Friday, December 4, 2015

Staying strong in this world

This is what I'm doing right now to fight the despair I feel when I read the news.

We cut out and decorated circles to make an advent calendar Christmas tree. We call it The Giving Tree. On the back of each circle is an act of giving that we can all do that day. It starts out simple - give a hug - and gets slightly more involved each day - Pick up trash at the park... Give money to an organization that helps the local community (Planned Parenthood is at the top of my list)... Talk to someone you wouldn’t usually talk to... Visit a neighbor you don’t know... Clean up someone else’s mess... Skip a meal to see what it’s like to go hungry. Give the money you would have spent on food to a local shelter... Write a letter to a lawmaker asking for a more peaceful world.
I don't know if the kids will want to do them each day, but I'll do them and I hope that they choose to also.
It's not that I think these small things are enough. It's that I need to do them to live in this world.

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

Thanksgiving 2015

A's list
I am thankful for my brother because he is always willing to play with me and without him I would have to walk in the cold and I would be lonely.
I am thankful for my mom and dad because they take care of me and because they have a house.
I am thankful for education because without it I would get nowhere.

D's list
1. my family
2. my school
3. my friends
4. my house
5. my food
6. my cousins
7. my money
8. my car
9. my toothbrush
10. my clothes
11. There's a park nearby
12. my books

My list
My brother and sister-in-law, for hosting the whole family
Good food
My mom's continued good health at 78 years
Everyone else's good health, aside from lingering foot problems
Annoying each other in predictable, familiar ways. What if my brother wasn't too loud and I wasn't too strict? That would be weird.
5 mile turkey trot, 6 miles two days later
My husband as my new running partner
Football and tacos with friends from Burji
High school friend, in it for the long run

Happy holidays!

Friday, November 13, 2015

The age of reason

When D first came to us, he couldn't carry on a conversation. I'd ask him what shirt he wanted to wear, and he'd tell me that crocodiles have big teeth. In fact, I remember the first actual conversation we had. We were walking by the grocery store and he asked if dogs could go in the store. I told him about guide dogs for blind people and asked him if he could think of any other dogs that could go in the store. He said maybe police dogs. I remember being very excited about having a real back-and-forth interaction with him.

When D first came to us, he had missed out on having his own special adults in charge of him during a critical period of his life. Part of teaching him how to be part of a family again was to make it very clear that we were in charge. I heard from many people (who were not adoptive parents) that I was too strict and too controlling. But it was what D needed. At the age when other three-year-olds are just beginning to separate themselves from their parents, he and his brother were having to figure out how to live first in one orphanage and then another. He needed the chance to go back to that time for a redo and experience not making any decisions beyond what shirt to wear.

Yesterday when I was checking D's homework, as I always do, he explained to me clearly and calmly that turning in error-free homework was my priority and not his. That the worksheets that are sent home each week are repetitive, boring, and not important to him. That for him, "pretty good" on these worksheets was good enough, and that if he made mistakes, he wanted his teacher to correct them and not me.

Now we have a new homework routine in which I am only helping when asked, and I'm wondering when my little boy got so mature.

Update: This morning D fought off some ninjas in the bathroom and then scored a touchdown, so that little boy is still around.

Friday, November 6, 2015

Language at 3.5 years

Today our boys have been in the United States three and a half years. Here's a snapshot of their English language development.

A is above grade level in reading and in the highest reading group of his class. He's very good at spelling (spelling has rules and A loves rules). His spoken English is weaker. It could be because he started learning it at an older age or that his strengths just lie elsewhere (he is phenomenal at mathematics and at sports). He has some difficulty pronouncing multisyllabic words and some consonant blends. He mixes up the names of similar objects like spoons and forks or sheets and blankets. He sometimes needs more wait time to organize his thoughts before expressing a complex idea. And he has a tendency to say garbled sentences when he's excited. None of these issues affect day-to-day communication much.

