Happy Mother's Day!

We spent most of Mother's Day rocking the world.

The night before, I returned from Philadelphia to find Mom, Paul, the kids and some of Mom's wonderful neighbors and friends hanging in the living room. "That was really fun," reported Mychael the next day.


The Little Guy Turns 24!

Mychael turned 24 this weekend!! I made everyone get in the back seat of the car in order to take pictures. It was hot, so the kids didn't want to take them outside. Regardless, I reminded the kids that Mychael is only one year younger than I was when I adopted them. Mychael said, "Yeah, and I'm going to adopt a little White girl next year."

Obviously Mychael won't be doing any adopting anytime soon. However, it will be validating once the kids get to the age I was when I adopted them. Maybe then they'll realize how hard it was to live, let alone raise teenagers, and cut me some slack. I guess I'm lucky that I will have waited only eleven years and fourteen years for that validation whereas biological parents have to wait a whole lot longer! Yet another reason to adopt older children.

Alysia (aka: Easter Bunny) gave me the above magnets for Easter. She wanted Malcolm to look younger, but didn't realize he'd look quite so young. Malc didn't care. He thought it was pretty sweet either way. I like the fact that Maude and Esther were also included.


Free At Last, Free At Last, Thank God Almighty, Free At Last!

When I first adopted the kids, it would have helped greatly to know that someone else had gone through feelings and experiences similar to ours. I receive a lot of email from people saying the same things. The reality is that there are a lot of unexpected things that come up, but in the end, you manage them, conquer them and come out stronger. I just want you to know that whatever you experience, you're not alone. There are thousands of us out here who've been there, or are there on a daily basis. At the end of the day, the family is what matters--the kids, and no amount of craziness will feel more powerful than the bond you share with your family.

(Freeing Mychael from Polinsky (San Diego's Children's Home). The beginning of our Real Family.)

On Saturday morning, bright and early, I drive to Polinsky. I’m excited about today, but also nervous. I park in the same spot that I always park in and walk the forty six steps that it takes to reach the building. Since it’s Saturday, a lot of the Polinsky inmates will be spending the day with their families. The lucky ones might even get to leave for the entire weekend.

I hit the buzzer beside the door.

“Yes?” answers the attendant.

“I’m here to pick up Mychael Moore?”

“And you are?” the voice asks suspiciously.

“Gretchan Thompson.”

I can hear her flipping through papers. Pleeaassee let my name be on there, I think.

“I don’t see your name on this list; are you his social worker?” she interrogates.

Damn, they’re not going to let me take him.

“Charlene was supposed to call and tell you I was picking him up today. She’s his social worker. I’m his foster parent.”

The buzzer goes off signaling that I’ve been granted access. I pull the door open and step inside the first set of doors. I wait for her to buzz me into the next set. Once she does, I walk up to the window so she can get better look at me.

“I found your name,” she says over her shoulder as she digs through a mound of papers.

“Great,” I declare happily.

She turns toward me, tilts her head and comes closer. Surely you’ve seen stranger things than a foster parent, who looks like she’s 16?

“Just sign here to say that you’re taking him. Are you bringing him back? No wait-it says he’s not returning. That means we’ll need to have him gather his belongings, too. Let me call back there,”

She picks up the phone. “Boys Wing 2, please call intake,” she says over the intercom.

I pace nervously in front of the window. I feel like I’m doing something wrong, and I’m nervous that they’re not going to let me take him. I can only imagine how the biological parents, “the perpetrators”, feel when they come to visit. I’m the good one, and I’m afraid they are going to back out of their agreement and not let me have my kid.

After ten minutes of worrying that they are going to figure out they’ve made a mistake and not let me have him, I see Mychael walking up from the back. He’s managed to successfully clear the two sets of security doors between the boy’s dorm and the reception area. Only a little farther Mychael, don’t make any sudden moves, just keep walking.

I put on a big smile as he walks toward me with a black trash bag in each hand. “Looks like you’ve got all your stuff. Let me carry one of those,” I say, reaching out my hand to him. He hands me a bag, and I turn back to the nurse at intake to make sure we’re still cool with all this.

“These are his current medical requirements and the forms you’ll need to take to the dentist and doctor. Make sure that these are filled out and sent back to us at this address. This is part of his medical passport history,” she says as though that means something to me.

I nod so she thinks I know what she’s talking about. You never know-this could be a deal breaker. “Okay, so does he have something he needs to do right away?”

“Yes, he’s got four root canals in process. He had those started when he was here two years ago, but they never got finished. He needs to get in to have them finished sooner than later,” she declares pragmatically. This is nothing to her. She’s seen worse than four root canals on a 14 year old.

“Do I have to take him to the same dentist? Where is his dentist? Who is his dentist?” I ask, trying to look like I’m calmer than I feel. If she knows I’m scared, she might not let me take him.

“We don’t care what dentist you take him to, as long as you take him somewhere. Here’s the information,” she says, handing me another stack of forms.

“Okay, great then…I’ll get right on that,” I promise.

“Don’t forget to take those yellow forms with you when you go to the appointment.” she says, pointing to the yellow forms on top of the stack of papers she’s just handed me. “People are always forgetting to take the forms and then we don’t know what medical care or dental care the kids have had when they come back here.”

“I won’t forget the forms, though Mychael’s coming home for good. He won’t be back here ever again,” I declare confidently.

She gives me a huge, toothy smile. I can’t tell if she’s smiling because she’s happy that Mychael will have a permanent home or if she’s smiling because she thinks I’m na├»ve, as of course he’ll be back. “I hope you’re right. Good luck to you both,” she says as she presses the button to grant us access to the outside world.

“Free at last, free at last. Thank God almighty, free at last,” I say to Mychael as he takes his first forty six steps of freedom.


Mychael Gets His Driver's License (2002)

We arrived at the DMV at 7:30 A.M with the delusional expectation of getting in and out as quickly as possible. We’ve been waiting to speak with a supervisor for almost an hour. Apparently, there’s something wrong with the birth certificate that I picked up from the social worker yesterday.

I watch the second hand on the clock located just above the information desk. They only put one clock in the entire place, presumably to make it harder for people to recognize how much of their lives have been wasted by being here. At 10:10 and 32 seconds, Mychael touches my arm and nods toward the counter. I look up to see a man wearing a badge that reads “Supervisor”. He talks to one of the women we spoke with earlier, and she points in our direction.

“Hello, you wanted to speak with a supervisor? Is there a problem?” he questions, before we’ve even reached the counter.

There at least 300 people packed like sausages into this stuffy El Cajon DMV and at this very moment, I feel like 250 of them are watching us. I glance at Mychael, who is giving his best “I didn’t do anything” expression. He understands that we’re guilty until proven innocent and always manages to stay focused on proving our innocence. I, on the other hand, tend to get angry about us having to prove anything in the first place. I think that’s the difference between being oppressed and feeling oppressed. I have that sense of entitlement that comes with growing up in the middle class.

When we reach the counter, I’m still psyching myself up for the pre- qualifying conversation, which is up next. This is the point at the beginning of every conversation in which I am given the opportunity to prove that I’m Mychael’s Mother. I liken this to a suspect’s initial statement upon being detained. It used to make me feel insecure, like a suspect who has never been questioned by the police. However, over time I’ve come to expect it-like any career criminal would, I suppose.

