Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Rundassa's Rules

Yes, it’s true.  I believe I can say a bridge has officially been crossed.  Well, at least a footbridge.  OK, so some crude stones have been hucked out in the stream and we’re clumsily hopping from one to the next.  But it’s progress and I’ll take it!  So there. 

Monday turned out to be quite a day.  (Do I say that about every day?)  The incident on the way home from school, with which I ended my last post, became a big deal.  It turned out that everyone was right, and everyone was wrong.  Saffron had run off and home from school alone and left Jasper carrying her coat and backpack.  But he had offended her by grabbing her by the neck of her coat after school in front of other children, when she wasn’t cooperating.  She had knocked Ruby into the wall on her way into the house, but not intentionally.  I think.  I don’t know which of my kids is telling the right story half the time, even when there isn’t a language barrier!

Saffron came in the door upset, and got moreso as she saw Jasper and Ruby telling me what happened and thought they were accusing her of things she hadn’t done.  She was sort of storming around the house, and Jasper and Ruby made it worse by trying to get involved instead of staying out of things.  (There is always some tension between them wanting Saffron to keep the house rules, and me asking them to let me be her mother.) 

As the afternoon progressed Saffron’s silent pouting turned into a full-blown tantrum.  It was the worst I’ve ever seen from her.  She was actually throwing things, and slamming doors, and yelling at people.  I couldn’t deal with it with the other kids being around and nosy, so I called a friend who had offered some babysitting for a date.  “Is your offer good for tonight?”  I asked.  Steve was working late and I had no date in mind, but knew I needed to do something serious.  I was afraid to drive the kids because Saffron was already sort of “fake” running away—walking down the block and back—so I had Jen come to my house and pick up the other three kids.  Watching them leave for a fun outing just made Saffron more upset, and things got worse.  I must say that she was still her conscientious self, being careful not to throw anything that would break—mostly just Barbies and paper—and being sure not to make too big of a mess for me.  I asked her over and over, in words she could understand, to tell me what was wrong.  I tried to get her to use the English/Amharic language book we rely on.  She wouldn’t communicate at all.  I knew I needed to do something serious.  I called my dad, who stopped by for some comfort and eventually loaded Saffron into the car for me.  I had called Simon, the translator, but been unable to reach him.  Feeling strongly that Saffron needed to talk to someone in her own language, I called the Ethiopian restaurant where Willa and I had gone to buy whadt for Steve’s work presentation, and explained my predicament.  They said to bring Saffron in any time.  So, once Dad got her in the car I headed downtown. 

In the restaurant were two parties eating dinner, one with two adopted children from Ethiopia, but the cook and host welcomed us right away.  I ordered injera and chicken whadt for Saffron, and we each had an orange crush—a pretty good substitute for Fanta or Mirinda.  Pretty soon we met Rundassa, the host, who is also the owner of the restaurant.  His sister was the one cooking.  Rundassa turned out to be an absolute gift.  I couldn’t have dreamed up a better medicine man for Saffron.  Rundassa is from Ethiopia, but came to the US via Russia for graduate school.  He is married to a white woman and has three biological kids and three kids adopted as older children from Ethiopia.  So he not only had language and culture expertise, but adoption expertise.  

As I noticed that adults did in Ethiopia, Rundassa got right down to business with Tinsae.  He talked to her about everything from school to race to how to be a better sister.  We sat there for about two hours and he came over to chat whenever he had a break from customers.  We learned that Saffron did not understand that Ethiopia was part of Africa, and thought people were demeaning her whenever they called her African.  He told her how many wonderful things it means to be African, how many Africans there are in the world, that President Obama is half African, etc.  I had him ask her if she would rather I tell people to refer to her as Ethiopian, but she said no—American.  In other words, she wants to fit in.  She doesn’t want to be called out in any way right now.  Rundassa talked to me about how he felt as the only African student in graduate school, and how sometimes you isolate yourself even if others don’t push you away. 

I told Rundassa all about the dynamics we’ve been experiencing between Ruby and Saffron.  This is very similar to what he experienced in his family, and he gave Saffron advice I wouldn’t even have thought of—or probably dared to give at this point.  He told her she is Ruby’s older sister, and must act like it.  She must be an example, and teach Ruby things, and let Ruby have her mom’s lap when she needs it because Ruby is only six and still needs her mom more.  He told her she must eat what she’s offered, and not make faces, and adamantly backed up my idea that I not give her Ethiopian food for a while, until she shows respect for the food I offer her.  He also asked how much her hair extensions had cost, and told her in Birr, Ethiopian money.  She was shocked.  I have not felt it right to make an issue of those types of things, but he pointed out that I tell my biological kids when something is too expensive to buy, and she needs to be aware of the value of things.  I had noticed that in Ethiopia when adults talked to Tinsae they usually gave her a very buck-up sort of speech, and this was similar in tone.  But it was tinged with the very American understanding we needed. 

Rundassa’s main message to Tinsae (that’s the name she always gives in Amharic, of course, though when I asked her if she’d rather just go by that and forget Saffron she said clearly that in America she wants everyone, even Mom, to call her Saffron) was “eyes-oshe” or the very common Amharic phrase for “be strong.” His main message to me was stop worrying.  When he heard the girls had only been in the country for 2 ½ weeks, he almost laughed.  He said all of this is normal and will work itself out before we know it.  I think I knew this, but it was great to hear it from another adoptive parent.  He was clear in saying that I should not be a softie, but should enforce the house rules and have high expectations from the beginning.  He even called his American wife to have her give me encouragement over the phone.  He gave us both his numbers, told Tinsae to call anytime, and invited her over to play with his kids.  He also said Tinsae was much more stubborn than the average Ethiopian child, probably due to a difficult life, and shy even in her own language.  This was comforting to me because if it’s personality too, and not just language and adoption adjustments, all of these battles of will seem even more understandable to me.

