On Keeping a Journal

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Yesterday, I spent 5 solid hours on a plane correcting a toddler, who was banging with both fists on the seat in front of him, throwing his shoes, and screaming like I was sticking pins under his toenails. It has been a long time since I was so desperately beside myself.

The good thing about your life exploding is that it twists your arm behind your back and manhandles you back to square one. Beginner’s mind. Humility.

The growing pains of going from one child to two, both of them with lots and lots and lots of needs, has left me little dedicated time for writing. I steal an hour here and there, early in the morning, late at night. I have to fight for even that much. I know it won’t be this way forever- it will change as all things do. I also know that when it changes I will be both relieved and beset with panic. Because change does that to me.

Part of me wants to follow the path of least resistance and check my creative life at the door of motherhood. Find ecstatic joy in macaroni collages. Marvel at the potential of the popsicle stick. Instagram whimsical, earth-friendly ways to decorate for each holiday.

I’m not knocking the creativity, even art, we bring to mothering. Not at all. But I am also a writer and an individuated being. I’m not interested in pouring every ounce of my creative inner life into my children. I need sacred space in which my mind can wander and my self-expression doesn’t have to be stamped with a G rating.

Before kid #2, I had a pretty manageable schedule, in which I had hours at a time to work. To daydream. To write and write and write. And now I don’t. The end.

I can’t shoehorn 3 more hours into my day.

So what now?

It’s easy for me to get stuck in resignation and self-pity. It’s also a convenient out. I have a perfectly reasonable excuse to not write right now. Writing is very hard- I’m tempted to surrender far too easily.

Whenever I find myself facing this dangerous mindset, I return to a place of curiosity.

What is it I really want to say right now? What’s burning to come out of me? What’s essential?

Then I look realistically at my limitations, and summon all my creative resources and say- how? How am I gonna do this? Is there a way of accomplishing this that I never considered before?

I’m someone who works things out on the page. I ask myself questions and I write and list and chart until I come to some semblance of a conclusion or a next action. This may take minutes, or hours, or weeks. I usually do this in my journal. So journaling has again become so important to me, with my radically limited time. There’s almost always time for a journal entry.

The most important thing I’ve learned in all my years of writing is not to expect every word to be a publishable pearl.

I have kept diaries for roughly a billion years. I have stacks upon stacks of them moldering in the garage and there they will stay until I die, when they will be shredded and donated to the SPCA for kitty litter. They are process documents. They are research and therapy and muscle building. They are not works of art.

I’ve employed a lot of different journaling methods over the years, and I recently did a complete overhaul. I had grown pretty lackadaisical about it, so I gave my journal a hard look and noticed that my writing was completely compartmentalized. I had a tiny notebook I carried everywhere, a large journal I kept in my bedside table for morning pages, a legal pad with an ongoing albatross of a to-do list, a smaller legal pad for grocery list/stuff we needed….

And then I happened upon this post by my friend Karen Walrond at the wonderful Chookooloonks, which suggests putting everything in one notebook. At first, I blanched. I mean- my grocery list next to my Deep Thoughts? Heresy! But in the spirit of curiosity, I decided to give it a try. If I didn’t like it, it only cost $15.

When you organize your thoughts differently, your perspective shifts. Man, I needed that shift so badly. I realized I was compartmentalizing not just my actual physical lists, but also the various aspects of my life. My Writing Time was sacred, as opposed to the to-do list- the minutae.

Combining all has caused me to notice it’s the same me- same heart, same mind, same soul- wandering the aisles of Whole Foods or sitting down at my desk with my important frown on. And life, all of it, is what art is made of. Not just the lofty parts- the passionate love affairs, the dazzling sunsets, the childhood tragedies. Toothpaste, tin foil, animal crackers, crushed tomatoes… has its own poetry.

When we let the high and low- sublime and ridiculous- coexist, a certain kind of magic happens. Without any extra effort, just by proximity, the creative work is lent texture by the daily details and the daily details demand a different level of consciousness.

I also find that having a “friend” always nearby to whom you can tell your most awful thoughts helps those thoughts to not leak out the sides.

