What I’ve learned about parenting so far

A few years ago a friend of mine with her husband became custodial parents of a teenage girl after her adoptive family (another family in their ward) decided they no longer wanted her. Initially, things went well with the original adoptive family. They brought her home from far away. She got along well with others. She met the missionaries. She joined the church. And then it was time to go to the temple to be sealed as an eternal family. It went something like this:

Teenage adoptee: “Well, I don’t really want to be sealed to you.”

Adoptive parents (with shock and horror): “After all we’ve done for you? Why not? We love you!”

Teenage adoptee: “Someday I want to go find my mom. I want to be sealed to her someday.”

And that was the end of their family unit both eternally, and temporally. They kicked her out of the house and that’s how she ended up with my friend.

Recently the high profile case of a  mother woman sending back a seven-year-old boy _alone_ with a one way ticket to Moscow has highlighted, at the very least, the unrealistic expectations potential adoptive parents often have.

It’s not only adoptive parents that have unrealistic expectations. Parents waiting for the perfect baby to appear from their own making have similar unrealistic expectations. My meager pre-parenting resume included an internship working with abused 2-5 year olds in daily group therapy; 3 summers running group therapy day camp for girls 8-11; volunteering as a mentor for a teen pregnancy program at the University of Utah Hospital; a counselor for wayward teens in an outdoor treatment program; and last but not least, being the oldest big sister of twelve kids. I was sure I’d be bored with only one baby (laughs), and was certain I wanted needed twins first. (The thought of it pains me to this day.) And so I offer you some unsolicited advice, garnered from misapplied parenting idealism:

Kids aren’t notches in our belts. Not adopted ones, and not the ones we bear. They come with their own personalities, likes and dislikes. They aren’t Play-Doh, we don’t mold them like we think we do. They aren’t computer programs, into which data is entered with an expected predictable result. That isn’t to say parents don’t make a difference. Certainly we do. Parents are (arguably) the biggest factor in a child’s development.

If adopting an older child (by which I mean not an infant), know that s/he is already on his/her way to adulthood. The older the child is, the further along that path s/he is. As some parents have learned, you aren’t going to change the essence of who s/he is. And please, consider the impact on a child of suddenly being called Sarah instead of Luba, or Michael instead of Vanya– even if you don’t like it, or don’t think you can pronounce it, or someone at the adoption agency thought it would make the child more “yours“. Don’t try to make the situation different than it is. It’s OK for it to be different. It’s OK if your relationship is not the same as if the child came out of your body and you knew him/her since the very first inhale of the very first breath. Expecting anything else puts an undue burden on the child s/he can’t possibly live up to.

Many hopeful adopting parents often don’t want to adopt within the US foster care system because they see noticeable psychological burdens on the children who bear them. But somehow lost in the idealism and optimism of parenthood is the reality that most likely, children adopted abroad also come with some psychological and/or physical obstacles. Most often children from Eastern European and other orphanages are there because they were removed by the state from custody of their own parents who neglected them, beat them, sexually abused them, and were alcoholics and drug addicts–the very same reasons kids are in foster care in the US.

I’ve seen close up the realities of Russian orphans’ lives. I’ve also seen up close how adoptions can end pretty close to happily-ever-after. I’ve seen up close how attachment disorder can be so disruptive as to leave only a disheveled heap of a family after storms have severed ties that bind. And most commonly I’ve seen families who walk the middle ground, where an adopted child was not quite what was expected, instead struggling with pervasive developmental disorders. But a family loved him and made untidy peace in the end.

I see families that create families from their own genetic pool, experiencing unexpected birth outcomes and are left with the prospect of life-long care for a disabled child. I see parents that question their abilities and doubt their strengths, crushed helpless under their failures as a child struggles with drug abuse. I watched as my own mother and father gave all they had to raise twelve kids, one who ran away but came back, one who struggled with drugs but quit, 5 who graduated from high school, but 10 who went to college, many who were inactive but 9 who served full time missions. They taught me by example that as parents we are the father in the parable of the prodigal son, unsure of the outcome the morning after the feast, but ready to give all for the child who has been lost.

Life has taught me that when it comes to parenting it is not our job to save our children. It is our job to show them where salvation lay, regardless of whether or not our ideal of an eternal family unit is rejected by them. We give them our best, because in the end what every child needs is what we need. What every child wants is what we want, someone to love them unconditionally like our Father in Heaven loves us–someone who will be there with outstretched arms to gather us in.

