Monday, December 31, 2012

Happiness . . . Contentment

On this last day of 2012, I've been reflecting on all the joy this year brought us.  Having Eli join our family was the obvious blessing, but 2012 was really the culmination of a few great years Brad and I have had together.

The 2010-2012 trifecta.  Our happiness hat trick.  Because without 2010 and 2011, 2012 could never have been the major milestone year that it was.

After having met a few times casually before, Brad and I became reacquainted toward the end of 2009 and settled into a nice, solid relationship in 2010.

We chartered a sailboat to spend the 2010 holidays, spending Christmas day on the island of Mustique. Unknown to me, Brad carried a diamond ring in his backpack from island to island, looking for the perfect setting in which to propose.  But due to some intervening circumstances (in the form of an obnoxious, drunk captain who somehow managed to be everywhere with us), that perfect setting never materialized.

Back in Denver, we found our true paradise.  Brad proposed after dinner at the restaurant where we'd gone on our first date.  And, as we would later learn, he asked me to marry him on our son's birthday.

God's timing.  Always perfect.

We married in September 2011 and began 2012 eager to start a family.  God blessed us with Eli's referral after being on the wait list for only one day, thrusting us into parenthood a little more suddenly than we'd expected.  Our agency had advised us a referral would likely take a year or more, but Eli needed a family right away and God knew we would all be very good for one another.

God's timing.  Always perfect.

Our first holiday season as a family was filled with joy and challenges, and we've already grown so much together as a family.  I'm eagerly looking forward to our first full year together.

As I sit here sipping the egg nog Brad just brought me (perfectly spiked--thanks, honey!) thinking about what 2013 may bring for us, I feel a sense of fullness that I have never before experienced.  And I don't think that fullness is coming solely from a 500 calorie beverage laced with rum.

Hopefully many of you are nodding your heads, knowing exactly what I'm feeling because it's what you feel also.



Happy New Year.  May 2013 bless you all beyond measure.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Four Months Home -- The Recap

Oh my gosh, it's been four months?!?  My update is a little late this month; December 17th marked four months home for Eli.  But life with an almost-five year old has been pretty busy.

Wonderfully busy.

First haircut.

First Thanksgiving.

Yes, Eli chose his "I [heart] Mom t-shirt to wear on Thanksgiving.
Yes, I'm pretty sure he has no idea that's what his t-shirt says.
Yes, I love it anyway.
First time meeting his Uncle Paul and Aunt Trish.

At Eli's baptism.

And cousins Samantha and Bailey.

First Turkey Trot.

Eli is the spot of orange, behind Brad's left arm.  Sigh.

First time sitting on Santa's lap.  (For the record, Eli was laughing and smiling until he saw the camera trained on him.)

This has been some of our most exciting progress this month; Eli's sleeping in his own bed!  Not always for the entire night, but he always starts there.  And when he wakes up in his own bed, he's in a much better mood.

He always wants Brad or me to fall asleep with him.  It's usually me, so that's been great for our attachment.  In bed, as he's falling asleep, he'll finally let down that wall of his and allow me to snuggle with him.

Eli's eating really well, but the quantity is still sometimes pretty sporadic.  He'll eat a ton at one meal, asking for more, and at other meals he barely picks at his food.  (What is served doesn't seem to make any difference in his appetite.)

We continue to expose Eli to lots of new foods; this past month, it was Japanese.

He tried using chopsticks . . .

but finally gave up and just ate with his fingers, Ethiopian style.

He even tried a little bit of sushi (raw salmon) and liked it.

He loved watching the sushi chefs at work, so next time we'll sit at the sushi bar.

Super blurry, zoomed iPhone photo from across the room.
Trust me, it was adorable watching Eli watch the sushi chef.

Interactions with a few of his friends at school have gotten complicated this month.  Eli is a really tough kid in a lot of ways, but I'm learning he is also a very sensitive kid.

Several weeks ago one of his friends was playing a little too rough; I looked over to find Eli at the bottom of a pile of his friends, crying.  As I walked over, I asked one of the kids what happened, and he told me another kid had taken things too far.  I could tell Eli wasn't physically hurt, but he took the rough play personally.  And even though the kid who went a little too far came back over and gave Eli a hug, Eli insisted this boy didn't like him and wasn't his friend.  Then a few weeks later it was a different classmate whose play was a little out of line.  (This time I saw it, and the kid was indeed being obnoxious.)  Again, Eli got upset and insisted this kid didn't like him.  And I know this kid does like him, he's just a four-year-old boy learning the boundaries of acceptable play.

So Eli and I have spent several afternoons talking about friends, and how sometimes your friends can make mistakes and hurt your feelings.  Or sometimes you can feel like someone doesn't like you because you misunderstood something that's happened.  Regarding the second incident, I saw it and so was able to validate Eli's feelings that the kid was a little out of control, but I told him I thought he needed to give his friend the benefit of the doubt.  And that next time things started to get out of control he could either say something to his friends, or just walk away.  I praised him for not responding to the out-of-control play by being too rough himself.

