Here is the talk I gave at Chapman University, about adoption and the role of imagination in forming our identities. Hope you enjoy it! Please pass it along if you do.
Here is the talk I gave at Chapman University, about adoption and the role of imagination in forming our identities. Hope you enjoy it! Please pass it along if you do.
It’s been a long while. I wish I could say that I’ve been absent because the fam and I have had our toes sunk in the mud by a lake somewhere woodsy, or that we’ve been busy hunting for abalone shells, enjoying these last days of spring before the summer descends.
The truth is, we moved onto a new house in the middle of multiple work deadlines (sorry, Becky, I swear I’ll have the new book finished in a jiffy), the end of the school year, and Scott being in and out of town. I was hardly stopping to smell the roses. The best I could do was convince the movers not to trample the roses.
I had a disorienting experience when I saw at all of our stuff on the truck. Everything looked huge and tiny at the same time. I was like- Who are we, anyway? Who would we be if this truck just drove away and never came back? Scott was like- are you smoking weed? And I was like- way to undermine a poetic moment. And then we moved our entire existence six miles away, to the top of a big hill.
I have missed this blog space, because without it, I lose my frame. I lose my outlet, which has been a life-saver for me over the last six years. Six! I just checked. And in the middle of all this crazy change, I find that it is still here for me, waiting. So hello, again!
We were worried about how T was going to handle the transition. I’m happy to report that he was a peach. He loves the new place. We can see tons of airplanes from our wide windows and that is all T needs to be happy. That and a corn dog once in a while.
In truth, it was me who had the hardest time with the move. Scott was a bit taken aback by my high-strung emotional reaction.
What if the next house doesn’t have good luck? What if it doesn’t keep us safe? I cried to him.
Honey? It’s not the house that keeps us safe.
So, yeah. Some stuff going on. About security and home. About time and loss.
Speaking of time, T just graduated from kindergarten. His school handles things in a low-key way, which I appreciate There are no tiny caps and gowns, no ceremonies. At 12:30pm last Friday, I went and picked him up at school, then we went swimming at his friend’s house and that was that. Next year the grades start to have numbers, and there just aren’t very many of those numbers if you really think about it.
We were lucky enough to have a remarkable teacher this year. The kind that come around once in a blue moon and you remember for rest of your life. I am deeply grateful to all the teachers out there who have extra love for the kids who struggle- for the outliers, the special ones. The beginning of the year was rocky, but his teacher saw his big bright light and she believed in him. Slowly, he became what she saw him to be. He did beautifully.
He won the Doctor Award at school, because he takes such good care of his friends. I was nearly as proud as the day when he said, out of the blue, “Hey Mama, Lou Reed is cool!” This kid is my hero.
He went to the airport to watch the jets with his Auntie this morning (his Saturday ritual), and before he left he stood next to me and pointed out the picture window toward the airport.
If you ever miss me too much, he said, I’m right there at LAX. It’s not far.
It was never really the house at all.
We have been kicking around the idea of moving for years, dragging our feet. Then within a course of a month, KABAM, we have a new house and our old one is sold. It happened in a flash.
It has been a shock to my system. I’m all busted up about leaving. I’m not simply a touch teary and sentimental; I’m sitting on our front porch and sobbing.
I remember the first time we saw our little green house with the neat white trim, the golden afternoon light filtering through the camphor and jacaranda trees. It was love at first sight. We couldn’t believe our luck when we got it.
We waited for a child for two solid years in that house. We did not have the baby we so desperately wanted, but we did have our nest and I clung to it. I decorated his room with a zeal I don’t believe I will ever summon again for things like curtains. I spent some of the hardest days of my life in that house.
I was sitting at our weathered farm table when I finally got the call:
You have a beautiful eight-month-old son. His name is Tariku.
My neighbor was pregnant with twins at the time. We spent many afternoons together, drinking lemonade on her porch. Something deeply lazy and serene washed over us as we slowly adjusted to the idea of the sea change before us. Those twins are now Tariku’s closest buddies and we haven’t had a moment of serenity since.
As Scott and I prepared to go to Africa, I sat on the bright green carpet in Tariku’s room under the painted starry night sky, while I packed and plotted and planned. I tried out various nicknames. It was Tariku’s room. Terry’s room. T-Bone’s room. T’s room. I sat in the rocker for hours and looked at his photos and was able to trust, for just a moment, that it would be fine somehow. That he would come home to us after all. That the world was about to shatter into something entirely new.
For the last five years, I have started all of T’s bedtime stories:
Once upon a time, there was a little boy named Tariku Moon, who lived in a little green house on Mount Royal Drive…
That era is ending now, never to return. Like the sweet sounds he used to make before he could form words. Like the smell of his baby head- some combination of powder and cookies and fairy dust- as he napped on my chest in the rocker. Like the small, shifting weight of him as I carried him around for hours in the Ergo, my little kangaroo.
