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Adventures in Adoption, or Leave A Tender Moment Alone

Full disclosure: I have no idea what I’m doing.

Back in the Fall of 2010, in China, a very nice lady handed me my son and sent me on my merry way back to the US. My husband took to parenthood like a duck to water. I had a harder time. I had taken all the required pre-placement classes. I sought out advice from other moms, from books, even from irreverent parenting blogs. You know, people smarter than me. I faked it for the first year. I got the hang of it the second year, and by year three I hit my stride. It was sometime in that third year that my kiddo decided he wanted to go back and visit his home country.

Dateline: 2013
Jack: “Mommy. I want to go to China”.
Me: “Sure, honey. Someday we’ll all go back.
Jack: “I hope that someday is soon”.

And so it began. Jack has always known his story. The day after we got home from the last trip I put together what’s affectionately known as “The Jack Book”. It has every picture we have of him, including those from his time in the orphanage. It’s filled with memories, mementos, and milestones. He LOVES it. We’ve read it countless times at bedtime, and he’s even taken it to school for Show And Tell (more than once, actually). My point is, he knows where he came from and how he came to be ours. He knows he had a China Mommy and Daddy before he had us, and he knows he had nannies to care for him in between. We talk about it ALL THE TIME.

It was no surprise when he started, in the summer of 2013, to ACTIVELY lobby for a homeland trip (and NOBODY lobbies like this one. He is the future of Washington, y’all). We had always planned on it, but it was looming distant on the horizon, floating in the ether. Once again, I turned to smarter people (this time I enlisted the brains of adult adoptees–the Holy Grail of smart people) to help me get a plan together. Turns out that the overwhelming majority agreed on the same thing: the earlier you can go home again, the better. It’s easier, it seems, to integrate heritage, culture, and ethnicity before cultural bias has a chance to kick in.

I began to work on our itinerary last November. Up to that point, adoption talk had ramped up to prodigious proportions. It was an every day occurrence: Birth Family, the weather in China, the orphanage, Chinese geography, nannies, Chinese history….It was mind-boggling just how mightily China Fever had taken hold of my child. We answered every question as best we could (with a lot of help from Siri), and we were unflinchingly honest about what we did and, more importantly, what we DIDN’T know. The last thing we wanted to do was paint a forgery of his early life. The trip would be a whirlwind of every major city and attraction in China (think Great Wall, Terra Cotta Warriors, panda holding, Li River cruise).We each picked an experience we wanted to have (Jack’s was tobogganing down the Great Wall. He loved it, by the way. I was ALL ABOUT the pandas). I scheduled all kinds of classes, and worked with a phenomenal travel agent who hooked us up with a bunch of in-home visits so we could experience actual family life. We decided to pull Jack out of the last week of school so we could stay a little longer.

The one thing we (my husband and I) were on the fence about was an orphanage visit. Our son just turned 7 (he was 6 during the planning phase). I didn’t think he was ready for that quite yet. The hubs insisted on, at the very least, visiting Jack’s hometown. I was down with that, but I remained unconvinced about a visit to the SWI. One morning on the way to school, after a particularly intense conversation about his Birth Family, I asked him if he wanted to see where he was from. I have never seen my kid so excited about ANYTHING. Later that night, I sat with him in the quiet dark of his room, and after stories were read and lullabies were sung, I asked again. This time I really, really listened. I listened between the lines.

So we added a couple of days to our already overstuffed itinerary. We booked an additional guide and translator, we paid the orphanage fee, we arranged transportation to his town from the capital of the province. And we prepared ourselves to pull the plug on the whole thing. I remained unconvinced that it was a good idea. Nevertheless, we made sure he knew what to expect. We talked about the babies and kids there, we showed him pictures, we reached out to other families who had BTDT.

Our first week back in China was beyond anything we could’ve imagined.The FIRST thing he said when we stepped off the plane in Beijing was “MOM!!! There are SO MANY Chinese people! There aren’t any Americans anywhere! I love it here!!!”. I had NO IDEA that he felt that way. Maybe I hadn’t been listening as hard as I thought. But still I remained unconvinced.

The night before the orphanage visit, we sat down with him (again) and prepared a list of questions he wanted to ask. I don’t know how he managed to fall asleep that night, he was so excited. I remained unconvinced. The next morning we met our guide, boarded the G train and headed out. I remained unconvinced. We piled into cabs and fought traffic through downtown. I remained unconvinced. Our cabs stopped in the middle of the street (traffic jam), and we were unceremoniously dumped on the street and told we had to walk the rest of the way. I remained (way) unconvinced. And then we crested a hill, and my son saw the building he had seen so many times in his Jack Book. His face lit up in a way I had never seen. I have never seen a smile so big. I swear I saw his heart light up in his chest. He couldn’t get there fast enough.

Right then and there I realized it didn’t matter AT ALL what *I* thought. I took my baby’s hand, and we walked through the door together. We met the Director, reviewed his file, asked questions, and then the door opened and a lady walked in with a large picture frame. In it were all the pictures we had sent them over the years. It had been hanging in the Baby Room; a reminder to other kids that families DO come (there were too few frames on that wall, by the way). The woman that came in? She was his nanny. His caregiver. Think about that word: Care. Giver. One who gives care. She didn’t have to; she could have treated him like so many others are treated: feed, clothe, move on. But she CARED. She GAVE. We looked at the pictures of the two of them in his file. She immediately hugged him, then didn’t let go. I will never be able to put into words the depth of the gratitude I have for her for caring for my baby until I could get to him. I’m crying now just thinking about her.

We went upstairs to the Baby Room. We met the sweet lady who had brought him to us six years ago. His nanny couldn’t stop touching him, but she managed to let him go long enough so he could explore the room and see the other kids there. He even got to see his crib! What I saw was my child’s soul healing right before my eyes (in truth, he’s been so much more at peace since we visited. He’s such an inherently happy kid that I had no idea that he WASN’T at peace until I saw that he WAS).

