A Place in Her Life

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photos-on-display Image via Shutterstock

Eight weeks doesn’t seem like such a long time.

But, of course, when you’re checking your email every day — actually, several times a day — desperately seeking a reply, eight weeks is interminable.

Our relationship with our youngest son’s birthmother has been the proverbial long and winding road, twisting most recently into a declaration that we are on a sort of break. It was her decision, and one we had to respect but also had to explain to our then-four-year-old son who had become conscious not just of her place in his life but her presence.

We had had regular visits since he was just weeks-old, the existence of which didn’t necessarily register with him in ways we could understand, that is until only recently—right around the time she gave birth to her second child, his birth sibling, a baby boy she was choosing to parent.  We did our best to explain who he was and why visits for her were becoming increasingly challenging.

When she told us we probably should not continue with visits lest he become confused or feel angst when she could not come, we felt the loss—for him, for us, for our other two sons who had never had the benefit of any birthparent contact.  And though she still wants photos and updates via email, it isn’t the same, isn’t what it once was or could have been.

When too much time had gone by without contact, I reached out.  I waited eight weeks for a reply, and then an apology and an announcement: a new baby, a daughter this time, another baby she is choosing to parent, is able to parent—and another explanation I needed to provide to my son.

And as I sit from this vantage point, my now-five-year-old son with a grin at times so big his face can barely contain it, I think of her, of her life filling up, of him, her first, becoming  less of a focus.  I can’t speak for her since I will never be able to fully understand the enormous sacrifice she made when she created his adoption plan, but I think of her—a lot.  And I think of this beautiful boy who will have much to process and eventually reconcile as he endeavors to understand if not forge his place in her life.

If you ask my son what words come to mind when he thinks of his birthmother, he says he loves her. He then asks— fairly quickly — when he can see her again.

I wish I knew enough to offer him answers — today and tomorrow and decades hence.

But I don’t, and I don’t think I ever will.

I don’t like my skin

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Mother Care

We traveled to Ethiopia in December of 2009 and returned with our son EJ on Christmas day. This little guy has completely changed my life and how I view things. There is no one that makes me laugh harder, keeps me on my toes, and challenges me more often.

Some of the best conversations take place between 7:30am and 7:50am every morning. EJ uses our car ride to school to voice opinions, ask questions and tell me stories. I learn a lot in twenty minutes.

But this morning’s conversation was something I wasn’t expecting to happen so soon. A conversion that threw me off, made me sad and brought me back to reality.

I had taken EJ to the dermatologist the day before. He goes every year to have his eczema checked out and check some of the pigmentation marks he has. It is routine and takes only minutes. I told him that his skin gets a little rash sometimes when it is dry, just like Mommy gets, and we just need the doctor to check it. She told him he looked great!

So this morning I was surprised when I heard from the backseat:

“Mommy, why did I go to the dermatologist yesterday?”

“Just to check your eczema. Lots of people get that. But you looked great. We just need to keep up with your cream!”

“I don’t like my skin.”

“What?”

“It’s too dark.”

My heart literally sank. I wanted to pull over. These are words that I dreaded hearing but knew that might possibly come at some point. I didn’t think he would be just shy of four.

“EJ, I love your skin. You have beautiful brown skin.”

“Well I don’t like brown skin. I don’t want it.”

“Lots of your friends have brown skin.” (I then listed them in a panic)

“Yeah they do.”

“What kind of skin do you want?” I knew the answer.

“Skin like yours.”

This was lot for me. By myself in the car at 7:30am. I was stumped, sad, and caught off guard. I never wanted him to feel this way. This was a lot for him.  Clearly he had been carrying this around with him. I thought we had done the right things to prevent this. But yet again, I know so little and am so naïve. There is no way to prevent this conversation and I knew that.

“EJ, you have beautiful skin. We all have different color skin. All of us. If we didn’t, think how boring we would all look. You loved learning about rainbows this year in school and all the colors. People are like rainbows, all different colors but all beautiful. I want you to realize that your brown skin is just as beautiful as Mommy’s even if it is not the same. There isn’t too dark or too light.”

“OK.”

We pulled into school and he asked if he was heading to Pre-K for the day.

This conversation is far from over. This conversation is only the beginning. I called Mike on my way to work to recap and I could hear in his voice the same sadness and realization that this day has come. I then went and visited with a colleague of mine who provided me with an understanding ear and some great wisdom. I was very grateful for her perspective and guidance.

I truly wish we didn’t have to tackle these issues with EJ. Not for us. Not because it is hard for us to talk about or involves us doing some work, talking to others and a lot of reading. But because I can see the pain and confusion it causes my little guy. And I would do anything in the world to prevent that. But once again, I can’t.