We have been through so much here. I think I am partly grieving the couple Scott and I were when we moved into the house, with all of our hopefulness and naivetè, seven years worth of mistakes and missteps still ahead of us. It was a freer, wilder time. It would be dishonest of me to say that absolutely everything is better now that we finally have the child we always wanted. We are tired. There are crazy new lines on my face. I have to pack a lunch box every morning and, man, does that start out cute and get old quick. Still, when I step back and look at the home we made, I am overwhelmed with gratitude. I realize how happy we have been, how lucky we are to be growing and moving on.
We bought a dynamite place in a snazzy-cute neighborhood, with lots of fantastic cafés, artisanal grilled cheese, overpriced denim and clever mustaches. There are also tons of families, beautiful park space and a terrific farmer’s market. Our new pad is light and bright and vibrant. I am sad to leave, but I am also thrilled about the sense of wide open possibility. We might just be buying bunk beds… Also, my new kitchen is SWEET.
We are leaving a home that we have loved and of which I am proud. Our happiness has been in these walls but it is not of these walls. We will take it with us when we go.
Onward, to the next adventure!
She showed up in the lobby of the Omni Hotel in Jacksonville. Scott and T and I were hunkered down in a sitting area around the corner from the door, and there was a mirror on the wall, so I could see her reflection before she spotted us. She was taller than me, shiny and pretty with a mane of wavy red hair, black leather boots, dark jeans with white stitching at the seams and a salmon colored V-neck sweater. She got the blue green eyes- the sister I haven’t seen in twenty years.
Almost everyone who knows me is asking right now… What sister?
Many years after I was born, my birth father had another daughter. I met her once when she was seven and I was twenty. I was still casting about for an authentic sense of identity at the time, an understanding of my own adoption story. As was typical of me, I had boundless curiosity and very few emotional tools with which to metabolize the things that curiosity often unearthed. Instead, I walked away. I was always a runner when things got tough.
Now I am an adoptive mother myself. I have learned to hold different truths at the same time. I have become more comfortable with living in a world of fewer absolutes. This time, when my sister appeared out of the blue with the hope of reconnecting, I ran toward her instead of away.
Florida was surprisingly freezing- 40something degrees, wind blowing, persistent mist. I greeted her swathed in every candy-colored tropical layer I had brought with me, topped with a wool coat my sister-in-law happened to have in her car. My toes were tinged with blue in my open-toed sandals.
My sister has a son almost exactly Tariku’s age, so not only did I have new sister in an instant, but T had a new cousin. The boys were immediately lit-up and at ease. They played hide and seek behind the hotel couches, peek a boo around the granite columns. We piled into her car and navigated the looping highways to a crumbling bowling alley. The trees threatened to swallow the road, a hundred shades of green on green.
So now there is this. A sister. And the million fears and hopes that kind of a sea change brings. Will I invite new family into our life just to wind up disappointing them? Is there room for this? Is there time? Will I get to have this thing I dreamed of in all my childhood imaginary play- a sister to my heart and soul? Is that a corny thing for a grown woman to still long for? Is it smart to introduce an attachment into T’s life when it might not pan out? How do you weave so many threads into the tapestry?
As the boys hurled their lime green balls down the lane, she and I ate gross fried chicken fingers and talked about our lives. We wondered if we looked alike. We traded stories and dreams and apologies. I cried a little. It was a start.
She wrote me a letter when she was eight and cut it into a puzzle. She has saved it all these years and gave it to me when we parted. It is sitting in an envelope on my desk. I take handfuls of it out of the envelope, delicate like flower petals.
What does the puzzle letter say? Not even she remembers. It is a precious thing. I haven’t put it together yet.
We are all a little bit dazed today, having just returned from a cruise to the Bahamas. A cruise may not seem like a likely choice of a vacation for us, but this was a rock cruise- a Weezer cruise to be specific. A boat full of bands and music fans, the climax of which was an epic afternoon show in a secluded cove on an island beach.
I honestly had no idea what to expect. Julie the cruise director subtly organizing love matches during shuffleboard tournaments on the Lido deck? Trying to navigate our five year old through a gauntlet of smoky casinos and boozy spring breakers?
What I discovered is that our week on the cruise wasn’t about pina coladas in the hot tub (though there certainly were a few) or the basking by the pool (it was surprisingly blustery and cold), but rather about family.
My experience of family has always been a shifting thing, kind of like our time on the boat. Sometimes the wind kicked up and the water roiled navy and white as the deck under me listed from side to side so noticeably that I had to lie down and hold onto my head. Sometimes the ocean was kind and ridiculously turquoise, giving no indication of the whole alien world churning beneath its surface.