What more could I ask for?  Rundassa upheld and surpassed my impression of the Ethiopians I have met as some of the kindest and most open and loving people in the world.  I left with a whole new lease on life.  I think Saffron did, too.  On the way home I could tell she was making a great effort to show her gratitude for my effort to find someone for her to talk to—and for acting out of love instead of anger.  I sense it surprises her each time I do this.  She offered some new information in the car, like that she had made two friends at school.  This is also when she told me to call her Saffron.

Yesterday the difference was obvious.  Saffron avoided chances to fight with Ruby, instead of looking for them.  It was bad at first after school, which is when I locked myself in my room and told them they could continue bugging each other without my help (I had had a crappy night’s sleep Monday night, and Tuesday was probably my most discouraged day yet until I saw the change in Saffron that evening).  By the time I came out an hour later, the girls were playing happily together.  Saffron had taken Rundassa’s advice and decided to teach Ruby something:  how to climb down a wall backwards with your hands into a back bend.  Apparently, this is something they practiced at mealtime at the orphanage.  Ruby responded by being kinder and sharing her things without complaint, and they had a great night.  If anything, it was little Willa who felt left out (the poor baby sister).

And speaking of that baby sister, we’ve decided to give her a birthday in honor of my oldest sister, Kathryn, who died as a baby:  Willa Birhane’s birthday will be January 31.  Saffron knows she was an Easter baby, so we’ve given her an April birthday in honor of my aunt, Jane, who died with no children:  Saffron Tinsae’s birthday will be April 1.


Tonight Saffron had another garage sobbing session again, but for the first time ever she came in and stopped crying on her own.  She also didn’t ask for other food when she missed my dinner.  She wouldn’t speak to me or smile or eat before school, but I’m pretty sure that was just shear fear of returning to school (I let her take one rest day on Tuesday) and only directed at me as a practitioner of this confounded language.  Ruby was chipper through Saffron’s crying session tonight, but then took her own turn after.  Jasper cried tonight, too, and Willa for about an hour, so only Steve and I are left to take our turns.  Steve couldn’t believe how calm I was through it all.  But it’s because I have seen the beginning of a mighty transformation.  I saw Rundassa’s magic, and I know it’s now just a matter of working out the kinks.

Tonight when Willa cried for an hour (over refusing to apologize to Ruby for biting her—you may think I’m forcing apologies too much but they seem to be a symbolic act of accepting my authority for these girls), Saffron was visibly upset.  I haven’t seen her that way for a while, probably because she’s been too focused on herself.  She was so distracted by Willa’s tears and her refusal to apologize that she didn’t even want to read.  Once she finally got up and got Willa to apologize, she then tucked her lovingly, gently, into bed, speaking to her in the voice I heard the women in Ethiopia use.  I still don’t know what the words mean.   It was something.  I was watching a little mother put her child to bed.  That moment tonight, more than any other since I met these girls, brought home to me the role this little girl has played in her sister’s life.  I’ve known about it, but this time I saw it first hand.  I saw an old soul.  She’s been a good mother.  Willa is happy and carefree partly by disposition, but partly because she has been raised with love—by her sister.  How can I fault that sister a few tantrums now?  She has an entire childhood to make up for. 

This post is brought to you by the letter S, for Saffron:  “Coming from the dried stigmas of the saffron crocus, it takes 75,000 blossoms or 225,000 hand-picked stigmas to make a single pound, which explains why it is the world’s most expensive spice.”  (the epicentre, “encyclopedia of spices”) 

P.S.  Happy Birthday, Lizzie, fellow student of the Sisters’ school.
P.P.S. Welcome to the world, my two new nephews: Guy Michael Bowman, 11/11/09, and Sawyer James Swensen, 11/16/09.  

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

To Blog or Not to Blog

(Written with intention to post on Monday 11/16.  Make sure you check out the pics below too.)

To Blog or Not to Blog
That is the question. Whether ‘tis nobler in the mind to tackle the papers and dishes that invade the kitchen, or to take arms against a sea of troubles—and by blogging, rest them.

(I realize it’s cliché, but the “To Be or Not To Be” speech remains my all-time favorite piece of Shakespearean insight. It echoes in my mind at least a couple of times every month. For me it’s the ultimate expression of that question we all must ask ourselves many times each day—whether to face life’s struggles head on, or try to escape them.)

Yesterday was quite a day.

In the morning we had church at 9:00 AM, and I needed to be there early to play the piano. Ruby was supposed to be on time to give the scripture at the beginning of primary. Unfortunately, we did not get off to a good start.

Tinsae did not wake up happy. She refused breakfast, and convinced little B/W to do the same. They did get ready for church, but in an unlucky turn of events, Tinsae put on a favorite dress of Ruby's--her fancy Easter dress. This is understandable--it was hanging in Tinsae and Birhane's closet, where all the girls' dresses hang because that's the only place they fit, and I had indicated that all the dresses were for all the girls to share. Though Ruby knew about this, she apparently never foresaw the possibility of someone else actually choosing her favorite dress. (The "favorite" status of this dress was previously unknown to me.)

I was showering, so Steve handled it. He backed Tinsae up, reminding Ruby of the dress deal. Ruby cried and Tinsae pouted. Soon Tinsae took the Easter dress off and threw it on Ruby’s bed. She then changed into a shirt not long enough to be a dress. We offered her many other options, including said Easter dress, but she wouldn't speak or move. Ruby wouldn't get dressed at all, despite our warnings she would miss her chance to give the scripture. Ahh, mornings. I had to Go!

Steve took me and Willa and Jasper to church, leaving both girls crying and finally thinking maybe we were serious. When Steve got back home a few minutes later, Ruby was struggling into the forbidden dress and Tinsae was still in the shirt. He helped them both into acceptable clothing and dragged them to church. Saffron was screaming but Ruby went willingly, now very worried about her scripture.

Meantime, the opening scripture had come and gone and I had grabbed Willa to fill in for Ruby. She repeated into the mic what I whispered in her ear, having no idea what it meant but relishing the spotlight. Then, during the announcements, Ruby walked in, confidently went up front, and sat in the scripture chair. Her teacher tried to motion her back but she was oblivious. I shimmied out from behind the piano, up to the podium, and whispered a plea to the primary president (in the middle of her announcements) that we should do the scripture again.

