Joy Is a Wiggly White Goat

When I met Hela, she was heavily pregnant with her third child. She had no idea how she could help her husband support their family; she barely spoke English. We went to visit her in the hospital a few weeks later when her red-faced baby boy was just a few hours old. The doctor had taped a brown paper towel above the bed. Scribbled in blue pen was the word “Skoo,” which she told me was Karen for “push.” I can only imagine the stress she endured–no insurance, no language, no midwife, no family. Just her and a very young husband, bewildered and alone, pushing a new baby into this upside down new life.

Hela started working at my daughters’ preschool a few years ago. It’s the kind of job we want–decent pay, good hours, kind people. She’s home in time for her kids to get back from school, but she gets to be in a place where she’s valued and loved.

This past week they had a Western Day at the preschool and the babies dressed up in their cowboy/cowgirl finest. (Is this just a Texas thing?) Watching our new little one see baby bunnies for the first time in her life was sheer joy.

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It was delicious watching her delight that the bunnies were just right there. The picture doesn’t do it justice.

But then I caught this shot of Hela and it almost brought me to tears.

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Watching her holding a goat, a toddler’s pink cowgirl hat stuck jauntily on her head, all dimples and laughter, I realized how far we have come together. Not that everything in her life is perfect or that they’ve finally stopped being stressed, but the fact that this strong, confident, hilarious women is able to work and have fun and be herself is a huge, huge accomplishment.

It’s an arrival and a completion, a new chapter beginning and an acknowledgment of how far we’ve come.

What’s Not on My CV

My husband grew up out west in Brazil where piranhas live in the rivers and swamps. When the rivers dry up, pockets of water remain landlocked so the fish are stuck. The cattle during droughts will occasionally lose their lips trying to drink from a puddle filled with piranhas.

Those puddles seem like the perfect metaphor for the job market for academics these days, which is shrinking every year as far as I can tell.

I’ve been lucky not to have to go on the market yet; there’s been a lot of strategic maneuvering on our parts to figure out dissertation, adoption, small children, and work/life balance while I’m still in grad school. Sure, the pay is fairly terrible, but I’ve had some great flexible part-time jobs and I’ve had no desire, none whatsoever, to jump into that piranha pool.

But the downside is, I really love teaching. Love it like an addict. I’m an editor this year and I leave my office door open to hear the  discussions taking place next door. If you need me, I’m the creepy girl gazing longingly into the classroom window as students engage in heated debates.

So I’m polishing up my CV, rephrasing my job letter, and looking at postdocs and part-time courses in town for at least another year. Because I’ve watched my friends in the feeding frenzy that is the job market, I know it’s an exercise in humiliation and angst. I thought I was ready, but clearly I’m not. I’m currently breathing into a paper bag in the corner.

It’s hard to explain to anyone outside of academia why we go through these insane emotional hoops; my husband routinely shakes his head at me. It’s a lifestyle. It can be a cult. It’s an all-or-nothing commitment to a career that is prestigious in which we pat the ones who make it on the back and agree that we’re all amazing and smart (except for that person, because, you know, and the other guys, well, I heard…). It’s cutthroat and kind, it’s changeable and strange.

I still don’t know how I feel about all of this. I’ve spent almost a decade trying to decide what to do when I grow up and now the time has come to pay the piper. I’m going to try for an academic career for now, for awhile, to teach–but I’m ready to jump out of the puddle if I need to. I have no desire to eat or be eaten.

But I’ve realized in this process that, while I’ve made a lot of sacrifices that have affected my competitive edge as a grad student, they’ve all been very, very worth it.

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Here’s what’s not on my CV:

No hiring committee cares that I’ve perfected the lilted voice that keeps one fat Chinese baby entertained while I fix her morning eggs. I have developed a new way of stacking blocks so that they are almost immediately push-over-able in a way that maximizes hilarity. I have a methodology for extremely fast diaper changing; it’s revolutionary.  I speak a modified language of baby sign language, half-formed English words and Chinese-inflected babble with impressive fluency. I have learned just the right way to hold a wriggly body so that she starts to be still, then melt, then put her sweet head on my shoulder.

I have the ability to dispel monsters and zombies from bad dreams just by my presence on the bottom bunk. I can make compromises that lead to averted fits. I know with radar-like accuracy where the stuffed leopard, who is a constant companion to my middle one, ended up each night. I’ve learned to read just by looking when her face registers too much change from no longer being the baby and she needs to sit down in the middle of the kitchen floor and hug for a long, long time.

