News Release: Research

Aug. 31,  2009

Emory Center on Myth and Ritual in American Life (MARIAL)

Our Year With Max

Journal of Family Life essay chronicles joys, challenges of temporary guardianship

News Article ImagePhotos from Journal of Family Life article

From the Journal of Family Life:

I never wanted children of my own. Well, that's not entirely true. In my 20s, I imagined myself with one child, a cute little girl with long braids. We would visit bookstores and drink exotic hot tea on breezy Sunday mornings as we wrote in our hand-made journals outside some wonderful French-looking cafe. 

But that was about 20 years and a few good but finite relationships ago, after which time, the thought of children could not have been further from my mind.  I had already, after all, participated actively enough in the raising of my brother (16 years my junior) and my niece. Since my sister has always been a single parent (and since I have friends with children, nieces, nephews, and godchildren), there were and still are ample opportunities for me to provide input, support and Nike shoes to offspring, even if they are not my own. I enjoyed the status of "fun auntie" who kids couldn't wait to visit for the weekend. But my motto was, "I love long at they're someone else's."

I did not anticipate falling in love with anyone who had or wanted children. 

My partner and I have been together for five years and have been having the "do we want children?" conversation for about three of them. My part of the conversation has been known a bit like the words from the song Born Free — the thought of using money that should be applied toward my comfort in retirement for somebody's college tuition and braces, I would explain, gives me the willies. The most I had been willing to consider was foster parenting

As luck (or some other form of divinity) would have it, a few years ago I received a call from my aunt telling me about a relative of ours whose son, who lived with his mother and step-father in a high crime urban neighborhood of Chicago, was having some behavior problems and getting into a little bit of trouble. I'm not sure what made me offer (I decided later it was the combination of wanting to help and the feeling that this might be a too-good-to-be-true opportunity to expose my partner to the difficulties and challenges of child rearing), but I suggested that the boy come to live with us for one year — just long enough to remove him from his current environment.

It was amazing how fast the temporary guardianship actually happened after we agreed to it. We had a few conversations with the child's parents in August of 2007, with the beginning of school just one week away. His name is Max. He's 10 years old. He likes sports. His favorite food is collard greens. He's a good boy, very helpful. He is very tall for his age and wears a size 12 clothes, 6 ½ shoes. The next thing we knew, Max was on a plane headed for Atlanta.

We excitedly set out to convert the guest room to Boy Central. We ran around Target with a shopping cart tossing in boy things, with barely a notion of what 10-year-old boy things looked like.  After frantically second- and third-guessing ourselves, we went with the plaid comforter and maroon accents about five minutes before the store closed.  The final decision was based on the impulse that the pillow that matched the comforter, which depicted a camp scene and a friendly-looking bear with raised appliqués, would make Max feel welcome in his temporary surroundings.

And then he was here — tall, cute and extremely shy. The first few weeks reminded me of first dates; we spent a lot of time trying to identify Max's likes and dislikes. I look back on this very short "honeymoon period" fondly.

Overall, our year with Max was marked by both rocky and wonderful moments. From what I understand, most parents view parenting as rocky by nature, with some bright spots to make it all feel worthwhile. I think we were only slightly more prepared for the hard bits than we were for having our hearts so irreparably changed.

The First Month

We learned how important it is to hug boys, even when they act like they don't like it. We remembered how to wrestle and punch while making pretend-punch noises.  We figured out how to make paper airplanes. And there was a lot of tickling.

We learned how to be "football parents." Max had told us about his desire to play football on a team almost as soon as he arrived; in his neighborhood, he told us, boys play football in the street using empty water bottles for goals.

The first day of football practice was so hot we could barely do more than sit very still in our portable chairs and fan hot air. Afterward, anxious to get out of the heat and hungry, we helped Max remove his helmet. His face was almost totally covered with red dirt, except for trails the beads of sweat had left.  Under his matted hair, he looked at us with a big smile that communicated pure, unfiltered joy. This was the first of many times I found it hard not to cry in front of him.

October - December

Whatever he did, whether it was a football, track, basketball or a band recital, Max would look for us in the audience. And when he found us, he would tighten his lips in an effort not to smile. His excitement wouldn't let him pretend, however, and eventually his face would explode into a wide grin. As a child who participated frequently in organized sports, I remember well the feeling of looking for my parents at every game, even or especially when I didn't do well. For the first time, I felt connected to a child in the way my parents must have felt connected to me.  I wonder now if, since my parents did not consider our relationship "temporary," they took for granted the parental feeling and sense of belonging I would get each time I waved, cheered or called out Max's name from the stands.

We listened intently whenever Max opened up to share bits and pieces of his life in Chicago. He told us how he and his brother would ride their bikes all over the city's west side and recounted how they once came upon a dead body in an alley. He talked about all the men in his life who were in prison and about his "uncle," the drug dealer of the neighborhood who looked out for all of the kids and gave them money whenever he saw them. To our horror (which was hard not to show in its entirety), he confided about family members who were heavily involved in the fighting of dogs. We gradually grew to understand the totality of his life before us — there were no organized sports, no "movie nights," and no taking turns reading aloud before bedtime. There were no stickers or dollars awarded for doing special things.

