Sunday, August 31, 2014

Discovering the Emotional Implications in Exercising One's Parental Authority

For my son's recent bar mitzvah, there was the task of delivering the Dvar Torah speech during the ceremony. Although it can be given by anyone, it often is traditionally the parent(s) who stands at the bema and imparts a "word of Torah", a lesson or sermon that interprets a particular text from the Torah. Relative to the boy's bar mitzvah, it is common for the Dvar Torah to focus on that week's Torah portion. Being a single parent to Davi and his brother, it was pretty much a given that I would be doing the deed, and I wanted to make the absolute most of it. The italicized text is the actual Dvar Torah that I had prepared for the occasion, in its verbatim which is weaved in with the added introductory, clarifying, and concluding texts below.

When I first learned that Davi's Torah portion was about the importance of respecting authority in one's life, I couldn't help but take a look up above and say, "Really? Are you serious? How did you know?!" Being a writer, I expected it to be rather straightforward to write about "authority", especially given how much energy I spend encouraging, if not demanding my sons' respect for my parental authority. In my writing I struggled with just how to establish a common ground between my thoughts about the text and what I wanted to convey to family and friends, and even more important, the meaningful impression I wanted to make on Davi, and his brother. I did not just want "to teach," the literal meaning of the word "Torah," but I wanted to "inspire."

With a rough draft in hand, I recruited the rabbi for his perspective. He rather wisely surmised my restraint, steeped in my fears of stoking my own ego as an often embattled parent, and subsequently losing out on fostering a connection between the respect for authority and its relevance in both my sons' lives. The rabbi essentially gave me permission to let loose a bit, and not be so afraid to get more into the heart of the matter. I came away feeling that it was okay to open up more frankly about the often too emotionally heavy-handed task of exercising one's parental authority. This is especially so for adoptive parent(s) of older children, who take over in the raising of those who had started out in life with less than favorable influences. Their very best of intentions can abruptly be derailed by the kind of mistrust in persons of authority that is deeply ingrained, and not easily resolved.  

Feeling a challenge being thrown my way, I began to think more deeply for myself, and took a look out there at the fuss we parents tend to (and still should) make about respecting authority, and its place in raising our children. I saw how the parent-child relationship teaches us about our relationship with G-d, who essentially gives us this earthly parallel relationship that enables us to learn about who He is, how He relates to us, and how we relate to Him.

At this too early point in my delivery of the Dvar Torah, I felt myself inexplicably becoming emotionally overwhelmed. I had to stop, having become too choked up to continue. When I felt that I had gained back enough of my composure I started up again, yet it turned out to be a false start. I barely made it past three more words before having to stop again. I even tried sputtering out a joke to the congregation, in how I didn't "know what's wrong with me." And, that I hadn't "even gotten to the emotional part, yet!" Although mindful of my starting focus on the ultimate higher authority Himself, I was pretty sure it wasn't because I was experiencing some kind of a powerful spiritual connection with G-d that moment. Still unsure as to what was happening with me, I felt I had pulled enough of myself together to plod along, yet I still didn't get very far.

Our Sages say that when children honor their parents it is considered as if they honor G-d Himself (Talmud, Kiddushin  30 b). As we learn, over time to revere G-d's authority, and look to Him for guidance and safety, children first learn from their parents what it means to depend on someone's love and protection, in spite of those annoying rules that are doled out for their eventual benefit.

I had to stop again. I just couldn't understand what it was that was getting to me. Being the consummate perfectionist when I write, with my need for just the right word that most clearly expresses my thoughts, ideas, and feelings, I had probably read through my Dvar Torah at least a hundred times in my writings. And, each time I had read it through, I never felt the slightest stirring of any sentiment. Subconsciously, up there at the bema I knew well the territory I was about to enter, where I had gone before too many times to count. But, doing so out there in public for all to hear and see, I felt especially vulnerable. Tears started to well up, and my voice cracked, at times it became muffled that made it hard for many to hear me. I felt insecure, not unlike so many of those times when I struggle to withstand the heat of yet another backlash of misguided hostility... all because of having to assert my authority, and discipline as it was warranted, or attempt to "teach" in a way that would continue to foster my sons' emotional growth, and bonding with me as their father. 