Sometimes I wonder if all this talk is a little beyond a four year old, but I would've loved to have someone help me navigate the often-murky social waters when I was a kid.  And I also don't remember ever feeling comfortable having this kind of a conversation with my parents, so I want to encourage Eli to keep talking to me.  I may not always give him the right advice, but I want him to know his dad and I are always here to talk about whatever may be troubling him.

We are Team Eli.

Friends, this has been a great month for Eli and me from an attachment standpoint, so in this regard I'm saving the best update for last.  Eli and I have turned a corner; I feel him coming closer and closer to me, and it feels great.  He's still not affectionate toward me, but he will sometimes give me a hug or let me hug him.  I've learned to ask him if I can give him a hug (or if he'll give me one), and now he doesn't always say no.  He still recoils from my kisses like they're acid on his skin, but there's always a bit of a smile under the protest.

Brad hadn't travelled for work since Eli's been home with us, and then this month he's travelled two weeks in a row.  They were two very busy weeks for Eli and me.  Honestly, I don't know how you single parents do it, day in and day out.  I at least had an end in sight each week.

Brad and I were both nervous about his being gone.  Would Eli understand he was coming back?  Would Eli's tenuous attachment to me allow us to get through these weeks without behavior issues?

Eli was awesome.  Model child.  And we had so much fun together, hangin' just the two of us.  Out of necessity he made leaps forward with independence.  He bathed himself, dressed himself, made beds, and just generally helped me get everything done that I needed to do during those weeks.

At the end of the first week, on the morning Brad was due to come home, Eli announced to me that he was going back to Gambella and that Brad and I were to stay here in America.  Eli told me he didn't like living in America, so "see ya!"  He wasn't upset when he said this, hadn't gotten in trouble, wasn't acting out.  It was just a matter-of-fact statement, like he was telling me he needed to go to the store to buy milk.

I explained to Eli that he wouldn't live in Gambella again, that he would live here in America with his daddy and me, at least until he was a grown up and then he could decide where he wants to live.  We talked about how he was a permanent part of our family, and that would never change.

The conversation went well, but I was bewildered.  Eli and I had just spent a fantastic week together, a team of two getting it all done, and we hadn't had a single moment of unpleasantness or bad behavior.  I'd heard of kids acting out to test whether their adoptive parents would send them away, but this was a new scenario to me.  I reached out to our adoptive community, hoping for a "oh, yeah, that happened with us all the time," but, nope.

One friend suggested perhaps this was being fueled by anxiety over whether Brad would return, and that must've been it.  Brad came home that night, right on schedule. And Eli was just about the happiest kid on earth.  When he saw Brad's headlights pulling into the garage, he started yelling "daddy!  daddy!!"

The next day Eli acted out at the ice cream shop with Brad (so badly that Brad threw Eli's ice cream cone in the trash and they left), and for hours afterward Eli kept asking "daddy, are you mad at me?"  I think Eli was trying to see whether Brad would leave again if he was bad.

Brad's scheduled to come home again tonight after being gone most of the week and so far, so good.  Eli doesn't seem anxious about whether Brad will be returning; Eli's mostly focused on what toy from the airport will daddy bring him.

Just like any other four year old.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

On Matters of Race and Adoption

Wow, kids can say the most shocking things.  And ask the most insensitive questions.

In Eli's three-months-home update, I mentioned one of his "firsts" was the first comment from another kid about his skin color.  I wanted to write about it separately because I felt like it deserved more focus than a few lines in an update.  But I was also still processing what happened when I wrote that update, feeling uncertain about how I responded.

Before school one day a young child, probably only two years old, said to her mother "mommy, Eli's skin is brown."  With a not very nice emphasis on the word "brown," which made it sound like a synonym for "yucky."  They were standing maybe two feet away from us.

I'm not sure who felt worse about it, Eli, me, or the child's mother.  It broke my heart to see Eli's reaction; he immediately became tense and uncomfortable, bringing his hands to his mouth (his "tell").  The child's mother pretended she didn't hear.  Or maybe she really didn't hear her child (although I find that nearly impossible).  

In any event, I don't fault her or otherwise judge her reaction because she is a genuinely kind person and God knows I've been left without immediately appropriate words springing to mind before.  And, unlike me, she hasn't spent nearly a year thinking about issues of race and the impacts of bringing an African child into a lily white community.  But I also felt like if nobody responded to this little girl, then the unspoken message was something is wrong with Eli's skin color.  

So after waiting a few seconds to be sure her mother wasn't going to say anything, I responded to the child "yes, Eli's skin is brown.  He's from Africa.  Do you know where Africa is?"  And my tone of voice, at least to my ear, didn't appear to betray the sorrow I felt about her comment.

