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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A Letter to my Son on his Seventh Gotcha Day

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To Tariku on his Gotcha Day-

I always love your Gotcha Day (remember when you used to call it your Cha Cha Day?), because it’s a chance for me to reflect on that pivotal trip to Africa daddy and I took seven years ago, when we first held you in our arms. I can still smell that unique combination of coffee and frankincense and popcorn that permeates the dwellings in Ethiopia. I can hear the cries of children echoing down the marble staircase of the care center. I remember climbing that staircase and walking into a nursery with a whole gang of babies cooing and playing on blankets strewn in the middle of the floor. You sat in the very center of the room in your little blue chair and I recognized your sweet face immediately. I remember the strong, caring arms of the woman who first handed you to me and called me, “Mama.” I can still feel how feather-light you were in your orange jumper, with your precious, soft arms and your skinny spaghetti legs.

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If I live to be a thousand years old, I will never know that moment’s equal.

You made me a mother. You came to us and our hearts grew and grew, as our entire carefully planned life exploded and then reassembled itself in the most astounding way.

Your third tooth fell out this morning- one of the big ones in the front. You woke and it finally landed in your hand. Most of your friends have lost more teeth than you by now. That tooth hung on by a thread sideways for weeks, making you look like you were wearing novelty store hillbilly teeth. It made me think of how things don’t often come easily for you. You have worked hard to become the kind, polite, caring, delightful kid you are today. Things like behaving in a restaurant, sharing, calming your body down, and re-setting when you have big feelings have all been hard-won achievements for you.

I have watched you try and try. I have watched you fail and get up and ask for a do-over and try yet again. Over the years, I have seen the toddler who couldn’t stop pulling the dog’s tail grow into a boy who confidently grooms and rides a thousand pound horse. I have seen the toddler who threw crayons in frustration become a passionate artist, spending hours creating a whole world of crazy characters you made up all on your own.

You helped your dad and me tremendously when Big Baby J. came to stay with us for a short time. When he woke up frightened and disoriented, you lay next to him and made faces until he laughed. You were often the only one who could get a smile out of him. It was surprising to you how annoying babies can be, but you just rolled your eyes and smiled and through it all you never stopped being gentle and patient.

So much of this last year was about preparing to grow our little family. You have been begging for a brother for years, but I don’t think you expected how long and rocky a road it would be. I worried about how you would face the uncertainty involved in adopting through the foster care system. When Bright Eves finally did show up, I worried you’d be disappointed, because he struggled with the transition to our home and rejected your affection at first. I worried that his dysregulated behavior, including the dreaded car screaming, would set back your own progress. I worried we’d have less special time to spend together. As you know, mommy worries a lot. I should know better by now. You are all the evidence I need to have faith.

One of the greatest gifts of Bright Eyes joining our family is that I’ve gotten to know you in new ways, and the more I get to know you the more I’m impressed by your wonderful tenacity and your enormous heart. You got upset at first when Bright Eyes wasn’t being all that fun, but you never stopped figuring out ways to connect with him. If one interaction didn’t work, you tried another. At first, he screamed in protest when you hugged him, so now you’ve started asking him first if it’s okay. Little by little, he’s beginning to say yes. Yes, it’s okay to hug me. Yes, I trust you, big brother. Because you’ve showed him that he’s safe. That is a really special and important thing to do for someone.

When he got pneumonia and we had to take him to the hospital, you wouldn’t leave his side. You didn’t utter one complaint, even though we were there for hours on Christmas.

Our family has become closer than ever, as together we face the hard times as well as the fun ones. When your little brother screams now, you simply stick earplugs in your ears and go on with your day.

Whenever you do a trick on the trampoline, or jump off a diving board, or do a cool dance, you say, “Did you see me? Did you see me, mama?” You’re always eager for an audience. I have never met a person you couldn’t make laugh.

I see you, my son. I am looking and I see you. I learn from your strength and joy and kindness every day. I am so proud of you. I can’t wait to see what this next year brings.

Love,

Mama

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To My Son on his Gotcha Day 2015

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It was T’s “Gotcha Day” last week, which is adoption-speak for the day we finally held him for the first time. I write him a letter every year, trying to preserve for him (and me) a snapshot of who he is at that moment in time. It has been six years. Six. When did that happen? The love in my heart for this kid blows my mind every day. Here is this year’s letter to my not-a-baby-anymore:

To Tariku on his Gotcha Day:

It’s a strange phrase- Gotcha Day. The way you say “gotcha” is so cute that it has overshadowed any doubt I may have had about the name. I guess I’ve never been exactly comfortable with how glib it sounds- how completely unequal to the task of describing that transformative day when we first saw your beautiful face. I will never know that day’s equal. I’ll never forget the too-thin contours of your fragile body, the understanding in your eyes alternating with confusion and skepticism. And always, that that special joy you bring to every room you’re in, the fundamental quality of yours that trumps all else.

