The Grief is Real (The Early Days)

Series disclaimer: This post is part of a series on called Adoption is Hard that I’m running this summer. I believe adoption is so, so worth it and is a wonderful way to build your family. But I run in circles where adoption is often described in glowing terms and I think sometimes it helps to also pull back the veil and reveal the reality of what it can be like to parent kids from hard places–we were as prepared as possible when we brought home an almost-three-year-old daughter from China and it was still really complex (we don’t us our kids’ real names online, by the way). My hope is to give people around us in real life as well as pre-adoptive and other adoptive families a space to communicate in better ways about what is hard–and what is good–about adoption. 

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I’m beginning with the really tricky part. All adoption is born out of loss. On most days, the grief doesn’t come up, but it has colored every aspect of our lives since adopting our daughter. I wrote a blog post called “Entering the Grief” months before we went to get our daughter in China; we knew on an intellectual level what we were getting into when we adopted. We didn’t shy away from it. And we are lucky–our daughter was well-loved and well-provided for in many ways before she came home at almost three. Her grief at leaving her home was profound, which was a good sign of attachment.

It’s hard to explain that sentence: we were lucky our daughter grieved so hard.

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In China and the first few months after we brought Fei home, she slept in two hour stretches or less. She couldn’t relax her body. I have such compassion for her, looking back; she registered the shock of adoption in visceral ways. She sweated profusely when she was stressed, even in the winter, and often sweated through her clothes, soaking both of us in the process. During the day she played warily with her big sisters, who were over the moon to be with her, but at night the grief manifested as rage. I can still remember the feel of her rigid body throwing fits as I desperately tried to keep her from waking up the big girls in a tiny (TINY) hotel room in China. There was no use trying to let my husband sleep; both of us were always up.

Looking back, I have compassion on her, but I also have compassion on my husband and me. Those weeks in China were some of the most difficult I’ve endured. We had other griefs working on us; right before Fei’s adoption trip, some things happened in our lives that hurt us profoundly. We tried to remain positive with each other on no sleep with jet lag for two weeks in China then many weeks home after that. By the time we left China, I was so sick with strep throat I could barely move. We had to fly separately for visa reasons; it was amazing how a 20+ hour trip with a 6- and 4-year-old while I had a fever and strep throat felt like a spa vacation when contemplating my husband’s solo trip with a grieving, raging, non-sleeping toddler (the less that is said about his trip the better).

Needless to say, staying positive didn’t win. I’m still not sure how my husband and I made it through those weeks. They are a blur. I can say that we learned to fight well rather than fighting dirty, which, looking back, was a very big deal. If marriage is about knocking off each other’s rough edges as iron sharpens iron, we did more work in two months than we might have done in twenty years. We are closer, more committed, more flexible, more understanding, more able to listen to and love each other deeply because we walked through the fire of that time.

Fei had her grief, which she couldn’t begin to articulate and wouldn’t for months, but which ruled her every emotion. And we had our griefs. We grieved the dream of adoption, the precious multicolored family we’d always pictured, as we faced the reality of the daily struggle just to keep our new little one alive and dressed and regulated at least five minutes of the day. We grieved the loss of our easygoing family. We grieved how much time we had to spend away from our big girls. We worried all the time that we were hurting us, hurting our biological children, hurting Fei.

For those first few weeks, if I were totally honest, it was more like adopting a wild chimpanzee than a toddler. The release of limitations, the fear, the grief, the rage–the emotions poured out of our daughter’s tiny body in a relentless stream. I grieved the cute toddler in my head, conjured by the smiling match picture which I’d shown everyone, while contemplating the mind-boggling messes made by the raging toddler in my kitchen.

Those early days are marked by our grief. People often asked us, “Aren’t you so excited she’s home?” And we were. But that first Christmas, four days after we got home, I kept thinking of all that she had lost more than I thought of all that she had gained. I knew in my head that a family was significantly better in the long term than growing up in an orphanage, but I couldn’t help but sympathize with this grief-stricken little being. We could intellectualize and look at the big picture and come at it from several sides. She had no words but thousands of complex emotions. Every muscle, every nerve, was screaming at her that this was dangerous, awful, wrong. The two rooms she’d lived in for almost three years were, without any ceremony, suddenly stripped away. The crib where she’d stood and contemplated the world, where her friends were in easy reach, where her identity was formed, was on the other side of the world. The food she’d had every day three times a day in big heaping spoonfuls was gone, replaced by so many different types of food that her body couldn’t begin to digest it (we limited her food, but still). Her little friends and the aunties who cared for her, the ayis, were gone, unceremoniously, just ripped out of her life from one day to the next.