Our life is rich with extended family, including the Weezer fam. I confess that I have always secretly enjoyed all the annoying minutiae of traveling as a band. I rarely get impatient when being herded through airports, into buses, into arenas, onto gangplanks. I love being in the midst of the whole motley crew of us: the wives, the come-and-go girlfriends, the kids, the babysitters, the parents, the cranky tour manager (sorry, Stu). Once on board, the always thoughtful and creative fans showered us with cards and tiaras and patches and posters, much of it made with their own hands. As a kid running around the house belting out “Join the Circus” from the musical Barnum, this is what I always hoped my life was going to be. A strange dream, maybe, but I was right- it’s pretty wonderful.
Later that afternoon, we met up with yet more of our “relations” for a reunion that makes me tear up every time I think of it. We have remained close with all of the eight families with whom we traveled to Ethiopia on our adoption trip, but T rarely sees the kids because we all live in different parts of the country. To our delight, a couple of them decided to come sail with us.
I am wary of superimposing my own fantasies of some mystical aspect to their friendship, but objectively, it was pure magic. The kids were beyond thrilled to see each other and kept shouting the things they had in common to literally every passerby who would listen (We were all born in Ethiopia! We all have brown skin! We all have pink parents!). I know that they felt the commonalities extended beyond the obvious, but they didn’t have words for it yet. I’m not sure I do either.
I can only say that there is a deep connection between these kids, and between us, their parents. It is very relaxing for Scott and me to be around the people with whom we shared the most meaningful time in our life. There is so much that is just recognized and understood and doesn’t need to be explained.
My heart is full every time I think of the unbridled joy on their little faces as they ran around the ship deck, upending everyone’s Mai Tais and commandeering the hot tub.
As the boat rocked me to sleep each night, I was overwhelmed with gratitude for this life of ours, so abundant with music and family.
Thanks to everyone who made the cruise so special.
Last year Tariku renamed his “Gotcha” Day (the anniversary of the day he was finally in our arms), “Cha Cha Day.” Which is obviously the most awesome name for any day. Woe to the mother who expresses enthusiasm for such a thing… This year the Cha Cha name was strictly verboten. But between you and me, I’m keeping it.
We threw him a small party, just a few friends and neighbors. We ate cake, moved the coffee table out of the way in the living room and danced to “What Does the Fox Say” like sixteen times. And we told the story of his adoption. A family fairy tale, woven through with sorrow but ultimately triumphant. I stole the denoument from psychologist and author Brenè Brown (with whom I’m obsessed):
You are imperfect. You are wired for struggle. You are worthy of love and belonging.
I always get reflective and nostalgic around his Cha Cha day. I wrote this poem early that morning. I suppose it is less for him, exactly, and more for the moms out there. He’d rather have a dance party than a poem at this point anyway. I thought I’d share it with you.
TO MY SON ON HIS CHA CHA DAY
Perhaps I know what other mothers do not.
Of necessity, I know that you were never
mine to begin
with that you are merely a loan
so precious that, Gollum–like, even though I have it in
hand it leaves me wracked with longing
like cherry blossom festivals or a great
song you hear at the coffee shop and can’t
Perhaps I know too what other mothers
all know that you have always been mine
settling into my skin
long before there was even a seed
of you taking root miles from here.
These fingertips caught fire some nights for
reaching, the same that first touched your silk
Out of nowhere you say:
I was only a baby when Jesus died on
the wooden cross. I think it was, yes
I know it was a
Tuesday. In March.
I was there.
It wasn’t my fault.
I have no idea where
you got ideas of fault
or God at all.
I wake up to your vinegary breath, your hands
on my face, a
mastiff puppy’s paws, too big,
for your tectonically shifting frame
a missive from the future these
hands, that I cannot read
except to know it
Somewhere on a red dirt road
flanked by corrugated tin lean-tos painted
blue/green like a sea that is
nowhere to be found, by waxy green leaves of false
banana trees and round huts the same color as the
ground, miles every day she walks in rubber
flip flops toward the well
and back again, red kerchief over her
braids, carrying a burden of
water, dreaming a shared
An adoptive mom friend of mine just got her first, “You’re not my real mom anyway!” from her son and it upset her. We haven’t heard it yet in our house, but I expect we will soon. The closest we’ve come was once, when Tariku was super-pissed at me, he said, “You’re a mean mommy! I want a different mommy!”
It was horrible- not for me, for him. He heard his own words and it registered on his face as absolute terror. Three seconds later, he threw his arms around my neck and said, “I love you so much, Mommy.” I felt desperately sad for him right then because I could sense that he was bargaining with me. I don’t think it was conscious- he knows at this point that we are his family forever. We talk about it all the time. He no longer consciously thinks that when one of us goes out of town we might not be coming back. But I do think that there is still a corner of his heart that feels unsafe; that believes if he behaves badly enough or says the wrong thing, he may turn around to find that we’re gone.
