Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Sharing, Oversharing, and Secrets

Our kids have had a rough start.  Obviously.  You don't wind up getting adopted by strangers living halfway around the world if everything has gone well.  Imagine the types of things that get kids here into foster care, and you have some idea of the types of things they've gone through.  But when people flat out ask me, "So, why are they up for adoption?" I'm not sure what to say.  Because I could be all "drugs, neglect, incompetence, poverty, abuse, prostitution, abandonment, mental illness, alcohol abuse, rape, endangerment, and refusal to floss,"* and then people would either gasp and recoil, or furrow their brows and say "Poor babies!" (or possibly both).  Neither of which is a response I really want people having to my kids.  Or I could say, "You first--how exactly did you conceive your children?  Which sexual position were you using at the moment of conception?  I'm just curious, you know, like you're curious about our kids."  I am just not ballsy enough to say that, and anyway, while it makes the point, it's also unnecessarily shaming.  I think curiosity about the kids' background is natural, not the sign of nosiness of assholic proportions. 

So I've trodden the bland middle ground so far.  Sometimes it's been possible to ignore the question and respond to something else happening around us at the same time.  Sometimes I've said, "Oh, the same kinds of things that would put kids into foster care here."  (See how I did that earlier?) A few times I did a really awkward, "Well, I understand why you're asking, but we think it's really up to the kids to decide who they want to share that with."  That is the most honest and straightforward approach, but it really makes both the questioner and me sqirm.  It sounds preachy, and who wants to be on either end of that?  (No offense to any preachers in my non-existent audience.)  My worry is what to say when people ask in front of the kids.  And every adoptive parent I've brought this up with, plus every adoptive parenting blog and book I've seen, has assured me that PEOPLE WILL ASK THIS QUESTION IN FRONT OF THE KIDS.  PLUS "HOW MUCH DID THEY COST?".  To me, the comparison to US foster care is the response that best addresses the question politely without oversharing.  What I don't want is for the kids to get the idea that it's a secret, because secrets are shameful, and would imply there is something wrong with their history, and thus, wrong with them.

Then there are the people who will be really taken aback/hurt if we don't pony up a real answer.  I'm talking immediate family.  As immediate family, they want to know not out of nosiness, but because family knows each other's stuff and looks out for each other, right?  My sisters especially; man, we are in each other's business like nobody's business.  And I think my mother-in-law was a little...miffed?  hurt?  when we didn't spell it out for her.  But I don't want even them having the kids' background as something to blame if things go wrong, if we struggle.  And I don't want them even silently judging how we handle it--when we tell the kids what information and how.  But the story is so intense that I also don't want to carry it around by myself.  And again, I don't want to hide it and treat it like a shameful secret.  I'm still struggling with this.  I talked it all over with my oldest friend, who is a school social worker who's heard it all and then some, and that was helpful.  I finally told one of my sisters when she asked me flat out, but I asked her to not share it with her husband or kids, and then I felt really weird about that. 

I've heard two stories on par with our kids' story.  One is the story a friend of mine tells about her family history, which includes all sorts of wild stuff from both her birth family and adopted family.  The other is a story one of my students tells about how she wound up in foster care. I don't think either of these women tells their story to strangers on the bus, but they told me within a few months of getting to know them, and it clearly wasn't a disturbing secret to either of them.  That's what I really want--for my kids to own their story without shame or concern for what others will think.  Of the many many things I don't want to mess up on, this is high on the list.

*This list does not represent the real story.  They didn't go through ALL of the above, although we have been warned they will need plenty of dental care.**

**That was just a joke about my joke about refusing to floss, not some weird reference to what they've actually been through.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Kids Say...

May 11
I teach 10th grade.  They have a thin veneer of civilization.  I've been telling my classes lately about our adoption, and their responses have been so...interesting.  They say the stuff that adults are thinking but don't say.  Like...

  • How much did they cost?
  • Why did you adopt from there and not from here?
  • Are you going to be one of those moms who won't let them eat sugar?  (I explained that I will be all weird about screen time and my husband will be all weird about sugar, and we will balance each other out on both those issues)
  • DO THEY SPEAK ENGLISH????  (This is freaking out my English only kids, although I don't think a single bilingual kid has asked this.)
  • Why did you guys decide to adopt? (Or the even nosier one)  Why didn't you have your own kids?
  • Won't it be really weird when you first meet them, and you don't know them, but you're all "Hi, I'm your mom?"  (this question apalled my more tactful kids, but I appreciated it because--honestly, he's right.)
  • What if you don't like them?   Can you give them back?
On the other hand, I've been amazed by the number of kids who've said mainly, "I'm so happy for you; you must be so excited."  And two days after I told one class about it, a girl said, "Linden is 6, right?  And how old is Oak?"  She remembered their names, and in Linden's case, it wasn't a name she ever would have heard before.*  They are rallying to make posters for our fundraising garage sale.  They keep asking if they'll get to meet the kids.  And I am trying to be mature and tactful and not haul aside the girl who identifies herself as a foster kid, despite having been adopted by her foster family 6 years ago, to question her inappropriately about her experiences and feelings. 

