Adoption

4 Years!

October 12, 2016

H and S 4 yrs old

Today is a celebration for us – it’s the day we mark landing at Washington-Dulles airport and coming home to Baltimore to begin our life together as a family. It was quite a journey to get to that point and it was just the beginning of the adventure of becoming a family, which, of course, is not just a piece of paper, but the deepest of bonds and a shared life of love, commitment, and faithfulness.

H and S 3rd grade

And it’s been four years now! My girls have changed so much, as all kids do, but wow, I really notice it when I look at photos and videos from then until now. And I’ve changed a little bit, too. Here are a few things I’ve been reflecting on today…

  • Adopting H and S will always remain the single best thing B and I ever did.
  • In some ways, I’m a different kind of mom than I thought I’d be. I should probably write a blog post about this. Or maybe I already did? Hmmm.
  • My brain seems to have gone to mush since becoming a parent.
  • Mushy brain isn’t always bad… you forget a lot of the hard stuff, too.
  • There are many layers to consider when raising a child and the layer of adoption will always be present.
  • It continues to amaze me just how similar our daughters are to B and me – in temperament, quirks, interests, etc.
  • Being an adoptive parent means you’re always holding joy and sorrow side by side. I’ll always be deeply sad that my daughters and their Ethiopian family couldn’t remain together. And I’ll always be profoundly grateful and happy that I am their mother and we are a family.
  • Children really do grow and change so quickly! I’m trying to savor the moments and the days, which is hard when the demands of life crowd in and you let yourself get distracted by so many things that won’t matter so much in 10 or 20 years.
  • I begin to feel panicked when I think about ever getting on a plane for that long again. But I know some day it will probably have to happen. (Got to stay in the present moment!)

Since it was a regular home school and work day here today and the girls have their martial arts class this evening, we’ll celebrate our “family day” this Sunday. But wow, I’m marveling at four years home today. If you’ve been reading SlowMama since then, thanks for sticking around and sharing this journey!

Images: Zoe Saint-Paul

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Ethiopia on My Mind

October 7, 2016

Addis, 2012

Four years ago today, B and I were in Ethiopia getting ready to take S and H home with us. It was an unforgettable trip, and many moments are seared into my heart and mind forever.

There’s been a lot of troubling news coming out of Ethiopia in recent weeks. Mainstream U.S. news isn’t carrying it much (no surprise), but some foreign media and independent journalists are talking about it, as well as people on the ground. The unrest began to  erupt when the government began trying to seize land from the Oromo people to expand the nation’s capital, as part of their economic progress plan. This has enflamed deeper ethnic tensions between groups in Ethiopia and citizens are dying as government troops face off with protestors. (That’s my over-simplified explanation of the situation.)

Just this past week, hundreds of people were killed at a religious festival in the town my daughters were born in. The official reports say it was due to a stampede, but many witnesses on the ground, as well as journalists, say this was not the primary reason for the death toll. On Tuesday, an American UC Davis post-doctorate student was killed by a rock thrown by a protestor while traveling by van in Ethiopia. I know of many adoptive families and frequent visitors canceling their travel plans to the country right now because things have become so destabilized.

I saw a tagline on a news story the other day that said, when it comes to what’s happening in Ethiopia: This is Africa, and nobody cares how many protesters the dictatorial government kills. Not the UN, not the State Department, not Black Lives Matter, and not CNN.

Sadly, this is true. Ethiopia is not exactly on anybody’s radar of concern. (Even the U.S. Embassy over there doesn’t seem to get high marks for being very communicative or forthcoming — at least according to people to try to reach them.) Granted, Ethiopia is certainly not the only place worthy of attention right now. But I try to stay updated on what’s going on in my daughters’ native country, and I believe that the entire continent of Africa generally deserves a lot more consideration than it gets.

I don’t know about you, but the end of this week finds me tired. If you’re at all near Hurricane Matthew’s path, please stay safe. In the meantime, I invite you to grab a glass of your favorite beverage – whatever it may be – and catch whatever break you can this weekend. See you back here soon!

Image: Road in Addis Ababa, Zoe Saint-Paul

 

 

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Dad and son

Most parenting advice is worthless. So here’s some parenting advice.

