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.

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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.

 

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This is not a parenting post.

In February of 2007, our lives changed when we travelled to Guatemala to adopt George. If this were a parenting post I would talk about all the challenges of adjusting to life with a 9-month-old. I would describe the journey of getting to know him and his personality, one day at a time. I would describe what it is like to fall in love with a stranger from a distant place. But this isn’t a parenting post.

In February of 2011, we travelled to Ethiopia to meet Mabel for the first time. If this were a parenting post, I would write poetry about the moment we first saw her in that institutional crib, next to all the other babies, sleeping deeply. I would tell you of the pain of that day, mingled with hope. How we watched her shut down in fear as she sat with us for the first time. Then I would describe the moments when we discovered that we were actually connecting with her little heart.

But this isn’t a parenting post.

February brings me back to these moments. When I step into those memories, they are not always “mom memories”. I look at the pictures and I see myself and think, “You have no idea. You have no concept of how your life will change.” No regrets, just reflection.

Our own worst enemies?

In premarital counseling, my husband and I took some personality tests and belief tests so that the counselor could prepare us for potential pitfalls. Our results on the “Impulsivity” measurement alarmed her. Both of us were off-the-charts in our propensity to make quick, impulsive decisions. She warned us that this could result in a hazardous relationship if we didn’t get some common sense and slow down.

She was probably right, in the beginning at least. Our pet history, our moving history, our job history, our church history, our faith history all reflect this impulsive readiness for change and adventure. We moved six times in the first seven years of marriage. We have had every pet available legally in the United States. (Well, we never had a snake, but I would have considered it if there were a needy snake on my doorstep.) We bought a timeshare.

Yes, we owned a vicious parrot who tried to eat my mom’s face. Yes, we painted apples and school houses all over our first rental place. Yes, we did our part when George W. Bush asked Americans to shop—we bought a new car. But somewhere in that spontaneous fervor to experience life without calculation, our impetuous decision-making met our dreams and some amazing things happened. Somewhere in that excitement, we took some risks that have enriched our lives abundantly. Pain and trauma accompany those risks, but they are worth every tear shed, every sleep interrupted, and every heartbreak.

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Last year I wrote this little thought when I was thinking about submitting daily devotionals to a popular magazine. I changed my mind, so now I share this with you:

Love makes your soul crawl out from its hiding place.

–Zora Neale Hurston

I left the playroom to throw some clothes into the washer. Just steps away from my two-year-old, I listened for her voice as she played with her dollies…

She came home to us from Ethiopia already a toddler, so we have spent every waking moment within a few feet of each other, working on our bond. Mabel has known no other caretaker on this side of the Atlantic, besides my husband and me. We do everything together. Everything. 

Our hearts swell when she chooses to get closer to us, and they collapse when she raises her arms up, asking to be held by strangers. One day at the park, she befriended an older gentleman and his two large dogs. Within moments I was coaxing her out of his lap. More bonding. We need more bonding. So my husband and I don’t go on dates. We don’t hire babysitters. The grandparents aren’t allowed to hold their grandchild yet. We’re bonding.

So today as I was flinging clothes into the washer (Little girls add a LOT of laundry to the household!), I strained to hear her babble. I didn’t hear anything from the playroom so I turned to check on her.  At my feet, I found Mabel.  And two dollies and a blanket.  Curled up next to the washer, just being with me.

The hunger for love is much more difficult to remove than the hunger for bread.

–Mother Theresa


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I’ve got streaming radio on right now. Mabel just caught a few words of the latest song.

“Christmas, Mommy! Christmas!”

Seven months ago Mabel joined our family. She spoke Amharic, a beautiful language from her birth country. Unlike many 20-month-olds, she already expressed herself well in her native language. Then we came along.

For the first few days in Ethiopia we heard one phrase over and over again, translated roughly to “Hey you!” Wherever we would go, she would holler “Hey, you!” to strangers. I assume she was trying to find her way back to something familiar. Hey, you! Will you take me back? Rescue me from these strange people! Hey, you! Help!

Today, she can sing her own endless version of Jingle Bells. She recognizes lights, Santa, and snow. A new world has opened up. There are a lot of Christmas words to learn! As a former Spanish teacher, I study her language development like it’s a part time job. Every word and concept she discovers is like a newly discovered country. This is an adventure. But it is also a loss. As she fills her language centers with a new language, another one is slowly slipping away. (But that is another post.)

The milestones have continued steadily for seven months.

In the beginning, she had big thoughts to communicate to us, but didn’t have the words for them:

  • I’m scared.
  • You’re scary.
  • Where’s my home?
  • Where are my nannies?
  • Will you feed me enough?
  • Am I safe?
  • I’m all alone now.

We had big thoughts for her, but didn’t have the words for them:

  • Trust us.
  • We will meet your needs.
  • We are not going anywhere.
  • You are safe.
  • We love you.

And most importantly,

  • I will be right back.
  • This will just take a minute.

Yes, I wanted my daughter to feel loved. Yes, I wanted her to know my unwavering commitment to her, but we quickly discovered that the most powerful concept that we needed to communicate was “We will not abandon you.”