18 thoughts on “What I’ve learned about parenting so far

  1. Your post gave me chills and tears. Chills because I’m all about saying it like it is and saying it with power (which you did), and tears because I feel for every individual who doesn’t know what it is to be cherished.

    I have never felt that my children were “mine” even though I carried them in my womb. I love them so much, and I know that they have been entrusted to me. Somehow, knowing that they belong to Heavenly Father makes me require more of myself. After being a child who was reared by a “molding” mother and taught that mom’s way was the right or only way, I find myself fascinated to sit back and watch and listen to my little spirits. They are so unique and individual, and I want to know what they have to say, what they like, and what they choose when given a choice. My mom also lacked the ability to nurture. It has been healing to nurture my daughters. Above all and no matter what, I want my girls to know that they are loved and cherished. One of my girls is more difficult than the other, but I can love her just the same. It is a conscious choice I’ve made to overcome my sadness in some of her behavior and love her through it. Some of us were difficult children and we turned out okay. I know that one day my daughters will be adults, and they will be great adults despite their difficult periods in their youth. They SO need help right now to get there, and I want to give them all I can.

    I hope that all made sense. I realize that my opinions and feelings do not apply to everyone, and that there are some very difficult situations out there, and I mean no offense. I really appreciated this post. :)

  2. This was a great post that took courage. We’re about to become foster parents so it was a happy surprise to find this topic addressed on Segullah. I’ve been somewhat surprised at how few LDS foster parents there are. Especially in a culture that believes so heartily in the value of every child of God.

    My view going into fostering is that no one is perfect, and that especially includes children. They have had fewer years on the earth in which to progress and they are at the mercy of the adults and older children that surround them. Just as I wanted mercy and understanding in my early marriage from my husband as I struggled with issues from my troubled family life, I know that a troubled child will need the same, and more intensely. It will not be easy, we’re not going into foster care because it’s easy.

    To address concerns about fostering, we’re taking children birth to 5 years with no sexual abuse history or history of injuring animals – we have 4 children of our own, 2-15 yrs and are deeply concerned for how this will effect them (for now they’re excited). We also feel that children are more malleable and able to change (AKA open to being loved) in those early years.

    The foster care system has undergone huge changes in the last decade. Many of the horror stories you hear are very rare exceptions or happened before great foster agencies took on the role of supporting foster families. Foster parents are now told everything known about foster kids before placement and a child who is violent is immediately removed from a home where there are other children.

    I’ve got more info on my blog and here is a great podcast if you want to learn more about fostering – http://fosterpodcast.com

  3. These are some good insights.

    When we first became parents, I naively expected our children to be like me or like my wife, or somewhere on the spectrum in between. I couldn’t explain a three-day old person whose personality was very puzzling, and remains so to this day, 2 decades later. I’ve found our LDS idea of a pre-mortal life to be very helpful.

  4. MelissaPete your commit about your feelings that your children were not really yours is not my understanding nor do I believe inline with LDS teachings. They are yours by the sealing powers of the Temple marriage or marriage/family sealings. Yes, they are Gods children in spirit but now they are yours for forever period. This does not diminish the importance but only adds to the fact that God loves us and want families togeather forever. Having been involved in the church adoptive/foster program it isn’t easy for anyone. It certainly isn’t like one hopes good or bad. I’ve seen very good relationships but also very bad things happen. But I think we press forward in your desires to help children and families hoping for the best. I believe there is extra credit for those that take on this challenge good or bad. God bless those parents with open hearts.

  5. Mex, I think she was saying she doesn’t own them. What she said was very much inline with church teachings.

  6. Well the word ‘own’ is not the right word since we can’t own children because they aren’t property or such. What I hear from so many is that their children are on loan from God or Heavenly Father that is just not true. Through the power of procreation we create those children or in some cases adopt them and have them sealed to us forever regradless what happen unless they/we commit murder or deny the HG. We all will return to our Heavenly Father in the end but this time we are in units that can be united for eternity. I believe we are the spritual children of a Heavenly Father and Mother that hope to be with us and our children but each family with be a unit unto themselves. Not to belabor the point but the sealing powers given to us are very powerful, true and are what drives us to be united.

  7. Mex,
    This really isn’t a discussion to argue paradigms on points of doctrine. However I will say that even in the eternities children go off on their own, no?

    One of the points of this post was to illustrate, as the opening I hope does, is that we aren’t here to make children “ours”. Children aren’t accessories to our Celestial Glory.