I’m an amazing coach for anxious first graders who still don’t quite know what the rules are but really want to be following each and every one of them. I can correct mispronounced words in chapter books from across the room or mold long lanky legs into my lap so we can read together. I’m able to help just-fallen girls breathe deeply as they huddle over scraped knees beside a new bike that still doesn’t behave the way it should. I can console a little one who is realizing, thanks to Frozen and fresh fears from a trip to a Chinese orphanage, that parents die or leave or are forced to choose and sometimes kids are alone and that bad things could happen to people she loves and that the universe isn’t the pristine place she thought it was and that it’s really, really scary but that somehow it’s safe when Mom says it is because it is and that’s what matters.

Those things are not in bulleted lines on my CV. There’s no category for these skills. There’s no space for my ninja-adoption-paperwork moves or for the way we’ve managed to make our marriage not just fine but so much stronger during this insanely stressful time. There’s no honor or award better than the hilarity we can make out of thrown food and fits or the way he looks at me with love and admiration when I’m still in my ratty pajamas at the end of a long, long, long day. There’s no line where I describe how I’ve learned when I need to hide in the dark closet just to breathe for a minute before going back into the whiny/needy/lovey fray.

Or that the great “distraction” of my graduate career (yes, I’ve been told it a number of times it was at best a distraction), these relationships with Burmese women and men making gorgeous art, is the only thing that gave me structure and peace in these long years of vacillating between babies and books and that I’d do it a thousand times over to realize that there is a world outside the ivory tower and that the real-life concerns of real-life people is infinitely more important than getting a publication in my fifth year or how many conference papers I’ve presented.

My family and my friends are the things that keep me grounded and keep me sane and they may never come up in a job interview, but clearly these are the things that matter.

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*Blog note: So, I was probably a little overambitious to start the Parenting and Privilege series right now. I didn’t realize so many deadlines would be landing this month and there’s only so much computer time I get these days. I’m pushing it off till this summer, so if you’ve contacted me about a guest post, I’ll be in touch in a couple of months. I’m really looking forward to it! Thanks!

Series Debut: Parenting & Privilege

Starting next week, I’ll be launching a new series on parenting that I’m very excited about. This will not be a series in which I tell you all the things we’re doing right; instead, I’m going to share some of our very real struggles with parenting our children in a way that pushes past our own privilege. I’ll define terms, get into the nitty-gritty, and yes, probably do a few top ten lists. If you’re interested in a guest post, tweet me or send me a direct message on Twitter. Looking forward to it!

HCHT tea party, CD version

*Photo by my enormously talented friend Constance Dykhuizen.

Harder in Practice than in Theory

We’re at the three month mark of meeting Fei; in many ways, it feels like yesterday but it also feels like time has slowed down. We are deep in kairos time right now–I barely watch the clock or know what day it is. Every day is slow, intentional, deliberate. It’s toddler time but in a whole different way than we’ve ever experienced it.

I was texting with a friend from our agency who just brought home her daughter from Shanghai. She wrote that adoption is harder in practice than in theory. That sums it up perfectly.

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Fei is sleeping through the night. That fact alone changes almost everything. It is much easier to have compassion on a raging, grieving toddler when I’ve had more than three hours of sleep. Looking back on those first few sleepless weeks, we were brain-addled and beat up.

Her first surgery was last week–tubes in her ears–and she handled it like a champ. Perhaps more importantly, she showed the real mettle of our intense attachment work: a woman whose son was having surgery reached down to pick her up (who does that???) and she struggled to get away from this stranger and back to me. I was thrilled that the little girl who would walk up to anyone knew that I was her mom.

We’ve been working hard on this.

At the same time, there are still so many ways in which she shows how difficult it is to transition from an orphanage to a home. We call her micu, which is Portuguese for those tiny monkeys (the bad guys on Rio) who are famous for grabbing shiny things before you even know they’re there. We’ve found Fei’s stashes under Jonathan’s sink, in my unused purses, behind the couch. We spend hours looking for hair stuff or remotes. She’s wily, our little Chinese chimpanzee.

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Two things that we are working on overcoming: Fei’s hyper vigilance and anxious attachment. The hyper vigilance is the cause of the many, many midnight wake-ups. Until I saw her body relax in our home over the last few weeks, I didn’t realize how tense and keyed up she had been. I’m not sure what changed, but she turned a small corner eight weeks after we met her. The difference was subtle but sure–she trusts us more. Not completely, but enough to allow herself to relax with us and sleep through the night.

I’m not sure I can express how grateful we are for that one change.

She is currently in the stage of anxious attachment; adoption experts talk about attachment in ways that are different from the granola movement of attaching to your babies. There is a specific spectrum that children who are from hard places follow (google Karyn Purvis at TCU or The Connected Child–her work is all that has sustained us so far). Anxious attachment is close to secure attachment, what my bio girls have where they’re confident they are trusted and loved.

But close isn’t there yet.

