Living Out Loud

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

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

I said, “Do not threaten my child.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Everything I Need To Know I Learned from Rock and Roll

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In some ways, tour is anarchy- the boys are up late dancing to crazy loud rock music, giving each other dinosaur tattoos with face paint, and smuggling forbidden Fruit Loops into their bunks. They spend their days scootering around parking lots, chatting up the other bands, riding questionable attractions in sketchy roadside amusement parks. It’s pretty much the exact opposite of their micro-managed urban lives at home. We’ve seen a lot of fascinating, educational stuff, like the Atlanta Aquarium and the Boston Tea Party ships, but the road is rife with wild cards. Already we’ve been on a New Orleans ghost tour that wound up stopping at a former brothel. “What’s a brothel?” Well, son…

But within the atmosphere of heightened chaos, I believe the kids are learning valuable life lessons in a unique and memorable way. Here are the top three:

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1.THE SHOW MUST GO ON.

There are no sick days in show business. The life of a performer may seem glamorous, but it takes a heck of a lot of grit to get up there night after night. Some nights it’s inexplicably off and disappointing. Some nights it’s so ecstatic and transformative you wish it would never end. Some nights you have the flu, or your girlfriend just broke up with you, or your dog just died. Whatever the case is, you still pin your shoulders back and go out there. And when the curtain opens, if you’re any good at all, you offer your whole heart.

It’s a terrific lesson to bring home and apply to school or music or sports or family chores. And later to everything else in life.

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2.YOU CAN’T ALWAYS GET WHAT YOU WANT

I like to think I make an effort not to spoil my children, and to instill in them both an awareness of their privilege and an appropriate sense of the value of things. In reality, we live in a world with a million choices and I say yes more than I should. I try not to capitulate to tantrums, but I do sometimes just give them a corn dog if they won’t eat dinner. Or get them those Pokemon cards for no good reason other than it makes them smile. Or give them an extra 15 minutes of screen time because I want to talk on the phone. I stock our house with all their favorite crackers and bath products and the right color play doh, and while they certainly don’t get everything they want they sure do get a lot.

Tour is not that kind of environment. They may not carry just exactly the right kind of animal cracker in Duluth. You may leave Tigey in a hotel room and never get him back. You may have to wait until the stop at Grandma’s house to get the paint refills for the spinart. Mommy may leave your favorite bedtime book on the bus by accident (totally hypothetically) and you may have to make do with Rolling Stone that night. Because tour is NOT ALL ABOUT YOU. It’s a machine with a thousand moving parts, and it’s a miracle it works at all. The reason it does is because everyone involved takes one for the team now and then. Which leads me to…

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3. IT TAKES A VILLAGE

There are about 90 people supporting this tour, and every one of them is working their ass off. We so often see the shiny outsides of the world, and don’t always stop to think about how much work goes in behind the scenes.

Tariku gets up early, puts on his own clothes, and goes alone to eat breakfast with the bus drivers still up from safely delivering us to our destination during the night. The drivers are on a mission to get him to try the biscuits and gravy, made by the outstanding caterers- I actually have no idea when they sleep. On his way back he says hello to the crew already setting up the stage.

I’m glad the kids get to see the enormous amount of effort that goes this flash of magic that’s over in a few hours, only to be torn down and put up again in the next city.

When you travel in close quarters with a large group of people, you see not just what’s behind the curtain on the stage, but also what’s behind the masks we present to the world. No one can be on their A game 24 hours a day, after 4 show days in a row. You see people putting on their makeup over the printer, losing their cool at the delivery guy, hanging their show clothes out to dry over the handles of a stroller. You catch the most dazzling performer slouching exhausted over a pizza, the cheeriest production assistant walking the hall with a secret grouchy face. There’s an intimacy and a realness to it I deeply appreciate.

And I hope they boys are experiencing and appreciating not just the larger organism of the tour “family” but also the solidity of our little unit within it. Learning that we can move and change and have this fluid kind of life and still be together and permanent and safe.

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What NOT to Say to Prospective Adoptive Parents. And What to Say Back.