D is average in reading and spelling but very strong orally. He has a bit of a Philadelphia accent and says, "wooter" for "water." He loves how words sound and likes to throw around hard names like "Sokratis Papastathopoulos." He is the only 8-year-old I know who uses words like "aloft" and "ye" in casual conversation. He has a good sense of how language is used in different contexts and I've noticed him code-switching between White and Black friends. Like A, D's language skills could stem from natural inclination, or the age at which he started speaking English (or maybe they're a result of his constant talking?).

Three and a half years, lijoch! Be'tam iweddeachuallehu!

Monday, November 2, 2015

Parts Unknown: Ethiopia

Famed chef and adult adoptee Marcus Samuelsson and his wife Maya take Anthony Bourdain to Ethiopia to sample the food and reconnect with family. Definitely watch this!

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Children's books about Ethiopia (picture books)

When the World Began: Stories collected in Ethiopia  by Elizabeth Laird. A nice collection of folktales with beautiful illustrations. Some are Ethiopian versions of folktales that appear in many world cultures. ✭✭✭✭

Trouble (Amharic title: Teklei) by Jane Kurtz. Story of a boy's adventures as he watches over his goats. I have read this book approximately ten thousand times. Written in English and Amharic. ✭✭✭✭

The Beekeeper of Lalibela by Cristina Kessler. A girl is told that only men can keep bees; she proves them wrong. Written in English and Amharic. ✭✭✭

The Lion's Whiskers by Nancy Raines Day. Folktale about a stepparent learning that becoming a family takes patience. Beautiful illustrations. ✭✭✭✭

The Lion's Tail by Jane Kurtz. Same folktale, this time from the point of view of the stepchild. Written in English and Amharic. ✭✭✭✭

The Perfect Orange by Frank Araujo. Folktale about a selfless girl and a greedy hyena. Beautiful watercolors. ✭✭✭✭

Fire on the Mountain by Jane Kurtz. Folktale about a brave boy and a selfish man. Written in English and Amharic. ✭✭✭✭

Silly Mammo by Gebregeorgis Yohannes. Folktale about a silly guy. Good read-aloud. Written in English and Amharic. ✭✭✭✭

A Saint and His Lion: The Story of Tekla of Ethiopia by Elaine Murray Stone. A 13th century Ethiopian monk rides a lion and spreads Christianity. Warning: Oromo people are referred to as "wild tribesmen" and "fierce Gallas" (pejorative). ✭✭

The Story of Coffee by Sultan Mohamed. Tells the story of how coffee was first discovered in Ethiopia. ✭✭✭

Tsion's Life by Stacy Bellward. Informational book about the daily life of girl living in Addis Ababa. ✭✭✭✭

E is for Ethiopia by Ashenafi Gudeta, Betelhem Abate, Atakiti Mulu & Dama Boru. Alphabet book with a picture and word (some English, some Amharic) for each letter. Nice photos and interesting, positive information. ✭✭✭✭

Journey to Ethiopia with Captain Addis & Hanna by Salamawit Gizaw and Mimi Abraham. Information about Ethiopia told in story form. Could have used more editing, but my kids like it. ✭✭✭

Ethiopia: A Question and Answer Book by Mary Englar. Informational book about the geography, history, and people of Ethiopia. A little bit dry, but better than other "countries of the world" kinds of books about Ethiopia. ✭✭✭

My African Heritage by Shegitu Kiflom. Very small, basic book about Ethiopia and Eritrea. ✭✭

Only a Pigeon by Jane and Christopher Kurtz. The story of a boy raising pigeons in Addis Ababa is not very interesting, but there are really nice watercolors of life in the city. ✭✭✭

The Shadowed Road by Wili Liberman. Graphic novel set in modern-day Ethiopia about a girl who runs away from home to avoid being forced to marry. ✭✭✭

Yafi's Family: an Ethiopian boy's journey of love, loss, and adoption by Linda Pettitt, foreword by Melissa Fay Greene. An adoptive family in the U.S. talks about how their Ethiopian son came to be adopted and how he now has two families. Sensitively and respectfully written. ✭✭✭✭

Our First Amharic Words by Stacy Bellward. Beginning picture dictionary. ✭✭✭

Friday, October 16, 2015

Clarifications, lessons, and some Karyn Purvis quotes

Clarifications, lessons, and some Karyn Purvis quotes relating to my last post.

