Posts tagged Adoption

Not Bad at All

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The crumbling gingerbread house is barely hanging in there on the dining room table, next to my menorah from Hebrew school graduation. The fake log made of coffee grounds is fake crackling in the fireplace. The cranky child is finally asleep. The PMS tea is steeping. The computer paper snowflakes are clothes-pinned to the barn lights. The tree is my best one yet; really, it is. Our house guest walked into the house this evening, looked at it and just said, “Thank you.” I shed a little tear.

The world is quiet, save the soft churning of the dishwasher and the washing machine. Which is to say: quiet enough. It’s never quite the Hallmark card/Pinterest board/Barbie Dream House, is it? But it’s still pretty great.

The thing that comes to mind are Snoopy’s words of wisdom from You’re a Good Man Charlie Brown (Yes, I played Snoopy in summer camp. Of course I did. Rachel Weintraub, witness!):

Not bad. It’s not bad at all.

Love you all tonight. I’m sure that’s a song, too.

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Thanksgiving Part 1: The Giving Part

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This Thanksgiving, I tried to figure out a fun way to ease Tariku into the idea of giving to others. Until now, I’ve been lazy about including him in our charitable efforts, for the reason that there’s a lot less whining without him. I’ve justified this by telling myself that modeling right action is enough. After all, that’s how I learned from my own parents, who were always active in numerous organizations. It seemed time to do something more proactive, however, since we’ve been focusing with Tariku on building empathy.

Honestly, I don’t often volunteer on Thanksgiving, because it’s the one day a year that soup kitchens and food banks actually have enough helpers. But in this case, it seemed a great opportunity to explore the concept of gratitude. We volunteered as a family with Gobble Gobble Give, a wonderful grassroots project that donates food and clothes to LA’s homeless each Thanksgiving.

We filled up the back of our truck with Gobble Gobble Give’s meals and donations and drove around handing them out to people. I wanted to do something concrete, so that Tariku could actually look people in the eye and have an experience of interacting with individuals.

Make no mistake, he did not want to go. He wanted to stay home and play dinosaurs or cards, or anything else really. He probably would have even preferred to clean up his room. I had to strong-arm him into it (okay, maybe I also promised him Cheetos if he cooperated).

We started by visiting our friend Cindy, a homeless woman who hangs around our old neighborhood. Tariku has known Cindy since he was a baby and was happy to visit her, but couldn’t figure out why she was included on our route. He had never realized she was homeless. She gave us big hugs, took donations to deliver to her friends and gave us some suggestions.

Then we went to some intersections in Pasadena that we pass every day on the way to T’s school. By this time, T was insisting on handing out all the bags himself. He was skipping, smiling his enormous smile, bringing the Tariku sunshine and making everyone laugh.

The only trouble arose when we passed a disturbed looking young man, cursing at a wall. I wouldn’t let Tariku walk up to him for fear the man might be dangerous, and T was upset with me for “leaving him out.” On our way home, T meditatively ate his Cheetos. I asked him if it had made him feel good to give to other people.

He said, “Mom, I’m still worried about that one guy.”

It was amazing to see his perspective shift over the course of a few hours. I hadn’t walked into the day with big expectations– I had simply wanted to transmit my belief that the best way to express gratitude is through action. But the experience really got a hook in him, so now I’m wondering, how do I take this ball and run with it?

I’d love to hear your suggestions. Let me know… how do you impart the spirit of giving to your kids?

Tune in tomorrow for Thanksgiving Part 2: The Thanks Part.

Huffington Post Parents: Why I Love Adoption

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Happy 5775!

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Last week, I celebrated the Jewish New Year at an event on the banks of the LA River. An eclectic group of us wandered past the birch trees and down the concrete slope of the embankment, with hunks of bread in our hands. As is traditional, crumb-by-crumb we released the sins of the past year, each one hitting the water with a ripple of light reflected from the yellow streetlamps across the river.

I thought a lot about the people I had met and things I had seen in Ethiopia.

Two weeks ago, I returned from my Love Hope trip with Help One Now, where I was privileged to see the community development work they’re doing to support struggling families in the village of Gunchire. After long days traveling over unpaved roads in a rickety van, our dusty group of travelers unwound by listening to music and telling stories late into the night. They were a terrific group of people, who taught me a lot about what it means to truly make faith and social justice work a centerpiece of your life.

Back home on the riverbank, I thought about the ways I had lapsed, even over the course of a week, into vanity, selfishness, and convenient forgetting. As I stepped into 5775, I felt frustrated by the fact that in many ways I am no wiser, no more sure of my religious identity than I have ever been. I keep waiting for the ray of light through the clouds that will make me sure. I sighed and pitched my last hunk of bread into the water. What if in the end it is all just bread and just water- yucky LA River water at that- and I might as well have been home eating chocolate-covered almonds and watching Blacklist on the couch?

After the ceremony, we held hands and sang. I thought about standing in Gunchire, hugging Marta, who had only a year before been starving. With our arms around each other, it’s easy to see that we are all suffering. I realized that, riddled with doubt though I may be, I understand God and myself most fully when I am taking action to address this, both by looking outward and looking inward. I went home feeling filled-up, if not with answers than at least with community and prayer (and baklava!).

For me, walking into this New Year is not about some litany of shoulds and shouldn’ts. I’ve had quite enough of those lists in my life. Rather, it’s about noticing when I feel most myself, closest to God, most present with my family, stronger and lighter. It is about moving towards those things.

If you didn’t get the chance to follow our journey to Africa, you can either just scroll down or visit my page on the Help One Now website. While you’re at it, check out what Jen, Kristen and Korie had to say about it.

