Can you see the little person?

Last Mother’s Day was rough, my friends.

I was in Ethiopia, consoling a tiny girl over another loss, another change in caretakers, another new language. Last Mother’s Day my little baby was robbed of the people who loved her at her second orphanage. Last Mother’s Day all three of us, Mom, Dad, and brother, were witnesses to grief beyond our informed expectations.

Oh, boy. Did she grieve.

I felt sorry for myself last Mother’s Day. I felt sorry for myself when I turned 32 two days later and we were too shell-shocked to do anything fun. I felt sorry for myself that everyone asked about how Mabel was doing, but nobody asked what our trip to Ethiopia was like.

I love to answer questions. Sometimes people just don’t ask the right questions. For example, nobody has ever asked me what Mabel did when she first came into our home. It’s fascinating, really.

After two days of travel, crying on airplanes, suffering through new foods, seat belts, we set her down in a suburban home and let go. She looked around for a second. She saw a toy on the floor. Then another, then another. She picked up the toys. She made a pile. She went back and forth and back and forth collecting toys and putting them in a pile. Have you ever watched a bird gather straw to build a nest? Her pile grew and grew. She wasn’t quite frantic, but she was not at ease. This was her first experience with abundance. Enough. Extra. Plenty. Excess.

Mother’s Day week was interesting. But hard.

Mabel and I share a row on Ethiopian airlines. This is one of the quieter moments.

She clung to me, but she didn’t know me. She needed me in the room in order to fall asleep, but nothing I could say or do would ease her pain. Selfless friends brought meals and we surfaced from our underworld of grief-sharing to enjoy just a taste of normalcy. She picked up a new language like a master linguist, but there were no words to convince her that the food supply was safe, or that Mom and Dad would not leave her alone, or that there weren’t more changes in her future.

I think she spent the first few months wondering when the nightmare of abandonment would end.

She cried in her sleep constantly.

My 32nd birthday was rough, my friends.

Now I am turning 33. Sunday is Mother’s Day. Things are better. We cook for ourselves (sometimes). She doesn’t make piles of toys around here anymore. We can close the fridge without two hours of sobbing. She can sleep peacefully, knowing that Mommy and Daddy will be back. She can identify our family as Mom, Dad, George and Mabel. She has mixed up Ethiopia and everything she knows here and cannot distinguish much in her memory right now. She is starting to share her feelings, although that is coming very slowly.

This Mother’s Day I remember the grief, I bask in the healing, and I am relieved that in this painful process we continue to find restoration and growth in all four of us.

Happy Mother’s Day to those of you in the trenches of grief. Next year may or may not be better, but it will be different.

images

We are homeschooling and these days our curriculum is Batman.

This week Two-Face investigated the dissolving abilities of different substances in water. If he could find the perfect ingredient to dissolve, he could push Batman into the vat of chemicals and fry his face. Does mustard dissolve? No. Does creamer dissolve? In hot water, yes.Does sugar dissolve? Yes. Perfect.

Batman loves to fight for justice using his abacus. If Batman can add two vats of acid and five dynamite sticks, he can solve a crime.

But tonight Batman failed us.

Sometimes George and I like to create our own bedtime stories. We fight the bad guys and we solve the crimes and then we say goodnight. And tonight I thought we could do a little more with that. I thought we could do a little bit of Theraplay with our favorite superhero. But tonight Batman would not, could not participate in Theraplay.

My terrific plan involved teaching one of the characters a little bit about making mistakes. In everyday activities, George reveals his trauma-based shame whenever he makes a mistake or fails in some way. I decided that we could use the superheroes to explore this.  I asked George, “Do you think it would be possible for the Joker and Two-Face to learn something tonight?”

“No, mom. No.”

“I mean, do you think that we could teach them something tonight? Maybe we could choose something like patience or “try, try again” and then teach it to them?”

“No, mom.”

“Why not?”

“They are cri-mi-nals.”

Later after we had  agreed that Robin could, indeed, learn something new, I played Robin:

“Batman, I’m really discouraged. I never get to be in charge. And I make so many mistakes. Will I ever get to be like you?”

“Robin, Alfred is making you the perfect weapon that will help you.”

“But Batman, I still may make mistakes with this new weapon.”

“No, Robin, the weapon will be so good that it will make all the good choices for you.”

“But, Batman! I want to be a superhero like you. What can I do to be as good as you are?”

“Your suit is old. You can get the perfect suit. You can get the perfect car. You can get the perfect weapons, and then you will be as good as me.”

“What about practice, Batman? Should I practice so that I can be a great superhero?”

“No. You don’t need to practice.”

This isn’t working. Batman is too perfect. The Joker is too bad. In this world, nobody changes. Nobody grows. Nobody learns. A good guy makes good choices. A bad guy makes bad choices.

Huh.

Bad guys make bad choices.

Interesting.

Bad guys make bad choices.

Oh no.

Bad guys make bad choices.

Aha. You think you’re a bad guy.

Last week Andy and I returned from an incredible parenting conference that focused on parenting for kids who have experienced trauma. This conference is especially meaningful to me because the 2011 conference exposed me to the reality of the trauma that is involved in infant adoption. The fears, shame, and resulting rage that I was observing every day in my preschooler were not only explainable, they were common. They were “normal” (ha!). And if I changed my parenting style, we could begin to heal these broken places, and find connection.

When you sit in a room full of parents who love children of trauma, you catch a whiff of heaven. You breathe out the painful truths of foster care and adoption that you can’t tell anyone else, and you breathe in empathy and hope. You look around at a circle of people who are loving children back from the brink of death, and you think to yourself, “Do I even belong here? My issues aren’t as bad as hers.” But then Christine looks you in the eye and says, “Just because you have stage 1 cancer doesn’t mean you don’t belong in the cancer support group.” And you bask in the acceptance and love that you don’t find anywhere else. This is heaven.

At the conference we learn about the loss these kids feel at the core of who they are. They are skeptical, fearful, angry, self-loathing, desperate little guys who will climb in your lap and then kick you in the teeth. But all behavior has meaning, so we learn to speak their language and truly listen. Listen. Listen.

Tonight I was listening. I had hoped it would be a learning experience for George. Batman was supposed to teach George that it’s okay to make mistakes.

Instead, I listened.

I heard you, George. You think you’re a bad guy. You think you can’t change. You think everybody else is perfect. You believe that if you had the perfect ‘x’, you’d be able to make good choices.

I hear you, buddy. I’m listening.