Thursday, June 6, 2013

Home again, home again. It’s been twelve days now that we’ve been back in the US. High time to update this blog. I can say unreservedly that things are better now that we are home. It is a lot easier to parent in our home, with friends on the other end of the phone. There is more space for the girls to spread out. The rules and routine are familiar to Tabby, and Amahle does well with so much structure. Gracious friends from Church have been dropping off dinners every other day. We are very aware of how many good blessings we have in our lives, and we are grateful to be home!

We arrived at JFK on a Saturday, and Jamie headed back to work on Tuesday. His days have been long, almost always meeting with a colleague or tutoring after work, resulting in lengthy solo days with the girls for me. We’ve been taking life slowly, not wanting to overstimulate Amahle, who has trouble regulating her excitement in this shiny new land. One new person or place per day has been our goal.

So far we have enjoyed a few playgrounds, gone swimming once, visited one home, and spent a morning at the zoo. The girls spend a lot of time playing in various rooms in the house, pulling out all the toys and games and leaving piles of fun-debris all over. Largely, they play well together. But they also do some of the most irritating, probably typical, sibling nonsense. They will look out a window, spot a bird, and argue over what color it is. “It’s rrrred.” “No, it’s magenta.” “What is magenta? You’re lying. It’s rrred.” “Mommy, she says it’s red, when it’s really magenta! Tell her she’s wrong!” They will pick the same block out of a never-ending pile of blocks, and argue over it until one of them is crying. And neither will pass up the opportunity to point out when the other has broken a rule or made a mistake.

Still, the major things are falling into place. They eat food. They sleep. Neither is sick or injured. They seem to know that we love them, even when so much of the day involves correcting & consequencing them. Tabby often asks for “special mommy time,” which is hard to pull off, since we can’t let others take care of Amahle yet. It’s critical for our attachment that Jamie & I be the only ones to meet her needs at this point. We try to be creative, and I spend quiet moments Tabby while Amahle is in the tub or otherwise occupied. Bathing, feeding, dressing, and protecting two humans is so much harder than one! We go to bed very tired, but tired from good, hard work.

On our very first outing to a playground, we received our first jarring questions as a family of four. There were two biracial children at a playground that is usually vanilla white. Jamie & I smiled at each other, thinking, “How lovely that the first time we bring her here, there are other children who look like her.” Soon thereafter, we are fielding questions from those children like, “Do she live with you? Where’s her other daddy? She don’t look like she’s from Africa.” Sigh. At that point I was really hoping the language barrier would kick in, so Amahle wouldn’t understand what was being said. I’m sure these were gentle, compared to what we may hear in the future, but it still wasn’t pleasant. Amahle is a very young six, new to America, not very communicative, and just not ready to talk about her racial identity & what that means. I’m cataloguing these experiences, thinking over what I’d like to say to her, and waiting until she’s ready to talk. These are deep waters we are swimming in.

As summer is officially beginning, so are summer activities. We’re keeping things pretty simple, since we’re still in cocoon mode. But Tabby has started small fry soccer, Amahle has started weekly basketball practice, and next week she will start meeting with a tutor to keep her Zulu language alive. While her English is growing exponentially, she has no outlet for speaking Zulu here. We throw around a few phrases we all understand, and we bought her a few CDs of Zulu music she enjoys, but without speaking it regularly, I’m afraid she’ll lose it. We’re hopeful this tutor will become a good confidant for Amahle and resource for us.

Sunday, May 26, 2013

Blog post #16

May 24, 2013
I am up early, before my alarm, as usual. Though we’ve tried to start shifting back to American time, staying up late & waking up late, the roosters, doves, and dogs around here haven’t gotten the memo. This morning we will say goodbye to our friends from Seattle, the S Family. It will be sad for us to see them go, especially little Sifundo, who knows Amahle in a unique way. We will miss her cuddles, her awesome dancing, the way she chews each bite of food fifty times, and her beautiful smile. This journey has definitely bonded our families together in a special, lasting way.