I laughed when I read that headline. And I like the article, too. Well, not the f-word and cussing. Call me old fashioned, but I don’t like when writers use curse words, unless it’s in a novel or they’re blowing off steam on their social media accounts. I’ve noticed that many people under 35 don’t hesitate to use the f-word in their published writing these days. I guess I’m just old.

Anyway, I think the gist of the piece is right on. You know when things start coming your way so often that you know you’re supposed to pay attention? This is part of that for me. I’ve been coming across articles and having conversations lately about how out-of-control the parenting industry has become and how we need to focus more on just being parents, rather than treating our children like projects to manage in order to make them into successful adults.

The author says research shows that genes, friends, and socio-economic status are the greatest determinants of successful adulthood, but I don’t buy that entirely. First, it depends how you define “successful adulthood.” He doesn’t say. Second, if I think about my own childhood, the environment my parents created for me, as well as what they taught and modeled, has made an enormous difference to who I’ve become. (Not that I’d be considered a successful adult by some peoples’ standards — probably not!)

But the author’s point dovetails with a recent conversation I had with my mother, a woman who’s gleaned a thing or two from raising 10 kids to adulthood and was never particularly good at going along with the status quo or following cultural trends that struck her as irrational, unnatural, or just plain ridiculous. She was complaining about how the “cult of the expert” reigns supreme today, and how it has eroded parents’ confidence and undervalued the wisdom of older generations.

This is true, and I think there are many reasons for it. I think one reason we don’t glean much from parents, grandparents, relatives, and more experienced friends these days is that they’re not around much. So many of us live far away from these relationships; it’s a very transient culture. Additionally, many of today’s parents grew up in small families and didn’t help with childcare. When you don’t have your own experiences to draw from, or that of your elders, you turn to other resources to help you figure it out. I had all of the above myself, but then I became an adoptive parent and that added an entirely foreign dimension to my parenting. I’ve not only leaned on others’ advice and experience, I’ve turned to authors, writers, and therapists — all of which are certainly considered “experts” — and I’m grateful for them.

So I don’t think it has to be an either/or, but I totally agree we’ve lost something important in our culture and it’s resulted in a lack of confidence to march to the beat of our own drum as parents. Like the author of the Vox article, I think we’ve become obsessed with getting parenting “right” and agree with his point that “childhood is life, not preparation for life,” which I take to mean that everything we do now shouldn’t simply be to ensure a certain future for our kids, but that childhood should be a wonderful thing in its own right. Our children are not just adults-in-waiting; they are people, living their lives in the here and now.

As parents, we’re often anxious and fearful, calculating so many decisions we make. We all want what’s best for our kids, of course, but what if half the things we do and worry about aren’t going to matter much to their future success one way or another? I suppose we don’t want to take the chance, right? But we’d probably do well to realize that too often what we’re doing is more about us, and that we’re approaching parenting as project managers rather than as loving parents who enjoy our kids’ childhoods and who trust that it’s a whole host of factors — many of which are out of our control — that will determine our kids’ futures.

What do you think?

Image: Zoe Saint-Paul

 

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And Now They Are 8!

June 27, 2016

Pastries at the farmers market

My beautiful girls turned 8 years-old on Sunday. Eight! It’s hard for this mama to believe. I should perhaps say that we celebrated them turning 8 because as anyone who’s adopted a child from Ethiopia knows, birthdays are rarely accurate. They don’t record birth dates in Ethiopia and don’t tend to celebrate birthdays. Add to that the fact that children relinquished for adoption are often assigned younger ages to make them more “adoptable” and you rarely come home with a true birth date.

Most people don’t do anything about it — unless the discrepancy is vast and it causes issues with school, health, or developmental issues. Changing it on all of the documents that come with adoption would be a paperwork nightmare in my books. So, June 26 it is in our house!

Last year, S and H didn’t want a party so we had just family and godparents over for cake and did something together as a family instead. This year the request was different: they wanted a party with friends. Since it was a busy week after getting back from Kentucky, we kept it simple: Snacks, drinks, cake, and ice cream in our courtyard for about 20 people. Then most of the group headed down to the carousel and water fountains at the harbor, close to our house. Thankfully, the weather was perfect. Then it was gift-opening when we got home. The girls proclaimed it “the best birthday ever,” which is always a good thing.