I told him that I knew he loved me and that I loved him more than anything in the world. I told him he could never say or do anything that would ever make me go away. I will say the same thing when he tells me one day that I’m not his real mom. I’m not worried about it.
I have an unusual perspective on the issue because I’m also an adoptee, and I can remember the day I said it to my own mother. I was four-years-old and my family had just been through a terrible trauma. The nursery was still decorated in shades of pink and white, diapers still in the linen closet, baby bottle still in the kitchen cupboard. My mother hadn’t had the heart to clear it all out and put it in the garage, even though it had been months since my parents had gone to the hospital to pick up my new baby sister and had come home empty handed because the birth mother had changed her mind at the last minute. I can’t remember how they explained it to me, but I do remember being incredibly angry. I, who had been a dream child until then (really- ask my mom), suddenly started acting out: talking back, fighting with other kids, carelessly hurting myself all the time. One day my mother asked me to do something and I refused, on grounds that she wasn’t my real mother anyway. I remember the moment like I remember few other things from that time. I was wearing my Kermit the frog jumpsuit, sitting on the piano bench, not looking her in the eye.
My mother was devastated. She wept. My father had a big talk with me about it later. I never said it again. In fact, I was awash in guilt about it for years. I can still conjure a shimmer of guilt around the edges of the memory if I think about it hard enough.
I guess I’m particularly unconcerned about hearing those words because I have been on the other end of them and I can tell you without a doubt that they were never true. It was never an issue; there was never a question. Even when I don’t particularly like or understand her, even when we don’t talk for long stretches, my mother- the mother who wanted me and adopted me and raised me- was then and will always be my real mother.
I offer you this, adoptive mommies: don’t sweat it. They don’t mean it. They’re stuck with you. For real.
Happy Mother’s Day, all you beautiful mommies!
A friend left a comment on my recent post about raising boys and it got me thinking. This friend’s child has multiple special needs and is confined to a wheelchair. In the comment, she suggested that exposing children to diversity (not just in concept) contributes to compassion. Most of the children who have grown up around her son are empathetic and kind with him.
A transgendered friend has also shared with me that the kids she grew up with from early childhood were always accepting. She began to have problems when she changed schools as a teen and encountered kids who were unfamiliar with her gender identification.
When I consider diversity, race is usually the first thing on my mind. When I was first visiting pre-schools, I always looked around and counted the number of brown faces I saw, putting it into my mental filing cabinet. My friend’s comment reminded me that diversity goes way beyond race. Parents of children with special needs offer something of great value to any school or community.
Sometimes the rabid competition to get into good schools in Los Angeles can prompt me to think in a conformist way and try to portray my family as something more mainstream than we truly are. I want to always remember that our strength is in difference. That is where we shine.
Tariku has finally been getting some targeted help for his sensory integration issues and it’s making a world of difference. It’s taken us years to land on a recipe that has been having some measurable and surprisingly quick results. I say this to give hope to any parents out there who feel like you’re reading every book and taking every class and spending your last dollar and you’re just beating your head against a wall. I’ve had those months. I actually had a pretty solid year-and-a-half like that. But the last biting incident he had at school set into motion a chain of events that led us to a great child development specialist, who sent us to a kick-ass occupational therapist and also helped us find a therapeutic aide for him in the classroom.
One thing I’ve noticed about the professionals who serve the special needs community is that they often refer to the children as “our children,” as a way of distinguishing them from kids who are developing more typically. As in, “It’s sometimes hard for our children handle unexpected touch.” Or, “Our children have a difficult time visually organizing new environments.” Etc.
I find it soothing. It makes me feel less alone and reminds me that children are raised by communities not individuals. We never asked to be a part of this particular community. Who does? Well, some very exceptional adoptive parents I know do, but most of the selfish rest of us don’t wake up and say- wow, I’d really like to go to lots and lots of therapy with my five-year-old until I’m so harried that I need some for myself as well. And yet here we are. What I’ve found is that I’ve met an amazing group of smart, tough, exceptionally compassionate individuals and they have improved not just my son’s life but also mine.
T-bone turned five yesterday. He triumphantly announced- I’ll never be four again. And then he said- Mommy, what’s wrong? Because of course I was sobbing all over the turkey sandwich I was making for his lunch.
I lost my mind and threw him a big bowling shindig this weekend (his idea), and it was actually fun and gratifying. It was the first birthday that he was conscious of what it meant that all of his friends showed up for him. He talked about it for days. Of course, the other side of the coin is that now he cares whether or not friends come to his parties, which is pretty much the root of all childhood pain. So here it all is- the delight and the vulnerability to heartbreak. It’s all happening, friends. He turned five. Five.