Too often I feel that I have to be "strong", and reflect outward the kind of inner strength readily translated as that someone with whom my sons are able to feel safe and secure. That wasn't happening so fast up there on the bema. As I was connecting more directly with the hidden emotional agenda of my Dvar Torah, I was in danger of folding like a house of cards. Davi might even have sensed this, as he seemed ever so sensitive to and touched by my genuineness in emotional expression. I spotted a speckle of tears in his eyes as he placed a hand on my arm, and in his offering of strength said, "You got this, father." I took a deep breath, and carried on.

Children also first learn from their parents about love and compassion, and how it is unconditional no matter the context. Their parents love them no matter what, even when their children have made them so angry that it threatens the abandonment of logic and reason, even when their children made them feel as though they don't deserve to share the same breathing space, even when there is in your face mistreatment, or disrespect, even when there are hurt feelings inside... their parents still love.

But, it is not only children who need authority. We all do. We all need to feel that the right people are in charge so that we feel safe and secure, and that there is order in our life. And yet, when we believe that we can't trust the people in charge, we become anxious, fearful even, in a world where there is no authority to respect or trust, and that our best interests are not kept at heart. From the start, I had wanted to be the type of parent whose authority deserves respect and is listened to. Yes, I know... I have teenagers in my charge. I've learned the hard way to take what I can get! I know I am far from the perfect parent, but I work hard to provide the kind of loving care that is buffered by clear limits and fair consequences in order for which to grow from, and which honor and integrity prevail. 

As I have always stressed, parenting is not for the faint of heart, as we are continuously pushed out of our personal comfort zones. As such, we are constantly being challenged and made uncomfortable in ways that are unimaginable. It especially can be exceedingly challenging to find the merit in the task of parenting when our own sense of balance and strength indefensibly feels under attack. Yet, if we are able to retain some semblance of our mature adult selves, parenting also can be the most profoundly meaningful endeavor of our lives.

Davi, I look at you today with a great deal of pride and joy in my heart as you stand on the threshold of becoming that kind of young man. From the start, you bowled me over with not just the brilliant sparkle of your intellect and humor, but how you can carry yourself with the kind of wisdom few adults are able to attain after a lifetime. I have learned more than a thing or two from you over the past four years, where I have often found myself justly, if not also humbled by the sharpness of your insight and warmth of your affection on more than one occasion. So why might I come down on you a little harder than maybe you think I should... well, humility takes practice, so what kind of loving father would I be if I didn't knock you down a few pegs now and then? It is to remind you that there always is a higher authority, and that we must be mindful and respectful of His presence. But also, and just as worthy is the importance of being true to oneself as you forge ahead in life, being mindful of one's need to maintain a humble sense of oneself, that one is not necessarily right all the time, and that one should always hold himself accountable because that is what makes him honorable, and trustworthy. 

I truly believe that asserting one's parental authority has nothing to do with perfection, or even control for that matter. That isn’t even a goal for me, nor do I expect perfection from you or your brother. Rather, I am most content when we learn together to respect each other and live well in an imperfect world, loving each other despite or even because of our imperfections. Especially then, at the end of the day, I find myself not asking if I had done everything right, but what I had learned and how well I had loved. I also hope that even at times when feeling as though it might have gotten lost in the translation, at the end of the day, you come away feeling just how much I very deeply love you, and your brother, how I am grateful for every day we have with each other, and how I wake up every morning looking to make each day we are together count. 

As they say, "there wasn't a dry eye in the house." I had succeeded beyond what I initially thought I had intended to achieve. I realize that at the end of the day, parenting should be approached as a partnership rather than as an exercise in seeking to dominate and control, the very antithesis of raising children who learn to become accountable for themselves. As this holds special relevance for the single parent, I often find myself saying to my sons, "I can't do it by myself. We need to work together as a team." After all, each one of us wakes up every morning with hopes for how the day will transpire; each one of us holds a stake in the day's outcome. So long as I carry out my parental authority as it is meant to protect, nurture, and guide, my perspective remains lucid, and the better I am able to keep my emotions in check that best reflects my inner strength. 

