Friday, May 30, 2014


Over the last few years, and noticeably the last few weeks, I have read about adoptive parents not wanting to stay in contact with or even talk about their child's first parents because it would be "confusing" for the child to have more than one mother or more than one father.

A and I experienced the confusion firsthand when we were in Ethiopia. But we managed to get through it, and I want to share how we overcame it.

Here's what happened. We were in Burji. We were having a normal, pleasant conversation. Then someone asked A a question about his father.

A looked at me. I looked at A. We didn't know which father he meant.

So confusing!

Somehow, I found the words. The words that melted the confusion away. Adoptive parents who fear confusion might want to write this down.

I said, "Which one?" 

Which. One.

I know. I'm pretty sure I'm a genius.

You know what happened next? The person said, "Oh, the Ethiopian one." And then we were able to answer the question. Because we weren't confused anymore.

I know what you're thinking. Which one. It's tricky. I mean, it's TWO words! What if you get them backwards and you say, "One witch?" And then there's the alliteration. What if you accidentally say, "twitch twon?" Or "flitch flon?"

But dear adoptive-parent-who-withholds-a-relationship-with-your-child's-first-family-for-fear-of-confusion, you can do it. Be strong. Be a warrior. Practice in the mirror.

Which. One.

The amazing thing is, that once you have mastered these words, you can use them in other situations. Suppose, for example, that you have three brothers. And someone says they are looking for your brother. You can say, "Which one?" Or say your child has two grandmothers. Someone asks a question about her grandmother. She can say, "Which one?" You can apply this phrase to literally any family relationship in which a role is filled by more than one person, and there will be no more confusion.

So dear I-just-don't-want-my-child-to-be-confused parent, now you can go ahead and send that letter to, hire a searcher to find, mention the existence of that other parent. Or is something besides fear of confusion holding you back?

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Ethiopian-inspired parenting

On our recent brief trip to Ethiopia I observed some things about children. The children that I personally observed behaved very differently from A in two ways: 1) they were much more obedient and 2) they were much more independent. That may seem like a contradiction, but it's not. When the kids (that I personally observed) were interacting with adults, they did what they were told quickly and without arguing. But most of the time they were not interacting with adults, at which time they did whatever they wanted. So ask Hailu to bring water for the guests to wash their hands and he jumps to it, but then he can go wander around town with no adult interference.

The way most Ethiopian adults that I observed acted toward kids was also different from how most American adults act toward kids in two ways: 1) they gave a lot of positive reinforcement and 2) they gave almost no negative reinforcement. When a kid did what she was told, contributing to the smooth running of the household, she was talked to, lovingly teased, hugged, included. When a toddler was cheerful, he was passed around, played with, praised. When a kid was standing around wailing, he was ignored. When A complained about being tired or bored, he was ignored. Not ignored in a deliberate I'm-going-to-ignore-you-until-you-change-this-behavior kind of way, more like not noticed. Like you might not notice a squirrel scolding you from a tree.

I suspect that my observations about children and adults are connected. Often children who do not receive enough positive attention misbehave in order to receive negative attention, because any attention is better than nothing. This way of interacting with children turns the behavior on its head - behaving to get attention, because it's the only attention they 're going to get.

My observations in Ethiopia made me adjust some of my interactions with my own kids. A and D each have a behavior that had been a challenge for me. For A, it is tattling on D, either by actual tattling or by scolding D while staring directly at me, waiting for a reaction. For D, it is continuous complaining:  "I don't want to, it's boring, why do I have to, I don't like it." And I had fallen into a pattern of reacting. For A, addressing the tattling, addressing whatever D did, telling A to look at the person he was talking to. For D, calming, giving reasons, distracting, threatening. Since our trip, I've been working on giving no reaction at all to these behaviors. A stares at me while saying, "D, why did you bump into me?" and I go on preparing dinner as if I haven't heard. D storms off into the other room wailing, "You ALWAYS want to go to the park! I DON'T WANT to go to the park! I DON'T LIKE the park!" (Note: D loves the park) and I continue filling the water bottle and collecting balls and gloves.

Of course I don't ignore them if they have a legitimate complaint. If D actually wrongs or hurts A, which he has done a handful of times, I will address it. If D seems genuinely upset by something, I will snuggle with him and talk about it. I am just referring to the knee-jerk tattling and complaining that doesn't seem to signify anything more than a bad habit.

