Saturday, December 04, 2010

Merry Christmas, everybody. We just finished putting up our lights.

Below is my all-time favorite Christmas scene from a movie, even including It's A Wonderful Life. Few people now realize what a sad song "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" was when it was first sung by Judy Garland in the timeless Meet Me In Saint Louis. It was a lullaby meant to cheer both the singer and the listener at a time of loss and uncertainty. It reminds us to try to enjoy Christmas: hope for better times if we're down, or time again someday with lost loved ones. This Christmas I dedicate it to my brother-in-law, Curt, who just lost his best friend in a shooting accident.

Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas, everybody. "Muddle through somehow."

(For some reason it can't be shared, so you'll have to click on the link above and view it at Youtube.)

Thursday, November 11, 2010

A Sleep and A Forgetting

I can't say it better than Mr. Wordsworth:

"Our birth is but a sleep and a forgetting:
The Soul that rises with us, our life's Star,
Hath had elsewhere its setting,
And cometh from afar:
Not in entire forgetfulness,
And not in utter nakedness,
But trailing clouds of glory do we come
From God, who is our home:
Heaven lies about us in our infancy!"

Saffron's birth as an American girl is like "a sleep and a forgetting." As she told me tonight, she finds silent tears on her cheeks in bed because she is forgetting her language, and her songs, and how to cook her native food. The soul that rises with this new girl "hath had elsewehere its setting, and cometh from afar." And just like Mr. Wordsworth says, she comes trailing clouds of glory from her previous home, and not--nor ever will or should be-- in entire forgetfulness of that home.

I told her she can make Wat on Saturday. I reminded her we have one of her songs on film, the only one she was ever willing to sing for the camera, and that I have put an Amharic course on her iPod. But I know none of this will be enough. She will forget, anyway. And that won't help with the people she's lost, whom I know she misses. Sometimes I'm torn between anger that her father gave her up and set her on a path to leave her homeland, and gratitude that it brought her to us.

Nevertheless, it is comforting to know that Heaven did lie about her, and her sister, in their infancy. They had a mother who loved them. Today is Steve's birthday, and so we went to see Secretariat as a family. Saffron told me that in the movie she had a memory of her mother. When she lay dying, she said to Saffron, "I wish I could give you something to remember me by." But she had nothing to give. "It's OK," I said. "You didn't need anything. You're remembering her anyway."

Here is a video of Saffron singing an Amharic song at her baptism in June. This one is about Jesus taking her hand to help her.

Thursday, October 28, 2010 - 'I Love My Hair': A Father's Tribute To His Daughter

Emily( thought you would be interested in this story: 'I Love My Hair': A Father's Tribute To His Daughter

This message was included:

Great story behind the "I Love My Hair" song.


A friend alerted me to this fabulous Sesame Street video. You may have already heard the buzz: this little muppet singing about how she "loves her hair" is a sensation. All three of my girls absolutely love the song, and the message. And take it from me: it's a needed message.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Happy Birthday, Prince Charles

This evening our little Charles would have turned 3. Three years on, the thing that probably surprises me most is how much the kids still talk about him. Just today at Jasper's football game Ruby said, "Mom, see the way that little girl is climbing all over her big brother on the ground? Do you think if Charles were alive he would be climbing on me like that right now?" I don't remember that my sisters or I talked quite as often about our sister, Kathryn, who died as a baby. Maybe it's because she came before all of us, so we didn't experience her death.

This feels like the first time we're truly experiencing what it will be like to have his birthday come and go every year in our busy lives. The first year his birthday meant a lot of other things besides a birthday--we had survived one year since that horrible day of our baby's death. I had anticipated the anniversary with fear, but then realized the anticipation was worse than the actual day. I thought of him on my own, and didn't need a certain day to remind me. My friend Charlotte, whose son Mason had just died a few months earlier, came over and helped me make a birthday cake for Charles. She was the perfect person to spend that day with.

That first birthday passed with little acknowledgement from friends and family and that hurt a bit, but only because I had been so afraid all along that people would forget Charles' existence. It sounds irrational, but that was a tremendous fear of mine while I was pregnant--I felt defensive of him, and how little his life might matter to people when it was over in the blink of an eye. That's why I made a point of letting people stream in to the delivery room and hold him right after he was born. I desperately wanted him all to myself for those short minutes--but I also wanted others to feel him. To love him as I did. So I tried to give him to them. It was really, really hard.

And now I'm crying. I'm quite surprised. I haven't cried about Charles in a long time: probably almost two years. I realized early after his death that there were two parts to my grieving process. There was the sadness over the son I would never know, and there was the trauma of what I had been through, anticipating a child's death, pushing him out to face it, and then holding him in my arms--powerless--as it happened.

After the first year, I felt my strongest feelings about the experience came from the trauma, not the loss. I felt peaceful about having Charles again someday, and about enjoying the children living at my feet. But it was still hard to think about that day, and that time in my life, and that time in my children's lives.

His second birthday we spent in Ethiopia, in the midst of our fingerprint troubles. And though we thought of him, the trauma felt pretty far removed, and the loss felt about-to-be-filled by the girls. I felt Charles' approval and happiness for us.

But today I've felt the loss. Now that we're settled in as a new family, and a mainly girl family even though I've actually birthed more boys than girls, I've felt the loss of my little boy. Today I've felt frustrated for the lack of a little three-year-old brother climbing on the girls, and running out on the football field after Jasper in his football gear. That would have been sensational. I can't say I miss you, Charles, because I don't really know you. But I can say--I can really, really say--that I wish you were here. I wish you were here.

Phew. I'm embarrassed to admit to being that emotional about this. But it's good to get that out. It's great, though, to remember that most of the time I don't feel sad about it at all. How marvelous that life, and joy, go on.

Thanks to those of you who remembered Charles today, and sent us messages. I really appreciate it--again, from that place inside that still fears sometimes that people forget he was born. But also to those who didn't (lest I get phone calls), don't worry about it! I've realized since that first year that just because people don't mark a specific day doesn't meant they don't think about or remember you. In fact, I myself am not good at marking specific days or places. I don't go to Charles' grave often, and we didn't do anything special today, because we've learned that we're just not special-place or special-day people: we think about Charles when we want to think about him, and visit him wherever we want to visit him.

Since I don't have any video to post of a Charles birthday party, here's a little video from a party I threw for the kids last week, to celebrate one year together as a new family.

Monday, October 18, 2010

ET(hiopia), Phone Home: the Sequel

Ethiopia Dad just called, out of the blue, to tell us he has sent a letter with family photos in it. We hurriedly woke the girls up to talk to him. Saffron cried in frustration because her native tongue would no longer come to her lips. She could understand much of what he said, but couldn't answer back at all, except the equivalent of "How are you?/I'm fine."

Willa can't understand or speak a word of Amharic. I had to prompt them with what little Amharic I know, and ended up talking to him myself, at least getting across that S is an amazing soccer player and W loves to dance.

Little Brother said "Selam." He sounds much older. Months ago, when we first called, he cried like a small child.

Recently I asked Saffron how often she thinks about her dad and especially brothers, and how often she misses them. "In the morning," she said. "And at school. And at night."

I have to remind myself that Ethiopia Dad relinquished the girls to an orphanage almost a year before the orphanage gave them to me. I'll never quite understand why. I didn't take them from their home--I gave them one when they had already lost theirs. But I'm not naive about the pain they will continue to go through. Contrary to what many people think, for me there is no jealousy. I am so grateful he loves them and they love him. Why would I begrudge my children the love of their first family?

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Oh My Hair


When we first had the girls and many people said, "Oh, I've heard learning to do the hair is the hardest part!" I thought--"Are you kidding me?! I'll take hair over behavoral psychology!" But, it's true that there's quite a learning curve for Caucasians to learn the secrets of beautiful African hair. I love my girls hair, and have enjoyed learning to take care of it. The African American community has been absolutely wonderful in helping educate me. I completely disagree with white moms who say they don't feel welcome in African American salons. I have gone in admitting I needed help, and have been treated very well at a couple of different salons. I'd love to help dispel this myth that White mothers are resented. Yes, I know there are some groups in the African American community who do not support children of African descent being adopted into White families. But my personal experience has been great. I have been treated like a mom, by moms.

I am NOT a hair person, but between me and Saffron we've figured out some cute hairstyles. I do the designing and parting, and we take turns at the braiding. This style, below, I love because it evokes the look of an African hair wrap swirling around the head. Her bangs are created with twists shown me by a woman at Disneyworld. They relax after that first day and look really adorable. They can be left in for about two weeks. Don't worry that she looks sad--she's just exhausted because it took four hours and was midnight when we finished.

