Copyright © 1995 by Neal Lemery
Jim* came into our family one rainy evening when we picked him up from his after-school job. We warily shook hands, each wondering what we were getting ourselves into. He put his school books and a few belongings in a paper sack into the car, and we were off. He answered my questions with a single word, and I stumbled through my answers to his. A blind date would have been easier!
Foster Parent - a new role for me. I wondered if I was doing the right thing, and if I could deal with a teenage boy who desperately needed a good home. Like any other child, a foster child comes with neither an operating manual, nor an 800 number to call, when all the parts of the new appliance don't work.
That awkward evening is now three months behind us, and we have settled into a healthy routine, with Jim relaxed enough to be a very normal teenage boy. Each day is a day farther away from his mother's home of physical abuse, yelling, put-downs, criticism, mental instability, and drugs.
Foster sons need everything one's own sons need, but in larger amounts. Security, honesty, consistency, and a stable daily routine are high on the list of needs. How I handle my problems and go about my life and act as a dad are continually examined under a microscope, and being a healthy role model is my biggest job as "dad." For a kid whose previous experiences with his father and a series of his mother's boyfriends as stepfathers have been less than normal, he grabs at the opportunity to walk in the footsteps of this new father figure. How I act with my wife, how I talk with him, how I work through problems, how I deal with stress are all minutely examined and analyzed.
My tools for this new job are found in unexpected places. Our previous family activity of having dinner together and discussing the day or an item in the news has taken on near-religious importance for this son who craves life in a "normal" family. Setting a time for him to be home after an activity has been a new concept for him, and a first experience for living in a place where family members care what others are doing, and when they will be home. The simplicity of his needs often astonishes me, and makes me appreciate the "simple things" that our family had taken for granted.
Jim isn't expected to help with the dishes, or to clean his room, as those activities were the battlegrounds for his mother's violence and emotional abuse. Now, those wounds are healing just a bit, and he will clean up his room or wipe the kitchen counter after a snack, often laughing at his late-blooming rebellion against his mother. The "armistice" gives him some breathing space, and a time to sort out his feelings.
Jim's repressed anger runs deep, and only briefly surfaces when he comes home after a family counseling session with his brother, mother, or stepfather. I just sit by his side listening as he recounts to me the play-by-play of the session, and I wipe away an occasional tear. Listening sometimes is the best one can do, coupled with a heartfelt bear-hug to let him know he is safe and loved.
This young man - older boy is now finishing his homework and preparing for his tests. He works on his term projects and papers, and talks up a storm on the phone at night. A new fishing pole leans by his bed. He marvels at our growing collection of books and music, and is starting to find the time to walk into the garden to enjoy a newly opened flower. I wonder if he is aware of the differences for me.
This year, Father's Day will take on a new meaning for me. This new son has added a richness and depth to my own sense of masculinity and fatherhood that continues to astonish and delight me. I will never again see the role of fatherhood as a casual, sometimes inconvenient job. It is, I am convinced, the most important job in the world.
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