Later this afternoon, we will head to the airport in Johannesburg. We were finally able to pick up Amahle’s visa and permanent passport yesterday at the US Consulate. Let me tell you, security is tight over there! I guess I just thought they would recognize me as one of their people & it would be smooth sailing. Not so much. So we have no jubilant we-just-got-our-visa family photo outside of the Consulate (because they took our camera, phone, & laptop). But we have the important documents & we have our tickets home, thankfully.

A while back, I came across this article online about supporting adoptive families once they come home. I thought it was really insightful & helpful then, but it really hits home now. We have so many amazing, supportive friends and family members waiting to receive us when we return. A first instinct might be to welcome Amahle with the things she lacked in the orphanage: food, gifts, hugs, & interested questions. But that would not be the most helpful approach. Supporting her attachment to our family is the most loving thing you could do! So please take a moment to read this excerpt & mull it over. Thank you for caring about us and taking time to learn about adoption.

Supporting and Understanding the Adoptive Family 

Many adoptive families give written advice and suggestions to friends and family prior to the new child's arrival to help ensure a smooth transition. I didn't do this because I felt like it would be too difficult to put my wishes and feelings into words without sounding too harsh or controlling and honestly I did not really even know what to say. However, after being home for almost a year and a half, it is clear that most people have great intentions but that they want and need suggestions for what they can do to help our adopted children integrate into our family and into the community. Here are a few thoughts about supporting an adoptive family. Most pertain to families who have adopted internationally and also to those who have adopted through the domestic route. It was compiled based on our experience and also on the experiences of a few dozen other adoptive parents who contributed their ideas and suggestions.

Our children are not necessarily grateful to have been adopted.
And we don't expect them to be. It is not that our kids don't notice the stability of a family. It's not that they don't cherish the love that they are receiving or that they don't like their new life. It is because children are programmed to need, want and expect love. When we provide it we are not heroes, we are simply meeting one of their very basic needs. Expecting adopted children to be grateful for being adopted is like expecting our biological children to be grateful for being conceived. It was a choice that we, their parents, made and that they were brought into.

Please don't feed my kids.
For children who have known hunger, food means love. We want them to learn to love us, their parents and siblings, before they bond with extended family, neighbors and friends. I know that they stare longingly at anything edible. I know that our two year old puts his head on the table and looks at you with puppy dog eyes. But since we were not there to meet their early needs (breast or bottle feeding, comforting them when they were sick, changing diapers, kissing boo boos) we need to make up for it by meeting as many of their physical and emotional needs as possible now. Many adopted children also have food insecurities. Some eat until they vomit and then start eating again. Others hoard food, needing the comfort of knowing that there is some saved for later. It is best to leave all feeding to the parents unless specifically directed otherwise.

Parenting an adopted child is hard work and we struggle.
We may tell you that we’re okay when we're really falling apart. We're worried that if we are honest about how difficult it is that you won't understand and that you'll think we're nuts. Adding a child who may or may not have anything in common with us socially, culturally, biologically or even personality-wise is challenging. Though undoubtedly beautiful and worth all of the struggles, adoption certainly isn't always easy or pretty.

It is greatly appreciated if you choose your wording carefully, especially around our children.
Yes, these are all our "real" kids and, in most situations, you probably do not need to specify whether you are talking about my "adopted kids" or my "biological kids". They are all my kids even if they joined us through different paths.

Please don't try to get our child to like you the most.
Attachment and bonding are challenging enough without having friends and family slip our children candy, shower them with gifts, offer seconds at meals or encouraging bending and stretching of family rules. We're already working our tails off to get them to like us. With consistency and time they will learn to like you too, I promise.

Be considerate of the types of questions that you ask about our child's background and personal history, especially in their presence and especially if they are old enough to understand.
Would it offend you if someone asked if you have AIDS, if you were abandoned, if your parents were drug users or how your parents died? If so, best not to ask these questions to someone else. We understand that it is normal to be curious and to wonder about the circumstances that led to a child's adoption. However, these are things that we discuss openly in our immediate family but not elsewhere. Our children may or may not choose to divulge more of their personal stories someday when they are older but they are THEIR stories and details to share, not mine.