Saffron's Wrap Hairstyle:

This style, Willa's fauxhawk, actually came about because Willa was bawling and refused to have any more braids. Saffron was braiding her hair, and always starts with a few braids on each side. So, we ended up with a Grace Jones-esque fauxhawk which we thought was actually very cute. She wanted me to leave the braids and cut the top, but I didn't think that was too great of an idea.

Willa's Fauxhawk:

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Saffron and Willa in Their Ethiopian Dresses

Oops--just found this photo post that never got posted. Saffron's beautiful dress was ordered online from a charming woman at Ethiopia Design in California. She rushed it for us because it was for Saffron's baptism (last June), and even included some Amharic words to remind Saffron how to say them. Willa's dress is one of the ones we bought for the girls at the Leprosy Hospital in Addis Ababa. Interestingly, the girls hated and wouldn't wear their Ethiopian dresses the first few months in America. But now they actually choose them for church many Sundays, even over their foofy American dresses.

Saturday, October 02, 2010

The Girls' First Baseball Game

Tomorrow we are headed on an RV trip to Zions National Park with Steve's parents. They have enjoyed getting to know the girls and, in honor of their efforts at being "new" grandparents again this year, I thought I'd post this guest post. This was written by Steve's dad, Grandpa Karl, about his experience with the girls this summer at their first baseball game. They were glued to him through the whole, long game. (I SO appreciated not having them glued to me. I am a HUGE baseball fan and I like to watch every pitch.) Here is his report:

(As Emily watched me talking with Saffron, Ruby and Willa last night, she asked me to be a “Guest Blogger” for SwensenSays. So here’s my story of our family get together.)

It was a perfect evening for a baseball game. Because we knew that Steve and his family loved baseball, Virginia and I wanted to take them to a Salt Lake Bees game.

We had perfect seats for the game. We stretched along the first row of the balcony right behind home plate. We could see everything. The seats were in the shade and the temperature was perfect.

Both teams scored in the first couple of innings. The score was tied – three to three. Then we waited through a long six-inning drought.

I asked Saffron and Willa what they knew about baseball. My first question was: How many teams are out on the field playing baseball? With an apprehensive tone, Saffron answered, “Five?”

“No, there are only two teams playing tonight,” I confidently responded. “Our team, the Salt Lake Bees, is wearing black shirts and the other team, the New Orleans Zephyrs is wearing blue.”

I could tell I was in good company to explain baseball action. Saffron and Willa knew little if anything about the game. After a few more questions and the girls providing me with guesses, I decided to just explain what happens in the game as it progressed.

I enjoyed having the opportunity of telling the girls about the events occurring on the field. And I was pleased that they thought I was so knowledgeable! I believe they thought Grandpa Swensen knew everything.

I didn’t know that the game would drag on and on for six more innings without a run. There were several hits and a couple of times men were left on base as the teams finished their innings. But the score remained tied.

It was enjoyable to sit with Saffron and Willa. We ate M&Ms like we’d never seen candy before. Ruby occasionally would reach over for some candy when it seemed her parent’s bag was full of grown-up hands. I reminded Saffron and Willa that I remember when they said they didn’t like candy (last Christmas time when they came to our home to make ginger bread houses and decorate them with frosting and candy.) Saffron smiled as if to say, I’ve changed my tastes and I like candy, now.

I suppose Willa got tired of my questions and my not answering her “Why” questions after I would explain what had just happened. She moved to the other end of the row and sat next to Virginia. Today, Virginia told me that Willa asked “Why” after almost everything Virginia told her about the game or any other topic.

The game was tied when we went into the tenth inning. The New Orleans Zephyrs scored two runs. When the Bees came to bat in the bottom of the tenth inning, it appeared the Bees had lost the game. People were leaving but the Swensen family continued to watch.

Two players walked to first. A couple of fly balls were caught. One out, then another. Then Luis Figueroa, a light hitter, came to the plate. With two strikes against him, he connected with a fast ball which skyrocketed out of the park. The crowd went wild with enthusiastic cheering. It was loud and Saffron, Ruby and Willa were asking what happened as the crowd continued to cheer. Figueroa’s home run brought in the two runners who had been walked with the final score now, six to five. The Bees won the game! The coach was quoted in the newspaper this morning, saying, “It was almost divine.”

Monday night was terrific! It was a perfect evening to attend a baseball game and a perfect ending of the game. Together we walked slowly toward our cars not wanting the event and family activity to be finished.

We missed Jasper, but he told Steve on the phone that he had a great time at his first football practice. He said he enjoyed learning about and practicing tackling. Perhaps our next outing could be to a football game.

Standing, Squatting, and Giggling with your Siblings

Jasper and Ruby and Saffron are having a giggle-fest in the kitchen. Saffron has learned to love our teasing ways, and laughs her head off when teased (nice teasing, of course). She's fun to tease, because she's still not sure when it's teasing and when it's truth, or quite how to tease successfully herself.

Just now we were talking about diapers for some reason, and whether we had any. I said, "Well, there are those ones left over from when you first came. I thought you and Willa were babies, so the first couple of weeks I put you in diapers and rocked you in the cradle. But then we noticed you were a little big for a baby. You weren't fitting very well in the baby clothes, and you seemed to be trying to talk to us."

"You also seemed a little too smart for a baby," Jasper added.

Saffron looked at me quizzically at first, searching her memory and asking me if we really did this when she first came. When I grinned she burst into giggles and said. "No you did not! I don't remember that!"

Then amid her giggles, clearly with diapers on the brain, she started telling us a story about her first experience with a western-style toilet. I was about to try to write it the way she said it, but then I thought why not just film it? So here goes:

Thursday, June 24, 2010

My Dad

Today's email exchange below, between me and my dad, is an example of what I love about my dad. . . .

-----Original Message-----
To: Mabey, Ralph R.
Sent: Thu Jun 24 14:45:48 2010
Subject: Petraeus

Dear Dad,
You remind me of General Petraeus.




Wow.  How come?



P.S.  You remind me of Abigail Adams. 

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Female Circumcision

I couldn't think of a thing to blog about lately, or bring myself to give up one of my free moments to do it. But tonight I've GOT to: I just got a doozy of a question.

Saffron just asked me, in a round about way, if in America we cut girls between the legs--in other words, do we perform female circumcision as many still do in Ethiopia (Studies in the linked article show that 79% of women in Saffron and Willa's region are circumcised). It's really interesting how questions I thought were previously resolved crop up out of nowhere months later. When we were in Ethiopia, I asked the orphanage doctor and also had our translator ask Saffron if she had been a victim of female circumcision. Both said no, and Saffron acted as if she had no idea what she was being asked (understandable, considering the uncomfortable nature of the question). I had the pediatrician here check for signs of it again when we got to America, and she found absolutely no signs of any trauma. Everything was pristine and intact. So, I put it out of my mind, assuming Saffron's slightly modern dad did not subscribe to such traditional tribal practices.

I haven't thought of it again, until Saffron asked me in the dark tonight as I tucked her in. That's her favorite time to ask difficult questions, and apparently she's been trying to work up the courage to ask this one for a long time. I quickly assured her that, NO!, we absolutely do not do that in America, and that will never happen to her or Willa or anyone they know. Once we put that fear to rest, she relaxed and got chatty about the topic.

She told me she'd wanted to ask me for a while, but thought it was a bad question. I assured her, again, that there are no bad questions to ask your mom (except, maybe, 'can I have more gum' for the fifth time when you've already been told 'NO' four times in a row). She said that in Ethiopia many people, including her father's relatives, believe circumcision (not her word, of course) makes children better behaved. They don't lie or disobey their parents. In fact, she said they believe doing it more makes children more obedient. One boy in her family was cut more than once. (I did explain male circumcision in America to her--not the details, but the reasons why some parents choose to do it, and how quickly and carefully it is done to save the baby pain or infection.)

Saffron believes her mother was circumcised, but doesn't know whether she believed in it for Saffron. Her dad was open to the idea, but perhaps not a firm believer in it. He took her to the 'doctor' once to have it done, but Saffron overheard the doctor's plan and escaped, screaming. Her father did not force her back.

Saffron had a friend, another little girl, who was circumcised. She told Saffron it hurt very bad every time she went to the bathroom. Saffron said she knew of this being done to children of all ages--from babies up to young girls--depending on what the parents wanted. Saffron saw a female circumcision on TV, and possibly in person (it was unclear). She saw a young girl tied down with a strap over her mouth, and several people holding her. Then she saw a 'doctor' cut between the girl's legs. Then she saw a lot of blood. She was horrified.

Willa then added that she gets very messy down there when she pees her pants (WAY too often, and when she's awake!). I was glad to see the conversation hadn't much phased or sunk in with the four-year-old.

