When people ask how many children I have, I hesitate. The answer is two, a bio child and adopted child, but it is easier to say “one.” Like other simple questions in idle chat, the answer is messier than social pleasantries permit.
I adopted my second son when he was nine from foster care. You know how the story goes. I knew it would be tough but trusted in my resilience and parenting more than I relied on his history and genetics. I had a complete case record, and his first encounter with child protection was at age one. His mother was an addict, his father in prison, and he was in and out of placement for years by the time parental rights were terminated. He was cute, of course, a darling boy with charm and quick wit, small for his age. The tantrums started after finalization; the social worker told me that a honeymoon period was common, and now he could safely act out.
I can tell you of good times, of family vacations with his brother, of his playing sumo wrestler in a jock strap with pillow strapped to his chest, of his savvy in sports, juking the defense in basketball.
I learned to navigate the systems– child welfare, juvenile justice, mental health, law enforcement, education—in ways I had no desire to learn. I’ve lost track of the social workers in my life.
We were more than ready, when he turned 18, for him to move into independent living; I needed to move from my block for a fresh start, too. The police calls had burned bridges with my neighbors.
I can’t tell you what happened after the first month. He disappeared, moved and moved again, and I was in a different town when he called, desperate, after a year – could he live with me? He had no other choice. His girlfriend too?
I met them both and laid out rules and expectations. Both working or in school – this was a chance to get on their feet, get their futures squared away. A year later I asked them to leave, helped them move, she was pregnant and he needed to work, not sit by his video games, purchased with a temporary job. I asked her if she needed help, tried to caution her about depending on my son, but she was delighted to have a baby and play house even if she was the responsible one, bringing home a paycheck.
I brought the baby gifts, of course, and held her once, and then the phone number changed, the address changed, they weren’t in touch. He took an anger management class, mandated by the court in lieu of jail, and he called afterwards to tell me all the ways I’d failed him, that he was never good enough, I expected too much.
She called a couple times to ask for money; her Facebook page had pictures of booze and parties, kids in the background. I declined the offer of blackmail, to deliver cash and see the kids.
I left holiday invitations on voicemail, and drove by their apartment, hoping to see someone in the yard; they wouldn’t answer my messages.
It’s been several years, now. They’ve split; he doesn’t see the kids. I can look up his Facebook page, but the rants are profanity filled, no shred of common values apparent. I mourn the little boy who climbed on my lap to read stories.
This is a widely held secret. We have lost children. Some were raised by another parent. Some died too young, for always tragic reasons. Some moved away and left us behind, infrequently in communication. Some are aligned with a life we don’t recognize. Family estrangement is common even if unacknowledged; when I attended Alanon for parents, the subject of lost kids was our bond. Because of the anonymity of Alanon, we had an agreed-upon answer when we might meet in a public place or discover mutual friends, and were asked, “How do you know each other?”
“We met through our children.”
Boundaries are essential, and freedom from abuse, in both directions, necessary. But I chose to love him once, and that loving doesn’t stop.
How many kids do we have? Not enough.