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.