Though Max was a very sweet child, he was also very headstrong and somewhat toughened by his experiences. Consequently, there were many times I felt we had "bitten off more than I wanted to chew" at that point in my life.  Some of those times were most evident when Max (and all of us, consequently) had math homework to do. When he first arrived, he explained that he did not have homework in Chicago; so the challenge of getting him into the habit of doing homework was sometimes unbearable. We were often up late in an attempt to cajole an appreciation for math into him.  I would have flashes of my mother and brother, both frustrated, working on math homework into the night. My brother, now 32, still shies away from anything to do with numbers, but he is great at many other things.  I kept that in mind for Max and reminded myself that teaching is as much about patience and nurturing confidence as about anything else.

Word problems were especially challenging.  During our first parent-teacher conference with Ms. Jones, the math teacher, we were told that Max was very quiet and respectful in class, but that he had a way of disappearing and daydreaming to avoid actively participating.  He never raised his hand to answer questions, and she feared he wasn't learning anything, which she found unacceptable.

A turning point came during the Thanksgiving holiday. We were taking a road trip to visit family. Anticipating the difficulty of a long drive for a young boy, we thought about things to do together in the car and found some practical math word problems. During the five-hour drive, we watched as Max came alive while solving the problems. We were pleasantly surprised by how much fun he had as we worked problem after problem together aloud and even more surprised by his disappointment to find we had gone through all of them within the first three hours. From then on, we made an effort to find ways to do even the most mundane things together, whether it was chores, homework or errands. Though I still enjoyed spending time alone, I began to look forward to the times the three of us were together.

January - April

Throughout the year, "we" lost many a sweater and jacket. Book bags came up missing, homework was found under the bed months after it was due. Agenda books (books used in school to help children stay organized with homework and teachers' notes) were lost, had to be replaced, and were not kept up to date (and were sometimes subsequently found by the school lunchroom staff). There was candy eaten that could not be traced to anyone in the house.  On more than one occasion, Max was supposed to be doing his homework after school and instead I found him in the gym, zipping around in a wheelchair, playing basketball with the boys at school who were confined to wheelchairs. I found the need to add this to the long list of morning reminders, "...and no wheelchair basketball today."

While preparing him for a school trip of three nights and four days to Jekyll Island, we realized that Max had never been away from home or on his own for more than an occasional overnight with friends.  While waiting for the 5:30 a.m. bus with the other excited 5th graders and their parents, we gave him money with specific instructions to use it for incidentals such as batteries and snacks. When he returned, we emptied his bag to find, along with the wet, sour-smelling clothes and sand-caked shoes, about 100 shells, some of which still had their mollusks inside. We discovered later that he had spent half of the money we gave him on firecrackers and the other half on a gift for us — a colorful surfboard that sat upright on a stand. After rubbing Max's forehead that night (which I did to help him fall sleep) and hiding the fireworks on the top shelf of our closet, I fingered the smooth edges of the surfboard and imagined, for the first time, how life would be without Max around.  The thought that he had wasted money that could have been used for something more "useful" was fleeting compared to the gift, an obvious symbol of his love.

A few weeks later, I found a picture he'd drawn, crumpled at the bottom of his book bag amidst the broken pencils and crayons, a racing car we didn't recognize, and the previous week's missing homework. The picture had "I Love You" at the top, a smiley face in the middle, and the words "Thank You" at the bottom, with our names on either side of the smiley face. I think this is about the time Max developed the habit of laying his head on one of our shoulders on movie night. During those special times, there were no thoughts of lost jackets and no frustration about homework or chores undone. There was just the comfortable feeling of a regular Friday night having been transformed into a weekly family holiday.

The Last Few Months

The last day of school was hard for Max's teachers, who knew he would be returning to Chicago and were concerned he'd lose the wonderful progress he had made during the year. In one unexpected moment, Mr. Norton, his homeroom teacher told us, "Max talks about you all the time. He's very proud of you." We looked at each other and could not hold back the tears that had been building since that morning — a joint acknowledgement of the impact of our year with Max.  We watched Ms. Jones' eyes also fill up as she shared with us how it felt to see Max raise his hand to answer questions and assist fellow students with math problems toward the end of the year. She told us that the word problems had become his favorite.

Until the day Max graduated from the 5th grade, I was so sure that once the year was over, I'd feel relieved to have my spare time and money back — no responsibilities, no sports practices to rush home to prepare for, no one to remind every morning to wear a belt and flush the toilet. But contrary to my expectations, Max's leaving unsettled me.  I had come to regard seeing his shoes with our shoes at the front door as both magical and ordinary. 

My intention in August 2007 was to resist the urge (no matter how compelling) to open myself fully to a relationship that was to be, by design, temporary. Instead, I was reminded that things don't have to last long to leave a mark.

I am sure I will look back on the year with Max as one of the most expansive of my life — one of the consequences of placing my heart in the palm of a child's sticky hand.


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