For Fei, anxious attachment means a constant testing of our love and commitment. It means calling out to me hundreds of times a day: “Ma! Ma! Ma!” Said with Chinese inflection and a lot of worry, it’s cute at 8 in the morning but by 8 at night, I’m done. It’s a constant noise in my day. Add to that a whiny dog and two other small children who are not afraid to let their needs be known and you get a small picture of my day. Then add the fact that we’ve had 500 snow days (with no actual snow) this winter and you can see why I sometimes feel totally done.

It’s an intense life we’re leading right now.

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There’s no way to fully express the distress, the emotions, the joys and the griefs of these first few weeks. I know because I’ve read everything there is to read on the subject and I still feel woefully unprepared. I feel so sorry for people who stumble into older child adoption for whatever reason; we’ve been preparing for this season for years and years and still it has toppled us like a ton of bricks.

Though it’s getting better slowly, most days I have very few resources left. Everything I have is poured into the love-starved heart of this little girl who needs to know we’re here–RIGHT HERE ALWAYS–and her two sisters who need to know they’re still important to us. Routines take on a weight they never have before. My tone has to be even. I strive every moment to be both kind and firm. My eyes have to convey love when I discipline even when I’m exhausted beyond measure. To do this while still working or cleaning the house or writing thank you notes is more than I can accomplish most days.

It’s a big deal that I get everyone fed, dressed, and out the door on any given morning. And  believe me, I totally celebrate if everyone has on socks that match.

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To be completely honest, I’ve heard from so many people that it’s like adding a newborn to our home (it’s not–it’s like adding an adopted toddler to our home) or that I just need to let the house go (which means I’d break my feet on all the thousands of small plastic things) or that I just need to embrace this season (I am, but it’s hard and sad too) to the point where I’m pretty done with extra advice. I knew all the answers before we started down this path. Nothing has changed. I know what I need to do.

I’m an expert on the theory behind this sort of intentional parenting.

To do it is something  different.

I see it in the tired eyes of fellow adoptive moms sometimes, the whispered comments that you haven’t ruined your family and that life will begin again–that’s the relief and the hope I need right now. I’ll say it up one side and down the other–adoption is not for the faint of heart.

It’s so, so worth it. It really is. When I come out of the room and Fei dances a little jig with excitement that I’m still here, my heart skips a beat out of love for her fat little face.

Or when my girls hug each other casually, like sisters do, while singing along to Frozen covers from youtube, I ache with the realization that we really are making progress.

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It’s worth it.

But it is much harder in practice than in theory.

In Praise of Earnest Nerdiness

Our oldest daughter Noelle (remember, I don’t use their real names on my blog) might be the most earnest girl that ever lived. Whatever she does, she does passionately, all in. It’s precious (and sometimes exhausting) to live with this spirited girl. In the midst of this hard season adjusting to having a new little person in our home, Noelle and her school gave us the sweetest day on Saturday.

I’ve written before about my daughter’s school. She got into the dual-language program at a brand new elementary school just weeks before starting kindergarten last year. We had no idea what to expect; no seasoned parents could tell us what it was going to be like. The first few days were chaotic–the school was under construction up till the very last second, teachers had only a few days in their classroom, parents didn’t know the routine. Within about five days, however, we started to see signs of an amazing efficiency emerging as the principal and teachers worked overtime to get themselves together. And it has been that way–seamless, energetic, rigorous–ever since. Some of the classes are designated dual language, some are English and some are bilingual (targeted only to Spanish-speaking kids rather than a mix), but the entire school operates with both languages all the time. Announcements are alwasy translated; kids are told to slow down in both languages. The teachers and students move fluidly between both.

Noelle thinks this is completely normal.

These are teachers that believe firmly in what they’re doing. They’re bringing a top-notch education to a neighborhood that has traditionally been overlooked. Noelle is one of four caucasian kids in her classroom; she’s definitely in the minority in her grade.

I’ll be honest, it’s exactly what we were looking for in a school.

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When we first found out Noelle got in the dual-language program, meaning all of her kids would have this chance, we were ecstatic. But as soon as we started to share this information, we had the oddest conversations. They were well-intentioned, I’m sure, but the undercurrent was the same–you have to watch what you’re getting into. 

Someone actually said to me at a baby shower days before school started that I’d really have to supplement her education because “you never know with those people.” I pushed back hard–what people? What did she mean? No, I’m sorry, I don’t know? People who speak two languages, like my husband when he was growing up? I’m sorry, can you say that again?

I left the awkwardness there because frankly, I was offended. To have children who understand that people from all walks of life are equal human beings seems like my highest goal as a mother.

Let me tell you the kind of education we (bilingual, multicultural, mixed-economic, collaborative, outside-of-our-tiny-box) people are working on at my daughter’s amazing school.

