Friday, May 28, 2010

Paying it Forward, With Big Returns

I had an uplifting encounter today that made me think about episodes in our lives that prove to be formative.  I had an appointment with a man who is a witness in a case.  We were preparing him for the questions I will be asking him next month when he takes the stand.witness stand

Now let me say first that outside of close relatives, most folks hate the thought of being a witness in a lawsuit.  They really don’t want to be involved in things that are “other people’s business.”  I hear this all the time, and usually make do with a telephone conversation to determine what the witness might say on the stand, often followed by a subpoena which is, in essence, enforced attendance at trial.

subpoena I understand that appearing in court is nerve-wracking for all except us lawyers who do the grilling, and I suppose that is part of the reluctance. 

But what concerns me many times is the apathy shown by third parties who could contribute much to the Court’s understanding and to a good decision by the Judge.  Most people just don’t want to be bothered by someone else’s troubles.  So, I have to resort to costly depositions or subpoenas.  Sigh.

This guy is different.  He came at an appointed time and offered good information that will help my client and will educate the Judge as to the truth of the matters presented. 

Without going into detail that might violate confidence, he also had done an extremely altruistic act—gone out of his way to do a kindness that he did not have to do for someone who was “no one” to him.  And landed himself in court as a witness for it!

I was grateful on behalf of my client and told him so, saying, “You have been so helpful and giving of your time in this matter, and I am so amazed at the kindness your actions have shown.”

He responded, saying that many decades ago someone had done a kindness to him, and he had made up his mind at an early age that his life would be governed by the principle he learned as a result.  Here is the story this distinguished African-American man told:

caddy It was 1954, a more difficult time for African-Americans.  I was nine years old, and my daddy dropped me off at a golf course for the first time so that I could work as a caddy. 

I am going to make reference to “Caucasian,” not because I need to for identification—there were no African-Americans playing that course.  I refer to race because at the time it was an important factor in my perception of this event.

Now, I knew a little about golf  but did not really know what was expected of me.  I was nervous as a cat, standing there, not knowing what on earth to do and being afraid to ask anybody anything.  A Caucasian man chose me as his caddy and plopped down his golf bag beside me.

Another Caucasian man who was playing with him said “You can’t expect that child to carry that bag!  Why it’s almost as tall as he is, and probably outweighs him!  I’m not going to watch that happen!”

caddy pull cart The second man walked away and paid another man money from his own pocket to hire a wheeled pull-cart in which the bag would fit.  I had no idea such a thing existed.

I wasn’t much help to my employer, I’m sure, but I pulled that cart all around the golf course that day, at the end of which my golfer paid me $2.  The other man was standing there, smiling.  I expected him to ask for his money back, but he never did.  He just gave me a friendly “goodbye” and went on his way.

I never saw my benefactor again, but I sure thought a lot about him.  I realized that he had recognized a confused, scared kid with no parents on hand to guide or speak up for him.  This stranger had stood in the gap for my parents in their absence, helping me as they would have done had they been there.  I was so grateful.

As I aged, I would often think about that day and what it had meant to me to have a stranger care enough to do that for me.  I told myself that I needed to be on the lookout for other people for whom I could, in turn, stand in the gap.  It’s just common decency.

And, so, that long-ago (56 years!) act of random kindness by a man who never crossed this kid’s path again played a crucial hand in my client’s case.  I believe it must have had a part in forming the life of this distinguished, kind man.  It is an amazing thought at what a “little” act can do, especially in the life of a child.

In the order of nature we cannot render benefits to those from whom we receive them, or only seldom. But the benefit we receive must be rendered again, line for line, deed for deed, cent for cent, to somebody. 

~Ralph Waldo Emerson, Compensation.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

It's Not Me. It's You.

All too often, when we find ourselves feeling dissatisfied or experiencing problems in our relationships, we point fingers, place blame, and really start focusing on our partners and what we perceive to be their faults or shortcomings. We think to ourselves that if our partners were somehow different, if they would just change, if they would stop doing what they're doing, or start doing what they're not doing, our relationships would be better and we would be happier.

However, when we engage in such thinking, we disregard the role that we ourselves play in our relationships and the level of satisfaction or dissatisfaction that we experience in our relationships. To use a worn-out cliché, it takes two to tango. Relationship problems seldom result from the actions of one partner alone. Sometimes they do, but frequently, they don't.

Instead of focusing on what's wrong with our partners, and expecting and demanding that they change, maybe we should focus a bit less on our partners' faults, whether real or imagined, and focus a bit more on ourselves and our contributions to our relationships. We should ask ourselves questions such as, "How can I be a better partner in this relationship?" "What can I do to improve this relationship?" "How am I contributing to this problem?" A final suggestion is to keep our expectations regarding our partners and our relationships realistic. Real people and real relationships seldom match up to the ideals presented in romance novels, Tom Hanks/Meg Ryan movies, and fairy tales.

Monday, May 24, 2010

The Myth of the Right Partner

I believe in giving credit where credit is due, and Cynthia's post got me thinking about this. Anyway, I guess this post sort of piggybacks onto the story that Cynthia posted the other day.

