A Letter to Jovi Starshine on his Gotcha Day

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To my Starshine on his Gotcha Day

A year ago you showed up here in your red-and-black sweatsuit, with pleather stars in a semicircle across the chest. You didn’t know what they were called yet, but you loved those stars. When it came time to pick your middle name, your brother suggested Star. You picked Starshine, after the song from Hair I sing to you every morning.

“I Jovi Starshine,” you said. And so you are.

You were three-and-a-half when we found each other.

The second day I visited you at your foster home, I took you out for lunch. You wouldn’t stop facetiming Daddy in the car. When I finally insisted we walk into the Sizzler rather than sitting in the parking lot all day, you pointed at Scott’s face on the little screen and me sitting there gobsmacked in the front seat, and said, “Him my daddy, and her my mommy.”

I can only imagine how frightening it was for you when your prediction actually came true.

Miss Johnson (your foster mom before you came to us) dropped you at our house a few days later and then slipped out the front door because she had a hard time with goodbyes. And just like that your world changed entirely.

So many mangled goodbyes in your short life. A lifetime of terrifying and unfamiliar and unsafe everything. You didn’t speak much for weeks.

It was scary for us, too. But we believed in you from the minute we looked into the depths your sparkling, huge eyes. My heart still kvells every time I see them peeking up from behind the couch, where you like to hide and wait for us to find you.

There is nothing in this world as wildly sweet as watching those eyes open when you wake. For just a moment, they are as tender and as young as they should be, nestled in your puffy morning face.

You have a thousand faces. Sometimes you walk like a prizefighter. Sometimes you walk like a runway model. You talk like a sixteen year old. You talk like a two year old. You are an ever-shifting mystery, and yet I can’t imagine a time you weren’t with us. I feel like I’ve known you always; you are a part of my body and soul.

You fight with your brother nonstop, but you two won’t be apart from each other for five minutes. You push and pull. You want to be close but you’re afraid.

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Truly you are a miracle, my glorious son. You couldn’t hold a crayon, and now you write your name. You could barely speak and now you know all your letters. You couldn’t count to three and now you count to fifty.

You are funny and musical. You love to listen to KISS and Weezer and Panic at the Disco. You dance even when there is no music. For you, there is always music. I can see you’re listening to it. I wish I could hear it. I hope I will someday.

You love to play pranks. You want a snake for the holidays, just so you can scare me.

You have a flair for drama You love makeup and costumes and masks. You keep lipgloss and Pokemon cards and your Barbie “cellphone” in your Elmo purse.

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You love to press buttons. You love sloths and dogs.

You don’t even know that your dog Calvin is usually grouchy and growly and snappy, because you have brokered some kind of magical agreement with him, in which he sits there contentedly while you hug and kiss him, and put your fingers up his nose. No one- I mean no one- has ever done that to Calvin without practically losing a finger. You dad likes to say that you and Calvin have “an arrangement.” I like to think Calvin feels your heart and knows that you are deeply gentle.

You are also a fighter. You show me your muscles ten times a day. You are growing stronger all the time. You know it and you want to make sure the world around you reflects it. I hope I do.

A year ago we tried to go to a bowling alley on New Years day and you sat there emaciated and overwhelmed, crying and shaking in your winter coat. Yesterday when we bowled,  you stood tall and strong and bowled a strike.

You are my heart and my hope. I love you beyond all imagining. I can’t wait to see what this next year brings.

Love,

Mommy

 

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Meet our Son

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Yesterday, the four of us drove out to Lancaster and stood holding hands under the fluorescent lights of the juvenile court. The kindly Santa Claus of a judge spoke a few magic words and in an instant the world got brighter, our breathing easier, the burden on our shoulders lighter…

Dearest friends, we are over the moon to finally introduce you to our son- legally. All signed and sealed.

Jovanni Starshine.

Isn’t he glorious?

We call him Jovi. Jovi Starshine. Tariku picked his middle name and you have to meet him to know how wonderfully apropos it is. This kid sparkles with joy and sweetness and resilience and mischief and creativity and curiosity and music and dancing and delight.

“Look what we did,” I said to Scott on the ride home, somewhat astounded to be watching our children happily munching animal crackers, listening to their favorite songs, getting crumbs all over their good suits. We made a family.