We will be here. Even when you can’t see mommy (because she’s in the shower or taking care of George or taking a nap), she will never leave you. Daddy will come back upstairs. George will come home from school. Nobody is really going anywhere.

The first day that Mabel was in our custody, she started using English words. Her linguistic abilities astounded us. By the time we had our first check-in with the social worker at six weeks, she already had fifty words in her vocabulary. Now we can’t even count them anymore. Many two-year-olds have a dozen or so words, and our daughter can now hold a conversation that lasts for several minutes. But one phrase eluded her for months:

I’ll be right back.

By the time an average child has reached 20 months, she has heard “Mommy will be right back” maybe thousands of times. She may not know exactly what the words mean, but she is comforted by this. She goes into daycare, or nursery, or nap time with that phrase on her lips.

But Mabel had no idea what we were trying to say. And those phrases are abstract. “Be right back?” You can’t draw a picture of that. You have to live it, prove it, be it every day over and over and over. But Mabel just didn’t get it.

For five months of Mabel’s life, bedtime was tragic.

For five months, there would be no childcare outside of mommy and daddy.

For five months, church nursery was impossible.

For five months, Mabel clung to us, afraid to be left behind or abandoned.

Then one day in October something changed. One day she was afraid. The next day she trusted. And it was all about “Mommy be right back.” When she learned that phrase she was able to let go and nap. She was able to let go and have a babysitter. She was able to let go and go to Sunday school. She was able to let go of Mommy and find comfort in Daddy’s arms. It became her mantra.

Going to bed, “Mommy be right back. Daddy be right back, Georgie be right back.”

Going to church, “Mommy be right back. Daddy be right back, Georgie be right back.”

Sending us on a date, “Mommy be right back. Daddy be right back, Georgie be right back.”

I thought “Mommy loves you” or “Mommy cares for you” or “Trust Mommy” would be the most powerful concepts in our attachment arsenal, but for now, it’s “Mommy be right back.”

This Christmas, as Mabel sings carols to us, as her eyes light up when she recognizes Santa Claus in pictures, as she tries to figure out the little people in the manger scene, we are filled with tidings of comfort and joy. For a two-year-old, the Good News is about being safe, wanted, loved, fed, and never far from home.

This Christmas, her first Christmas in English, Mabel knows the Good News: Mommy will always be right back.

 

My kids are real. My kids are natural. My kids are my own. And yes, they were adopted.

If you are not sure how all those words go together, click here. But beware. As soon as you know about negative adoption language, you will hear it everywhere.

Everywhere.

I didn’t know what positive adoption language was until I read about it. So why would I expect family and friends and strangers to know what it is and how to use it?

At first I got shivers whenever I heard an insensitive phrase or a negative term. I felt like I needed to be outraged at these offenses if I were to actually represent adoptive parents well.

Now I’ve finally come to the point in my adoptive parenting journey where I choose not to be offended by lack of knowledge. If someone just doesn’t know any better, then they probably mean no harm by a stray comment. It’s my job to respond in a mature, life-giving way.

So when these situations occur, I laugh. I educate. I ignore. I blow it off. I stay calm.

I don’t get angry.

Here’s why:

My kids do need to know that we will only speak respectfully of others. They also need to know that their daddy and I will protect them from verbal abuse. But they also need to know how to have grace for those who just don’t have a clue. We won’t stand by when others are ridiculed, shamed, stereotyped or belittled, but we won’t do that to ignorant people either.

My List

Here are a few gems from our lives so far:

  • When are you going to have some children of your own?
  • Do you have any heart conditions or cancer in your family history? (a nurse asked me at a wellness check up for my Ethiopian daughter)
  • Is that your daughter? She..um..looks like you.
  • Your kids are so lucky to have you.
  • I can’t believe someone could ever give a child away. Look at him, he’s so beautiful.
  • Do you run a daycare?

I left out the racial observations that our transracial family has experienced. That’s a different topic, and different lessons can be learned there. There is a lot of emotion out there on all sides of transracial adoptive families. But our concerns remain the same: Protect our kids. Respond to others with love and patience.

What will you do with your list?

You adoptive parents probably have a list like mine. If you have older kids, you probably have a long list. And the offenders probably didn’t know any better. What will you do with your list? Will you grow bitter and cut people off? Or will you laugh on the inside and educate on the outside?

When we concern ourselves with policing everyone else, we lose the point of the list. There are many words and phrases that are hurtful, but our job is to monitor our own mouths. The list of positive adoption language is meant to teach us how to frame our own adoption experiences in healthy positive ways, not to fuel our fire to become offended by someone’s well-intentioned attempt to connect.

When we do our part, choosing our words carefully and educating others, we create a space for freedom, expression, and reflection. I would rather engage in a conversation spurred by the question, “Are those kids yours?” than scowl at every curious passerby. Every ignorant question is an opportunity to share love and inspire others to do the same.

What comments and questions have you heard? How did you respond? How do you discern the difference between ignorance and negativity?