Sometimes, when we find themselves dissatisfied in relationships, we assume that the problem is with our partners, and we think that all of our relationship problems would magically disappear and everything would be hunky-dory if we were just with the right person. That's known as the myth of the right partner (aka "the grass is always greener on the other side" delusion).

We need to keep in mind, however, that the other person isn't always the problem. Sometimes the problem is with the couple's relationship skills (or lack thereof). Sometimes we're the problem, as reluctant as we may be to admit that to ourselves.

The problem with subscribing to the myth of the right partner is that it can lead us to bounce from one relationship to another, always in search of that evasive "right" partner who we imagine will complete us, help us to have and enjoy the perfect, conflict-free relationship, and so on. It can also lead us to abandon relationships that may be salvageable without making very much of an effort to work on those relationships.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Fields of Rejection

They wholding handsere, by all accounts a successful couple—not rich success, but happy, church-going and well-employed. They had all they needed and some to save for old age. Except for one thing. They had no children

BB was the leader of a home fellowship group for his church. He and SS opened their home each week to worship, pray and counsel with fellow church members. BB was an elder, in leadership and close communion with others in his church’s leadership. Everyone around them was praying for a child for this wonderful couple.

Then BB was hit with a revelation from God: He had no children because there were so many of God’s children without homes! He went to SS and told her. Reluctantly she agreed to take the several-month program of instruction and counseling in order to become eligible to adopt from child protective services. As they went through the program, SS still had her doubts, but she wanted a child and BB said “Think of all we can offer a child from this situation. He or she would have a stable home, and we could show the love of God to children who otherwise have no love at all.” She capitulated and they moved from discussions of “whether or not” to “boy or girl?”

The social worker knew of their discussions and hit them with a new idea: one of the hardest placements was for siblings in one home. Why not adopt a brother and sister? That way, they could have one of each. They viewed profile after profile and finally agreed on a group of three siblings, two boys and a girl, ranging in age from 2 years to 6. These children had only recently been taken from their mother and were the subjects of terrible neglect kids room and abuse. The new parents’ hearts broke thinking of all these children had been through and of the relief and love they could offer. They formally adopted all three children and moved them into their newly-decorated bedrooms.

A year went by, and it became very apparent that these children were damaged beyond all prior estimation. Even the youngest, who was assumed to have little memory of her former life, had all kinds of issues and seemed to take up the bizarre behaviors of her elder siblings. BB traveled with his work, so often it was SS who had to deal alone with school expulsions, teacher conferences over playground fights, children who had very abnormal toilet habits both at home and at school and bizarre nighttime behaviors marked by hysterical outbursts and middle-of-the-night threats.

In their second year of adoption, a miracle occurred. SS was pregnant! Even the stress of dealing with her damaged brood didpregnant not dampen her enthusiasm, and the baby arrived healthy and to great fanfare. To everyone except the older siblings who worried and threatened and pouted. The stress began to compound.

As time went on, the problems with the children only increased. They each had psychiatric treatment regularly. It was nip-and-tuck that all children could stay in school. There was constant danger that one or all of them would be permanently expelled, creating a crisis of where to put them next. Worst of all, resentment against the youngest member of the household grew. The elder children began turning their self-destructive behaviors outward, toward their mother and her youngest child.

Learning the system, the older children began to report abuse by their mother. Time after time SS had to meet with child protective services to fend off charges against her that she was cruel to these children. There were dozens of reports. Not a single one of them was substantiated. All understood that these children were not truthful but were acting out of their hurt and wounds. Still, having child protective services knock at your door repeatedly and being on the defensive all the time takes its toll. SS soon found herself basically held hostage, afraid to discipline these children in any meaningful way for fear that it would be turned into an abuse charge.

This family toiled through the mayhem, taking each day and challenge one at a time. Although BB’s job required him to travel, it also allowed for some flexibility and off days put together so he could be involved in his children’s lives. He could spell his wife, so she could get her breath before he had to be gone again, and he willingly did so. They were making it.

But, then, the unthinkable happened.

BB came home from four days on the road. He strode through the house wordlessly and grabbed another suitcase to augment the one he had left in the car. He began to pack it with more clothing and a few personal items. Upon her demand, he turned and spoke the first words to his wife since he had entered their home:

“I’m leaving. I am not happy here. I have not been happy for a long, long time, and my life is marching by me. This life is doing me no gbroken heartood and in the long run it won’t do you any good either. I’m leaving so that we both can get on with our lives.”

SS was stunned beyond belief. She had no idea this was coming. Dealing with her life with a loving husband at her back was one thing, but doing it alone and through a veil of tears of hurt and loss was another. Fear gripped her. She begged her husband not to do this to her, to their children. He went on out the door. He did not answer her calls to his cell phone; he did not return her desperate voice messages.

It took her over a week to come to see me because of shock. Over a week without any word from the father of their household.