Here is a little snapshot of you today… six years after we first met you. Nearly seven years old. How could that be?

You are a natural musician. You have been playing drums now for a couple of years already and the look on your face when you play is somehow both expressive and serene. You often give your dad and I a hard time about practicing, but, contrary to our free-spirited nature, we’re insisting. Because if we know anything, we know that it’s all about practice. Nothing worthwhile comes magically. Or rather, it is magic. But the magic only knows where to find you if you’re practicing.

Once you’re playing, you love it. You practice with your dad. When he was getting ready for this last tour, you played the entire Everything Will Be Alright in the End album front to back nearly every day with him.

You two are even improvising your own jams now. You asked me today for a neck holder for a harmonica, so you can play harp and drums at the same time. Hang tight- it’s on its way.

On Thanksgiving, you jammed with a roomful of teenagers at the LaZebnik’s house and I was awed by your confidence. Those kids adore you. You have such a big, wonderful tribe. There is so much love for you, it could blow the ceiling off the house.

You are an incredibly social kid. You are obsessed with birthdays, particularly your own. You start planning your next party about three days after the last. You make guest lists and wish lists and play lists. Don’t worry- we’re going to throw you an epic bash. Of course we will!

You hate that I limit your time staring at a screen, which is a big conflict for a lot of parents right now. I can’t wait to see how the next generation’s brains evolve, developing new ways of processing information. But with no crystal ball, how can I be sure what’s the best way to monitor your use of technology? Technology has given a lot to my life and I am as guilty as anyone of being glued to one screen or another a lot of the time. But I worry about your brain. About how the constant, distracting information barrage might impede your ability to think and feel deeply.

But I probably needn’t fret about that. You are and always have been a deep well, with a heavy history for such a little boy. Somehow you’re able to effortlessly combine that depth with your natural hilarity and mischief. You are very funny. You just mastered the “orange you glad I didn’t say banana” knock-knock joke and I doubt it will be your last.

The one thing I don’t limit is your treasured time investigating Google maps.

“What’s the biggest city in China?” you’ll call out to me as I do the laundry downstairs.

“What is the big airport in Tokyo?”

“This is where polar bears live!”

“This is the Indian Ocean!”

Lately your career ambitions as 1. Weezer drummer and 2. airplane painter, have been supplanted by your aspirations to be a medic. You are currently running a large dinosaur hospital, where the dinosaurs are bandaged with Scotch tape and toilet paper.

It is impossible to say what I am most proud of in you, but if I had to pick one thing it would be this kindness and caretaking, which doesn’t stop at dinosaurs but extends to your friends and family, too. Compassion is something that you’ve had to work on over the years. When you came to us, you were such a fierce, self-sufficient little thing; it was every man for himself. It seemed every move you made was meant to convey the sentiment: “I got this. Don’t bother, bumbling big people.” You still screech whenever anyone tries to help you with homework. But slowly you are learning to give and receive help and trust. Until very recently all the dinosaurs did was fight each other and then get shoved under the couch. Now they’re healing in your hospital.

You like math and science. You like the earth and the sea and the animals and the stars and the plants.

You still love your airplanes as much as ever. You go to the airport every Saturday and watch those giant beasts take off and land, take off and land, over and over. You never tire of it.

It is these things that captivate you these days: healing and flight. Because you, my wild and glorious boy, go straight for the miracles.

As I say to you every night before bed… I love you to the moon and back a thousand million billion times. You’re the best thing that ever happened to your dad and me. I can’t wait to see what this next year reveals to all of us.

With big crazy love always,

Mom

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Pie Fight!

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I smashed my iPhone and I’m up in the mountains. Gah! Email me. Don’t bother texting….

Anyway, hello from Big Bear, where it is actually cold and there is actual white stuff on the ground!

As we wound up the mountain road and the first dirty, slushy patches of snow appeared, Tariku screamed like he had won the Publisher’s Clearing House. It’s strange to me that snow is exotic to him. My childhood was so different than my son’s sunshiney LA life, where the darkest wintery days barely require a sweater.

I remember the magic of waking up in the morning and seeing the world newly white. I remember evenings in the downstairs den snuggled in front of the fire under an afghan, looking out windows frosted over with snowflake patterns of ice and listening to my favorite Burl Ives album. I remember trading in my ice skates every year for a new pair, waiting to see if the lake froze over and we’d actually be able to skate outside and not just in the indoor rink, with its watery hot chocolate.

