By David Hardy // Attorney
Some months ago, my wife and I attended the musical “Ragtime,” which is based on the novel by E.L. Doctorow. I was not familiar with the musical and had only a general awareness of the novel. We obtained the tickets as part of season subscription with a theater company known generally for light, upbeat, and entertaining productions. We expected nothing less.
“Ragtime” may be entertaining (it is, after all, musical theater), but “light” and “upbeat” it is not. It deals with complex themes of race, family, and autonomy– themes that were relevant not only in the era in which it was set (1902-1912) but also when the novel was written (1975) and today. Despite our surprise at the nature of the production, I thoroughly enjoyed it and subsequently read and enjoyed the novel.
I have found that such an experience is not unique or restricted to art and literature. My expectations are frequently inconsistent with reality, but when the two depart from each other, I find myself enjoying reality more than I had expected. Family experience provides an example. My father quipped at one point (he may have stolen this from somebody), “When I became a parent, I had nine theories of how to successfully raise a child; when I finished, I had nine children and no theories.” With my own children, I’ve seen how true this is. Although I have had expectations as a parent, reality has been far different. But reality has brought unexpected joy.
These thoughts came to mind recently as I attended the annual conference of the American Academy of Adoption Attorneys. The initial presenter at the conference was a pediatrician whose aim was to instruct us about the effects of drug and alcohol use and abuse by parents on children. She reviewed various substances (marijuana, cocaine, methamphetamine, alcohol, etc.) and how they might affect children in utero, through breastfeeding, or in the home. Like “Ragtime,” this was not a light or upbeat presentation. The effects of drug and alcohol use can extend far beyond the user and can, in the case of children, affect them for years.
As with many of the attendees, my thoughts were directed to the parents who may adopt these children, as well as other parents of special needs children. As noted, most of us approach parenthood with an idealistic vision, with careful consideration having been given as to how we intend to nurture and teach a child until they can function independently. We anticipate activities and experiences, which we may look forward to or despise. We know it will not be easy, but we anticipate that through hours of homework assistance, baseball practices, dance recitals and school concerts, we will reach old age and be able to find joy in the accomplishments of our children.
Reality, of course, may be far different. For the parents of special-needs children, ideal expectations may be shattered early, as parents deal with the effects of drugs, disability, abuse and other factors. They may wonder whether an ideal family even exists, as they deal with challenges they never expected or felt they had the ability to address.
That being said, my experience with these parents, for the most part and in hindsight, is that they conclude that despite the challenges and difficulties, their families are still ideal. Reality did not fit with their expectations, but they embraced reality and found it satisfying. They have influenced a life, perhaps several lives, for good, and that has brought them great joy.
My respect is especially high for those who adopt special needs children. They embark on parenting with considerable uncertainty regarding where the journey may take them. Special needs adoption is not for everybody. It requires considerable doses of selflessness and unconditional love. It requires incredible patience. It may involve changing one’s expectations to meet reality. But for those willing to change those expectations and embrace reality, it can involve considerable joy in parenting.