Well, that's one more difficult subject faced. I hope Saffron will sleep better knowing she can cross that fear off her list. I'm actually not surprised it came up today. She's been in trouble a few times in the past couple days for lying to me, and cried when she got caught again today. She said she was trying to tell the truth but sometimes she just couldn't be good. I'm sure that got her thinking about how some girls she knew were cut between the legs to help them be good.

I take it as a good sign that Saffron feels more comfortable all of the time telling me things that scare her to say aloud. Right at the six-month mark she told me that she actually did steal the money from a neighbor's shack--the money she said before that she had been wrongly accused of stealing. But all the other facts, and innocence, remain the same. She said Stepmother told her to steal the money from the home where Saffron worked as a servant. Saffron was desperate to feed herself and her siblings, with whom Stepmother usually didn't share food, and did it. Stepmother's friend, who owned the home, then told Saffron's dad. He tied Saffron up and beat her harshly, so much so that even the neighbors pleaded with him to stop.

I felt it was a great show of trust for Saffron to tell me the real story. I then had to work hard for a couple of weeks to convince her that, even though we have said stealing is wrong, she had absolutely no fault in that situation. Stepmother and Dad were in the wrong. When a desperate child is compelled to do wrong by grown-ups she fears, no loving being, human or Divine, would hold her accountable. We've had that talk over and over.

You'd think theft and female circumcision would bowl me over, but those subjects have passed just fine. It's Willa's wide-awake potty regression that's proving more than a match for me.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Never Good Enough

My day probably didn't get the best start anyway, but I'm growing really really weary of Willa's constant complaints and contradictions. I don't seem to do anything right, and apparenty I never keep my word. Right now, as I pump gas, she's complaining that I didn't pack her a big enough lunch, and everyone at preschool gets a better lunch than she does.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

You Are My I Love You

It's after midnight and I was in bed, but found myself thinking about my children, and people in general. I had to write it down.

It occurs to me that if you don't allow your children the opportunity to rise to an occasion, then they surely won't. They will fail every time. But if you do allow them, occasions to which they may rise I mean, then they will only fail sometimes. Other times they will rise, and still other times they will exceed the occasion, and your expectations, and even pass you up altogether.

All five of my children have risen to occasions which I doubted they could meet. Thank God above I did not manage to prevent them, underestimate them, or sell them short every time--though sometimes I tried. And I really mean its thanks to Him--He knows these marvelous children much better than I do.

Jasper and Ruby, this is especially a love letter to you. We went through the motions of giving you a choice and a voice in our adoption, but really you had none. Kids don't make their parents' life decisions for them, and shouldn't be asked to. And though this has been extremely difficult for Saffron and Willa in other ways, they have had from the beginning one advantage you did not--the desperate fear of the dark and lonely past they left behind. Because of that past, they have said they never doubted for a day that they would be happier in their new life, and better loved.

You two, on the other hand, had a very happy life with a family you loved. You faced the fear, and expressed it often, that your life would never again be as happy as it had been in the past--that you would have less love than you had in the past, not more. Each of you went through periods of great fear that your life would never feel right or happy again, and that you were completely powerless to change the situation. I agonized over your feelings. I cried in bed at night, trying to remember and rely on the sure feelings that had caused us to pursue this course, and the belief that in time we would all have greater happiness because of it.

At some point along the way, the thought came to me (the Spirit prompted me) that I was underestimating both of you, and your ability to keep trying, overcome change, try to find the joy in your new sisters, trust that your parents still loved you as much, and even nurture a tiny faith that down to road you may one day be happier than ever with your new family.

And you have risen gloriously to the occasion. You have risen above it. You have gotten up and tried again every day to forget feeling displaced and instead make a new place in a home that felt foreign, with a mother who herself probably seemed foreign and unsteady sometimes. You have included. You have encouraged and complimented. You have apologized. You have forgiven (your sisters and your parents). And, you have shared your mom. You have moved over to let someone else sit by mom--to let someone else have a goodnight cuddle. What a very hard thing for a frightened child to do! And for all of those things, for what I have seen in the two of you, I now love you more than ever before--more than feels possible. I love you not only as my children, but as wise old souls who have weathered a difficult storm and kept me safe in the process. Just like your sisters, you are now loved even better than you were in your past life. And that, my gems, is one of the many blessings I am beginning to see unfold: the new happinesses of our new family. I see you both feeling comfortable again--feeling right in your family. And happy.

I hope you two also see the change in yourselves. I hope you feel a greater sense of self worth and courage for life ahead because you have already faced a great fear, a mighty change, and risen to the occasion. After taking in stride the death of a baby brother and the "birth" of two child-sized new sisters within two short years of your young lives, I can't imagine either of you facing the giants of life without coming off conqueror.

I have a feeling that when the four of you are grown, you, Jasper and Ruby, will look with awe at what Saffron and Willa went through to join our family. I have no doubt that they will look back at you in awe of what you went through to let them in.

If I doubted you, I stand corrected. For the rest of your lives let me stand aside and let you rise: marvelous risers to magnificent occasions.

I love you,

Monday, May 10, 2010

Jasper's Volcanic Slime Birthday Cake

Six Month And Counting

It's getting harder and harder to blog these days, with two ball games and two lessons many afternoons. During school time, between spring field trips and planning Jasper and Saffron's birthdays, parties, etc., I barely seem to be getting the dishes done--let alone laundry or blogging. I think I may have to move to blogging just once a week. That may make more sense anyway, because we've passed a milestone: April 30 was our six month anniversary of bringing the girls home. We are passing from a major-adoption-transition phase to a learning-to-go-on-and-function-as-an-ordinary-family phase.  Life is beginning to feel different. Maybe it's appropriate that I spend less time noting a major life change, and more time focusing on a sense of normalcy for the family. Just thinking.

I have thought a lot in the past two weeks sbout (ok I really love my iPhone, but why does it NEVER correct 'sbout' to 'about'?? Isn't that pretty obvious??) what a different place we're in now than we were six months ago. I've asked the girls to reflect too, but it's hard to get much detail from them. I say, "what did you think about America when you first got here?" And they say, "good."

Willa did tell me she thought America was warm when she first came. Utah in the winter?? I  asked. But she explained that she meant the fire in the floor in the house (heat vents).

One of the most marked differences I see in Willa now verses six months ago is that she talks non-stop. We tease her that she can't stop talking for ten seconds at a time, and she agrees that it's true. She was silent when we first met her! Of course, that changed pretty quickly.

For the first several weeks Saffron was here, holding her hand was like holding a dead fish. She wouldn't respond at all. Now? My goodness--she wants to cling and squeeze and hug whenever she gets the chance. This is symbolic of Saffron's six-month evolution overall. She has gone from fearful, timid and withdrawn to very eager to bond, please and interact--and only sometimes withdrawn. She could still be described as very moody but, as her psychologist said, that's very understandable considering what she's been through. In fact, she's adjusting very quickly and showing very healthy emotional growth.  He cautioned us to avoid labeling any parts of her personality or behavior with adult labels because she is still transitioning and changing so much (In fact, he cautioned us about doing that with any child).

As far as Jasper and Ruby are concerned, I take heart in the typical sibling tiffs they have with each other and their sisters, because it all signals normal family life.  I remember the first few weeks Jasper and Ruby would come bounding home from school, only to be crestfallen when they saw their sisters waiting at home and remembered their existence.  Ruby would say, "I feel happy until I realize life is not the same as it used to be."  That may be hard for people to hear, but it's true.  That's how kids feel, and how many of us feel when we have to adjust to a major change in life--even if we believe the change will be good for us in the long run.  And believe something like that is too much for little kids.  They just have to wait until they experience it.  Now, Jasper and Ruby seem to have gotten over to the shock to their systems:  they no longer wake up in the morning in a bit of shock to remember their new family.  Their bodies no longer tense up when their space is invaded by their new sisters. 

That's not to say we aren't all experiencing growing pains.  Jasper still overreacts to things Saffron does that might only be mildly annoying to him if Ruby did them.  Saffron and Willa still get outrageously jealous at many small things they see as injustices around the house.  But they all control their reactions better.  Willa's biggest problem these days is probably her constant jealously of Ruby.  She lashes out at Ruby, or tells others not to speak to Ruby, and catalogues everything Ruby has (including particular colors of shirts) that she doesn't have.  But at the same time she LOVES Ruby desperately and wants to be just like her and with her always.  This is pretty typical little-sister behavior, except just blown up into an obsession in Willa's case.  That's not unusual for the transition she's in.  

