Tell Me Your Story: Of a Boy Who Changed Your Life

Adopting with a partner is not easy, but adopting as a single parent is even harder. As a young social worker, Tia saw a need that needed to be filled, and at just 27 years old, she became the parent of a 13 year old boy. She quickly learned how difficult it was to provide structure to a child who had never been given any. She also realized how important it was for a boy to have a father figure. But through their difficult struggles, Tia was able to share moments with her son that they will both never forget. In her own words, Tia tells her story of a boy who changed her life.

My story is not a common adoption story.  I was a social worker for the Florida Department of Children and Families for 12 years.  It was during my tenure with the Department that I was introduced to a very lively and active 5-year old boy.  This child was not on my caseload, but he was in the office on a daily basis due to being kicked out of his biological relatives’ home for behavior issues.  My son’s story is all too common of a child born into the foster care system.

My son and his biological brother bounced from one relatives’ home to the next until there were no more relatives willing or able to care for them.  Once this happened both boys were placed in foster homes.  The brothers would be separated due to the lack of available foster homes with two beds open to keep the boys placed together.  This is a sad reality of the system.  The children are first traumatized by the removal from the birth home/family, and then often despite the best efforts of caseworkers the siblings are placed in separate homes rarely, if ever, to be reunited.

Once my prospective adoptive son began going from foster home to foster home, his behavior continued to become increasingly difficult to manage.  He was scared, confused, hurt and myriad of other feelings that I will never be able to fully wrap my head around.  I was one of the only two social workers that was able to connect with him and to that end began a 6-year journey that would result in adoption.  You see I eventually worked with his case and got to know his biological mother.  I will not disclose the reasons why my son came into the system, but I will say that his entire biological family continue to battle the same issues that many of our inner city families are experiencing.

His biological mother loved her children but could not seem to overcome her circumstances in order to be a parent to her children.  I saw her struggle, and I personally made a promise to her ‘woman to woman’ that I would do my best to watch over her boys until they turned 18 or became adopted.  Did I mention that at this time I was a single woman and only 26 years old?  I really had no concept of what I was getting myself into, but I am a person of my word.  From that moment on I made sure that both boys were in good foster homes, and I would be sure to visit them on weekends to be sure that all was well.  My son’s brother was eventually placed with a foster family that committed to keep him until his 18th birthday.  My son was still not able to maintain in a stable foster home environment and was moved into a local group home facility.

At this point, I was taking him out every weekend for church and lunch.  It was one day after church that he asked me if I would adopt him.  I had never considered adoption.  So after careful prayer and discussions with my parents, I decided that it was something that I wanted to do.  I loved this young man, and I had become vested in his future.  The process was not easy because I had worked with him and his family on a professional level.  Since the time that I worked on his case I had been promoted and transferred into another division, but still careful consideration was taken before they would allow me to adopt.

As a single woman, adopting a teenage boy from foster care it was probably the most challenging thing that I have done.  The process of adopting from the foster care system is fairly painless because the need is so very great.  They prepare all prospective foster and adoptive parents in a lengthy training program, Model Approach to Partnerships in Parenting (MAPP), that allows you to become familiar with the ins and outs of foster care and adoption.  However, just as most people will say to that first-time pregnant mother, nothing can really prepare you for bringing home your first child.

 My son first came to my home at the age of 13 years old.  He came with his clothes in one very small, dirty suitcase with the remainder of his belongings in a black garbage bag, and his defenses were up.  No matter how much he wanted to be adopted by me, his life experience told him that no home is permanent.  This would be my struggle for the next three years.  In retrospect, I feel that having a husband to share in the parenting would have made it easier for my son and me.

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photo credit: Weldon Ryan

I am sure that my next statement will be very controversial, but I must put it out there.  I firmly believe that there are aspects in raising a male child that can only be effectually addressed by a man/father figure.  I look back on a few parenting and disciplinary issues that arose during his teenage years knowing that if a man were in the house we could have avoided some major issues.  There is a certain energy that a dad brings to the equation that offers balance in the home.  Of course I am only referring to dads who are emotionally and physically present in the home.