  8. You put it beautifully. Our children are individuals. They are their own and God’s own souls. Ever day I am reminded in some way that my children are not an extension of me, or a new model of me minus the flaws. I am beginning to realize that a very large part of raising them is getting to know them. And what a blessing that is.

    My heart broke when I read of the child who was kicked out for her attachment to her birth mother. I have not had children with difficult issues to overcome, but it seems they would need that unconditional love so much more. What a huge reminder for me to curtail my own selfish expectations with my children.

  9. I loved your post, and I agree with it in most every respect.

    My children are all adults now, and they are the ones who taught me that they are spirits in their own right and not just extensions of myself and my husband. My responsibility as an earthly parent is to teach and guide individuals who have already experienced an extensive pre-earth life of their own and who come to me with weaknesses, strengths, and characteristics that already belong to them. Just like me, my children have the freedom to choose and create their own lives, as well as their eternal destinies.

    It took me some years to “get” that, but I do now. This is not to say that we can’t affect the outcome, because we do wield a great influence, especially if we use it wisely. However, they come as pretty complete packages, and our is just to help them learn to use and develop those packages in the most positive ways possible. In other words, we can help them learn to be their best selves. But we do not form or create the selves. That’s already been done.

    I wrote the following poem on the day I finally internalized this message:

    ©1997 by Susan Noyes Anderson, At the End of Your Rope, There’s Hope, Deseret Book

    “Who shall ascend into the hill of the Lord?
    or who shall stand in His holy place?” (Psalms 24:3).

    Sometimes when I am quite alone and still,
    The Spirit speaks and whispers words of truth:
    That I am not the master of your youth,
    And was not called to bend you to my will.

    I was not called to bend you to my will,
    Nor would He have me bind you to His own.
    His yoke is one that you must bear alone;
    I cannot thirst for you, nor drink your fill.

    I cannot thirst for you, nor drink your fill,
    Though living water springs forth pure and sweet;
    Yet I can but direct your wand’ring feet,
    For you must tread the path and climb the hill.

    For you must tread the path and climb the hill
    That leads you back into His warm embrace.
    I see you standing in His holy place,
    Sometimes when I am quite alone, and still.

    ***
    Thanks again for a great post.

  10. You make some wonderful points, mmiles. We went through Foster Parent training before we adopted our son through a friend. I think I wrote about this here a couple of years ago. I found it interesting, as we contemplated adopting an older child, to observe my fears:

    What if the child doesn’t want to join the church? What if they have learning disabilities? What if they have really bad behavior problems? Etc. . .

    With every fear, I realized we could have those “issues” whether we gave birth or adopted a baby, too. There really are no guarantees. We have to be open and love and learn new skills whatever our children are like and however we get them.

    Jendoop, good luck! I’ve worked with some foster kids professionally and amidst the hard situations, have seen some really great things happen.

  11. Beautiful.

    “What every child wants is what we want, someone to love them unconditionally like our Father in Heaven loves us–someone who will be there with outstretched arms to gather us in.”

    Yes… YES. YES!

    When mortal parents fail… God never fails.

    …maybe it’s just me. But with my daughters, when they were growing in my womb – my oldest always felt like an old soul to me… like she was my “teacher/mentor” in the pre-mortal realm. My second daughter felt like my kindred spirit “bff” from the pre-mortal world.

    So… I fully get the we are stewards. I also don’t feel as though I am “older” or even that much “wiser” in the soul realm. They were adult spirits just like I was. My 2cents.

  12. Parenting is for the brave…so my mother reminds me when I feel like throwing in the towel. I have loved reading these posts and recognizing others struggle as well with this. Another great parenting resource book is Postive Parenting with a Plan by Matthew Johnson. This book has saved my relationship with my oldest child who has ADD and had run away from home several times prior to reading this book. I took Love and Logic and found it hard to use with a son with a disability. This book is very specific but can be adapted to your family’s needs…

  13. Sorry, what I meant to say is that my son’s behaviors and the chaos in our home have been greatly reduced since I have read and used the program described in this book. It came highly reccommended by our counselor after we decided to get some professional help. It is an excellent resource that can be used with any child who is difficult, not just children with ADD/ADHD.

  14. You are so exactly right. I, too, thought my children would grow up exactly like I wanted them too. If it happens that way, you are very lucky. Usually the genes and their inbred personalities take over. Life is a strugle with that.

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