I told her there was another woman involved. Fact of Life: Men rarely abandon one nest without having another one prepared. She disputed. “He says there is no one else,” she still defended him.“He says it’s just that he’s ‘unhappy.' Besides, infidelity flies in the face of all that BB believes. It’s the stress with the kids causing this, I know.”

Right.Whatever you need to think to get you through…

Because BB traveled, getting him served with papers was a super motel challenge. It took us weeks. We tried everything. We called his employer, who was no help. BB”s mother either did not know where he was or would not tell. Finally, my resourceful client located him in a motel by sheer perseverance. We got him served. A month had gone by with no support from the major breadwinner in the home. Another month would go by before our court date.

And the stress in the household ratcheted up; it was reaching crescendo levels.

Even the most well-adjusted children feel the strain when one of their parents depart. Having Dad absent, having Mom heartbroken, having shoe-string budget with nothing extra for diversion was more than these little ones could take. The acting-out grew out of control. The eldest child was permanently expelled from school. The next two were on their way. Two of the children began talking about what they could do to Mom and her youngest in the middle of the night. Mom’s life turned into siege mode. I thought she would break. She had only her own devoted parents to help her. Who else would want to take these children off her hands, even for an afternoon?

And, don’t forget, Mom had to work each and every day. After all, she was now the sole breadwinner for her family. BB did not care even so much as to call and inquire or answer her calls, let alone send money their way.

Then SS did what would have been unimaginable to her in the past. She phoned the state agency and told them that she must return her adopted children. She did this without counsel from me because she had already spent her last nickel to hire me for her divorce. I stepped into the mix to find that she had made up her mind: she was going into survival mode, and she felt that the only one she could save was her youngest.

The three adopted children were returned to foster care. According to their therapists, they suffered unbelievable pain over this; really, I cannot begin to imagine. In most divorce cases, the children are damaged by fights over who gets to keep custody them. These children were tossed to the side: by one parent who felt she had no choice, by another to whom they mattered no longer.

I am at a loss for words at this.

SS had to face the judge in this case alone—BB was nowhere to be found in these legal proceedings. He let her take the anger of the Court and the shame alone. The judge railed at her that you cannot reject children “just because there are problems—families struggle through…” He was furious with her. She agreed with all he said--she just could not do it.

Later we found that BB was, indeed, involved with another woman. We found them holed up together in a motel room—with the other woman’s two children.

I cannot believe the devastation that this man’s lustful selfishness has caused. These poor children: abused and rejected by their birth mother; now rejected again by their adoptive family. What, on earth, will happen to them?

For what? So that BB can be “happy?” To the extreme unhappiness of every single person for whom he is responsible? What gives???

SS gave me permission to print this, although I have disguised her somewhat. The facts are true, sad to say. The drama is not yet over.

SS wanted me to use this story. She wanted at least one slim silver lining to the cloud her life has become. She wants others to hear and, perhaps, learn.

Learn what? Maybe this, in the wise words of none other than Jon Bon Jovi:

Map out your life;

but do it in pencil.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Latino Families in the Southeast

Okay so this post does not quite follow Dr. Phillips first post in terms of content, but hey this is a great place to let each other know about what we are up to and ways we can collaborate and better the lives of families in our region!

So I thought I would share about some of the projects that our team here in NC are doing to work with Latino families. We have developed lots of resources to better serve Latino families check out our website: Besides all the publications, videos, and games. We have worked on a dropout prevention curriculum called Juntos that works with entire families to help families believe that college is actually a possibility! We use this program to set up Hispanic clubs in the schools and develop a Latino parent group that meets regularly in each community.

We also have developed a domestic violence prevention program called Illuminando el Camino that helps educate Latino health providers (promatoras) and faith leaders on how to work on prevention in their communities.

We have a series of newsletters for parents that follow the childs age (prenatal to age 5 so far) called Just In Time Parenting (

Just a few of the many things we are having fun doing. We would love to hear from those of you who are interested in these types of topics!

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Realistic Expectations

The expectations we have for our partners and our relationships play an important part in the level of satisfaction we experience in our relationships, as well as the success or failure of our relationships. If we set our expectations too high, the result can be disappointment, dissatisfaction, and even the dissolution of the relationship as our partners and relationships fail to live up to our excessively high and unrealistic expectations.

Much has been written in the literature about how people's expectations for marriage today are much higher than they were in the past. Many people today expect so much from their marriages and their spouses that there's simply no way a real person or a real relationship can ever meet their naïve and inflated expectations. This is actually a major, but little discussed, factor in our nation's high divorce rate. It's actually quite common for people to expect their spouses to be their soul-mates…it's not sufficient to be a mere husband or wife…you also need to be a soul-mate who fulfills your spouse's every emotional need and who knows what your spouse is thinking without him or her needing to say a word, and that's asking a heck of a lot from a real person. The concept of a soul-mate makes for good romantic fiction, but I think that most family scientists would agree that, in real life, it's not realistic or fair to expect our spouses to be our soul-mates.

The message I want to impart here is not to have low expectations for one's romantic partners and relationships, but rather to have realistic expectations.