She did not miss a beat but said, “and we’re now going to have our scripture again, because it was such a great scripture it’s worth hearing twice.” Ruby came up to the podium, read her scripture perfectly, and happily sat down. Crisis averted—for now.

I then went to get Saffron, who was out in the hall. I coaxed her in with the proposal that she sit by me on the piano bench, rather than with her primary class (the other kids her age). She indicated that she had a stomachache and headache, which is not surprising considering that she hadn’t eaten since the afternoon before. She was pouting and acting miserable (as she probably felt), so I tried sitting with her in the audience so she could watch the action up in front. She began to panic, shaking her legs and fidgeting. I figured she was about to breakdown. I was really losing my patience with the pouting, but didn’t want her to be further embarrassed so I took her to the nursing room off the bathroom, which is comfy and quiet, and shut the curtain. Once again, she sat on my lap and cried. I just stoked her back and let her get it out.

I think it’s important to interject here that I am no superwoman. It is still hard for me to be loving and comforting during these moments sometimes. As I said when I first met the girls, I really look forward to knowing them better and loving them completely, but I think it’s unrealistic and a disservice to adoptive families if we don’t admit that that level of connection takes time. Ruby and Jasper I’ve had for years—cared for for years. If caring for someone is what bonds us to them, then it stands to reason that with less time invested in these girls so far, I’m less bonded to them. I remember a teenage girl named Charity once admitting, “Some people know, some people only believe but want to know, and some people only want to believe. But at least they have begun the desire to believe. I can say that I want to believe.” I have never forgotten that. She may have been referring to religious beliefs, but I think her insight applies to many things. With a new child, even sometimes a biological baby, you pass from a desire to a belief to a knowledge of love. I began with an eager desire to know and love these girls, but with a certain fear and uncertainty. I have passed from desire to confident belief—I really want to feel like their mother and I believe I will eventually. But at the same time, I’m very grateful to the adoptive mother who confided in me that she felt like a babysitter to her adopted Ethiopian baby for the first six months. Now that baby is the light of her life. I have thought of that comment often—depended on it—and wish adoptive families would share these thoughts more often. I believe they help, rather than hurt, the cause of adoption. It is through the struggle that we achieve the fullest measure of happiness, right?

And I should add that I did break my “not-lose-my-temper” streak Saturday night with the grocery store episode. The reason Saffron was pouting in the garage is because I had left her there. She and Ruby were fighting, and Ruby had gotten hurt. I had just invited Saffron to come to the grocery store with me, but then she refused to apologize to Ruby. I said she couldn’t come unless she apologized. She sat there in the car in silence, so I hopped out, slammed my door, walked around the car, flung her door open, picked her up and stood her on the ground. I then jumped back in and pulled out of the garage. This was a bit like my lunchbox throwing episode of a couple days before, when she refused to hold the lunch I had packed for her. I didn’t yell either time, but I did lose my cool and show my exasperation physically.

And when I say I’ve had a goal not to lose my temper, it’s not because I’m Supermom. It’s because I’ve done it plenty in the past with Jasper and Ruby. Especially after our baby boy Charles died, in October of 2007, I found myself with a shorter fuse than I’d ever imagined, and yelling at Jasper and Ruby more than I’d ever believed I would. I’ve learned over the past two years how ineffective it is. Your kids may respond and do what you want in that moment, but it doesn’t change their behavior positively for the future. It’s also a real handicap when you turn around later and try to teach them not to yell at each other. This time around, with the girls, I have to teach them from scratch how we act in our family (or try to!), and without using a common language to explain. They are learning solely from our actions. So if I lose my temper and overreact, the consequences are even more dire than they were before. The fact that I have felt relatively calm over the past few weeks is not due to my own special resolve. It’s due to the fact that, one, I want this to work: part of me is treating it in a detached way, like a behavioral study for which I’ve prepared for a long time; my rational brain says that the more I stay calm, choose my actions and reactions, and teach the lessons I want taught, the sooner we will have the well-adjusted family we seek. Second, I have no doubt I have angels on my right side and on my left, to bear me up. There are many moments throughout each day when I think to myself, “I am definitely not alone. I have with me an extra comfort, an extra measure of the spirit all the time, to help me through this. Because I, alone, would not be handling it.” I’ve never thought of it until this moment as I write, but perhaps Charles is finding his own way to help—to act as peacemaker in our home.

Alright. Enough of the sappy stuff! Just trying to show the full picture. Anywho, I barged into the toddlers’ room at church and asked for some snacks for Saffron—I knew she was starving. I told her to come join me at the piano when she finished eating. I went back into primary to discover they’d already started singing time, and I’d failed them on my first day: they’d had to commandeer a pianist from the audience to play for me during my disappearance. I resumed my post, and was soon joined by Saffron. She cuddled up next to me at the piano. But then Ruby returned from her class for singing time . . . DUN, DUN, DUNNNN,
No sooner did she see Saffron up there with me than she marched up to the bench, crying and reminding me that I had said none of the kids could sit by me while I played the piano at church. Argh. Well, true, I said. So why don’t you sit on my other side. She did, and I put my arm around her and gave her a hug. Well. Not OK. As soon as Saffron saw this, she pulled away from me and turned her back. Then she got up and left the room. Keep in mind that I’m trying to accompany songs this whole time, and am up in front of the room where everyone can watch my parenting peril!

As soon as there was a break I went outside and retrieved Saffron from the snowy sidewalk (she had taken her shoes off). I sat her down authoritatively next to a girl she’s met before. Luckily, she didn’t move again.

After primary it was time to head to our last meeting, and Saffron refused to leave her seat. I handed all my books to the other kids, and picked her up, crying. She is the size of an eight-year-old, so this was awkward and her dress came up over her bum. This made her more upset, so I set her down to walk. She collapsed stubbornly to the floor again, so I picked her up again. We all marched into the meeting, which had already started, assuming Steve would have a seat for us. But at my behest, he had gone home to get food for Saffron! So we made quite an entrance before we quickly found a bench. When I sat Saffron down she began muffled cries again. After a few minutes it was clear this would embarrass her, so I took her out of the chapel. She cried and I cuddled some more, then she ran outside again. I grabbed her, saying, “It you want to pout let’s at least do it inside. It’s freezing out here.” Again, not a moment of great sympathy on my part. We eventually went back in, but she would only sit on the armrest of the bench, drawing more attention to us, of course. What good entertainment for everybody on a typical Sunday at church!