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This Saturday, Noelle and 25 of her classmates in the gifted and talented program participated in Destination Imagination. I’d never heard of it before, but let me tell you, it’s where baby theater and speech and band and choir and AP English nerds are starting off these days. Oh my word, the cuteness of little bespectacled babies with costumes and capes. I could die of my love of the earnest nerdiness.

Right in the middle of the group was Noelle, dressed like a reporter. She was on one of three teams from her school. Each team was mixed age, race and gender, as well as mixed language. Of course. That’s how we roll at Barron.

Noelle was the only girl; there were three “big” boys (3rd and 4th grade) and three first graders, Noelle and her two buddies. They identified a problem at their school and then worked hard to fix it–they decided that their brand new school needed a school newspaper.

So they wrote one. They researched and analyzed and pecked out articles over weeks on their computer. They wrote a jokes section. Noelle wrote about China. They interviewed the tallest coach in school. Some things were in Spanish, some in English, and it was all so earnestly executed.

They presented their newspaper and, after a few mediocre run-throughs, knocked it out of the ball park when it came time for the actual presentation. When they came out, the principal, gifted teacher and team coach were all teary. Even Jonathan was a bit choked up.

Noelle stood up, confident as could be, and said, “I’m a little girl. My name is Noelle Goudeau.” And then read her much-practiced story what was the same and what was different in China, where she got a new little sister.

I die of the cuteness.

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If it had ended there, it would have been sweet enough. But in the last round of the day, they had their second event–an impromptu challenge they’ve been sworn to secrecy not to share. The team coach worked to get the instructions read to the mixed-language team in both Spanish and English; the first languages of one of the first graders is Spanish and two of the first graders is English. We were all afraid that if it were in one language or another, that they wouldn’t be able to understand the more academic terms.

But it wasn’t allowed–the rules had been changed last year. Someone felt it gave the bilingual kids an unfair advantage (!!!) to hear the rules twice. Heaven forbid they should have more time.

So instead, the teacher reading the rules said them slowly.

The “big boys” translated.

In their suits and ties, these children of working-class parents demonstrated their poise and compassion as they translated WHILE THE MAN WAS TALKING for their littlest team members.

The coach said by the end, even the judges were beaming–this is what intercultural collaboration looks like, with children who think that translating is normal, that working with other people of different ages is worthwhile, that being stand-up boys at an early age is something to be prized.

We were in tears by the time the coach finished telling the story. And you guys…they nailed it. They aced their impromptu challenge–in two different languages. Because that is how Barron rolls. And Noelle came out bouncing-off-the-walls excited and proud.

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Noelle came home last year and told me, dripping with her earnestness, “Mom, my teacher told me we were working hard at making our elementary school the best school in the world. I think we’re almost there. We’re really close.”

We couldn’t agree more. This school, these children and teachers, are a gift. My girls will always know that people who look different or speak differently are still the same inside. Those are lessons that can never be taken away from them.

And, by the way, their little team of overachieving underdogs won third place out of the whole region. Noelle wore this medal all day at school. This crazy toothless grin says it all.

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¡Qué orgullo! 

Le Mot Juste for 2014

Gustave Flaubert famously spent most of his life searching for what he termed “le mot juste”–the perfect word. He is the quirky king of meticulous writers, often spending days on one handwritten page while his peers pumped out novel after novel. But if you’ve ever read a good translation of Madame Bovary you know his obsessive focus led to tense, tight prose.

In a wordy world, it’s hard to remember when we didn’t just bleed words onto the page, wildly available to hundreds or thousands just by clicking “publish.”

I find myself still trying to put my thoughts about adoption and dissertation and the gale-force winds that all but tore us apart last year. I’d like a word for how I feel about writing or about work and what I’m focusing on in 2014, but I’m struggling to pare it down to one.

Here are three.

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Depleted.

I poured words into my dissertation, into blog posts, into paperwork, into conversations, until there are so few left they rattle around in my mind like pennies in an almost empty piggy bank. Some words are sown like seeds and they lead to more words, more action, more life. These words took something essential from me and I still can’t define it to myself, much less anyone else.

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Fallow.

I need to leave words unsown. I need space to breathe and think. I need words that have no purpose, no drive behind them, no killer point or stellar argument. I need to play and rest and tinker. I need to let go and renew.

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Roots.

What Gerard Manley Hopkins called the “dearest freshness deep down things” is still there, I can feel it. But I keep echoing in my head what he said in my favorite of his poems: “Mine, O Thou Lord of life, send my roots rain.” I want to find freshness again. I’ve seen damage done so significantly to people, such deep burnout after a terrible season, that everything is gone, roots and all. I don’t want that to be true for me. I want to write again for the joy, not the ambition, of it.