As a social worker, I thought that I knew all that I needed to know.  I was certified to teach the MAPP courses to prepare families for fostering and adopting, I had worked with hundreds of foster kids and their families, and I knew my son since he was 5 years old.  I thought I had everything under control.  That could not have been further from the truth.  Yes, I knew my son’s background better that any other non-familial perspective adoptive parent of a foster child.  However, all of the training and working experiences with foster children could not prepare me for the daily reality of being a parent.  The first day that I brought my son home was nerve wrecking!  My son was already a preteen when he came to live me!  I think the honeymoon period was about a week, and then it was time for me to learn how to be a mom and prove to my son that I was not going to be another adult that let him down.

It was very important for me to have established my support system prior to making the decision to adopt.  I knew that adopting a teenage boy that had been in foster care for his entire life would be challenging and that I could not tackle it on my own. Thankfully, I had the support of my parents, prior foster parents and my neighbors.  We worked as a team for my son.

Before adopting I did not realize how much my parents did behind the scenes for me as a child.  My life suddenly became more about what I could do to reach my son.  However, in my situation I felt like I was in a race with time because I only had five short years to prepare him for adulthood.  He had missed out on so much parenting from birth to 13 years of age.  Simple things that those of us who grow up with the same caregivers take for granted became critical to impart.  My son basically did not know what it was like to be apart of a functioning family where people do things for one another because it benefits that household.

My advice to anyone interested in adopting an older child is to make sure you obtain and understand the child’s background.   Take an inventory on how you were raised and how that environment has shaped you as a person.  What expectations to you have on adoption?  Talk to your close friend and relatives and ask them how they feel you would be as an adoptive parent and if they are willing to be your support network.   Set up your support system, as well as your child’s support system, because they are not always the same people.  Lastly, don’t forget to have fun!!  Teenagers can be a lot of emotional work even in the best of situations, but they can also be a lot of fun.  You don’t have the luxury of time when you adopt an older child.  The best lessons are learned through laughter.

One of the best memories that I have with my son was when I took him to my childhood home in New Jersey for Christmas.  As a foster child he had never left the state of Florida.  He really had never left the tri-county area.  Taking him to the airport for the first time was magical for this 15-yr old boy.  The trip was marked with so many firsts for him.  He had never experienced freezing temperatures, and although there was only a dusting a snow on the ground he was just hypnotized by it all. He was just so happy and thankful that entire week that we spent at my grandmother’s home.  I think the best thing about the trip was that he got to experience the love of family that I had known my entire life.

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ABC, Adoption & Me

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ABC, Adoption & Me is a children’s book written by Gayle and Casey Swift, a mother and daughter duo. Gayle is an adoptive mother, adoption coach, and foster parent. She is also the co-founder of GIFT (Growing Intentional Families Together) Family Services, an organization that offers support through adoptive coaches who are adoptive parents and certified professionals. Casey is an adoptee and a teacher who wanted to create a book “designed to support and encourage adoptees.”

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Gayle Swift

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Casey Swift

In the book, each letter of the alphabet corresponds to a particular adoption theme. Adoptive parents may be apprehensive about bringing up certain topics, and adoptees may also struggle with their feelings of loss and identity. This book provides a way to explore these issues, and it lets children know that adoption is a safe topic. Casey and Gayle have provided a valuable tool for parents and their young children to start meaningful and important dialogue about  adoption. Read on for our interview!

I like that you wrote this book with your daughter, Casey, who is adopted.  How did the idea for the book come about?

When she and her brother were growing up, we read constantly. Books of all types filled their shelves. Since we are an adoptive family, many of these books related to adoption. We noticed a huge void in the adoption literature for children.

Most titles focused on the parental point of view—how thrilled they were when they adopted the children. The stories reinforced the deep love that grew to bond them as a family. Something important was missing: the adoption experience as told from the child’s experience. Certainly, adoption provides them many blessings. Underlying that fact is a story of loss and ambivalent feelings.

ç This is perplexing to kids and they need assistance in coming to terms with it. Adoptive parents want their kids to be happy, feel firmly attached, and know they are deeply loved. One important way to do this is to be brave enough to talk about the hard parts of adoption. This ensure kids won’t have to wrestle alone with these complicated and sometimes scary thoughts.