“There’s not a problem, per se,” I tell DMV Dude, “we’re just trying to get Mychael’s permit and thus far, we’ve been unsuccessful in doing so.”

“Okay, well…who are you?” he presses.

“I’m Mychael’s mother.”

“Oookkaayy,” he says, half chuckling.

If I were a rookie I might be inclined to elaborate or further defend myself, ourselves. However, I’m not a rookie, and at this point, I’m comfortable with feeling uncomfortable. “Feel the fear and do it anyway,” as my Mom likes to say. As a veteran, I allow the interrogator to draw conclusions based on my silence. Sometimes there’s power in saying nothing at all.

“Okay, so you’re his Mom?” he asks one more time, arrogance slightly reduced.

“And Mychael would like to obtain his driver’s permit,” I tell him, sliding the paperwork forward. He leafs through the paperwork, which includes Mychael’s birth certificate and another form from the San Diego County Health and Human Services agency confirming that the State of California has, indeed, granted me the authority to say that I’m Mychael’s Mom. I glance at the clock and note that the pre-qualification process has wasted just over four minutes of our time.

“Give me a second,” he says before disappearing behind a door marked: Employees Only.

I don’t know what he needs to do behind closed doors, but I can imagine. If I became a Mother following some drunken one night stand at Delta Sigs, I wouldn’t have to do anything to qualify myself for the role. I could just show up with my kid and rely on everyone else’s assumptions.

I certainly wouldn’t have to participate in weekly appointments with social workers. I wouldn’t have to be fingerprinted or provide my financial records, and I definitely wouldn’t have to participate in a psychological evaluation. Most importantly, every interaction we had with the outside world wouldn’t have to be marked with an initial pre-qualification process. I could have all the glory, all the tradition and all the wonderment of having a child who looks like me and is assumed to be mine.

And yet, I couldn’t be this child’s Mother, and at the end of the day nothing else matters. “Hi Mommy,” Mychael whispers. The grin on his face suggests that nothing is going to spoil his excitement about getting his driver’s permit.

I put my arm around him and tell him that the DMV is notorious for making people’s lives miserable. “When I was in Court last week, I was sitting with this DA who was telling the judge about going to the DMV the day before. The DMV can really make a person’s life miserable, she said. Isn’t that ironic? The DA was talking about the DMV having the power to destroy someone’s life?”

“Yeah,” Mychael says, staring hopefully at The Man walking toward us.

“Unfortunately this birth certificate just isn’t going to work,” he says.

“Why?” I ask him, wondering if he’s just doing this to screw us because we make him uncomfortable.

“Well, it’s just a certified copy and we need the original.”

“That’s the birth certificate that they gave me. That is the birth certificate,” I tell him. After ten more minutes of advocating on behalf of Mychael’s circumstances, he agrees to call the state DMV branch in Sacramento to find out if they have an “unusual circumstance” clause for these kinds of situations. After twenty more minutes, it’s determined that they don’t.

At 11:43 and 16 seconds we leave the DMV, having been advised to obtain the original birth certificate and return. When I arrive at my office an hour and a half later, I call the social worker, who admits that she’s in possession of the original birth certificate. “We just can’t let you take the original,” she says sympathetically.

“Why not?” I ask her.

“Well…the thing is we had to jump through so many hoops to get it in the first place. We just can’t take the chance of it getting lost.”

“If you let me pick it up after work tonight, we’ll go to the DMV tomorrow, and I’ll drop it off on my way back to work in the morning.”

“Wow, sorry Gretchan, but we just can’t let the original leave this office.”

My blood pressure is through the roof and my jaw is killing me, thanks to the TMJ that has recently begun keeping me up at night. “Okay, so what you’re telling me is that you trust me to take the child, but not the birth certificate?”

“I know it seems crazy.”

I ignore the obvious. “So what would you like me to do? He’s unable to get his permit without that birth certificate and you’re telling me that the birth certificate can’t leave your office. What do you normally do in these kinds of situations?”

“Well, normally, they don’t get their driver’s licenses. I mean maybe they do when they’re eighteen. I bet a foster care social worker has seen this before, but I’ve only done adoptions, so this is my first experience with it. Tell you what, let me ask my supervisor and I’ll call you back.”

Twenty minutes later she calls back and says that she can meet us at the DMV with the birth certificate. I admit that I find the situation to be incredibly insulting for a number of reasons. “But if this is the only way Mychael can get his permit then fine, meet us tomorrow at 8:00 A.M,” I tell her.

“Oh, I can’t meet you tomorrow, but anytime next week looks good for me.”

I explain that the permit expires on Friday and that I have an appointment already on that day, so tomorrow is the only day that works. “Had the adoption been finalized by now…like you originally said it would, this wouldn’t be an issue.”

“I know, but I didn’t know that Dad was going to contest.”

I explain that since she originally said that the adoption would be finalized by the end of September, we decided to wait for the new birth certificate before going to the DMV. “We didn’t want to have to deal with the hassle of changing his name. The ACT and SAT situation is already frustrating enough,” I explain.

“What ACT and SAT situation?” she asks.

I tell her that Mychael originally registered for the tests as Mychael Moore, and accordingly on test days he presented identification for that name. I report that I contacted the ACT and SAT to find out how to change his name in their system once the adoption is finalized. “Since he’ll legally be Mychael Thompson and have identification for Mychael Thompson, I don’t want there to be any problems on test day. Also, I want to avoid any confusion when it comes time to submit college applications,” I explain. “According to the ACT and SAT people, Mychael should just continue registering as Mychael Moore, and when he checks in for tests he should just tell them that his name is Mychael Moore.” I pause to let that sink in before going on. “I told them that asking him to lie was not just wrong, but really insensitive. Why couldn’t they just change his name if we provided the documentation showing that his name had legally been changed?”

“What did they say?” she asks.

“'We just don’t have the means to do that. It’s physically impossible to change a name once it’s been registered in the system.'” I tell her before going on. “I asked them what they do in circumstances like this-when an older child is adopted- and they said they didn’t have a policy in place for it. I told them they needed to have a policy in place and that asking him to lie because they didn’t was unethical.”

“Geez,” the social worker says, feigning exhaustion.

“So anyway we didn’t want to there to be a similar situation with the DMV, but since the adoption isn’t finalized yet, it looks like we can look forward to that, too. Whatever…I need you to meet us tomorrow morning at 8:00 AM.”

“I’ll be there,” she agrees quickly, wisely.


What you think matters...and then what really does.

So a lot of single people ask me what it's like to adopt as a single person. I can't really answer that definitively because I'm still learning every day what that means. I didn't adopt because I wanted to be a single parent (or let's be real, a parent at all), I adopted because Mychael and Malcolm needed a Mother. It just so happens that their misfortune didn't necessarily fit into the vision of my perfect life. I was just as hesitant and nervous as anyone would be and I'm still discovering the impact of adoption in terms of how that relates to my own personal (dating) life. There were a lot of things I didn't consider, but considering how fortunate my life has been, I'm not sure I had the right to do so. Because at what point does my getting to have EVERYTHING in life be easy become less important than a child getting to have something in life be less than completely difficult. So since I can't answer any of those questions, I'll just tell the story of when I first thought about "what I would do" from a practical, versus theoretical perspective. Talk is cheap--it's easy to talk, or so I soon discovered.