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I have so many projects I’m working on, but I’m going to try to let them come slowly. It’s hard to turn down the drive after so many years of working toward a goal. But that’s what blogging has been for me and I’m going to come back into this space more just to share some thoughts. After the burnout of 2013, I’m hoping to relax and experiment and breathe a bit in 2014. I’m going to be working on things totally outside of my field or my expertise.

And I’m going to spend a lot of time playing toddler games again. Bring on the whimsy, 2014.

Grafting

(I intend to post a lot more in February. I need the rhythm of writing again. My dissertation took away all the joy of it and I want to get it back, Also, D.L. Mayfield has told me sweetly and sternly it’s time. So here, D., more for you with love.)

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I have often heard the metaphor of adoption as grafting. But it’s an odd comparison. Grafting for plants, as I imagine it, is a peaceful if incongruous process. It’s strange to put two plants together, to add a new limb to a different type of tree, but there’s no violence or pain in the act, unless plants have nerves that are deeper down than we can measure.

In the grafting of adoption, there’s more grit and verve. We are putting a limb where a limb has never been before. It hurts. It’s uncomfortable and cumbersome. There is a great deal of grief and loss for everyone. It’s hard to see the point, sometimes, of this process.

And then you see life begin to stir in what was a dying limb and you catch your breath in wonder.

She says “Ma!” and she means me. All over the house, from sunrise till late (LATE) into the night. “MA! MA! MA!” Over and over again, she calls me by my name that is her special name for me because she’s my daughter.

And she reaches up her fat hands to kiss my cheek, first one slobbery side and then the other, over and over in a repeated smacky game.

And life slowly seeps between us as we knit together more fully.

It takes time. But it is good.

The Special-Stressful

I keep thinking of Beowulf when I’m trying to come back to write about our trip to China and bringing our baby home for Christmas. In Beowulf, the speaker uses a literary device called a “kenning” to describe a noun with an adjective phrase, so the sun becomes the “sky-candle,” the ocean the “whale-road,” etc.

If I were to summarize this season, the trip and Christmas and all of the emotional and joy and heartache, it would be the special-stressful.

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This Christmas, our little Fei finally made it home from China. When I last wrote a blog entry, it was on the second day of our two-week trip. I fully intended to write there every few days. I have at least seven posts started, many of them almost finished, but I just never got around to putting them online. I will, I promise. It matters to me to finish those up. I so admire the moms (and dads, I’m sure) who are able to manage that trip, write meaningful posts, take darling pictures, keep everyone updated, and apparently also shower.

That was not our trip.

I’m ready to call it–this is easily the hardest thing we’ve ever done. And we have lived pretty adventurous, difficult lives.

It is also the best decision we ever made.

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Adoption is not for the faint of heart. I blogged a lot (and will continue to blog) about the ethical aspects that are some of the most important parts of the pre-adoption process. Post-adoption, I still want to ask hard questions and face hard truths. So I’ll be honest–bringing home an almost three-year-old with a life and a past and a daily routine and a determined personality is pretty stinking hard.

By the third day, we knew that we were facing some serious grief on the part of this little girl. Selfishly, that’s a good thing–it means she was well-loved and well-attached to her caregivers (she was so adored by those nannies), which means her attachment to us, when it does finally gel, will be secure. There are none of the signs of reactive attachment disorder or even minor attachment issues.

We know, compared to many of our friends both online and in real life, that we have it pretty good. In many ways, this feels like a textbook adoption.

And it’s still really complicated and complex and painfully difficult to navigate.

During the day, Fei is an absolute love. She cuddles, she charms, she smiles, she sings, she putters, she pats, she wants to be held, she makes faces, she mimics, she dances. We are deeply in love with her little personality–she’s a ham. She’s a pixie. She’s a snuggle bug.

At night, it’s all too much for her. The first night, her crying was sad and pitiful. It broke my heart. The second night, the rage hit. Bless her.

Bless us.

It’s beyond my capacity to be a good parent with so little sleep, much less to blog and write well about the experience. We traded off, but we had no idea what positions she wanted to be held in. If we did it wrong, and even when we did it right, she flung (flings, still) her body from one side to the other or back, with her knees bent, so it’s almost impossible to catch her before she crashes to the floor. We’ve gotten stronger and faster and our reflexes are better, but it’s like holding a live monkey and trying to calm her down.

There was no instruction manual for this little one.

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During this season, the special-stressful, a famous Dylan Thomas poem keeps running through my mind. Perhaps it’s because Fei’s fits magnified as we got closer to nighttime:

     Do not go gentle into that good night.