So much more transpired that day, but I fervently believe those are not my stories to tell. Those moments, while unimaginably special to me, ultimately belong to my son. When, and if, he’s ready, I have no doubt he’ll share it much more eloquently than I ever could. What I want to leave you with is this:

There was a team of volunteers at the orphanage while we were there. One of them pulled me aside and asked me how I knew it was the right time to bring him back.

I thought about it for a minute. I could’ve given the stock answer of “Oh, the experts say yadda yadda yadda”, but I went with the truth: I listened to someone smarter than me. It turns out that it just happened to be my seven year old son.

Zhuang Ancient Town, Longji Rice Terraces

Guilin was BEAUTIFUL. We got to see the China that you see in pictures. In fact, 95% of the photos you see of Chinese rice terraces are taken where we were in Longsheng. We had quite the hike through the paddies and up the mountain! We then had lunch with a local family. Every thing on our table was sourced from their farm. In fact, the chicken for the soup was running around the front door just minutes before it found itself in our pot. Even our greens were harvested from the local mountain. Talk about farm to table! 
Our drive from the city to the terraces took a bit longer than expected due to a BAD accident, which unfortunately is not uncommon on the twisting mountain roads. It was quite an adventure! We were stranded for a little more than an hour, along with every other car and truck, as we waited for the roads to clear. Luckily, we were out of the way of the rock slides; a few other cars weren’t so lucky. We got the chance to chat with other people on our same predicament, eat some local snacks, and just hang out and enjoy the scenery. 
The Longji terraces have been there since the Yuan Dynasty (more than 600 years). The same families have lived in the village for generations, and it’s completely obvious. They sure know what they’re doing! Jack had a BLAST picking his way through the terraces, and especially racing up the mountain. Me? Not so much with the racing, but I made it to the top, so that’s something!

Adventures in Adoption, or I Can’t Even

You guys. I seriously can’t even with this day. We have spotty–at best–internet, so for now I’ll keep it brief, but I wanted to update a bit on just what we did today. <br>
We caught an early bullet train from Changsha to Chenzhou. Jack spent the first 19 months of his life there, and today was his triumphant return. When we got off the train, it was HOT. Like, Texas in August hot. We had an eventful cab ride to (almost) the orphanage. We didn’t make it all the way there due to a traffic jam, so it was sidewalk city. We trudged up the hill, and there we were. We were able to meet the director, but more importantly, we got to meet the ladies that cared for Jack until we could. As a mother, I can’t describe how completely life changing this was for me. There just aren’t words for the depth of gratitude I have for the woman who kissed his first boo boos and tucked him in. She never left his side the whole time we were there. We got to see his other nannies, too, and each of them greeted him like their own long lost child. He was definitely the star of the day. It was also beyond overwhelming, for us, and definitely for him. He got to spend about an hour in the baby room, which is where he spent the majority of his early life. The babies and toddlers there are loved as best they can be by a skeleton crew of a staff and too few volunteers. Shout out to Team Chenzhou who is in town for two weeks; it was great to meet y’all today!
When it was time to go, we took a few more pictures, and I hugged his nanny so hard I almost broke her. How do you put into words that kind of gratitude? I hope she felt it. I couldn’t have held back the tears if my life had depended on it. I have a feeling I’ll have leaky eyes for a while yet. We learned that his finding spot was very close by, so we walked to it. And in the words of Forrest Gump, that’s all I have to say about that.<br>
After lunch (chicken head!!!), we boarded the train back to Changsha, where we had tea with our dear friend Ashley, his wife, and their two boys. Jack, ever the diplomat, was fast friends with the boys in about 2 seconds flat. Language barrier? No problem for those kids. They were having a BALL. iPads emerged and epic Minecraft battles ensued. Soon enough, all three boys were speaking an awesome combination of Mandarin and English while the grown ups enjoyed a slow tea and some MUCH needed downtime spent with friends who are family. I am beyond grateful for our Chinese family. Even though we haven’t seen them in 6 years, the time melted away like we had never left. I needed the comfort and warmth today more than any other day in my life. If we were in the States, I would’ve called my girlfriends and had (a lot of) wine. How lucky I am that we have people here, on the other side of the world, to be my touchstone during the hard times.
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After tea, we went out to dinner, where the boys ran around together like lunatics, just being boys. Plans were made for other visits, and they can’t come soon enough. In the meantime, the internet will continue to be our lifeline to one another, and that’s just fine for now. I’ve tucked my sweet baby into bed, and I fervently hope that the toll I KNOW today has taken on him will hold off just a bit longer so he can rest. There’s no question that today was a hefty dose of both yin and yang, the bitter and the sweet. Thankfully, the sweet won out in the end. 


So yes, there’s more, but for tonight, I’m spent. 

Another Big Day!

We had another super busy day in Beijing today: Tiananmen Square, the Forbidden City, and Temple of Heaven were on the agenda. This meant HOURS of walking, and sadly, it was not a blue sky day. It was pretty smoggy, and we came close to breaking out the masks.

We started the day in Tiananmen Square. This time, unlike our previous trip, we were able to get close enough to the outside of Chairman Mao’s tomb. We didn’t go in, mostly because the wait is HUGE. Everyone in China wants to make the pilgrimage to see Mao. We settled for a picture outside instead.

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After walking the length of the largest public square in the world, we entered The Forbidden City. It is truly spectacular. You can’t imagine the scope of it until you’re actually there. It was just as impressive this time as it was 6 years ago. Jack had a ball rubbing the gold knobs on each door for good luck!
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We took a break for lunch at a hot pot restaurant well known for its dancing noodle pullers. I’ll eventually get around to a more in-depth recap of that (complete with video!) but for now I’ll just say that it was both delicious AND super fun. Once we were sufficiently fed we headed to the Temple of Heaven. Again, you cannot fathom how beautiful it is until you’ve seen it in person. Yeah, I know Epcot’s version is pretty, but nothing compares to the real deal.