One time, while working for the San Diego CHOICE Program, my friend and boss Cedric (that was him on the front page of the website, by the way) and I were having a conversation about qualities I expected from my fictitious significant other. Okay, so the conversation didn’t exactly start out like that. What really happened was that I was complaining about some of the foster parents we worked with when he said, “Hey, if you can do better, why don’t you?”

“I would, but what if my future marriage guy didn’t want to be an adoptive parent?” I responded quickly, sincerely believing my logic.

“Would you really want to marry someone who didn’t want to be an adoptive parent?” he asked.

I thought for less than five seconds before answering. “No,” I said. I mean that's the correct answer, right? I guess I had never thought about it like that. Why would I want to spend my life with someone who didn’t feel morally obligated to give back? I believe strongly that when our own family experiences have been positive, it’s our ethical responsibility to pay it forward, but that's a lot easier said than done.

I guess for the most part, I tend to be pretty unsympathetic to children in biological families (including myself). I can’t help but to think that their biological status gives them a social edge that is unjustly denied to adopted children or children in foster care. Besides, I have such high expectations for myself that I am not sure I could be appropriately sympathetic to children I birthed. However, I can’t help but to be sympathetic to children who have survived adversity like foster care and even adoption. Those are unbelievable challenges—ones that I’m not sure I would have been strong enough to overcome. That’s the thing about being the Mom of my kids, I don’t just love, respect and appreciate them. I admire them. I watch them in awe and can’t help but to think, “Wow, they’re amazing.”

Anyway, so recently, another friend and I were discussing prospective dating material. I made sure to point out that anyone who I dated would have to not just accept Mychael and Malcolm, but admire and respect the difficulties they have overcome. I wouldn’t expect the person to love them right away, nor do Mychael or Malcolm, at ages 23 and 20, need a father. Hell, they made it this far without one, why start now? My friend said, “Well, guys might be intimidated by the whole situation.”

“That’s not the guy for me then. I mean please, that intimidates them? Walk a mile in their shoes. Shoot, walk a mile in mine. I'll tell you about feeling intimidated,” I responded quickly, annoyed. I proceeded to list off the other qualities: hot (conspicuously first), hard working (of course), kind, no biological children, fun, etc.

“Okay, so you know that guy doesn’t exist, right?” my friend said.

“Whatever. I'm okay either way,” I said, thinking about how different I felt now, ten years later, than I did during that conversation inside 4500 El Cajon Boulevard in East San Diego. It is what it is and even if you didn't anticipate it, you'd better learn how to roll with it.

It’s funny because you have all these reasons why adoption is such a big risk—why it’s going to somehow hamper your lifestyle, goals and dreams. But that's not how life goes because in the end, you re-evaluate your goals and realize that being happy isn't necessarily defined by how much you can indulge your individual, perhaps selfish, desires (though that is definitely fun to do sometimes). You also discover that you’re more flexible and more resilient than you previously realized. I guess that insight is inevitable considering that once you adopt, you’ll be forever influenced by your children, who just so happen to represent the purest form of strength and resiliency.

It’s funny how your biggest priority prior to becoming an adoptive parent becomes your lowest concern once you’ve secured the position. And besides, sometimes it's just about doing the right thing--walking the walk you talk, practicing what you preach.


What Do They Call You?

I used to get asked this question all the time when I first adopted my sons. Yet, after a while, people got to know us and stopped asking. After moving from California, the question re-surfaced thanks to the fact that no one knew us, and we were starting all over again. Now that the kids are in college, I rarely get asked this question...mostly because, I'm not on the battle fields advocating for them on a daily basis.

However, the other day, I was talking with a new person and they wanted to know if I had children. That triggered the whole "You Don't Look Old Enough" thing. After she was finished interrogating me...Okay, I'm being mean because she was just curious and in my rational mind, I know that. I accept that we don't look normal and frankly, I hate normal anyway, so what am I complaining about?

Anyway, after she was able to make sense of the fact that I am, in fact, the abnormally young Mother of my 23 and 20 year old sons, she asked, "What do they call you?"

I paused.

In the past, I would have had the answer waiting on the tip of my tongue. But, it'd been a while since someone asked, and quite frankly, I was off my game. "Barry," was what I wanted to say. In fact, when I wasn't so rusty, I would have quickly provided an answer that only I would get to hear...one in my head: "Jim, Barry, Freida, Bitch, Warden." And within seconds, would have been able to provide the more audible response of: "Mom, they call me Mom just like I call my Mom...and sometimes when they're pissed at me, they probably call me other things, just like I did with my Mom when I was a young. We're just like every other family. I know that might seem difficult to grasp, but we really are just like everyone else."

We are, right? Because every Mother knows what it's like to have to prove that she is, in fact, worthy of being called "Mom"? And likewise, every son or daughter knows what it's like to feel like a fraud for calling your Mom, "Mom"?

On one hand, I get it. I understand that whenever you choose to be different, you're going to face obstacles. It's not that people won't accept you for being different, it's that first, they'll need to understand you. We're socialized to view everything in boxes and categories. When someone or something doesn't fit into our nice and neat scenarios, our brains simply can't process. I'm proud to be so complex that I cannot be easily understood. In fact, I strive to be indiscernible. And yet, sometimes, it would really be nice if someone just assumed that I was "Mom".

The other day, I visited the kids at Purdue. We went to Chipotle, one of Malc's favorites. Upon going through the line and reaching the cashier, we found ourselves in an all too familiar position. The cashier, of course, was confused about payment. First, she tried to ring up Malcolm separately, prompting Malcolm to say, "We're together," pointing in the direction of Mychael and I. I could tell by the look on her face that Malcolm's guidance meant little.

I read her mind as she tried to process: "Who's together? The two Black guys? Oh, you mean all three of you are together? Then who's paying? The girlfriend?"

Again, I'm used to this, it really isn't a big deal. I mean really, if I were on the outside, would I assume any differently--especially on a college campus? No, I wouldn't. But I was tired on that night. "For once, I just wish people would assume I'm your Mom," I said to Malcolm.

"At least you look young, which is a good thing, right?" he responded reassuringly.

Oh the wisdom and maturity...

To feel connected even when everyone else thinks you're not is powerful. It's Us v. Everyone Else and maybe on some twisted level, that's actually helped us to be that much stronger as a family. Had we not been forced to openly face our uniqueness on a daily basis, maybe we really would feel less legitimate as a family. Yet, we've certainly not lacked for "teachable moments" in the last ten years and as such, we're extremely comfortable in our roles. We are a very open and communicative team, probably (definitely) more so than normal families. That said, I guess I should be thankful for the seemingly insensitive questions, insinuations and assumptions.

So, thanks, normal people, for forcing us to confront the obvious, find resolution and come out stronger and better in the end.

Oh, and normal people, we appreciate that not everyone can be as strong as us, but don't worry, we still accept you.


The Pre-Adoption Psychological Evaluation (Malcolm-2002)

Last week, Malcolm and I had to meet with a psychologist as part of the adoption process. It wasn’t a pleasant experience, and it was only afterwards that I realized it was her that didn’t get it—not me. Just because she had the title of psychologist behind her name didn’t mean that she was anymore familiar with the nuances of the unintentional discrimination against older child adoptions than the guy at the DMV. Yet, because she had that title, I let my guard down.