And three seconds ago, a heartbeat ago, a lifetime ago, on another continent, in some other dimension, this happened:
Of course, I think about his birth mother a lot around his birthday. As an adoptee, it took me a long time to realize why birthdays were such a complicated emotional mess for me. I try to be conscious of that complexity with T, try to be a little extra soft, a little extra patient. I don’t think I’m projecting when I sense some sadness in him. On the morning of his actual birthday, he hid under the couch pillows and didn’t want to talk about it. But, being T, he shook it off in favor of crazy dancing. Because if that kid has a talent for anything in this world, it is joy. I hope somewhere, somehow, his birth mother can feel the reverberation of that joy in her bones.
I recently went out for non-drinks with a pregnant writer friend, who is understandably concerned that motherhood will ruin her life.
Oh, it will, I told her. Everyone’s going to tell you to go see a movie alone or some stupid thing like that. As if balancing a popcorn bucket on your belly for a couple of hours is gonna make up for the fact that life as you know it is just about over.
She looked at me, shocked. Okay, so maybe I could have been a little gentler.
But seriously- I had just had a day, during which I drove from a school conference in Altadena to an occupational therapist in Encino then over to a child development specialist in Sierra Madre then to Trader Joe’s for some special fucking salami and crackers that we can’t possibly live without in this house for five seconds, even though the rest of the stuff we need is at FOUR different other stores. Then I made a stew that nobody liked and they both ate frozen pizzas. The end.
But you’re happier now, right? She continued.
Nope, not happier. I was happy when Scott and I went to Japan every ten minutes. I’m exaggerating for effect here- I’m sometimes happier. I’m also more worried, stressed, exhausted, annoyed, et al.
But I am certainly better. I am less selfish. I am stronger. And the world breaks open for me in surprising and transformative ways.
Of COURSE you’re happy spending your days shopping for Hello Kitty barrettes (for yourself) in Harajuku and then writing humorous little blogs for Vanity Fair while eating room service and overlooking snow-blanketed Tokyo from your hotel room. That’s easy.
But what I never would have expected, is that somewhere in between the school conference and the occupational therapist, I was listening to a great Shins song and the car was facing west toward the beach (sometimes it’s enough just to know the ocean is so close) and the afternoon light was buttery gorgeous and this enormous and surprising sense of joy cracked over me.
Because who knew that I ever was this person? That I can show up for my kid and seek help for him and advocate for his needs? I always thought I was selfish and depressed and narcissistic and barely functioning. I guess I still am on some days, but there are other facets to me that I never would have had a chance to see without my son. I prefer to be this person, even when she is less happy than my previous, more carefree incarnation.
And then there is the thing about the giant, heart-expanding, crazy-making, everything-they-ever-said-it-would-be love that comes with motherhood. Happiness is for wusses. I’ll take the love.
Here’s that Shins song I was talking about…. Also- the dog in the video looks just like my dogs!
An old, dear friend emailed yesterday to tell me that he and his wife are considering international adoption. He wanted to know if I had any advice. I began to write a short email back and a novel pretty much poured out of me. As I was writing, I looked at the date on the computer and realized that exactly four years before, Scott and I were on a plane to Ethiopia. I had been feeling emotional all day and couldn’t really pinpoint the cause, but I guess I was having a subconscious body memory of that earth-shaking time in my life.
The letter only begins to scratch the surface of some of our hard-earned wisdom about the international adoption process, but it’s a start. I thought I’d share it with you. Here it is..
I am so thrilled to hear you’re considering international adoption! I’m always a little bit jealous of people at the beginning of their adoption journey. You have such a transformative road ahead of you. I could never have predicted the myriad ways that adoption would blow my heart, my mind, indeed my whole world wide open. In fact, four years ago today, we were on a plane to Ethiopia to adopt Tariku. I still can’t believe my luck. I think back on the adventure and it seems like someone else’s amazing life.
It’s definitely a marathon, not a sprint. And when it is over you will truly know yourself to be both fiercer and more tender than you ever could have expected. I think that the patience was the hardest lesson for me. I used to say that they should have given me a law degree as well as a baby, when the whole thing was over and done with. So at least you’re ahead on that score. Neither you nor Linda will be scared off by a little bit of confusing paperwork!
Okay, I have buckets of advice. It’s my favorite subject, after all. I’m not sure how far you’ve gotten in your research, so forgive me if I’m being too basic. I’ve been thinking about what the most important nuggets of wisdom I’ve gained are- what I most want to share with you as you head out the gate…
First of all- if you haven’t started your home study yet, start immediately. Today. It’s the first step in any adoption, domestic or international, and it’s done through the state so it can take a while. Don’t wait until you feel absolutely confident (you probably won’t) or have all the details sorted in your head, just start. I promise you’ll want to move faster than they do once it gets going.