I would love advice, reading suggestions, stories from those who have far more wisdom and experience than me. I would love some guidance and reassurance that we are taking the right steps and saying the right things. More than anything I wish I could know for certain that we can guarantee that all future pain, confusion and identify issues can be kept to a minimum. That we could know for certain that he will always love himself and who he is, even if he is different from Mommy and Daddy. The best we can do at this point is show him the many, many, many reasons we love him and do our part to help him shape his own identity and self-love.

Tonight I asked EJ if he wanted to read his Ethiopia book. We looked at photos of his birth family. “Your birth mommy and daddy have brown skin just like you! And their skin is beautiful!”

He smiled and nodded, “Yep!”

Matching

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Matching

“Almost all the kids match,” my son declared.

I tensed a little in my miniature chair, wrapped both hands more tightly around my chai and waited to see if he would pursue it. Fourteen munchkins arrayed around the preschool snack table gave him varying levels of non-attention, fixated mostly on their little hoards of raisins and wheat crackers.

Vaguely, it occurred to me that “almost all” was a complicated concept. Their brains develop so fast. They inhale sophistication. I can watch their thinking process grow and change like bread rising.

“Almost all the kids are peach momma. We match. And Saige matches Teacher Miscilla.”

Saige barked, a second after I predict it in my mind, “I match mommy’s eyes.”

This is a recurrent theme in our house for the last month or two. As their minds become aware of color. Of features. Of alike and not alike. Their brains breathe in, breathe out, puzzling it. Our skin is different. Our eyes are the same. Saige has a tummy mommy. I do not.

I’m torn by her desire to match me. We have worked so hard for three long years to attach as a family. My emotional identity as her mother is strong, but they are young, simple, physical beings still. She wants the hard evidence. She wants to belong to me in fibers and colors and names and skin. Words are not satisfactory. Love. Bond. Concepts can’t be touched. They want to see and hold. Garrett’s hair matches Daddy’s hair. Saige’s eyes match Mommy’s eyes.

I encourage it gently and hide my reservations. My fears are adult fears. I know that she needs an identity as she grows that includes her Haitian heritage and her brown skin. I know that someday soon a desire to match her white mother and not her African American teacher could mean that I have failed to combat the pervasive message in our society that white is beautiful. That princesses are blond. That different is bad.

Not yet though. I feel fairly confident of that. She tells me she is pretty. She smiles when I do her hair and asks if she can see it. Oh, she primps, it’s beautiful. This four-year-old year, I see only a child exploring the ways she belongs in her family, not a child rejecting the way she looks.

The preschoolers looked to me, sticky handfuls of raisins half way to their mouths.

“I don’t match,” I reminded my son, “my skin is olive. Saige’s eyes match mine but her skin is chocolate like Teacher Priscilla. We are all unique. Who else has brown eyes?”

Four small hands went up. “I have blue eyes,” an adorable little blond piped.

“You do. Who else has blue eyes?” More comparing. Liam has green eyes like Garrett.

“But you’re the only one with red hair,” I say, “we’re all different and we all match.”

Just as suddenly as it began, it’s over. Their fickle attention shifted to something else, a spilled water cup, their dwindling raisins. Teacher Marietta directed them to the Rainbow Room where Ryan’s Grandpa, an entomologist, is ready to show them his Australian leaf bugs. They are huge! They are interesting! The biggest one laid an egg on his hand! We talk about bugs and only bugs for days, but I know it will come back up. I know it’s on their minds because of the way it surfaces and sinks and resurfaces in our conversations. Matching. Our skin. Our eyes.

This round is easy because they are easily satisfied. The hard questions wait for us around the corner.

I want to pour my heart into her. You are stunning. You are gorgeous. You are unique. Don’t cave to them, with their airbrushes and their chemical treatments and their make believe women in their make believe lives. Don’t think that pretty and picture perfect are equal. Don’t think that there is a look, a hair color, a weight, a wardrobe that brings happiness. Happiness is a family that loves you. Happiness is friends to giggle with you all night. Happiness is wine night every Thursday. It’s finding a passion. It’s tracing 1000 year old carvings with your finger. It is pouring your heart into something and coming in second. It’s in a hug. It is seeing your grandmother’s eyes light up when she meets your baby boy.

It is inconstant. It takes effort.

If you try to bleach or tan or sleep or puke or buy or exercise or read or drug your way to it, it will always elude you.

She is too small. I know. She is too small for all these words. So, I put them here for her for someday. You can not know the weight of someone’s heart by looking at them, darling. There are plenty of tiny blonds that cry themselves to sleep at night. There are redheads the world over that starve themselves in the name of a warped concept of beauty.

We are all different. We are all the same.