But this is where it gets good. This is what does your heart good. About half way through the meeting, Saffron cuddled up to me. She and Ruby were sad about who got to put their head on my lap, so we set ten-minute turns according to the clock. After a while, Saffron whispered to me, “Mom, sorry Ruby.” She wanted to apologize to Ruby! I didn’t realize she was still thinking of her battle with Ruby as the cause of any of this, but I was so impressed she wanted to apologize. Apologies have been a struggle for her. I was really proud of her for this step, after such a difficult day. They apologized to each other (well, OK, with me saying all the words), and made up.

From there, our Sunday went really well. I felt like laughing as we left church. I thought, “All’s well that ends well.” (I know, gospel of Shakespeare again.) I wasn’t embarrassed, having learned long ago that allowing yourself to get embarrassed in public parenting moments only triples your stress, and you usually take it out on your kids. Plus, I have to assume all of our friends at church are pulling for us. I know they are. The kids played great the rest of Sunday and it was a really nice day. Each potential problem was solved pretty easily because the kids were all willing to sort it out and try not to pout. It was really encouraging.

As I write, the kids just came in from school, with Ruby bawling that Saffron had pushed her into the wall. Jasper and Ruby say that she left them and ran home alone, a big no-no, and ended up at the neighbor’s house around the block. Jasper says her teacher told him she was difficult at school, being ornery and refusing to share, and running out as soon as the bell rang. I don’t know what to do this time. I have great sympathy for Saffron’s point of view and all she’s going through. None of her behavior seems so surprising to me, considering where she’s coming from. But I don’t know how to handle it when it happens outside of my house, and in more complex situations. I thought she’d come home from school happy today. These are the times the language barrier really gets in the way—we need to have a good talk and we can’t. Sunday we invited the translator I’ve found and his family over for dinner, for the express purpose of having a good long talk with her, through him, and giving her a chance to air her grievances. But they never showed up. I think that really would have been helpful. She won’t talk to me now, so how will I figure out what to do?

My Room

I have now officially locked myself in it.

Some Photos

Exhausted airport arrival--sorry so blurry.

Saffron Showing Us She Can Knit:  Has the new hair, but not the new teeth yet.

Saffron knitting again, and showing off her new teeth.

Willa's Braids Upon Arrival

Willa's new braids, right after the two-hour crying ordeal.

Poor Ruby's injuries after the bike crash.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Chapter 3: What Goes Around Comes Around

There are a couple of reasons I haven’t posted for almost a week, though I’ve wanted to every day. 

One is that I’m exhausted, physically and emotionally, and can’t seem to find one spare minute in the day when some person or basic chore isn’t clamoring for my attention, or it isn’t 1:00 AM.

The other is that I every time I think of writing I feel overwhelmed by my inability to convey the spirit of daily events properly, and the fear that, out of the 1,000 little interactions that make up every day, the ones I choose to mention will skew the tone of the story one way or the other.  Several times I have worried so much about properly describing the day that I’ve failed to describe it at all.

But I can’t let this life-changing story go unrecorded.  So, I think maybe the best solution is to set down how I feel right up front, and then get into details.  That way I don’t have to worry so much about the details being misunderstood.

It may surprise people to hear that I’m feeling pretty good these days.  It surprises me.  This is definitely one of the most difficult patches I have ever been through emotionally.  Each day, as I am in the thick of it, I am thinking to myself, “Wow, this is heavy.  This is enough to drive a person to the edge.  Why aren’t I losing it?”  I’m not saying I’m enjoying every moment—believe me, I’ve locked myself in my room more than once.  I’m just surprised that under my surface layer stress I feel an abiding peace and patience.  I feel the stress of the moments and days, but I don’t have anxiety about the future.  In Ethiopia I awakened and then again put to rest all the Big, capital-B fears about this major life change.  I feel confident it will all iron out if I can just be patient from day to day.

I learned  a lesson from a friend last year about Lot’s wife.  I had never liked the story of Lot’s wife from the Bible, thinking it rather unfair that one be turned to salt just for taking a last farewell glance back home.  But Carol explained to me that she saw Lot’s wife as a symbol of our own stubborn insistence on looking back and questioning ourselves over and over, even when we’ve made valid decisions and need to trust them and move forward.

Of course, it also helps to take your medication (check), vent to good friends and family (check), stash Halloween candy in your bathroom (check), tune out children and listen to books on your iPod while you do dishes (check), and get enough sleep (hope to check some day).


I just pulled dramatically into the grocery store parking lot, having left bawling Ruby and Saffron at home. After refusing a nap with my mom this afternoon, Willa has just fallen asleep in the back seat. So, it appears I've finally found a moment to blog--on my phone.

This is really hard. I knew it would be, I expected it, but sometimes it still feels good to state the obvious. I know what some people reading this will wonder, so let me just answer you right up front:  No, struggling in the thick of it doesn't make me have second thoughts. When you struggled and cried with that colicky new baby did you have second thoughts about having him? I'm guessing not. Well I often wish people would realize adding to your family through adoption is very similar to adding through childbirth.

A wise person said it is important not to get caught up in the thick of thin things. Well, that's why I have no second thoughts, and have underneath an abiding confidence that all will eventually work itself out.   Because I am not caught in the thick of something thin.  Rather, if we continue the sauce metaphor I must say I am at that endless simmering and stirring phase where you're waiting for your white sauce to thicken and you think it never will. But it will. And when it does, it will be the very foundation of everything you “cook up” in life.  I am in the thick of something thick--or at least thickening--that will be worth every stroke of this endless stirring.

(You know I'm full of it right? Metaphors are the reason I never excelled in poetry.)