We may discourage physical contact with our child for the first several months that they are home or until we feel like they are securely attached to us.
Please do not insist on holding them, hugging them or having them sit on your lap. Many children who have lived in orphanages and institutions learn to fight for adult attention. Often they can put on quite the show and act like the most friendly, charming child to draw attention to themselves. While it may be cute and though it gives the false impression that they are well-adjusted and confident, it is very important that initially the parents are the only adults who help fulfill these children's need for physical affection. This also teaches healthy boundaries, and applies to grandparents and extended family at first.

Sometimes adopted children need to be parented differently than biological children.
We are not spoiling them. We aren't making excuses for poor behavior. Rather, we are parenting a child whose background may be very dissimilar to anything we've experienced. A child who has been abandoned and who has a fear of abandonment shouldn't be sent to time out alone in another room. A child who is still attaching to their adoptive family may need to be firmly held while having loving, affirming words whispered into their ear during a full-blown tantrum. The types of consequences that work for other children might not work for a child who doesn't have the same sense of value of their possessions and who doesn't understand what it means to have privileges. As parents, we must be flexible to help meet the individual needs of our child even if it means that we do things a little differently sometimes.

If you would like to give a gift to our new child, please consider something small that the whole family can enjoy together.
A few ideas are a frozen meal, a gift card to the movies, a small ornament commemorating the adoption or art supplies for all of the kids to share. We know that you want to welcome our new additions but gifts can be overwhelming for children who have had few material possessions. Also, we want our children to learn to love you for who you are, not for the fact that they hope they'll get another gift the next time they see you again. Other siblings may also experience jealousy and resentment if the new addition suddenly receives an armory of gifts and they are excluded.

Attachment takes time and work.
It doesn't happen overnight. Even if it appears that our child is securely attached to us it may take many months or years and every child and every family bonds differently.

Please refrain from commenting on our child's appearance (specifically relating to ethnicity/race) in front of him or her.
All children want to feel included and to fit in. Pointing out how dark they are, how differently they look from the rest of us or how unique their hair feels only makes them feel like they stand out more.

Please do not ask adopted children if they like their new parents/family.
Adopted children do not usually get to hand pick their family. Adoption is similar to an arranged marriage and unique, sometimes very different people are brought together. With hard work and patience true love may grow. However, ask ANY child, biological or adopted (especially any older child!) if they like their parents and be prepared for some interesting answers!

It takes time to help children start to heal from a difficult past.
Just because they have been with us for a certain amount of time does not mean that they are "fixed". On the other hand, just because children are adopted does not necessarily mean that they will be any more difficult, defiant, less successful or anything else as teenagers or adults.

Our new additions are not celebrities.
We appreciate all of the love and support that we were shown during our adoption process and we know that everyone is excited to meet them. However, taking photos of just our adopted child or pouring attention on them while ignoring our other children is not healthy for anyone. The child who is receiving all of the attention often feels singled out and siblings quickly become resentful.

Our children may be "delayed" when they join our family but often they just need time.
Adopted children are placed into environments that may be very different than anything they've ever experienced. They may be overstimulated, confused and sometimes there are language barriers. With time and patience most emotional, intellectual and physical delays will be overcome.

Please do not tell us how amazing we (parents) are because we have chosen to adopt.
We know that this comment is usually intended as a compliment but our adopted kids are not burdens, charity cases or a community service project to be completed. As parents we gladly invest the time and energy needed to ensure the happiness and well-being of any of our children.

We do not advertise our child's "cost".
If you would like to know how expensive our adoption process was, please ask when our children are not present, call after our kids are in bed or send us an email. Most adoptive families are happy to share our experiences and to provide helpful information but we do not ever want our children to feel like they were bought or that they are commodities.