For instance- Tariku has been having trouble sleeping lately.

A few nights ago, I had been around and around with him for 4 hours. It was 11pm and there he was, sitting in front of me and I was at THE END. THE END. I wanted to say the worst things. You don’t even know.

Instead I said, “Just sit here and color for a minute.”

And I turned to my journal and wrote all those awful things in giant, psychopath lettering. Then I turned back to him, and said, “Let’s try again.”

Not exactly a gratitude journal, but I got to say it all! With zero consequences. Because there is no such thing as a thought crime.

I can’t say enough good things about putting it all in one place. When I color with the kids, I do my crappy drawings in my journal. When I give my students a writing prompt, I do it along with them.

I almost never look back at it. But as a result, all of my work has many more layers of richness.

What goes in your journal?

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(photo credit: Casey Sjogren)

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What NOT to Say to Prospective Adoptive Parents. And What to Say Back.

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Would you walk up to a pregnant woman and tell her about your friend’s cousin’s daughter whose infant died of a rare disease, offer her the unsolicited tale of your hairdresser’s daughter’s home birth gone wrong, tell her about every mother you know visiting her teenager in rehab, etc.? Would you walk up to a woman expecting a baby and volunteer every horrific possibility parenthood could potentially offer?

Of course you wouldn’t. Because it would be both entirely inappropriate and cruel.

Yet, when you’re involved in the adoption process, this is precisely what many people do. Mention you’re adopting, and people will often lean in with bizarre schadenfreude shining in their eyes and share some terrible story of a friend of a friend whose adopted kid with an attachment disorder burned their house down.

I can give you my ten-cent analysis of why this happens- I think it basically boils down to the fear of difference. For our purposes, the motivation behind the behavior isn’t really that important.

I’ve been at this for a while now and have, by trial and error, developed really good boundaries. In fact, this kind of ignorance affects me personally so little now that I see it as an opportunity to educate- hopefully with gentleness and compassion.IMG_9752

But when you’re first in the midst of the adoption process, it can be shocking and disturbing, and, worst of all, can hold up a mirror to all your deepest fears.

It’s not my mission in life to talk people into adopting. It’s a very personal decision and it’s not right for everyone. I do know that if you choose to walk this adoption road (this, in my opinion, glorious and rewarding road) you won’t be doing it alone. Make sure you seek the wisdom of the people walking beside you, not the onlookers shouting from the sidelines.

A friend sent me desperate late-night email yesterday. It echoed so many emails I get I decided to address it here. This is some of what she said:

I’ve been afraid to talk with a few of the women I know and love  about our plans to adopt b/c they talk about how:

One’s sister adopted and the child ended up in prison.

Another’s cousin adopted and the kid had such a learning disability he ended up dropping out of school and is working a minimum wage job with no future (both adoptive parents are college professors).

How Nature cannot be corralled by Nurture – it’s a huge crap shoot.  Everyone thinks she’ll get lucky by getting a “great kid” but not everyone does.

How I am irresponsible to adopt when I already have two kids, and my resources will be taken from my lovely children when they need me.

In fairness, I know they care about me.  They are coming from a place of great concern.  And they are trying to help me reconsider this whole adoption thing from a rational POV.

They are basically playing a track of GREATEST FEARS Volume One.

Exactly. Greatest Fears Volume One. A tape which, by the way, all expectant parents have in one way or another. But most women walking around with a baby bump don’t have every random acquaintance at Pilates echoing her tape with a terrifying anecdotal story.

If you want a thousand antidote stories of incredible adoptive families, call me. Or talk to any adoptive parent you know. Read the literature. For inspiration, I love Carried in Our Hearts, by Dr. Jane Aronson or More Love Less Panic, by Claude Knobler. For instruction, I love The Connected Child and everything else ever written by Karyn Purvis. Those are just a couple of an amazing plethora of offerings.

I adore this post from Jen Hatmaker called “How to be the Village.”

Reach out to your adoption community. If you don’t have one, start building one. Read the blogs. A few of the greats: Rage Against the Minivan, Flower Patch Farmgirl, White Sugar Brown Sugar, A Musing Maralee, The Eyes of My Eyes are Opened…. there are so many.