I start these conversations with a slideshow of those few photos we have.  Invariably, kids see the photos of Linden and ask, "Is that you when you were little?"  I know many adoptive parents look nothing like their kids, but I have to admit that something in me sings when people mistake my little girl for me.

*Their names are not Oak and Linden.  Trees are a big part of Baltic folklore.  Oaks are associated with men, and lindens are associated with women. 

Teacher of the Year Award, Right Here!

May 5
I've been sick; have I mentioned that?  Missed school for two days, staggered in for two days, took Friday off again, and am still miserable.

When I'm sick, my filter drops a little.  My decision making is somewhat impaired.  My judgement is off.

Which is why, in ONE CLASS PERIOD on Thursday the following three things happened.  I'm telling them not chronologically, but in acending order of failure on my part. Descending?  Whatever.  From bad to worse. 
  •  I really really wanted a warm drink.  I decided to send a girl who was done early to make me a pot of coffee in the department office.  I gave her my key, described where the coffee is kept (in the little fridge with everyone's lunches; I'm sure they all wanted a kid pawing through that), tried to describe the proper coffee-to-water ratio, and really, I'm not sure where she got the water.  In the girl's bathroom, I presume. Yick.  On the plus side, she was really thrilled to be given such a big responsibility, and while the coffee was weak, it still qualified as a warm drink, so I was able to tell her how wonderful it was.
  • A boy who was also done early (because I was doing a GREAT job at managing the lesson) was sort of following me around aimlessly, being mildly annoying.  I finally said, "You seem really bored.  I guess I should have sent you to make the coffee."  He looked at me blankly and said, "Um, I don't really like coffee."  Which was a pretty polite way for him to remind me that HE'S MORMON.  Yes, I asked the Mormon kid to make me coffee.  Nice.
  • And finally...two kids were working on their poster outlining a persuasive paper.  Their thesis was "Child abuse is bad."  I told them, "Okay, I'm going to let you finish this poster, because you started it with the sub and he didn't know, but remember, a persuasive thesis needs to be arguable.  Only an asshole would argue with this."  My only comfort in all this is that a) in no way was I calling my students assholes, and b) nobody else heard.  They were DELIGHTED and kept asking if they could make that the title of their poster, could they say that during their presentation, etc.  I apologized profusely, told them I was really embarrassed, asked them to please not make a big deal about it.  But they really handled it reasonably well, and did not make any huge announcements about my slip in class.  I'm waiting to see how many kids I hear about it from next week though.  And I'm REALLY waiting to see if I hear about it from any parents. 
So I think it was probably all for the best I felt too crummy to go into work the next day.  Who knows WHAT I would have done.  Loaned my car to someone who just got their permit and sent them to buy me a latte?  Led the class in a sing-along of the latest gangsta rap hit? 

And now for something that doesn't continue to obsess about this stupid cold, other than mentioning it in the title.

May 2
We wrote our kids when we got matched.  Sent a picture.  Made a book of family photos and sent it to them.

Then we got the word from the people over there, via the people in the Midwest, that, um, maybe we should be writing every week?  To each kid, individually?  And sending them each a copy of the book?  And adding a bunch more photos to our letters?  It was worded relatively politely, considering what raging idiots they must have taken us for.  My only excuse is that we'd gotten our only bilingual friend (in that language) to help translate it, and that was kind of an imposition, and took awhile, and we were thinking we'd have to do that every time.  But it turns out translating weekly letters from us is part of what we're paying them to do.  And to be honest, that does help me feel better about the large sum of money we just disbursed to be sent to the overseas law center that our agency works with.  I know enough about language and translation to know that even doing a half-assed job with our simple, kid-friendly writing is going to take someone a fair amount of time and effort.  Don't get me started on the time I agreed to translate someone's poster-presentation paper for a conference she went to for her masters degree for what turned out to be about fifty cents/hour.  The only saving grace was that it was in education, so I've got the jargon down, and it was  Nevermind.  The point of saying "don't get me started" is to not start, right?

