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.

Accentuate the Positive

I realize that sometimes I’m guilty of sharing the hard parenting moments and breezing right over the good stuff. So I’d like to give you an update on our struggles with T and his challenging behaviors, because we’ve had a few pretty amazing breakthroughs. I attribute them in large part to the work we’ve been doing since we attended the Heather Forbes seminar a few months back.

Far and away the most challenging thing for me to deal with has been T’s rejection of me. Even when I’m able to remain grounded and patient and not take it personally all day long (it’s a rare day, but it happens), come bedtime I still find myself lying there with tears rolling down my face, thinking that in a million years I never imagined being a mother would feel like this.

I’ve decided to answer his rejection with yet more affection. Every time my impulse is to walk away, I instead go tell him I love him and offer another hug. Even if it means getting bopped in the face with a train car yet again.

Well, I’m thrilled to report that there’s been a definite shift. I’m still getting a pretty regular smack-down; I got an airplane wing in the eyeball just yesterday. But T has been accepting my love and snuggles lately more often than not. We’re having more fun together when we hang out just the two of us. And he’s been looking to me for comfort, which is major.

I imagine for parents with children without disrupted attachment, this must sound as normal as breathing. But for us it signals a profound shift.

Scott is leaving for tour tomorrow and I dread the fallout of that because Daddy is the star of our show around here. I imagine we’ll have some good old fashioned regression. But overall, I feel tremendously encouraged.

And yes, that’s a whoopie cushion he’s sitting on in the picture. Because I believe it’s important to expose children to culture as early as possible.

Grief and Empathy and Snow Balls

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I’m not sure I experience grief in the traditional Kubler-Ross five stages. Rather, I think my grief has five food groups. I’m the kind of gal who uses anything I can get my hands on to stuff my feelings into oblivion. For the past week I’ve been in the fourth food group of grief: Chocolate. The fifth is probably Weight Watchers.

Since Jennifer died, I’ve been having a hard time clearing the fog from my eyes long enough to even answer my emails much less to be creative or to be a present parent. I’m going to tell you what I prayed for at the bedside of my friend, who had just overdosed herself into a coma. I prayed that I be shown a way to give my son the tools he’ll need in life to never wind up in a bed like that.

I’ve been worried lately that I’m failing at that very task. Both Scott and I have been spending too many nights with our heads in our hands- unsure how things got out of our control, unclear about how to make it better.

I was well aware of the challenges involved with adopting a child who wasn’t a newborn, particularly one who had spent a significant portion of his young life in an orphanage. Theoretically, I was prepared for the behaviors connected to early childhood trauma. But, as any parent knows, theoretical parenting is about as good as theoretical dancing. You ain’t gonna learn to do a pirouette by reading about it.

Even before we were parents, Scott and I were immediately attracted to Non-Violent Parenting, which is based on empathy and nurturing rather than judgement and control. We knew a lot of people who had gone through the parenting classes at The Echo Center and were inspired by the respectful way they interacted with their children.

We’ve been trying to practice non-violent communication with T, except we keep screwing up. For instance, I’ve been unable to keep myself from screaming at him. And then I absolutely hate myself for it. But honestly, he’s infuriating. He’s beyond infuriating. Nearly every interaction with T is a battle. It always takes us an hour to get out of the house. Scott and I get bit and spit at and hit in the face many, many times a day. An hour ago he pulled a hunk of hair out of my head and then got grossed out and asked for my help getting it out of his mouth.

And most of the people I know have been saying- why the heck don’t you discipline him? Why don’t you give him a time out?

Well, it’s complicated. We don’t punish him because instead we’re trying to empathize with the needs behind his behaviors and to help him start to identify his feelings. But the problem is that I haven’t been all that successful in figuring out his needs. I thought it would be a lot more obvious. Maybe the difficulty arises from the fact that I’ve always been someone who stuffs my feeling rather than addressing them.

So Scott and I went in last week for a private counseling session with Ruth Beaglehole, the woman behind the Echo Center and the Nonviolent Parenting movement. It was amazing. We both walked out with a big shift in our perspective. We learned that, like parenting and dancing, empathy isn’t a theoretical exercise. I intellectually understood that I was meant to be empathetic with my child. I read about trauma for a year before we adopted him; I went to Africa and saw it with my own eyes. And yet, in the moment I simply wanted him to stop acting like such a freaked-out, aggressive wierdo and just fucking sing along with the rest of the well-behaved kids at Music Together.

Ruth helped us to acknowledge the fact that his behavior is fear-based and grounded in the assumption that the world is a frightening place in which everyone he loves will abandon him. Every time we let him push us over the edge we’re confirming that assumption and re-enforcing the trauma.

I have a picture of T when he first arrived at the orphanage and I can barely look at it, it makes me so sad. He looks absolutely terrified. It’s hard for me to remember that my hilarious, charming, fierce little man is somewhere in him still that scared baby. So now every time I’m confronted with his maddening behavior, I try to access the same empathy I feel when I look at the picture. It’s hard. It’s painful. And it makes me realize how little empathy I was feeling before.

We’ve recommitted to non-violent strategies and we’ve been doing better. On Sunday we took T up to Mt. Baldy to have his first glimpse of snow. And because it was a new experience, he was anxious and controlling and combative all morning. But we were somehow able to breathe and move through it and arrive at the magical moment of him saying, “SNOW!” We even got it on film. Here it is.