More immediately, here is a general guideline of how I deal with it:

Secondhand experience is irrelevant. Only people speaking from the inside the adoption community are allowed to tell you anything right now, unless it’s about how they just bought you a duffel bag full of awesome baby clothes from Chasing Fireflies.

People are often ignorant and careless about adoption related issues and they will rarely ask if you want to hear what they have to say. They’ll  just launch in. This is where you get to work on boundary setting, which I realize can be very hard for women because we are so reticent to offend anyone or create an awkward social situation, regardless of the personal cost.

Try to look at it as excellent opportunity to develop this very important skill. I’m sure it’s a skill you want your children to have. You can better impart it if you’ve cultivated it in yourself.

Say, “Thank you, I understand you mean well (or love me, or want the best for me, or whatever is appropriate to the relationship), but I don’t want to hear any negative stories about adoption right now.”

THE END.

When they say, “BUT….”

And they will. I don’t know why this is, but the need to tell these horror stories is almost compulsive and they will not want to shut up.

This is the hard part and it’s very important….

Cut them off. Then repeat yourself verbatim.

Do this as many times as is necessary for them to hear you.

Rehearse this at home. I’m not kidding. Have a friend or spouse role play it with you. It’s not an easy maneuver, and you’ll be much better able to execute it in the moment if you prepare in advance.

Then hold your head up and proudly walk your path and know that, whatever trials and joys it brings, you will not be walking it alone. Reach out your hand and you will find there are so many on this road who will hold it.

I’m an adoptive mama who has had a pretty challenging go of it. In spite of (or maybe because of) our struggles, there has never been a day, not one, that I haven’t thanked God for all adoption has brought to my life. It has brought my own parents for one (I’m also adopted)! It has also brought my beautiful children, immeasurable love, personal growth, a stronger marriage, a profound sense of gratitude, a faith in the world and in myself that I never believed possible.

IMG_9667I’m copying and pasting the letter I sent to friends and family when we were in the thick of things with Bright Eyes, and I was sitting in a hotel room after having visited him in his foster home every day for a week, preparing him for the transition to our home. It was a hard, scary, wonderful, transformative time. I was touched by the outpouring of support and curiosity from friends and family, but was also totally overwhelmed and unable to respond personally to everyone. Instead, I wrote this.

Please feel free to use any or all of this, if it seems useful to you:

Dearest Friends and Family-

We wanted to reach out to our inner circle to let you know the new developments with Project Lil’ Shriner #2…

This information is strictly private right now- just close friends and family- so please be conscious of not sharing anything publicly until we do so first. Also- legally no pictures can be posted until there is an official adoption. So if we’re ever hanging out and things start to get instagramm-y, please be aware of that!

And now I have totally buried the lede…

As you all know, we’ve been embroiled in the process of a second adoption for the past year and it has been moving at roughly the speed of a Tarkovsky film. But during the last couple of weeks, things have ramped up to the pace of a Transformers sequel! We are wildly excited to tell you that next week we’re scheduled to meet a precious 3 yr old boy- let’s call him Bright Eyes for now. If all goes well with the next couple of steps, we’ll proceed to visiting and transitioning him slowly, and hope to have him home by mid-December. Possibly earlier!

We need to stress all the maybes and probablies and ifs in that paragraph….

We know that adoption is super confusing, so here’s a little primer of what’s going on. We’re adopting through LA County DCFS (Department of Child and Family Services), so Bright Eyes is currently living in a foster care placement. There are many, many steps before we can legally adopt him, and a number of things could come up that derail the process. It could take months. It could take years. It could not happen at all. We just don’t know. There will be lots of court dates and visitations and ups and downs and, well, we don’t even know exactly because this is such a different process from last time.

We ask that you live in the moment, with all of its uncomfortable uncertainty, along with us. Right now, we’re proceeding with cautious optimism. We promise to tell you when it’s time to jump up and down and truly celebrate. Trust us- we can’t wait for you to meet him when the time is right. See the FAQ below for more details.

