I bent down to help. I wanted to be gentle with my beloved fifteen-year- old son. But gentleness only supported the poor decisions he was making.
My voice tightened into the tone of tough love I’d learned. “All right, Chad. You get over to school today — not tomorrow; today! Find out how you get back into classes. Either that or pack up and get out! If you don’t need to go to school, you can get a job and take care of yourself somewhere else.”
When I got home that night, Chad had registered for continuation high school, where it turned out he thrived, earning credits independently.
Then thirteen-year-old Jared, my talented cartoonist, began falling behind in academics. Jared had always been closer to his father, Don, while Chad got the lion’s share of my attention. Jared had so many years of being the quiet younger brother, so affected by the verbal battles between Don and me. As a baby, Jared had been an early talker, speaking in whole paragraphs by a year and a half. Then, something changed. By three years, his language became halting. Yet it was Jared in second grade who stared at the stuck curtain rod in his classroom and then showed his teacher how to fix it.
Now every night Jared’s middle-school teacher called to report a new problem and exhort me to be a better parent. Her tone of voice suggested Jared’s problems must stem from presumed parental indifference.
“Ask him how his day went!” she advised. “Show him you’re interested.”
“I do!” I assured her. “He won’t tell me. He walks away and hides out in his room. If I follow him, he refuses to answer.” I pictured my curly-haired son with the hooded eyes, closing out my attentions. I felt my own deep sorrow.
The truth is that my attempts to listen to Jared’s troubles usually failed. The same critical, judgmental words I’d heard from my own father came out in my voice all too often.
One day as Jared passed by, I was struck by his expression and stopped him. “Jared?” He raised his eyes to look at me from under his hoodie. I spoke slowly, softly, but deliberately. “Jared, you’re just as important to me as Chad is.”
Jared’s face transformed somehow — his cheeks, the lift of his forehead, the tightness of his jaw all softened. Dawning relief readjusted his features. “You matter to me just as much as he does,” I assured him. His shoulders dropped. The set of his head on his neck straightened.
No miracles occurred after that. He continued to be withdrawn, seeming easily confused and overwhelmed. When he was younger, even an unexpected phone call would send him running to his room until one day I pointed out whoever was calling couldn’t hurt him through the phone and he could even hang up if he wanted. He’d been tested as superior in intelligence, but now his teacher complained he couldn’t concentrate, couldn’t keep up.
At the school district’s White House Counseling Center, his therapist said he was depressed, which I didn’t have any trouble believing. Her words repeated in my head as I lay awake at night reviewing my failures. How I wished I could go back and change the way things were with Don and me.