When the going gets tough please do not ask if we regret our decision to adopt or imply that "we asked for it".
Few people would tell a sleep-deprived mother of a colicky newborn "well, you asked for this" and it would be considered rude to ask a new mother if she regretted her decision to have a baby. Just because something is difficult does not mean that we regret it. There are bumps in the road of every journey.

Even the happiest of adoptions are a result of challenging or difficult circumstances.
Though we like to think of adoption as a "happy ending", birth parents may have made difficult decisions, children may have faced losses and many lives were forever changed. Though most adopted children grow to be happy, well-adjusted adults and though most adoptive families are beautiful and full of love, it is important not to romanticize adoption.

And, most importantly:

No one is perfect.
If you slip and call our biological kids our "real" kids or if you've already asked "What happened to his mother?" we won't hold a grudge. We know that our family is different. We understand that it is impossible to be sensitive and politically correct in every situation all the time. These are ideas and suggestions, not commandments.

We appreciate that you care about our family. We cannot thank you enough for wanting to learn more about supporting and understanding the adoptive family and for helping make this transition as smooth as possible for all of us!

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Blog post #15

On The Road

We spend a lot of time in the car here, traveling from attraction to appointment, and besides being on the opposite side of the road, there are some interesting differences between driving in South Africa & driving in America. First, the signs. After almost seven weeks, we still don’t know what all the road signs mean. There’s one that looks like a Transformer, and one that looks like said Transformer with a no-no line through it. Jamie & I are fond of saying, “No Optimus Prime on this street.” There’s a series of signs with three slanted lines, then two, then one, which we’ve come to understand means, “Exit coming up in ____ amount of miles, now only ____ amount of miles, now here it comes.” Some of our favorites are twisty, turny, elaborate shapes that are meant to let you know what form the road is going to take, but which really distract & confuse. And then there’s the “Goats!” road sign. A favorite, for sure.

The other major difference we’ve noticed is the rest stops. When traveling from Durban to Johannesburg, we wanted to find a rest stop where we could eat lunch & let the girls get some energy out. Now, I am used to the sterilized-yet-still-germy rest stops on the New Jersey Turnpike: Roy Rogers, Cinnabon, Pizza Hut, gas station. I try to get in & out of those places as quickly as possible. When we pulled off the highway looking for a rest stop, we found the loveliest indoor/outdoor cafĂ©, with a playground and baby bunnies. Baby bunnies! We had camembert and avocado sandwiches. We strolled their rows of lavender and basil plants. What a delightful surprise during a long day of steady driving. It was downright refreshing not to see a chain restaurant.

Something you would not find in Philadelphia is the plethora of men trying to sell things to you as you sit at traffic lights (which they call “robots” here). At one red light, a person can purchase or refuse cell phone chargers, oranges, cold drinks, sunglasses, and DVDs. Sometimes they are not selling anything, but begging, carrying trash bags tied around their necks to carry whatever food or items they are given. They are persistent! It appears very dangerous, having multiple people standing and walking between moving cars at every intersection, but it isn’t illegal here, and there don’t seem to be any rules other than, “This is my corner. I sell the avocadoes over here.”

But in any country, a long car ride hopefully involves solid naps for precious little people.

Monday, May 20, 2013

Blog post #14

May 20th, 2013
Time marches on here in Johannesburg, though sometimes it feels like it’s inching forward. All of us are very ready to return home! Each day is full of possibility, but it gets tiring to try to plan something fun & new each day for the girls. Have you ever been really ready to get back to regular life after a vacation? Well that is certainly how I feel, after this almost seven-week trip. Jamie’s & my new game is to come up with really mundane things we miss so much about our home: loading dishes in the dishwasher, walking around barefoot without getting super dirty feet, checking the mailbox.