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 adoption older children and international adoption.

Monday, August 18, 2014

Preserving Connections in the Midst of a Closing Door

It was that time of year again... for LIMIAR’s reunion weekend for Brazilian adoptive families. It had been two years since we were at the last reunion, with last year’s reunion having been cancelled when there was not enough interest for it to have been financially sustainable. This year’s reunion, our third, was being heralded as LIMIAR’s last as the organization was getting ready to shut down its operations completely. It already had ceased its involvement with Brazilian adoptions more than a year ago. The number of international adoptions from Brazil had been on the decline for several years now, and the Brazilian government was initiating changes in the way agencies would need to apply for official sanctions to provide adoption services. Sadly, LIMIAR's closing of its doors somehow seems rather ironic in its imminent departure from the word's Portuguese reference to the threshold of a doorway, and the symbolic act of crossing over to a new beginning.

In the car ride to the reunion site, Davi was very content in taking center stage and regaling me with (and Matheus, who really did appear to be listening to) his experiences at sleep away camp thus far, having been away for ten days with another ten days to go after the reunion. Matheus was simply content in having his brother “back.” Even though he would not give us direct satisfaction of this fact about the deepening bond he seemed to have been forming with his younger brother the past six months or so, he had indelibly put it out there on his Instagram, claiming that he “gotta hang with him more.”

The four hour car ride was rather swift, and upon arrival to Bradford, we grabbed pizza at our usual place, hit the same grocery store for Davi to get snacks to bring back with him to camp, and the boys spent a little time at the hotel’s pool after dinner. Sean wasn’t with us this time around, as he had moved back to his hometown a few months before, and he couldn’t afford to fly in to meet us. Still, though, there was that same familiar feel in the air for us as we readied ourselves for the initial gathering of everyone for the reunion at the university campus the next day.

Straightaway when we walked into the university center the next morning, however, I did not feel the same sense of anticipation as I had for the first two reunions we had attended. There were no Brazilian flag decorations strewn about as there had been before, and there was not going to be a loja, or store that would sell fun Brazilian related trinkets. A small collection of items were hastily put together for a silent auction later in the day. There also were no activities scheduled until after lunch, and very few families had even arrived yet—many were not expected to arrive until later in the day or not even until the next day. It was very quiet throughout the morning. There also were some families who weren’t able to bring everyone due to other commitments and/or issues; there were even a few families that had dropped out at the last minute from coming at all. We already knew that Lino, our trusty Brazilian caseworker was not able to come as he had in years past, but at least as a group we were scheduled to have contact with him via a pre-arranged live video chat. There seemed somewhat of a void in the implication that the commitment to the families’ need for their connectedness with each other already was rapidly diminishing.
Especially throughout most of that first day, it was difficult for both Matheus and Davi to connect with their peers, as there were only a few kids on hand, and even fewer kids that were within the scope of their ages. Several times Matheus had retreated alone upstairs in a room that had a piano he happened to have come across. He delighted in trying out his knowledge of scales and using his iphone as an instructional tool to play some music. He gained a great deal of satisfaction in having been able to play pieces of music on his own. However, relative to the reunion’s purpose, on two occasions I had to rather firmly remind Matheus that we were not here for him to isolate himself with his phone, and that he was expected to at least make himself accessible and amenable to his peers. Davi, who was usually the social butterfly, hardly extended himself to anyone, often preferring to play games of ping pong with me in the game room, or hanging with me elsewhere. As for me, other than a few, “Hello, how are you doing?” catch ups with a couple of familiar parents, I also felt somewhat disconnected most of the day. Still, though, with the next day’s full roster of familiar activities in mind, and a livelier atmosphere expected with all of the families to be accounted for, I was looking forward to starting out the next morning.