So what is the thick of it? It's R and S fighting over everything to find their places in the family. One is used to being Head Girl at home, and is still getting used to the idea of having a big sister. She wants to teach, and lead, and be best buddies. The other is used to being Head Girl in life, and wants to prove how competent she is, all she can do, how quickly she can fit in with new friends, and how she doesn't need to be taught.

Ruby must learn to be little sister to a big sister. This is quite different from being little sister to a big brother.  She must learn, as her mother had to, not to take everything so personally.  Saffron must learn to be a kind and encouraging big sister, rather than a competitive one.  She must learn to honor her sister's desire for friendship. She must learn you can't boss a sister close in age the way you can boss one much younger, like Willa.  (Willa was willing to be mothered by her sister when there was no other option. Now that there is a mother, she is less willing. She is transferring her loyalty to me. This must happen, though it is obviously a painful development for Saffron). Ruby doesn't want to be mothered by a sister—she wants to be sistered. They both do, but neither knows quite how.

Both of them must learn there is enough love to go around. Both must learn there will be plenty of precious moments alone with Mom for everyone, and we need not crowd in and ruin the other's moment. Both must come to believe confidently that their talents are known, their individual strengths are noted, and that Mom and Dad will see their good behavior as well as their bad. “Their days are known, and their years shall not be numbered less.”

How do I know all this? I graduated with honors from the Mabey Family Sisters College. I was forced to repeat more than once the course titled "Elizabeth and Emily:  How A Second and Third Daughter with Very Different Personalities Can Learn to Appreciate Each Other.” In the last two weeks I have poured over my (mental) notes from that course, and realized there may be reason for my having girls instead of the family of boys in which I always saw myself excelling as a mother.

Though Elizabeth and I were biological sisters and almost three years apart, for a while we seemed born to clash. Though she was older and wanted to teach and lead me, I was confident and independent and usually not willing to follow. 

I remember once driving alone in the car with my mom after a particularly nasty patch of “E and E” fighting.  I was feeling quite superior, thinking everyone knew Lizzie was the one who lashed out, and I the one who merely reacted. I thought I deserved sympathy for all I put up with.  Suddenly, my mom said, "You know, Emily, you have not been very nice to your sister this year."  She asked if I had thought how it might feel to be Lizzie and have an outgoing little sister who is as big as you are, and who is constantly jockeying for your territory.

I don't remember if she said it or not, but I felt her disappointment in me.  My stomach dropped. I was hurt, and horrified. For years I had seen myself as the straight man to Elizabeth's drama. I had not realized my own hurtful part. Lizzie looked up to Rachel as her older sister, and expected I would do the same to her.  But I refused to give her any respect.  Rachel soared above us all as the oldest.  Sara, the youngest, was along happily for the ride, much like little W.  Elizabeth and I  languished in the middle, fighting over Sara’s allegiance as if she had the power to crown one of us queen.  I wasn’t acting the way Lizzie thought a little sister should—the way she had.  Elizabeth worked at carving her niche, and I tended to come crashing through and ruin it.

The older I get the more I learn from my experience with Lizzie. I realize that what we both really wanted was the other's respect. Middle sisters need a place to call their own. I love and respect Elizabeth more than ever now. She is good at so many things I am not.  In fact, all my sisters are! Without them I fear I would be a selfish know-it-all.  I so wish I could go back and tell little Emily to let little Elizabeth '"big sister" her now and then.  Quit trying to prove so much!

What does all this matter now?  It means I understand a bit about the power struggle Saffron and Ruby are fighting right now. I think it's part of what gives me patience. I have no doubt that some day they will thank the Lord above that they have each other--especially when I've lost all my faculties and am driving them both nuts.

Take the decade-long battle Lizzie and I had, and add to that an international adoption later in childhood, a language barrier, and the enormous and impossible-to-fill expectations of one dreaming of a family in America, and the other dreaming of her very own little sister.  Then it’s clear why all of this behavior is no surprise, though unpleasant.  Just remind yourself of that every ten minutes, especially when they are having a who-can-cry-loudest competition. And smile for a moment, as I did last night, each time they forget to compete, and accidentally have a ball together.  Lizzie and I had those moments, too.

Before I get into the details, I should mention Jasper. He is not only out of the danger zone, but has sped through the challenge course and won immunity for the week.  I had a firm talk with him (at him) on Saturday about bucking up, accepting the new reality, and finding a way to make it work for him. I doubt it was the talk, but something in his whole attitude has changed. He has been an easygoing prince this week. He's even found ways to tease and bond with his new sisters. I don't expect him to sail smoothly forever, but I'm very grateful for this week. You da man, Buddy.

The week:  As my cousins said, we have packed the kind of stressful experiences you usually have once a week three to a day.

On Saturday, Saffron got the much-hoped-for extensions.  I had initially said no to these because Ruby was begging for them too, but thought better of it when I realized how self-conscious Saffron felt about her short hair.  I offered Ruby the compromise of getting her ears pierced instead, since Saffron already has hers pierced and Ruby already has long hair.  I also told Ruby horror stories given me by Shequtta about how bad it hurts, which stories turned out to be true.  For 3 ½ hours Saffron Tinsae sat in the chair wincing and crying silent tears while she had her hair done.  But now she’s as proud as a peacock of her long crochet braids.  Ruby cried getting her ears pierced, too, so at least they had that in common.  I had to get them both through it, and help them both feel that they had done the bravest and coolest thing and were “kon-jo,” so that I wanted to cry myself by the time we got home.

Both Ruby and Jasper had a fun night alone with Dad at the Jazz game. And Saffron and Willa watched SYTYCD episodes with me.  Saffron LOVED it.  She is a true dancer.  It's in her blood. She was shocked at the skimpy outfits, and men with "shruba" (braids) but loved it. It was hilarious to hear her constant gasps.

While Willa sat on my lap in church she decided to braid several neat little braids on each side of my head.  Teenage girls sitting nearby were amazed.  She’s only 3.