8th birthday

I didn’t have time to make two cakes like I did last year. Instead, the girls picked out what they wanted at our local WholeFoods bakery. I did, however, make gluten-free cupcakes since as one of our little guest needed it. The vanilla cupcakes themselves turned out really well, which was edifying since I made some substitutions such as coconut palm sugar instead of white sugar. But the frosting was another story…

The plan was to whip up a topping using coconut cream (from a can of coconut milk) and flavor it with vanilla and honey. But when I went to re-whip it, just before the guests arrived, the consistency changed and more or less curdled. No idea why. (Chemistry was never my strong-suit, which is probably why I’m such an  inconsistent cook.) It still tasted good, though, so I went with it, hoping to disguise the mistake with some colored sprinkles on the top (dye-free, of course). But 10 minutes after I put the sprinkles box on the counter, I couldn’t find them anywhere. The whole family ended up getting into the hunt for the box of sprinkles, with no success; they had disappeared into thin air. So, I stuck some dark chocolate chips on top instead.

I had to laugh, though: after all that, the little guy I made them for didn’t like them! All the adults did, though, and the other kids, too, so the cupcakes still got gobbled up. (Oh, and I found the sprinkles later hiding under our Japanese wood cutting board. Turns out, the little box fit perfectly underneath the board, and rather than lift the board up, we kept simply pushing it around the counter in our search. Good grief.)

Anyway, back to the birthday girls… They are growing and changing so quickly and I’m trying to be present to the everyday moments, knowing they pass all too fast. I don’t want to be a mom who’s always upset that my kids are getting older — and in my girls’ case, they need encouragement as they are sometimes unsure they want to get any older — but I can’t help feeling a little wistful to see their younger selves transforming before my eyes. Just a part of motherhood, right?

Images: Zoe Saint-Paul

 

 

 

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Mom and daughters

Before I became a parent I used to hear a lot of adoptive parents say that their kids were — to their great surprise — so much like them. Some children certainly look just like their adoptive parents: Friends of mine adopted a baby boy and I’ll never forget the day I laid eyes on him — he looked like a “mini-me” of his adoptive dad. Every time I get a Christmas card from another family I know who adopted a son and a daughter domestically, I’m struck by how much the kids look like the parents.

Of course, when you’re a white couple and your adopt internationally, looking like your kids is far less likely (unless perhaps you’re adopting from Eastern Europe or Russia). Still, it’s funny how I occasionally get the comment that one of my daughters in particular looks like me. Really? She has short, black, curly hair, dark brown eyes, and brown skin… and I have, well, pretty much the opposite of that. But apparently, there’s a resemblance in our features and mannerisms.

What I’m really surprised about, though, is how similar my daughters are to me in other ways. B likes to say that S and H are me, split in two. (They’re also a lot like him, but I’ll stick to talking about myself here.)

Each of our daughters is uniquely herself, of course, and I only wish I had some of their traits and talents, but it really is odd how many similarities we share. I know some of this is bound to happen over time as we live and share our lives together, but many of these things were there from day one. I mean, how can two little girls, born on the other side of the world in a completely different culture, think the same (very subtle) things are funny, or do things exactly the same way I did them when I was little? There are too many things to list, and some of them are hard to explain, but it’s these quirky things that amaze me the most.

There’s no guarantee that adopted children will be anything like their new parents, and I know parents with birth children who say they’re so different from each other that sometimes they don’t even feel related. But it’s a real gift when adoptive parents and children discover and experience similarities in each other. It fosters a strong sense of belonging, as well as destiny — the sense that it was meant to be, even ordained in some way. Which is extremely helpful when it comes  to family bonding.

Do you share a lot of similarities with your children — whether they’ve come by birth or adoption? What has surprised you the most when it comes to what you share — or don’t share — with your children, or even with your own parents or siblings?

Image: Zoe Saint-Paul

 

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Fawn from Crew

Before I became a parent, I always assumed I’d use “time-outs” if and when I had children. It seemed the enlightened alternative to spanking and it made sense: A child experiences a little isolation in order to feel the consequences of his actions and have some time alone to reflect on what he’s done.