“Tell me about Malcolm,” the psychologist had asked. We talked for about thirty minutes while Malcolm worked on his homework in the other room. I told the psychologist about Malcolm’s situation with school and how he’d moved around a lot when he was in first and second grades. I also shared how I thought the separation of Mychael and Malcolm had affected them over the last few years. I tried to give her an overview of the big picture so she would better understand Malcolm.

I work in the system; I understood her role. Basically, the Court had determined that this woman’s forty five minute interview with Malcolm would somehow give her the authority to evaluate him in terms of his psychological and emotional well being. Regardless, I thought the psychologist and I were allies—that we both wanted what was best for Malcolm. As a result, I never felt any ill will for her whatsoever. That is, until she filled me with bullets toward the end of the conversation. “And so, whereas Mychael had the benefit of being the only child, Malcolm-”

“Stop,” she said abruptly. “If I hear you make one more comment about Mychael, I am going to recommend that you not be allowed to adopt Malcolm.”

I was so shocked by her interruption in the first place that it took me a minute to process the content of her statement. “What?” I finally asked her.

“I’ve sat here for the last thirty minutes and listened to you talk about how Mychael had this and Malcolm had that, about how Mychael did this and Malcolm did that. I did not ask you about Mychael and yet, you have spent half the conversation talking about Mychael,” she said in a haughty, self righteous tone.

Is this really happening, I thought, feeling my face get red and my jaw start to throb. I didn’t even know how to respond; I was so floored by her angry tone and the condemning nature of her comments. I’m not even sure what I said to defend myself, but I know I was embarrassed and humiliated. I left that office feeling like the most horrible Mother on the face of the planet. Despite ice packs, muscle relaxers and a ton of ibuprofen, I didn’t sleep more than an hour that night because my jaw hurt so badly.

The next day at work, my co-worker Lynn, who—like my Mom—was born to Mother, asked me about the appointment.

“It went okay,” I told her, too embarrassed to admit that during the meeting, I’d discovered what a rotten Mother I was. “Did you have both the kids last night?” I asked her, trying to change the subject. She loved to talk about her grandchildren. She picked them up from daycare two or three times a week as a favor to her daughter and always had stories to share. Her oldest granddaughter, Madison, had recently turned three, and the youngest granddaughter, Melissa, was just shy of a year old.

“Yes, and Melissa is getting so big. It looks like she’s going to be walking soon. Madison was well over a year old when she started walking. But, they say the second one walks sooner in order to keep up with the first one. Melissa is already trying to rip off her diaper. Can you believe that? Every time she goes potty, she’ll tell you and want her diaper changed. I think Melissa is going to potty train before Madison, too.”

I told Lynn how my Mom always used to say the same things about my brother and me. “She always said how I was more expressive and overt whereas Shawn was the sweet one who was always trying to make sure some sense of order was maintained.”

“Yeah, my girls are the same way,” Del chimed in.

“And you have three kids,” I said, validating the exhaustion of yet another child.

While Del and Lynn continued comparing and contrasting their kids, I found myself thinking about my own and how Mychael did one thing whereas Malcolm did another. Suddenly, I had an epiphany.

Lynn,” I interrupted, “how does your daughter gauge her expectations of Melissa?”

“What do you mean?”

“I mean...like, how does she know when her girls might walk, or eat solid foods or potty train or whatever else.”

“I don’t know. I guess for Melissa, she probably looks at Madison…and for Madison, I guess she probably reads books, or asks me what she did when she was little.”

Feeling validated by the information, I explained the situation with the psychologist.

“I can’t believe she said that to you,” Del remarked from behind his cubicle wall.

“Me neither,” Lynn said, clearly annoyed. “These are your first kids, how are you supposed to know what to expect? Of course you compare your kids, but not because you are trying to see which one is better…because you’re trying to figure them out…and the oldest child is your only frame of reference! And she’s going to recommend against the adoption because of it? Give me the phone number of that lady.”

“It’s okay. Just knowing I’m not a horrible Mother makes me feel better. Now that I understand the situation, I’ll be able to defend myself if she decides to go that route. I’m just so glad I’m not a bad Mom. I felt so guilty last night—slept less than an hour.”

“Same here,” Del, my fellow parentally induced insomniac added. “I took a couple Tylenol PMs, but still couldn’t fall asleep until 5:00 this morning. How are we supposed to sleep at night when there’s so much to worry about?”



The single most important factor influencing the kids' academic (and overall) success has been the fact that it was expected. Of course, their efforts and willingness to be successful were absolutely critical to the process, but without my expectations, things would have turned out very differently. Prior to me, they lived up to the expectations of those around them as well. The difference is, however, that the expectations of them prior to me were extremely low. In fact, when I adopted them, Malcolm was reading and writing four grade levels behind, and Mychael was earning mostly C's and D's. It's worth mentioning that the trend in his grades suggested that the C's and D's were moving toward D's and F's, and we all know what happens after that. They had the potential all along. Not to mention, they had the motivation; it just needed to be harvested.

I believe firmly that everyone is capable of being successful. Obviously, success is a subjective term, so it's important to define it based on the individual person or circumstance. For example, someone with Downs (like my Mom's brother) shouldn't be compared to someone not born with that extra Y chromosome. Regardless, if someone is not achieving success, there is always a reason. Clearly, in some cases, that reason may be due to a biological circumstance (which is way over diagnosed in foster care, if you ask me), but more often than not, lack of success is related to social factors.

A child being tossed from foster home to foster home is going to have a lot more difficulty than a child living in a permanent home. The child in transition might have several factors preventing academic success. First, they might not be able to keep up with the material due to early years of not being afforded a reasonable opportunity to learn (thanks to transiency) the fundamentals. Other factors might be best explained by Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs.

How can a child who is concerned about needs, such as housing and the well being of their parents, move up the pyramid to tackle issues like success in school and self actualization? Maslow suggests she/he can't. So why are we shocked when kids in foster care struggle in school? Why do we want to attach a label to it and chalk it up as learning disabilities or ODD? These kids don't have their lower level needs met, as temporarily meeting them doesn't count because the fear of losing them is still very real, not to mention very realistic. Until that child is given a permanent home in which she/he can feel safe, they will have a very difficult time being successful in school. And by the way, a child with learning "disabilities" shouldn't be expected to fail either. The fact that a great mind like Einstein was "learning disabled" should not be overlooked. And he's not the only one believed to have been LD, add Da Vinci, Abe Lincoln and many others to the list as well. And for the record, I too, am on that list.

Regardless, for the most part, going along with Maslow's theory, once a child is afforded a permanent placement where the parents have made an unwavering commitment to the child's long term well being, self actualization and success in school is a realistic expectation.

I didn't expect all A's from my kids, at least not right away. In fact, they taught me to expect more and more from them. At first, I just expected them to perform a little bit better than they had been while living in foster care. I knew it would take time for them to adjust, and I did my part by constantly reinforcing that I was in it for the long haul. I also let them know that while I understood why they weren't meeting their potential in the past, I looked forward to them doing so in the future. We did all homework assignments together, and I monitored their daily performance in the classroom...like any good type A parent.

For Mychael, the first report card was all C's. The second was C's and a couple B's. The third was mostly B's, a few C's and an A. The fourth was B's and a couple A's. The fifth was mostly A's and a few B's, and the sixth was all A's. He didn't take easy classes, either, as we put him in college level courses and expected him to succeed.

