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

meandT

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Baby J: The Sequel

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Baby J. came to stay with us again, for a week this time. Yesterday morning I kissed him on the head and buckled him into someone else’s car seat and watched him drive away.

Afterwards, God and I had a big long chat and let me tell you, it was not polite. I won’t reveal the exact content, but I will say there was lots of swearing involved.

When Scott and I got the call that Baby J. needed a week of respite care, we looked at each other with less of a sense of adventure and curiosity this go around. After the baby left us last time, I felt like someone had disemboweled me with a butter knife. I pulled the car over to cry about every seven minutes for two whole weeks.

We knew that the phone call basically translated to: “Would you like to take this baby and not sleep for a week, until everyone gets cranky and starts snapping at each other-because you’re taking care of a baby and babies are annoying, even awesome ones. Oh, and this baby is particularly awesome and you will fall madly in love with him and then he will leave you and you may never see him again. Whaddaya say?”

Well, shucks, yeah! We thought you’d never ask!

Of course, we said yes.

We had such a fun week with him! We hung out and made little drum beats with him for hours on Tariku’s old toy drums. We took him to the school carnival. He brought the house down at Whole Foods with his epic cuteness- I could barely get my shopping done. And we all got grouchy and stressed and sleep deprived and sick with baby cooties. All that good baby stuff.

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And then we said goodbye, again. And I cried a lot a lot, again.

I’ve been thinking about how to model dealing with loss. I really like plans, so I tried to come up with one, but I just couldn’t. It all happened so fast and we were in survival mode. So instead, I simply told Tariku the only way through loss is through it. We cry and have our feelings and hold each other and talk to each other and take care of each other when we’re not strong. And we breathe and breathe and get up again the next morning and make breakfast. And everything eventually changes- it doesn’t hurt this much forever.

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I’ve been thinking of the nannies in Tariku’s orphanage: tireless, strong-armed, their heads covered in blue kerchiefs- who held and bathed and fed my son, and showered him with love. They kissed and kissed his face, even though they knew the day would come that they would likely never see it again.

There were also the anonymous women who held me for the five days in between when I was born and when my family came to adopt me. For five days, someone I will never thank held and loved me.

I tried to look at this time with Baby J. as my thanks to them. With every round of our “Itsy Bitsy Spider,” I did my best to honor their strength and generosity of spirit.

And I breathed and got up this morning and walked past the empty space where the pack-and-play was the day before. And I made breakfast.

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The Last Five First Days

I did a little round up of the last five first days of school…

  1. 2010. I loved his little outfit here. He lasted exactly 4 days at his first preschool. He was not, as the director put it, “Ready to contract when the group contracted.” Which is hippie language for sit still during story and snack. He was definitely more of an expander than a contractor. There were tears. Mostly mine.

 

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2. 2011. This year he was an honors student at the School of Life! Mostly because he’d bite ya. A lot. So school-school wasn’t so much his thing.

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3. 2012. The first year he lasted! We finally found him the right school and he’s still there. It was a rocky year but he got a toehold and it’s been getting better and better ever since.

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3. 2013. Kindergarten.  He had one of those miraculous life-changing teachers who helped him turn the corner. Thank God for gifted teachers who cherish the kids that need a little extra help, and just shower them with love. She believed in him and he shone. fd2013

4. 2014. First grade. Another great, nurturing teacher and a year with much progress.

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5. 2015. Today folks. Second grade. Bless him. Look at that face.

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I can remember each of these days so clearly. Mostly because we were so worried about him. Transitions are Tariku’s toughest thing, and back-to-school is a seismic shift. In the past, the resulting tremors have shook our home to its very foundation. For years, he came home from school ricocheting off the walls. There were daily talks with his teacher. We thought the rest of our lives were pretty much going to be spent in a parent-teacher conference, like we were stuck in some existentialist play: You just think you’re at back-to-school night, but really you’ve died and gone to hell and you’re never leaving.

But Tariku went off for his first day of second grade today, and on the ride home, Scott and I were pinching each other. “Did you see how he walked in there like a champ?” “Did you see how he said welcome to the new girl?” Did you notice he didn’t say anything bizarre or inappropriate?” “Did you notice his body was pretty calm?”

I’m actually not surprised it went so smoothly. I’ve suspected this year is going to be different. Yesterday he woke me up at five in the morning and said, “I’m nervous for my first day of second grade.” He crawled into bed and we cuddled. I told him it was totally normal and fine to be nervous and that he was brave and I was proud of him. We talked about some of the things he likes at school- his friends, playing bounceball, pizza day etc. This little scene may seem totally mundane, but it signals something is changing for Tariku. It’s a huge leap for him to identify anxious feelings and talk about them.

Then we Googled dinosaurs for what seemed like 11 hours and when I looked up it was somehow only 7am. I’m really ready for school to start.

I’ll still be biting my nails until the pick-up, but mostly I’m heaving a huge sigh of gratitude. As if I’ve been holding my breath for five years, and I’m finally allowed to breathe out. How lucky we are for all the help we’ve received along the way. How blessed we are with this amazing kid, who teaches us every day about healing and hope.

Making Space

 

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For those of you who don’t know, we’re in the process of getting certified by Los Angeles County to adopt a child through the foster care system. That’s a picture of our CPR/first aid training (if you’re looking to do it, we highly recommend Ron Calloway).

Whenever I post about some new phase of our progress, I inevitably get 20 well-wishing texts, thinking that we’re bringing a baby home tomorrow. I forget that most people have no idea how this thing goes. There are about twelve million steps: paperwork and meetings and doctor appointments and rabies shots for the dogs and replacing windows because there are no regulation screens and and and…

We’ve been slowly chipping away at it for about six months. Staring at the final hurdles, I found myself feeling paralyzed. I kept landing in an overwhelmed face plant on the bed.