I know kids will say things, stupid things, and sadly Eli will likely hear comments much worse than this at some point.  But he was going through a rough patch in terms of where he was at then with his grieving, and I could tell her comment hit an already sad and vulnerable place in him.

Later that day Eli and I were setting up to play Chutes and Ladders.  There are four game pieces, two boys and two girls.  One of the boys is "brown," the other a blond-haired Caucasian.  Eli picked the blond piece as his own.  Coincidence, maybe, but I used it as an opening to talk about this child's comment about brown skin earlier in the day.  Eli seemed uncomfortable, so we didn't talk long.

That evening, during his bath, I tried again.  While I washing his back I told him he has beautiful skin. (I tell him this a lot, probably during almost every bath.  Because his skin is really, truly mesmerizingly gorgeous.  It almost shimmers in the bath.)  

He pointed to his forearm and asked, "mommy, this beautiful?" 

"Yes, Eli, very beautiful."

I then told him that many kids have probably never met someone from Ethiopia before, and that might cause some kids to be curious.  We talked about how being from Ethiopia is cool, and I told him he should always be proud that he was born in Ethiopia.

Fast forward several weeks, and there Eli and I are again, waiting for his teacher to open the classroom door.  A group his classmates had converged around Eli and me, and one of the girls looked up at me and asked "why did Eli's parents give him away?"  Ugh.  I said to her "oh, sweetie, Eli's parents didn't give him away."  Unsatisfied, she demanded "well, what happened, then?"  

Double groan.

This time I was a bit more stumped.  How do I answer a question like that while staying true to Eli's story, yet appropriately circumspect so as to protect his privacy?  Eli knows his birth mother relinquished him, but that's a far cry from being "given away."

So I told her it was complicated, and then tried to steer the conversation in a different direction.  I told her and the other kids that Eli was born in Ethiopia, which is in Africa, and that it's a very cool place.  At this, Eli became upset and said "NO, NO, NO!!!"  So I just quit talking and told them all Eli had brought a horse for show-and-tell.  Eli pulled it out of his school bag, and everyone was distracted. ("Look, something shiny!)  For then, anyway.

Over dinner I asked Eli if kids in his class ask him questions about being adopted.  He responded "no" in a way that felt like he wanted to avoid discussion of the topic altogether.  So I didn't push him with more questions, but told him he should never feel ashamed about being adopted.  That adoption is a beautiful thing; adoption is what enabled him to join our family.  And that we are so thankful he is part of our family.

That night, after storytime and lights out, while Eli and I were laying in his little twin bed falling asleep, I asked him if he wanted me to tell him a story.  He said yes.  So I told him a story about a mommy and a daddy who wanted a little boy so much, they prayed and prayed to God for a little boy to join their family.  And then I told him - step by step, from beginning to end - about his adoption.  A ways into the story, he asked "little boy Eli?" in a quiet voice, sounding so vulnerable it nearly broke my heart.  I told him "yes, this little boy is Eli."

He listened rapturously as I told him his adoption story, and he seemed at peace.

The next day we continued talking about adoption, and we will continue talking about his adoption.  Because adoption is indeed a beautiful thing, and I want Eli to know it.  

To believe it, down to his core.

(And if anyone has a good suggestion for an age-appropriate response to "why did Eli's parents give him away," please share.  I still feel awful about my lame-o response to that little girl.)

UPDATE to add a suggestion from my friend, and fellow adoptive parent, Andrea from facebook:

Kathleen have you ever thought about asking Eli's teacher if you can come in and read a story about adoption to the class...age appropriate of course. Then you AND Eli can put together a presentation on the customs of Ethiopia...think holidays, clothing, food. He will be seen as a rock star and wonderfully unique. It will help take the mystery out of it for the kids. To them the concept must be incredibly foreign and even a bit scary. They don't understand what a lucky family you are and truly special. But you can help them. We have done something like this with children with special needs and I have always found the children responded well. Plus it will give you a chance to rehearse responses to those tough questions and also make sure Eli is comfortable and involved in the process. good luck.

I love this idea.  As much as the little girl's question frustrated (and, let's be honest, offended) me, when I step back from my emotions I can see the question for what it was:  curiosity, tinged with perhaps a bit of anxiety.  (If Eli's parents "gave him away," then maybe mine would "give me away," too.)  And from everything I've seen of this little girl since the school year started, she's been nothing but kind to Eli.  In fact, she gave him a hug good-bye after the first day of school.

I think I'll approach his teacher after Christmas break, which will give me some time to talk with Eli about this idea.  Make sure he likes it, too.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Sweet Dreams

Eli slept in his bed last night.  Hurrah!