When I felt his geometry teacher was a little Nazi'ish, I asked his counselor to move him, and because she was as committed to Mychael's success as I was, she did so immediately. There wasn't room in the geometry class taught by the nurturing teacher he had for Algebra (Mr. Masi), but she asked him if he'd be willing to take Mychael anyway. Because he's the bomb, he agreed to do so. In fact, we made sure to keep him with Mr. Masi for all future math classes. It wasn't just Mr. Masi's nurturing personality that was so valuable, Mychael understood Mr. Masi's teaching style and was able to be successful in his classes. With this in mind, we did the same thing for science (Mrs. Robinson) and English (Ms. Robinson). Basically, every time Mychael had a teacher with whom he clicked, we made sure to put him in their classes.

When my help and classroom time wasn't enough, we hired a tutor (and fellow classmate) for a year to help him succeed in Alegebra II and Physics. He took summer classes every summer to keep him in the grove (he does so much better when operating within extreme structure), and in the end, he was accepted to Purdue University.

Yes, there were a lot of people working behind the scenes to make sure Mychael succeeded, but his acceptance to Purdue belonged solely to him. He owned that success and watching him react upon opening the admissions letter was one of the most rewarding experiences I've had as a Mother. He was so proud. And why shouldn't he be? He did all the work; all I did was make sure he had all the tools to do so successfully. At his graduation, Shawn was looking through Mychael's high school book and saw the envelope to the acceptance letter. It read: Congratulations, you have another Boilermaker in the family on the return address. Shawn said, "I think I'm going to cry," in his cheesy/try to be funny voice. Not surprisingly, I did.

Malcolm came with a different set of academic circumstances in that he was reading and writing four grade levels behind. During the most tumultuous and transient time of the kids' lives, Malcolm was in first and second grade. He literally missed out on the opportunity to learn the fundamentals of reading and writing. It's actually quite remarkable that he had done as well as he had considering that he never learned the difference between a short A and a long A, or how to put letters together to make words. As such, his language skills were extremely phonetic. Needless to say, we took a different path.

Malcolm spent his first six months at Sylvan. I logged a lot of stressful miles on my car during that six months, and thanks to my partner at work covering for me (and my ability to drive 95 on the 8 without getting arrested for reckless driving), I somehow managed to transport him (and Mychael) back and forth between school, Sylvan and practices without losing my job. Malcolm had a good attitude about Sylvan, which was expected, and managed to finish up six months sooner than was originally anticipated.

I worked with his teachers and counselors to find alternative means to meeting his academic needs until he was able to catch up. They put him in a few correspondence classes so that he would have more individual time to work on assignments. Additionally, when I felt (knew) his English teacher was a total *%#@, one of Malcolm's wonderful counselors moved him into an English class that he was teaching, despite the fact that the class was already full. I met periodically with his teachers and used email and the internet to keep track of his grades.

As with Mychael, Malcolm and I stayed up late nearly every night working on homework assignments. Basically, I knew what he was turning in to the teachers every day and was extremely familiar with what he was studying. Toward the middle of the second semester, during a meeting with his counselors and teachers, we determined that Malcolm still had some needs that were probably more extensive than Helix could address--in the manner that I wanted them to, that is. They cared a lot about Malcolm, but Helix is a huge school and there was only so much they could do.

As a result, I decided to sell our house in San Diego and utilize the proceeds to move to Indiana and send Malcolm to a private high school and Mychael to Purdue. Not to mention, there were scholarships available at Malcolm's high school that helped with tuition as well. Once I explained Malcolm's situation to St. Joe, they were willing to take him as a student.

To say that the transition was beneficial for Malcolm would be a gross understatement. Malcolm came alive at his new school. The combination of nurturing values and teachers, and high academic expectations allowed him to blossom and come into his own. He produced mostly B's along with a few A's and a few C's. Additionally, like Mychael, he played football and lacrosse and earned his share of other achievements. In the end, he, too, was accepted to Purdue, and I, again, shed tears as a result.

So, despite what the social workers (and society for that matter) tried to tell me, my kids were capable of the same successes as their peers. They might have taken alternative paths to get there, but they got there nonetheless. What I found along the way is that there will always be plenty of naysayers. However, more importantly, there are a lot of people who will help you if you just ask. You might have to ask a hundred times, and you might have to do a lot of begging and persuading in the process, but if you keep at it, you'll get what you're asking for.

I always expected the same output from myself that I expected from my kids. It would have been unfair for me to expect them to work harder than I did. There's no "I" in team, after all, and I am the one who signed up to be their parent. I must note that anyone who's served as a parent, especially a Mother (no offense to the dudes), knows that there is no job more important than raising children. There is also no job more all-consuming, demanding, exhausting and thankless. If anything, the thanks we get can be found inside that envelope that reads "You have a new Boilermaker in the family" on the return address. And remarkably, that's plenty.


Adios Labels

It's a good thing I was never in foster care or I wouldn't have made it. And I'm not talking about the obvious either (that whole lack of stability, structure and anything reliable in your life thing). I'm talking about the labels associated with foster care--those are enough to sabotage even the most "normal" kid. Everything a child in foster care does is given some label. Kids need to be allowed to make mistakes and learn from them. They need to be allowed to be in really cruddy moods sometimes, or even most of the time (especially if they're teenagers). They need to be allowed to feel what they're feeling--good or bad--without us trying to diagnose it. I can attest to having been quite challenging as a young person, and yet, I somehow turned out okay.

When I was about 12, my Mom gave me a shirt that read: "Challenging Children Become Amazing Adults". Yet, despite the fact that I was a "Challenging Child", my Mom never made me feel bad about it. If anything, she embraced my tendency toward the unconventional. I was a good student and didn't create trouble at school (for the most part). Yet, because I was stubborn and very independent, my Mom had to find atypical methods to successfully parent me. "You're not selling out, you're buying in," was her favorite way of saying, "Just do it, damn it".

Had I been in foster care, I have no doubt that I would have been labeled ODD, among other things. But, had I been labeled ODD versus being referred to as Independent, I probably wouldn't have gone on to graduate Salutatorian. This seems especially true if you consider that incident from my freshman year in which I and others were suspended from school for a week. Had my Mother not viewed my decision to egg a teacher's house as uncharacteristic, I can only imagine the different path my life would have taken. I'm pretty confident I wouldn't have ended up with a biochem/dietetics degree from Purdue.

Having high expectations of me and holding me accountable to them was critical to my success. Treating my undesirable behavior and poor decisions as being either normal (if, for example, I was just having a bad day and acting like a jerk) or not reflective of my character (if, for example, I told the principal to "piss off" after he asked me what I had to say about the egging incident) allowed me to always believe that at my core, I was not abnormal. Most importantly, fundamentally I was good.

My sons came with all the typical labels attached. If I can remember correctly, they were ODD, depressed, angry, OCD, below average, low functioning, etc. Upon adoption, I received an evaluation from the therapist who had previously been treating the kids. The evaluation suggested that my kids were basically rotten and thanks to their being so screwed up, they could look forward to a pretty miserable life.

They're angry
. Why shouldn't they be? They've been bumped around from house to house for five years, had no stability and didn't have a single person in whom they felt they could trust.

They lied. Hmm, how many times had they been told things would be okay when they didn't end up being so? How many people had told them that they would (insert promise) and then failed to do so? So, let me get this straight, it's okay to teach them (via actions and words) that everyone from the social worker to their Mother lies. However, if they do it, they're bad people?

