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!!