The markers of what made Fei herself had all been taken away by this crazy white family singing songs and playing games and trying to teach her how to open presents and sometimes sit still in a chair.

No wonder she responded like a wild chimpanzee. It was the only logical choice to make. And it was only the beginning of our journey of dealing with this grief together.

Adoption is Hard (A Series Announcement)

Adoption is harder than I ever imagined. We adopted our daughter from China 18 months ago and I assumed that I would blog about it the whole time. I wanted to write encouraging things about how well she’s doing or how we redeemed hard days, but I was paralyzed at the time. It was all we could do to make it through every day. Somehow we did make it. Barely.

As I’ve spent time thinking about it, I wanted to write up some reasons why adoption is hard. I’m going to write in generic terms–some of these things apply to our family but not all of them do. I don’t want any of our daughters looking back years from now and being hurt by things I’ve written about our family.

But the truth is, there’s not enough information out there about the real parts of adoption. Part of my goal is just to communicate to people around adoptive families: People still tell me often our daughter is lucky to have us or that we “saved” her. People still use the word “orphan” to describe her. People still ask me the most awkward personal questions about us or about her. People still tell me almost weekly that what my kid is doing is just the same as what their biological kid went through and really, all kids are the same (kids may go through similar phases, but kids from hard places have different reasons, motivations, and needs than non-adoptive kids). I want to write about what people have done well and strategies to do better–I genuinely think people have good motivations and just don’t always know what to do with us.

Mostly my goal is to connect with other adoptive or pre-adoptive families. I wish I’d seen more of the hard truths before we adopted our daughter. I don’t want to vilify adoption–truly, it is a wonderful experience. But in the circles I move in, adoption has become so glossed over, so pretty and holy, that there is no room to say what needs to be said: Adoption is muck and grime. It is searing. It is losing yourself. It is repeating “Gentle hands!” for the thousandth time before 8:00 am. It is getting kicked hard in the jugular. It is throwing your back out and limping around because your kid threw an epic, dysregulated fit. It is watching your child blankly at Target and losing all sense of what the books told you to do when she has a breakdown that is so horrific you’re afraid someone will call CPS. It’s looking at the days and weeks ahead and knowing that there will be no real break, no respite, no  rest, not for years and years of hard attachment work, and that you chose this life and wondering if you’ve ruined your family, your children, your marriage, yourself.

And adoption is also watching your brave daughter who, minutes before, had been so dysregulated you almost pulled her out of gymnastics class, whose muscle tone is still weak from being kept in a crib most of her life, who has such a hard time focusing, as she stands, legs apart, on stacked gymnastics mats and waves the coach’s hand away to jump, arms akimbo, alone. Adoption is that moment of catching your breath–you know how hard that jump was, how much control she’s exerting, how many muscles are moving, how miraculous each normal activity is. And you breathe a prayer of thanksgiving that she’s yours, that she’s home, that you had one good moment in a sea of exhaustion.

Adoption is so, so worth it. (And no, we haven’t ruined our family, our marriage or ourselves, but please don’t underestimate the difficulty of wrestling with those questions late at night.)

But adoption is also really hard. I’ll be writing out some of the reasons this summer.

A Beginning and an End

Hill Country Hill Tribers will end after Artreach this week. Our group began in the fall of 2007 when Caren George and I ran into a group of Burmese refugees at a fall festival. Seven years later, Hill Tribers has taught dozens of basic ESL classes, worked with more than thirty women, generated over $130,000, and sold hundreds of handmade products. Our children who used to toddle around together in English classes are now long-legged elementary and middle school kids. We’ve hugged and cried as our friends have moved away. We’ve celebrated with friends who have gotten good jobs in town.