We wanted to create a book that helped families handle this conflict in a healthy, loving and accepting way. Our book acknowledges the realities and says, yes, we have these extra threads in the fabric of our family and they all have value. ABC, Adoption & Me makes it easy to explore the complete adoption conversation and it does so with respect, honesty, and good humor. The conversations don’t have to be heavy, they just have to be authentic!

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What were some resources, if any, that helped both of you as Casey was growing up?

I recall reading many books to my children but when I asked them recently, they could not recall any specific book. Certainly, this lack of emotional resonance in the books available to them, fueled our interest in creating a book that would support adoptees and their families. I know we read: Adoption Is for Always, by Linda Walvoord, The Mulberry Bird  by  Anne Braff Brodzinsky and Why Was I Adopted?ByCarole Livingston

You are an adoption and family coach. How does being an adoptive parent equip you to better help parents in the adoption process?

It gives us empathy and credibility. We travel the same journey as the families we reach. We live adoption every day, and experience it’s many blessings and we wrestle with questions of grief and loss, identity issues and the struggle to braid together the many strands of our life stories.

Like other adoptive parents, I experienced soul-deep joy when we adopted our children. A fourteen-year eclipse had ended and once again the sun glowed in our lives. But it is essential that I not let my joy blind me to the hard parts of adoption. I want to acknowledge and support my kids so they are not left to flounder on their own. I want to be the safe harbor where they can feel protected and understood. Their gains and losses through adoption are both real.

Adoption is not a zero-sum game where kids must choose to deny their biological heritage in exchange for a loving family. They are the product of both nature and nurture and each holds importance.

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This book is helpful because it gives children ways to talk about adoption and ask questions. What are some other ways that parents can talk about adoption with young children?

Teaching moments crop up in daily living. TV programs, movies, advertisements, and literature often have storylines that center on family issues. Parents can explore them to compare and contrasts situations with their own families. It doesn’t have to be obviously connected to adoption. For example, a story about a talented athlete in a family of bookish non-athletes present an easy opening for talking about how family members can differ from one another—especially in adoptive families. Be sure to make clear that a child is valued not only for what they have in common with their adopted family but also for the ways that they are different. Their differences spice up the family and enrich it.

Seek not to be color “blind.” Instead, notice all of the colors of the human rainbow. Honor a child’s race as an integral part of who they are, like their size or eye color. Paul Griffin’s delightful illustrations portray an array of humanity. These drawings can be a great jumping off point for discussions. Notice the variety in family composition and color. Then, talk about what it might be like and how this might feel. Compare it to your own family experiences. Dare to have the awkward conversations. Your child will get the message that it is okay to have questions, complicated feelings and/or curiosity about her adoption, her birth parents and how it all fits together to shape her life. Parents can open conversations by talking about how “some” kids feel curious about a situation and then invite your child to share his view.

People often question adopted parents and kids about adoption. Perhaps they’re genuinely interested. Unfortunately, sometimes they’re just nosey. Your family is under no obligation to provide information to intrusive questions. Model good boundaries for kids. Teach them how to educate others and honor their own privacy needs. When discussing adoption in front of kids, be mindful of what and how you frame your answers. Kids will listen to your conversation and will weigh your words for content, judgment, and subtle emotions. Take the time to review these conversations later to be sure that your child hasn’t misinterpreted what you shared with others. This will ensure that they get the message that their adoption is something of which you are proud and parts of which are private.

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What encourages you about adoptions today? What work still needs to be done?

Adoption professionals are working hard to educate and raise the general “AQ” Adoption-attuned Intelligence of our culture. This means educating everyone to update old beliefs about adoption to reflect what we know about attachment, grief, loss and a respect for the reality of an adoptee’s experiences. We must let go of the old belief that viewed adoption as an event that solved a problem for birth parents, adoptive parents and a child in need of a family. People used to think birth parents and adoptees never looked back, that the severing from one family and grafting to another was painless and without lingering memories or effects.