Scott is like, who cares? Winter sucks. He just remembers getting hit in the face by snowballs and the one time in fourth grade he nearly froze off his little toe. He doesn’t have the nostalgia for seasons that I do. Then again, I have nostalgia for nearly every piece of lint that ever blew across my path.

I’m currently sitting in a café in Big Bear, drinking a decent almond milk latte across the table from my friend Fred. We just dropped our kids off at ski school. I decided to give myself a pass from skiing today and instead just hang around and write and read and caffeinate. I’m unreasonably ecstatic about this plan.

I want to share a bit about our New Years with you, because it was one of my favorites. First of all, Mr. Shriner took me out to a beautiful dinner and dancing. We had a super-fun, sorta-wild New Years Eve. I think it was a response to the midnight yoga/chanting/interpretive dance that I made him go to last year (totally serious- I did that to him and he stayed with me).

Tariku dragged me and my aching head out of bed at six the next morning, pumped to embark on our mission for the day. Tariku has been begging– begging— for a pie fight for the past three years. New Years day we decided to do it.

The three of us went to the grocery store and bought a stack of pie tins and a landfill’s worth of whipped cream bottles. Then, after searching my soul about whether I wanted to be videotaped in a showercap or get gross whipped cream in my hair, I came down decisively on the side of ruining my blow dry. Hair be damned, it was a blast! It’s so fun to to listen to Tariku’s wild laughter.

The New Year causes us to reflect on the passage of time, and I’m always painfully aware that his little boy laugh will soon go the way of his toddler babble. So it was particularly sweet. I think we’re going to make the pie fight a tradition. We followed it with Box Trolls and a spaghetti and meatballs living room picnic. It was a happy way to spend the first day of 2015.

I didn’t make a big resolution, but I do aim to enjoy my accomplishments more this year, whatever they may look like. I’m so hard on myself. It’s not that I don’t love my work– I do. I’m just uncomfortable with finishing and sending my creative babies into the cold cruel world. My therapist Judy actually used the word “grim,” which startled me. Me? Grim? The originator of the First Annual New Years Day Pie Fight?! But it’s true. I tend to underplay my accomplishments, to apologize for my success, to close one project and immediately open another without even a breath, a sip of tea, a glass of bubbly, a Mallomar…nothin’. This compulsive over-sharer didn’t even tell anyone for days that I had finished my book. I aspire to be less grim. To bust out the Mallomars. To love and respect my own work the way I hope others will.

2014 held a lot of sadness, with many troubling themes rising to the surface. It was a year that the deep institutionalized racism in our culture found a powerful place in public dialogue. The incidents that provoked this dialogue were so sad and frightening, but the outcry was heartening to me. It leads me to hope that this year and the next and the next will see progress. That my son will grow up into a world that is safer for black men. A world that is kinder to their bodies, their hearts, their human rights, their souls. I hope the same for women. I hope the same for all of us.

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Wishing you lots of self-care, dancing, safety and pie. Happy New Year!

Huffington Post Parents: Why I Love Adoption

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Here is my newest blog, up now on Huffington Post Parents. Please read it, share it, leave comments. This one means a lot to me…

I am both an adult adoptee and an adoptive mother to a beautiful firebrand of a 6-year-old boy from Ethiopia. I love adoption. I love the whole messy, rich, textured, complex world it has given me. I do not love it because it is one long Disney happy ending. Rather, I love it for the way its struggles have defined my life and made me strong. I love it for the fascinating, crazy quilt of a family it has stitched together for me.

My story began with my unwed birthmother stranded alone in a snow-blanketed Chicago, feeling terrified and foolish. Across the country, my soon-to-be-mother had cried herself to sleep in her West Orange, New Jersey apartment every night for years, longing for a child. A deal was struck, a baby passed from one set of hands to another. I was adopted just barely before the passage of Roe v. Wade in 1973. My mother says she did not once put me down during the entire trip home.

To be so unwanted and so wanted at the same time can carve a fault line in you. That was my experience for a long time, and it is shared by Laura Barcella, who recently responded to National Adoption Month in a post in the New York Times‘ Motherlode blog entitled “Adoptees like Me ‘Flip the Script’ on the Pro-Adoption Narrative.” In it, Ms. Barcella states that, “being forsaken by my biological mother has burdened me, for as long as I can remember, with a sense of inborn exile — a gaping hole where my identity should be.” She cites statistics of higher rates of depression, anxiety and addiction among adoptees. Indeed, all three of these things have been part of my journey, at one time or another. Adoption has not given me a life that has always been comfortable or easy.