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Finally, we ended the day with dinner with our dear friend Jerry and his wife Ivy. They’ll get a whole post to themselves (hopefully I’ll have a bit of time on the train to Xi’An tomorrow), but for now I’ll just say how unbelievably lucky we are to have him in our lives.

Now it’s time for sleep, and not a minute too soon. This mama is tired!

Great Wall at Mutianyu and The Summer Palace

We headed out early this morning to the Summer Palace, which is located in the north of Beijing. Jack,lived the dragon boats and the Buddhist temple, and of course the huge marble boat. I think his favorite thing was the tags the put on the trees to indicate their ages. Green tags mean a tree is between 100 and 300 yea s old; red ones mean 300-500 years old. There are a LOT of red-tagged trees. <br>

After that, we drove about an hour and a half further to the Mutianyu section of the Great Wall. We stopped for lunch, which was amazing. *Real* Chinese food is phenomenal, and worth the 14 hour flight to experience it. Just sayin’. <br>

After lunch, it was time to hit the wall. We all headed up on the cable cars, spent a couple of hours hiking up, up, up, down, down, and back up some more. We climbed a watchtower or two, and then it was time for the BIG DEAL. Mom and I headed back down via cable car, but Kevin and Jack took the giant toboggan to the bottom. <br>

Jack LOVED it. He loved it so much, in fact, that he slept like a log for the nearly three hour drive back into the city. This poor kid is EXHAUSTED, but he NEVER complains. He is just so excited to be here, and we’re just as excited to see it all through his eyes. The last stop of the evening was dinner, and now we’re tucked back into the hotel for the night.

Welcome Home, Baby

It’s no big secret that Jack has been super excited about coming back to China. He’s fading pretty fast this evening (Good Morning to y’all, by the way), but we were all VERY moved when we got to the hotel room and saw this:

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We have big adventures planned for tomorrow. Tonight, though, we’re settling back into China. I can’t quite explain our affinity for this country, but man, it sure does feel good to be back. It definitely feels like a homecoming. Jack is over the moon and super proud to be Chinese. I’ll get into that a bit more another time, but suffice it to say he was crazy excited when we got to the airport in Beijing. He said “There are SO MANY CHINESE PEOPLE!!! I don’t see ANY Americans!” He was just beside himself that he (for once) didn’t stand out as different. I have absolutely NO doubt that this was the perfect time to bring him back here.

We Made It!

25 hours after we woke up, we have finally made it to the hotel in Beijing. We’re working on getting our VPN set up so we can update Facebook, but it’s proving to be a bit of a challenge. Jack was AWESOME. Both passengers and flight attendants remarked about how well behaved he was. He barely moved and didn’t make a peep the entire flight.

Next on the agenda is a shower, some food, and then some much needed sleep.

And We’re Off!

3AM came EARLY today. So far, at least, things have been going off without a hitch. We’re hanging at DFW for a couple of hours, and then we take to the skies one more time. Next stop: Beijing!

And once again, Jack is the chillest child EVER. He truly is super easy to travel with. I’ve never seen another kid go with the flow as much as he does.

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Adventures In Adoption, or Who Are The People In Your Neighborhood

Jack informed me this morning that we leave for China in 120 hours. Now it’s more like 110. I think we *might* be a little excited.
Jack has always been an intrepid traveler. He’s been proudly hauling his own luggage since he was 3. I have lost count of the number of plane rides he’s taken. Don’t even get me started on the road trips. He’s a TROOPER. I’ve never seen a kid go with the flow as much as this kid does. Now, I love every little thing about my child. I love every hair on his head. One of the things I love the most, however, is his innate ability to adapt to his environment. He is so. Much. FUN to travel with.

Kevin and I have been around the world (literally). We have seen and done some incredible things (just ask Kevin about that goat). We have collected stories and memories from far and wide, but more importantly, we have collected friends. When our friend Bobby visited us late last year, Jack thought it was totally normal that he was visiting from Kenya.
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A couple of years ago, we were lucky enough to meet up with our friend Jerry, from Beijing. He was visiting Florida with a Chinese delegation. We met “Uncle” Jerry on our last trip to China. He was our assigned guide, but he immediately became our friend. He explained it to us like this” In Chinese culture, you have a “yuan” with some people, a kind of unexplainable, invisible connection. Your paths are destined to cross and remain tangled for life.

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In Changsha, Ashley was our assigned guide. The minute we landed at the airport we recognized him. He is the only person on earth who has known Jack *exactly* as long as Kevin and I. Again, he became so much more to us. On our last night in Hunan, he and his family hosted us AT THEIR HOUSE. To this day, I’ve never heard of another family who has had that experience.
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Since we brought Jack home, we’ve kept in touch with both Jerry and Ashley through email. We send pictures and updates a few times a year. Kevin installed WeChat so now we actually get to talk to them, too, which is super fun. When we planned this trip, we made sure that we included plenty of time in Beijing and a side trip to Changsha with the hope that we could squeeze in a visit with both of them. Jerry is busy, though, and he travels all the time. Same with Ashley. This was by no means a sure thing.

The Universe did what the Universe does, though, and sure enough, I’m BEYOND excited to say that we will get to spend a little time with them BOTH! We’ll see Jerry next week in Beijing. He had a last minute cancellation of his planned trip to France, which sucks for him but works out great for us. In an even crazier turn of events, Ashley was actually assigned to be our guide for our trip to Chenzhou, so we’ll be spending the ENTIRE DAY with him. We’ll even get to see his wife and kids later in the evening.

I am a lucky, lucky girl. I have friends on almost every continent (I don’t know anyone in Antarctica, sadly). Even better, my child has people in his global village he can call on. He knows that the world is so, so much bigger than his backyard. His neighborhood is HUGE. He will grow up knowing that, while home is a wonderful, safe, happy place, it’s also the place where adventure begins. He will be able to leave the nest with the confidence that only comes from navigating the world outside his comfort zone. His passport, already half-filled with stamps and visas, will tell the story of a life spent exploring. He will learn that people all over the world have SO MUCH to teach us, if we’re willing to learn. Xenophobia will never exist here.