#1. "D seems like a happy child to me. I've never seen the behavior you're describing."
Clarification: Ninety percent of the time, D is a really happy child. It's only during certain times of year that he struggles with fear, and even during those times, he has plenty of days when he seems to feel secure and happy.
Lesson: Trust myself to know when something is wrong. For a long time, I felt that focusing on D's moments of intense negativity was hypocritical. I worried about his bad moments, but if most of his moments were good, wasn't I doing exactly what I didn't like to see him do? But I couldn't let it go, and now I'm glad I didn't because I finally figured out it wasn't negativity, it was fear, and now I know how to help him.
KP quote: "We use the term 'real child' to refer to the core of highest potential inside a young person. It's always our goal to free up and reveal this inner core and to enable the child to experience his or her full potential as a loving, connected, and competent individual."

#2. "My kid does that, too."
Clarification: When I hear this from a biological parent, it's always from the parent of a 4- or 5-year-old. I don't have any difficulty identifying fear in a 4- or 5-year-old. Maybe D's emotions were harder to figure out because they don't match his 8-year-old body, intellect, and behavior.
Lesson: Try to not think about age. This applies to A as well. I had been after him to be more independent because he's been giving up easily and asking for help with every little thing, which didn't seem age-appropriate. Now I've laid off him and just give him help when he asks for it. Maybe it's what he needs right now.
KP quote: "To make genuine forward progress, sometimes it is more effective to let the child return to an earlier developmental level where he or she got stuck and lost... Put aside your preconceived expectations about your child's behavior relative to his or her age. At-risk adopted children may appear to be a certain age physically, but inside they are playing catch-up - emotionally, behaviorally, and developmentally."

#3. Why did it take so long to figure it out?
Clarification: No one has actually asked me that, but I've asked myself. The reason is that it didn't look like fear. It looked like out-of-proportion anger, negativity, and grumpiness.
Lesson: Keep reading and rereading the adoption books. I had not read any of my adoption-related books in a long time. The boys have been with us over three years and I usually don't think of us as an adoptive family anymore; we're just a family. But there is no statute of limitations on loss and fear. When I returned to the books, I found fear was discussed over and over.
KP quote: "Disturbing behaviors - tantrums, hiding, hyperactivity, or aggressiveness - are often triggered by a child's deep, primal fear. [Adopted children] can be physically safe in their new adoptive home, but past traumas encoded within their brains are easily reactivated. Hunger, abuse, or abandonment that occurred months or years ago can still trigger terror, which in turn leads to out-of-control behavior. Chronic fear is like a schoolyard bully that scares children into behaving poorly. Parents might easily confuse fear-based outbursts with... irritability, anger and aggression, but they are not the same thing at all."

Thursday, October 8, 2015

Big feelings

I've mentioned a couple of times that during times of transition (end of spring, beginning of summer, end of summer, beginning of fall, winter) D  has some "big feelings," and I want to write about what I did wrong with those big feelings and what I finally got right.

The main mistake I made was that I got the wrong feeling. I named it wrong. For months and months, I called it "grumpiness" and "negativity." I would look at my sweet boy and see a hundred things going right and one going wrong, and I'd see him totally lose it over that one thing. I'd see him not be able to get past it, for hours or for days. Small things: he had to wait five minutes; he had to walk a block. I'd see a little setback consume him and I'd agonize, "Why is he so focused on the negatives? How can I help him notice the positives?" I got books like What to Do When You Grumble Too Much. We set goals for positive thinking. He learned to say, "At least..." followed by something positive (my favorite: "At least George W. Bush isn't president anymore"). And the whole time, I had the feeling completely wrong.

I wasn't trying to change my kid or make him repress his emotions. I just wanted him to get a little perspective so that he would be happier. But since I had the wrong feeling - though I didn't know it - I didn't know how to help him. As a result, I tried a bunch of different strategies and the sheer number of techniques just compounded the problem. I tried ignoring, comforting, reasoning, I double checked diet and sleep, I used strictness, positive reinforcement and negative consequences, and at the end of the whole schizophrenic experiment, I had reached the end of my rope and he wasn't any happier. I got to the point where I wasn't even reacting to his unhappiness; I was reacting to the unhappiness I knew was coming. He'd collapse on the floor yelling because I wrote with a pen instead of a pencil and I'd zoom to an emotional high alert in anticipation of the yelling going on for two hours. It was bad.

