Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Brazil's Crushing World Cup Defeat & its Congruence with Playing the Parenting Game

We rushed home to take in the World Cup semifinal game between Brazil and Germany. “Germany made a goal,” Matheus impassively said, momentarily looking up from his iphone as we negotiated the traffic on the highway. Germany then scored their second goal just as we had turned on the television at home. Matheus and I were speechless as we watched Germany score another goal, and then another, and then another… Brazil had conceded four goals in six minutes. In passing, Davi simply proclaimed, “you know that in another minute, everyone in the stadium is going to be crying.” Indeed, the fans had already begun to shed bucket loads of tears, and the discerning eyes of the television cameras repeatedly exposed their looks of shock, disbelief, and anguish.

Brazilian national pride had overtaken our family over the past few weeks as Brazil steadily advanced its way into the semi-finals. We had just returned from our family cruise on the Mediterranean, where the fervor over the World Cup in Europe seemed bigger, more emotional, and more exciting than we are generally used to in the states. Both boys, yet Matheus more so, had kept up with Brazil’s progress, and exhibited a greater sense of personal pride in association with their own cultural heritage. It was nice to see, as they had become too comfortable over the years in assimilating their focus onto the American ideal. Or, rather, they had become too used to exploiting their newer Americanized selves, thereby keeping a comfortable distance from all that was negative in their past Brazilian lives.

Apart from the boys’ own personal interests, this loss was particularly crushing not only in the context of Brazil’s proud, fabled history as a soccer giant, but with the controversy regarding the debt and corruption soiling the country’s social consciousness, Brazil needed this win. To be so humiliated in their own country only deepened the nation’s wounds. I had later read that on Brazilian TV, David Luiz, that frizzy haired, endearingly G-d fearing frontrunner, and team’s acting captain thanks to Thiago Silva being sidelined for his second yellow card, broke down in tears when interviewed after the game. “I just wanted to give some happiness to my people,” David murmured. “To my people who suffer so much already. Unfortunately we couldn’t do it. I’m sorry, everyone. Sorry to all Brazilians. I wanted to see my people smiling.”

Well, it’s only a game. Or, is it? Not to soccer-crazed Brazil, a country that truly epitomizes what it means to live and breathe a sport. And, metaphorically speaking, not to parents who live and breathe in the raising of their children, whereby the parenting game often rivals the emotionally charged back-and-forth kicking of a soccer ball. Parenting any child, albeit especially the older adopted child is not for the faint of heart. Just when I think I figured out how to maneuver my way through to something that “works,” it only seems to work the one time. To stay ahead of the game, I am forever having to enact a new strategy out there on the field. And, yes, luck does play at least some part in the triumph of my next move. It’s different with older adopted children—different from raising children from the start, where they learn early on the game plan for life as it could be… should be. In parenting the older adopted child, not unlike soccer, the game plan seems forever to be shifting, usually to accommodate even the slightest rumblings of insecurity and/or anxiety that influence their defensive instincts.

I adopted my two sons from Brazil at the cusp of 9- and 12-years old, four years ago now. Perhaps mirroring their native country’s travails, I had plucked them out from a life of poverty, instability, and insecurity. So, given their earlier life’s experiences, why would I dare expect them to trust straightaway, and even now, still, what worked once for them should work a second time? Eventually, though, “it” does happen. They begin to trust that the ground beneath their feet won’t necessarily quiver, crack, or open up and swallow them whole. Yet, even with a securer worldview, it does seem that they have to sometimes test my authority that much harder to ensure it stays as such. And, all too often when I should exercise my authority as their team captain, it invariably seems to them to be without justifiable merit, without logic or sensibility, or that it’s just “not fair!” As their “fearless” leader, I find myself having to pull rank now and again more than I might be comfortable with. This sometimes leaves me feeling vulnerable on the inside as I struggle to rally my troops past their sullen, disagreeable, and/or uncooperative spirits with some semblance of the right decisions and moves.

Even when there is the pain of past oversights, missteps, and misguided self-interests that still are fresh in our memory banks, like on the soccer field, I always get another turn at this so-called parenting game. When it’s my turn, I take stock in my next kick of the ball, whether it’s to buy myself more time in defending against another opposing behavioral insult, take a shot toward a goal for the win that puts them in their proper place, or sets up a play that better positions one of them to save face and make the better decision for proper behavior. This game of parenting can be exhausting to the say the least, with foul moves often leaving me feeling dejected, demoralized, and/or unappreciated… not much different than how David Luiz was likely feeling about his game performance. It took a 9-year old girl’s simplistic, yet very meaningful words of encouragement in a letter she wrote to him after the game that he had posted on his Instagram to put back into perspective what it’s really all about. “I think that you don’t need to be sad because you played well and did the best you could,” she wrote. “You were a great captain.” With a philosophical twist, she added, “Life is like this, sometimes people lose and sometimes people win but people only need to be happy. David Luiz, you are my champion.”