And in 106 hours, we get to make HIS world a little bigger, by making THE world a little smaller.

Adventures in Adoption, or, You CAN Go Home Again

We leave for China in 7 days. One week. This trip, one that’s been a year in the making, is finally upon us. Hard to believe. Visas have been obtained, i’s are being dotted, t’s are being crossed, bags are being packed, house sitters are being paid. In short, we’re just about ready to go. Those of you that know me know that I am one hell of a Cruise Director. If you’ve ever travelled with me, or if I’ve ever taken you to Disney, you’ll know exactly what I’m talking about. Pretty sure this is me.
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Our itinerary is…well, let’s just say it’s “ambitious” (because in reality, it’s straight up crazy town). We are packing every big thing about China into 15 itty bitty days (and yes, I AM HOLDING A PANDA). I have obsessed about planning every detail of this adventure. I’ve spent countless hours on YouTube researching each and every stop, from the Reed Flute Cave to the Summer Palace. I can tell you more than you ever wanted to know about Chinese street food. BUT.

NONE of that is why we’re doing this. Yes, we want to see all the cool stuff. BUT. This trip belongs to Jack. He asked us if we could go back to China. We said “Of course”. He has shown more than a little interest in his heritage. It’s not surprising, then, that our house has turned into China Culture and Adoption Discussion Central.

It began to ramp up around Christmas: subtle questions about China, an increase in discussion about his Birth Family, a bit more of a struggle with his identity. Lately (read: in the past three weeks) there are almost daily conversations about whether or not he is a Chinese citizen or an American one. He knows the difference, and he knows his truth. BUT.

The inevitable pull to be more of who he is has surfaced. Right now, he wants to be more Chinese than American. That’s okay. The tide of his identity will ebb and flow. Right now, he’s still young enough that American cultural bias against China has not set in (making it, by the way, the perfect time to take him on a tour of his Homeland). Right now, all of these feelings are bouncing around inside of him. He doesn’t quite know what to make of it all, but that’s where his Daddy and I come in.

If you think I can research travel itineraries, you have NO IDEA how much effort I can put into broadening my parenting education. I have read every book on taking your kids back to their birth country (this one is my favorite). I have read JACK every age appropriate book about returning to China. We talk about it all. The. TIME. No subject is off limits. Lately, he’s been fixated on the orphanage visit (so have I). He *really* wants to go back to Chenzhou. He told me “It’s a happy building, Mommy”. I love that so, so much.

Jack and I both have some apprehension and anxiety about returning to Chenzhou, though. He’s been having a little trouble sleeping lately, and he’s been a bit more sensitive than normal. I, too, am admittedly, on edge, especially when it comes to him. Never in my life have I wanted to protect him more than I do right now. Even watching him from afar during PE at school today, I wanted to fuss at a couple of the kids who were being less than kind to him. Sure, it was typical First Grade trash talk, but still. Every slight hurts a little these days. I want nothing more than to lock his tender little heart in a box so it won’t be damaged. Feeling that and acting on it are two entirely different matters, however, so instead I put on my Big Girl Panties and move on. We’re navigating this emotional minefield together, and so far, we’re doing okay.

On any given day, by bedtime, we’ve talked about his Birth Family (who and where they are, and why he doesn’t know them), culture, citizenship, his orphanage, and the first 18 months of his life before us. Think about that for a second. It’s a whole lot more than most families tackle during the car ride to soccer practice or piano lessons. That being said, we are VERY fortunate that there are such great resources available to us. Mostly, though, we’re lucky that we have such a resilient, curious, loving kid.

Adventures in Adoption, or Honesty Is Such a Lonely Word

Lately I’ve been struggling with balancing the bitter and the sweet, the firsts and lasts. As Jack sprints headlong into seven, 6 is already becoming a distant memory. Gone are his chubby baby cheeks, long ago melted away into chiseled angles. Gone is the hesitation in his run, long ago replaced by a crazy (if not terrifying) confidence in his body’s abilities to remain upright and strong. I held him and rocked him while standing the other night. I think that’s the last time, as he now weighs 58 pounds, and my 40 year old back simply can’t handle that anymore. Gone, too, are the days where he turned around and blew me a kiss on his way into school (a true heartbreaker, that one). Here, now, is a closed door at bedtime. Here are the days of constant motion, no downtime. Here are the days of “Mom, I’m OLD ENOUGH!!!”. And he is. For so, so much. He can fix his own breakfast. He can take his own, unsupervised, showers, and be trusted to get mostly clean. He can stay up late on the weekends reading under the covers with a flashlight. He can walk the dog. So many firsts, bound tightly with so many lasts. The bitter and the sweet.

This morning on the way to school, he asked me about his China Mommy. I would say it was out of the blue, but in truth, it’s not. Our upcoming trip to China has stirred up some emotions and more than a few questions. Still and all, I was not quite prepared to field the question on limited sleep and no caffeine. Very matter-of-factly, he said “I grew in someone else’s tummy”. “Yes. Yes you did”. This is not new news; we’ve had this conversation since day 1. And then:

“I hope my China Mommy isn’t dead”.

“I hope so, too, baby. I hope that so much”.

“I don’t know my China Mommy. Who is my China Daddy”?

“We don’t know, sugar. We don’t know anything at all about your China Mommy and Daddy. But when you get older, if you want to look for them, we’ll do everything we can to help you. They are very important people, because they gave us you”.

In our house, we tell the truth. Even when it’s hard. Let me give you a recent example, which again took place in the car on the way to school (all the hard conversations seem to happen either there or at bedtime. My theory is that it’s easier for him to ask questions when he can’t see my face. I know it’s easier for me to answer them that way. But I digress). We’re rolling along 8th Street, when out pops “Mommy, did you used to smoke”?

SHIT.

“Yes, baby. When I was a teenager, I made some bad choices, and that was one of them. I stopped a long time ago, though, and I NEVER should have done it”.