“Look what we did,” he agreed.

My heart is a balloon. Meet Jovi.

He is perfect. We are perfect together.

Now that I can legally show you his face, brace yourself to be barraged with roughly a bazilliontrillion pictures (top photo by Jill Greenberg)…

 

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Living Out Loud

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Two days ago we were at the water table in the Chicago Children’s Museum. I left the room for exactly five seconds to tell Scott something. When I got back, there was a knot of confusion and yelling around Tariku. I ran toward him and found an incensed grown man screaming at my son, while the other parents stood by mouths agape.

“If you touch my daughter again,” he yelled. “I will call the police”

I said, “Do not threaten my child.”

I wanted to throat punch him. Instead, I composed myself and said, “This is a conflict between children. Let’s see if we can help them handle it.”

I looked at Tariku standing there confused, head hanging, frightened, embarrassed. I shook with adrenaline.

T said, “I wanted my boat to go under the bridge and her boat was under the bridge and I asked her to move it and she said no and so I knocked it.”

I said, “Why don’t we apologize and then you and I can talk about how to make a better choice next time.”

Y’know…Because that’s how you talk to children. You don’t threaten to call the Chicago P.D. because a little boy knocked your kid’s boat out of the way.

Tariku apologized to the little girl’s back, because the man was already stalking out of the room, dragging his daughter behind him.

I imagined for a moment that I was seeing T’s future- my child’s minor transgressions answered with fear and fury due to the color of his skin. I didn’t sleep well that night.

I’m writing this from the front lounge of the tour bus, during the last hour of our drive from Nashville to Dallas. I like the longer drives, because when we wake we’re still on the road and get to see the scenery, as opposed to the usual drill of driving through the night and waking up in an amphitheater parking lot.

Today, the scenery contains a lot of flags flown at half-mast.

Today, I roll into town not with my usual curiosity and anticipation, but rather with sorrow and trepidation. I’m hyper-aware of the unique dangers of living in public as a trans-racial family.

Scott and I long ago accepted the fact that our family will never fit in. We look weird. People look twice; they look a third time. The carnival of the rock tour is about as close as we’re going to get to a utopian bubble of belonging and safety. We thrive in our own little ecosystem, here where we know everyone, behind the tall fence that encloses the backstage parking lot.

Outside the fence, the world is decidedly less sweet and secure. That world is crushing my heart right now. Driving into Dallas, I’m filled with cold fear- a mother of black sons.

I try not to make assumptions about what I’m going to encounter in any given area of the country, because I’ve found that my expectations are often challenged by experience.

Mostly, I find that we’re embraced wherever we go. We’re lively and funny and we’re nice to people and we tip well. Plus, my boys are still little- still round faced and bright eyed. I like to think people get a kick out of us. But there are times I absolutely feel eyes on us in a more aggressive, fearful way. We’re different than the norm, and difference invites suspicion.

And let’s face it- my kids live out loud. They’re big spirits, impossible to ignore. They roil with wild energy. They holler and run and dance and swear and hide under tables and act like dinosaurs and make fart noises with their armpits. They make their fingers into guns; they make pool noodles into guns; heck, I’ve seen Tariku make an American Girl Doll into a gun. They’re boys. But because my oldest is now a tall eight-year-old black boy, he’s on the cusp of losing his cuteness and turning into someone people are afraid of. I tell him you cannot make gun noises, gun gestures, gun anything at all in a public space. And then I pray he’ll comply and I know he won’t entirely, because he’s human. I watch it all unfold with a sense of helplessness and dread.

As we drive into Dallas, I’m mourning. I’m praying. I’m hanging tight to my boys. I’m grateful for our strange blessed life of music and wandering and adventure. I’m deeply saddened by the events transpiring in the world right now, but first and always I’m holding hope and love in my heart.

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Learn by Teaching

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This past weekend, I had the privilege of delivering the keynote at the Parenting in Space conference, a fantastic therapeutic parenting conference. I followed up my presentation with a workshop on therapeutic writing. The conference was put on by some of my touchstones in the therapeutic parenting community, including Christine Moers, Billy Kaplan of House Calls Counseling, and Lindsay Crapo. If you’re parenting special needs, or just parenting period, please check out their writing.