I, too, sometimes find myself getting stopped in my tracks by my own two number one fans, who often remind me that the parenting game is not necessarily about winning or losing. Rather, it’s about the effort that goes into playing the game. Even more important to them is that I do not give up—they see that I am in the parenting game for keeps, and their fearless captain is here to stay. It sometimes can become difficult for me to see the bigger picture after experiencing a parenting setback—that I’m always out there trying my hardest. I know they understand those times when I see how they cooperate with me, work together with each other as dutiful teammates, and use good judgment that parallels my teachings. There are even times they excuse me for a bad call, and are trusting and patient enough to allow me to regain my better sense of judgment. Although a single parent, I am not alone in this parenting game. We are bonded together as a family, traversing the field of life as teammates who belong together. That alone is a win-win for all of us.

Dr. Gary Matloff is a licensed psychologist, and a proud single, adoptive father to a pair of brothers, now thirteen and sixteen years-old. He is the author of See You Tomorrow… Reclaiming the Beacon of Hope— A true story about resilience, and the journey of a lifetime for this pair of brothers and their new father against the sometimes all too uncompromising reality of adopting older children and international adoption.

Roseanne & the Next Generation... Cultivating Trust for the Older Adopted Child in the New Age of Social Media

With the television on for background noise while I was working at my computer, I happened to catch an episode of the television show, Roseanne the other day. It only took a few minutes before I became completely distracted by the episode’s focus on the unrelenting conflict between Roseanne’s dumbfounded parent and her fast-emerging teen daughter, Becky. Roseanne might as well have been a single parent for this episode, as her husband, Dan, felt compelled to maintain a neutral position—”Just like Switzerland!” an exasperated Roseanne shouted at him. In its day, Roseanne frequently was touted for its wit and realism in the portrayal of the all-too often vexing task of parenting in this fast paced world we live in. This particular episode’s well-orchestrated storyline brought the viewer in on a glimpse of the turbulence surrounding one parent’s difficulties coming to terms with the abrupt changes that accompany the emerging teen—complete with bad attitudes, angry retorts, slamming doors, the silent treatment, pulling away from the parent’s influence, and the push for greater independence… and privacy.

One of the more poignant scenes transpired when Roseanne was conducting a spring cleaning of sorts in Becky’s bedroom, a rather thin disguise for her ulterior motive: she had hoped to come across any clue as to what was going on that might be causing her daughter’s unseemly behavior. The episode hit its climax when Roseanne spotted Becky’s diary, and had to be convinced it was only right to put it back, unread, so that she’d protect her daughter’s privacy. However, only after she had put it back did she find another diary stowed underneath the mattress. Realizing that the first diary, seen in plain sight was a decoy, the temptation to crack open the “real” diary was even more so. This “real” diary surely held the kind of clues that Roseanne thought would help her best support her daughter. Once again, Roseanne’s sister convinced her that Becky had her right to privacy, and there were some things she simply did not need to know.

Mother and daughter were able to reach a ceasefire after Roseanne admitted to Becky that she had found her diary, but she had held back from reading it out of respect for her privacy. Although this initiated the closure of the episode’s premise, something still did not sit right with me, and then I inadvertently came across its original broadcast date: 1989. Twenty-five years ago! Computers were not widely available and/or utilized as they are now, there was no Internet, and there were no cell phones. Really, the only source of interface teens had with their peers, or anybody else outside of school or at live, social gatherings was the landline phone… at home. It was a completely different world back then.

Teens’ issues surrounding their natural push for independence are the same, and still play out in much the same explosive ways between them and their parents. Yet, the potential for how others today might negatively influence the vulnerable teen is overwhelming for even the more knowledgeable parent to wrestle with. Social media—cell phones, texting, instant messaging, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, FaceTime… all compete for the way a teen may immediately gratify their rather normative need to socialize, and connect with others. Even the most conscientious parent cannot effectively monitor it all, let alone begin to impose the most fundamental limits still needed by even the most grounded teen.