A Child of My Own

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It’s amazing how quickly you can become sensitive to the words of others. Before my son, James, came home from Ethiopia, I gave little thought to how I talked about adoption. Now that he’s home, the value of choosing words carefully has revealed itself to me in ways that I can only begin to describe. When people ask us about his ‘real’ parents, or query about whether or not we have children of our ‘own,’ I cringe. I cringe for myself, but mostly I cringe as I wonder how those words will affect his little mind’s understanding of who he is and how he came to be a part of our family.

As I try to explain myself, some people will no doubt think me picky. Others will perceive me as over-sensitive. I just think of myself as mom. And like any mom, I want what is best for my son. That means sharing our experience with others in the hopes that they will also begin to think about the power of words and the impact they have.

Let’s start with the whole “real” parent thing. When you stop and think about this, it’s fairly obvious why this wording makes adoptive parents bristle. What’s the opposite of real? Fake. Pretend. When you refer to my son’s first family as his “real” parents, you are by default resigning us to being his “fake” parents. Although you may not mean to, you suggest that I am simply pretending that I am his mom. But obviously, that’s not true. I’m about as real as they come. Pinch me and I’ll jump (in fact, sometimes I pinch myself in doubt that life can really be so good). I’ve changed my fair share of diapers, been spit up on repeatedly, gotten up ten times in one night, dried tears, been hugged more times than I can count, worried, worried, and worried some more. If that doesn’t make me real, I don’t know what does.

My son does have another set of parents. His first parents created him, carried him, and gave birth to him. We talk about them, honor them, and love them. They are very real. But we are no less so.

Another small difference in wording can be heard when I say that my son was adopted. Not is adopted, but was adopted. That may seem like a minor detail, but small words carry great meaning. Adoption shapes a child and a family, but it does not define them entirely. It is simply a way of forming a family. Just like your child was born in 2005, my son was adopted that year.

So if we want to, we will explain that James was adopted. Like all other families, we love to tell the story of the day that our son joined our family. More often, though, I don’t mention it at all. It is rarely relevant to the conversation at hand. When you introduce your child, you don’t say, “this-is-my-conceived-by-invitro-son” or my “oops-she-was-an-accident daughter.” The method by which you became a family is simply not important in most conversations. The same is true of our family. Yes, James joined our family through adoption. Yes, we are very proud of that detail. But there is rarely a need to distinguish our family from others.

Sometimes people will ask me, “Do you have any children of your own?” I’m never quite sure how to answer that question. At philosophical level, none of us “owns” our children. As Kahil Gibran wrote, “Our children are not our children. They are the sons and daughters of Life’s longing for itself. They come through you, but not from you. And though they are with you, they belong not to you.” Our children belong to the future, not to us.

And yet, like all other parents, I sometimes find myself referring to James as “my own son.” He lives with us, we provide for him, we love him deeply. We are listed as his parents on his birth certificate. We are there when he’s happy, when he cries, when he’s sick, when he hurts. The fact that I did not carry him in my womb is irrelevant in determining the fact that he is our child.

Still, the “child of your own” phrase is the one I hear the most. Sometimes I think this is because it is hard to understand that you can love a child by adoption as much as a child by birth; that a child by adoption really is just as much “your own.” Before James came home, I don’t know that I truly understood that either. Then came the moment a tiny little boy was placed in my arms and I forgot who I was before he entered my life.

So when I tell you that I am eternally grateful that I did not initially conceive a child, I am not exaggerating. I am horrified at the prospect of not having James in our lives. He is my heart and my soul and the joy of my life.

He is my son.

Adopting An Older Child

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Adopting An Older Child

Our daughter came to us through straight adoption from the foster care system eleven months ago, when she was nine years old. The first time we met her was in the administrative office of the group facility where she had been living for the six months prior to coming home with us. I loved her before I even laid eyes on her in person. We had been working to bring her home for six months (the entire time she was in the group facility). Mountains of paper work to read and sign, updates to our home study, more background checks, tons of red tape involving two states and multiple agencies. We were chosen to be her parents in November and didn’t get to meet her until May. I literally ground holes in two of my teeth in my sleep because I was so anxious to bring her home. She was 100% my daughter, my baby before she even knew we existed.

She spent her first four years dealing with abuse, neglect, poverty and abandonment. Then she spent the next five years bouncing around foster care. She was actually in a children’s psychiatric hospital (where she spent both her ninth birthday and Thanksgiving) when we were chosen to be her parents. She came to us diagnosed with ADHD, ODD (oppositional defiant disorder), anxiety and depression. We knew parenting her would be a challenge. We also felt we could handle it and that she was capable of healing.

She has come so far. In the beginning, she got stressed out if you asked her if she preferred a turkey or ham sandwich. That required looking inside to her own thoughts and feelings, something she fought vigilantly to avoid. She refused to talk about her past. She would not acknowledge any feelings other than happy and mad. Her “mad” was big. She could spend up to an hour hiding in her closet screaming like she was in a horror movie. We tried therapy with two different mental health agencies. They did not get trauma and attachment. One therapist actually made things worse and the other suggested we stop when our daughter stayed silent in sessions after five months of weekly visits.