Saffron started second grade.  She was extremely excited to begin school, and so with the principal’s encouragement we stuck her right in her second week in America.  She was desperate to start and so was very willing to try a lot of English on Saturday and Sunday. Saffron and Ruby found each other at lunch, but couldn't seem to figure out Sister vs. Friend relationships at recess. Girls crowd around S at recess, getting excited if she says a word.  She seemed happy when I met her at lunch, and after school, but was exhausted by the evening.  This has been the case most of the week.  Her teacher says she’s doing very well in school, and I think she’s trying so hard—concentrating so hard on English—that when she comes home she needs to shut down out of exhaustion.  I understand.  But it has made for some difficult evenings.  Saffron is right now finding her place in our family, testing my authority, re-learning how to be mothered rather than mother.   And she can’t communicate.  That’s a lot to deal with.  She tries to do her homework as diligently at night as J and R, but obviously can't do it without help. Everyone fights over reading with Mom.

Monday night we went to dinner with Steve's family. Before we left I had had to put Saffron in time out for the first time. She had hit Ruby, and wouldn't apologize. I gave her three warnings, then sent her to her room. (Apologizing has been a big obstacle for her.) She was very upset the rest of the evening. At dinner she wouldn't look at or talk to anyone. She was starving but wouldn't eat.  I was quite frustrated.  After about 45 minutes at the table I took her hand and walked her out of the restaurant.  I said a prayer on the way out that I would handle the situation right though I was upset, and keep my streak of never losing my temper with the girls. I sat on a bench with Saffron and cuddled her and told her she was a good girl and I loved her.  She cried.  After a while of this, I asked if she wanted to go back in and get something to eat.  She nodded. We went back in and she proceeded to eat her spaghetti, half of mine, Steve’s chicken, and almost a loaf of bread. She was happy. She had fun. I'm not saying all was perfect--Ruby was then jealous of my cuddle with Saffron and started to cry—but it was a good moment.  Those moments make you happy and give you a glimpse of a great future once we've all adjusted.

I visited S and R at recess, and witnessed for myself the difficult dynamic of choosing to play with friends at recess and inadvertently making your little sister feel bad. It was a little heart-wrenching.

Willa and I bought injera and waedt at the Ethiopian restaurant for Steve’s lunch presentation about our trip to his coworkers. At the restaurant, they told Willa, "Don’t ever forget your Amharic." 

Then Willa got six cavities filled.  She was very good for one side of her mouth, but then they gave her another shot and started on the other side.  At this point, she started saying ‘bekkah’ over and over, talking with the dentist’s hands in her mouth.  After a minute, when it was clear the dentist wasn’t stopping, she must have figured it was because we couldn’t understand her in Amharic:  she started saying “finished, finished!” over and over around the dentist’s fingers.  It was very funny.

This was Steve’s birthday, and not a great one for him I admit. Jasper and Ruby made great homemade presents.  Saffron made disgusted faces at the cake.

Saffron had had to miss school that day, as she and Willa had a doctor's appt. They had to start their immunizations over and both screamed mightily for an hour, from before the shots began to well after they finished. I don't think it was the shots--it was shear anger at mom and frustration with life. I carried them screaming out of the room at the end. I could only laugh.  But later when Saffron and Ruby fought and Willa wouldn't nap, I almost cried. My friend Emily called at just the right moment and absolutely insisted I bring the girls to her and go to the store by myself. Thanks, Em. Another friend, Teresa, let Ruby stay and play all day. Thanks, Teresa. Teresa's daughter had had a Birthday party that day and invited all three girls. S was very excited to go to her first American birthday party, and happily picked out a gift. I made it clear the gift was from all three girls.  But when we got to the party and Ruby wanted to carry the present, Saffron got upset and refused to go. She sat on the sidewalk and sulked through the whole party, despite several invitations to come in.  She must have been freezing, and emotionally drained from all of it.

I made it to Jasper's Parent-Teacher Conference and actually bought a cake mix for Steve. I had it almost made by the time he got home from work at 7:30. By this time, miraculously, S and R were playing in my high heels and having a giggling blast together.  That’s why I have to live by the minute and not get stuck in a mood—because I never know when the storm clouds will clear and all will love each other again.

Willa got her hair braided in Ogden. She screamed the entire two hours (literally) and I had to hold her head still. While we were there we got a call from Jasper that Ruby had taken a terrible spill on her bike. I felt awful not being there, but a kind neighbor and my mom saved the day. Ruby’s face was scraped up badly and she got a fat lip.  Poor thing didn't need this right now.

When I got home Saffron happened to discover my knitting bag. Much to our surprise, she got out needles and yarn and began knitting! This made Ruby jealous until we got out her latch hook project.  Then they happily crafted next to each other.  It’s amazing when we get these glimpses into Saffron Tinsae’s past, her true self, and her true capabilities.  It makes me realize what a barrier the language still is—that there’s so much we don’t know about her and that she must be frustrated that she can’t tell us.  These are the really cool moments that you can only have with the adoption of an older child.  I feel very lucky to have an older child, even if it happened accidentally.  She truly brings her culture and past with her, whereas a little one like Willa is more of a sponge, soaking up all things new.  Having an older child is sort of like having a wise old soul inhabit the body of one of your children.  That’s how I feel sometimes.  It’s as if we’re uncovering her, one layer at a time.  For example, tonight she was upset and was trying to ignore me as I labored over changing her sheets.  After a few minutes she was clearly uncomfortable watching me and couldn’t resist the temptation to jump in and help me. 

Saffron got her teeth fixed--eight went from brown to white, and one cavity was filled.  I knew she was self-conscious and wanted this, because she would always be sure to close her mouth when we took pictures of her. After the procedure she wouldn't look in the mirror or speak to me, but by the end of school she had forgotten to be mad and I could see she was thrilled.  Her smile is now even more beautiful.  Most importantly, she seems more confident in it.

By Friday evening I was so beat and sick of the drama that I called my mom and we took everybody to McDonalds as punishment. Ruby threw a tantrum on the floor there, I can't remember why, but all ended up having a blast together in the playplace. It was clearly something new and exciting.

All in All
The vacuum was also new and exciting this week, as was the carwash. We also discovered Saffron and Willa like Cafe Rio. We got our first "Yummy". Today they delighted in their first snowfall, going sledding and building a snowman with my dad. 