At Artreach, our two lead artisan designers, Haung Nan and Nang Maji, will launch their own businesses. They have been sewing and tatting for months to prepare for this show. They bring gorgeous artistry and hard-earned business savvy to this new endeavor. They are so ready to launch their own lines.

We will sell the last of the Hill Tribers inventory at Artreach this week; everything will be at least 50% off. The artisans were paid last year for their products, so the profit generated from this year’s sales will be used as a start-up fund to allow Haung Nan and Nang Maji to buy supplies. We always hoped to end this way, with artisans who no longer need help because their English is good and their jobs are steady and their lives are deeply rooted. We started off thinking we might help some women who needed us, but we ended up just making lifelong friends with the most resilient people we know.

Last week we organized the last of the Hill Tribers products with some of our friends. We helped Haung Nan and Nang Maji tag and sort their items. We laughed at old jokes till we cried. We listened to stories of new jobs that ensure everyone in one family finally has health insurance.

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Opening the bins of bags and scarves, holding up each ornament, each necklace, each hand-tatted bracelet, we became a bit emotional. There are so many memories and so much hope woven into this fabric. We remembered the woman who always wove hot pink thread into each design, the quiet weavers whose artistic diamonds no one else could replicate, the weaver who was like a grandmother to our children and who left before we could say a proper good-bye. Their names and faces are so familiar, so dear to us. We grieve the passing of this season even as we are grateful that it’s here because it means that all of our friends are doing well. Join us this year in celebrating the end of Hill Tribers and the beginning of two beautifully crafted businesses by Haung Nan and Nang Maji.

Surgery, Post-Docs and Summer, Oh My

So much has happened since my last post. I always intend to blog, but this last year life has had other plans. Our daughter had her cleft palate repair in May.

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This is my pretty baby all ready for surgery. She was so sweet all day. It went wonderfully well, but she could only have smoothies for two weeks and eggs that were tipped into her mouth with the edge of a spoon.

Have you ever met a child who tips food into their mouth with a spoon?

Yeah. So the last few weeks have been fairly dramatic not because of recovery but because this little one LOVES TO EAT and that eating wasn’t happening in the way she liked and it was hard for everyone. Now that she’s on a soft food diet, we are all much happier. Four more weeks till she can eat chips and cereal, but at least rice and beans and chicken and eggs and oatmeal and fruit are all back on the list.

The day after she got home from the hospital, I interviewed for a postdoc for a year at a nearby liberal arts school. I love this school–it’s a rigorous academic environment on a gorgeous gem of a campus not too far from my house. So to be able to work there for a year and help them develop writing in the disciplines? Yes, please. It’s kind of my dream job, at least for now.

Mostly it gives me the chance to go back to work more than I have been but at an easier pace. Everyone will be in school in the fall, including the little one who will be in a special needs preschool where they’ll work on speech therapy and her developmental delays. So I find myself being much more of a free agent than I expected to be.

And it’s summer, with its weird blend of work then pool dates then work then park then work then splash pad then work then outdoor concert. I work and manage the most amazing summers ever for my kids–by the end of the day, I drop exhausted into bed.

But I love it. This year seems especially sweet. Everyone is home, (relatively) well adjusted, done with surgeries and the worst of the attachment grief. My big girls are an absolute joy most days and the little one is showing us more and more of her funny little self. It’s not perfect, but especially knowing that soon we’ll all be away from each other for good chunks of the day, we’re soaking up all the fun we can–playing with cousins and friends and catching fireflies in our back yard when we can.

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To My Daughter’s Birth Mother on Mother’s Day

Dear co-mother of our sweet little girl,

I realize in some ways this exercise is silly–you speak Chinese or a Chinese dialect. Someday I might meet you but the chances of us sharing a conversation in the same language seem very small. We’re looking for you–we’ll start the search soon–but there’s a very good chance the only thing we’ll know about you is the daughter that we share.