I felt a bit out of my league, particularly since only a week before I had been weeping over a screaming child in an airport bathroom, vowing to cancel the engagement the minute I got home. I figured, look at me- what could I possibly have to offer a roomful of people hungry for guidance and hope and support?

Once I’d had a chance to recover, I reasoned that I had the deepest respect for the conference organizers who, for some reason, believed in me. I decided to trust their opinion and just go tell the truth.

I’m so glad I went. The special needs parenting community is a club I never asked to join, but what a gift it has been to my life. Through it, I have seen such bravery and resilience, such commitment and love. If you want to have an experience of truly cutting through the bullshit, go to a therapeutic parenting conference. You will walk into a roomful of strangers and feel like you’ve known them forever. You will circumvent all surface differences and have intensely vulnerable conversations with people you would probably never meet in “real” life. And somehow, even after hearing horror stories about hurt children, you will walk away more deeply in love with humanity. That’s the magic trick Parenting in Space manages to pull off. I was honored to be there.

Here is a little excerpt from my speech:

…I believe the most important thing we did with Tariku, was simply telling him he was safe and loved and we weren’t going anywhere. Over and over and over. I’d even whisper it in his ear while he slept. With time he started to believe it. And the strangest thing happened- I also began to believe I was someone who was strong, who could make a child feel safe, who stuck around through thick and thin, and that was an honorable thing to be.

Even then, it took years, and we had to find a school that was wiling to work through some sticky points with us. He still has a hard time being strong over his body and words. But honestly, he’s such a delight now, we found ourselves sitting around like- this is so EASY. What the heck- let’s do it again! If not us, who?

We went into our second adoption with our eyes open. When we went to visit our new son in his foster care placement, we saw all the signs of severe trauma. We knew his hair-raising story of  neglect. At three yrs old, he didn’t know what a book was – I brought one out and he tried to wear it as a hat. He couldn’t count to three. He had a failure to thrive and was barely the size of a two year old. On our way home from one of our initial visits, I was crying so hard, we pulled the car over and held hands in silence for a while.

We wondered- were we doing the right thing? Were we about to ruin our lives and the life of our shining star of a son who had made so much progress?

Scott said, “Well, you have to believe in someone sometime in this life.”

And I thought, with this man, with the community of support around us, with God, I can do this.

Good story, right?

Except that last week I was sitting in an airplane bathroom holding a screaming toddler for hours, with silent tears streaming down my cheeks. As soon as we landed, I planned to call Billy and cancel, because I couldn’t imagine I had anything to offer. I couldn’t remember any of the right things to say. Ever. I was yelling again. I was crying myself to sleep. Half the time, ok most of the time, I still have no idea what to do, and I wrote a whole book about it!

A good long plane ride with the two worst behaved children in the history of United Airline flights, was a bracing dose of humility for me, the parenting blogger. But when I got some alone time (please, get yourself some alone time) I realized I was back to square one, and that’s a sacred place to be, if you can embrace it. Because square one is where you have the most potential for growth.

The best gift trauma has given me is to release me from the need to be perfect, to win all the time, to please people and fit in. It’s forced me to give up on this big redemption story of mine, in which I impress everyone with my shiny outsides. Because, as it turns out, it’s not my redemption story at all.

That airplane aside, we’ve started to see glimpses- moments, hours, even a whole day here and there- of who our new son truly is, inside his big, wooly, itchy trauma sweater. He’s hilarious. He’s musical. He’s gentle and smart. I’m crazy about him.

I’m glad I didn’t cancel because I eventually remembered what I wanted to say… we don’t have to remember everything. We don’t have to memorize the playbook. We just have to be willing to start exactly where we are, every day. We have to be willing to forgive ourselves, release our own shame, and let it radiate outward to our families from there. We have to be willing to be wrong, to apologize and repair. Mostly, we just have to stick around and keep loving them until they believe it. Not because we’re saints, but because we’re committed and willing to learn.  And because, at the end of the day, we believe in our children and in ourselves.

Here I am with Billy, Christine and Lindsay, feeling grateful:

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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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