In honor of November being National Adoption Awareness Month, Portrait of an Adoption is hosting the fourth annual acclaimed series, 30 Adoption Portraits in 30 Days. Designed to give a voice to the many different perspectives of adoption, this series will feature guest posts by people with widely varying experiences.
By Gary Matloff
I thought my intentions were simple: pluck a pair of brothers out of devastating poverty from their native Brazil, and provide them with a safe, loving, and nurturing environment that would offset their past experiences of abuse and neglect, chaos, and instability.
I am a single adoptive father—I adopted my sons as they were turning nine and twelve-years old. It has been a roller coaster of a ride, complete with the all-too-many ups and downs, loops and turns, and dizzying sensations along the way.
Flashing forward four years and six months, the growth each boy has made is astounding. They regard school positively, work to achieve more often than not, and are involved in extra-curricular activities related to their specific interests.
They have established themselves well in multiple social circles: as endearing members of our extended family, as friends who fraternize with positive peer groups, and as young people well regarded by adults. Both boys have also deepened their brotherly bond — whereas previously, they fought so viciously that they had to be separated for nearly a year into different group homes, before being brought together again after I accepted their referral.
They both have a bright and promising future ahead, which counters what might have been if they continued living in group homes. They epitomize the potential that lies within all children who are given the proper balance of opportunity, encouragement, and support, even for those with less than fortunate beginnings.
Despite all this progress, I often wonder what I might be doing wrong, when I unexpectedly find myself plummeting down yet another disheartening drop of the roller coaster in our ever-evolving father and son relations.
My parenting instincts are far from perfect, yet fueled by my good intentions at heart. I seek to authentically nurture, teach, encourage, and discipline my boys. Still, it never ceases to amaze me when I am met with their opposition, which is rooted in their still-defensive and mistrustful instincts.
I have learned where not to go, what not to say, and what buttons not to push. I am at my best when I am able to set the stage from behind the scenes for my sons to learn more naturally, rather than from my direct influence of what I hope to instill in them.
Last summer, before my oldest started high school, he had expressed interest in trying out for the school’s soccer team. I hoped that by enrolling him in a small, private school, he’d have a more equal footing in pursuing his interests, without the constant threat of competing forces. It was not a matter of whether he had the drive, ability, or even the tenacity to see something through. The problem was his low self-esteem, which had taken quite a pounding over the years before he was adopted.
When he tried out for his public middle school’s soccer team, he was strung along all the way to the end of tryouts, with a near guarantee from the coach of being on the team. But, he was inexplicably left in the dust when the last round of tryouts was cancelled without explanation. He refused to speak with the coach to find out what had happened, and he refused to contemplate trying out again the following year. Even the slightest push backwards can make him feel as if he were knocked out of the stratosphere.
It was no surprise to me that after he had started with his new school — and I asked him if he knew when soccer tryouts would be held — he simply told me he was not interested. He was not receptive to further discussion. Case closed.
Since he likes to think he is the king of the last word, if it helps him to save face when he needs it, I usually let him think the topic is finished. Engaging him, with the risk that he feels forced to defend himself, is not only unproductive, but also hurtful. He has to handle things on his own, for fear of being disappointed, or even worse, being a disappointment to someone else.
I contacted the new school’s coach and briefly explained about my son having been adopted and his precarious self-esteem, yet highlighted his high interest in soccer and good skills from having played on a city league for a couple of years.
I asked the coach if he could approach my son (rather than wait for him to introduce himself, which was not likely to happen), and perhaps say something corny like, “Hey, I heard you’re from Brazil! Do you play soccer? We’d really like you to give us a try!” Not only was I warmly received, but the supportive coach took it even further.
I had to stifle a smirk when my son came home one afternoon a few days later and simply told me that he was “staying after tomorrow for soccer,” and that he might need new cleats if his old ones no longer fit him. When I asked how this came about, he told me, “I was invited.” Not only did the coach approach him, but so did some of the players on the team. My son was obviously pleased, as he felt desired, and perhaps a little prized, for what he might be able to contribute as a valued team player.
I’m no fool. I have seen that the more he feels like he is a part of any “team” in life, the less he feels left behind, the less likely he is to feel alienated and alone. Within five weeks of joining during conditioning with the other players, he proudly announced that he had made the soccer team. Over those weeks, he was nurtured, encouraged, and valued. My son felt as if he were part of something bigger than himself. It wasn’t just about him, but he had to be the one to make that discovery.
I was happy to stay out of sight and watch the further strengthening of his sense of self. Even if I had to get the ball rolling, he was the one who actually ran with it. And I got to play the best part of all—that of his proud and supportive father!
It is often a precarious balance I traverse, as my sons can act as if their concerns are not my business, or that I have no right to an opinion, or more simply, that I just don’t understand them. Many times, their moments of insolence can be chalked up to the age, the teenage years; but there are also deeper roots that cling to them tightly, a history that colors their inclination to reason.
Both my sons have to be the master of their universe, even if it means holding themselves slaves to short-sighted or stale beliefs. So, when it becomes clear that my direct influence is not welcomed by my children, I retreat into the background and reach out to others, knowing that their influence will likely be more positively received.
As a single adoptive father, I don’t have a partner (in crime) to bounce ideas off, or to pass the baton. And, for my sons who have only me as their definitive adult perspective in the house, I run the risk of wearing out my welcome with them at any point in time.
Perhaps due to my single parent status, I truly believe in the mantra that it takes a village to a raise a child. As much as I wanted to become a father, and nurture my own children into confident, loving, happy, and sincere beings, I never thought of myself as being their sole authority on all things. Sometimes I am surprised, not to mention exhausted, by how much work goes into pulling all the right strings, in the right way, and at the right time.
Even more amazing to me is when “something” should go in their favor, or the proverbial lesson is learned as a result of my behind-the-scenes effects, and my boys still return to me as their definitive source for reassurance, validation, and reinforcement. By then, I am back in the forefront—exactly where they expected me to be all along!
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 all-too-uncompromising reality of adopting older children and international adoption. He also writes a blog to inspire parents of children who were adopted at an older age, or who have advanced in age from when they were adopted.
This year’s Adoption Portraits series is filled. You may send a submission for next year’s series to Carrie Goldman at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow Portrait of an Adoption on Twitter and Facebook
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