No matter how much I show her and Saffron that I love them, it seems it will take them a while to believe they are full-fledged members of the family.  They still measure my every word:  did I say "I love you so much" to Ruby, and only "I love you" to them?  They are always on the look-out for such discrepancies.  I used to be paranoid, and now just try to be natural and let them see that I will not enable their neediness, but will always love and support them exactly the way I love and support everyone else.  For example, I may spend an hour one night listening to them in their room after bedtime, because they suddenly want to tell me stories about Ethiopia.  Then, if the next night I read a book with Ruby at bedtime and didn't read one with each of them individually, they will be upset.  If I bring up the point that I spent an hour with them just the night before, and we all get our own special time at different times, it won't erase their jealousy.  So I usually just go on, hoping that as they test me over and over they will see that though I constantly fail their tests I am still there, the next day, loving them like a mother.  That sometimes they get in trouble, and other times Ruby or Jasper does.  That it all comes out in the wash.

I think Saffron, especially, feels like she gets in trouble more than anybody else.  This is probably because she does.  I talked to the psychologist about this.  Saffron still exhibits a strong air of self-centeredness in her actions, and a real struggle to admit when she's made a mistake, rather than making an excuse.  On the other hand, at times she is extremely selfless, wanting to serve others all the time, almost to an annoying degree.  I have been losing patience with this.  Ruby and Jasper, on the other hand, have both been in very even and helpful phases, and therefore have not been getting in trouble much.  I can see why Saffron feels put upon.  Her psychologist (who has now given her an extensive battery of tests) explained to me that it's not too unusual for a child of Saffron's background to exhibit such bipolar behaviors.  On the one hand, she was treated like a second-class citizen in her home, so she is just discovering how to be an individual whose needs are valued.  Therefore, she begins by over-valuing her own needs, and struggling to see the point of view of others, or to see how her behavior affects them.  We have to let her go through that, he says, before we can focus on teaching her how to look outside herself. At the same time, one of the only ways she felt valued in her previous life was by doing service for others.  So, this is one way she seeks to show her value now as she's seeking her individual identity.  She'll bounce back and forth as she figures it out.  Yes, you often want to say, "I'd rather have you be nice than do chores for me!"  And she'll get that--eventually.

For example, Saffron came to Jasper's birthday dinner very sulky.  She was upset to have been late to the dinner, even though I had given her the choice of being late if she wanted to stay for all of dance (she hates leaving dance early). We had discussed it before she left for school, and again before dance, and she chose to stay for dance.  Still, by the time I dropped her off for dance she wasn't speaking to me.  The day after the dinner, I brought it up and explained to her how if you choose to act really sulky in a situation you are drawing attention to yourself, whether you think you are trying to or not.  You do because people are concerned about you.  You thereby also succeed in drawing attention away from the birthday person.  It's not very kind when it's someone else's special day.  "But I was late!"  she kept saying.  She couldn't admit that she'd had any other option but to act the way she did.  

On the other hand, she went out of her way to help me prepare for Jasper's birthday party--to the point that she wasn't happy if I wasn't putting her to work.  As I write this I realize most people probably think, "Oh, that just sounds like a typical child."  But it's different.  I can't explain how well enough, but if you saw it you would understand.  As her psychologist said, if Saffron were exhibiting many of these signs and had had a perfectly healthy childhood without a recent shock to her system, he would worry she was depressed.  But in view of what she has been through, she is adjusting remarkably, and at lightning speed.  It was very helpful to hear from him that I can quit worrying about the seemingly self-centered behaviors.  It is not yet any indicator of her future approach to life, he said.  We just have to let her figure out how to be her own person before we worry so much about what kind she will be.  She's great!   he said.  She has no learning disabilities or long-term emotional issues that he can see at all.  She's smart and aware and, as he says, a real success story.  Much of that is due to the loving relationship she had with her mother in the first four or five years of her life, before her mother died.

I realize I talk more about Saffron than Willa.  With Willa it's even harder to tell what behaviors are adjustment to shock and change, which ones are age-appropriate, and which ones are her personality.  We just treat her as a four-year-old, and discipline her accordingly, and let her feel like life is not fair most of the time.  Probably a lot of youngests feel that way.  Honestly, I try not to get annoyed by the whininess.  She is very accusatory of me, especially accusing me of lying and not fulfilling promises a lot.  This is very hard to take sometimes--I'm still not at my best either.  I knows she's adorable and cute and sweet and I must let her off the hook for a lot of the other, because she's just learning how to behave in a real family--let alone an American family, and my family.  Last night she screamed bloodly murder the whole time we braided her hair.  Is that typical, or just Willa?  Who knows.  The one thing we agree on is that we'll keep it short until she's ready to have it braided more often.  She's OK with that.  Right now she's complaining to me that she does nothing ever at home, and then has to go to boring preschool.  She wants a lot more cuddling and affection and attention than most four-year-olds I know, but I have to remind myself there's nothing wrong with giving in to that sometimes.  She missed out on it for much of her life thus far.  I wish I could feel more eager to indulge that.  I'm adjusting, too, and am selfish too.  

Otherwise, I notice that recently they want a lot more attention from Steve.  They are now measuring his affections, too.  That seems to be an indicator of good progress somehow.  He is their dad now--not Ayalew.  They are curious about how to relate to this American kind of dad.

I would never want to go back six months.  But I would also never want to go back and undo our adoption.  I am so grateful to be able to say that.  I love our new family.  Even Jasper, who's been slow to get on board, has changed his tune.  You remember that he used to say he wished his sisters could go back to Ethiopia.  We were sad, but knew he had to come along at his own pace.  Yesterday I thought he was going to say the same thing, and my heart sank.  But he didn't.  Instead he said, "I wish Saffron and Willa could go back to being one-year-olds for a year.  Then they could learn how to behave, and come back to us knowing how to act their ages and everything would be easier."  
"Well," I said.  "I think that's sort of what we're doing this year."  We're all growing up together.


Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Focus on the Good

Truthfully, I've had a hard time with both Saffron and Willa the past few days. I believe the problem lies mainly with me, and could be due to any number of groundless reasons--including hormonal ones.

So, rather than "get online and whine about my adopted kids," as my social worker says she hates to see adoptive mothers do all the time (except she didn't say "whine"), I'm going to get over myself and acknowledge some of the good progress the girls have made lately.

A couple of days ago, Saffron said,

"What is Alexia's dad making?"

Wow. This sentence stopped me short in my tracks. She didn't say,

"What make Alexia dad?"


"What Alexia dad do?"

She had the "is" and the "'s" and the "ing," and everything all in the right order. This was a perfect English sentence, and I told her so. We're just shy of her six-month anniversary in America, so I was quite impressed with this accomplishment. Without sitting through a grammar class, she has developed her own understanding of sentence structure, and tense, and possessives, and has corrected her own small mistakes until, one day, a complex sentence comes out without a single mistake. She's tempted to give up sometimes because she gets corrected so frequently by so many people (Jasper and Ruby), but she soldiers on. She tries really hard, and it's paying off.

Since starting her new school, Saffron's studies have rocketed forward. I'm relieved and proud to see that. She had some behavioral issues when she first started at the school, but those have really improved, too. For other adoptive parents, let me just say I've found and my social worker has stressed that adoptees often react exactly the opposite of how people would think they would. After having had nothing, no choices or opportunities in life, the swing the other way--to a feeling of entitlement. This can be really hard for adoptive parents to take. For example, at school Saffron thought she could just inform her teacher she was staying in from recess to play a computer game. She didn't understand that no student, INCLUDING her, had a choice about recess. Many little interactions like this add up to a frustrated parent feeling their are dealing with a child who is suddenly spoiled rotten. But the truth is--I must remind myself--they came here knowing even less about choice than they knew about English. They are learning its boundaries, and must be taught when they are outside them. A million choices in school projects, and foods, and clothes, and friends, seem the opposite to them of the idea that respecting your parents and teachers means you really have no choices unless they authorize them. This has got to be one of the hardest lessons for them to understand, and one of the hardest for adoptive parents to weather patiently.

But Saffron's behavior in school has improved tremendously. Another area she has struggled with is wanting me to hide her past from everybody, and taking offense if others asked about it innocently. We've been working hard at changing this. In fact, on Saffron's birthday her teacher asked me to tell the class a little about her at each stage of her life. I had to tell about her history in Ethiopia, because that's all we know. She really didn't want me to, but I reminded her of our feeling that her Ethiopian past is something to shout from the rooftops-something that makes her special. And the more often we ignore it the more we'll start wanting to hide it. So, I told eight things (for eight years) about her life growing up, including baking her own mud dolls to play with, cooking and cleaning and carrying Willa wrapped on her back, tending cows, and even her mom's death. The children were riveted, one teacher cried, and Saffron absolutely beamed. She let herself feel the vibe of the class, and seemed to catch the vision of how good it can feel to be unique. I was really impressed with how well her teachers and classmates responded. It was a real breakthrough for Saffron, and she talked about it for days. Of course, many of the students in this small school have situations that make them feel atypical. They get it. This has really been a good move. (Now I just hope we can find a way to pay for it for a while longer.)