They are below average. They spent their early years being shuffled from foster home, to group home, back to Mom, back to group home, another foster home, back to group home, back to Mom, etc., and because, throughout these transitions, they weren't able to keep up with all the material being taught in school, they're below average? Seven schools in one year and they're below average?

ODD. This one drives me insane. They've had no control over the chaos in their lives, and have been living out of a black trash bag for the last several years. What about the number of people they've called "Mom"? They can't even make plans for next week because they don't know if they'll be living in the same place. Are we really faulting these kids for wanting to assert power over the few things in life that they're actually able to control? Are you, Mr. Therapist, the same person who will judge them later when they make a decision and refuse to take responsibility for it? Yet, today, you'll teach them that taking control of their lives is a bad thing? Even I'm confused.

Can I open the refrigerator? Can I use the bathroom? Where is the bathroom? What time do we eat? Should I wait for you to start eating, or should I just go ahead? Should I make my bed? Where should I store my socks? Will I be here long enough to unpack my things, or should I just keep them in the trash bag? Do you know what happened to my other eight siblings? Is my Mom okay? Do I have the same social worker? Where's my new school? Am I allowed to call my sister? Do you know how long I'll be staying here?

I can't imagine why a child in these circumstances would crave the opportunity to exercise some control of her/his life.

Children who live or have lived in foster care are some, if not the most resilient people you'll ever meet. These little soldiers are accustomed to disappointment and learn instinctively how to recover and move forward. They are used to fitting in and making themselves invisible. They are better at reading people than most therapists will ever be because they didn't train in the classroom, they learned these skills to survive.

So, on that first day when the kids came home, we said adios to the old labels and hello to the new ones: soldier, survivor, insightful, independent, resilient, brave, courageous, capable, hard working, admirable, amazing, strong and beautiful. We spent hours in front of the mirror telling the faces staring back that they're amazing, wonderful and lovable. And miraculously, over time, they started to see what was there all along, but had been hidden beneath all those labels.


Skills from the school yard...

While Mychael says, "That's the handshake for 09," don't let him fool you. That handshake will be modified many times before year end. It seems like every time I see them they have a new bro-hug to perform.

This related commercial is hilarious.

And I just had to throw this in to show how similar the kids' version is to that of the little red head and her butler (a comparison that they will, no doubt, really appreciate).


2009 Lucky Dime Recipient--Skippy T.

Every year for New Year's, we make Greek bread. This is a tradition in Alysia's family. Alysia always goes way overboard with the amount of bread that is made, which usually results in the experience becoming rather chaotic and perhaps, borderline nuts (just like we like it). To say the least, bread production requires a lot of hard workers, and we never back down from a challenge.

Alysia hands out bread "rings" to neighbors and friends, but makes sure to keep one for Team Thompson. Each ring contains one dime (deemed the "lucky" dime). On New Year's Day, the ring is cut into same size pieces equaling the total number of people in the family (there's been debate in the past about including the cats, but thus far, cats have not been accommodated). After the bread has been cut, wedges are distributed in clockwise order, with the oldest person receiving the twelve o'clock slice.

And yes, this process is monitored to assure that no cheating occurs in the event that the cutter/distributor spots the dime and is tempted to intervene on fate. And one more thing, I must note that no one has ever been suspected of cheating for themselves, but rather, there have been allegations in the past that certain people have purposely given the lucky dime to the person who seemed to need it the most. Evidence has never been able to substantiate these allegations, and at this point, the issue is moot considering that a monitoring system has been put into place. Here at Team Thompson, we don't want any charity!

Regardless, whoever finds the dime in their piece is supposed to have good luck for the year. Mychael won the dime two years ago and had a very plentiful and fortunate year! I won the dime last year, but ended up having it stolen when my car was broken into. I wondered if the good luck would get passed onto the new "owner" or stay with me even though I was no longer in possession of it. Alysia thought the good fortune of the dime would turn into bad luck once in the hands of the unlawful owner. Regardless, we never found out the answer since there wasn't an "unusual circumstances" clause outlined in the Greek bread family tradition.

This year, we had to do the Greek bread thing from a distance since Team Thompson.Menlo Park was under construction. Thus, for the first time since 2000, we weren't able to spend New Year's together. Regardless, on New Year's Day, Alysia skyped us to report that once again, Mychael was the recipient of the lucky dime. She emailed a photo of the dime and asked Mychael to take a picture of him holding her photo while slapping the ground. Mychael opted to do a video response instead. Here it is!

By the way, the Team Thompson band became fans of the song playing in the background "Nine in the Afternoon" after repeatedly rockin' it on Rock Band 2.


What's the hardest part of adopting an older child?

I guess I should start by noting that the answer is NOT the older child. In fact, the answer has nothing to do with either the adoptive parent or the adopted child. I say this gently, but honestly: if there is anything that makes it hard, it's everyone else.

Because adopting an older child is not the "norm", we are obviously going to be the weirdos in the crowd (which I likely was already...well before I adopted my sons). That said, do people have to look at us like we're the freaks? Can they at least pretend that we look like everyone else? Please, no more questions regarding who the real parents are or if I'm ever going to have my own kids. First, I'm as real as it gets, baby! Second, I already have my own kids--Mychael and Malcolm, thank you very much.

Look, I'm not asking for a baby shower or anything, but I would appreciate it if people viewed my adopting children as celebratory in nature as they view birthing them. Instead of questions like, "Why would you do that?" or "Can you not have your own?", how about "Congratulations!". And if they can't muster the pat on the back, how about at least toning down the look of suspicion and disapproval. Humor me with your game face.

I'm going to let you in on a secret. My kids and I (okay, mostly me) actually think we're better than the biological families. We're certainly a lot tougher, and we've had to work a whole lot harder for respect. I liken the scenario to two teams running a race. One team opts to run the route in 30 degree weather. That route has hills and lots of traffic. The other team runs in 65 degree weather and has nothing but obstruction free, flat terrain from start to finish. Both teams reach the finish line at the same time. Which team won? Which team is tougher?

I guess I don't fault people who stare and ask unintentionally insensitive questions. At least they're talking about the obvious. Most people don't even want to engage in a conversation about children in foster care. Even the word is taboo. For the longest time, I thought this was because people truly viewed these children as "other people's trash" (as my son likes to put it). However, since having the kids, I have begun to think the avoidance is more about guilt than anything else.

People always change the subject when I start talking about the need for foster parents or adoptive parents. If they are brave enough to move forward with the conversation,they'll inevitably have some excuse about why they just can't do it: too young, too old, too tired, already have too many kids, maybe sometime in the future, husband/wife doesn't want to, etc.

I believe that the decision to either change the subject or make excuses is reflective of their feeling guilty. And please believe me, I get that. I've been there. Why do you think I adopted my kids in the first place? Sure, now I love my kids more than anything in the world, but at first, mostly I just felt guilty. I mean come on, we're not talking about scarfing down half the chocolate cake. We're talking about leaving an abandoned child in an unstable, unpredictable environment where they will be forced to face their futures alone. We should feel guilty!

Guilt gets a bad rap; sometimes it's a good thing--it's our conscious telling us what's right and wrong. Listen closely. We could have been that child, though for whatever reason, we got lucky. That child didn't have any more control over the life that she/he was born into than we did being born into ours. Had you been the kid dealt the unlucky hand, would you want someone to feel guilty? I say, feel the guilt, become the guilt and then do something about it. It's the right thing to do and sometimes, that's all that matters.