Saffron is trying valiantly to read, and it's a true pleasure to sit next to her and hear her read each letter. I'll be very sad when these accents disappear. Her English sounds much prettier than mine. Willa is crying less to get her way.

In the second half of the week Saffron learned to apologize and even did it voluntarily to Ruby. She and Jasper learned to tease each other and laugh together. Willa is learning to let Ruby be her big sister. 

Jasper is finding his place and thriving as the family leader.  He is no longer bemoaning his lack of a brother.  Rather, he seems to enjoy the freedom to stay above the fray.  I am really proud of him.  And I’m proud of Ruby’s determined affection—no matter what clashes they have, she is always looking for ways to have fun with her new sisters, for new ways they can bond.  Actually, I’m extremely proud of the efforts made by all.  For Saffron it probably takes extraordinary effort just to get up and try again each day.  Willa is trying excitedly to see tortillas as a viable alternative to injera.  And our family and friends are making great efforts to support us, love all our children, and back up our parenting.

English understanding grows all the time.  I think food is an even bigger issue than language right now. It is a battleground everyday, meaning Saffron often chooses to go hungry. That would make any one of us a bit out of sorts. I think once she eats regularly she will also find happiness quite regularly.

Today my parents tended so Steve and I could see the Michael Jackson movie as a belated Bday present. I loved it. I almost cried through much of it, which reminded me how emotional I am these days. But though it's stressful, I find that emotion is still more excitement than anything else. There are a hundred subtle sweet moments every day that make me very excited to see this new family develop. I can't believe it's really happened--I can't believe we really have two beautiful new daughters from Ethiopia. I can't believe we are so lucky to have this beautiful family. I can't wait to see it all come together.

 This post is brought to you by the number 1 and the upside down letter e.  I can't make that letter here, but you know the one I mean, the one in the dictionary used to signify the sound euh.  That's the way you pronounce "Saffron," folks.  Look it up.  It's not "saff-rahn."  It's "saff-reuhn."  Like "African."  Not "Afrikaan."  Oh, and the 1 is as in 1:38 AM.  Argh!  Must sleep.  Must sleeeeppp!!

Friday, November 13, 2009

Good Day

Today was a good day.  If you saw what we went through today, you might not think so.  But by my new standards, it was.  In fact, for some reason I can't put my finger on, it even feels like a milestone day.  Some invisible good line was crossed, or some tiny footprint of progress set itself in the fresh concrete.  Anyway something felt right.

I've been working on a much longer post about the past week, but it's not finished and I've run out of time and energy once again.  I just wanted to post a quick note in the meantime:  I feel good about today.

Saturday, November 07, 2009

As my mom has always said--and her mother before her--you can have one day to feel sorry for yourself, but then you've got to pick yourself up and keep going. So I had a little cry, and got a little sleep, and had a better day. Here are a few thoughts that helped me get excited again. Just click on the link. Let us all have the courage to create--whether a family, a flan, or a new future! And women, the faith to follow our intuition . . .


The women in our lives are creatures endowed with particular qualities—divine qualities which cause them to reach out in kindness and with love to those about them.  We can encourage that outreach if we will give them opportunity to give expression to the talents and impulses that lie within them. 
-Gordon B. Hinckley

Never let a problem to be solved become more 
important than a person to be loved.
-Thomas S. Monson

Thursday, November 05, 2009

Nobody Likes Me, Everybody Hates Me, I Might As Well Just Go Eat Worms

Today was hard.  I feel like crying.  It's not hard in the way people seem to think it would be, like crazy with a doubled family size, or hyper kids, or insurmountable language issues.  It's hard because no child seems to think I'm being enough or doing enough for them.  Today the guilt was laid on thick, in non-English speaking looks and sulks, and in very clear words by the all-too-eloquent English speakers.  Lacking the strength to do otherwise, I took it all to heart.  It hurts to have your kids imply that you've deliberately messed up their happy lives.  And everybody seems to feel robbed by the loss of baby brother Charles all over again. 

I keep trying to write something more about how people view having a biological new baby versus adopting non-infants, but it keeps coming out wrong and I am well aware that my words are immortal in cyberspace.   Some things are just not meant to be blogged about.  Save it for the book, right?

Oh and, P.S., I guess there's actually no need for me to go eat worms because I already have a worm of sorts--found out today that the big spots on my cheek and arm are ringworm.  Yippee. 

Gees, I'm pathetic.  Put me to bed.

Wednesday, November 04, 2009

A Week in the Life of an American Child . . . Man, I’m Exhausted

Steve (‘St-EE-v’), Tinsae (‘TIN-sah-ee’), and Birhane (‘Br-AW-nee’) came down the escalator at the Salt Lake airport Friday night just before 10:00, looking like death warmed over. Steve wouldn’t make eye contact for fear of crying out of exhaustion, and T and B wouldn’t make eye contact for the same reason, and many others I’m sure.

My parents and one sister were there, as well as Steve’s dad and brother, and my uncle and his family. It was wonderful to have a few people share this moment with us. That was the only moment there will ever be to see these girls as wholly and purely Ethiopian. From now on—from that first moment they slept in their own purple room, in their own American beds, with their own American clothes in the closet, they began to transform right before our eyes into American girls. Just this moment as I write, Saffron/Tinsae is pushing herself in the driveway in Charles’ red Radio Flyer wagon. She is wearing Ruby’s long black witch wig—upside down. She has put it in a ponytail with a barrette. Now she is dragging the unhappy dog around in the wagon. This is a typical scene on a typical American street in the life of a typical American child. Within 72 hours of her arrival, Saffron taught herself to ride a bike. It was a struggle until she took off her shoes: bare feet seemed to do the trick. This is life experience at the supersonic speed of children. It’s been less than a week, and things like Target and trampolines are already familiar territory. And the look in her eyes has changed. That faraway, timid, sad and skeptical look in Tinsae’s eyes is now rare. In it’s place is the increasingly confident, trusting, and happy look in Saffron’s eyes. Of course, the fiercely independent look is part of both of them.