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Would you walk up to a pregnant woman and tell her about your friend’s cousin’s daughter whose infant died of a rare disease, offer her the unsolicited tale of your hairdresser’s daughter’s home birth gone wrong, tell her about every mother you know visiting her teenager in rehab, etc.? Would you walk up to a woman expecting a baby and volunteer every horrific possibility parenthood could potentially offer?

Of course you wouldn’t. Because it would be both entirely inappropriate and cruel.

Yet, when you’re involved in the adoption process, this is precisely what many people do. Mention you’re adopting, and people will often lean in with bizarre schadenfreude shining in their eyes and share some terrible story of a friend of a friend whose adopted kid with an attachment disorder burned their house down.

I can give you my ten-cent analysis of why this happens- I think it basically boils down to the fear of difference. For our purposes, the motivation behind the behavior isn’t really that important.

I’ve been at this for a while now and have, by trial and error, developed really good boundaries. In fact, this kind of ignorance affects me personally so little now that I see it as an opportunity to educate- hopefully with gentleness and compassion.IMG_9752

But when you’re first in the midst of the adoption process, it can be shocking and disturbing, and, worst of all, can hold up a mirror to all your deepest fears.

It’s not my mission in life to talk people into adopting. It’s a very personal decision and it’s not right for everyone. I do know that if you choose to walk this adoption road (this, in my opinion, glorious and rewarding road) you won’t be doing it alone. Make sure you seek the wisdom of the people walking beside you, not the onlookers shouting from the sidelines.

A friend sent me desperate late-night email yesterday. It echoed so many emails I get I decided to address it here. This is some of what she said:

I’ve been afraid to talk with a few of the women I know and love  about our plans to adopt b/c they talk about how:

One’s sister adopted and the child ended up in prison.

Another’s cousin adopted and the kid had such a learning disability he ended up dropping out of school and is working a minimum wage job with no future (both adoptive parents are college professors).

How Nature cannot be corralled by Nurture – it’s a huge crap shoot.  Everyone thinks she’ll get lucky by getting a “great kid” but not everyone does.

How I am irresponsible to adopt when I already have two kids, and my resources will be taken from my lovely children when they need me.

In fairness, I know they care about me.  They are coming from a place of great concern.  And they are trying to help me reconsider this whole adoption thing from a rational POV.

They are basically playing a track of GREATEST FEARS Volume One.

Exactly. Greatest Fears Volume One. A tape which, by the way, all expectant parents have in one way or another. But most women walking around with a baby bump don’t have every random acquaintance at Pilates echoing her tape with a terrifying anecdotal story.

If you want a thousand antidote stories of incredible adoptive families, call me. Or talk to any adoptive parent you know. Read the literature. For inspiration, I love Carried in Our Hearts, by Dr. Jane Aronson or More Love Less Panic, by Claude Knobler. For instruction, I love The Connected Child and everything else ever written by Karyn Purvis. Those are just a couple of an amazing plethora of offerings.

I adore this post from Jen Hatmaker called “How to be the Village.”

Reach out to your adoption community. If you don’t have one, start building one. Read the blogs. A few of the greats: Rage Against the Minivan, Flower Patch Farmgirl, White Sugar Brown Sugar, A Musing Maralee, The Eyes of My Eyes are Opened…. there are so many.

More immediately, here is a general guideline of how I deal with it:

Secondhand experience is irrelevant. Only people speaking from the inside the adoption community are allowed to tell you anything right now, unless it’s about how they just bought you a duffel bag full of awesome baby clothes from Chasing Fireflies.

People are often ignorant and careless about adoption related issues and they will rarely ask if you want to hear what they have to say. They’ll  just launch in. This is where you get to work on boundary setting, which I realize can be very hard for women because we are so reticent to offend anyone or create an awkward social situation, regardless of the personal cost.

Try to look at it as excellent opportunity to develop this very important skill. I’m sure it’s a skill you want your children to have. You can better impart it if you’ve cultivated it in yourself.

Say, “Thank you, I understand you mean well (or love me, or want the best for me, or whatever is appropriate to the relationship), but I don’t want to hear any negative stories about adoption right now.”

THE END.

When they say, “BUT….”