Several nights ago Brad and I were reading The Night Before Christmas to Eli when it occurred to us that Eli needed to be sleeping in his bed for Santa to come.  We broke the news to Eli, and watched him weigh Santa coming versus staying on the bedroll in our room.

Tough choice for him, but he ultimately decided he wants Santa to come.  And he agreed it was best to start sleeping his room now, in case any of Santa's elves stopped by to check on him.

So we went to Target and bought him a Christmas tree for his room, which also serves as a giant night light.

The first night we read bedtime story in his bed--it was literally the first time he'd ever laid in his bed--then he came to sleep on the bedroll in our room.  The second night he stayed in his bed after story time and slept there for a few hours before stumbling sleepily into our room and laying down on the floor.  (Thankfully Brad was still awake so could roll out his little bedroll and transfer him to it.)

Yesterday he told us he was going to sleep in his bed all night and wake up there in the morning.  But within minutes of putting him to bed he was poking his little head into our room.  Brad and I took him back to his room and talked to him for a while, then I asked him if he wanted mommy to sleep with him for a bit and snuggle him, thinking that would make him kick us out of his room (ha!).

To my surprise, he said yes; Eli settled into my arms spoon-style and we both quickly fell asleep.  Brad came in to retrieve me about an hour later and I carefully peeled myself from Eli.

Eli slept in his bed all night long and I awoke to this cuteness this morning:

Santa, I hope you're paying attention here.  Eli's been a very good boy, indeed.

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Eli's Baptism

Eli received the sacrament of baptism and became a member of the Catholic church on November 24, 2012.  For Catholics, the sacrament of baptism is the first step in a lifelong journey of commitment and discipleship.  Whether we are Baptized as infants or adults, Baptism is the Church's way of celebrating and enacting the embrace of God, who first loved us from the moment of our conception.

Good stuff, that.  But it can also be a little bit scary to a four year old boy.

We chose a private baptism at our church instead of having it performed at a mass, in order to reduce the stress on Eli.  And we talked with him before his baptism and tried to explain what would happen.

It was a beautiful ceremony, with Eli's closest family members gathered around him to celebrate his union with Christ. 

Eli did really well during the ceremony, until it was time for the sprinkling of water.

Although we had talked about this part with Eli in advance, when Brad and Paul lifted him up to the baptismal font, he was terrified.  He kicked and thrashed.  Brad cut his finger on Eli's belt and bled on Eli's white shirt.  It was distressing for all.

Grandpa trying to soothe a teary Eli after his baptism.
A trip back to the votive candles with his Uncle/Godfather Paul helped soothe him.

St. Paul, the first great theologian of baptism, expressed its meaning in terms of a break with the old and a beginning of a new life in Christ.  And this played out in a surprising way at Eli's baptism.  

Before leaving for his baptism, Eli's Godparents gave him a Saint Christopher medal.  

It had been worn by their son Max at his baptism, so it is very special.  Max left our family at age four, the same age at which Eli joined our family.

Eli eagerly put the medal around his neck, where it joined the Gambellan necklace he was wearing when he entered the orphanage, and we all left for his baptism.  About halfway through the ceremony, Eli turned to me, clutching his Gambellan necklace, and said "this, off."

He'd said this to Brad and me a few times in the past, and it had always been when we were out somewhere and not able to remove the necklace.  The necklace is beads on a string, and needed to be cut off.  

When he'd asked for it to be removed in the past, we always told him we'd do it when we got home.  Both because we needed scissors and because we wanted to keep the necklace safe so he'll have it forever.  In the past, he no longer wanted the necklace removed once we got home.

So when he asked during his baptism to have it removed, I again told him we'd take it off when we got home.  But this time, when we got home, he asked again to have it removed.  

I cut the string at the knot and allowed him to take it from his neck.  Then together we put the necklace in a ziplock bag.  I assured him that I would keep it safe for him because it is a very special necklace.

A break with the old and a beginning of a new life in Christ.

And then it was time to open gifts.

Including his first pair of hockey skates, from his Godparents.

I love this photo of Eli with his Grandparents.  Very happy boy.

Eli's friend Dylan stopped by to show Eli his new Alvin the Chipmunk from Build-a-Bear.  And Eli and Dylan sat down to teach Alvin to play the piano.

And then we were off to a celebratory lunch.  At GB's Fish and Chips, of course.  The staff at GB's gave all the kids stickers; Eli's cousin Bailey affixed hers to her suitcase, along with lots of other stickers she's collected on her travels.

Eli followed suit, putting his sticker on the backpack in which he stores all his most important possessions.

The following Monday, Eli wore his Saint Christopher medal to school for show and tell.  He was so eager to share it with his teacher and classmates.  While playing after school, the delicate chain broke.  He thankfully did not lose the medal, so we'll be hunting for a new chain or cord on which to hang the medal.

Because he loves it and I love seeing it on him.  To me, it's more than a symbol of our faith.  

It's a symbol of our family.