Sunday, September 6, 2009

The land of the Brattons, Wales

Settling In, Coming Home

I have not written in almost two months. I have been spending time adapting to my work and my new flat and trying to absorb all that it means to work and to live in this country so different from my own. I have also had so many thoughts swirling in my head about my work, and the different approach here, and those thoughts have mixed with the memories of my mother and my sister and my childhood. As I have thought about these issues, they have become more and more complex, and I have resisted writing about them because I don't want to trivialize them or simplify them with words that are trite and easy.

With all of our talk about and money spent on family preservation, in the U.S., it is not a concept that we practice well. We remove children of parents who test positive at birth, whether that positive test is for cannibis or cocaine. We bring families into court and force them into treatment when we are barely certain of the extent of their addiction. We separate newborns from their mothers and they are fortunate to get visits one hour a week. We don't provide poor families with housing and then we take their children away when they are homeless. We expect parents who are struggling to find work or keep their minimum wage jobs to attend court hearings in the middle of the day and to come to visits at the convenience of the workers and to attend parenting classes that cost money that they don't have. When the parents begin to falter, or miss a visit, or show up late because they have no transportation, we write their failings into court reports. And if, God forbid, they become overwhelmed and let their despair and feelings of hopelessness cause them to drink or use drugs again, we judge them to be unfit to parent their children, and we move for termination of parental rights.

Here,if it is decided that a mother cannot safely parent her infant on her own, we place the mother and baby into a sheltered environment where her parenting can be assessed, and where mentoring is provided. If she does not want to go into a placement with her infant, we arrange daily contact for at least an hour a day. There is a respect, here, for the importance of family.

There are those who will say that we go too far, here, in the other direction. Indeed,there have been several scandals in the UK that have included horrific stories of abuse and torture and death. But do we not have those scandalous stories in the U.S.,too? In spite of all of our courts and authoritarian approaches and our placements and our speedy moves toward adoption, do children not die at the hands of their abusers there, as well?

I cannot say which approach is right, or which works better. Both have their faults. I can only speak from my own experience.

When I first became involved with abused children, I was a young woman working in the Tenderloin area of San Francisco, with an inner city drop in day care center, and I came to know many children who lived in the hotels in the neighborhood, whose parents were addicts, and for whom life seemed pretty bleak. I was appalled by the conditions I saw there, and I thought that the answer was to get them away from these parents, to place them into nice homes where perhaps they would have a future.

It was the 80s, when I was working there, and there was a psychological theory afloat that posited the idea of "toxic parents," "toxic families," and "toxic shame." It was a time when victims were urged to cease all contact with their families in which abuse or neglect had occurred, to make new families with friends and like minded folks, to turn their backs on their pasts, to liberate themselves from the anchors that their families had become, and I became a part of that movement.

I was beginning to understand how some things that had happened in my childhood had wounded, indeed, scarred, me. I was never exposed to intentional cruelty or brutality by my parents. Instead,I was the youngest child of a father who had an alcohol problem, who wasn't a great provider, and a mother who was depressed and overwhelmed with the care of four children, and I knew deprivation and hunger and feelings of abandonment as a result. Other things happened. Life in the Bratton household on 75th street was fairly chaotic when I was growing up! And I was exposed to things I should not have known at such a young age. It affected my image of myself and my relationships with others. I cried alot (still do!), I suffered from depression and addictions of my own, I had a hard time trusting folks, and as a young adult, I moved from state to state, trying to outrun my past.

For much of early adulthood, I carried an anger about the things that had happened to me. I used to wonder what it would have been like to grow up in a family that had stability and structure and routine. I tried but never succeeded in cutting off contact with family members. I swore I would never be like them. I moved as far away from them as I could get.

But something happened. Circumstances caused me to move home. And as a result of that, I grew. I saw my childhood in a new light. A wise man I know once said that the older (and more sober) he got, the better his childhood had become. He began to understand not only the pain but the blessings he had received, as a part of his family, and he began to view his past with a new pair of glasses.

