a little and a lot

Monday, March 05, 2012

And Now You Know...

We have some sweet Memphis friends who are in Ethiopia this week to bring home their new daughter, AKA Rhet's new bestie.  My feelings about our life eight months ago have been flooding my heart as I read their emails from Addis Ababa.

I love the way the three of us became a family, but something unique about adopting our first child internationally is that I am mostly incapable of separating our adoption experiences from my parenting experiences.  For example, becoming a mother changed my life.  But so did my time in Ethiopia.  Diving head-first into the world of a 16-month-old was quite jarring, but I'm guessing birthing a baby and diving head-first into infantdom is not smooth sailing either...  {wink, wink}  The transition of teaching our daughter to trust us, of proving ourselves to her as faithful and good, was both precious and challenging altogether.  Is it different than the patience required of a constantly crying newborn?  I have no way of knowing...

I guess that's the way everyone's life is.  You just know what you know.

On the subject of adoption, here's what I know that you can now know too...

1. Did you know that the phrase "put up for adoption" came from the orphan train days when children were actually put up on auction blocks to be sold into families?  Kind of a negative connotation.  A more appropriate phrase is that the parent "made an adoption plan."  Or the child was "placed for adoption."

2. While we're on the etiquette of language, please, please, PLEASE consider adopted children "our own" children.  I know what you mean when you ask if I have or will have children "of my own."  But the phrase implies that Rhet is not my child.  If you're extra defensive, you might even want to argue that Rhet is NOT "my" child.  But see, that is where you are wrong.  She is not my biological child.  But she is MY child.  A judge in Ethiopia looked me in the eye in May of 2011, making sure I knew what she said could not be reversed, and then she told us, "Congratulations.  She is YOURS."  While I try to extend as much grace as possible when the phrase is used (after all, you only know what you know, right?), a better way to phrase what you mean would be "biological child" or "giving birth."  As in: "Do you have any children through birth/biological children?"  (And by the way, "Do you plan to have biological children in the future?" is a very personal question that is probably not your business, unless you are my dear friend.)

On a similar note, it is not necessary to distinguish between adopted and biological members of the family when you are discussing or introducing them.  ("This is their adopted daughter, Rhet.")  First of all, I'm pretty sure most people know Rhet is adopted when they see her with us.  (I do not tan well.  Ha.)  And more importantly, it doesn't matter.  Our adopted child is just...our child.

3. When we first arrived home with Rhet at the end of the summer, these are the things I craved:
- An encouraging voicemail, email, or card without expectation of a response
- Food in any form with a quick hello and exit
- Grace and understanding

My time in Ethiopia was adventurously tough.  It was difficult to become a mother in a third-world country without anything familiar and without simple luxuries.  However, bringing Rhet to the US was adventurously tough for HER.  She was still becoming our daughter in a brand new country without anything familiar to HER and without the smells, sights, and sounds she was used to.  The time zone was all wonky.  The weather was unbearably hot (especially when we came from the "winter" season in Addis).  Everyone looked at her as if they'd known her for months (because they had), but she didn't know a soul except for us.  And she didn't really even know us very well--she was still trying to discern in her little 17-month brain if she even liked us and found us trust-worthy.

She was completely terrified of our dogs, whom she met after her first weekend at home with us.  (They had been at the vet, and we brought them home on Monday--unfortunately, the jet-lag and schedules did not match up and Nick brought the dogs home while Rhet was taking a forever-long nap.  Neither party knew the other existed in the very house in which they lay.  Until we woke Rhet up for dinner and she was dismayed to learn that there were two huge animals in her living room.  And they were dismayed to learn they had been demoted in family status!)

Because of her fear of our big sweet dog-children and overwhelming feelings due to transitioning into a new culture and family in general, Rhet required that we hold her in our arms for the first four weeks or so.  (I would now like to dedicate the feeling in my arms to the Ergo company for making such a life-saving baby carrier!)  I told close friends that I likened my life to joining a very expensive gym--every morning I would wake up, summon up my energy and courage and say "Let's do this," and I would work out harder than I ever had before.  At the end of the day, I fell into bed (it took me at least two months to regain the ability to stay awake past 9pm), with positive feelings of accomplishment, thinking I had just had the best/worst workout ever.

After about six months, I could finally cook dinner in the kitchen while Rhet watched a television show in the room next to me, running in every few minutes or so to check on me.  We've just hit seven months since we've come home with Rhet, and she is stilling learning to feel comfortable playing on her own or being in a different room.  I threw a birthday party for a two-year-old last week when it felt like I had an 8-month-old!