Willa, also at Saffron's new school now, in preschool a few days a week, is finally learning her letters. Clearly, they're doing something right that neither I nor her old preschool were. Honestly, this begins to dispel some concerns I had about her learning abilities. It just goes to show you can never underestimate the effects of a new country, family, and language, and even with the best intentions we often mistake those effects for terminal issues. With Willa I'm no longer thinking they are terminal. I think her struggle to retain learned facts has all been part of her general adaptation to a new life and whole new idea of what learning is.

Willa is jealous of Ruby and tattles on her and whines about her all the time. This really grates on me. But I have to remind myself that Willa is really good at many things--she always wants to go to school, gets ready fast, and bounds in without a word of complaint. And she still goes to sleep like my telling her to is fairy dust. Oh, and she'll eat absolutely anything. Everyone who eats with her is amazed.

So with all the things to love, why don't I always feel IN love with the girls? Well, because it's only been six months--for both of us. We're still newlyweds. We're still getting to know each other. AND, they're still learning the language. Their English has gotten so good I'm shocked at least a couple of times a week to realize how thoroughly they can still misunderstand me. And how little words, like corner, and feel, and behind can still confuse them. I think one of the biggest struggles for parents of foreign adoptees has got to be to realize how little they really understand, even when their English is deceptively good--especially their accents. I often find myself punishing them for something I realize after the fact they truly didn't understand. For example, I say "go to time out and don't come out until I come get you, when your time is up." Well, they always come walking promptly right out of time out. With sentences full of mostly simple words, it's really tempting (especially when I'm at my wit's end!) to see this as outright defiance. And I often have. But, in my calmer moments, I explain better, and find they are confused as to whether they're supposed to stay in, or come out and apologize.

Recently I've adopted the tactic of trying to see them as Etalem (their Ethiopian mom) would see them. I'm sure she'd like to smack me for not seeing their greatness all the time. That's how I'd feel, if I died and someone adopted Jasper and Ruby. In fact, even if I'm frustrated myself, it really upsets me if someone else doesn't realize how amazing the girls are. As my sister points out, that's a good sign that I do feel like their mom. I'm as defensive as a mother bear for them. Be patient, Etalem. I'm working on it. I know I'll get there.

So, how have I done? Is all this talk sufficient to turn me over, flip me up, make me feel all warm and fuzzy inside again? Maybe. Maybe I just need a Coke.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010


Four score and seven blogs ago . . .
We the people of the United Blogosphere, in order to form a more
cyber union. . .
When in the course of posting events ...

How do you start a blog post again? It's been so long I can't remember.

This is what I've learned from the two baseball games I've attended
this evening--Ruby's and then Jasper's:

1. No matter how cool the players look in their shirts and visors, you
know you're watching a little girls' team when the parents yell things
like, "Be ready to run, Elly-Belly!"

2. There may not be any Weeping Willows beautifying the field at
Jasper's game, but that's no problem when you've got your own lovely
Pouting Willa.

Monday, April 19, 2010

How to Feed and Water an Adoption

Tonight, after almost six months, I got one of those little rewards that remind me it's all been worth it. We just got home from Saffron's birthday dinner at the Ethiopian restaurant (today was her birthday). Everyone is tired, and I'm grumpy, and I thought Saffron looked like she was starting to get a little grumpy.

But, to the contrary, she just came up to me and gave me two hugs and said, "I never before had like you good mom. I love you."

When I know that I have yelled, and lost my temper, and been impatient, and made more mistakes than I can count, it amazes me that a child who's borne the worst of it could still judge me a "good mom." I couldn't ask for a higher compliment.


Here is the post I wrote a couple of days ago, as a bit of an update. I've not posted it because it's really rough and I was waiting to have time to revise it. But I just can't see how I'm going to get any in the next couple days, and I've already gone too long without posting. . . .

Today was Saffron’s first birthday party—she turns 8 on Monday. We kept it simple, just taking friends to the park, and playing and having cake and presents. She seemed to think it was very fun. It’s always interesting to stumble upon something that’s still new. I offered Saffron the chance to cut the first piece of her cake, which was a round Frog Princess cake. For the life of her, she could not understand how I was telling her to cut it. She had never cut something round, I guess, or thought about how pizza pieces come out of a round pizza.

Even more fun was our visit in the road with a friend who was driving by the other day. This friend is pregnant with twin girls. We joked about the girls and possible names. After our friend drove away, Saffron asked in skeptical astonishment,

“How she know there two babies? How she know they girls?”

“Well, they use a special camera to look inside your belly and see what’s inside.”

Saffron did not like the idea of a camera in her belly one bit. In fact, I’m not sure if she really believes it’s possible to know what kind of baby you’re going to have. That’s OK, though, because Willa’s not going to have any babies at all. She likes to whine about how every little thing hurts, from her hair to her finger, and I try various different approaches for getting her over it. One day, after trying to ignore it for a while, I decided to explain to Willa how pain is just part of life so we have to get used to it. In fact, to have a baby come out of your tummy you have to go through a lot of pain. I thought this would really get her, because she loves babies, and loves to talk about them coming out of bellies. I was wrong—it completely backfired on me. Willa simply answered, “Me having no babies.” And she has stuck to it.

Spring is always a busy time with kids because it’s the time when all lessons converge—spring sports are going strong and dance has its recitals. I noticed this even with two kids, but with four it’s almost more than I can handle. These days we have an average of at least three events per evening. A couple days ago Ruby had tumbling and a T-ball game, Jasper had baseball practice, Saffron had a reading lesson, and I had a bridal shower. It would have been a miracle if we’d made them all on time in a perfect world, and we didn’t have that. Between looking for a lost Ruby after school (she’d gone to a friend’s) and getting caught in construction traffic, we missed tumbling all together. Add the doctors/psychologists/field trips we have during the day, and most nights I finally fall in bed exhausted, with a crick in my neck from all the rushing and driving.

We definitely still have extras beyond a regular family’s schedule. I’ve been taking Saffron once a week to a psychologist a half hour away who tests her for two hours--so a three hour committment. He is doing very thorough developmental age and emotional capacity testing. I’m thrilled to have him and his results will really help us argue her birthday in court and proceed in life in general with peace of mind—but it’s a BIG time commitment. Another thing: because her teeth were so dirty, I have to take her to the dentist for cleanings and rebuilding work every three or four weeks. Besides being moved to a separate school from her siblings, which makes for crazy mornings, Saffron is tutored in reading and English twice a week.

My point is just that I know it won’t always be this way, that eventually we’ll have these extra variables worked out, and that someday summer will come. Then the kids may be driving themselves and me crazy at home all day, but at least I won’t be driving all day. Though it’s a little overwhelming to adjust to this new life-—a year ago I felt like a little-kid mom and now I feel very much like a big-kid mom—-I have to say there’s a lot to like about it. I love seeing each of the kids try new lessons or sports, eager to discover their own talents. I like to see them all getting out of the house and having fun.

In fact, I’ve made Saffron put her money where her mouth is, and she’s still having fun. She told me a while ago she really wanted to run track (of course, she didn’t use those words, but described running to me). After she mentioned it several times, I finally called around. It took quite a while to find a kids track club in the area, but I finally did. I’m going to have to drive her a half hour to do it, and she’s quite disappointed that it doesn’t start for another month. Fine, I said, then let’s start now. This week I took her out in our street and had her run timed splits of about 400 meters, and then sprints. And guess what? She still loved it. So now I’m feeling pretty willing to drive her to track.

Otherwise, things are pretty good. We moved Ruby back into her own room, with her and Jasper moving to rooms downstairs. This extra space seems to have helped them both a lot. Jasper still doesn’t see how his sisters make his life better, but then, what 10-year-old boy does? Ruby seems to have accepted completely that Saffron is older than her. They are constant playmates, very well-matched, and nag each other like sisters. Willa pretty much whines about being the youngest and littlest and not getting the same privileges as the bigger kids. She also talks NONSTOP. So, she’s a pretty typical almost-five-year-old youngest.

Though we haven’t gotten all the results yet, the psychological testing has already been a real blessing. The questions alone in the behavioral studies Steve and I have had to answer have given me great insight into how a child develops, and into the ways Saffron and Willa will be behind for a while. This doesn’t mean they have any cognitive delays: on the contrary, they are both sharp and perceptive. Rather, their lack of exposure to the kind of life experiences a well-parented and fulfilled child would have-—especially an American child-—means they have many simple lessons yet to learn.