Do you have any ideas of what country you’re interested in? It has changed so much since we adopted 4 years ago and I’m not sure about the various regulations. There are pros and cons to every place. I know that you have to go back to Ethiopia twice now (it was only once, when we did it) and that the wait is significantly longer. However, I can’t say enough about my experience with the country and its people. There is an incredibly attached and loving caregiving style with children in Ethiopia. I thought Scott was going to have a heart attack in the airport when every woman in sight kept coming over and hugging and kissing Tariku. It’s a wonderfully warm culture. All children who live for a time without parents suffer some sort of trauma; that’s just a fact. But I truly believe that the love and affection he received in the care center helped to facilitate the attachment process when he was finally in our arms. That was one of the primary reasons we chose Ethiopia. What I couldn’t have predicted was how the country would capture my heart. I can’t wait to go back there- we plan to as soon as T is old enough to handle the flight.
When looking for an international adoption agency, it’s important to talk to some people who have gone through an adoption with them, preferably in the country of your choice. I was very happy with Children’s Home Society and Family Services in St Paul. What you want to look for in an agency is a commitment to ethics and transparency and an involvement in the communities from which the kids are coming. When we were in Ethiopia, we had the opportunity to tour the hospital and school that Children’s Home Society sponsors in Addis. At the time I was just annoyed to have any time taken away from my getting to know T, but in retrospect it’s significant to me. The global and personal ramifications of international adoption are complex and it’s important to me to feel like I’m contributing toward a world where women aren’t forced to give up their children due to poverty, famine and disease. So you want to make sure that the adoption agency is on the same page. Of course there are all kinds of scary stories- and believe you me EVERYONE will feel the need to tell you one for some reason. But there’s no reason to be scared. Just do a little research (duh).
Which leads me to my next piece of advice- many well-intentioned people say assinine things about adoption. Like multiple times a day. You will gather a file of stock responses and it will become no big deal. Don’t let it throw you. The only people who have relevant advice are people who have gone through it. The nice thing about these people with experience in the matter is that a lot of them have blogs! Here are some of my favorite:
The most important thing I can recommend is to do some radical attachment parenting once you get your child home. This is true regardless of the age of the child. I have a friend who adopted a five year old and she kept that little girl less than six feet from her for six months. They ate with her, slept with her, bathed with her, eventually went to school with her. AND they have three other kids! And she is doing marvelously now. For us, we cocooned with Tariku for two months, then transitioned him slowly for another two. No one but Scott or I held him or nurtured him. We did a lot of just sitting around holding him to our bare chests. We slept with him and bathed with him and played endless peek a boo and other activities with a lot of eye contact. The only time I ever put him in a stroller was to go for a walk or a run. Otherwise I wore him in the Ergo carrier, which I think is the best carrier for heavier/older kids and for longer periods of time. Obviously you guys work a lot. But if at least one or the other of you can be with the child all the time in the very beginning, it will make a huge difference. There is plenty of more extensive advice about attachment and adoption, but this is the general idea. It’s definitely a huge commitment, but I can tell you that the initial attachment process with Tariku was the sweetest, best few months of my life.
Another thing- I think it’s important to introduce some specific rituals into the child’s life that honor his/her adoption in some way. We had a welcoming ceremony. The rabbi who officiated was a woman we met in Ethiopia, who also adopted a child from the same care center. So one of Tariku’s friends from Ethiopia was at his ceremony! It was so special. Another thing we do is celebrate his “gotcha” day ( I know- super dorky adoption-speak) as if it’s a second kind of birthday. I also light a candle with him for his birth mother the night before Mother’s Day. These are just the things I’ve integrated, there are countless ways people honor their children’s stories. It’s up to you to be creative about your family’s special language of ritual, because there is nothing pre-packaged that recognizes adoptive families in our culture.
Lastly, I think it’s very important that we as parents keep a regular, developmentally appropriate dialogue about adoption going with our kids. It shouldn’t be up to them to ask. I talk about adoption a lot, so it becomes really natural and comfortable (for both of us), and I give T the opportunity to ask questions or not. His interest level seems to go in phases, but I want the structure to already be in place when the questions start to get hard.
Okay, well, that’s a novel! And there’s more where that came from. You can always call me with any questions. I’m so thrilled for you. Adoption is hard and complicated and it’s completely amazing. I send you all our love and blessings as you embark!
Kristen Howerton, Deborah Swisher and I got together with our clans one Sunday and made a little video about the #$%@ that gets said to us every day at the mall, the playground, heck, on our front yards! Being in a transracial family is a very visible way to walk through the world. I look at dumb remarks as a chance to advocate for adoption and to educate people who are usually well-intentioned, but insensitive. This video is in that same spirit. Plus, we had a blast making it. Hope you enjoy it. If you do, please circulate it!