And then one day, when I was re-reading The Connected Child, the clouds parted and the angels sang and it hit me. It wasn't grumpiness or negativity. It was fear.

OK, it wasn't dramatic like that. It was more like, "Could it be...?" So I decided to try something. The next few times D flipped out, I asked myself, "What could he be afraid of?" And then I guessed, out loud. I said, "The life guard blew her whistle and you are afraid that means you won't be allowed to swim" or "We said we're going to walk and you are afraid that it's going to be really far." I wasn't really saying anything that different from before. Before I might have said, "Look, we're just not allowed to swim here but we can move twenty yards over and swim there" or "We're going to walk half a mile. You've walked half a mile before, no problem." But now I was saying the words, "You are afraid." It moved the focus from what happened in the past or what is happening in the present to what might happen in the future. That's where the fear is, the not knowing what will happen in the future. The fear is that this one small thing will change EVERYTHING. Because it happened before. Maybe one day years ago someone said, "We're going for a walk" and that was what started the events that led to losing everything he knew.

I noticed a difference almost immediately. When I guess right, which is often, it cuts the storm down from two hours to ten minutes. My son is smart - in the throes of a meltdown he may not be able to articulate what he's scared of, but he recognizes when someone else names it. When I guess right, I provide him with the words, and he uses them to shout out his fear. Once he's done that, I give him some facts - not reasons that he's wrong or that his fear is unreasonable, but some facts that he didn't know. Information is the best weapon against fear. And after that he is better and we can make a plan for how to move forward.

This morning was a good example. I had told him yesterday that instead of riding the bus home from school today I would meet him at the school because I had a meeting for a committee I'm on. This morning when I went upstairs to say good morning I found him on the floor of his room, yelling about how boring it would be to wait for me at school, how he was tired of always waiting, how he wanted to go to the park, how I had pretty much ruined his day. So I asked myself what he could be afraid of. It wasn't rocket science. I asked, "Are you afraid we'll talk about you and you'll be in trouble?" and he immediately yelled, "I didn't even DO anything!" So I gave him some information about the committee, which will be planning some school events, and after that he was totally fine. He was fine after school too; he  sat quietly in the back of the room and did his homework while I had my meeting and then we went to get ice cream.

I'm not saying that this has solved every problem nor that this is how we will handle every situation from now on. He's eight, so obviously there will be times that he's just upset because he's tired or hungry or angry or disappointed. And eventually he will have to learn to name his own fears and get in control of them before they erupt. But for now, I'm glad to have finally recognized the big feelings as fear.

Saturday, October 3, 2015

Catching up #2

I almost fell victim to that classic blunder... say you're going to start blogging again and then forget to blog. Here we go, more catching up:

