Last week I went to probate court to adopt my new son. He’s a 19-year-old whom I’ve known for 8.5 years. In fact, he has lived with me for 6.5 years. In December of 2007, he became my stepson, but recently we decided to take this extra step.
When I met him, he was 11. I was dating his father, and he had been at summer camp for the initial stages of the relationship. When he came home from camp, we started to get to know each other. One day he asked me, “Would you like to hear my life story?” Of course I did!
He told me about the night he was taken from his mother by state authorities and put in foster care. Among other neglectful things, she had never sent him to school. He was around 6½ years old at the time. From the temporary foster home, he went to a state institution for kids without parents, where he stayed for about 9 months. Then he was placed with a foster mom and brother for another 8 months. Then his dad came back from Ohio to take custody of him. They lived at M’s grandparents’ house in Florida. He attended the same elementary school his father had attended.
His father met a woman from Long Island, NY and decided to marry her. My stepson moved with his dad to Long Island, where they lived with the new wife and her teenage son and young daughter. The marriage took place in 2003 and the new wife died in 2004. Then they moved to Connecticut where his dad had a new job.
So that was the “life story” M told me, and what a story it was. I knew a lot of it from his father, but it was fascinating to hear the story from his perspective. “Where’s your mom?” I asked. He told me she was in Florida and she had some problems.
In fact, he hadn’t seen her since he was seven years old. Over the years, she occasionally called him. Sometimes she sent a birthday present, but mostly she did not.
When he moved into my house with his dad in 2007, he enrolled in Hamden Middle School for 7th grade. It was his sixth school. He had never attended any one school for more than 2 years. In fact, since middle school was only 7th and 8th grade, this child never attended a school for more than 2 years until his junior year in high school!
When I first met him, his dad had fixed up a little playroom in the basement of their condo, with a TV, video games and toys. It was very nice, but it left him completely unsupervised. He was watching endless episodes of “South Park,” which I wouldn’t allow my sons to watch until they were 16 (reluctantly). It wasn’t my place to say anything about this, but I did anyway. I tried to make my then boyfriend think about what was appropriate for an 11 year old, and to be a little more connected. To be fair, they ate dinner together every night and did lots of other things together. I just felt there needed to be a tightening of the TV rules, which happened 2 years later, when they moved in with me.
Since that time, I have been the tough guy in M’s life. I required him to give us lists of his friends and their addresses and phone numbers. I gave him a curfew. I gave him chores to do around the house. I also gave him a family: 2 older stepbrothers and a bunch of cousins. We did lots of fun things. We went to Philadelphia, Washington DC, and on some other family vacations, just the 3 of us, because my sons were out on their own by then.
I kept asking him if he needed to talk to a therapist about what had happened to him, joking that it was a family rule that everyone had to go to therapy, and he was the only one not complying. But he seemed very calm and well-adjusted about his peripatetic life, and it didn’t seem to bother him that his mother was an unpredictable presence. Whenever she called, he would very politely talk to her about school and the other things going on in his life, without any anger or resentment. But I knew it had to hurt, deep inside.
M easily made friends and enjoyed a wonderful 4 years in high school. He was very good about yard work, became my designated hole digger for the garden, and life was really nice. But I didn’t quite know what my role was. He didn’t call me anything, and finally, a few years ago, I said, “You really need to call me something – it can be ‘Randi,’ but when your friends come here, you need to introduce me to them with some kind of name.” He started calling me “Madre,” Spanish for mother, explaining that the actual word “mother” had lost its meaning for him. That was fine with me, and I thought it was really cute.
At some point M became a little bit rebellious (somehow I have escaped outright rebellion with all three boys, which is amazing considering what a hard time I gave my parents) and decided he didn’t want to call me “Madre” any more. There were some episodes of lying and of substance-trying. Again, I was the tough guy, because I know that kids want firm rules and clear guidelines, and I had living proof that it worked in my two grown-up sons.
He went through a period of time when he wanted to join the military after high school. I told him that was not an option, and he was more than a little peeved with me. You may wonder where his dad was in all this. His dad doesn’t like confrontations. He feels guilty about his non-involvement with M while the mother was getting crazier and the foster care years ensued. He doesn’t like to say no. Someone had to, so it fell to me.
So I was performing mothering acts without really being an official mother. I didn’t quite know how to treat him and sensed he really didn’t want me to get too close. I always hug my older sons when I see them, but I felt uncomfortable hugging an adolescent male when I was not his blood relative. But who would hug him? Everyone needs hugs and he hadn’t had any in years. I made his dad do it.
About a year ago, something changed and the gulf between us narrowed. My Chanukah 2012 present from M was a trip to the movies, just the two of us. He told me that he had come up with a new name for me, “Modj,” which was a variation on “Madre.” I loved it!
We started to have talks about his painful growing up years. One day he had a giant meltdown and cried and cried. That was a really big release for him, as I had never before seen him get emotional about the crummy deal he had been handed. That led to his having a discussion with his dad about his mother. There were things that had happened that he had been too young to understand at the time. M learned about his mother’s mental illness, the reasons why his father wasn’t around when the foster care occurred, and got answers to some other questions he had had for years.
During this time period, M and I were growing closer. We started to give hugs to each other. We spent time together, just talking. He’s the only one in the family who asks questions about my work and enjoys hearing about my cases and clients. He’s the only one of my sons who is an avid reader like me.
Last fall, he had a very rough transition to college. He was living at home and commuting to a state university in the next town. His high school buddies dispersed to colleges all over the country, and he was pretty bereft and, unusually for him, angry. At last he agreed to go to a therapist. Hurray!
He started to make friends in his new school, and some of the old friends came home for Thanksgiving and then a long winter break. He went to the therapist about 5 times, and seemed less angry.
One day in December 2013, I was filling out a beneficiary form for life insurance through work. I listed M as one of my 3 sons, but realized that he did not have the same legal status as my other two sons. I did a little research about adoption, and discovered I could adopt him without having to terminate Birth Mom’s parental rights, as he was no longer a minor. But I didn’t know if he would want to do this, or if he would find it corny and unnecessary.
To my surprise and delight, he thought it was a TERRIFIC idea. In fact, he wondered why it couldn’t happen IMMEDIATELY. I explained that the wheels of justice grind slowly, and the court would schedule the hearing in a few weeks. Our initial probate court hearing in January was canceled due to one of the many snowstorms we have had this year. M & I were horrified! Suppose we had planned a giant celebration? Well, we hadn’t, so we waited for the next date and prayed for no snow.
The whole hearing took about 15 minutes. The judge, dressed in his civilian clothes (no robe, to M’s disappointment), made lots of jovial, hearty comments about what a great day it was. He said he would of course grant the petition for adoption, and we thanked him. Then M said, “I thought there were would be more formality, like a gavel coming down.” The judge ran into the other room and came back with his gavel. He handed it to M, who pounded the desk and declared, “ADOPTED!” What a great moment!
I always wanted three children. Due to unforeseen circumstances, I could not give birth to more children after my two. Now I have my third child, and I feel so very honored to be M’s mother by his own choice. It didn’t change my feelings for him, as I already loved him and admired him. But it made us a real family, and I think it brought some sense of tangibility and rootedness for him about his place in the world. I hope so. He deserves it.