I know it's a hard concept to grasp for people who aren't adoptive parents, but all the perceived challenges of adoption really aren't that significant once you've adopted--at least no more so than having a biological child (so I've observed). You think it's going to be so challenging to deal with the child's biological family or that adopting an older child means a whirlwind of drama thanks to the child's tumultuous past. However, it just doesn't play out like that.

The reality is that you love your children and therefore, you actually learn to love, value in the least, their biological family. You appreciate that your children share a biological heritage with another Mom and Dad and perhaps siblings. Thus, in order for them to feel whole, they must be allowed (encouraged) to embrace both their past and their present. This isn't that different than families who deal with divorce or the death of a parent.

I've experienced this first hand, as my own parents are divorced and re-hitched. I expect both sets of my parents to value the presence of the other in my life. I also expect both step-parents to recognize that they are not the rival of my same sex biological parent. If they are unwilling to appreciate this, then I feel resentful and ultimately, even more protective of my biological parent. If the step-parent is like my Mom's perma-friend Paul, who attends family functions at my Dad's Mom's and refers to her as "Grandma T.", then I'm going to love you because you make me feel unconditionally accepted; you don't force me to choose sides.

As the adoptive parent, you have to accept that you came second. However, you also have to remember that at this point, despite arriving late, your role in your child's life is more important than that of the biological parent. You're the one who will help the child to resolve the hurts. You'll be the parent in whom the child seeks to be unconditionally loved and accepted. I know it seems complicated when you're looking at it from the outside, but trust me, the learning curve is short. What do you say when people ask if you love one of your children more than the other? "No," hopefully. But why not? Because the relationship you share with each child is unique and different. There is no competition. You have room in your life for everyone. By the way, I'd be lying if I didn't admit that I love Paul as much as I do my biological father. Blood isn't everything. It's commitment.

After we moved to Indiana, we lost touch with my kids' Mom (whom the kids only spoke to occasionally prior to moving). I could have made a better effort to keep track of her, but I didn't. I felt the kids needed a break, a fresh start. I knew they felt guilty for moving forward in their lives and believed that they would benefit from a change of scenery. After a couple years, I decided it was time to find their Mom again. I wanted to make sure that they had the option of contacting her should they desire to do so. Not to mention, I didn't want to be cited as the reason why they couldn't talk to her, as I didn't want to give them any reason not to trust that I love them unconditionally--two Moms and all.

I contacted the old adoptions social worker and she sent a letter to Mom providing our address and phone number. About a month later, Mom sent back a letter providing her address and phone number. I told Malcolm about the letter upon picking him up from lacrosse practice, and on the way home, I had a long talk with him about it. I shared that I felt it would probably be best to slowly re-establish contact with Mom since she was going through her own challenges at the time. I reminded him that she had only been clean (a major feat for a Mother with a drug addiction who subsequently lost all her children) for a couple years and that we didn't want to do anything that would make her feel bad or guilty, as that could potentially put her sobriety in jeopardy.

I suggested that he first write her a letter and then go from there. Malcolm listened, but didn't say a word. Perhaps to be expected, as soon as we got home, he made a bee line for the phone and called his Mom. What happened? Thankfully she didn't relapse, but Malcolm felt pretty disappointed. Absence makes the heart grow fonder and I'm sure the reality of their conversation was much different than the one he'd imagined they'd have. I didn't press him for details and waited until he was ready to talk about it. In the end, our relationship was stronger because I reached out to Mom, not in spite of it.

It wasn't always easy "sharing" my sons. However, when you truly love someone, particularly a child, your love for them is unrelated to their relationship with you...at least it should be. Unconditional love means unconditional of me. I'm the parent and I'm supposed to be the better person. It's in the job description. Not to mention, how can I love Malcolm and Mychael and not simultaneously care about the person who gave birth to them?

The ultimate goal is for my children to find resolution and be allowed to move forward guilt-free. The issue should never be about me. I'm the person who chose to be the parent. They are the children who, despite being at the mercy of everyone else, have spent their entire lives trying to survive enormous emotional challenges. In fact, we expect them to find a way to overcome regardless of whether or not they did anything to bring about the adversity. How selfish would it be for me to allow my own insecurity to further burden them?

Just like I expected my sons to find a way to forgive their Mom and move forward, I had to put my own insecurities to rest. And I did. The bottom line is that I chose to be in this position, just like my parents chose to get a divorce and get re-hitched. Each of us has the important responsibility of not allowing our children to get caught in the cross fire of our decisions.

I mentioned before that I've gone through some significant personal growth and become a much better person since adopting my sons. Any challenge faced as the result of adopting an older child (to wit: my sons) has been part and parcel to that process. That's why today, when given the option, Team Thompson still chooses to run in 30 degree temps, up hills and through traffic. It's no longer about being like everyone else. It's about being better.


I don't want to think about it....

Neither did I! I was 25, had recently graduated from college and had just begun a great new career. I'd just purchased my first home and was going to graduate school at night to pursue my "dream job". I was dating and hanging out with my friends on weekends. I was in the prime of my life and the last thing I wanted to think about was adopting a 15 and 13 year old! Besides, I was too young, had too many things going on, and what if the guy I would marry one day didn't want children, let alone adopted children? I never wanted children anyway. For me, it wasn't about not wanting to adopt children, it was about not wanting children period.

So, you can imagine my surprise when I saw myself picking up the phone to call the social worker and volunteer myself as the prospective adoptive parent of my sons. "Stop! Are you crazy?" I told myself. But I'm stubborn and didn't listen, and almost ten years later, here we are.

You see, while I didn't want to think about it, the fact is, I couldn't stop thinking about it. When Mychael was separated from Malcolm and placed in a group home (where he would likely be "aged out" of foster care), I couldn't stop thinking about "it". What would it be like to be 15 years old and have no one in the entire world to make me feel safe? I still remembered what it was like when I was very young and would get left with a babysitter. I ached every minute my Mommy was gone--couldn't wait for her to get back. What would it be like to never have that ache relieved? What if she never came back?

I was 25 and couldn't imagine facing the future without my Mommy. At 25, I was still young enough to remember 13, and I didn't take for granted what it felt like to have someone in my life whose very presence made me feel that no matter what, everything would somehow be okay.

But still, I didn't want to think about it. And who did I call to talk about my not wanting to think about it? My Mommy, of course.

Whatever, it wasn't my problem. Sure, it was really sad, but it wasn't my problem. Besides, I was too young, had too much going on and just knew I couldn't do it.

And yet, I hated myself for being so fortunate as to be able to choose whether or not my life was going to be "inconvenienced". The kids were inconvenienced by birth right alone. They never had a choice in the matter. They were born fighting. They didn't even know what it was like to take things like your Mom, your pillow or the place where you kept your socks for granted. Not worrying about whether or not you'd have a place to live the next day was a luxury in which they were not accustomed.

But why should I have to be the one to do something? What was in this for me? Why couldn't someone else step up? Have I mentioned that I'm young and have a lot going on in my life?

So why couldn't I stop thinking about it?

That's why.

I couldn't be another person in their lives who let them down. How would I feel if ten years from now, they were in prison, homeless or worse yet, dead? Could I live with knowing that when I had the chance to make a difference, I bailed because I was too young and too busy (translated: too weak and too selfish)?

