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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I See You

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I had a number of meaningful conversations during the Jewish New Year festivities, but my favorite was at a break-the-fast gathering, where I met a lovely woman who had spent the last year working with traumatized female veterans. Trauma- one of my favorite subjects to learn about! Of course I cornered her and asked her all about what she knew. One story in particular stuck with me. She told me about a woman everyone else had given up on, with whom she just sat in silence.

I thought about how, when Tariku is having a total freak-out and hides under the bed with his hands over his ears, I will sometimes just go and lie down on the floor next to him and not say anything. I remember when he was little and having one of his alarming tantrums, at first I would instinctively try to hug him or comfort him and he would panic and lash out. So I started sitting outside the door and waiting with him until it passed. And then little by little I began sitting in the doorway. Then I made it into the room. Sometimes he still needs to go be by himself for a while and work it out, but I’ve learned to see if there’s a little window open through which I can hold out an olive branch. If there is, I will go and sit silently with him.

My talk with the woman at the party caused me to reflect on how important it is to feel witnessed. Not just to be able to call a good friend on the phone and unload, although that’s great too! But to have your trauma and pain recognized and supported on a larger cultural level. We need simply to know: I am seen and there is a place for me here on this planet. All of me. All of my suffering and flaws and hope and humanity.

Because I am fortunate enough to have brilliant friends from different faith traditions, the week before the Jewish New Year, I found myself at a Christian Women of Faith event to hear the awesome Jen Hatmaker speak.  I heard her saying hetmessentially the same thing, with a different set of operating metaphors. Forgive my reductive paraphrasing of such a compassionate, eloquent and funny speaker, but what I heard from her was: You are seen and you are loved. Not for your accomplishments or your good behavior or your willingness to tow the line or your terrific souffles. You are seen, in all your imperfect and frightened humanity, and you are worthy of love. Period. End story.

I think a big part of all holiday rituals is simply to say to each other: I see you and we’re here together. We are all sinners; we are all in pain; we are all hungry for love and connection; we are all going to pass back into the unknown from which we came too soon. In light of all that mishigas (yiddish for “craziness”), we sit here beside one another in the presence of the divine mystery.

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Being Counted

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In October of 2008, Scott was on tour in Seattle and I was sitting at my dining room table working on my first memoir, when the number of our adoption agency flashed on my phone. We had been waiting a solid year since we finished the last of our paperwork. I picked up with a shaking hand. The voice on the other end said, “We have a beautiful ten-month-old boy for you….”

I opened my computer to find an email with two photo attachments, which I forwarded to Scott as I dialed his number. The blurry photos were of a gorgeous infant with dark, thoughtful eyes, a wide forehead, skinny legs and a face like one of the famous Ethiopian paintings of wide-eyed angels that adorn the ceilings of their churches.

“There’s my son,” said Scott. “Look at him. He’s perfect.”

I was smitten. I wore my little angel around my neck in a locket. I blew the pictures up and put them in every room in the house. I carried them around in my purse and shoved them in the face of everyone who would look.

“Look! My son! Isn’t he terrific? Isn’t he beautiful? Isn’t he clearly a genius?”

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One day, I met my friend Joel for coffee and began our chat by enthusiastically foisting Tariku’s pictures on him. He oohed and aahed appropriately, and then he said, “I’m here for you if you need help. And you’re going to need help. For instance, someone is going to have to teach this kid how to handle the police.”

I said, “He’s not even a year old, Joel.”

He said, “It goes fast.”

I thought he was being a tad hysterical. But Joel is a black man, and now, a few years later, as Baltimore is smoldering and I can’t look at pictures of Freddie Gray’s face without crying for that young man’s mother, I see that Joel wasn’t being hysterical. Not remotely.

Tariku is seven now, reed thin, goofy-toothed, adorable and all wild boy. He’s taller every day, all of his pants two inches too short because I can’t keep up with him. And as I watch him lope through the park like a gazelle, I think, How soon before he’ll be mistaken for a teenager? How soon before it’s not a mistake and he is a teenager? With every inch he grows, how much less safe is he?