“I know. GRANDMA TOLD ME THAT YOU SMOKED”.

Thanks, Grandma! That bus felt AWESOME when it rolled over me. 😉 But the thing is, I was faced with a choice in that moment: lie through my teeth and protect my heretofore untarnished Mommy image, or humble up and tell the truth, even though it was like chewing glass to do so. Thank God I went with the truth. I had no way to know he already knew the dirty details; no, all I knew was that I had about five milliseconds to make the right choice, and I did. Because we don’t lie. Even when we want to. Even when it’s hard.

The day we became a family, I made Jack a promise. I would always answer his questions. I would honor his Birth Family every way I knew how. I would teach him they are important people, even if we never get to know them. I would always let it be HIS decision how his story is told, AND how it unfolds. Back then, I dreaded the day the questions would come. I secretly hoped they never would (don’t worry, I was never truly that naive, but I sure overcompensated in the beginning. Being enough for somebody is terrifying). Imagine my surprise this morning when all of the answers came out easily and without fear. Honestly, the question about my previous smoking habit was WAY worse than this. The bitter: This won’t be the last time his feelings erupt. And it will not always be so easily dealt with, nor should it be. The sweet: He felt secure in the knowledge that honesty would be forthcoming. I felt secure enough to give those answers without a second thought. The razor’s edge between the bitter and the sweet is a scary, exhausting, exhilarating, wonderful place.

Billy Joel once sang that

“When I’m deep inside of me
Don’t be too concerned.
I won’t ask for nothin’ while I’m gone.
But when I want sincerity
Tell me where else can I turn.
Because you’re the one that I depend upon.

It never fails to remind me of the weight of the responsibility we have as his parents. Jack goes deep inside. And when he needs the sincerity, I hope to God I’ve shown him that it’s here. Because in our house, we tell the truth. Even when it’s hard. Especially when it’s hard.

Adventures In Adoption, or Water Isn’t Always Wet

Disclaimer: You KNOW I have something on my mind if I’m breaking a 2 year blog silence. Fasten your seat belts, I’m feeling stabby. And cussy. Really, really cussy.

A friend of mine alerted me to an article published recently in The Atlantic titled “The Adoption Paradox”. The clickbait summary read “Kids who are adopted have richer, more involved parents. They also have more behavior and attention problems. Why?”

Clickbait, indeed. What the actual fuck? Where do I even start? I read the article, and then, doing my due diligence, followed up and read the actual study. Both are, if you’ll excuse me, complete horseshit. I can easily dismiss the article because, let’s face it, The Atlantic isn’t the paragon of literary (or even editorial) content that it once was. It’s descended into a morass of cultural sensationalism better suited to coverage of the Kardashians than actual world/political/socially relevant events. The study is flawed in so very many ways, or as I’m more likely to refer to it, “fucked from Jump Street”.

Let’s begin with the obvious: The generalization that adoptive parents are affluent and well-educated is flat-out WRONG. Yes, I am aware of a few “affluent” adoptive families, but by and large most of us are middle class. I WISH I could identify as “affluent”. Not so much, there, Nicholas Zill. And “well-educated”? Maybe. There is a degree of difficulty involved with navigating the adoption process, which certainly isn’t designed for mouth breathers. Then again, most agencies assist families during the entire journey. Sure, most of us have at least SOME college education, but believe me when I tell you that there are PLENTY of adoptive parents who are most assuredly NOT going to be MENSA candidates any time soon. Ever. At all.

Before I lose you completely, you should also check out the section where Nicholas says that adoptive parents “put more effort into caring for their children than biological parents do.” The last time I checked, that was patently untrue. But I digress.

I think the thing that immediately jumped out at me, however, was this little tidbit: “yet they get into more conflicts with their classmates at school, display relative little interest and enthusiasm about learning tasks, and register only middling academic performance”. Hold up there, Mr. Zill. I’ll dive into an in-depth dissection of your methodology in just a minute, but for now, let me just go ahead and call “bullshit”. Every. Single. Adopted kid I know has integrated into his/her classroom with enthusiasm. I can’t think of ONE child who isn’t excited about learning tasks, and don’t even get me started on the academic excellence I’ve witnessed not only from my own child, but others as well. I can rattle off a list of super readers, math whizzes, science fanatics….all adopted.

Mr. Zill has, for the first time, relied on teachers’ analysis of child behavior for his “study”. While I agree that parent assessment is probably not always accurate (we *do* love our precious snowflakes), I have to object to relying solely on the teachers. Don’t get me wrong: teachers are AWESOME. Jack has phenomenal teachers. BUT. When a teacher (or anyone for that matter) who is unfamiliar or uncomfortable with adoption comes into contact with an adopted kid, they immediately get “The Look”. It’s usually fleeting, and for the most part they tend to forget it’s even a part of the child’s life. Good teachers get to know our kids; they learn their quirks and idiosyncrasies that comprise our tiny humans. But at the initial meeting, The Look comes into play. It’s a quickly masked combination of pity and curiosity. The great teachers meet it head-on; the not-so-great ones pretend it doesn’t exist at all. But here’s the thing: By relying solely on teachers’ observations, the adopted kids in the study were artificially scrutinized. They were put under a microscope. Teachers were given an automatic out if/when they observed behaviors that might have been completely normal in any other context from any other kid. I have no doubt that there were teachers involved who were quick to assign the “adopted” label to a kid who may have simply been having a bad day.

Now, I’m definitely not going to dismiss the author’s focus on attachment theory or traumatic stress theory. It’s certainly true that all adoption is born from a place of grief and loss. Yes, our children struggle on some level with both of those. I’m just not convinced that those two demons manifest themselves with any measurable regularity in the classroom. In no way am I discounting that it happens; I’m simply saying that our kids adjust. They adjust well. Yes, they have, and will, face hurdles, but it PAINS me to see adopted kids pigeonholed as learning deficient troublemakers. We adoptive parents kill ourselves to make sure the opposite is true. And not just because we’re wealthy geniuses.