Although it had been two years since the last reunion, no “new” families were present; only two of the families were newer than us by about two years. These children seemed settled, adjusted, and interacted warmly with their parents. Yet, I couldn’t help but notice somewhat of a still crispy newness around the edges in the children’s bonding and relations with their parents. There wasn’t anything specific, or glaring that grabbed my attention. It just felt strangely similar to how it must have appeared for us as a still bonding family when we were last at the reunion, only a couple of months past our two year mark. The children were lovely—very respectful, mostly calm and well behaved, engageable, and content. They seemed no different than Matheus and Davi had appeared only just two years ago; indeed, we had been progressing well in our bonding as a family unit. But, despite the obvious strength in our family’s evolution at the time, there certainly was a lot more beneath the surface than what met the casual eye of an outsider—yet, these parents did not openly share any such struggles in the day's parenting groups. 

As had been typical for me, I most enjoyed sitting in on the first parenting support group that morning. These groups have been one of the very few places and times I have felt most comfortable with how I am faring in my parenting, and basic survival in the face of my boys’ sometimes still rather challenging behavior and attitudes. It’s the sincerity and honesty in the way these parents share of themselves and their experiences, and offer their support that lends itself to the authenticity of the interactions between us. The more that is shared around the table, the more incredibly normative is this particular game of parenting we all are solidly invested in playing—where the rules seem to be forever changing, and with stress being an all too common experience that bonds us. Parents appearing to fare well reported how they played by the simplest of rules in deferring judgment, keeping expectations realistic, and retaining unconditional, positive regard for their children… even now, especially now for those parents whose children are young adults. 

As I felt last time, I couldn’t help but feel somewhat discouraged, even a bit skeptical in wondering "what happened” to many of these now young twenty something youngsters. Albeit rather superficial in context, in addition to their apparent commitment to and love for them, many of these parents obviously had the financial means to provide the kind of advantages and resources that could practically guarantee their children's success in life. Still though, relative to societal-related hopes and expectations, there didn’t seem to be a shining star in the bunch. Too many of these young adults seemed to be floating from one menial job to the next, dodging responsibility and personal accountability, and/or making life choices for themselves that defied sensibility and logic.

The young adults at the reunion seemed very sweet, personable, and somewhat humble in how they projected themselves. Nevertheless, their parents offered many examples as to how immature they still were in their social and emotional development, and how they tended to behave impulsively and carelessly—forethought often seemed to be lacking in how they went about their daily lives. Apart from whether or not these kids are more vulnerable because of the harshness of their earlier life experiences, the frontal lobe of the brain still does not appear to become fully formed until one reaches their mid twenties. Hence, difficulties properly managing impulse control, making sound judgments, utilizing insight, and controlling emotions still can be problematic for the young adult—it’s not that they lack the life experiences to know better, their brains still have difficulty assessing consequences for their actions. Yet, it still is unclear as to the extent their earlier life experiences might further complicate these matters of brain development, delaying even further the normal maturation process for these young adults.

Aside from those stories that only left us slowly shaking our heads in suspended disbelief, what I did not hear was the flagrant existence of problems with substance abuse, delinquency, and/or social alienation. And, even with the hard road many of these young adults were on, success was not as fleeting as one might suppose. There was the boy with cognitive limitations who recently passed all of his state's series of standardized tests to graduate high school thanks to his parents unrelenting emotional and tutoring support that got him through; when his mother tearfully told of how he broke down and cried when first hearing the news that he had passed the final test, tears dotted my own eyes. He was working now in a job that did not necessarily require great skill, yet he was learning and gaining the respect of his employers and fellow workers. His twin brother also was working, taking post secondary classes, and committed to his girlfriend/fiancé in a long-term relationship. In spite of the twins' sometimes crass attempts at humor that implied a sometimes weakened sense of appropriate social boundaries, it was noticeably toned down in comparison to two years ago. And, they exuded endearing sincerity in their relations with others that was a rather direct reflection of their parents' genuineness in their own relations with everyone.