Even more painful than my own struggles, I have borne witness my son’s profound anxiety and fear, derived from having survived malnutrition, illness and unimaginable loss in his first year of life. For almost the entirety of his first three years with us, he ate little, slept less and had violent tantrums roughly 10 times a day, during which he often bit me until I bled. My husband and I privately nicknamed him the Honey Badger (after the ferocious little Youtube sensation). I sometimes drove around weeping and cursing at God about my feelings of powerlessness. I agree with Ms. Barcella that adoption is a narrative that begins with loss and very often trauma. Where our standpoints diverge is that she not only begins, but also ends the story there.

My adoption story is not just one of pain, but of strength and growth. My search for identity has been, in large part, about learning to hold love and loss at the same time. As I have explored myriad avenues of help for my son, I have not only witnessed healing I never would have thought possible, but have also found myself unwittingly changing alongside him. Whereas I once yelled, “F*ck you for all these hurt and starving babies, God. What the hell are you thinking?” to an unfeeling sky, I now find myself driving around spontaneously thanking God for our challenges, for the way I have grown to know the fierce and brave heart of my son, for the fact that I have come to value more fully the strength of my marriage. Through the trials of the past few years, I have come to understand myself to be selfish, vain, petulant and unequal to the task of mothering, to be sure, but also resilient and determined and resourceful (who knew?) and possessed of a rock solid belief in my family.

My son Tariku and I love to cook together now, and we talk a lot about our favorite celeb chef Marcus Samuelsson, who famously combines Ethiopian, Swedish and African-American culinary traditions to create something truly unique and incredibly delicious. In his wonderful cookbook Africa: Soul of a New Cuisine, Samuelsson, adopted from Ethiopia at the age of 3 by a Swedish family, tells the story of his first night in Sweden. His mother heard a banging noise and emerged from her room to find him and his sister pounding on the door of the refrigerator, demanding to be let in, but not knowing they could just open the door. They had gone hungry for so long. This starving little boy grew up to create a life in which food has become not just an enormously profitable career, but also his creative expression, his gift to the world.

Barcella says about National Adoption Month that, “The campaign drives home the ubiquitous social message that adopting a child is an invariably pure act of selflessness. But for years on end, our culture has whitewashed adoption (both domestic and international), only telling the story from the rapturous perspective of adoptive parents while ignoring the darker realities adopted children can face.”

I disagree that this “rapturous” perspective is the dominant cultural narrative around adoption at this particular moment in time. I never walked into our adoption with visions of sugarplums, in large part because the process itself involved hours and hours of required classes that addressed issues like attachment, trauma, loss and cultural sensitivity. The “script” to which Barcella is referring was much more prevalent when she and I were both adopted, in the 1970s. Most adoptive parents at the time were adherents of this script not out of cruelty or thoughtlessness; it was just all they knew. I fought my way back from the ways that particular narrative made me feel invisible, and that fight lit a creative fire in me that has not only given me a career I love, but has instilled in me the grit it takes to weather the difficulties and rejection inherent in being a writer.

I have shared many of Ms. Barcella’s feelings. At the same time, I am acutely aware that my personal emotional journey certainly cannot be where the conversation about adoption ends, because that conversation has implications that go far beyond each individual adoptee’s exploration of identity. That exploration is an important thing. Here are some other important things:

Unicef places the number of orphans in the world today at 153 million.

There are 4.6 million orphans in the country in which my son was born

Half a million kids are in foster care in this country alone.

Adoption is not remotely the solution for the world orphan crisis, but it is a piece of the conversation that includes those enemies of family preservation: poverty, disease, lack of education and economic disparity. Most of the adoptive families in my social circle are involved in efforts to address these issues in some way. One of the unexpected gifts of adoption in my life it that it has ultimately left me not with a feeling of unfulfilled emptiness, but of deep connection to the world around me. The wide-reaching branches of our unruly family tree have engendered in me a sense of responsibility and a commitment toward social justice.

Adoption as an institution is absolutely in need of reform, and deserves to be examined always with a critical eye. But all the reform in the world will not eradicate the need for it. The need is real. For the children without homes, it is more than real; it is desperate.

At the end of her article, Ms. Barcella acknowledges, “I don’t know the answers.”

If we are going to enter a cultural dialogue about a subject that leaves the lives of children hanging in the balance, I ask that we push deeper, look further, reach for some answers. Because there are millions of children without families out there, and whether or not it’s convenient for one’s self-realization process, they need those answers and they cannot wait.