Of course, we now realize that the truth is quite different. Adoptees and their birth parents do think about and miss one another. Adoption remains a factor throughout an adoptee’s lifetime. Like gender, height, etc, it is a permanent element in an adoptee’s identity.

Do you and Casey have any other projects planned?

We are working on a book that explores adoption from a tween’s point of view and addresses the thoughts and feelings they have at that stage.

I’ve completed a young adult novel That Baby We Borrowed. It tells a story that centers on one foster child’s journey… When a foster baby joins the Neill family after his brother is killed, thirteen-year-old Darcy, learns for some kids, “My parents will kill me,” is the truth. Will Spencer’s parents get away with murder—twice?

To find out more about Gayle Swift and her latest work visit www.gaylehswift.com

Interview with Jody Cantrell Dyer

In my last post, I reviewed The Eye of Adoption by Jody Cantrell Dyer, and I also had the pleasure of interviewing her. Jody is just as personable and open in her interview as she comes across in the book, and she is honest about her struggles in order to help others. Read on for the interview!

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In parts of the book you describe your various methods of trying to conceive and the obstacles you faced – did you find it hard to be so transparent?

I wrote The Eye of Adoption to help, in a real, raw, way, families who are trying to conceive or adopt. I felt that transparency was key to meeting that goal. I wanted to be approachable, flat-out honest, and believable, so I gave details. Infertility treatments can be humiliating and costly, and I felt readers would appreciate me saying so. I was concerned I would offend someone who used IVF. It simply was not a healthy option for me financially, physically, or spiritually. Financially, I would have had to gamble smart by implanting at least two embryos. That would put them at a physical disadvantage because of my clotting disorder, “bumpy” uterus, and other issues. Finally, I did not want to “wonder” about any embryos left over. (I had good, plentiful eggs, so that was a true possibility). I didn’t spell all that out in the book because every woman’s body is different and I didn’t want to come across as judgmental. I tried to describe my treatments so that other women could relate, but not question their own decisions.

 You mention MTV’s 16 and Pregnant and the movie Juno made an impact on you during your adoption journey.  Do you think media depictions of adoption are accurate? 

I think that MTV did a much better job than Juno writers did. Of course, 16 & Pregnant is a reality show, but they could have edited to control the message. I would like to have seen some stats about adoption, abortion, and open adoption in the broadcasts. So many young girls watch that show—why not give them hope through details about agencies, adoption information, etc.? Catelynn and Tyler are wonderful advocates for adoption. You can see that, though they grieve, they are healing well and moving forward in healthy ways. I sent them a copy of my book and they loved it! They Tweeted me really sweet messages, as did their social worker, Dawn. I loved Juno. I felt that Jennifer Garner did a great job of capturing the desperation and emotion and sometimes business-like approach to adoption. What wasn’t realistic was her husband’s strange affection for Juno and Juno’s parents’ cavalier attitude toward losing their grandchild. Media has so much power. Unfortunately, most media messages (particularly in the entertainment industry), gloss over the heartache and stereotype birth parents and adoptive parents.

You struggled with your inability to conceive and others’ ability to do so quite easily. At one point, you joke with your doctor that “If I’m not pregnant in six months, I’m going to start smoking. If I’m not pregnant in a year, I’m doing meth. Smokers and drug addicts get pregnant.” All jokes aside, now that you have adopted Scotty, do you feel less resentful towards pregnant women?

Not being able to conceive is an incurable, frustrating loss. To be honest, I still look at pregnant women and think, “Please be humble and grateful and modest. So many women are struggling through gut-wrenching heartache to just be normal and be mothers.” I am happy when someone I know becomes pregnant, but I don’t think I’ll ever be completely cured of the hurt of not being able to have more children. I truly think that turning 40 helped me more than anything, i.e., I feel too old to have a baby now, so I don’t want to be pregnant! Adoption doesn’t cure that loss, but adoption does cure the longing for a child.

 On the topic of infertility, you called it “traumatic” and despised advice from anyone, including the popular “Just relax and you will get pregnant.” What is the best thing to say, if anything, to a woman or couple struggling with infertility? 