After arriving in Joburg last Tuesday, we went to the medical center for the next three consecutive days to have Amahle’s immigration medical completed so that she can get a visa. The girls were truly good sports about it, and it wasn’t too difficult, all in all. This being my first medical appointment with Amahle, naturally I wanted to ask the doctor all kinds of little questions about her—that cut on her toe, what looks to be a cavity in her mouth, the scar on her leg—but it was clear that he was only interested in making sure she is not bringing any contagious diseases to the US. “Perfunctory” is the word I would use, but at least we didn’t get delayed in this part of the process. That is the most important thing.

The highlight of the week was going to the Lion Park! We drove through the park, spotting four prides of lions, cheetahs, antelopes, meerkats, and ostriches. We had the distinct pleasure of watching one ridiculous ostrich take an elaborate dust bath right next to our car. Nobody tell me God doesn’t have a sense of humor. We’ve noticed that rules in South Africa are more relaxed than at home, like Amahle not having to sit in any kind of a booster seat in the car. Those relaxed rules afforded us the opportunity to pet baby lions and feed giraffes at the lion park! Having worked at the Philadelphia Zoo, I can fully appreciate what a treasure this opportunity was. The girls were a little unsure about petting the lions at first. They gave quick, furtive little pats, but eventually got in there & really experienced it. The best part of the day was spending time feeding and petting the giraffes. They always seemed tall when I looked at them from the ground, but standing on a high platform, I realized how gigantic their heads are. Looking into a giraffes big brown eyes & seeing those long eyelashes—precious. Again, the girls were very tentative about this, and hardly had any direct contact with the giraffes, but Jamie & I relished our time with them.

Wednesday is the big day for our appointment at the Consulate to get Amahle’s visa. The unabridged birth certificates have been picked up in Durban & couriered to the Consulate, and the immigration medical & lab results should be there as well. If all goes smoothly at the appointment, we will have her visa on Thursday and be leaving for the US on Friday night. I will keep you all updated. Thanks so much for your prayers and support.

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Blog post #13

May 16th, 2013 A short recap of the (long) past two weeks:

We spent a lot of time at the beach in Umhlanga & in Durban. The girls love the ocean & make a game of running into, & away from, the waves. The best of our beach days were spent with a family from the Church we’ve been going to here. They have been so fun to hang out with, so refreshing to talk to, and so encouraging to be around. Our time in Durban would have been much more isolated and more difficult without them. It was so nice to be invited to share meals together. Spending time in someone’s home when you’re overseas makes you feel less like a tourist & more like a traveler, if that makes sense. We will miss this beautiful beach, and especially this lovely family.

We did make it back to uShaka, where I fulfilled my dream of being kissed by a seal. It was…more intimidating than I expected. They aren’t the cuddly pets I had imagined them to be; more like loud, strong, smart beasts that have been trained to kiss. Nonetheless, a highlight of my life! And for any of you who were keeping track, Amahle did finally get to enjoy an ice cream cone there.

All the while, we were periodically traveling to Home Affairs, the office/entity responsible for issuing identity documents to South Africans. It was not as harrowing as I had feared, probably because our adoption lawyers worked long & hard & well-organized on our behalf. We successfully changed Amahle’s surname, got her a new identification number (similar to our social security number), received a new short-form birth certificate, are still waiting for the unabridged birth certificate, received her temporary passport, and will wait to receive her permanent passport when it is ready. Whew! Anyone who has adopted internationally deserves some sort of honorary degree in bureaucratic paperwork completion. Or a lifetime supply of lattes or something energy-replenishing.

Finally, on Tuesday we left Durban behind & traveled to Johannesburg for the last leg of our trip. Nine and a half hours in the packed car with two active little girls. We arrived late at night at the lodge, after a difficult time finding the right road. GPS is very helpful, but not always reliable around here. It often says, “Turn right on Road,” because it doesn’t know the name of the street, or, “Turn left on Unpaved Road.” We got settled in for the night, scrounging through luggage for toothbrushes and pajamas, and didn’t really see our surroundings until the next morning. When we wandered into the grounds behind our lodge the next morning, we were treated to views of zebra, gazelles, & emu! Such has been our experience in Africa—5 parts rush & drudgery, one part incredible splendor. I would even describe our adoptive parenting that way so far—mostly challenging, lots of correction, work around the clock, and then the rare glimpse of how things might be one day: peaceful, joyful, laughing and enjoying our new, expanded family. 