And so I picked up the phone and made the call. Ten years later, these phenomenal soldiers are completing their bachelor's degrees--scheduled to graduate just months shy of our "ten year anniversary" and my 35th birthday.

If you're still wondering what was in it for me, and ultimately, for our entire family, the answer's quite simple: Everything.

I am forever grateful.


Isn't it hard?

Adopting an older child doesn't come without some challenges (for everyone), but from what I've seen, nothing really great comes easy. Not to mention, while we've had our tough times, doesn't every family?

From Chapter 12:

I’ve read a plethora of books and attended many work related trainings on what it means to grow up surrounded by drug abuse, violence and poverty. Studies show that children raised in domestic violence households are going to have issues with delayed emotional maturation. Children cannot emotionally develop while simultaneously fearing for the safety and well being of their caretaker—the person who ensures their own safety. These children are paralyzed in a state of crisis and instinctively function in survival mode.

Additionally, it is not uncommon for parents with drug problems to neglect their children’s needs; they may not be capable of responding to their children in the manner necessary for healthy development. For example, babies cry when they need attention. However, if crying doesn’t elicit a response, they will eventually quit doing so. Instead, they will learn to self soothe. Over time, they’ll stop noticing when they need attention, eventually becoming disconnected with their feelings altogether. Sadly, while this is a coping skill that they must have in order to survive their early years, this same coping mechanism will be a grave detriment in the years to come.

All children will adjust their expectations of normal based on what they are exposed to on a daily basis. If normal is periods of crying, screaming and violence intermixed with periods of outright neglect, then over time, children will adapt accordingly. They’ll learn that as long as this exists, there is no need for alarm. However, the bell will go off if the scenario changes regardless of whether or not it shifts to something healthier. Thus, while a loving environment devoid of chaos might be ideal for a child, it will cause a child accustomed to crisis to feel anxious and insecure. It takes time to get comfortable with the new environment.

And while four years might be enough time for a six year old, it’s not even close for someone who is fifteen. The fact that Mychael and Malcolm have adjusted as well as they have proves that they are remarkable—something in which I frequently remind them. I make sure they know that kids raised in much more controlled and ideal circumstances would not be nearly as resilient. I repeatedly let them know that I am confident that in the long run, they will surpass everyone else.

The initial adjustment is going to be rough. You’re going to have to work twice as hard as everyone else. But it will get easier and by the time you’re out of college, you’ll be blowing by everyone else. You’ve already learned some extremely advantageous life skills…ones that most of your peers will never understand. So just be patient and have faith because your time will come. That much I can promise. I believe in you.

Malcolm v. Jay

Following multiple assaults, Malcolm takes matters into his own hands.

Malcolm and Jay vs. Mychael

After assaults on Malcolm got boring, Jay suggested to Malcolm that they align forces and attack Mychael. Malcolm agreed.

Hard Workers

Shawn and Alysia read somewhere that telling your small children that they are "hard workers" versus smart, good (basically anything that doesn't require effort, per se) is the best form of feedback. We adhered to their request and after a while, started applying it to everyone. When Malcolm remembers to shut off the light, we tell him, "You're a hard worker Malcolm." If Mychael programs the remote control, we make sure to say, "Good job Mychael, you're a hard worker!" When I go an entire day without bitching (which doesn't happen often, unfortunately), they tell me, "Good job Mom--you are a hard worker." All things considered, in tribute to coming up with the phrase "You're a hard worker", I guess I should say, "Good job Alysia and Shawn. You're hard workers."

And to S+A's credit, this article would confirm the notion that success is earned via work versus "naturally afforded".

New Years 2007 in Menlo Park

Mychael tosses Jay and it's so ridiculously cute.

Mychael tries to teach Jay to catch. He employs our standard "Yay" and clapping theory in encouraging Jay's efforts. Jay, being the praise junkie that he is, typically engages.


Malcolm's HOBY letter 2004

Leadership is demonstrated by action, not necessarily words. It’s hard for me to accept the title of “leader” when I consider that I never set out to become one. Each day, I wake up with the same goal: to give 100 percent to each and everything I do in hopes that I will go to college and become a better person while doing so. If as a result, I also find myself feeling happy and well liked, then great. If not, then I can accept that because I know that success is not always about feeling happy or being the most popular.

I grew up in urban San Diego and am the fourth of my biological mother’s eleven children. My biological mother suffers from a crack cocaine addiction. I was never close to my biological father, as he suffers from drug addiction and has been in and out of prison most of my life. We relied on AFDC and my step-father for financial resources. Thus, each time he went back to prison, we would eventually find ourselves homeless. Regardless, despite the exposure to abuse, neglect, violence and poverty, I remember my childhood as being good. When you do not know that life exists any other way, you do not necessarily think it is good or bad, it just is.

In second grade, my siblings and I were placed into foster care following an incident in which my mother stabbed my brother in the leg. Reunification was attempted, but never successful, as my mother was either unwilling or incapable of abstaining from crack cocaine. Because there were many of us, I was only placed with one of my siblings, my older brother Mychael.

We met my adoptive mother shortly after being placed into foster care. She was assigned to be our mentor and over the next two years, we spent many hours with her. Consequently, when my brother was removed from our last foster placement, she decided that she wanted to adopt him. Because she was young and single, she did not adopt me right away, but promised to eventually do so. The fact that I am a student at St. Joe indicates that she kept her promise and adopted me.

Since then, my mother has helped me to pursue educational and athletic success. In the process, I am learning about myself. Additionally, because my mother is a thirty year old White woman, it has been a challenge to deal with the questions and inquiries of others. Fortunately, we are comfortable in our roles and have a lot of family support. In any event, my mother has always told me that we are teaching others about acceptance and tolerance and that in the long run, I will be better for having learned it first hand. I believe her. Last year, my brother became the first person in my biological family to graduate from high school. He gives me hope that I will one day reach my goal of attending college, as he entered Purdue University this fall.

I often feel that I work much harder than my peers in terms of school work. Each day, I listen to them talk about the television shows they watched the night before or the new video games they played. I sit quietly knowing that I spent the previous evening doing homework from the time I got home until the time I went to bed around eleven. I sit in class and notice that most of my peers are distracted or not interested in the topics that the teachers present.

My mom went to parent/teacher conferences the other day and said that my teachers positively remarked on how I always seem so attentive and ask many questions. I thought it was a little strange that they would see this as positive when all along I have been thinking that the other kids just obviously know the information already. I am making up for lost time and am not interested in wasting time. I have enough challenges ahead of me. Not to mention, I know what it is like to not know what the next day will bring and to feel hopeless. There is great hope in education and I know that I am lucky to have been given this “second chance” opportunity. Many of my old friends will never be so fortunate.

When I received notice to write about my plan for leadership, I told my mom that I did not have one and considered not submitting as essay. However, my mom told me that I should write about my life and that my life is an example of leadership. She said that real leaders know that leadership often involves walking a lonely path and despite feeling nervous at times, they move forward and are committed to their goals.

As far as my effect on St. Joe goes, I can only say that nothing is going to get between me and my goal of creating a life better than the one I originally lived. I understand that everyone is dealt a different hand and that we as individuals have the power to decide how to play it. If my commitment to education, athletics and civic responsibility has a positive influence on my peers, then that makes me feel great. But, feeling great will never be the sole reason for my efforts, as sometimes it is just about doing the right thing.