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Balancing Act

In part five of our family's adoption odyssey, we begin the tug-of-war also known as parenting a teenager.by Kathryn Reiss and Tom Strychacz



Within six months of coming to us, our new daughters both celebrated birthdays. Alexandra turned 11; Angie, 13. "Whoa—a teenager!" Angie teased. "Get ready for my rebellion!"

"No fair," we objected. Teens have generally logged in long years of growing up with their parents before pulling away. We hadn't had Angie long enough! "You can't rebel until we've had you for 13 years."

She laughed. "OK, just wait until I'm 26!"

That sounded fine to us.

Angie celebrated becoming a teenager with a sleepover party of new friends. We enjoyed watching her interact with these girls. After so many years of interrupted schooling and moving from foster family to foster family, Angie was blossoming beautifully and developing close friendships. We were happy she was embracing her new life with us.

Branching out
But Angie was also embracing her social life with a vengeance. Cheerful and outgoing, she was much in demand. The phone was ringing off the hook—always for Angie. A pattern quickly developed: We found ourselves telling her to get off the phone and the computer and limiting her get-togethers. Just as quickly, our restrictions caused conflict. Angie felt we were being unfair. Her friends were nice! What was our problem?

Our problem, we realized, was that our only time together was after school and on weekends, since Angie was at school most of the day and we were at work. Then, we wanted to be the company for our relatively new child. We wanted her to feel that this was her home. And perhaps, at a deeper level, we needed to feel that she wanted to share our lives.

Children who are born into their families, or who are adopted as infants or toddlers, spend years of quality time at home with parents and siblings. There are outings and special events, of course, but most time is spent just being together. We soak up the feeling of being home without thinking about it, interacting with family members, eating meals together, and doing household chores. Reading, talking, listening to music, drawing, spreading out on the rug with a deck of cards—sometimes doing nothing at all—contribute to our sense of home. But if Angie was always out, she would never have this experience.

Pulling back
Having to regulate a child's social life was new to us. Nicholas and Daniel, our older sons by birth, were both homebodies at heart. Our biological daughter, Isabel, was too young to have a social life outside of arranged play dates. And Alexandra was content to stay home and play with Isabel, though we encouraged her to invite new friends over. But in the case of Angie's friends, we felt that our haven, our home, had been invaded by outsiders just as we were trying to get to know our new daughter—and it hurt us when Angie longed to be with them more than with us.

Negotiations ensued. Rules were imposed. Angie could spend the night with a friend, but not the next day as well. Friends needed to come to our house as often as Angie went to theirs…but not too often in either case. No phone calls after 9:00 p.m., and no more than 15 minutes spent on the phone each day.

Angie thought this meant that we didn't like her friends, didn't want her to have friends. It upset her that she didn't have the freedoms so many of her friends did. And she pointed out, correctly, that we often encouraged our other children to invite someone over to play, or to go out on a Friday evening. We explained that we try to figure out what each child needs: A quiet child needed encouragement to branch out and be more sociable, while Angie needed family time, home time, bonding time.

Just about any parent of a teenager will agree that, at times, the ground feels shaky. But life with a newly adopted teenager can seem even shakier. The teen has no background with your family, no firm foundation from which to pull away. It is not Angie's fault—or ours—that our needs sometimes clash. She is developmentally on target, and we are grateful for that, even as it makes us want to bolt the doors. But we are committed to forming as close a bond as possible with her—even if it makes her feel we're too strict. We are always looking for a reasonable middle ground.

A delicate dance
Angie realizes that her situation is unique among most of her friends. They've known their families—for good or ill—much longer than she's known us. Their parents may well be ready for some distance. But we want Angie with us, to be one of us, to share routines, to make memories. She says she understands and that she loves us, that she considers herself part of our family and always will. We say that she has to demonstrate that by logging in time with us—and, for our part, we try to say yes more than we say no.

"Can Larisa sleep over on Friday?" "May I go to the movies with Kevin next week?" "Can I buy a new dress and go to the homecoming dance?" Yes, yes, yes, and yes. "Can I sleep at Katie's tonight and then take the bus to the mall the next day to shop with friends for that dress, and then later go over to Sarah's for dinner?" No.

It's a balancing act.

Our friends often marvel at our wonderful new daughters, and at how well all five of our children get along. We feel lucky—even blessed. Our kids don't appear to be troubled. They are not overtly rebellious, rude, or obnoxious. But if there is any downside to older-child adoption, this is it: We don't get to parent our older daughters for as long as we would have had they come to us as babies. We've already missed their first steps, first words, first school days, first lost teeth, first bike rides. So we want to share as many of the other firsts still to come as possible.

It's our balancing act as much as Angie's, a delicate dance of reining in and pulling away. We've had to confront our secret anxieties and fears: Maybe the bond we've forged with our new daughters is not truly strong…or maybe Alexandra and Angie are just along for the ride until they turn 18, when they will disappear from our lives for good? But then Angie will say or do something that makes us realize how much she delights in her connection to us.

A flexible bond
A few days ago we were all at the chiropractor's office. "You look just like your mom—same spine," the doctor told Angie. "I see a lot of that—this mother-daughter posture."

Angie nodded. "We're both left-handed, too," she informed the doctor. "And we have December birthdays!"

Kathryn and Angie exchanged a secret smile. We're well aware that it isn't genes we share, but something no less special. We hope it will be a strong and elastic bond, one that will stretch through all the years we still have together, through the tumultuous teen years and far beyond.

KATHRYN REISS is an award-winning author of suspense novels for children and teens. TOM STRYCHACZ writes books and articles on American literature. They both teach at Mills College in northern California, and are the parents of five incredible kids.



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