The next few weeks will tell us a lot, and during this time we will be very, very busy and focused on our family-in-transition. We won’t want to discuss every detail of the process. We will most likely miss your holiday party. We may not send a card. We may not call you back. Please know that we love and treasure you. We could never do this without you- our beautiful extended family, both given and chosen.  We’re so grateful for all you bring to our lives.

Love,

Jillian and Scott

FAQ:

1.Wait, what happened to Baby J? 

We were fostering Baby J. on an emergency basis. Baby J. wasn’t up for adoption and we were never under the impression he was staying. We were lucky enough to share a brief moment with him. We all miss him. We will think about him with both joy and sadness for the rest of our lives. Hopefully we’ll see him again somehow. Bright Eyes is a totally separate case and the two have nothing to do with each other.

2. So do you get to keep this one? What’s the deal? Is he yours or not?

 We hope so. We think so. We don’t know for sure yet. I know- it sucks, right? But that’s the deal.

3. All of this is so exciting! I really want to talk to you about it! But I’m so busy and I don’t have the time to read this whole email. Will you explain this to me over and over again every time I see you?

We know it’s confusing and we know everyone is excited. We’re also excited- and overwhelmed and nervous. Every email from our social worker could either be the best or the most heartbreaking news ever. It’s a heavy time. It’s a lot for us to have to explain every step of the way. We promise we’ll let you know about the big milestones.

4. I just heard a terrible story about an adoption that fell apart (and/or read an awful adoption story in the news) and I really want to share it with you for your own good- should I?

 Nope.

 5. I went through this and I have some tips or legal advice that I feel could help you- should I share them with you?

 YES! Please do. The process is pretty opaque and most of the useful things we’ve gleaned have come from other adoptive families, who have been through a similar process.

6. When can I meet that little nugget of joy and give him a squeeze?

We don’t know yet. Probably not right away. Every child processes the trauma of separation and the transition into a new home in their own unique way and at their own pace. We plan to give him all the time he needs to feel safe before all you crazy pirates start coming around. Again- we’ll let you know!

7. Will you be having a baby shower or a welcoming party?

Yes! We need to see how it goes, and how everyone is settling in. When it’s time, you can be sure we’ll have a party. We’re the Shriners, after all.

8. How can we support you?

 We treasure your messages of support. We need all your love and cheerleading and prayers and good thoughts and white light and GF brownies and whatever else you get into. And we’re so grateful for your understanding if we’re MIA for a while. Also- extra special love for Tariku (movies, playdates, airplane-spotting expeditions…) will be very much appreciated over the next couple of months.

 

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A Review of When Green Becomes Tomatoes

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First of all, go pre-order Julie Fogliano’s When Green Becomes Tomatoes right this minute. Go ahead, I’ll wait. It comes out March 1, so you can also run-don’t-walk next Tuesday and get it at your local independent bookstore.

Okay, well done. You’ll thank me!

Now I’ll tell you a little story about this gem of a book…

Bright Eyes has a language delay and my big genius therapeutic plan is to talk to him pretty much non-stop. I’m from New Jersey, so constant talking isn’t much of a stretch for me. I did the same with Tariku when he was learning to talk, before he got wicked sick of my yammering and retaliated by getting really into dinosaurs and math and things about which I have exactly nothing to say. Touchè.

I never actually expect Bright Eyes to pay any real attention, unless I slip in words like COOKIES or FROZEN or GRANDMA. I’m not really concerned- I figure just the sound of the language helps.

So the other day as we were straightening up, I told him all about my best childhood girlfriend, and how she used to write me notes in class, telling me wonderful stories. I told him she lives in a magical farmhouse in the Hudson Valley with her family and still writes terrific stories for kids (like this one and this one), and that she has a new beautiful book of poetry coming out about which I’m so excited.

Then, when we were picking out our bedtime books, he said, “I want the book about the little girl.”

“What little girl?”

“You. The little girl you.”

“Do you mean the book written by my friend from when I was a little girl?”

“Yeah. That girl.”

You could have knocked me over with a feather.