Of course, toddlers and preschoolers really aren’t capable of the reasoning required for this to have the desired consequences, but it turns out there’s even more to consider when it comes to using time-outs.

Studies in neuroplasticity — the brain’s ability to adapt — show that repeated experiences actually change the physical structure of the brain. Since many of the interactions between children and caregivers relate to discipline in some way, it’s important that parents consider how they respond to their kids’ misbehavior because it affects their development.

Drs. Dan Siegel and Tina Payne Bryson, in this Time article, write that even when presented in a patient and loving manner, time-outs typically offer children isolation, which teaches them that “when they make a mistake, or when are having a hard time, they will be forced to be by themselves—a lesson that is often experienced, particularly by young children, as rejection. Further, it communicates to kids, “I’m only interested in being with you and being there for you when you’ve got it all together.”

Siegel and Bryson write:

When children are overtaxed emotionally, they sometimes misbehave; their intense emotions and the demands of the situation trump their internal resources. The expression of a need or a big feeling therefore results in aggressive, disrespectful, or uncooperative behavior—which is simply proof that children haven’t built certain self-regulation skills yet. Misbehavior is often a cry for help calming down, and a bid for connection.

I’m not sure if I would have bought that hook, line, and sinker, unless I’d done the research about — and had the experience of — parenting adopted children. From the very beginning, I forced myself to do “time-ins” with my kids. I say forced because there were times when I wanted time-outs, when everything in me felt like both parties needed a big fat break from each other and a separation might help the kids “get” it. But because of what I knew about attachment and connection, I intentionally moved closer to them, and stayed close, during a meltdown or poor behavior. Even when they didn’t want to be touched — and who does when they’re really angry? — I stayed close by. As soon as there was an opening to come even closer, I moved in. What I have seen time and time again, is that this approach calms things down more quickly, shortens the duration of the episodes, and improves behavior in the longer-term. (I understand that if kids are really violent or there are other extenuating circumstances, additional interventions may be needed.)

The article makes the point that parents often think that time-outs help children calm down and gain insight, but  instead, they frequently “make children angrier and more dysregulated, leaving them even less able to control themselves or think about what they’ve done, and more focused on how mean their parents are to have punished them.” When children are thinking about how horrible their parents are, they miss opportunities “to build insight, empathy, and problem-solving skills.”

This makes sense if we really believe that discipline is ultimately about teaching and formation, rather than punishment. One of my biggest lessons in parenting so far is how much of what I do and don’t do is about me, and not my kids. Discipline is often an area where this comes out the most in parents, and it’s a tough lesson.

Does this mean you should stop giving time-outs if you use them? Not necessarily. I don’t believe there’s a one-size-fits-all parenting philosophy. It depends on so many factors, including age and background of a child, and the exact details of how time-outs are handled.  But I think the studies about what makes for healthy brain development in children — which leads to healthier behavior in the long run — are worth any parent’s attention.

Have you or do you use time-outs? If so, have they been effective? What is your approach to discipline?

 

Image: E+N Photographies/Unsplash

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hyena by ffloukes at Pixabay

It’s common for children to have fears — of the dark, monsters under the bed, the sound of thunder, certain kinds of bugs. But my daughters’ greatest fear? Hyenas.

If you happen to forget that your children came from the other side of the globe, that’s the kind of thing that will remind you. In many parts of the world, there isn’t much separating people from their natural environment and that was the case for my daughters when they were little — hungry hyenas roamed around at night and their living situation didn’t offer the kind of protection most of us would consider adequate. Even before they could speak English, my girls would try to describe hyenas. Three years later and I think they finally trust that there are no hyenas here.

There are plenty of dogs, though, and they used to be terribly afraid of those, too. Of course, hyenas and dogs are a little similar looks-wise, and in Ethiopia, dogs are mostly feral. They roam villages and cities in packs and children are taught to be afraid of them as they would a wild animal. Which makes sense… rabies, anyone?

In this neighborhood everyone has a dog and over time, H and S have become much more comfortable with dogs — to the point where they now want one of their own. That’s a huge turn of events, friends. These are kids who would quite literally scramble up my leg in a panic anytime a dog appeared. Now, they’ll actually sometimes pat a dog. The biggest help with this has been exposure to dogs belonging to friends and family, but also just the experience of seeing dogs around. Their initial reaction to a larger dog bounding towards them is still fear, but then again, that’s my reaction, too.