Although privacy was the overt subject being explored in this episode, the actual driving force behind the struggle between Roseanne and Becky was the matter of “trust.” Could Roseanne really trust her normally sensible, loving daughter to use good judgment, and make responsible decisions in the face of those ready to harmfully influence her? Or, can Becky really trust her mother to respect her enough by “letting go” rather than getting into her business, even if it meant letting her make mistakes, and still being supportive? For my purposes as a (single) parent raising a pair of brothers I had adopted from Brazil when they were older, with the eldest at the threshold of his teen years at the time, the prospect of “trust” was a sticky, multi-faceted unknown from the start of our father-son relations. Even today, four years later, I still find myself at odds, forgetting that their trust still often needs to be earned in the face of an unforgiveable past. I have to lean heavily on disciplinary practices that foster open communication, even if it means forsaking old-fashioned punishments designed to set limits and reinforce boundaries.

It did not take long before both my sons had adapted to the mainstream of the American way of life, with its emphasis on immediate gratification and self-absorption famously exploited by our teens today. I watched helplessly as my eldest fast became overtaken by his first cell phone, and then later fall deeper into the abyss of the “new” social mainstream with his first iphone. I had set the precedent from the beginning, and still remind them every so often that it is my right as a parent to instill boundaries and monitor their social media actions to ensure they’d remain safe, respectful, and with at least the semblance of a foothold on reality whenever there was cause for concern.

Phones remain out of sight during “family time”, and they “park” their phones at night in my office at bedtime, keeping at bay any temptation that would disturb their much needed rest. If an inordinate amount of time should go by during the day, and my eldest hasn’t moved from his perch, transfixed by the constant shuffling between texting, games, videos, and his music, he is simply told it’s time to “take a break.” He puts away the phone for the time being (if he doesn’t want me to take it away from him, only to get it back at my convenience rather than his), unless he should be called to answer the odd text. I also might go into their phones and run through whatever texts, pictures, Facebook rants, etc. that are available, enabling me to ensure their good judgment, mostly when I have cause for particular concern. Even so, on the surface, I keep to myself most anything I’d come across, as it would likely be considered only mildly “inappropriate” by the most sanest of adults, even if it happened to concern an unflattering comment about me. As such, perhaps as a function of denial on their part, for the most part, I have still managed to maintain an acceptable level of discretion between us.

I am careful not to hound them on whatever tidbits I’d come across for more than what they are willing to tell me about their personal social lives on their own. Still, it doesn’t stop me from casually broaching an issue linked with a particular string of texts that bears relevance to what normally should be discussed between parent and child—incognito, of course. Self-respect and respect for others has tended to underlie much of what I’d emphasize when attempting to use my information to circumvent potentially acrimonious, very misguided influences. When that’s not enough, and I should happen upon something more serious, such as the girl talking about her cutting habits, or the string of explicit sexting that could have come straight out of a porno movie, I’d command a more direct, open discussion. Even if I seem to be doing most of the talking, at the very least, they usually seem receptive and do listen while I responsibly carry out my parental duty. It’s a delicate balance, but along the way, the greater has been their confidence in being treated more as a partner in the making of adaptive social choices.

The conclusion of the Roseanne episode was simple, yet oh so fitting as Roseanne sat down with her daughter to clear the embittered air between them. “So, here’s my peace offering,” Roseanne proposed as she handed over the screws to Becky for assistance in putting the bedroom door back on its hinges; its removal had glaringly symbolized the breakdown in confidence between them. “You know,” she continued, as she started to hoist the door back upright from the floor, “I guess I don’t understand everything you’re going through, but then again I don’t think you understand everything I’m going through, either. So, I’m giving you back your door because that’s the way I’d want to be treated… So, here’s your door.” That final affirmation seemed to shake Becky out of her dazed disregard for her mother, as she tentatively got up to help with the door. As they worked together to replace the door on its hinges, Roseanne continued, “You can keep it closed whenever you want to. Sometimes, I hope you will open it up and let me in. But no pressure.” Becky could only stare back at Roseanne, as she apparently was fighting back tears that would betray the kind of intense vulnerability teens today still struggle to contend with, and that still justly commands their parents’ prudence.

Dr. Gary Matloff is a licensed psychologist, and a proud single, adoptive father to a pair of brothers, now thirteen and sixteen years-old. He is the author of See You Tomorrow… Reclaiming the Beacon of Hope— A true story about resilience, and the journey of a lifetime for this pair of brothers and their new father against the sometimes all too uncompromising reality of adopting older children and international adoption.

True Testament to the Viability & Necessity of Adopting Older Children

Adopting a child from another country means learning and becoming their culture with them.

