Life Lessons My Adopted Children Taught Me

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I became a father overnight. I awoke in the morning, still somewhat in a state of shock after having put my two sons to bed for the first time the night before. Never mind that I had prepared for several years to take on the role of a single, adoptive father. Aside from my professional background as a psychologist, I read books, attended workshops, and consulted with experts and other adoptive parents. I also endured several years of dead ends and false starts before finally being presented with a viable referral to adopt a pair of 8- and 11-year-old brothers. It was another seven months of paperwork and waiting before I boarded a flight to Brazil to start life as their new father.

Our first day together was a blur of apprehensive introductions, court meetings and plastered smiles to make up for the awkwardness of a language barrier. It was at bedtime that I had felt the first real stirrings of affection for them as we sat on one of their twin beds while I read to them the “Cat in the Hat.” They both were content to listen to my foreign jibber jabber, as they quietly nudged up against each of my sides like two opposing bookends. We were strangers, but I had felt a bond beginning to develop. It was then I truly felt that my life had officially changed.

I was no longer flying solo, as I was not accountable for just myself; I had two more rather fiery, intelligent and independent young minds to contend with. I never realized how “wrong” I was, and that I truly did not “know anything” until I became their father. I learned to rely not so much on what I believed should happen, but more on responding to where they were at the present moment.

It is vastly different when raising one’s own natural children, whose past origins and experiences logically align with that of their parents. Older adopted children enter into their new family’s lives from different origins. They have already lived their own lives apart from their new parents. These children don’t just start over; they learn to incorporate pieces of their older, established selves within the context of their new family and environs. In turn, I have learned not to wear out my welcome with my sons. There are pieces of them that I do not understand, and won’t until they are, if they ever are ready for me to understand.

Both my sons fervently assert themselves in their need to live in the present moment. I have learned to circumnavigate their past; it is too threatening for them to acknowledge directly, as they are vehement about how they “don’t talk about the past.” On the flipside, even though it shows obvious promise, the prospect of their futures still sometimes feels somewhat of a capricious notion to them. I learned to take in stride and not push too hard whenever a promising start should fall flat. Instead, I wonder what it must have felt like to abandon all hope in one's own future.

I was used to being set in my ways, and used to “parenting” vicariously by way of working with “real” parents in my office to get through to their own children. I soon found that what worked for others, or what experts in the mainstream said should work did not work for me. I had to abandon any thinking about how I should be parenting in favor of responding sensitively to what my sons needed, and not so much what I needed, or even wanted for that matter.

Four plus years later, there is a level of comfort in our relations and day-to-day dealings that only seemed a faint prospect from that first night together. With each parenting challenge thrown at me, I had to relearn how to envision life as it could be, rather than any fixed ideas of how it should be. Our relationship together as father and sons continues to deepen over the years. Fatherhood encompasses my every being in ways I could not have possibly prepared for; parenting single handedly enhances my fatherly role exponentially. I don’t have a partner to bounce off of or trade off with; as much as I am all that they have, I am also all I’ve got. Yet, along the way, I found out even more just how much there is of me to give.

Dr. Gary Matloff is a licensed psychologist, and a proud single, adoptive father to a pair of brothers, now 13 and 16 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 a pair of brothers and their new father against the sometimes all too uncompromising reality of adopting older children and international adoption. He also writes a blog that serves as a source of inspiration for parents of children who were adopted at an older age. Visit his website at www.psyched4kids.com