One morning, I decided to throw myself into it guns blazing and just get the thing done. I sat down with my trusty legal pad and looked objectively at every item on my list, with the intention of prioritizing and then attacking it systematically. It was immediately clear to me that the thing I needed to do most was to make space– in the garage, in Tariku’s room, in the disastrous kitchen cabinets.

Most of all, I needed to make space in my heart. I needed to make space in our life for another child.

One of the hardest things about the adoption process is that there’s too much time to overthink it, and a million legitimate reasons to get cold feet. Scott and I looked at each other every night and said, “Are we crazy? This parenting thing just got a little easier. It just got fun. We’re traveling. We’re going out in public without a scene. He’s in a great school. We relax now while our kid cannonballs into the deep end and swims the entire length of a pool. I don’t even have to get my hair wet anymore! And now we’re gonna go F it right up?”

We’re asking for trouble. No, really, we are. We know exactly what early childhood trauma does to the brain. We’re looking to adopt a boy around 3-5 yrs through the foster care system, who will inevitably carry trauma, loss, and deep grief. And then there are the risks involved, which terrify me. The worst being the possibility that the child will not be able to stay with us, which can happen. Sometimes I think we should just call a stop to all this immediately. And then I wonder if I’m having genuine reservations or I’m just scared.

Phew. That’s a lot. Even writing it gives me a stomachache. No wonder I was feeling paralyzed.

In the midst of all this, I happened to read Marie Kondo’s absurdly popular and totally psychotic organizing book, The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up. Yes, it’s that book that suggests you talk to your clothes.amess2

Well, I did it. I took two whole weeks, working all day every day. Everyone pitched in. We took everything we owned out of every drawer and cabinet and closet in the house and mostly we just gave it all the hell away, if only to avoid having to put it back. It was miserable.

It was also exactly what I needed. I’m not sure it changed my life exactly- check in with me in six months and see how we’re doing. But I did have ample time to reflect on what we truly needed and wanted, and what was important to us.

As I worked, I left space. I cleared drawers and left them empty. I left empty hangers in Tariku’s closet.

I wrote our child-to-be little notes as I went. In some cases I actually printed them on label tape and stuck them to drawers. I thought the visual reminders would help Tariku start subconsciously making space of his own.amess

I wrote:

We love you little brother!

This is your dresser!

In the garage, I created a bin for keepsakes and put it next to Tariku’s. On the bin, I wrote:

Welcome. We love you. We are waiting for you.

The current update is that we’re probably just a few short weeks away from completing our certification, which will make us eligible to get a placement at any moment, although it could take a while. Whenever it happens, the empty drawers are ready.

As I organized, I told myself that if after all that work, I found I ultimately didn’t want to go through with this adoption, that would be fine too.

Instead, I looked around and it was clear to me: we have a beautiful home, full of so much love and music and joy. We’re not at all crazy to want to share it with a child who needs a home. It’s okay to have ambivalent feelings. It’s okay to be scared of the unknown. It’s okay to start getting excited about it, even though the road ahead may be a rocky one.

And just look at all this room in my heart, after all.

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The (not rock but still pretty cool) Tour!

tourHello from Olympia, Washington! I’m about two-thirds of the way through my book tour and it’s been amazing, surprising, exhausting, exasperating, enlightening. A friend threw a beautiful party for me last night, and I literally showed up on her doorstep with a giant bag of laundry. Cuz glamour.

T and Scott  were with me through the first week and we had a blast in NY going to readings and parties, staying up late and eating junk food, visiting with friends and family. Tariku came to some of my events and I got to read to him the section of the book that chronicles the magical day we first met him. I’m shocked that I didn’t break down and sob.  He insisted on standing by my side afterward, painstakingly signing each book in cursive, next to my signature.

Friends, I have nearly torn my hair out many, many nights over the difficulty of balancing writing and motherhood, and I know I will again. So I really tried to slow down, breathe and pay attention to how it felt to have my child throw his arms around me and tell me that I made him proud. If I live to be a thousand years old, I will never forget it. Then he told me that I shouldn’t read aloud any more chapters that mention diapers. So there’s that.

They’re back at home now as I tumble through these final cities. It’s been fun seeing old friends and new in Woodstock, Austin, SF, Portland, Olympia…but I miss my guys madly and I’ll be happy to get back to them. After which, I plan to promptly invent a rare illness and pull the covers up over my head for three days.

readingAside from getting to share some of this tour with Tariku and with my parents–who showed up and have been very supportive–  the most meaningful part so far has been the opportunity I’ve had to meet so many other members of the adoption triad (that’s adoption speak for adoptees, birth families, and adoptive parents). I’m so moved by people’s willingness to be vulnerable and share their stories with me. There have been lots of tears. It’s been incredible to connect with people and to talk about our losses and our blessings.

At every reading, one question I get asked without fail is, “What do you imagine your son will think about the book?”

My answer is that I imagine he’ll have lots of different feelings about it as he grows. Ultimately, I hope that he sees it as the gift to him that I mean it to be.

Bloggers and authors catch a lot of criticism for writing publicly about our kids and our family struggles. I agree that living in such a public way isn’t the right choice for everybody. But we all have a right to our stories, and to our voice in the world and or some of us, that means sharing about our lives. What on earth would I have done in my darkest moments, if it weren’t for the storytellers who came before me, whose experience and hope lit the path in front of me? I’m honored to be a part of that conversation.

Look at these cuties. These are Tariku’s first friends in the world. Or, as he calls them, his brothers and sisters. Thanks, always, to our friends from our adoption trip to Ethiopia, for all their fantastic support:

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