We adopted our oldest daughter when she was 14 years old. She had previously been adopted by another American family when she was 13 years old, but they disrupted their adoption a year later. During that first year in America, life was very hard on her. She didn’t know any other adopted children. Her first adoptive family had very little interest in maintaining her cultural heritage. She felt isolated, frightened, and alone. We had heard about her situation and began visiting her.

After a few meetings with her, my husband and I brought her home to stay the weekend at our house so she could get to know our two sons. Our sons were older child adoptions as well. They immediately began bombarding her with questions: “What was your orphanage like?” “Was it weird at first, coming to America? It was weird for us.” “Did you speak English before you came? We didn’t” “We didn’t like some American food– What about you? Were their American foods you didn’t like?”

Even though our boys were from Kazakhstan, it was clear they all had a lot in common. You could see the look on her face, a mixture of surprise and relief. Until meeting our sons, she felt she was the only child in the world going through what she had been through. She was amazed at how openly they talked about their adoptions, coming to America, and their feelings about all of it. She was also amazed to see how happy they were. Suddenly, she wasn’t so alone in her experiences. It wasn’t long after that we adopted her and she permanently joined our family.

In addition to much-needed therapy after all that she had been through in her young life, we also began the journey of becoming a Vietnamese-American family. We know many adoptive families, including many of our own extended families. Again, she was amazed. We introduced her to other families that had adopted children from Vietnam.

I also spent a lot of time researching Vietnamese culture, traditions, and holidays. We ate at Vietnamese restaurants, and I ordered a Vietnamese cookbook online. My daughter and I looked through the cookbook together, and we began making Vietnamese dishes at home. We found a wonderful Vietnamese market not too far from where we lived. I searched for an Ao Dai (A traditional Vietnamese dress) but could only find a pattern to make one. I enlisted a good friend of mine for the task (my sewing skills leave a lot to be desired!) It turned out beautifully! We celebrated the Autumn Moon Festival and found Vietnamese mooncakes (slightly different from the Chinese version) at an Asian market in the next town. We had so much fun sharing our family’s cultures.

During that time she also learned a lot about Kazakhstan, where our boys are from, as we shared those holidays, dishes, etc., together as a family. I had been doing some research on the Lunar New Year, called Tet, celebrations in Vietnam. I read about the traditional New Year dish called Banh Chung. I read about how generations of women get together days before the New Year festivals to prepare this dish. The ingredients are relatively simple, but the preparation is not! It was very intimidating. I watched YouTube videos and read articles, blogs, and recipes to make sure I knew what I was doing.

I mentioned that I was planning to make Banh Chung to a Vietnamese woman, and she responded by saying something like, “Making it is pretty hardcore. I order mine from a place out-of-state.” Hardcore. That’s what she said. It only made me more determined to do this with my daughter. My daughter was so excited when I told her we’d be making it.

It took almost three days to prepare this dish and then 7 hours to boil it. The result is a lovely rice cake with a pork center, wrapped in a banana leaf. My daughter has Vietnamese friends from school– children who immigrated to the US with their Vietnamese families, not adopted. She bragged to them that she and her mother were making Banh Chung. One of her friends couldn’t believe it. He hadn’t had it since moving to America.

The moment of truth arrived. The Banh Chung had been removed from the water and had spent several hours cooling off. It was time to unwrap them and see if they turned out. My daughter unwrapped the first one. As she peeled back the layers of banana leaf, she began to cry. When it was open, there was our perfect rice cake! She cried and I cried and we hugged and cried together. It was so much more than a traditional holiday dish. It represented everything she had been through. She hugged me and said, “Mom, I feel like I’m still in Vietnam!” She excitedly shared some of it with her friends at school. It was, of course, the main dish of our big family Tet feast.

The change in her over the two years that she’s been in our family is amazing. She is a happy 16-year-old girl. She tells us that she’s happy that she gets to be Vietnamese again. After her experience with her first adoptive family, she thought she had to give up everything about who she was. In spite of our different nationalities she feels that she “belongs” in our family. Recently, we celebrated Nauryz, the New Year celebration from Kazakhstan. As we prepared Besh Barmak, the national dish of Kaz, my daughter laughed and said, “Today we’re all from Kazakhstan.” We continued to laugh as we talked about how fun it is to be in an international family. These experiences remind me that I didn’t just adopt a daughter from Vietnam; I adopted a Vietnamese daughter. It is not just where she is from; it is a part of who she is. Her heritage– to the core.

Author: Anita Schley