You can still sponsor a child! It’s truly life-saving work. By doing so, you’ll be making it possible for local leaders to leverage their resources, break the cycle of poverty and keep a vulnerable family together. If you haven’t done it yet, please check it out.

A very sweet New Year- new Hebrew calendar year, new school year, new harvest, new chill in the air, new chance to make a difference- to all of you.

(photos/video by Ty Clark and Scott Wade)

Then and Now

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We spent a remarkable weekend with T’s “first friends.” Unprompted by me, he calls them his brothers and sisters. The first picture is of the kids when they were still living in a care center in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. The second one is of the same kids now (in almost the same order- wrangling challenges). I don’t even have words for the juxtaposition of these photos. Just look at these sweet, bright stars. The weekend was hilarious and touching and hard and big and real. I miss the other families already.

I had no idea what Tariku’s adoption would bring into our lives. It’s hard to remember, when sunk in the daily minutiae of mopping an inch bathwater off the floor or arm wrestling for the iPad or trying to teach subtraction. He has truly razed so many walls in my heart. Scott and I just wanted a baby. We weren’t looking explode our world. A bright light turned on all at once and we now have a network of strong and inspiring extended family. Our awareness has expanded and issues like race, belonging, family, trauma, and healing have moved to the forefront of our thoughts and our discussions. We are more compassionate. Above all, we know waaaaay more about airplanes than we ever could have dreamed.

I always knew he was a miracle, I just didn’t grasp the scope of it.

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On Special Needs…

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When I was stuck in traffic after the camp drop-off this morning, I found myself musing about the day I first heard the words “special needs” applied to T. It seems a lifetime ago. I remember the combination of fear and relief I felt. What would this mean to him? To our lives? How had my life strayed so far from any picture I ever had of motherhood? Some part of me felt like I was betraying him every time I said it, by admitting that he wasn’t perfect. Another part of me was grateful that I had some external validation for my concerns about his behaviors- I hadn’t just been imagining it all along.

Special needs. Say it a few times. See how it feels.

You may feel embarrassed. You may feel like you’re getting benched, not allowed out on the field with these other competitive moms who are humble-bragging at the coffee shop about their six-year-old playing Chopin and speaking Mandarin.

That’s okay. Don’t stop. Say it a few more times.

You may find that it begins to change shape in your mind, to grow roots in your heart. You may recognize it as truth, and truth is almost always a relief. You may begin to feel that rather than benching you, it puts you on exactly the right playing field, where you suddenly understand the game.

Say it a few more times. Say it like its no big deal because it isn’t any more. You will begin to hear an echo.

My kid has special needs, too!

You may find that the echo is coming from people that you’d far rather spend time with than the Mandarin-drilling Tiger Moms anyway. You may find that you’re proud to be among this new group of people, that all you had been waiting for was to feel less alone, and now you do. And while it is not all fixed, you have something better than fixed: you have hope.

These were my traffic thoughts this morning. How remarkably different from three years ago, when I used to drive around literally cursing at God. I am so grateful to the special needs community- the parents, the therapists, the educators, the kids. They have given me a life far richer than the one I imagined, when I first envisioned being a mom.

My Tedx Talk!

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.

The Move and Everything After

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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.

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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.

Leaving

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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.

ROOM

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.

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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.

US

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!

Sisters

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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.

Cruising Together

weezer cruise

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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T’s Fifth Cha Cha Day!

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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
rewind.

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
cheek.

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 wood
or belonging
or March
or Tuesday
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
ends with.
Love,

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
dream.

You’re Not My Real Mom

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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!

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On Diversity

tnraj

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.

Our Children

tangram

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.

Four No More

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.

bday!

bowl 3

bowl 2

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.

bday 2

fun

And three seconds ago, a heartbeat ago, a lifetime ago, on another continent, in some other dimension, this happened:

bus

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.

Enjoying a Suck-Ass Day

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.

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!

A Letter About Adoption

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:

Rage Against the Minivan
The Lost Planet
Under the Acacia Tree
Welcome to My Brain
Dreaming Big Dreams

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!

The Dreaded Phone Call

Yesterday, I was sitting in my snazzy new office space with an unfamiliar feeling- maybe it was stability or contentment or some amalgamation of the two. I had half-finished a blog post about how great T did at Thanksgiving, how much progress we’re making, how much healing we’re seeing in his trauma-related behaviors (you see where this is going, right?).

And then…the dreaded number lit up the cell phone. The call from school in the middle of the day.

T bit someone. Again. The last time it happened, I marched in there and said, this is not going to happen again; he’s not a danger to other kids; this incident was an anomaly. I’m embarrassed that I was wrong. But mostly, I’m just panicked about what happens now. He’s home today and we have a meeting with the school tomorrow afternoon and I’m having one of those hopeless moments. I find myself thinking- I have been praying and reading and googling and arranging meditation lessons and OT sessions and martial arts and therapy. What now? Where do we go from here?

I deleted the whole Thanksgiving post, but I’m kind of sorry that I did, because that day happened (it did! it was awesome! I was there!) and I could probably benefit from reading my own words about it right now. We have been having so many days lately that end in overwhelming gratitude, as opposed to crushing anxiety. Even in my despairing moments, I try to remember that we’re making progress. Healing rarely happens in a linear way. For him or for us.

Right now I’m vascillating between feeling bad for him (he loves that school) and being so pissed (he knows better than this! wtf are we gonna do now?). I’m semi-successfully trying to not to take my anger out on him. Really, I’m angry at my own helplessness in the face of his hurt and fear. My instinctual reaction is, how could you do this. That’s a pretty sucky reaction. I can do better than that. At the very least, I can tell him, I know we’re all upset, but we’re going to work this through together. It lets him know he’s not alone on this journey.

#$%@ People Say To Transracial Families…

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!

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