In some ways, you and I are running an odd kind of baton race. You brought this bundle of energy and joy and exuberant determination into this world. You were there when she took her first breaths. You made the hardest choice of your life, I would assume–to give her life and then leave her–when you’d only known her for weeks. I have no way of knowing exactly why you made the decision you did, but I can make some educated guesses. There are a lot of strikes against raising a baby with a cleft palate in China–financial, emotional, cultural, spiritual. Maybe someone told you she was cursed. Maybe someone convinced you that you wouldn’t be able to afford her care. Maybe the first weeks of nursing were so hard you couldn’t bear to watch her starve. Maybe the idea of having your only chance at a baby be a child with a cleft palate was more than you could handle. Maybe you and your husband made this choice together. Maybe you were alone and she was a tiny, fiercely loved secret. Maybe all of my romantic ideas are false–whatever the truth is, for whatever reason, you passed the baton when she was a few weeks old and you might never see the rest of this race.

The orphanage who took her in for almost three years did their level best, they did. Those women loved our daughter up one side and down the other. They thought she was precious. They laughed at her. They kissed her belly and her cheeks and taught her how to cuddle. They were good to her. I know it was hard, but you must have wondered what happened–it was not ideal, not one of our homes, but it was a good landing place for those years.

In some ways, I picked up the baton that magic day when I first saw her bright smile over the side of her crib in an email attachment. That crib was her safe place–when we went back to visit the orphanage, she ran as fast as her fat toddler legs could carry her straight back to her bed. She knew who she was in that small sleeping space. So it makes sense to me that her smile was happiest in her crib. I melted when I got that email–this darling little girl with the fat cheeks was immediately ours.

In other ways, the real part of running the race came when we brought her home from China, grief-stricken, Giardia-stricken, rage-filled. It was good, all of it, to get those feelings out, so see how loved she had been, to see how hard it was for her to be here. An easy transition would have meant she might not ever love us–the harder in the short term, the deeper in the long term, I think. I hope, at least.

But oh, you’d be proud of this little bug. The way she is learning and growing and changing. Faster than any kid I’ve ever seen, with a will to live and thrive that she’s used over and over again. She is driven and smart and funny and full of an innate joy that has to be hereditary. I wonder which parts of you I see in her–if the way she crinkles her nose comes from you, if she inherited that quirky little dolphin laugh, if she has your eyes or cheeks. Even if you and I were to meet and become friends, I might not ever see the private things about you that I’ve learned from parenting your daughter. There are secret smiles a mother or father sees that no one else ever understands and because I love those things about her, I love those things about you.

I’ve been surprised by my feelings toward you. I had a lot of book knowledge about adoption and birth mothers before I brought our sweet peanut home. I knew it was important to speak well of birth mothers and to stay connected to them if at all possible. I believe in the importance of open adoption. In fact, the top item on the “Cons” list for adopting from China is the difficulty of open adoption. Though we’re going to try to find you, we know that there are difficulties for you legally and emotionally in having abandoned your daughter and we want to tread lightly. The most important quality we’re looking for in a finding service in China is discretion. We’re going to do our best. But I know I might not ever actually meet you face to face. That makes me horribly sad. I thought there might be some secret relief, some sense of a crisis averted, but I find now that I’m getting to know our daughter better, that all I can feel towards you is grief and a deep desire for you to know how much your daughter is loved.

I love this little girl within an inch of her life. I grieve the three years that passed without me there to make her eggs right or to feed her yogurt until it (literally) comes out her nose (we’re co-mothers, we can make cleft palate jokes, right?). But as every day passes and she settles here more, I find myself settling into another kind of grief. This one will never go away.

I grieve that you won’t know her. I grieve that if you someday meet her, you will have some painful things to work through in order to have any sort of relationship. I grieve that I get to see the secret mother things you might never know. I grieve the ease of the relationship you could have had.

Your life would be completely foreign to me, in Shanghai in a high rise or in a rural setting in China. You and I would never have crossed paths. Maybe we would have bumped into each other on the subway and I would have winked at your fat baby in a snow suit that looked just like her dimple-cheeked mother and we would have moved on with our lives, strangers in an alternate universe. Extraordinary circumstances, life-altering tragedies and irrevocable decisions have brought us into this race together.