     Old age should burn and rave at close of day;

     Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Though Thomas is talking about aging, I think it fits adoption as well. What we are experiencing with Fei (though it has gotten better in the last three weeks, this is a long, long road ahead) seems to fit that first stanza. I think adoption SHOULD burn and rave at close of day. It’s all too much. No child should ever face all of the grief our daughter has in her short three years.

It’s just wrong.

In China, she only wanted to be held and walked. For that first week, when she barely knew us, when we smelled and looked funny, when her tummy hurt from new food and her skin was irritated by new clothes, when everything was totally off, the only thing we could do was pat her and walk while she raged.

Miles we walked in two tiny, tiny hotel rooms, trying to keep the big girls asleep, trying to give each other a break. Every hour or two, she was up for an hour or two. Jet lag was a joke–we didn’t sleep for two weeks straight. And we’ve barely slept coming back. I got strep throat. We struggled to be civil to each other, to meet our biological daughters’ needs, to be patient with the whining and the tears of everyone (I might have been the whiniest of all).

And at night I’d whisper encouragement into her ear: “rage, rage against the dying of the light.”

There is a grief so stark it can only be marked by throwing your body to the floor and raging at the top of your lungs.

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And yet.

This time has also been catch-your-breath sweet. Watching her giggle with her sisters. Seeing her hold her arms up for love again and again. Listening to her English words (“please,” “mama,” “nana,” “no”). Witnessing her confidence and her belly and her cheeks grow in the last three weeks.

She was loved, but she was one of many in that orphanage. Now she’s one of three very, very loved little girls. And we can see the difference it is making in her life. One of the sweetest things (which I will post about later) was watching her nannies’ joy at seeing her with us. They celebrated and smiled–everything we know is that her future in China was bleak. It was beds in a row and the lowest level of education and a name that clearly marked her as an orphan.

I can’t talk about the children we left behind. I might never be able to talk about walking out of that room with one and leaving twenty behind, not to mention the other rooms all along the hallway in the cold, unheated corridor that stretched on and on.

Having this baby home to walk around at Christmas time with fat legs jutting out of her diaper, sunglasses on her face, a Dora cell phone to her ear and a Christmas bag slung over her shoulder like a purse as she waves bye-bye, it makes me want to weep at the rightness of it all.

She has always belonged to us. She belongs here. She is ours. We are getting to know each other, but having walked through the fire of the first three weeks together, we are more bonded and blessed and blended than we might have been had all of this gone smoothly from the start.

With every fiber of my being, I can say, she is mine, just as much as her two blonde sisters who have had my heart for seven and four years.

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People text me or message me and say, “Isn’t it so fun to have her home for Christmas?” And it is, truly. But “fun” seems like such a small word to use for the heart-stopping rightness of her being here. And it can’t possibly touch the shift-on-a-dime feel of one sweet moment sliding into a full-body-throwing fit over picking up blocks on the living room rug.

The grief-joy of this time is intense and precious and holy and too hard to put into words.

The First Two Days

I don’t care how prepared you are for adoption (…or parenthood…or most things, actually), you can’t actually be prepared until you walk through the experience. We’ve read all the books, attended an intensive orientation, followed blogs, asked for advice, joined Facebook groups, and still–nothing prepared us for the reality of yesterday when we first met Fei Xin (that’s what they call her–I’m switching to that from Xin Xin.)

It was chaotic in ways that are hard to describe; the first few days are like getting on a roller coaster–not a Six Flags or Disney World roller coaster, but the junkie, shaky, falling-apart-at-the-seams fairground roller coasters that come to the wrong side of the tracks. We strapped in, we’re upside down and topsy-turvy, and we have no idea what’s around the next curve.

The guides and the officials know where the lines are, what comes next, where to be, and we are bumping along in a whirlwind of activity. Much of this is cultural–our sense of the rhythm of how things should be done is very different from the bureaucrats’ sense. I’m eternally grateful for years of travel and experience with bureaucracy, especially the time we lost our passports trying to move to Brazil. I had no idea how those outrageously frustrating experiences in Brazil would prepare us for the bumping along feeling of waiting and going and signing and stamping all of the things that come with bringing home a little girl.

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I had a hard time sleeping the night before our appointment Monday morning at 9:30–part jet lag, part nerves. We were up and ready at 5:30 in the morning, for what would turn out to be a long day. Our guide Zita is a gift; I love her intonation in English. When we ask her whether we can do something, she nods vehemently, “I think, can. I think, can.” We had a new girl, Amanda, who started training on her first day as well. She used to be a teacher of 3- to 4-year-olds and she’s been such a sweet presence the first few days, teaching our big girls Chinese phrases and drawing pictures with them. She and Zita have helped tremendously.