And so it was with me. I learned to appreciate the humor and the joy my father exuded, even when he didn't have two pennies to rub together. I have a vivid memory of my father shaving at the bathroom sink, singing and smiling at himself in the mirror. "Oh, you handsome fellow," he'd say. "Oh, you lucky dog." I must have been about six. I remember looking around at our rusty bathtub, the cracked toilet seat, the coal dust covered walls, and thinking, "is this lucky?" But my dad loved living. He was a happy drinker. He loved people, and they loved him, and he never met a stranger, because he turned them into friends.

With the current climate in the US, my behavior in elementary school (I had temper tantrums daily) would have brought me to the attention of child welfare folks. They would have investigated the conditions of my home, and I could easily have been removed from my family. And I don't know if they would have been able to get me back. It's not that they wouldn't have wanted to. But my Dad didn't like government intervention, and he would have rebelled. My mom would have felt powerless to comply with all the stipulations the state would have required. And they may have given up.

And so I could easily have grown up in a different family, as someone other than a Bratton. I may have been spared some of the pain of my wild and traumatic childhood. But I would not have known my dad.

For much of my life, I had a difficult relationship with my mother. I blamed her for leaving me when I was twelve, when she went on the road with my dad, who was a travelling salesman, and I held her responsible for not protecting me. But, the birth of my own child helped me to see her in a new light. Where I had viewed her before as weak, and submissive, I came to recognize her quiet strength. I came to respect her intelligence, her spiritual understanding, her tolerance, and her particular way of showing love. She helped me parent my son. She taught him his ABCS and took him to get his shots. Had I been separated from my family, I wouldn't have come to know her this way.

When Debra died, my mom and I had had a tense moment, after we watched her take her last breath. She followed me into the lounge of the hospice, while we waited for them to come and take Debra's body away, and she apologized to me for not being there when I needed her. My own son was struggling with drugs at the time, and I told her that I saw how hard it must have been to try and handle four kids, two (my brother and I) who were acting out. I told her I understood how helpless she must have felt, and tired, and I told her it was okay. Had I been separated from my family, I would never have had that chance. I would never have healed that place in myself that blamed her, and she would never have heard me say it didn't matter anymore.

Had I been separated from my family, had I been raised as someone other than a Bratton, I would have missed the opportunity to help my sister die with dignity, to watch her heal her own old wounds, to see her thank my brother Dennis for all he had done to help her, to watch my brother Allan, with whom she had had a conflicted relationship, carry her from the bed to the toilet and back, to be a witness to the tender exchanges that brought us a moment of grace in the midst of the suffering and sadness.

Had I grown up in another family, I would not have been able to lay by my mother's side at hospice house, cradling her in my arms, as she drifted out of consciousness. I would have missed the opportunity to rub lotion on her legs and arms, to care for her most intimate needs, to bathe her and help her to the toilet and to tell her that I didn't mind, that I was glad to do it, to let her lean on me.

I have seen many foster and adoptive children, in my years of practice, carry a deep and unmet yearning to know who and where they came from. Some of them have grown up in the most loving and kind adoptive homes. They have been given all the material goods, the educational opportunities, and the nurturance of parents who doted on their every need. Still they have felt fractured, somehow, like they didn't quite belong, like a part of them was missing. And many have gone to find that piece of themselves. It doesn't discount the brave and devoted parenting of their adoptive families. It just means that they need to know their connection to the blood ties that bind us as humans to each other. It is not the only thing that matters. But it matters, nonetheless.

Last weekend I travelled to Wales, and I carried with me my father's tales of the four Bratton brothers, who were kicked out of that country for stealing horses, and who set sail out of Donegal, Ireland, in the 17th century, for America. I walked the patchwork hills and viewed the little stone churches and met the Welshmen in their caps, fishing at the river, and I was so thankful to have had those stories, to feel a part of something bigger, to feel connected to the land of my ancestors, to feel like a piece of me had found my way home.