I have no idea which of my experiences in those first months were universal to all new mothers and which were unique to adoption.  All I know is that it was/has been an incredibly sweet and challenging time.  My communication with friends has been pretty much non-existant as I've hunkered down and devoted most of my time and energy to this transition, which has caused occasional guilt and loneliness.

I say all of this to say: encouragement, grace, and understanding are the sweetest gifts I've received!  And they are the sweetest gifts you can give to a new adoptive mom...probably any new mom?

4. You can not adopt on accident.  It's true.  And therefore, there is a lot (a LOT) of preparation and effort that goes into the adoption process.  Some of that includes education and research.  So when you hear some hair-brained idea from me about how we are choosing to parent our child, please do not treat us like crazy people.

For example: We asked that friends and extended family not hold Rhet, comfort her, feed her, or meet any basic need of hers for several months after we returned home with her.  I know, I know.  It just sounds WEIRD.  But there was a reason.  When a child has been with many other children in an orphanage, receiving care from many nannies, there are two things that have undoubtedly occured:

(1) That child at some point in time (and most likely many points in time) needed something.  Food, drink, a diaper change, affection, consoling, etc.  And that child either had to wait to have that need met (until after other children were attended to or until she was noticed) or it was never met at all.  The child learned that she could not trust people to meet her needs.

(2) When a child had a birth parent and then experienced loss of that birth parent, and then had multiple adults caring for her, she learned that caregivers change and go away.

In order to establish in Rhet's tiny toddler mind that we were her new parents...that we were the people she would look to to meet her needs and that we could be trusted to stick around forever...it was necessary for us to prove ourselves.  We had to show her, "Look, Mommy & Daddy fed you this morning, this afternoon, and this evening.  And we will do it again tomorrow and the day after that.  When you cried, we picked you up and soothed your hurting heart.  When you needed clothes or a diaper change, we helped you as quickly as we could.  We love you and we are not going anywhere."  The only way to show her that was to put ourselves in a position to be "her people."  So see?  There is a good reason for those weird requests and parenting styles.  It is good for our child, even if it was inconvenient for us or offensive/strange to those around us.

(Just the other day, I politely asked a well-meaning stranger at the playground to let me be the one to guide my child back and forth from the slides and up the stairs--I explained that I had adopted her and was still trying to teach her to come to me for help.  She drew her hand away from Rhet as if I had just accused her of child abuse.  I felt bad, but I also saw the way Rhet was looking at her as if she was a third grandparent.  And how else can I teach my child who a stranger is?)

I am a people-pleaser, and therefore it pains me to inconvenience others or worse, to offend them.  So in turn, any support and encouragement I've received about the special pains we take to do the best thing for our child has gone a LONG way.


I can't wait to share the joy of our friends' daughter's homecoming at the end of this week.  Even though their experiences will be different, I do know that they will be exhausted, overjoyed, relieved, overwhelmed, and ready to settle into their new normal.  I am ready to support them as best as I know how.

And now that you know what you know, you can support your favorite adoptive families too.  :)


Leslie said...

You're doing a GREAT job with Rhet, Jesse!

Sara said...

Very well said. I've shared soo many of your same thoughts. Your sweet friends are with the same agency we are with and I am loving reading their posts during their trip. It brings back lots of memories for me as well thinking back to our time last year.

Martha said...

I love reading this and I LOVE watching Rhet run to you and look for you. She is such a beautiful little girl! You share such beautiful words and such honesty about your experience.

Craig Maddox said...

I've learned recently that one off the greatest joys of life is watching your children grow up and become parents. I love you guys.

Brooke said...

People Pleasers Unite! :) Thanks for saying all of this and helping me relive the most unique experience that we share - becoming a mother at the same time adopting... hard to separate, absolutely.

Jane said...

Wow, Jesse, this is such a great, enlightening post! As someone who has not adopted a child, it helps me know what is needed. I have some friends here who have and who are adopting. As a mom-to-be, it also encourages me to do what I need to do for my little one - even if it means hunkering down and taking care of him/her alone for a while (and I'm sure I will - I already feel that way and don't make a lot of effort with friends). I have some guilt but not much where that is concerned. I figure if God and family are pleased, I'm good. Thanks so much for sharing this!!

Adopting Rhet: Click on the timeline above to read more