The Things We
by Lisa M. Roberts
- Sometimes my work tires me. Not the professional
work -- rarely the professional -- but the parenting, often the
parenting. It's not the physical work that tires me (the cleaning,
the taxi-driving, the cooking), but the perpetual, daily work
of building character in each and every child under our care.
"Focus on one thing at a time." "Keep track of
your stuff." "Sit straight with your feet in front
of you." "Use your words, not your hands." Over
and over and over again. It's exhaustive.
- Then someone somewhere reaches
out to me, or turns my head in a new direction, and I realize
I can do this. We are blessed. The kids are alright, and there's
a much bigger picture than the one of my small home. This time
three separate paths led to the same place in my heart -- the
first took the form of a book, the second a movie, and the third
a visit -- and all in the span of one month.
- The book, The
Things I Want Most: The Extraordinary Story of a Boy's Journey
to a Family of His Own, by Richard F. Miniter is the portrait of two Entrepreneurial Parents who, after raising six children, decided
to give their parenting skills one last and fierce test by opening
their hearts, their family and their home to a young boy named
"Mike." Mike, living in the limbo land of foster care,
was profoundly emotionally disturbed from a tortured and unspoken
past. Yet he was able to express a simple wish in a language
that the heart of every parent can understand. At the height
of self-awareness he had once scribbled on a piece of paper:
- The Things I Want Most:
- A family
A fishing pole
- And because of this articulation,
he found one. Chronicling the relentless year Mike's wish came
true, his father writes about parenthood in a language most all
of us can understand. For instance, early in the book he offers
us an indelible image of fatherhood when he sees the silhoutte
of his youngest biological son, Liam:
- "The sun
had been setting west over Shawangunk, and just a few shafts
of light remained. One of them reached arrow straight from the
top of the mountain ten miles away and lit up a spot in the meadow
about three hundred yards away. I said to Liam quickly, 'Can
you run out and catch that before it goes?' The boy ran down
the hill in the darkness, through the swampy brush, along the
deer run, and far out into the field. In the instant that the
light disappeared I saw him there, a far-off tiny figure jumping
around with his arms raised, twinkling golden in the rushing
darkness. The stars were out when he came back. 'Liam,' I said,
'to me you'll always be the last light in the meadow.'"
- When Mike moves in and starts
sharing a room with Liam we begin to understand the enormity
of this family's mission, but are replenished by the humor of
the author. Liam reports to his father:
- "Dad, this
kid is nuts. He was upstairs arranging his pillows on his bed.
First he put one pillow on top of the other, and then he switched
them. They he switched them again and then again. He kept doing
that for about ten minutes before he made moaning sounds and
started to pull his hair." (The Dad shrugs, and then says...)
"Everybody gets a little tense at pillow-arrangement time."
- But it's when Mike wreaks havoc
in reaction to the commonplace routines of childhood the rest
of us take for granted that I, as a reader, felt the greatest
impact. His parents' search for simple truths helped me re-evaluate
my own parenting style and perspective:
- "Sue, remember
all those 'activity resources' the children's home was so proud
of? They had a pool for the children, crafts, art class, puzzles,
games, TV time, baseball, basketball, a little natural history
museum, a library; they took them fishing, tubing, hiking, had
a computer room with games...Well I remember being terribly impressed,
even overawed. But when you think about it, you have to concede
that few families on earth can come close to that ideal. In a
real family there's one or two or three things, and a kid spends
most of his time on one of them...At some point in (Mike's) life,
pride and self-confidence have to come to him, and they must
come from his own lonely effort in some activity."
- How did this remarkable book
find its way into my POB? A few months ago I went in search of
a slippery statistic: how many entrepreneurial parents there
are in the U.S. I found an article published by Reader's Digest (April,
1999) entitled "Entrepreneurial
Parents Profit from More Time with the Kids; Family Values Driving
New Work-at-Home Boom" and decided to contact the author,
Rich Minitir (!), to see if he turned this number up in his research.
Although we spoke at length about entrepreneurial parents, we of course did not go into our life
stories. But when I found his father's in The Entrepreneurial Parent mail, I felt a strong bond. Even my
12-year old daughter felt a connection -- she read the book before
me and said, "I know I don't really know Mike, but in a
strange way I feel now that I do..."