“You were listening!”

“Um. Yeah.”

Bright Eyes apparently has no sarcasm delay. So that’s good news.

We got my advance copy of When Green Becomes Tomatoes off the shelf and began to read.

Initially, I thought it was a bit advanced for him conceptually, but it didn’t seem to matter. He was enchanted. As with all good poetry, each stanza we read spiraled into new thoughts and questions. When Green Becomes Tomatoes is a book of children’s poetry, arranged by seasons and presented in diary form. As we read it, Bright Eyes and I wound up talking about rainstorms and falling leaves and flowers and colors and endings and beginnings.

The poems carry echoes of ee cummings, William Carlos Williams, and Emily Dickinson. They’re both bold and delicate, broad and deep. Julie’s words sparkle, as they always have, with the magic that comes along with close attention to the world around us. And Julie Morstad’s illustrations are just lovely. I’ve read it cover to cover and I know it’s destined to be a classic, loved by kids and grown-ups alike.

I’m just so darn proud of my dear friend. It has been one of the great blessings of my life to know her and get glimpses into her remarkable inner life. I’m thrilled that the rest of the world now gets to know her, too, through her timeless work.

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More Room on the Couch

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I’ve been working on Bright Eyes’ lifebook lately. I used My Family, My Journey for Tariku, and I liked it so much I bought another one. A lifebook is the adoption equivalent of a baby book, but has a more expansive focus, documenting not just milestones but also history. I appreciate this particular template because it holds a space for many different kinds of experiences. I know plenty of adoptive parents who create their own lifebooks from scratch, but it can be a daunting and emotional experience, and it’s a relief having a framework to help me out. I highly recommend it.

Lifebooks are just one way we sculpt our children’s narratives. We create their story every day- with how we answer questions, with the books we read them, with all the various ways we impart to them their true histories in a developmentally appropriate way.  Each of my children came to me with a whole journey I had no part in. But we are still the lens through which they’ll come to know those stories, and it’s an enormous responsibility. As a professional storyteller, I think about it a lot. How do I make these complex and often sad stories ultimately tales of triumph and strength and love and hope? I don’t think there’s any one answer, but I do feel that it’s important to engage with the question in a fluid and conscious way.

Working on their lifebooks helps me, because it’s a time that I can thoughtfully address the hard stuff without the pressure of them sitting in front of me. That way, when the tough questions do come, I’m a little bit more composed and prepared. Lifebooks are also an excellent tool for opening up a dialogue with a child who might otherwise be reticent to ask questions. For instance, Tariku will almost never talk about Ethiopia these days without a visual cue, but when he sees photos, a torrent of curiosity always follows.

A few nights ago, I was working on a page entitled “My Adoption Buddies.” I revisited Tariku’s page, and this is the photo posted there:

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These are the adorable little nuggets from our Ethiopian adoption travel group. We’re still close with all of them. They’re family to us.

I started to cry, and emailed our travel group families. I told them that I felt sad, because I didn’t have a similar picture to post on Bright Eyes’ page- or any picture for that matter. I worried that he would feel left out at our reunions, or that he’d feel a deeper kind of loneliness because he doesn’t have the same ties to his roots.

They universally responded:

Welcome to the couch, Bright Eyes! This is your couch, too!

Of course. What was I thinking? There’s more room on this couch. There’s always more room on this couch. As not just an adoptive mom but also an adult adoptee, I’m also on this couch. What a privilege. What a family I get to have. I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else.

I began Bright Eyes’ “Adoption Buddies” page with a picture of him and his brother. I labeled it “your best adoption buddy forever!”

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Massive Mom Fail

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Does that look like a photo of a terrible mother to you?

Friends, I yelled at my kids so badly yesterday. I was a monster.

Oh, come on, you say. You’re exaggerating. Everyone yells. You were probably just like, Stop sticking pins in the dog! Or, Stop dangling your brother over the edge of that cliff!

Or some other totally justifiable yelling thing.

Nope. What I said was something along the lines of: OH YEAH? WELL I CAN HAVE A TANTRUM TOO!