Saturday, May 4, 2013

Blog post #12

May 3rd, 2013: Yesterday we took the girls to uShaka Marine World and water park. We met up with the other family—now just Mama S, Griffin (4), & Sifundo, as the rest of their family has gone back to America. Our kids were so happy to be reunited, having spent time separately since Monday. And I am always jazzed to spend time with my only mom friend out here. We do a lot of talking, comparing notes & a lot of laughing; it’s therapeutic for us both. This adoption and travel experience definitely bonds families together in a very unique way.

The water park was a big hit for everyone—there were all kinds of slides & pools, a dolphin show, and the coolest aquarium, made to look like a sunken ship. Amahle enjoyed trying more & more on her own; she is adventurous & independent, and also likes to show off for mommy & daddy. I view it as a sign of good attachment when I hear, “Mommy, look!” a million times a day. While sometimes independence is a trait to be cultivated in kids, I am working against the stubborn self-reliance she developed in the orphanage, trying to teach her to depend on us. It’s odd, because at six, she is very capable of doing some things alone, which I am teaching her to let me do for her. I kept suggesting rides and activities the girls could do together, or that we could do as a family. Amahle & I floated down the lazy river together, oohing and aahing at the sights along the way. She was tickled to see penguins along the bank, & was pretty scared of the sharks behind the glass. She and Sifundo both keep pretty serious mugs at times, which gives the appearance of being hard to impress by new things. But when asked, Amahle will answer, “I’m scared to them,” which is sometimes the reason for the mask she wears.  

My favorite ride was called “Jika Jika,” which we made into a silly expression of joy throughout the day. As in, “Jika, jika I’m happy!!” in a sing-songy voice. The seven of us piled into one big, round raft, & twisted and turned down a long tube together. I loved looking at each face as we sped along: Amahle laughing & holding onto Sifundo, Tabby screaming & pretending to be in peril, Griffin admitting how fun this was, after staunchly refusing to try it at first.

When our two families get together, Sifundo & Amahle always have a wonderful time. I love to see them so excited to greet each other, and have a chance to talk feely in Zulu, but I am aware that it does hurt Tabby’s feelings to see Amahle’s bond with Sifundo, when Tabby is so desirous of that kind of sisterly bond. Her face always falls a little, and she is constantly being shrugged off for hugs by Amahle & Sifundo. To be fair, there aren’t a lot of hugs going around at the orphanage. Tabby’s type of sweetness & affection is something Amahle will need to get used to. Griffin, however, loves Tabby very much; they spend much of the day holding hands or hugging.

This was a pretty great day for all of us. One bright spot in the financial cloud of adoption is that the economy here makes it possible for us to spend the day at a water park for not much. We stayed the whole day, skipping naps, eating at a nice restaurant, and didn’t spend a lot. That makes entertaining kids for almost seven weeks a bit easier.

At the end of the day, both Sifundo & Amahle had some behavior issues. For both families, they were big enough rule violations that we needed to discipline them clearly and quickly. We had been heading to get ice cream, and Mama S, Jamie, & I decided that Sifundo & Amahle would not get ice cream because of their misbehavior. Parent friends out there: how hard is that to do?! I am a firm believer in clear and consistent discipline. But watching a child watch another child eat ice cream? Feels cruel and unusual in the moment. Not to mention, from the outside it looked very much like we buy our white children ice cream, but none for our African children. An uncomfortable impression to give off in public, especially in South Africa.

Other than that blip on the behavior radar, this was one of my favorite days here. Tabby said it was ‘the best day of her life,’ and she only says that very rarely! It was great to have such a fun, relaxing day as a family. It makes the counting down days and dreading paperwork recede for a while. I am very grateful for the gorgeous weather we’ve been having. This would all be so much harder in the rain.