I’m not saying this adjustment is easy for these girls. Last night Tinsae was back again, making an Ethiopian traditional dish of injera with wadt for us. She was right at home in the kitchen, with the big chopping knife, the raw meet and the strange spices. She worked quickly, with confidence, telling Ruby what to do, and looking the happiest I’ve seen her since her arrival. Birhane squeeled loudly, continuously, and seemingly uncontrollably at the thought of eating her mother-sister’s Ethiopian cooking again. She gorged herself. Today I heated it up for them again for lunch.

If I have mixed feelings, I can only imagine what they feel. I am very eager for them to learn English, and explore this new world, and stop chattering to each other in that world that keeps me out. At the same time, I panic at the thought of them forgetting their language, forgetting the native songs they sing together, and growing apart a bit—even though that’s necessary to make room for me. Just now I put Willa/Birhane down for a nap without making Tinsae take one, for the first time. Birhane was scared. Unlike most three-year-olds, who would cry for Mom, she was crying for Tinsae. Today we went to Target to return something, and they wanted to know why they weren’t getting new shoes. A few days ago they were surprised to be offered shoes. This made me kind of sad—how quickly our influence has changed them!

And they notice their differences. Today they were very excited to show me a photo of a baby with dark skin; yesterday at Jasper and Ruby’s school Tinsae stared unabashedly at the only other girl of color in the room. I was very glad I had taken them to the K&K African market in Salt Lake yesterday. I’ve been there a few times in the past to introduce myself, talk about the girls, find a translator, and buy Ethiopian injera. The men at the market were so nice and welcoming to the girls. They are Sudanese, but have all spent time in Ethiopia as the two countries are neighbors and friends. We met Simon, who will translate for us at doctors’ appointments and the like. The girls didn’t say much, but I know they enjoyed their visit to the “Africa Suk” (“Africa Shop”) and will be comfortable there next time.

Ruby and Saffron are a striking pair: Ruby, jealous of Saffron’s ability with the big knife, and Saffron, jealous of Ruby’s skill on the trampoline. Ruby’s pendulum swings swiftly back and forth between sheer thrill at this constant sleepover, and dejected dismay at having to share her things. Jasper acts sort of separate and vaguely annoyed by all the giggling, as a big brother rightfully should. He has struggled a bit with feeling left out. We had a little talk about making yourself left in, after which he successfully joined in—and took over—the trampoline jumping. The girls saw his value: he can bounce them higher than anyone else can. Jasper has also surprised me by feeling a great need to boss and enforce the house rules, something he never cared much about before. He doesn’t want them going outside without practical shoes, or goofing off when Mom says it’s bedtime. I have tried to back up his authority with the girls. I know it’s important for him to find his place in all this. Willa is rather contentedly along for the ride with most things. It’s clear she’s been loved and spoiled by her sister, the orphanage, etc., and expects to get her way much more than her sister does. She is good at turning on the tears and keeping them on. She’s learning they’re not always effective. She loves to get in the car and, indeed, to get into everything.

Our week so far has been much different than I expected. It’s been crazy and constantly busy, and the girls have been always up for trying something new or going a new place. Having your first day in America be Halloween is enough to shock any immigrant’s system, and every other new experience probably seems like a piece of cake after that (except that they don’t like cake).

Here’s how our week has probably felt to them:

-Morning trip to Pace’s, where we get sodas and meet people
-More people stopping by your new home to meet you
-Running around to different stores where sometimes we get stuff with Mom
-Being told to take a nap, and then very rudely awakened from same nap to get all dressed up in your Sunday best and go out in the dark to the neighbor’s house. Being stopped on the way by several scary and weird looking people who know your names and are happy to meet you.
-Getting to neighbor’s house to be offered gross food, and more people who want to meet you. -Wondering why you’re in your Ethiopian Sunday dress when everyone else is in a costume—you’re no dummy, and sulk around until you finally get a wig of your own.
-Walking from door to door, miserable but excited in freezing cold weather, begging for candy which is prettily wrapped but doesn’t taste good.

-Getting in your Ethiopian Sunday best again to head to church in the morning, only to find you don’t get to sit by your new sister, or your old one. Luckily, finding they sing the same songs and follow the same program as when you went to church in Ethiopia. Only this time there’s no Amharic translator, and random white people are constantly hugging you in the hall.
-Doing the nap-then-rudely-awakened thing again, to then go up to Iyat bet (Grandma’s House) to have the first meal you really dig into: rice and chicken you can eat with your fingers.
-Going to a strange other house, Mama’s cousin, to meet more new people who smile at you and love to watch you braid hair. Being forced to try some weird desserts they seem to like, then finally playing wildly with all the kids and having a grand, universal kid time.

-Going to the dentist. Weird, but you cooperated and somehow you understand they are going to fix your teeth. Spending a long time choosing a “prize,” as Mama says.
-Going to Costco—what more can we say? Probably the best day of your life in America thus far. People handing out food for you to try, Mama letting you choose what you want, and the sight of gloriously familiar things like mangos and a whole chicken. Sitting at a table with Mom, delightedly eating the chicken with your fingers while everyone watches you with smiles, and then jumping back in surprise as some machine drops a bottle of water at you.
-Going to a “cinema bet” for the first time. Even when mom translated, you had no idea what this “movie house” was. Never heard of it. But it wasn’t so bad, sitting in a comfy chair and chowing on popcorn (a daily treat in your home country) while a huge TV shows people in monster costumes jabbering in English (Where the Wild Things Are).

-Ahh. Going to the “Africa Suk” and making your own comfort food. ‘Nuff said.
-Wondering, Why don’t I get to go to school with Jasper and Ruby? Why is Mom grumpy and throwing clothes around?

-What am I supposed to do around this big house while Mom is sick in bed? And why is she insisting on English more and more, and speaking less Amharic to me?
-Discovering Grandma’s slide and swings. Heaven! Learning the words “push” and “more.”
-Finally, after waiting and begging all day, going “swimming!” Ow! (yes!) I’m not sure what I’m in for and I can’t believe Mom gave me something so immodest that shows my legs to wear, but here we go . . .