My final beef with Mr. Zill comes in his conclusion: “Many adopted children do reasonably well in school and enjoy lives that are far better than they would have experienced had they not been adopted. And they do so at less cost and burden to the public than if the children were raised in foster homes or institutions”. Dude. Just no. Stop. Staaahhhhhp. Sure, it *might* be true, but we don’t really know that. Is my child better off with me than in an orphanage? You betcha. Would he have been better off with his first family, being raised in the culture into which he was born? Quite possibly. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: Adoption is a SELFISH choice. I made the decision to take this baby out of his birth country. My problem with his statement is that he makes adoption sound like a heroic choice. It’s not. Yes, there are scads of families who are in the trenches working tirelessly for their kids, and yes, that can be heroic. But not ONE of us adopted because we wanted to “save an orphan”, and if we did, well, then, our social workers should’ve smacked us upside the head. That is the WORST possible reason to adopt a child. By the same token, his flawed rhetoric has the potential to deter prospective adoptive parents, and that’s a real tragedy. These kids, no matter where or how they start, have immense potential. They can (and do) become anything they want to be (well, except President. My kid can’t do that, but that’s a different rant).

Listen: ALL kids face challenges. Divorce, parental drug use, bullying, illness, ADHD, learning disorders….the list is endless. The worst kid in Jack’s class comes from a stable 2 parent household. Parenting is HARD, y’all. I don’t care HOW you came to be a family; it’s the hardest work there is. It’s also the most rewarding. We don’t need any artificial obstacles thrown at us. We have plenty to deal with already, thankyouverymuch Nicholas Zill.

Adventures in Adoption, or, And So It Goes

It started slowly, a couple of months ago. An offhand question about mommies and daddies. Another a few days later about China. Yet another about his China mommy. What started as a trickle has turned into a flood, and there’s no stemming the tide.

I knew this day was coming, and I really, really believed I was prepared for it. Like everything else about adoption, however, no matter how much you think you know, there is always something waiting in the wings to bitch slap you back into reality. I *did* know we were living in The Bubble. In fact, the minute I first held Jack in my arms, the one perfectly clear realization I had was that we had started the countdown. I had a finite amount of days before adoption conversations would begin creeping in. The halcyon days when I could pretend he was only ever mine. Before you call in the adoption police, please know that yes, we’ve always told him his story. He’s always known he lived in an orphanage, and he’s always known he had a China Mommy and Daddy. He’s seen pictures of his old nannies and the room where he used to sleep. We haven’t kept anything from him, it’s just that he’s old enough now to begin to process things. And it’s hard. Harder for me, I think, than for him.

It’s no surprise that it’s coming up now. A mommy of one of his friends just had a baby, as did one of his teachers. There’s been a LOT of talk about babies growing in tummies. I’ve always fallen back on the sweet (albeit a bit trite) “You grew in Mommy’s heart”, and so far, that’s been good enough. As the questions get more complicated, I know that it won’t be quite so easy (not that it’s easy now). There is a phrasebook with which all adoptive parents come equipped. We learn the language of adoption through classes, books, message boards, other adoptive parents. We arm ourselves with platitudes like “All families are different”, “We chose you”, “You needed a family, and we need a baby” (for the record, I’m not a fan of that one). For the most part, these are good thoughts. Positive thoughts (and we always, always keep adoption communication positive). The problem is, they’re not enough. At least they won’t always be.

I’m not in any hurry to open up lengthy conversations about Jack’s family of origin. Right now, it pops up unexpectedly, even as his questions increase in frequency. We were sitting at the dinner table the other night and this is what followed:

Jack: I want to adopt a baby when I get bigger. I want to go to China.
Mommy and Daddy: Um, okay. If you want to do that when you grow up I think that’s great!
Jack: Mommy, you can teach me how.

Okay. Fairly benign. Much easier to handle than the whispered “First Mommy” questions that invariably arise at bedtime. But then yesterday there was this:

(We lay our fair scene in my bathroom, where I am going potty at 6:40 AM, having just arisen and not yet having access to caffeine)

Jack (bum rushing my closed bathroom door, because really, closed doors mean NOTHING to small children): What color is tiger poop? (Because hello? He’s a four year old boy child, and his world revolves around poop. Just ask Aunt Jen.
Me: Um, probably brown.
Jack: Mommy, why won’t you ever run out of cuddles for me? (I tell him 100 times a day that I’ll never run out of hugs, kisses, and cuddles)
Me: Because my arms were made to cuddle you. (Best I could do on 5 hours of sleep and no caffeine).
Jack: Why didn’t my other mommy cuddle me? (POW. Straight to the gut).
Me: She did, baby, right after you were born. She was the very first one to cuddle you.
Jack: Okay. Do you think whale poop is rainbow colored?

See? Out of nowhere, slashing at my insides, then gone as quickly as it starts. Bloodless but still acutely painful. There’s no time to prepare thoughtful, well-constructed answers, either; no, these things need to be faced head-on right in the moment. I don’t have the luxury of saying “Well, let me talk to your father and figure out the best thing to say to you. Let’s stick a pin in it and come back, m’kay?”. I also have to constantly remind myself to keep it simple. He’s four. One day, our discussion will evolve to include gender inequality and one child policies and even abandonment, but for now, short answers suffice.

I’m not gonna lie. There is SO MUCH I’m screwing up. Instead of a 401(k) I’ve set up an account to cover his future therapy bills (not really, but now that I’m thinking about it….) Like every parent, I’m trying my best to do the right thing at the right time. For me, that means never, EVER dodging the question, no matter how hard it is for me. And it IS hard. Not because I feel inferior as his second mommy, although there is an element of proving myself worthy of this amazing child, but because it will be hard for HIM. He will inevitably face the asshole kid at school who says shit like “You’re ADOPTED??? Why didn’t your real mom want you?” or who posts stupid, stupid crap on Facebook like the “You’re adopted” picture of the wailing little girl. I also want him to always, always feel comfortable and safe asking his questions. I want our conversations to happen organically, initiated by him, guided by me.

