Fathom Mag

I didn’t need an answer; I needed a witness.

We will always need someone to affirm our humanity.

Published on:
July 12, 2022
Read time:
5 min.
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A friend of many years sent our family an oak sapling as an adoption gift. It arrived in the mail in a cardboard tube only slightly larger than a paper towel roll. The kids (and I) were shocked and delighted that a baby tree could be sent via UPS. The attached note read, To celebrate your growing family tree. It was thoughtful, but the ache in my gut reminded me that this friend had planned to attend the adoption finalization, but was now gracefully backing out. My kids came to me through foster care and parenting them has been hard. Like, really damn hard—for them and for me.  

The friend and I spoke a few days before the adoption hearing, and I recounted a hard morning I had with one of my children. When I told her, she immediately listed possible remedies—medications, therapies, behavioral interventions, and parental improvements. I excused myself as quickly as possible and cried as soon as we got off the phone. We had had this conversation before. I didn’t need her opinion right then; I just needed her to listen. Then the tree arrived.

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I read a list of instructions that accompanied the baby tree. The bright yellow paper suggested housing it in a container of soil for the first few years of life. That way I could bring it inside if it got too cold. When I googled the variety—coast live oak—I learned that this species can grow up to seventy feet tall. I tried to imagine this monstrosity of a tree in our city-sized backyard. I glanced at the power lines twenty-five feet above my head wondering how many years it would take for the highest branches to reach them, and was glad for the container—I didn’t need to settle the tree into the earth just yet. 

I remembered other adoptive parents’ stories about losing friends who couldn’t understand their traumatized children or their parenting of traumatized children. I didn’t want to have that story.

It later became clear that she didn’t agree with how I handled the situation I had recounted to her that day on the phone. We both backed into our defensive positions and I told her I didn’t want to feel like I had to justify myself and reminded her that I consult multiple professionals several times a month on how to best help my son. I remembered other adoptive parents’ stories about losing friends who couldn’t understand their traumatized children or their parenting of traumatized children. I didn’t want to have that story. 

Meanwhile, I tucked the baby tree into a large terra cotta pot on the deck. The kids helped me pat the soil flat and water it. One of the leaves looked a little brown and brittle but the rest were green. We continued to water and watch over the little sapling. It looked like a tiny branch in the dirt. Then it started dropping leaves. First the bottom two, then a few more, and more, until finally there were only three green leaves at the very top. Three. It now looked more like a twig a child stuck in the dirt than the pampered sapling it was. I wondered if the tree’s failure was a bad omen for my family tree or my friendship—perhaps both. Still, I kept watering. 

As I cared for the sapling I found myself identifying with the frail plant. It was vulnerable and recently transplanted, just like my kids. It can’t be sure the new environment is tenable. The yellow sheet says with water and soil and sun, it will be a full-blown tree one day—a sprawling, immovable, light-dappling giant. But it’s just a promise, or maybe not even as firm as a promise but a potentiality, many long seasons away. I sometimes feel the same way about my kids and myself. Only there is no yellow instruction sheet. I wonder if my friend looks at my family and sees a twig stuck in the dirt with all but its top three leaves brown and brittle on the ground. 

In a world without an instruction manual, agreement can’t fuel my relationships because it’s not made to.

A different friend once told me that it is hard to see me and my family in apparent chaos and turmoil year after year. That it makes people search for the answer that will solve our problems. I get it, everyone wants to find the non-existent yellow instruction sheet and so we can agree on the path to the promised, beautiful outcome. An agreed-upon plan makes them feel better, I see that, and it sure would be nice to have one. But in a world without an instruction manual, agreement can’t fuel my relationships because it’s not made to. 

Agreement is typically about endorsing another’s choices or intellectual standpoint. It draws a line in the sand and divides those who are on our side and those who aren’t. Agreement thrives as a zero-sum game—with or against, which will it be? But I wasn’t looking for someone to agree with my parenting techniques or life choices, and I didn’t need someone to give me the “right” answer to my difficult circumstances. Instead, I was looking for understanding. I didn’t need an answer; I needed a witness.

My potted tree knows nothing of perfection or disagreements, at least not in the way I conceptualize it—the oppressive perfection of the “one right way.” Sometimes we think that if only we—or they—dealt with “the problem” according to XYZ professional or XYZ method it would resolve. This mindset leads us to a list list of dos and don’ts and when we start to determine where people’s choices misalign with our list our judgment often abounds. But perpetual agreement isn’t the bedrock of a healthy relationship and acting like it is only leads us to forget to truly see each other. 

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While my little sapling knows nothing of perfection, it knows everything about relationship. Both thriving and withering occur in relationship. The oak depends on the fungi and the climate and the soil pH and the toyon and manzanitas that grow in the understory—and likewise, they depend on the oak. But there is no one way for this community to live happily together. An oak can thrive in a terracotta pot or a city backyard if the conditions are right. It is all about the balance of the relationship—how each member responds to the other’s needs. I see the same in families and communities. We can flourish in a million ways. We need basic elements—safety, love, food, air, and shelter. But beyond that, our thriving comes down to our own nature and our intimate relationships with other members of our communities. 

Instead of prioritizing agreement maybe we should prioritize affirmation. Affirmation is about endorsing another’s experience. It is about seeing someone, as broken and beautiful as they may be, and recognizing that what they are going through is real and true. Affirmation understands our shared humanity. 

While there is a time and a place for demarcating right and wrong, we will always need someone to affirm our humanity.

I’ve seen affirmation at work. Affirmation is my kids’ therapist. She has seen us year after year. She knows all the joy-filled and messy details. But, it hasn’t been the therapists’ methods that have been the most helpful. It’s been the therapist herself—her presence and her supportive relationship. The showing up, the modeling, the problem solving together, the love and care. Affirmation has been fellow foster parents who nod in understanding. Affirmation has been my mom who has given her shoulder to cry on. Affirmation has been the parent at my kid’s school who is so honest about her struggles that I know I can be honest about mine. 

My kids and I (and all of us) are wonderfully, beautifully, and tragically human. While there is a time and a place for demarcating right and wrong, we will always need someone to affirm our humanity. Witnessing the struggle, taking in the context, understanding difference, and appreciating one another’s path are all essential elements of affirmation. 

Often we need someone to see us like my children, and I see the little sapling—a small being struggling to make its way in an often harsh environment doing everything we can to lay claim to the amazing possibilities of the future. Yesterday, I noticed a tiny maroon nub jutting out of the pencil-thin trunk. Today, it has opened into the smallest of leaves. There are several more nubs scattered on the trunk. It’s alive after all. Most of the tree’s growth is still ahead of it. Some seasons it will bloom and in other seasons it will drop those leaves. But each season will bring us closer and closer to the sky. 

Ashley Schuster Downend
Ashley Schuster Downend lives with her husband and four kids in Oakland, CA. She writes primarily about foster care and the policies surrounding it. She has a degree in Sociology from Westmont College and a master of public policy from University of Southern California. Find her on Instagram.

Cover image by name_gravity.

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