Hyenas, though? I don’t think that instinctual fear is going anywhere. We watched a documentary together over the summer about a man who rescues hyenas in east Africa, and opened a sanctuary for them. It helped the girls to see hyenas as real animals and not simply as one-dimensional monsters, so that was good. Still, I expect their fear of hyenas will continue to live in their subconscious minds. And why wouldn’t it? I’m gratetful that at least they have no memories of anyone being attacked by one, as I do remember hearing about a child adopted from southern Ethiopia who had witnessed one of her parents be eaten by a lion. Try helping a child through that one. Hard to fathom.

Speaking of hyenas, here’s journalist’s encounter with the hyenas in Harar, Ethiopia, and the men there who feed them.

Image: Pixabay

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An Adoption Paradox?

October 12, 2015

Birds by Rowan Heuvel

There’s a piece in The Atlantic about how adopted children have worse behavioral and academic outcomes in kindergarten and 1st grade than birth children do. This is according to some new research from the Institute for Family Studies by psychologist Nicholas Zill. The study was based on teachers’ measures of things like  angry outbursts, paying attention, eagerness to learn new things, and math and reading tests.

The article calls it a “paradox” because as a group, adoptive parents tend to be wealthier, better educated, and put more effort into raising their kids (as measured by things like eating family meals together, providing children with books, and getting involved in their schools, etc.). Research has shown that parents like this tend to raise children who generally do better at school. But not so for adoptive families, according to this study.

I’m not sure I buy it, entirely. I’m in a lot of adoption groups and I read time and time again how so many of their children excel in school. But, of course, that’s anecdotal. I think the real problem with this study is that they only looked at kindergarteners and 1st graders. Would they see anything different if they looked at 5th and 6th or 11th and 12th graders? They might, because younger adopted children may be dealing more acutely with issues related to attachment and trauma. I was glad to see the article address this a little bit:

One clue might be attachment theory, which holds that a strong bond with at least one nurturing adult—usually the mother—is essential to a child thriving. That adult can be the adoptive parent, but the adoption itself might mean that the bond with the birth parent was disrupted or never formed, Zill writes. In the worst cases, these children might have experienced a traumatic event prior to their adoption. Early trauma can affect the parts of the brain that control mood and learning.

Infants and toddlers with a so-called “disorganized attachment” to their earliest caregivers—those who feel frightened of or dissociated from their parents—are more psychologically vulnerable later in life. Among other things, they have more problems regulating their emotions and managing conflicts without resorting to hostility. Parents who create disorganized attachment with their kids might be the sorts of parents who get their kids taken away and adopted out.

True. But even children who had strong attachment to first/birth families and then develop strong attachments to second/adoptive families have experienced trauma, which majorly affects those parts of the brain dealing with emotion, self-control, attention, learning, memory, etc. And adopted children are more likely to come from backgrounds where they’ve had any range and level of traumatic events that affect development, such as exposure to alcohol and drugs in the womb, extreme poverty, malnutrition, neglect, abandonment, abuse, etc.

Secure and deep attachment between children and their adoptive parents is essential for healing, but also takes time and can be fragile. The amount of time a kindergartener or 1st grader has spent with a new family is only five or six years at most — often less. And depending on how trauma has affected a particular child, he or she may not behave in a school setting the same way a non-adopted child does.

I hope this article doesn’t add to the stigma of adoptive children, or dissuade adults from considering adoption. Instead, maybe it will help both parents and teachers be more aware of the hurdles adoptive children have to overcome and to approach them in creative and compassionate ways to help them heal, learn, and excel.

Image: unsplash

 

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Three Years!

October 9, 2015

B, H and S

Three years ago this weekend we stepped off a jumbo jet at Dulles Washington airport as a family of four. Remembering that moment still brings feelings of relief and gratitude. We had made it! And the adventure was just beginning.

I was watching videos and looking at photos of H and S recently from those early days and I can’t believe how little they were. They’ve changed so much! I know that’s what kids do, but it’s still weird when you notice that it’s actually happening to your kids. And it makes me wistful. I just want to bottle up those moments, those adorable little voices speaking broken English, those little bodies I could still carry around and up the stairs. Sigh.