I like to write.  I have been obsessing about our kids more or less constantly since we first got our referral.  I was raring to go.   My husband, however, does not think of himself as a writer.  He also keeps starting conversations about things OTHER than the kids (but thankfully is never thrown when out of the blue I blurt something like "We need to get sheets" or "Swim lessons!" or "I wonder how the weather is there today?")  So I was happily surprised when I walked in the door the day we got that email and he said, "Hey, do you want to write the kids tonight?  I was thinking I could write Oak and you could write Linden, then tomorrow we can write the other one." 

Because he's not so confident in his writing, he asked me to sit with him while he worked on his letter.  It started out something like this, "Dear Oak.  How are you?  I think about you every day."  That's pretty much when my eyes welled up with tears.  He wrote on, talking about things he likes to do, things he hopes to share with our son, and ended up with "I promise we will always love you and take care of you."  I was so undone by this.  I know my husband is a tender, tender man.  I know that just because he doesn't talk about and verbally process all his feelings doesn't mean he's not having any.  (Side note--my family found out he existed the day he asked me on a date, when I called my sisters to announce how excited I was.  His family found out I existed two months before we got engaged.  His explanation?  "Nobody asked.")  I felt so honored to watch as he bravely put his love down on paper for a small boy we have yet to meet.  He thinks about them every day.  He knows we have no idea what life will be like with them, what demons they may fight, how long it will take them to trust us, how many ways they will test us or push us away.  And he is promising to love them, no matter what, simply because they are children, now our children, and they deserve to be loved, no matter what. 

It is so corny, but so true--watching my husband become a father makes me love him even more.

Sick Days

As I mentioned, I took two days off work this week.  I went back today and made it through the day, but was feeling pretty lousy by the end of the day.  Came home and fell asleep for an hour, curled up in the big chair with my husband.  We were both so sound asleep that when we woke up, he was worried I was late for work.  Took awhile to sink in that I'd already been. 

I keep thinking--now this is a luxury I won't have for long.  To just shut down and stay quiet when I'm sick, to just focus on my own needs.  And I'm pretty sure I'm going to hate myself for this later, but even that thought makes me kind of excited.  Everything I do right now has the same sense of "Is this the last time without kids?"  Some of it is a little daunting, like being sick while parenting.  Some is the watercolor daydream stuff, like realizing at Easter that next year we can hide eggs.  But all of it feels exciting. 

Please don't make me re-read this in a couple of months years when I'm complaining about never having any time to myself.


May 1
I had a little blog going that nobody read.  But then I started writing this post, and I decided that I didn't want anyone I know to read it.  And although noboby was reading the other one, a few people did know it exists, and they were people who definitely qualify as people I know.  Like two of my sisters.  And two of my best friends.  So here we are over here in this new little blog, where I can be brutally honest.  I would just journal in a blank book, like back in high school and college, but my handwriting has deteriorated to the point where even I can't read it, plus it takes freaking forever, so as long as I'm typing everything, it may as well be a blog. [Edited to add: then I decided to change the blog name and URL, so I'm transferring the few entries here.]

And actually, I have become ADDICTED to adoption blogs, so I thought I'd put mine out there for any who are similarly affected.  Because one more viewpoint can't hurt, right?

I'm home sick, which is really weird, because usually I'm Perfect Attendance Girl. Well, not really, because the whole aging parent thing has gotten in the way of that, but I don't usually take sick days. And that's not because I'm stoic. You know how women make snide comments about what babies their husbands are when they're sick? I don't make those comments, because I myself am a total wimp about being sick. It's a good thing it doesn't happen very often. It's in stark contrast with my sister, who I kid you not, will clock out for a break, dash off to puke her fluey guts out, clock back in and KEEP WORKING. In my world, if you vomit, you get the day off. I'm not vomiting (you were wondering, no?), but the cold I had over the weekend has dropped heavily into my chest and my voice has pretty much disappeared. And YOU try teaching 10th grade with no voice. Not to mention no energy and a splitting headache. Okay fine, I'm taking a sick day because I have a cold. Now you know why I will never join in the "men can't handle pain" chorus. And you know what? I'm taking tomorrow off too. I still feel like crap. I've felt like crap for four straight days, when I usually go through the "I think I'm coming down with something--oh, I guess not" cycle in about 12 hours. I'm deeply fearful that if I try to get all stoic and go back to work that I'll wind up developing pneumonia and losing 1/4 of a lung. It happened to a friend of my husband's, so this is definitely a rational fear.

Or not. Here's the real fear. After spending the entire day glued to the couch reading adoption blogs, I'm fearing parenting disaster.