We ate an enormous, delicious, all-you-can-eat breakfast (which has been the absolute best part of our day, hands-down), grabbed all of our paperwork and our cameras, and met Zita, Amanda and our slightly grumpy driver (who smokes when we leave the van and sometimes shaves with what look like a big pair of tweezers when we pause in traffic).

First we went to the bank and exchanged money. The girls and I played “I Spy” and “Rock, Paper, Scissors.” The old man in the line next to us yelled so loudly at the poor teller that the guards finally came. Obviously something had happened to his money and he was really stressed. It was disconcerting and sad.

Then we rounded the corner to another government building for what will remain one of the most overwhelming and bewildering experiences of my life. We squeezed into a tiny, anonymous conference room with two other families, a couple from Hawaii and a mom and older daughter from Tennessee. Each of us had a guide and there were a handful of adoption officials; our cameras were ready but we had no idea if this was the room where we would receive the kids or what was happening. We held our cameras ready–Noelle had a pack of stickers, Joy had little stacking cups, and Jonathan and I had our cameras at the ready (the one thing I forgot to do–charge my camera or bring the charger–OF ALL THE THINGS. We’re borrowing a charger soon, but seriously, what kind of idiot forgets to charge their good camera to ADOPT A BABY? A tired idiot, that’s who.)

They shoved papers in front of us, we signed, dated, signed, dated, passed, nodded, smiled.

And then suddenly there was a little boy crying silently, deeply in the corner and his new mom was there with stickers and we realized that Fei Xin was coming into that tiny hot room where we all crowded around the table. Zita took Jonathan to pay the processing fees. The girls and I tried hard to give the sweet grieving boy and his new mom their space. The other adoptive mom and I made silly small talk. The girls were antsy and bouncing and ready.

And then Jonathan came back. Zita had my cell phone to take video. And we heard the voices around the corner encouraging her to come. “Jiang Fei XIn! Jiang Fei XIn!”

And she was there.

I wish I could load the video or pictures, but WordPress in China isn’t liking me too much right now. The video from when we arrived is hilarious. Zita took it. It’s all blurry. You can hear their voices–”Jiang Fei Xin, uh. Jiang Fei Xin! ….Ma Ma….Ba Ba…Ja Ja…” I have no idea what they’re saying other than introducing Mommy, Daddy and sisters. She came straight to me, held her sweet baby hands up, and just watched us seriously for a long time. She wore a little yellow panda coat that is already one of our most precious possessions.

And in the background of the video, you can hear the quiet cries of the little overwhelmed boy.

I’m glad she came to us so easily. You can see a lot of her personality in the videos; her nannies and Zita, who knows her, all say she really is easygoing and sweet.

And yet, it’s not a good things for a baby to go straight to someone they barely know. My older girls would never have done that at two years old. In the last two days, she’ll hold her hands out and walk straight to anyone. She’s a little love, there’s no question, but she’s a love who will need some serious attaching before she assigns her affection to the right people.

We have our work cut out for us.

***

The first day was easy. We looked at each other and smiled and played cups and teared up that she was here in the flesh and our daughter.

And then night hit. It’s clear this little girl loved her bed (when we went to the orphanage, which I’ll write about later, she walked straight to her bed and clung to it). When it came time to put her down in a strange bed in a strange hotel with a strange white family, she wasn’t having it. Not one little bit.

The way this little one can go from precious lump of love to rage-filled fit-throwing machine is impressive. The fit she threw for over an hour that first night was repeated the second day several times, most notably in the government office. We didn’t feed her enough at breakfast, we didn’t bring a big enough snack, and in the middle of the office while we promised never to abandon or abuse her, she threw a back-bending, screaming-Mimi fit.

We’ve learned, in two days, to feed her well, to make sure her clothes don’t touch her body and her obviously sensitive skin, and that at bedtime, she’s going to be very sad.

So even though the first day was easy, the second day might have been one of the roughest of our lives as parents. We never regretted this, of course not, but we looked at each other in the midst of the serious rage from a grieving baby, and knew we have a tough row ahead.

She’s darling. She laughs like a dolphin. She walks like an ewok. She loves rice and porridge and she obsessively loves her plastic stacking cups. She charms everyone who sees her and she writes on her Magnadoodle with her left hand.

She’s also in the midst of serious grief and culture shock. She perks up around Chinese people, especially when they talk to her, and she reaches her arms up to the waitresses at the restaurants and the guy watching the indoor swimming pool. She’s still not sure what to do with our big girls; one minute she adores them, the next she fights them for her toys or her bottle. They’ve been angels, but going from being the baby to the middle is really hard on Joy and moving from a little girl to a helpful oldest girl is hard on Noelle.

This has been really, really good. And it’s also been really, really hard. Two days in, we’re glad, tired, in love and digging in.

