Q & A with author Claude Knobler
Author Claude Knobler talks to Lori Gottlieb about bringing an African 5-year-old into a neurotic Jewish family more than a decade ago, an experience he recounts in his recently released “More Love, Less Panic: 7 Lessons I Learned About Life, Love and Parenting After We Adopted Our Son From Ethiopia.”
Lori Gottlieb: You and your wife were raising two biological kids — 7-year-old Clay and 5-year-old Grace — and had no intention of expanding your family. Then you adopted a 5-year-old boy named Nati from Ethiopia after one of his parents died of AIDS and the other became too sick from AIDS to care for him. What led to that decision?
Claude Knobler: I had never thought about adopting, but one day I read an article in the Sunday paper about an orphanage in Ethiopia. I took the article to my wife and said, “You know, we should consider doing something.” The embarrassing truth is that I thought she’d say “no” and that I’d get credit for wanting to do this very humanitarian thing without actually having to do anything. But she said “yes,” and so, we were off.
It was kind of an odd whim, but it’s also true that my mother was a survivor, that she’d been hidden in a Catholic orphanage in Belgium during World War II and then adopted by an aunt after her own parents had been killed in the Holocaust. And I grew up knowing that the world depended on the idea that people who can help other people have an obligation to do that in some way. My mother would never in a million years have suggested I adopt a child from Africa, but in a roundabout way, it was still her idea. So, like all nice Jewish boys, I’m doing exactly what my mother told me to do, even though she never actually told me to do it.
LG: A lot of parents worry about their children, but you had added worries related to bringing an African child grieving the loss of his biological parents into a Jewish-American family in Los Angeles. What were you most worried about?
CK: One of the most shocking things I learned as Nati’s father was that I was really, really bad at worrying. Which is strange, because I get a lot of practice.
So while I worried a lot about Nati not knowing any English and how we’d communicate, it never occurred to me to worry about what I’d do if the sweet little boy I was adopting turned out to be too self-confident. Dealing with someone who was so loud and who challenged me about everything I did all the time proved to be really difficult. And I’d never worried about that beforehand.
Nati, meanwhile, had been worried that while his new house in America was very nice, hyenas were going to get in if we didn’t start closing the windows. It seems to me that trouble always takes us by surprise because we spend so much time worrying about stuff that never happens.
LG: Right, you even write, “When I grew up, it was made very clear to me that you were supposed to worry.” But Nati wasn’t like that — he was very sure of himself, not prone to second-guessing and self-doubt, which seemed so foreign to you. Later you realize, as you put it in the book, “He’s mine to love, not alter.” What helped you make that shift?
CK: For a long time, Nati came downstairs to breakfast every day by loudly shouting, “Nati Knobler is in za house!” while blowing kisses and bowing. And what I found myself doing in response was parenting as if I were in a 1950s horror movie, where the mad scientist wants to put one person’s brain into someone else’s body. I kept trying to take some of Nati’s confidence and put it into my two other kids, because he had so much of it, and I used to worry that they didn’t have enough. There’s a big temptation to tinker as a parent. We try to get our kids to be just a little more of one thing, or a little more the other, and the truth is, there’s room for all sorts of different people in this world. My father spent a lot of my childhood worrying that I made too many jokes. I wound up spending 15 years getting paid to write comedy.
LG: One theme running throughout the book is that of control: how little control we have over our kids’ lives, and how we try to exert control anyway. You wrote, “The odd thing about the terror you feel as a parent is that it always seems to come to the door disguised as love and good intentions.” What’s the difference for you between control and, well, “influence”?
CK: Influence is what happens just by living your life in front of your kids. I don’t have to tell my kids how to behave in a relationship, because they see how I treat my wife every day. What I do for her, I wind up doing for them (and for whomever they marry one day). Control, on the other hand, tends to involve scheming, like trying to get them to practice an instrument when they’re 8 so that they can get into the “right” college.
It’s much easier to eat healthy meals than it is to have arguments every dinner about who did or didn’t finish their vegetables. When I yell at people, including my kids, they tend to yell back. When I’m kind to people, including my kids, they usually return the kindness.
LG: It’s not uncommon to see multicultural families today, with children who were adopted from Africa or China or Guatemala. How did you talk about religion with Nati, who had been raised, until the age of 5, as a Christian who loved Jesus? What does he believe now?
CK: When Nati was very young, there were people in his life who told him that “Satan” would get him if he didn’t behave. So when he came to us, he was worried about the devil but didn’t really know what the devil was or even all that much about Christianity. So when we walked around St. Patrick’s Cathedral as tourists in New York, when he’d been with us only a short while, he kept telling me, “Dad, I love the Jesus,” over and over, until he heard an announcement over the PA system, got confused and asked, “Dad, is that the Jesus?”
Mostly, we encouraged Nati to find his own path, while always making it clear who we are as Jews. If Nati had wanted to go to church, I’d have taken him. Like all three of my kids, I did have him attend Hebrew school so he could learn a bit about that part of his heritage. Right now, I think Nati isn’t especially focused on what he believes or doesn’t believe when it comes to religion. But if and when he does get interested, I think he’ll have the tools to explore.
LG: You and Nati love to debate politics and discuss current events with each other. Did you talk about Ferguson, Mo.?
CK: One of the hardest conversations I’ve ever had was the day I had to sit down and explain to Nati that once he got his driver’s license, there might be times when he got pulled over in our family car simply because he was Black. I was so concerned that, as a white guy, I was going to get that part of parenting wrong that I had to go to a friend of mine who’s Black and say, “Is this a conversation I need to have with my son?” and he assured me that I absolutely had to talk to Nati about that. My friend is about 60, a doctor and very well-to-do, and he’d been pulled over for no reason multiple times and assumed it would happen again. And that’s not a conversation I ever needed to have with my other two children, not because of who they are, but because of how they look. I wouldn’t dream of saying I know what goes on in anyone’s heart, including my own son’s, when they have to sit and hear that sort of thing, but I know it left me saddened and ashamed.
LG: I was so moved by your family’s experience during the Holocaust and the parallel to Nati’s experience: that your mom’s parents had to let another family raise her in order to save her, knowing they’d never see her again, just as Nati’s parents had to do. How has that impacted the bond between grandparents and grandson?
CK: My mother and father were initially anxious about the idea of my adopting, because they worried about how it would affect Clay and Grace, but as soon as Nati became a Knobler, they instantly fell in love with him. What’s really strange is the fact that Nati and my dad are so incredibly alike. They talk about finance and stocks and bonds, and every time I walk by, they both sort of roll their eyes over how little I know about any of that.
I know that some of what my mother feels about Nati is because of how much his story reminds her of her own experiences coming to America as a refugee, all alone on a ship going past the Statue of Liberty, but mostly, I think she just loves all of her grandchildren.
LG: Nati is now 16, an age at which everything seems mortifying. How does Nati feel about the book?
CK: Nati is a firm believer in the idea that parents shouldn’t be seen or heard, but I did catch him laughing with some friends as they read an advance copy of the book, so he’s probably OK with it at this point. Years ago, I read an interview with Rosie O’Donnell, who said that you should write down all the cute things your kids say and do it once a week when they’re young, because you’ll forget once they’re older. I did that for all three of my children and, I have to say, all three of them still love hearing those stories now. The only difference with Nati is that his are available in hardcover.
Lori Gottlieb is a psychotherapist in private practice in Beverly Hills, and The New York Times best-selling author of “Marry Him: The Case for Settling for Mr. Good Enough.” Visit her website at lorigottliebtherapy.com.