I think I can say this adjustment is working, even though the boys are continuing their behavior. It's working because it's letting me stay calm and direct my energy toward meeting my boys' more real needs. In other words, their behavior hasn't really changed, but I feel I'm becoming a better parent. Maybe lack of reinforcement will eventually extinguish these habits.

So any thoughts on this parenting strategy? Is there any down side that I'm not seeing?

Friday, May 2, 2014

Ethiopia return trip Part 6 (back to Addis)

Day 10

Our last morning in the Ethiopian countryside was in Amaro. Dawitt's family has a coffee farm there, and we had breakfast with some of his brothers and family friends before they headed out to the farm. We also randomly ran into a woman on the street who spoke flawless English and explained to us how to make bulla out of enset.

After breakfast we started driving north. The road climbed and climbed. The view was beautiful.

In Yirga Cheffe we emerged onto the ridiculously potholed main road and took it north back to Awassa. There we went straight to the restaurant where we were meeting our friend Belayneh.

Belayneh is starting a business connecting adoptive families with families in Ethiopia. He is a trained social worker and a wonderful person. If you have a child from Sidama and are looking for someone to facilitate communication with family or help you plan a visit, I highly recommend Belayneh. His business is called Ethiopia Birth Family Connection and you can find it on facebook.

After leaving Belayneh we visited the brother of a friend here in the U.S. and then met four more of Dawitt's sisters and brothers (did I mention there are eighteen in all?). Finally we left Awassa around 6PM. We reached our guesthouse in Addis after midnight.

Day 11

Our last day in Ethiopia. A and I went for a walk from our guesthouse all the way down to Meskel Square. On the way we passed the prime minister's palace, the president's palace, Africa Hall, and great views of the city. In Meskel Square I took photos of the new elevated railroad that's being built. This city is growing fast.

Meskel Square
Dawitt and his sister found us at the Square Garden Cafe in Meskel Square. While we were sitting there sipping our mango juice, Dawitt casually mentioned that the balcony over our heads is where Mengistu Haile Mariam used to give his speeches. Creepy.

There was a big expo going on in the fairgrounds behind Meskel Square (you can see the first few tents at the edge of the photo). We wandered around a bit and I bought six kilos of spicy red crack berbere to bring home with us. Finally it was time to return to the guesthouse and pack up. Dawitt and his sister took us to the airport.

Saying good bye was hard. I will never, ever forget everything that Dawitt did for us. Before, I couldn't even imagine what a visit to our boys' family would be like. Now I feel like we can easily do it again.

And we will do it again. We'll stay longer next time.

Thursday, May 1, 2014

Ethiopia return trip Part 5

Day 8

Dawitt had proposed an excursion to Arba Minch, so very early Sunday morning we left Soyama and drove west. Several young people from Dawitt's family came with us. The road goes south of Lake Chamo and then turns north at Konso. Two and a half years ago, T and I had gotten our car stuck in the Segen River, but now there is a nice bridge.

 In Arba Minch we visited a crocodile farm, where crocodiles are raised for their skin. Unfortunately the boat tours to the wild crocodiles were not operating. We also were not able to see Nechisar National Park because we didn't have the right kind of vehicle. But we did visit the forty springs that give Arba Minch its name and spent a relaxing afternoon splashing in the water. For dinner we went to the gorgeous Paradise Lodge, which has a view of Lake Abaya to the north and Lake Chamo to the south. We drove back to Konso to spend the night in a hotel that another of Dawitt's brothers is building.
view of Lake Chamo from Paradise Lodge

Day 9

I definitely got too much sun in Arba Minch because I was exhausted and nauseated all the next day. In the morning we drove back to Burji and went to the school to deliver our donation of backpacks. I was able to stay upright and give a little speech. The principal called the top students to come and receive backpacks and I shook each child's hand and gave them their award. But then I really needed to sit somewhere cool. A wanted to stay and play soccer with the kids after school, so I agreed to let him stay there while I went to the home of one of the village leaders to rest. A spent the next couple of hours not only away from me, but away from any English-speaking person. An adult from his family stayed with him. This was a very meaningful moment for me, coordinating with A's Ethiopian family to care for OUR child.

In the afternoon we went back to Soyama. Except for a visit to a local development organization, I spent most of the afternoon in bed. Luckily A had kids to play with and relatives to visit with.

In the evening we drove one last time to the village to say our goodbyes. The mood was good. I think everyone was happy with how A is doing and felt confident that they would see him again before too long.

From the village we drove north to Amaro and spent the night at the house of yet another of Dawitt's brothers.