For example, they still tend to be very unaware of messes they make and things they leave all over the house. That’s because they did not grow up from a tiny age being aware of their own things or the places they were kept, as most American children do. That’s not to say they can’t clean: Saffron can clean a bedroom better than anyone if you tell her to. But after six months of being told daily, she still won’t close her dresser drawers unless I tell her to. Another example is Willa’s physical familiarity with strangers. She may come and climb uninvited in your lap when she barely knows you, even though she won’t speak to you. This is a behavior American children would learn as toddlers to avoid-—it causes both the mother and the stranger to send uncomfortable vibes. But Willa has missed this.

If I could pass one piece of advice on to other adoptive parents (if anyone actually wanted my advice), it would be to be very firm from the very beginning. This is the greatest advice I received, and I believe it has blessed our whole experience. It is tempting to indulge-—it’s easier, especially with children who need the lines of your entire world, your every expectation, drawn anew for them. But it is the quickest and surest way to happiness for all. When Charles died my grief counselor told me I had to grieve sometime in my life, so I could either go straight through it immediately, or try to push it away and encounter a much messier version of it later. I often wonder if some adoptive parents who struggle and want to give up may have had a different experience if they had been educated and encouraged about staying firm from the very beginning. I know it’s hard: either the people around you want to indulge your new children, and it’s takes great courage to be firm with a child in the presence of others who see you as harsh and don’t understand, or you become exhausted by the fights, the screaming the tantrums, and don’t have support, and just give in. I think the only reason I persevered in the beginning is because I had angels on my right hand and my left, to bear me up.

Being able to pick out more developmental cause and effect has helped me have more sympathy and patience with the girls. I think this really helps the bonding process. Bonding is still something that ebbs and flows. It’s simply a case of trying to make your behavior as consistent as possible as far as the child can tell, even though your own feelings are not consistent. It’s going through the motions-—faking it until you make it. And there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that. Still, I fail at that consistency a lot. Get over yourself, Emily, I have to say. Be the grownup here. And each time I learn again that the more love I show the child, the more love I feel for the child.

But you have to have complete faith that the feelings WILL come. To me, it feels very much like marriage. Barring abuse or extreme examples in both situations, of course, both require a complete refusal to consider an out. It’s the old idea that if you allow yourself to think, “Well, if this doesn’t work out I’ll just get divorced,” then the chances are much much higher that you will get divorced. If you’re committed to the reality of staying with your spouse, then you’ll find a way to keep loving them. You'll fake it till you make it.

Likewise, the past six months have taught me that if you allow yourself to think you may never bond with or love your adopted child as much as your biological one, then you’ll head right down that scary road. On the other hand, if you assume you absolutely will love them just as much, and it’s just a matter of time, then you’ll be patient with yourself, and with the child, and let yourself see and feel the good. You won’t put so much pressure on the relationship.

As I said, I’m excluding extreme examples, as of children who have Reactive Attachment Disorder or other severe problems. And this is just my opinion-—but I’m no dummy. I’ve been through financial hardship, three job losses, several big moves, and the loss of a baby in my marriage. Sometimes, in the darkest times, Steve and I both have had to settle for going through the motions. But we never considered not going through them. And yes, I’m only six months into this adoption, and I am dealing with no RAD or other major mental or emotional illness. But we did get a traumatic surprise in the woefully misrepresented age of our daughter, and we have been through some dark times. Still I’m convinced it’s all about believing it’s right, believing it will work, and believing it’s your own responsibility-—NOT the child’s-—to dig your bond through shallow to deep.

Pardon my soapbox. Recent current events compel one to speak out. It’s not Torrie Hansen’s story that makes me want to speak-—clearly that’s one of the extreme examples I mentioned, where neither side was fully honest or prepared for their situation. What has frustrated me is all the misinformed and judgmental discussion it has prompted about international adoption in general. One of my favorite comments was from a radio caller who pointed out that adoptive parents are just parents. Should we end biological parenthood because some mothers fail to bond with their babies? he asked. No, we grow more supportive of post-partum depression and lack of early attachment all the time. Why not allow adoptive parents the same and even a greater courtesy?

In the end, all parents will parent as they will parent, love as they will love, and raise their children as they will raise them. This doesn’t change because their children are biological or adopted. As a mother, I expect the same of myself either way.

Thursday, April 01, 2010

Who's the Boss?

Today my mom and Willa picked me up from the airport after my much-needed break with Steve: a week in Ireland with friends and NO KIDS. Willa greeted me and then said,

"Mom, I told you not to go. . . . And then you still go!"

She was rather indignant--as if I had been disobedient.

I then learned that Saffron had tried to boss my dad around, and Jasper had tried to boss my mom.

So what gives? You'd think these were the children of a parent who shrugs and takes flack--WHICH I DON'T!! On the contrary, I feel like I spend much of my life re-iterating to my children that I am the boss, and they shall treat me as such, and speak to me with respect, and no it won't be fair.

Jasper's smack I've dealt with for almost decade, but I must admit I'm surprised how quickly Saffron and Willa became comfortable with confronting their elders. Maybe it's a good sign that they have adjusted quickly and no longer fear adults? That I've done such a fab job I didn't even realize the progress?

Or, maybe it means I've lost it and talked too much smack to myself, setting a bad example. Maybe they're learning too much from their brother.

Nah, I'm going to stick with the fab job. That's my decision--and I'm the boss.

Monday, March 29, 2010

Musical Chairs

Seriously. I mean it. This time my title is not a joke--I'm really talking about musical chairs. On St. Patrick's Day, Saffron was very excited when I picked her up from school. She was carefully guarding one green cupcake which she said she was saving to be the prize in a wonderful new game she'd learned. She wanted her siblings to compete for the prize in this special mystery game. She wouldn't let them see the cupcake.

When we finally got time to play right before bedtime, the great mystery game she loved so much turned out to be musical chairs. I couldn't smother my giggle. Jasper raised an eyebrow and said he was "too tired to play," so Ruby and Willa played a total of one round around one bar stool. Ruby won (of course, since Willa didn't know what she was doing), and they split the cupcake. Saffron was as delighted as a game show host.

I guess you never know where there are still new discoveries to be made--or which ones will be the most exciting.

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Best Disneyworld Family Photo

Don't they all look happy?!

Thursday, March 25, 2010

A Diversion to Delphi

You've got to visit my sister's blog, msscreensiren, and check out my favorite singing dog, Delphi, in the top left corner.

The best thing about Delphi's singing is how it came about, and how it continues. When Delphi was purchased as a puppy, Rachel was a struggling actor in New York who often practiced her singing for auditions. Delphi, feeling neglected while Rachel practiced, I think, began singing along, and competing with Rachel for volume.

Now, over a decade later, poor old Delphi MUST sing at least once a day--it seems necessary to her happiness and mental health. So, when we tend Delphi, my kids' favorite pastime is to have Delphi sing--several times a day. Delphi puts her paws on your chest when she wants to sing and then, when she finishes, kisses you all over like, "Ahh, yes! Thank you for scratching that itch." Delphi, we love you, babe. Sing for your supper!

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Saffron and School

In all the busyness of the past couple of weeks, I neglected to write about a two big events in Saffron's life.

Saffron had a somewhat disturbing experience at school.

She had walked down to the first grade hall one morning to deliver a letter to Ruby. On her way back, she noticed some candy on the floor below the backpacks outside another first grade class. That class was having an Eat-a-Read-a-thon, and lots of kids had treats in their backpacks. Used to cleaning up, Saffron bent over, picked up the candy on the floor, and stood up to head to the nearest garbage can down the hall. Just then the teacher came out of her class and accused Saffron of stealing. Saffron tried to explain in her broken English that it was on the floor, so she was cleaning it up. All the teacher heard was floor, and she responded that she didn't care if it was on the floor--it was still not Saffron's, and she was still stealing.

She then walked Saffron up to her own class, told her teacher what happened, said they better tell Saffron's mom, and that they should inform me Saffron needed to be taught not to steal--all in front of Saffron.

A while later I had a feeling I should go over to the school and get Saffron for a minute. I found her on the playground, terrified that she was in "trouble." It's the first time I've ever heard her use that word. She was afraid I would be mad, and begged me not to tell Steve or anyone else. She was afraid she would be kicked out of school. I walked into the faculty room where Saffron's teacher was eating lunch, and asked her what happened. (Saffron loves her teacher.) She told me the story, defending the other teacher and telling me she (the teacher) had said it very nicely. I must admit, I was surprised she hadn't defended Saffron.

I wanted to say "I don't care if she said it nicely!! She was out of line and couldn't have been more insensitive!" What I did say very frankly was, "Well, this is a girl who was beaten at just the accusation of stealing in Ethiopia, more than once, so I can promise you she would NEVER steal." I couldn't find the other teacher, but wrote her a note telling her the same thing, that Saffron would never steal and had been beaten for even the accusation of it before, but that she was used to cleaning and did this automatically, and that Saffron was very upset and sorry about the encounter.