  • A's teacher wasn't able to challenge him in any way, so he spent more and more time in class just reading. Not an ideal situation, but his reading level jumped from The Magic Tree House to The Books of Beginning and Harry Potter. His writing also improved and he won the "Young Author" prize from his class. 
  • Spring finally arrived at the beginning of April. My absolute favorite time of the year, when the world and I wake up from our hibernation.
  • We had a baseball game or baseball practice almost every day. Both kids showed promise as pitchers, surprising no one.
  • Both kids also took part in a soccer clinic.
  • We had a big party to celebrate three years in America. The US-Pakistan-Ireland-Puerto Rico-Jamaica-Guatemala crowd ate Ethiopian flag cupcakes and painted Ethiopian flags on their faces.
  • My mom continued to visit regularly, making the long drive from upstate New York. Her relationship with my kids is very important to them and to me. She also continued to ask about my blog.
  • The school year ended and summer camp began. It was a challenging time of year for D, as transitions are always hard. Luckily he really liked camp. This year there was more music and dance than in the past and D loved learning to whip and nae-nae.
  • On weekends we did the usual summer beach, amusement park, soccer stuff.
  • We had various visits with cousins and everyone got together for the second annual family bike ride & camping trip on a rail-to-trail in central PA.
  • A's hair got long enough for corn rows. They really suit him. Initially we relied on friends, then on a professional, but I'm working on learning to do them myself. 
  • A finished reading the entire Harry Potter series. D listened to the whole thing on CD, and started peppering his everyday speech with phrases like "conjure a patronus," "oak-matured mead" (apple juice), and "searing pain" (the shower was too hot).
  • Both kids celebrated summer birthdays (10 and 8 years old). A had a party at a fun local park with friends and D preferred a day of beach and boardwalk with family.
  • My mom took her three oldest grandchildren (one from each family) on the trip of a lifetime to Alaska. My mom is 77 years old and the three oldest grandchildren are 11, 11, and 10, so we were all very impressed and she was pretty tired at the end of it. A got to see humpbacks, orcas, bears, moose and elk, and visit glaciers, and go on a ride with sled dogs. He had a wonderful time. D didn't mind staying home too much because he got to go to a new amusement park.
  • T got a job at a small biotechnology company, working on vaccine candidates.
  • I was sick for several weeks and was grateful that with T's new job, I'd be able to cut back on hours in the fall.
Now all I have left to catch up on is the last month.

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Catching up

First, I have to catch up with some of the highlights of the past year.

  • The boys started school. The transition from kindergarten to 1st can be difficult and D had some *big feelings* in October and November. In 3rd grade, A's teacher was always nice but did not challenge him at all. The previous summer, T and I had decided to hang back and not meet the teachers until the first parent-teacher conference in November. In hindsight, that was a mistake.
  • The kids played soccer and had some wonderful, wonderful coaches who nurtured both their skills and their self-confidence.
  • My friend whose alter ego is Superwoman got the whole family passes to see President Obama in Philadelphia. We stood about 40 feet away from him and I hollered like a thirteen-year-old at a One Direction concert.
  • We spent the traditional Thanksgiving at my brother's house in Maryland, something the kids look forward to for months.
  • My sweet puppy died. She had been with me for 12 years and was a far better person than I ever will be. She found the joy in everything, knew how to stand up for herself, and forgave quickly and completely. I still miss her every day.
  • As Christmas approached, the boys' brains turned to mush.
  • I took time off work, did some home repairs, refinished some floors, and painted almost the entire house. The kids each moved into their own room.
  • We gave A permission to grow his hair out. He had been asking for months but hadn't been ready to commit to the care that longer hair would require. He's done a fabulous job. It's helped that he's had several Black men available to advise him.
  • The kids played futsal.
  • T lost his job when NIH funding didn't come through. (In the last twelve years, the NIH has cut funding for science research by 22%.)
  • I went back to work and got a second part-time job.
  • A large tree broke in our backyard in a windstorm. T turned the stump into a cool treehouse.
  • It was a VERY cold winter and we went to Florida again.

Monday, September 21, 2015


Let it never be said that persistence does not pay off.

My mom has asked about my blog literally (in the literal sense) every time she has seen me for the past year. So here you go, mom. One year to the day, I'm starting again.

It's not surprising that I stopped. If you look at my blog roll, you will see that every adoptive parent who was blogging at the time that I started has either completely stopped or slowed to only the very occasional post. Most of us began blogging as something to do while we waited for a referral, wrote feverishly as we adjusted to our new realities as parents, and then felt less of a need as the adoption of our children became just one of many complicated parts of our lives. Also, adoption from Ethiopia has almost completely shut down, so there are few new people joining the Ethiopian adoption blog community. In fact, the only blogs I read that continue to update regularly are those by adult adoptees or those that focus on adoption as an industry rather than a personal experience. Maybe as I restart this, I'll find that my focus will change, too.

This is not just for my mom. My memory is shot, so I need to be writing things down anyway. And even though no one has commented on this blog for a long, long time, the stats say that people are still reading it, so I must have said something useful at some point, and with any luck I may do so again.