Ha! Amen! Unless you are an ob/gyn or fertility specialist, simply say, “I am sorry you are having trouble conceiving.” I urge people to help those going through any struggle by doing something specific. We can pray, donate money to the cause (treatments and adoption are expensive), give a gift that demonstrates faith but won’t be too sad for the recipient (a baby blanket, a photo album, diapers, a devotional, a massage, a gift basket). Any tangible token of love would be thoughtful. Basically, women struggling with infertility can feel isolated. What we need is friends who will listen without judgment or criticism.

 Your book is unique in that it includes many different perspectives of adoption. Your husband was adopted as an infant, and you thoughtfully include his story. Along with your own narrative, you also include an interview with Scotty’s birthmother, Kerri, at the end of the novel. Why was it important for you to include the different perspectives? 

One of my goals with The Eye of Adoption is to build kinship among the adoption triad (birth family, adoptive family, adoptees). Adoption is a dynamic, extremely complex “industry” and experience for all parties. Adoption has been mishandled so many times and I don’t think the general public really understands it even know. By sharing all the different views, I could illustrate the positive and negative aspects of adoption for all of us. Kerri wanted to dispel myths and communicate hope to adoptive parents and birth parents. Adoption situations are as unique as the individuals involved in each match. It is important that families are educated so that they make right decisions for their children. It is also important that family and friends read books like mine so they can empathize with and support loved ones struggling to conceive, adopt, or place a child.

You also share emails exchanged with Scotty’s birthfather Bryant. At one point, you and your husband flew him down to visit. Are you still close to Bryant, and how do you see Scotty and Bryant’s relationship in the future? 

We feel emotionally close to Bryant, but we don’t talk with him very often. Kerri does. She shares information and pictures with him every time we get together. Bryant is hoping to visit this summer. At this point, I have no idea what Bryant and Scotty’s relationship will be. Jeff and I speak of Bryant and Kerri with love and respect, so I think Scotty will feel love and respect for him. But, Bryant lives in Pennsylvania, so I don’t think they’ll be too close. Open adoption is open-ended. We’ll have to see how Scotty’s relationships evolve. We all agree that his mental and emotional well-being are the most important concern.

For anyone considering adoption, by either placing a child or welcoming a child, what would you tell them?

To birthparents, I say “Do what your heart tells you to do.” If you want to parent, parent. If you need help, work with an agency to help you secure the resources you need to maintain a healthy pregnancy and be a successful mother or father. If you are considering adoption, read as much as you can about all types of adoption and get as much counseling as you can from social workers and pastors. Talk to other birth parents who have placed. Pray for good judgment and peace of mind. Know that you can negotiate the adoption relationship that is best for you and your child. Know that adoptive parents appreciate, love, admire, and respect you more than you can ever imagine, and that many want a continued relationship.

To adoptive parents, I say, “Do what your heart tells you to do.” Be willing to spend every dime, every moment of time, every ounce of energy, and every bit of your heart on the beautiful, burdensome, blessing of adoption. You will question, doubt, worry, and suffer. You will also gain the spiritual education of a lifetime. I think adoption is the most intentional process in the human experience. Pay attention to the miracles that happen along the way and allow yourself to grieve and heal. No matter what happens, if you want to be a parent, keep moving forward and do not give up on your dream.

Do you anticipate a follow up book or other adoption books in the future?

Kerri and I have talked about writing a book together. We’d like to write something that ministers to birth parents. My mother tagged me a “compassionate humorist” and my friends have begged me for years to write a “funny book.” I am currently writing the funny book one chapter at a time through my blog, Theories: Size 12. Basically, the posts are weekly rough drafts of chapters (my editor’s idea). I have a few ideas and projects in the works, but they may take some time to complete because I teach full time, write for a local magazine, contribute guest posts to adoption blogs all over the country, and, of course, have two busy little boys. Whew! I love to write, and definitely like writing with the purpose of inspiring others, whether that’s through emotion or humor. I am thrilled and honored when appreciative readers say that The Eye of Adoption ministered to them or that my latest Theory made them laugh out loud. I want my work to affect others in a meaningful way.

To find out more about Jody Cantrell Dyer, you can visit www.jodydyer.com