Several years ago I participated in a volunteer tutoring program. It was for an hour and a half once a week, each tutor was assigned the same kid the entire year, mine was 9 years old, she was actually a twin and both her and her sister were the “challenges” of all the kids. My student would throw books, build fences around her work so I couldn’t see what she was doing, or sit and pout and refuse to do her homework. She started the year seeming to hate me, wouldn’t talk to me, wouldn’t let me help her.
I talked to the head of the program, Tori, asked her what I should do, what I could do to make this relationship work. I asked if my student would be better with someone else. She told me I was doing fine, she told me just to keep trying and she would talk to the student (Emily) to try to calm her down. It never really worked.
A little more than halfway into the school year, Emily had a complete meltdown during tutoring. She threw a book at me. She ended up finally calming down and spending the remainder of the session reading off by herself. That evening I talked to Tori again, I just didn’t know what to do, it seemed like I was doing more harm than good. She told me to take a week off, that she would spend next week with Emily, and see if she could get any more information from her about what was happening, why Emily was having such a hard time.
Two weeks later I returned, I felt a little better after my week off, Tori had told me that Emily had not misbehaved the week before, mostly sat on her own doing homework, but they had talked a little as well. She asked the three of us to go to another room to talk for a minute. Sitting there with this 9 year old across from me, Tori told her that she had two choices, she could continue working on her own without a tutor each week, or she could work with me, but would have to behave. Emily wouldn’t look at either of us, would say anything. Tori looked to me and sort of shrugged her shoulders, I think at that point she thought if Emily couldn’t even say whether she wanted me as a tutor or not that this wasn’t going to go very far.
At that moment I asked Emily, “Do you want me to tutor you?” Emily sort of shrugged but still wouldn’t look at me. My response was “Emily, there is nothing I would like more than to be your tutor, I leave my job early every week and come here because I enjoy my time with you. And even when you don’t seem to want me around, I still want to be here, I still want to be your tutor. so if you are okay with it, I would really like to continue tutoring you.” Emily looked up finally, she looked me in the eye actually and almost smiled. When Tori again asked “do you want to continue having her tutor you?”, finally she actually said yes.
It was six years ago this week that this exchange happened. After that point my relationship with Emily totally changed, she was pleasant with me (most of the time). She stuck out the rest of the year with me, never having another major incident. I know she got better at reading, learned some geography, and thrived at her math work, but more I know she had met an adult who had no reason to stick with her and did anyways. I still have this picture of her and I by my desk at work, she is smiling in it, and when I see it I think of how my view of her changed so drastically, she wasn’t a kid who hated me because I was trying to make her do her homework, she was a kid who was used to disappointment and pushed people away to protect herself.
I thought of Emily, of this experience recently as I heard an adoptive Mom talk about how her child didn’t seem to want visits with the birth family anymore. She was talking about her son acting up, not wanting to participate, pouting and objecting through the entire visit. What I might say may not be agreed with by others out there, but as I sat there and heard this, my thought wasn’t “Oh this child is having a hard time, maybe a step back is appropriate”. My thought was “sounds like this kid wants to push the limits and see if the birth parents keep showing up”. Maybe there is something else going on, but I think most of the time when a child is so adamant about pushing away an adult it seems to me that it’s not usually because they don’t need that person, it’s because they are starting to realize that they do need them and they want to push them away before the adult leaves. Maybe that’s oversimplified, but truthfully I’ve done the same thing as an adult in relationships, I have no doubt that a child who is struggling with trusting that people will stick with them wouldn’t use this kind of protection. Plus I know that an issue adult adoptees have talked about in the past is fear of abandonement, why would anyone think that fear wouldn’t be a major factor in their relationship with their birth parents.
As I look ahead I know there will be days where J won’t want me around – although there haven’t been visits where he’s been openly hostile with me, there have definitely been moments where he acted like he could care less that I was there. Lately this issues hasn’t been at the forefront, but that is not guarantee it will stay that way. And on those hard days where he makes it known he doesn’t want to be around me, I still show up. And I will keep coming. If I have any say I won’t cut back on how often visits are, I won’t cut visits short, even if J is adamant he doesn’t want the time with me, I’ll be there, I will show up, I will stick around, even if its hard for me, even if my son treats me poorly. I may spend hours sitting waiting for him to come around, and I acknowledge there may be days, months even that he never does. But it is my job to show up no matter what. And if he decides to see how much he needs to push me before I disappear, then it’s my job to show him there are no limits, if we plan a day I will be there, whether he’s nice to me or not, whether he acts like he wants me there or not. It’s my job to show him that I love him and there are no conditions on that love.