And they will. I don’t know why this is, but the need to tell these horror stories is almost compulsive and they will not want to shut up.

This is the hard part and it’s very important….

Cut them off. Then repeat yourself verbatim.

Do this as many times as is necessary for them to hear you.

Rehearse this at home. I’m not kidding. Have a friend or spouse role play it with you. It’s not an easy maneuver, and you’ll be much better able to execute it in the moment if you prepare in advance.

Then hold your head up and proudly walk your path and know that, whatever trials and joys it brings, you will not be walking it alone. Reach out your hand and you will find there are so many on this road who will hold it.

I’m an adoptive mama who has had a pretty challenging go of it. In spite of (or maybe because of) our struggles, there has never been a day, not one, that I haven’t thanked God for all adoption has brought to my life. It has brought my own parents for one (I’m also adopted)! It has also brought my beautiful children, immeasurable love, personal growth, a stronger marriage, a profound sense of gratitude, a faith in the world and in myself that I never believed possible.

IMG_9667I’m copying and pasting the letter I sent to friends and family when we were in the thick of things with Bright Eyes, and I was sitting in a hotel room after having visited him in his foster home every day for a week, preparing him for the transition to our home. It was a hard, scary, wonderful, transformative time. I was touched by the outpouring of support and curiosity from friends and family, but was also totally overwhelmed and unable to respond personally to everyone. Instead, I wrote this.

Please feel free to use any or all of this, if it seems useful to you:

Dearest Friends and Family-

We wanted to reach out to our inner circle to let you know the new developments with Project Lil’ Shriner #2…

This information is strictly private right now- just close friends and family- so please be conscious of not sharing anything publicly until we do so first. Also- legally no pictures can be posted until there is an official adoption. So if we’re ever hanging out and things start to get instagramm-y, please be aware of that!

And now I have totally buried the lede…

As you all know, we’ve been embroiled in the process of a second adoption for the past year and it has been moving at roughly the speed of a Tarkovsky film. But during the last couple of weeks, things have ramped up to the pace of a Transformers sequel! We are wildly excited to tell you that next week we’re scheduled to meet a precious 3 yr old boy- let’s call him Bright Eyes for now. If all goes well with the next couple of steps, we’ll proceed to visiting and transitioning him slowly, and hope to have him home by mid-December. Possibly earlier!

We need to stress all the maybes and probablies and ifs in that paragraph….

We know that adoption is super confusing, so here’s a little primer of what’s going on. We’re adopting through LA County DCFS (Department of Child and Family Services), so Bright Eyes is currently living in a foster care placement. There are many, many steps before we can legally adopt him, and a number of things could come up that derail the process. It could take months. It could take years. It could not happen at all. We just don’t know. There will be lots of court dates and visitations and ups and downs and, well, we don’t even know exactly because this is such a different process from last time.

We ask that you live in the moment, with all of its uncomfortable uncertainty, along with us. Right now, we’re proceeding with cautious optimism. We promise to tell you when it’s time to jump up and down and truly celebrate. Trust us- we can’t wait for you to meet him when the time is right. See the FAQ below for more details.

The next few weeks will tell us a lot, and during this time we will be very, very busy and focused on our family-in-transition. We won’t want to discuss every detail of the process. We will most likely miss your holiday party. We may not send a card. We may not call you back. Please know that we love and treasure you. We could never do this without you- our beautiful extended family, both given and chosen.  We’re so grateful for all you bring to our lives.

Love,

Jillian and Scott

FAQ:

1.Wait, what happened to Baby J? 

We were fostering Baby J. on an emergency basis. Baby J. wasn’t up for adoption and we were never under the impression he was staying. We were lucky enough to share a brief moment with him. We all miss him. We will think about him with both joy and sadness for the rest of our lives. Hopefully we’ll see him again somehow. Bright Eyes is a totally separate case and the two have nothing to do with each other.

2. So do you get to keep this one? What’s the deal? Is he yours or not?

 We hope so. We think so. We don’t know for sure yet. I know- it sucks, right? But that’s the deal.

