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.

You don't look old enough...

For the most part, my response to any “How old are you?” question depends on two factors: desired length of conversation and long term relationship potential, or lack thereof. Ordinarily, I just lie and say that I’m (insert number—calculated to ensure that total age is greater than or equal to 16 years Mychael’s senior). I used to feel guilty about bending the truth, but not anymore. It’s too much effort otherwise; not to mention, it’s emotionally draining.

By fictitiously aging myself at least five and a half years, I can usually politely terminate any unwanted conversations in less than ten minutes, whereas telling the truth is a guaranteed twenty minutes, minimum. I’m fairly certain that on average, my pragmatism is saving me approximately one hour per day, seven hours per week, twenty eight hours per month and three hundred sixty four hours per year. At $30 per hour (well under what I or any other parent is worth), my fibbing is saving our family $1092 per year.

Yet, it’s not necessarily about the time or the money. Usually, I just don’t feel like explaining our life story to every person who wants to know if I have kids. I can never just say, “Yes,” and be done with it, as inevitably, the interrogator will want to know their ages. If I say, “18 and 15,” then the next comment will be some skeptical and overtly suspicious statement about my youthful appearance—about my not looking old enough to blah, blah, blah.

In the past, if I really wanted to end the conversation quickly, I’d just say my kids were ages four and six. Sure, I might have continued to face questioning regarding their genders and names, but other than that, I was home free. Total length of conversation: under five minutes.

Since moving to Indiana, I’ve discovered that this response no longer guarantees in and out service. Midwesterners are a bit friendlier than Southern Californians—they like to get to know you a tiny bit better. The other day, I smugly explained to a friendly parent that yes, I have kids—sons, actually—and their names are Mychael and Malcolm, and they are ages five and seven. Confidently, I grabbed the car keys out of my purse and was just getting ready to bid my adieu, when the parent wondered, “What school do they go to?”


Running in Circles

One thing for sure, entertaining a teenager isn't quite as easy as this...