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This should not be a mother’s first thought upon looking at her growing boy.

I’ve found myself stuck every time I sat down to write this past week– unsure how to write about Baltimore and unsure how to not write about it. For such a big mouth, writing about race doesn’t come easily to me.  I’m personally terrified and politically enraged about the brutal institutionalized racism in this country, but when it comes to writing about it, I feel overemotional and under-qualified.

Then I read this sentence from Kevin Powell’s amazing “Why Baltimore is Burning:”

“They know it is madness that so-called progressive, liberal, human-rights, or social-justice people of any race or culture have remained mightily silent as these police shootings have been going down coast to coast.”

That’s me, I thought– the mightily silent. I acknowledging my privilege, cry over pictures of Freddie Gray, make it out to a protest or two once in a while, read books by people smarter than me, retweet people more clever than me… It’s really not enough.

I joined some amazing women at a blogging conference this last weekend, including Kelly Wickham, Luvvie Ajayi, and Kristen Howerton (see: the people I often retweet who are more clever than me), and walked away feeling inspired. These women challenge me to read and write more about race. To reach for my own voice in the dialogue, even if I don’t have anything new to say. It’s not an originality contest, it’s about being counted. This is how I begin.

Talking Forgiveness

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On Sunday, I attended a brunch hosted by my friends Kristen Howerton and Laura Tremaine. We were privileged enough to have Robi Damelin and Bassam Aramin of the Parents Circle- Families Forum (PCFF) come tell us their remarkable stories and speak about their efforts toward peace through radical forgiveness. The PCFF is a joint Palestinian Israeli grassroots organization of over 600 families, all of whom have lost a close family member as a result of the prolonged conflict. It promotes reconciliation as an alternative to hatred and revenge.

Robi (her story here) is a bereaved Israeli mother whose son was killed by a Palestinian sniper, and Bassam (his story here) is a grieving Palestinian father whose ten-year-old daughter was killed by Israeli soldiers.

You may not think of me as a shrinking violet, but there are a couple of subjects that shut me right up. Top of the list: the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Though it affects me deeply and personally– I have family in Israel, including my brother and my nephew– I don’t engage about it publicly very often. I tell myself that when it comes to Palestine and Israel, I am overly emotional and under-qualified, and that whatever I say, I’ll be hurting someone I care about. Until now, I’ve dealt with that by avoiding the subject. I went to the brunch with the hope of changing that, of beginning to reach for my own voice. I challenged myself to learn, to get in the discussion, to be unafraid to make mistakes. I never could keep my big yap shut for very long.

Hearing about the losses of Robi’s son and Bassam’s daughter felt like being kicked in the chest. It was not an easy morning, but it was a hopeful one.

Robi was quick to point out that she doesn’t have an easy definition for forgiveness, or any definition at all, really. I relate to this. I’ve always thought forgiveness is a word that’s bandied about way too easily. I’ve wondered- can forgiveness be manufactured? Can you just decide to forgive someone because you think you should? Or is forgiveness an action? And if so, what action?

Robi fielded the question to us:

What is forgiveness?

“Forgiveness is owning your part,” one person answered. “Forgiveness is giving up your just right to revenge,” said another.

“Forgiving allows you to stop being a victim of that circumstance,” said Robi.

The PCFF uses art exhibitions, film, dialogue meetings, and various other creative and humanitarian projects to discuss the human side of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, and why mutual understanding of the “other side” and a reconciliation framework is necessary for any sustainable peace agreement.

I was especially captivated by Bassam and Robi’s emphasis on the importance of storytelling– of narrative– in relationship-building.

“Once you understand how the other sees their story, they become human.” said Robie.

If I’m impassioned about anything, it’s the healing power of narrative, both on individual and larger cultural levels. I left feeling emotionally wrecked, but also mobilized and inspired.

You can sign up for the PCFF newsletter here, to learn more about their ongoing programs. Please do!

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)