3. All of this is so exciting! I really want to talk to you about it! But I’m so busy and I don’t have the time to read this whole email. Will you explain this to me over and over again every time I see you?

We know it’s confusing and we know everyone is excited. We’re also excited- and overwhelmed and nervous. Every email from our social worker could either be the best or the most heartbreaking news ever. It’s a heavy time. It’s a lot for us to have to explain every step of the way. We promise we’ll let you know about the big milestones.

4. I just heard a terrible story about an adoption that fell apart (and/or read an awful adoption story in the news) and I really want to share it with you for your own good- should I?

 Nope.

 5. I went through this and I have some tips or legal advice that I feel could help you- should I share them with you?

 YES! Please do. The process is pretty opaque and most of the useful things we’ve gleaned have come from other adoptive families, who have been through a similar process.

6. When can I meet that little nugget of joy and give him a squeeze?

We don’t know yet. Probably not right away. Every child processes the trauma of separation and the transition into a new home in their own unique way and at their own pace. We plan to give him all the time he needs to feel safe before all you crazy pirates start coming around. Again- we’ll let you know!

7. Will you be having a baby shower or a welcoming party?

Yes! We need to see how it goes, and how everyone is settling in. When it’s time, you can be sure we’ll have a party. We’re the Shriners, after all.

8. How can we support you?

 We treasure your messages of support. We need all your love and cheerleading and prayers and good thoughts and white light and GF brownies and whatever else you get into. And we’re so grateful for your understanding if we’re MIA for a while. Also- extra special love for Tariku (movies, playdates, airplane-spotting expeditions…) will be very much appreciated over the next couple of months.

 

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More Room on the Couch

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I’ve been working on Bright Eyes’ lifebook lately. I used My Family, My Journey for Tariku, and I liked it so much I bought another one. A lifebook is the adoption equivalent of a baby book, but has a more expansive focus, documenting not just milestones but also history. I appreciate this particular template because it holds a space for many different kinds of experiences. I know plenty of adoptive parents who create their own lifebooks from scratch, but it can be a daunting and emotional experience, and it’s a relief having a framework to help me out. I highly recommend it.

Lifebooks are just one way we sculpt our children’s narratives. We create their story every day- with how we answer questions, with the books we read them, with all the various ways we impart to them their true histories in a developmentally appropriate way.  Each of my children came to me with a whole journey I had no part in. But we are still the lens through which they’ll come to know those stories, and it’s an enormous responsibility. As a professional storyteller, I think about it a lot. How do I make these complex and often sad stories ultimately tales of triumph and strength and love and hope? I don’t think there’s any one answer, but I do feel that it’s important to engage with the question in a fluid and conscious way.

Working on their lifebooks helps me, because it’s a time that I can thoughtfully address the hard stuff without the pressure of them sitting in front of me. That way, when the tough questions do come, I’m a little bit more composed and prepared. Lifebooks are also an excellent tool for opening up a dialogue with a child who might otherwise be reticent to ask questions. For instance, Tariku will almost never talk about Ethiopia these days without a visual cue, but when he sees photos, a torrent of curiosity always follows.

A few nights ago, I was working on a page entitled “My Adoption Buddies.” I revisited Tariku’s page, and this is the photo posted there:

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These are the adorable little nuggets from our Ethiopian adoption travel group. We’re still close with all of them. They’re family to us.

I started to cry, and emailed our travel group families. I told them that I felt sad, because I didn’t have a similar picture to post on Bright Eyes’ page- or any picture for that matter. I worried that he would feel left out at our reunions, or that he’d feel a deeper kind of loneliness because he doesn’t have the same ties to his roots.

They universally responded:

Welcome to the couch, Bright Eyes! This is your couch, too!

Of course. What was I thinking? There’s more room on this couch. There’s always more room on this couch. As not just an adoptive mom but also an adult adoptee, I’m also on this couch. What a privilege. What a family I get to have. I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else.

I began Bright Eyes’ “Adoption Buddies” page with a picture of him and his brother. I labeled it “your best adoption buddy forever!”

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A Letter to my Son on his Seventh Gotcha Day

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To Tariku on his Gotcha Day-

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Love,

Mama

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