I softened even more from my initial reaction of wanting to shake some sense in a single mother for letting her son just go on a whim to leave home and hit the road with his guitar and a few friends to make it as musicians. His mother rather simply explained that he was of legal age and she had no choice but to let him discover the world for himself; he was not interested in the benefit of his mother’s experience and wisdom simply because of his own narrow-minded sense of what he felt he needed to do. Not only did he learn how closed-minded and unforgiving the world was in return, he also learned to appreciate even more the robustness of the bond that had been developing between he and his mother—she remained there for him, unlike any other relationship he probably has ever truly experienced in his life. He seemed to now be more receptive to his mother's loving, yet still very nonjudgmental guidance—according to his mother's account, he seemed to be gradually taking the task of living responsibly more seriously since his series of very hard lessons learned. These "baby steps" would not likely have been possible if he, as well as so many of the others had been left behind in their former lives. They are learning their way... slowly, but surely. They are finding their place in this world, thanks to their family's unwavering love and support.

Most of the parents congregated again later in the afternoon for the second (and last) parenting support group. Although I was supposed to take leadership of the group, as I had for one of the groups at the previous reunion, more pressing at the moment was to brainstorm how to preserve the purpose for these reunions. For both the adoptees and their adoptive families, the special meaning that was intimated with these reunions is how solidarity, support, and connectedness is infused in a way that is very different than what can be achieved elsewhere. With the benefit of having attended numerous reunions over the years as they were growing up, there especially were many reports of how troubled the young adults were with the get-togethers coming to an end. A sense of loss pervaded the room as parents struggled to come up with a sound consensus, and commitment to an alternative means of being able to continue coming together. Most important was seeking to preserve for the adoptees the sanctity of this unique connection to their Brazilian identity, support of their fellow Brazilian adoptee peers, and having fun without concern of being made to feel different, or insignificant. Albeit without the designation of clear leadership, promises were made to explore locations within the context of different venues and reunion possibilities. Still, I couldn't help but leave the group feeling a bit deflated, and not very reassured about the prospect of future reunions.

Later that afternoon, most of the reunion's attendees came together in one of the university's classrooms the size of a small auditorium to interact with Lino in Brazil via Skype. We gathered as a collective group in front of a large screen, with more than ten years having passed since having adopted for some of the families. Rather similar to the premise of how former students were brought back together for a tribute in the climactic ending of Mr. Holland's Opus, we shared a common bond because of the good fortune of having had Lino as our caseworker while we were in Brazil. He was there to support our first meeting with our children, guide us through court proceedings, negotiate Brazilian customs and the Portuguese language, and work through initial adjustment issues in the first stages of our becoming a family. To simply say that the six weeks or so during the co-habitation stay in Brazil was emotionally challenging for the newly forming families would be an understatement, yet Lino was there right by each of our sides, bolstering our often heavily battered sense of our selves. It was difficult for Lino to hear us, and the camera had limited range for him to really be able to address the families individually, which made it difficult for there to be the kind of intimacy that many of us really wanted with him. Still, though, his familiar, benevolent face and comforting manner loomed large on the screen. Numerous Facebook friend requests were rather instantaneously sent out to him that afternoon.

The reunion ended as simply as it had begun. Families sort of disappeared without my having the chance to say good bye to some. It also struck me that I didn't even have a contact sheet of names, with any source of contact for anyone. At least by the end, even without as much of the frills that had added to the enchantment of reunions past, the boys did leave seemingly connected with a few of their peers. They exchanged their contact information, even though there wasn't anyone in particular they had indicated that they'd strive to stay in contact with. I also still enjoyed the bonding moments with other parents, and again left feeling a bit more normalized relative to my parenting and sense of myself as a human being. I had a chance to step back, trade notes, and ease up a bit on some of the tension I sometimes have difficulty tempering relative to what should be expected in favor of what is more important... establishing and preserving the kind of bond with my two sons that further bolsters their place and sense of themselves in this world. With that firmly in place, the rest apparently does eventually sort itself out. 

(*) If I had not yet published See You Tomorrow... Reclaiming the Beacon of Hope, a year ago now, this piece would have followed the epilogue that detailed our experiences at the second LIMIAR reunion two years earlier. 

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.