Saffron was afraid to go to school the next day. I let her stay home one day, but sent her back the second day. What was really upsetting to me about the whole thing was the shear insensitively and bias of it. This was the first experience we have ever had of the girls being treated "differently." I'm quite sure the teacher would not have handled the situation the same way if it had been another second grader. I felt she had jumped to a mental conclusion that Saffron would be more likely to eat off the floor than clean off the floor. Besides that, I'm surprised a teacher didn't take into account her knowledge of Saffron's recent adoption and poor English in making accusations. All of the teachers know Saffron's situation. It doesn't take much forethought to imagine how upsetting this might be to a child in a new school, and how gently it could have been handled by watching to make sure Saffron walked to the garbage, or taking the candy from her kindly to throw it away yourself. To assume she has no understanding of theft seems to me the least logical response. That's why it seems like a tainted response.

We got over the above experience just fine and it is not the reason for this second experience. But it did alert me to the fact that Saffron could benefit from more personal understanding at school.

Fast forward a week, and Willa's "energy" was driving me a bit crazy. I started to think I'd like to put her in more days of preschool. I toured one small Montessori private school that has pre-school to sixth grade. I was impressed with the small numbers, and the sort of non-grade-level approach that allowed each student to go at her own pace.

That night at homework I was trying to teach Saffron how to borrow a one in subtraction. Through our struggle I realized she didn't truly even understand the basic concept of subtraction. She can do it in life--give you three of her toys--but on paper she couldn't tell me whether or not you could take 9 away from 5. Between that and trying to teach her to read, and Jasper and Ruby feeling frustrated because they needed homework help, I was flooded with that familiar feeling of being overwhelmed. Suddenly, I thought of the new preschool. Rather than feeling like she wasted six hours at school to then come home and be taught by me, she could get one-on-one help and learn all day! I knew she loved her teacher and class, but could never get the kind of one-on-one time she needed in a public school. Our first goals had only been socialization and English. But now that those were well on their way, it seemed she was no longer benefitting from school.

This was a Wednesday. I talked to Steve that night, and we started Saffron in her new school the following Monday. She was scared, but so desperate to learn faster that she was willing to try it. So far the change seems to have been a great success. She is in a class of ten with only two teachers--she just walked in and I asked her how she's liking it. "It's good! I'm learning very a lot English, and reading, and minus, and take away," she says. She is one of the three oldest students in her (six- to nine-year-old) class, so she no longer has to feel behind all the time.

Because Steve just received a bonus we were going to use to pay off adoption debt, this is the only time we could have afforded this school (around $500/month:{). We were able to hold back some of the debt payment to set aside for school payments. (Needless to say, we are NOT enrollig Willa in the preschool right now.) I didn't realize how much stress I felt about Saffron's learning situation until we changed it. Hooray! I now have one extra place to drive every day, but one less major concern to carry. I'm SO SO grateful this all worked out.

Monday, March 22, 2010

ET(hiopia), Phone Home

I know, I know. I left you all hanging. It wasn't intentional. That phone call came in the middle of a very busy day, and when we finished I was both emotionally exhausted and overbooked. I had no time to write a real post, but wanted to document the event.

So here's the story. I apologize in advance that it will be long: I want the details recorded somewhere. This will be nice for Steve, too, who was at work through the whole event.

Saffron has always wanted to call her Ethiopian Dad, since her first or second week in America. When he took her and Willa to the orphanage, he had Saffron memorize his cell phone number, and also put it in her school work. He told her to call when they were with a family, and let him know they were OK. But Saffron couldn't remember all the digits, and the number in her school work was lost.

She didn't think about it much, until we had called Gaetcho, our driver and friend in Ethiopia, to say HI, in Ethiopia a couple of times. Once she realized it was really possible, she then wanted to call her dad again. We first tried calling her teacher at the orphanage, whose number we had. She kept saying call back and she would have the number, but she could never get it. Then we spent a few weeks trying different numbers Saffron thought she remembered off and on, and getting a few wrong numbers in Ethiopia.

A few more weeks went by, and then Saffron started asking to call her dad again. She mostly thought of it when she remembered Little Brother, and wanted to talk to him on the phone. So, about a month ago I called Gaetcho (in Addis Ababa) with a proposal.

"Gaetcho," I said. "We can't find Ethiopia Dad" (of course I gave Gaetcho his real name). "Would you be willing to journey to Meki and try to track him down for us? If you're willing, I'd happily send you some money via Western Union to cover your expenses."

I knew Gaetcho would probably do it for free, but it's a two-hour car journey each way, and an odd request--I would never feel comfortable asking a friend on Ethiopian wages to put out that kind of gas money just to be nice.

Gaetcho, who became quite attached to the girls and our family during our long adoption process in Addis Ababa, was happy to help. He said to give him a couple weeks, and call back.

About three and a half weeks later, I was feeling really guilty that I hadn't sent Gaetcho any money. So I sat down and transferred $75 online, and called Gaetcho to let him know it was there. It was the middle of the night in Addis, so it was no surprise that Gaetcho never answered the phone.

I think first thing Saturday morning Gaetcho must have discovered all those missed calls in the middle of the night, because he seems to have gotten up and headed for Meki immediately.

Saturday afternoon, as we delivered Girl Scout cookies (feels like that's ALL I did this week!), I got a missed call from Gaetcho's number. I immediately called him back (we use, for those of you looking for a way to call Ethiopia or back), and through a very bad connection I understood that Gaetcho had been to Meki.

Meki is a very small town with one or two shops, and a few streets of run-down 'houses'. It is bigger than a village--a collection of a few huts--in that it has a sort of "main" street, and a Tuesday market day. Still it's small, and Saffron has always believed everyone in Meki knew her dad. Saffron has told us that her family lives in the cemetery, where her father guards the grounds in exchange for shelter. But Gaetcho visited five different houses and could find no one who knew where to find Ethiopia Dad. He left his mobile number with three different people, and headed back to Addis. (Though they may be desperately poor, a huge number of Ethiopians in the countryside have cell phones. They are their lifeline.)

Saturday evening Gaetcho got a call from one of the three people who put him in touch with someone (it was unclear) who knew Ethiopia Dad. Shortly after, Gaetcho either called or was called by Ethiopia Dad.

"He was very happy, and thanked me over and over for finding him, "Gaetcho said. "I think he is a good person, Emily. I think he has changed his life." Gaetcho is quite loyal to us and, I would say, a pretty shrewd judge of character. He was quite upset in Addis when Saffron told him the stories of her dad's treatment, so I was glad but surprised to hear him say this. At one point I may have thought it would be threatening to have contact with a birthparent, and especially one who really loves the girls. But now that they are here, I feel quite the opposite. I am happy for them to get to speak to their dad, and happy if he loves them and regrets the way he treated them.

So, I got out the video camera to record the event, and we called Ethiopia Dad at the number Gaetcho gave us. He answered, and we had a clearer connection than we've ever had with Ethiopia.

Saffron said (in English), "Hello? I am Tinsae!" And Ethiopia Dad began to sob. He kept repeating, over and over, "Betam! Betam! Betam! Betam!" 'Betam' means 'very,' and is even used by itself to a very emphatic 'thank you.' He thanked God for protecting them, and me for taking them, and Tinsae for calling him, and seemingly everyone he could think of. The best word I can think of to describe his reaction is overcome. He was overcome. His love for his girls was obvious, and it is easy to see why they have continued to love him, despite knowing it was wrong for him to hit them. I think I may be the only one who struggles with how to feel about all this. To Saffron and Willa, it's clear. Even when I've probed over the past several months, neither girl has every doubted his love for her. He loves them, and they love him, but they never want to live with him again. They are glad he gave them up. Saffron loves constant reassurance that she will always be in our family--that she will never go back, except for a visit. In a way, they seem to view his behavior as out of character for him--as motivated by desperation, fear, and the Wicked Stepmother.

Ethiopia Dad speaks very little English, so it was slow going. After a few minutes Saffron was able to understand all of his Amharic, but still struggled to speak back to him in Amharic. He asked things like how close is their school, do they have new brothers and sisters and what are their names, and will they come visit someday. He said he had trouble remembering Saffron's face, and wanted us to write a letter and send photos. He gave us his PO BOX (not sure if we got it right). He told us he teaches a Bible study class at the church, and says a prayer for all of us at the church every day. He said Little Brother cries for his sisters. Even Wicked Stepmother got on and said hi briefly. That was awkward. Saffron asked over and over about Little Brother because she wanted to speak to him, but he could not be roused from sleep (we called again yesterday and spoke to him).