For now, I hold to our small truths. I *did* choose him. My love for him grew in my heart. I didn’t carry him inside of me, but he carries my heart. And so it goes.


Judgy McJudgerpants

I try SO hard to avoid the whole “Mommy Wars” thing. I firmly believe in “to each his own”, I really, really do, mostly because there’s nothing that bothers me more than being the one who’s under scrutiny. In the past week, however, two articles have made it onto my radar and stirred my judgy juices (full disclosure, I have PMS, so my judgy juices could just as easily be stirred by a lack of chocolate and Fritos. Shut up. Don’t judge).

The first article I read was this one, in which a total douchebag spouted off how angry he is that his wife is having twins. Proof that he knew how much of a douche he was being? He published the article under a pseudonym. Yep. He was prepared for the backlash. It’s not that he was fearful or unsure of growing his family; nope, he was PISSED (his words). He’s also mad that they’re not having a girl. And that the new babies may be colicky, thus interrupting his sleep. Now, if he had written about feeling inadequate or ill-prepared I could have totally thrown this guy a bone. I get feeling overwhelmed. I can completely empathize about being scared. I, too, hate midnight colic with a passion. But angry? No. I don’t get that one.

Before you’re all “But Merrin, everybody is entitled to their own emotions”, or just in case you only skimmed the article, let me fill you in: He and his wife CHOSE this. They pursued IVF and CHOSE to have two embryos implanted. They KNEW they only have a one bedroom apartment. They were fully aware that they were actively trying to conceive. They paid a doctor to make it happen. This guy makes it sound like the Pregnancy Fairy showed up in the middle of the night and sprinkled magic baby dust on his wife against her will. He admits that he struggles with his three year old son who “inherently know that crying pushes our buttons”. Gee. I wonder why. I’m fairly certain that just about every parent can tell you that our children are the most accurate reflection of ourselves. Sure, kids can and will act out, but every Mommy knows the feeling of looking at her kiddo and seeing our best and worst selves reflected right back at us.

And just in case you feel I’m being a tad too harsh, allow me to present Exhibit A:

“We considered a reduction for about 30 seconds. (That’s essentially an abortion of one twin, not both.) If you thought that IVF involved playing God, a reduction felt beyond brazen — Machiavellian, even. Give us a reason, we thought, as we had the twins tested for genetic anomalies. None came.”

What. The. Holy. Hell. This has absolutely nothing to do with my stand on reproductive rights. This guy was actively wishing for a reason to abort one of his unborn children, PRAYING for genetic anomalies. Who does that???? God help these kids when they’re old enough to Google. The internet is forever, bro, and Karma? She is a bitch.

He says that having children is a selfish venture, and with that I can wholeheartedly agree. Jack certainly did not ask to have us as his parents; we chose him, entirely without his consent. Selfish? You bet. I’m okay with that. The difference is that I WANTED my child. Desperately. What I can’t wrap my head around is the concept that this couple SAYS they wanted their children, and yet has only horrible things to say about not just the unborn ones, but the one they already have.

While I have my big fat judgy pants on, allow me to shift to the other article I read that got me going, albeit in a completely different direction. This dad makes a wonderful case for having only one child (maybe Douchebag of the Year should’ve taken notes). He knows what works best for his family, but the problem is the constant feeling he has to defend it. We’ve all felt that way, whether we have a brood of 5 or we’re one and done. Everybody has an opinion (says the girl with the judgy pants on).

I would never presume to tell anybody else what works best for their family. You want 3 kids? As long as you can love and nurture and support all three, then go for it. You don’t want any? Awesome. Chose IVF? I’m sure it was the right choice for you. Adoption? Love it. Only want dogs? Great (but again, adoption is a great option here, too). However you want to make a family (or not) is totally up to you and none of my damn business. I promise I won’t criticize you for choosing formula over the breast, for opting for CIO vs. attachment parenting, or for feeding your snowflakes candy for breakfast (I probably *will* judge you if your kids are ill-behaved little monsters, though. Fair warning). I will eagerly look at pictures of your dogs because I know they can be your kids, too.

This guy’s article stirred something in me. I have sat in the seat of the judged, and it sucks. Not long after we brought Jack home, someone told us that he needed a sibling. That it was unfair to him to be an only. That he would be spoiled. That he wouldn’t be social. That he would suffer when he was an adult. I pointed out that he would have SO MANY opportunities to do wonderful things like travel (the response? And I quote: “I bet you know a lot more people with brothers and sisters than have been to Europe”. Um, no). Keep in mind that this came from a family member. We hadn’t even been home for a month, and already I was being judged. I still had jetlag, I already knew I was fucking up, and yet this is what I have to hear. It sucked. I hated knowing that someone thought I was inferior, especially because I felt so inferior already.

I realize my latter points are completely contrary to my former (“Don’t judge me! I’m totally judging you!”). I’m okay with that. Again, I have PMS (WHERE ARE MY FRITOS????), so I’ll blame it on mood swings. Yes, I totally judged DoucheDad. Part of me wants to be able to call him brave for putting his fears out there, but then the rational me kicks me in the head and says shut up. If he were brave, he’d face this head on with fear instead of anger. If he were brave, he would’ve admitted that maybe, just maybe, he didn’t want any more children. Maybe, though, he felt pressure and judgement from family and friends to have one more. To be a “whole” family. To give his first son a sibling. He said himself that he and his wife both have siblings and they wanted their child to have that experience, too. Maybe that desire came from hearing whispered voices telling him that’s what’s socially normal. I’m not betting on it, however. I think he’s just a whiny little asshole.

None of us like to be judged. We’re all scared we’re screwing up our kids. The mistakes I make every day are epic. The one card I can play here, though, is that I can fully own the choices that I make for and about my family. I’ve never ONCE complained that I was angry that I had a child. And I’ve never been anything other than grateful that I have a little miracle who calls me “Mommy”. I chose parenthood. So did that guy. One of us got the memo that being a parent means being a grown up, and it sure wasn’t him.