Here’s my newest Huffpo blog, but ya’ll get the exclusive pic to go with it. Yup, that’s her…
As a child, I was fixated on mirrors. Time and time again, my parents would catch me in some elaborate, solo musical production performed for an audience of one on the back of my bedroom door. Not only was mirror gazing a solitary indulgence, it was also a public compulsion. I remember being mocked by my Hebrew school classmates when they busted me transfixed by my own reflection in the long windows of the temple gift shop, like a Jewish mini-Narcissus.
Until recently, when confronted with memories of my embarrassing pastime, I’ve always reached the obvious conclusion: I was hopelessly vain. Worse yet, I was hardly physically exceptional enough to justify such fascination. So I wasn’t just vain, but delusional to boot.
But mirrors are more than just a place to check your makeup or your air guitar technique. In myths and fairytales, mirrors are often a mystical thing- half of this world and half of another. Mirrors play an integral role in Snow White, The Snow Queen, Beauty and the Beast, Through the Looking Glass and the myth of Narcissus, among others. Perseus kills Medusa by using a mirror. Mirrors can provide portents of future events, can hold malevolent spells, can even be a portal to other worlds.
Lately, I’ve begun to see my fascination with mirrors as the result of an impulse more fundamental than vanity. Mermaids traditionally carry mirrors as a symbol of their duality. As an adopted child, I, too, lived in the borderlands between two worlds. I didn’t grow up physically resembling my family and didn’t see much of a correspondence, physical or otherwise, between myself and the disturbingly homogenous population of the conservative town in which we lived. I secretly harbored suspicions that I had been dropped into northern New Jersey by sadistic aliens. Or perhaps I had been abandoned by a princess who couldn’t raise me because of an evil spell- the very sort of princess who might have a magic mirror.
We all live on a shifting frontier between truth and fiction. Memories are a collaboration between past and present. The events of our lives are shaped by the dreams, fantasies and beliefs that circle them and vice versa. For adopted children, this hazy boundary between life and narrative takes on an added dimension of urgency, because in some ways we are forced to self-invent from the gate. The inability to easily concretize an identity can lead to feeling disconnected. It can drive you to stare at your own face for too long- to wonder who exactly you are and where you came from. But it can also awaken the narrative possibilities within you. The loss created by adoption leaves a gap, a void. If you are a certain kind of person, you learn to fill that void with story.
My birth mother recently came to visit, graciously agreeing to participate in a series of oral histories I’m recording. I had met her briefly once before, but hadn’t seen her in nearly fifteen years. I picked her up curbside at the airport and as I hopped out of my car to hug her, the late afternoon sun glanced off her eyes and the resemblance struck me nearly breathless for a moment. Her eyes were the same shape and unusual muddy green color as my own. A bit lighter, maybe. A bit more careworn, certainly. But still, the similarity startled me. It occurred to me that this sense of recognition is what most people experience every day of their life. As a result, perhaps they don’t feel compelled to look quite as hard in the mirror.
This search for reflections in the world around us is an essential impulse. It’s an impulse that isn’t only answered by our families but by music, art, books, lovers, friends. And by stories.
In my adult life, I don’t look in the mirror as much as I used to. What the mirror never gave me, I found in narrative. My hunger for connection inspired me to tell stories. I am grateful for it every night as I lie down with my own son, who is also adopted, and spin him tales in which he is a warrior, a prince, a hero. For now, he can take any one of these reflections and choose for himself a truth. And one day I hope he will tell me a story about who he is, and it will be far better and truer than any story I could invent for him.
Until now, I’ve been one of those grouchy East Coasters guilty of bemoaning the lack of seasons in Los Angeles. But it’s not true. One only needs to hunt for the perfect back-to-school lunchbox to feel the curtain closing on summer. Yet again, my child awakens me to the subtleties of the world around me. To the sweetness of the last figs off the tree, the delicious exhaustion of late beach afternoons, the sadness of the shortening days.
Yesterday, T started planning for our Christmas tree. He wants a big one this year. No, a big one. No, I mean a BIG one. I explained that we had to make it through fall first.
And in the grand tradition of fall….say a little prayer because we’re trying a new school. I don’t want to say too much about it until we have a toehold, but I’m hopeful that this one is going to work out. I’ve been hopeful before and I’ve been dead wrong, but I’ll persist in being hopeful because T is changing so much every day. He’s able to understand now why his friends are in school and he’s not. He’s working hard on his emotional regulation and his impulse control because he badly wants to be around other kids his age. We start next week. I’ll have the updates from the trenches.
Also- holy shit….baseball season. I’m a mom in the bleachers at baseball practice. Do you ever have moments when it washes over you? This isn’t a dollhouse you’re living in; this isn’t a script you’re writing; this isn’t a game- you are someone’s MOTHER. Baseball practice does that to me. Suck it up and make some snacks, cause you’re deep in it now, mom.