Three years in and I still feel like the luckiest mom on the planet to have landed these two habishas. I’m so proud of how far they’ve come, and of how brave, resilient, and receptive they are. These two are characters. I love that they’re so strongly their own people already. They’re funny and fun, creative and bright. They challenge me to be a better and more loving person every day.  They’re truly the lights of my life.

I also have a deeper understanding of how parenting is one of those always-evolving, ever-mysterious things that you can never figure out perfectly, and that in our case we will always be dealing with extra parenting layers, on top of “regular” parenting challenges… related to adoption, being a transracial family, and the “twin dynamic.” But that’s also what makes our family unique and wonderful and I wouldn’t change a thing. Except for maybe the sleep. I still need more sleep!

We celebrate our “coming home day” anniversary by doing something special as a family and going out for Ethiopian food. We happened to score some free tickets to Chesapeake Shakespeare Company‘s “Much Ado About Nothing” tomorrow so we’re excited to get dressed up and see what the girls think of their first Shakespearean experience.

I don’t know where this week went. I had every intention of posting something mid-week and suddenly it was Friday. I hope you have a slow and lovely weekend!

Image: Zoe Saint-Paul

 

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Top of the World by Dave Meier

I brought a lot of relevant experience to my parenting: I’m the oldest of 10, spent many years as a babysitter and nanny, taught various kinds of classes to children, and worked therapeutically with kids during my graduate internships.

But much of the parenting wisdom that felt second nature to me I’ve had to throw out the window. It simply doesn’t work for my daughters. Especially in the area of discipline. As I read more and more about the latest in brain science and listen to stories from other parents, my beliefs about discipline have shifted.

A growing body of research shows that certain parts of children’s brains are underdeveloped and therefore reward and punishment approaches to behavior modification don’t always produce the best outcomes — at least long term. The brains of kids who’ve experienced trauma, like mine, are wired differently than kids who haven’t had that in their background, and these kids need a lot more than consequences to help them become healthy, mature young adults.

In the moment, we parents just want certain behaviors to stop; but the ultimate purpose of discipline is to teach children self-control, kindness, empathy, responsibility, etc. And building these kinds of character traits can require different tactics when a child is misbehaving.

This Mother Jones piece highlights some major studies that have shown how kids with diagnosed behavior problems — such as ADHD, RAD (reactive attachment disorder), and ODD (oppositional defiant disorder) — are the most likely to be disciplined at school (and black kids are 31 per cent likely to be punished for similar violations than white or Latino kids).

Should we be imposing the harshest punishments on the most challenging kids when it’s not so much that they don’t want to behave, but their brains can’t do it? And if this is true, what does work for such kids and is this relevant to disciplining all kids?

Ross Greene, a psychologist and author profiled in the article advocates a very different approach to discipline than most parents (and teachers) are used to. (Greene wrote The Explosive Child and Lost at School, two highly praised books).

Greene’s method focuses on nurturing a strong relationship with the child, giving him a central (and age appropriate) role in solving his own problems, identifying the child’s challenges, and tackling those challenges as they come up. (The Mother Jones piece talks about a school in Maine that has instituted Greene’s methods with great success.)

If I’d read about this before parenting my own daughters, I would have viewed it as kind of fluffy and probably ineffective. I’d been around parents who never set boundaries with their kids and allow them to run the show. I wasn’t impressed.

But that’s not what we’re talking about here.  The brain science research — coupled with my own parenting experience now — has helped me to see that disciplining young kids is about helping their brains develop the neurons and connections that will make them capable of choosing what is right and good. Boundaries are necessary. Intervention is needed. It’s not laissez-faire parenting at all. But it’s different than the way most of us were disciplined as children.

I confess that I still give consequences sometimes. But I’ve come to see that this is usually more about my need to feel like I’m doing something and less about what really works for my daughters. When I focus on connecting with them (even when I feel more like yelling or running away) and address the root of what’s going on, I see better behavior. I also notice my daughters are better at regulating and expressing their emotions, curbing their behaviors, and solving their own problems.

What is your approach to discipline? Is it working, or do you find yourself frustrated and looking for new methods? What do you think of the article?

Image: Dave Meier at picography

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