Adventures in Adoption, or, Hello Darkness My Old Friend

Why, hello there, Grief. We meet again. I’ve written about you before, but it was so very long ago that I’d forgotten you existed. Maybe “forgotten” is the wrong word. I chose to pretend you’d never darken my door again. I banished you by sheer force of will. I smothered my child in everything the experts said he needed to achieve a healthy attachment. And yet here you are, the most unwelcome houseguest I’ve ever had the displeasure of hosting, and bonus! You’ve brought along your good friend Anxiety.

You’re no stranger to this house. I’ve hosted you a few times in the past. I know how to kick your ass back to Hell where you come from, so I don’t stress too much when you show up for me. I’m 37, and I have some coping skills. My three year old doesn’t, though, so I’m sure even YOU can understand why I’m a little bit peeved that you’re here.

Mommies everywhere know what I’m talking about: you’d do absolutely anything to protect your child from *any* kind of harm. You’d step in front of a moving train if you had to. Yeah, I can’t do that. I’ve tried. There is absolutely nothing I can do to release the grip that Grief has on my child. I can’t keep Anxiety from waking him up screaming in the middle of the night. Unfortunately, time, consistent routine, and love are the only things I can offer, and thank God, they seem to be working.

Everything has been going along swimmingly for the past couple of years. Jack has adjusted beyond our wildest expectations, and he’s the brightest light in our lives. “Happy” doesn’t even begin to describe the joy with which this child experiences life. He laughs loudly and often, and with his whole being. He gives and receives affection so freely that he puts the rest of us to shame. He even wants to hug the lizards on the back porch. When his friends are having a bad day, he’s the first in line to offer a shoulder. At three, he already stands up for social injustices. I mean, he’s not marching on Washington or anything, but he does try to mediate on the playground when kids need a little help sharing or taking turns. He’s crazy good at it, too. He’s smart as a whip, hilarious, compassionate, mischievous in the best possible way, curious, energetic, fun, sweet, loving, playful, and a whole lot of other adjectives. He’s the easiest child on the planet: he behaves in public, always uses his manners, and is unfailingly respectful.

I got too comfortable. I forgot that I have to constantly walk the tightrope, balancing between normal childhood behaviors and ghosts of his first life. I knew that they would never be completely vanquished, but I really thought that as he got older they would be easier to deal with. I assumed that as he began to communicate, he’d be able to voice his fears and frustrations. And maybe, one day, that will be the case. Right now, it’s not. He’s sad. Scratch that. He’s not sad. He’s heartbroken. He’s grieving. He’s anxious. And he’s not quite sure why. I know why, though, so at least there’s that.

He had a wonderful Christmas. He got to spend lots of time with lots of family. He got a TON of one-on-one time with Grandma. He was the center of the universe for a little while. And then everybody left. Kevin’s work schedule went a little wonky. The routine was shot to hell, and my child’s sense of stability went with it.

It’s a bit easier to write about now, almost a week after we’ve come through the worst of it. If you’d have asked me last week I would have broken down in tears. I spent the past two weeks crying, actually. When you haven’t slept in seven days and you have to pick your child up from school (twice) because HE can’t stop crying (for no reason, or so sayeth his teachers, but I know the truth), then yeah, you’re prone to tears. I actually had to call my mother last weekend so she could talk to my child who could only wail the word “GRAAAAAANDMAAAAAA”. He couldn’t say anything else. Seriously. That was it. The day before? It was “DAAAAAAADDDDDDY”. From midnight to 3AM, without fail, the screaming would start. Inconsolable grief would haunt my child’s sleep, and he was powerless to fight it. During the day he was gripped with such free-floating anxiety that all he could do was flit from one activity to the next every two minutes (SO unlike him. He usually has laser focus and knows *exactly* what he wants to do). He couldn’t concentrate on anything at all. Exhaustion has ruled this house since the holidays.

We’ve navigated these waters before; he went through some fairly heavy separation anxiety back in the fall because of a staffing upheaval at his school, which in turn affected his daily routine for a few weeks. We had a couple of rough nights and emotional mornings, but other than that it was pretty typical. I even congratulated myself on being so prepared. Ha. Ha ha ha. NOTHING prepared me for the past couple of weeks.

Thankfully, things have started to settle down a bit. Jack managed to sleep in his own bed (nightmare-free) last night, which hasn’t happened since my mother was here. The routine is firmly back in place: school is back to its regular post-holiday schedule, Daddy is home every night and on the weekends, and there are plenty of hugs and cuddles to go around. I’ve started using a calendar every day with him so he knows what’s coming up, from dentist appointments to his birthday, from Valentine’s Day to Grandma’s next visit from Texas—as well as the day she leaves to go back there. We’re all on the emotional mend.

The lesson I’ve learned is this: Trust the experts when they say that anxiety in a post-institutionalized child will always come back, even when the child can’t communicate why he feels sad or anxious. I will trust my own instincts and experience. I will allow my child to feel sad without judgement, but I will also provide him the tools he needs to cope. And I will not take my child’s everyday happiness for granted again. I know all the usual platitudes apply: Kids are resilient. Love conquers all. Those things are true, and when I don’t feel like my emotional health has gone 12 rounds with Pacquiao I’ll jump back into the Positivity Pond with both feet. A friend recently told me that I live a fairy tale life. I don’t quite agree with that. I AM incredibly blessed with so many, many things (or as Jack would say “many many MANY things!”), but it’s times like these that remind me that there is Darkness in every life, even mine. It’s how you choose to deal with the Darkness that defines you.

The first verse of the above-referenced song has been on repeat in my brain for a while, but I *think* I’ve kicked Darkness and Anxiety to the curb, at least for now. I’ll be a bit more vigilant in the future, though. I know Kevin feels some guilt on the extremely rare occasion work takes him away for a little while, but like I told him, we can’t stop living our lives. We just have to learn how to hit the curve balls.

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