It was horrible. Afterward I did all the things- I apologized and repaired, I breathed, I prayed (that kind of sick-of-it-all prayer that starts, “Even though there’s no God and I’m just an idiot talking to the wall right now…”). During naptime, I wrote in my journal. I watched a few minutes of bad TV. I went back in vaguely refreshed.

I called my best friend to come over and support me because Scott was going out after dinner and I didn’t trust myself to be calm and collected.

How do I know to do all this stuff? Because I WROTE A BOOK about it.

After all this, do you know what your charming friend who writes about parenting did after dinner?

I yelled at them again, and it was equally weird and appalling. My husband and friend both stared at me with their mouths agape.

Later that night, I wrote in my journal: I’m good at writing about being a mother but I suck at mothering.

Which may be a little bit true some days.

Not by way of defense, but to contextualize, here’s the perfect storm that led up to it…

I had some wacky hormones that resulted in a migraine for 5 straight days, and I was pretty much functioning with the use of only one eye because the other one had a weird shadow floating in front of it- a shadow that was intermittently stabbing said eye with tiny knives. Also- everyone in this house has been sick for two months, including multiple bouts of pneumonia and stomach flu. Even without the constant sickness, we are in the middle of a massive transition, with the addition of Bright Eyes. Everyone is struggling to find our footing.

That said, stressy life or not, yelling at kids with trauma histories is extra crappy, for a few reasons.

First, it doesn’t work. It just models and more of the exact behavior you’re attempting to address. Usually, they scream right back in my face.

It also erodes your child’s trust in you. Trust is the key ingredient to healing trauma. Yelling just reinforces their idea that the world is an unsafe and unpredictable place, where the people who are supposed to love them will only hurt them and as a result they need to be in control of absolutely everything.

It can cause a big setback. Knowing all of this, I stood there and totally lost my shit at them.

I share this with you not as some self-flagellating confession, but because in spite of all my shame and regret, I still had to wake up today and face my family. And while not all of us scream like some deranged Joan Crawford clone, I know I’m not the only one making terrible mistakes and having to brush myself off and attempt to do better next time. And then having to forgive myself when I don’t. Not because my missteps aren’t egregious, but because I am their mother for better or for worse, and they need me to keep trying. I have breakfast to make. I don’t have the option of twisting myself up into an origami of shame and staying there for days.

I also share this with you because I think we spend a lot of time comparing ourselves to each others internet personas- the beautifully filtered IG photos, the beach days and birthday parties. The heart-stopping adorableness of everyone else’s kids and living rooms and table settings and fluffy puppies and Christmas mornings. Mine included. My kids are darn cute and my dogs are pretty fluffy.

Of course we share the pretty, polished stuff. I enjoy looking at that version of our family. I imagine a life I don’t quite have into being, by catching just the right moment and filtering it and framing it and waiting for all the likes to roll in. I like like like like like it, too!  It’s just not the truth. It’s a truth. But it wasn’t my truth yesterday and it’s not my truth this morning.

This is what I wrote in my journal last night, in the aftermath of yell-a-geddon:

Please let me be closer to the mother I pretend to be. This good, patient, creative, humorous, warm mother I dream into being in the clouds, while somewhere down on earth I am small and selfish and frightened and still an angry adolescent, railing at all I’ve traded and all I’ve lost and sure that truly in my heart of hearts I’m poison. I watch them sleeping, their tiny forms under the covers, and wonder how it is I’ve been entrusted with these two precious souls. This I know- I can’t hate myself into being worthy of them. It’s a law of physics or something. You can’t hate yourself into being better at anything. I will have to believe in myself the way I believe in them. Not because I’m deserving but because it’s the only way.

If I know anything, I know that you can’t believe in yourself because you’ve earned it. Paradoxically, you have to start with that belief, in spite of the evidence to the contrary. I’m worthy of my children because they’re my children and here we are. And I believe that today I will do better.

If I fight to accumulate enough of those days, I know from my experience with Tariku that I will turn around and find that years have passed and somehow, in spite of all my faults, there is a delightful, strong, joyful, confident child standing in front of me.

 

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