I read up on therapeutic parenting and attachment disorders. I found an online network of moms in similar situations (“Trauma Mommas”) through blogs. I gave her the words for her feelings and told her about other kids with “hurt parts” like her. I repeated things like, “Stop, take a deep breath and relax” and, “You’re safe, you’re loved, you can handle this.” My husband and I both let her know that we were here to listen anytime she wanted to talk, but we couldn’t force her to share her memories or feelings with us. Slowly, she started to open up in spurts. One day in the car she randomly asked, “How long do you think my kids will get to live with me?” At nine years old, she was terrified of being a bad mom and having her kids removed from her. “It’s in my history and people always say history repeats itself.”

As she’s started to process her past, the behavior challenges have actually increased. She’s dealing with a whole lot of hurt and pain that she’s kept buried her whole life. She has meltdowns with screaming, wailing and flailing. She has episodes of defiance, disrespect and destruction. The difference is that now she is usually able to talk about the real reason behind it (instead of “You were mean to me!”) and feelings beyond “You made me mad!”

This past Easter was the last holiday (other than Mother’s Day) before we hit our one year together. We had three days of epic meltdowns, disrespect and defiance. Some of the highlights included: stabbing herself with a pencil, kicking me, screaming until she made herself ill and walking around the neighborhood barefoot when I told her not to leave the yard. She told us that she had to move several times right before holidays. She is convinced that we are going to “get rid” of her “just like everyone else”. She thinks this is because she is a bad kid who doesn’t deserve nice things or a family. Since we didn’t “get rid” of her at 4th of July, Christmas, Valentine’s Day, etc. she just knew it was going to be Easter. She was trying to hurry along what she felt was the inevitable by throwing out the worst possible behavior. Our adoption is finalized. We are a forever family. It’s hard to buy into “forever” when things didn’t work out with your biological parents. If your biological parents aren’t forever, how can you trust anyone else to be?

She woke up Easter morning to see that she was still home with us. She realized that we still loved her, despite her behavior; that we forgave her; that we were still taking care of her. There was still breakfast, clean clothes, hugs and the Easter Bunny even brought her presents! She spent the whole day hugging us, writing us love notes and pointing out that she hadn’t had a tantrum all day.

I’ve learned in the last year how quickly children grow and change and how fast time speeds by. I’m so honored I’m her mom and that she has allowed herself to love and trust me. I’m grateful that my husband and I are able to provide her with the safety and comfort to begin processing all that happened to her and the big feelings that go with it. Helping her heal is difficult, exhausting and sometimes overwhelming, but it is amazing to watch. She is going to be okay. My daughter is going to be healthy, happy, strong and healed.

As am I.

The Children Around My Neck

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running-jumping-girl-cute-sunny

Today I dropped off her purple shoe, size 7.5. She had left it behind and I probably held onto it longer than I should have.

Who can blame me? She was mine for 11 months.

I was her foster mom, which means that the first time I saw her she was standing in my driveway, looking so little and scared and dirty and lost. I saw her through trips to the doctor and skinned knees on the sidewalk. I was there through tantrums in the parking lot and hearing her go from speaking single words to fully-formed sentences. My big hands presented a lovely little homemade strawberry cupcake to her waiting little ones on her second birthday. I texted a photo to her grandmother to commemorate the event.

We became foster parents because a string of miscarriages and an ectopic pregnancy left me desperate for that long-awaited baby we had been trying for for four years. 18 months later we received a call for a little two year old girl, the little girl who owns the purple shoe. She was feisty and loving and crazy and sweet. A relative had dropped her off at the homeless shelter and left. She was an abandoned baby who needed a home.

Our home.

She stayed those 11 months, and some days I wondered if I’d be able to stand another tantrum. Other days, I wondered how she could be so sweet and amazing and wonderful. Then, when it became obvious to us that her case was heading toward another adoption, we let her go.

We had to.

Still, today, walking up to her new Mama and dropping off that sweet little shoe, something stabbed my heart.

“We’ll see you next month at the foster care conference!” her Mama said, and: “You know, you’ll never stop being her mom. She’s going to grab onto you next month and not let go. You know that, right?”

I started full-out crying, the ugly cry.

She hugged me and I headed back to my car.

********

There are five little names on a chain around my neck. Three of those names belong to the babies I bore biologically, and two of those little names are babies I got to raise for a short time and then let them go.

I used to have a quiet awe for mothers who choose to give their babies for adoption, but now it is loud and unabashed.

Like me, I suppose, those mothers loved those babies, carried those babies, prayed over those babies.

And then, all quiet and soft, they placed those babies’ hands intoi the hands of other mothers and, holding tight to those names around their necks,

they walked away.