Through pain-staking repetition and questioning, we were finally able to learn the girls' birth dates. Ethiopia Dad knew them right off, which makes it all the more frustrating to think of what we've been through over the past few months to adjust to girls much older than we were told (and that their Ethiopian records still show!), and to try and "choose" the right ages and birth dates. In fact, we had just chosen October 12, the day Saffron met us, as her third and final birthdate, and were all feeling great about it. It makes me mad now that I know for sure that these birth dates were never unknown--they were known, and they were NOT what the paperwork reported, and someone clearly lied along the way. I'm just grateful that we had not yet finished court proceedings to change their birth dates. We still have time to fix them before court.

Because Ethiopia has a very different calendar than the Gregorian one we use in the Western world, we had to translate their birth dates into our calendar. The years he gave us were unclear and varied each time Saffron translated, so I don't know that he really remembers them. We didn't get a conclusive answer on year, which reassured me once and for all that we are best to proceed according to what age fits their development best. We are using a pediatrician, dentist, and child psychologist to help us determine that. This whole frustrating and emotional age/birthday saga has taught me one thing: the biological age of your skeleton matters a lot less than your emotional age when it comes to fitting in in the world. I guess I've come to see it more as the country Ethiopians do--I'm not sure why we place such importance on tracking a person's age.

Anyday, Ethiopia Dad was very clear and undeviating when it came to the days and months of the girls' birth. After translating from the Ethiopian calendar,

Saffron's birthday is April 19.

Willa's birthday is June 15.

I asked for a few more details about Ethiopia Mom's death. Ethiopia Dad said she had no flesh, and had cancer. The paperwork says TB. I asked if she had AIDS, and he said no. After a while of talking and translating, Saffron was tired and wanted to go jump on the tramp. Willa had already talked to Ethiopia Dad, and couldn't say much (because she can speak no Amharic anymore), so mostly giggled, and had the phone impatiently grabbed away by Saffron. Neither girl ever got emotional about the phone call. I was a bit surprised. I did make Saffron translate one more question for me.

"Why?" I asked. "Why did you take the girls to the orphanage?"

In broken English, he answered, "No food, no house, no money, no thing." He added something in Amharic which Saffron translated as "He have no strong here, inside," as she pointed to her heart. Saffron added that they had "no this, only this" and grabbed the flesh on her arm, and then the bone of her wrist.

And then she said good-bye, and ran outside to jump.

Yesterday we called again, briefly, to talk to Little Brother. They were finally able to rouse him from his sleep, and like his father he cried when he heard, "I am Tinsae!" I'm sure he'll probably wonder if it was a dream. He asked if he could come to America.

Though I am very happy the girls got to talk to their Ethiopian dad and brother, I don't think we'll call again for a long time. It would be too hard on the girls, and on Little Brother. Can you imagine that little boy being dragged into his sisters world in America over and over by phone? Not fair to him. I don't think the girls will mind. I think they got what they wanted, and Saffron fulfilled the responsibility she felt to let her dad know they are OK.

And now I'm as emotionally exhausted from writing this as I was after the phone call.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Willa, Minature Rosetta Stone

You can't let yourself cry about the fact that Saffron and Willa are
losing their Amharic. It is sad, but seems to be necessary to the
evolution of their English. Even Rundassa, who is a native Amharic
speaker, says his adopted Ethiopian kids can't speak a word of Amharic

So, we continue to quiz the girls on Amharic words in the hope that
they'll retain some Amharic neural pathways, or other such deeply
hidden Amharic vocabulary that will come out someday when they visit
their hypno-therapist to complain about me.

Otherwise, there's nothing to do but enjoy the miracle that is
children learning and adopting a new 'first' language, and laugh about
it along the way. With Willa around, this isn't hard to do.

Willa thinks she should quiz me about language the way I quiz her--the
only problem is, she no longer knows which way is up, down, Amharic or
English in her whirlwind new life.
So, she constantly says hilarious things. When she still used mostly
Amharic words, I would challenge her to use the English words by
saying, "in Englizania?" (The Amharic word for English.)

Therefore, Willa thinks the word for translating something is
"Banglizanya." So, she says things like:

"Mom, 'wait' Banglizanya?"

"'Wait' is 'koy' in Amharic," I answer.

"No!" she says. "'Wait' Banglizanya 'Just a minute.'"

And then,

"Mom, 'book' Banglizanya 'paper.'"

In other words, she thinks she's telling me the Amharic word for
'wait' is 'just a minute,' and the Amharic word for 'book' is
'paper.' Hearing such confused statments is hilarious, charming, and
insightful all at once. Certainly, these moments are telling about how
quickly Willa's grasp on her former life grows tenuous. As we knew, of
course, this happens much more quickly for her than Saffron. Saffron
can't remember much Amharic, but she is aware she's forgetting. That's
the difference.

Maybe it's just that I'm a word person by nature, but I find these
little languagisms some of the most intriguing developments of this
whole experience.

Monday, March 08, 2010

Lest I Let My Emotional Guard Down . . .

Today was a doozy. I haven't had a day this hard--this emotionally taxing--in weeks. Actually, I can't even say it was a day: it was only in the evening that things began to unravel. Just when I had begun to feel the routine fall into place, to watch everyone begin to feel at home with their new life, and my own anxieties subside, I was yanked back into the reality that four months is only the beginning of this journey. All four kids reminded me of that tonight.

At dinner, Jasper, out of the blue, popped the comment that maybe Saffron should go back to Ethiopia--in front of her. When I scolded him, he began to cry, which led us to send all the kids out of the room and have a half-hour talk with Jasper about his feelings, about why he still feels so negative about the situation. We made good headway, but it was important--and sobering--to be reminded that even if he doesn't act out anymore, he still needs a lot of time to feel good about his new life.

After Jasper, I started to comb Willa's hair before bed. Willa had, again today, begged all day to have her hair cut. Then tonight, even though it's shorter and was just washed yesterday and her scalp is getting much healthier (thanks to Dr. Ross's medicine), she still began sobbing immediately and continued to cry through every gentle tug, despite my frequent pauses for her respite. I reminded her, again, that if this crying at every combing, washing, braiding, etc., (we are supposed to comb it at least once a day) continued, we would need to cut her hair and wait until she's a little older and it's a little healthier to wear it long. She insisted she wanted to go ahead and do it, and I thought to myself, "I've discussed this with her every day for four months. She's only four, and doesn't have to have long hair if she just can't deal with it. Frankly, I can't handle this stress in our life anymore. Seems like a small thing for how much stress it creates for both of us in an already difficult situation." So, I cut it all off. I was then able to get to her scalp and clear the dead scabs. It's now about as short as Saffron's looks in the photo at the top of the blog. Actually, we all agree she looks adorable. But as soon as she saw the first big clumps, Willa began to sob uncontrollably, until she almost passed out. There was no consoling her. You may think any child would cry about a haircut, but I guarantee you you haven't seen the likes of this. It is clear, through endless comments about it made by the girls, that in Ethiopia they were taught to believe short hair is worthy of shame. That's why I didn't cut Willa's hair sooner. But we've got to recover her scalp's health, and my sanity. We've spent months trying to rebuild from the ground up the girls' understanding of beauty, and I think Willa will feel better about it in the morning.

After we got Willa cleaned up and in fresh pajamas, I could see that Saffron was not in a good place. I hugged her and asked how she felt about the haircut, or to tell me what was wrong. She then began to cry, and proceeded to tell me that she has confusing dreams where I am with her Ethiopia Mom in Ethiopia, and that she is afraid of me and Steve. She knows it isn't rational (not her exact word), that we love her, that we would never hurt her, etc., but she has fear in her tummy and in her hands every time something goes wrong and she thinks she'll get in trouble. She knows better, she says, but she just can't seem to get rid of the feeling. It's like she can't get Negat (the Wicked Stepmother), out of her mind, and it affects her reactions. This is all understandable to adoptive parents, of course, but it's still extremely discouraging to hear. So, I then had a half-hour conversation with her about memories, change, trauma, and the major difference between women in American culture vs. women in Ethiopian culture. Phew.

When I finally walked Willa and Saffron into their room at 10:00 PM to put them to bed, I discovered a very sad and dejected Ruby in her bed. She was hurt that I had called Saffron in to help with Willa's hair, not her. She was feeling good for and good at nothing, all over again. I did my best to kiss and comfort and reassure, but my heart sank to hear this final news, this issue that I naively thought was subsiding recur again. I can't put into words my love for little Ruby, and my heartbreak to think that she is again doubting her worth. Fortunately, she was too tired for a half-hour talk, and so accepted my kisses and settled in for sleep.

Ay Yi Yi. I feel that yucky, scared, overwhelmed feeling I haven't felt for many weeks. Why can't I seem to make each child feel loved enough? This is hard. At least, this time around, I know the feeling does go away, and things do get better. At least I've seen a glimpse of how good, how right this new family can feel.