See, here's what happens. I spent my 20s thinking that sometime in my 30's I'd adopt. Then I actually got married at 31--did not see that coming--which meant I could consider the more traditional option. We eventually tried it; it didn't work (the procreative part of it; the rest works just fine, thank you); we were surprised and a little bummed, but not wailing and gnashing our teeth and rending our garments. I know it hits some people like that, but it didn't for us. I discovered when I started teaching that it would be stunningly easy to love another person's child, if it were the appropriate thing to do, and like I said, my original parenting plan involved single parenting an adopted child, so co-parenting seemed like a much easier deal. My husband is a practical guy, in a sweet sort of way. When we were planning our wedding in the 7 weeks between his proprosal and the big date, he was the one that first pointed out that the marriage was the important thing, not the wedding. Again, I know this would FREAK some women out, but I was marrying him for many reasons, one of which is we see eye to eye on things like that. So the same with kids--the point was to share our love and family with children, not to experience pregnancy. We felt comfortable with international adoption, and we chose a country that has very transparent practices, a culture we are familiar with and fond of, and that my grandfather was born in. So far, so good.

I started reading, and my first discovery is that adoption is not actually a win-win. You know, kids need a family, and our family wants kids. Both of those factors are true, but there's another factor we hadn't quite considered--something has gone seriously wrong for the kids to be in a position where they need a family. No matter how much love you give them, no matter how much they thrive in your home, they are starting from a position of serious loss.

Okay. We absorbed that. We educated ourselves and thought about how we can help our kids stay connected to their birth culture, how we can be honest with them about their histories, and create a safe place for them to miss their birth family and rage about the circumstances that brought them into our lives, without taking it as a rejection of us.

Then we got a referral, and after a certain amount of trepidation, accepted it. It came down to a few things, like yes, how adorable they are. And how positive our adoption specialist was after viewing the video. But also because after reading their life history, it was clear that these kids NEED PARENTS. And they'd been offered to us. And who the hell ever knows how it's going to turn out? It's always leap of faith, right?

And I kept reading. I've read stuff that had I read it two years ago may have slowed the adoption train down. What I'm slowly coming to think is that "adoption is just another way of forming a family" is complete bullshit. Especially adoption school aged children from another country. I think we are looking at pain and heartache we can only dimly imagine from here. I'm hoping that we can get the tools we need to get through it, to help them heal, to truly provide them with a chance they wouldn't get in the institution they're now living in. I know all parenting is work, I do, I see what my sisters and friends do. But the amount of work, the type of work, the unfamiliarity of the work that these bloggers are writing about--oh. It frightens me. They say things like "I read all the right books, and I thought I was ready, and now three years in I realize she's never going to love me." And I think--oh shit. We send letters off to the orphanage, telling them about going camping, and I wonder--will we really be able to do that with them?   I read about the frequency with which parents of kids diagnosed with RAD wake in the night to find their child standing over them with a knife and I think--wait, why did I think we should try this? 

 I love the other voices too, of course.  Our adoption doctor told me straight out that she thinks the internet should be banned for waiting parents because most people in her experience do not get the worse case scenario.  My superintendent (think school district, not New York apartment building) adopted two boys from the Ukraine seven years ago.  When I went in to ask about leave time, her secretary decided to schedule me an appointment to chat with her, and in the nearly two hours she gave me, she mentioned several issues her boys had, but without every losing her tone of complete joy in parenting them.  She pointed out that as educators, we are lucky enough to be able to find resources quickly, and to not stigmatize our kids.  (Because if you work in public education, you have already met and loved kids with a barrel full of issues.) 

But today was about the scary stuff.  One blogger I've been following, in part because of her great sense of humor, wrote a sad, sad blog about how love isn't enough.  Other links led me to unrelentingly cheery, Jesus filled posts about kids who were in residential treatment as a condition of their parole.  And I love that these parents love their kids and continue to feel optimism for their future, but it's not that long since I was in the "adoption is a win-win!" watercolor daydream, and I haven't quite made it to "I don't need my kids to stay out of jail in order to feel good about my parenting." 

And part of me is writing this in hopes that some fairy godmother will read it and leave me a comment that says, "Oh no, YOUR children will struggle a bit, but you will do JUST FINE, and they will wind up PERFECTLY OKAY." 

 But at least there's this--there is a community of people who are actually doing this, and who are astoundingly brave about sharing their stories.  As much as you terrify me, you also empower me.  So I'm going to go leave adoring comments on your blogs in hopes that you come over and read this and send me a fairy godmother.  Or a box of chocolate and a bottle of wine.