- Then not too long ago I took
my daughter to see "The Cider House Rules,"
a film adaptation of John Irving's novel of the same title. Up
for Best Picture of the Year, it's a heartwarming tale of an
orphanage in Maine, St. Cloud, that existed long before the present-day
foster care system came to be. While primarily the coming-of-age
story of the eldest orphan, Homer Wells, the more impressing
character depictions (for me) were the many younger children
who were growing up at St. Cloud. They grow, learn and dream
under the affectionate care of the resident doctor, Wilbur Larch,
who acts as their surrogate foster parent. As the children wait,
yearning and hungering to be adopted by a "real" family,
Homer learns something the others don't understand yet. These
children already have a family -- each other.
- The last piece of this puzzle
came last week, when I had the opportunity to see first-hand
what a surrogate family staffed by paid professionals might be
like. My sister, Dr. Joann Galley, is a resident psychologist
at the New York Foundling Hospital in New York City, an
establishment that cares for very sick and/or severely disabled
children. Some of the children are there for only rehabilitative
purposes, but many more stay for years, sometimes even for the
duration of their entire but short lifetime. Joann has worked
in the hospital for four years, and throughout has shared many
heartwarming stories about "her 163 children" with
me. But it was only last Friday that I found the courage to visit
her and "her children," and only at the request of
a friend of mine who had an interest in volunteering at that
particular hospital. I guess I was afraid I'd be so moved to
tears at the sight of these poor children, that they'd see the
pity in my eyes and feel even more vulnerable than they were.
I just didn't know what to expect.
- What I found moved me not to
tears but to joy. Joann took us on a tour of four floors, showing
us the recreational room, the library, the classrooms, and all
the other wonderful physical resources available to these children
-- much like Minitir talks about in the above clip. But to me
more remarkable than all that was how well-staffed the hospital
was, how strong the bonds between the children and the staff
seemed to be, and how important communication was among all.
- These caregivers were not harried
and worn, as I imagined, but energetic and cheerful. I noticed
this in the little things -- the smile on the face of a nurse
that was carried down the entire length of the hall and was given
to her by a teen-age patient. Three girls playing in the gym
-- one with a severe heart condition, another paralyzed from
the waist down, and another who breathed through the tube in
her throat -- who spoke to each other with the ease, familiarity
and affection of sisters. The boy lying still in a stretcher
who asked me a question as I passed that I couldn't understand.
He tried and tried to articulate and finally I made out the words.
He was calling for his favorite nurse, not from pain but just
to talk, and when I repeated her name, "Mary Lou,"
his entire body resonated with happiness.
- I left my sister, and the movie
house, and closed the pages of The
Things I Want Most with many questions. How can I communicate
to my children how much I love them, how blessed they are, how
much I hope they can reach out and touch others as they grow
in ways I know I cannot? How many foster care parents like the
Minintirs could there really be, when it takes true angels on
earth to endure what they did? Is the present-day foster care
system a failed ideology in practice, with more children in need
of a home than there are extraordinarily resolute foster parents
available to take them in?
Wouldn't children whose parents are no longer physically or emotionally
"there" for them, and who are labeled "difficult"
and therefore not strong candidates for adoption, be better off
in a less-taxing system than the drastically overworked foster
care one? Wouldn't they at least be able to build family bonds
with each other if they lived in the stable home environment
of an orphanage?
- In the end, I believe what Mike
wants is what we all want -- people who love us, things we like
to do, people who love us. The children at the New York Foundling
Hospital had people who loved them...my sister being one. They
had personal goals that were not unlike those of a more able-bodied
child, and they strove to achieve them with a combination of
self-determination and the patient help of others who truly cared
about them. Most poignantly, the boy who wouldn't give up on
communicating with me spoke for us all when he finally did. I
will never forget his face, and the feeling expressed in it,
the feeling of being "heard" and understood. I have
seen that expression before -- in the faces of my children, my
husband, my sister -- and have felt such exhilaration myself.
Ah, yes, you heard me, you know me, you love who I am. Finally.
Like Mike, it's what we want most.
- To learn more
about Mike and his EP parents, go to The
Things I Want Most: The Extraordinary Story of a Boy's Journey
to a Family of His Own,
- To read Rich
Minitir's Reader's Digest article about EPs, go to:
www.businesswire.com and search for "Entrepreneurial
- If you'd like
to share how YOU have been inspired to continue your parenting
write to us.
- Lisa Roberts is the mother of four,
owner of The
Entrepreneurial Parent, LLC and the author of How to Raise A Family &
A Career Under One Roof: A Parent's Guide to Home Business
(Bookhaven Press, 1997). Copies of her book are available for
purchase at EP