And how did I, who only ever attended pep-rallies for the sake of irony, wind up with the kid with the most team spirit ever? He smiles when he runs laps. He cheers when his teammates hit the ball. He cheers when they strike out. He cheers when they’re warming up. He cheers when they catch the ball. He cheers when they drop it. He makes me proud with that enormous heart of his. Every minute of every day.
I was in line at the coffee shop the other day eagerly awaiting my caffeine fix, when I overheard a couple of moms chatting. One of them was describing the behavior of a child in her daughter’s class. The behavior sounded similar to T’s, so of course my ears perked up. The woman said, “Some days being a mom is, like, SO hard, but then I have to remember to be grateful. I mean, I could have a kid with special needs or something.”
I had to fight the impulse to go over to her and say, You should be so lucky to have a kid as kind and loving and remarkable and hilarious as my kid with special needs. What the hell kind of thing is that to be grateful for?
I’ve never been a fan of the sentiment that we should be grateful because there’s always someone worse off. When I was a kid, my father used to say (usually in response to tearful begging for a pair of Guess jeans or tickets to the Like A Virgin tour), “I cried when I had no shoes, until I saw the man who had no feet.” Even then it used to get on my nerves, and not only because I had to get the lame knock-off jeans. I didn’t agree on principle. I don’t want to derive my gratitude from the suffering of others. I don’t want to perk right up because some poor guy doesn’t have feet. What kind of way is that to think?
Not that I’m some Dalai Llama of gratitude. In fact, I woke up today swamped with self-loathing. There wasn’t any particular reason, it’s just my nasty demon rearing its ugly head. I could barely look in the mirror and I just couldn’t shake it. I put on my running shoes anyway, then spent almost every step of my run with my legs feeling like lead, cursing the fact that 4 miles never seems to get any easier.
And then for a few minutes I found myself keeping pace with a burn victim whose scars were so severe that half of his entire body looked like a melted candle. I found myself feeling grateful. But not because, as my dad would put it, I cried when I was mildly depressed and had a fat ass, until I saw the man who had half-a-face. Rather, I felt grateful to all the rest of the souls dragging themselves, fat asses and scars and no shoes and no feet and all, around that track at 6am. Who knows what those people are facing; what kind of heroism I’m witnessing every day without even knowing it.
I thought of the burned man- I’ll just borrow your strength today and I’ll make it the rest of the way around. Some morning when I’m feeling like the wind, I’ll loan my strength to someone else who’s out here limping.
In the past four months or so, we’ve seen a dramatic change in T’s trauma-related behaviors. I think some of the transformation has to do with language acquisition. It helps that he’s often able to name the big feelings and to identify when he’s gone off the rails. There have been a few times lately that I had to contain him in public and he was able to say, I’m having a hard time.
For those of you not dealing with violent behaviors, when I say contain him, I mean I sit behind him holding his arms and his head (so he can’t bite) and I wrap my legs around his. I’ll tell you this about containing him- It’s horrible. It feels horrible; it looks horrible; people stare at you like you’re a monster. Purely for safety reasons, we used to have to contain him up to ten times a day. I regularly had bite marks on my chest and up and down my arms.
This is no longer the case (I say, doing a jig of glee). We now go days without a crazy violent tantrum. We can take him to the park, to the museum, to birthday parties. I don’t have to hover a foot away when he’s playing with other kids.
It’s a huge effort for him to control his aggressive impulses. Things that are a given for many kids are a true achievement for him. I see in his face how hard he’s trying and it can bring tears to my eyes. Both because I’m amazed at his resilience and because I still sometimes feel so helpless and sad in the face of all the pain he’s weathered in his short life.
In fact, his behavior is so much better that I can easily forget everything I know about his sensitivity to sensory input. I know that sounds crazy, but it’s easy to do when you’re having fun. There have been a couple of times in the past few weeks that I have seen the signs of dysregulation and let it slide. Last Sunday, Scott was out of town and T and I were having a big adventure day: museum, party, carousel. We ate about twelve gluten-free cupcakes. It was awesome. And it was WAY too much. He actually wound up so dysregulated at the end of the day that he was literally shaking and his eyes were rolling back in his head. I imagined I could see the smoke coming out of his ears from the short circuiting. I called Scott and said, I broke the baby. Luckily, the baby reset. But, man, did I feel like a jerk.
When his dysregulation gets that profound, I can clearly see its physiological component. The neurological aspect of T’s challenges is obviously an important thing to remember in our difficult moments, but I’m learning that it’s equally important to remember when things are going well. I’m not a person who’s generally known for my wonderfully balanced emotional life, so parenting T is a constant opportunity to exercise some underutilized muscles. Yet again, my kid is giving me every lesson I need.