Trip to China, Day 1

Today was our first full day in China. We arrived last night around seven in the evening. It was my birthday; the girls picked out a gorgeous locket for me. They gave me an antique one last year and I’ve worn it out wearing it. I love my new silver one with space for four pictures. Though an overnight plane trip is not the most exciting thing, arriving in our daughter’s country on my birthday was pretty darn great

Our girls could not have been better on the plane; it’s as if they’ve been doing this their whole lives. They followed us without any fussing, enjoyed every meal, slept for hours, colored, read books, listened to music, watched movies—it couldn’t have gone more smoothly. Jonathan and I keep saying how glad we are that we brought them. I’m not sure we ever though seriously about not bringing them, but considering that this their very first international trip, we’re bursting with pride at how well they’ve done.

We were met last night at the airport by our guide Zita; she’s a very hip-looking, English-speaking young woman who studied social work and English in college and now gets to combine them in her work as a guide for adoptive families. She has an easy smile and wore great orange boots. I liked her immediately.

We took a van to the hotel from the airport, about an hour’s ride, in a small van with cotton covers on the benches that smelled a little like cigarette smoke and body odor.  The girls loved that they were able to just buckle up without car seats; Noelle watched avidly out the window, but Joy drifted off almost mid-sentence.

The city at night had a dystopian feel; the smog was thick and the bright fluorescent lights on buildings and bridges, one of the things that Shanghai is famous for, made the scenery seem like something out of Hunger Games or The Terminator rather than any city that we’ve been to. The buildings have a square, uniform feel that marks this city as different from Bangkok or Mexico City or Sao Paulo or any of the other enormous, anonymous cities where we’ve been. But really, big cities are big cities all over the world; it’s hard to feel like we’re getting a glimpse of “real China” when we’re on such a touristy trip in a hotel that caters to Western clients.

This is a completely different trip than any Jonathan and I have ever taken. My natural instinct is that we’re not going to eat at McDonald’s, we’re going to find the hole-in-the-wall noodle shops where the locals eat. Today we left the hotel to wander our neighborhood a bit and find lunch. We looked in some stores that felt more typical, but ended up at McDonald’s because of our girls. They were thrilled—they loved the chicken nuggets and the happy meals. They were fascinated by people on the street, but a bit disconcerted at how everyone smiles, points and waves at them. McDonald’s felt like an easy compromise for their outrageously good attitudes in every situation.

It also summarizes the differences in this trip: though we want to get to know China as much as possible for the sake of our daughter because we love her culture, this is a family-building trip. That means less adventure and more comfort than we’re used to when we travel.

Traveling is the thing Jonathan and I like to do with each other most, so it’s been fun to get back into our familiar rhythm and add our girls into the trip. Noelle’s personality (remember the girls go by their middle name on this blog) is to walk around in the front ready to get to the next place. As we were walking through the plaza area outside of the train station right by our hotel, she kept saying, “I just want a Chinese friend who speaks English and is my age and wants to play with me. Can we go find a friend?” That attitude sums up her personality perfectly. I cannot WAIT for her to go to the orphanage and get to play with kids. She’s dying to make friends with everyone.

Joy, though she definitely enjoys interacting with people, is a bit more in the background watching. Jonathan held her the whole time we were walking; we talked about trying to take the subway (we were too tired to attempt that long of an adventure), but she was the one who found the subway map. She watches and makes surprisingly insightful observations for a four-year-old. She has an old soul. I’m so excited to see her as a big sister; she waved at every baby we saw and she can’t wait for there to be a little person she can help every day.

Tomorrow is the day we meet Xin Xin (again, I like protecting my kids’ real names, so we’re using her nickname on the blog). We have felt pretty prepared in many ways for the experience by our agency (we adore our agency). I think everything should go smoothly. We’re packing our bags tonight with presents for the nanny, the orphanage director and the official who is helping us, plus bottles and diapers and the Ergo. It’s a bit surreal that tomorrow we’ll become parents again.

And yet, everything in our lives seems to be leading to this moment. Jonathan’s and my traveling life makes this just another of our many adventures. The way we’ve raised our girls, especially their experiences with the Hill Tribers and they way they run readily into any group of kids, is part of what I think has helped all of this seem so normal to them.  We’ve talked over and around this situation and we feel like we are stepping smoothly into this next stage.

I put the following status update on Facebook right before we left as we were sitting at the airport and I think it sums up perfectly how we feel: “The bags are packed, the lists are checked, the crib is up, the dissertation is defended, and the stockings are hung. The time has come. We’re on a way to get our girl.”

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We cannot wait until tomorrow morning at 9:30 (7:30 pm Austin time), when Xin Xin becomes ours.