I find I don’t resent you being here at all. In fact, I’ve already brought you into our family. You and the father of this daughter we share are as much a part of us as you can be with the little information we have about you. We don’t know your name, we don’t know the details of your lives, but in a deeply intimate way we know the best parts of you. What you did was courageous and hard and irreversible and for the rest of my life I will grieve for you on Mother’s Day. While I get to celebrate with the handmade cards, I will think of you and wish there were a way to share these tiny life moments with you. But whether we meet or whether you’re alive or whether you’ve moved to some place beyond my ability to discover you, I want you to know that you are never, ever forgotten. You are central to us. You are here in the heart of my relationship with my girl. I invite you in, not as a competitor or as a replacement or as an idealized fictional hero but as a co-mother with all your faults and quirks and beauty.

This daughter we share is extraordinary. I love what I see of you in her.

Thank you.

Jess and Etta

 

 

Relentless

It’s been awhile since I’ve posted about our adoption. The five-month mark of meeting our daughter in China is just around the corner and I can honestly say, it feels more like five years than five months. In many ways, it’s hard to imagine a time before Fei lived with us (remember I’m ridiculously obsessive about my kids’ online, so my girls go by their middle names).

I look for Fei in pictures from when my older daughters were younger. I mentally calculate the parts of her life we were missing–this time last year, we were just a few weeks away from being matched with her. She was two, her paperwork was being processed. Two years ago, as we head to the same preschool program where she’ll be performing with the baby class, she had just turned one in the orphanage. I feel jealous of every milestone, every first step, every daily meal, every routine we’ll never know. So much of what we do know about her life is calculated guesswork–what she liked, how she felt, what happened. When the doors were closed and the cameras off, there are few things we can say with certainty about the orphanage where she spent the first almost three years of her life.

One of the things I can say, with all my heart, is that she was deeply loved. She knows what love means. She knows how to give it. She knows that she is precious–some part of her is wary, but she has none of the signs of attachment disorder, a rare gift for an institutionalized child.

But she is anxiously attached, especially to me, and that, to be honest, is terribly tiring.

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In attachment theory, anxious attachment is one step away from secure attachment, which is the goal for any child: to feel secure in their preciousness and confident that they are loved. Right now, if Fei could put it into words, the running track in her mind would be something like this: “You love me, right? You love me. You LOVE ME! You love me? Are you sure? Yes, you love me.” Over and over again, a thousand times before breakfast, we connect and reconnect and reconnect.

But all I actually here is “MA! MA! MA!” There is no off button on this child’s brain, no way to lower the volume of her mania for saying my name over and over again. When I sleep, I hear that same repeated sound with her nasal Chinese intonation that is sometimes whining and sometimes weeping and sometimes rejoicing–MA! MA! MA!

I love it. I love her. I wake up some days with a toe-curling delicious feeling that finally she’s home.

I would be super-human, however, if I were not completely exhausted. In the first few weeks, we cocooned. She had giardia and scabies and never, ever slept.

Our family was in triage.

Now we have moved into the ICU and things are better, but it will be awhile before we’re back. If you have not adopted a toddler or an older child, you might think this is unnecessarily complain-y. If you have, you’re just nodding along.

Bringing a child raised in an institution into our home is not unlike bringing an ewok to live with us. She sometimes understands consequences (if you touch this hot thing, it will burn you) and sometimes she just plays with the gas on the stove because she can and the room is so full of carbon monoxide by the time I realize what she’s been doing that I’m high by the time I can cross the room to turn it off.

Bless the darling people that keep telling me she’s like a newborn–if I hear “sleep when the baby sleeps!” one more time, I’m going to punch the wall. When baby doesn’t sleep and baby is actually three and she looks like a tiny pixie but she’s built like a little pistol, sleeping is just one more chance for her to be unmonitored for five minutes and dump the legos and break the dishwasher and pull the books off the shelves before she’s climbed the bench to stand on her tiptoes trying to pull down the lamp. Where I found her the other day after five minutes in the other room and ran, all patience gone, screaming that is enough is enough.

My friend Christiana came over not long ago and spent the afternoon with us. We did snacks and Spanish homework and played outside–just the usual fare. When the big kids were gone, she said, “I see what you mean. She’s cute, but she’s relentless.”

That’s the word for our lives right now. I want to be honest because it helps me to know we’re not alone when I see other adoptive moms blog about how hard things are. And I think it especially helps keep adoption from being idealized.

“Save the orphan” and “James 1:27″ and “147 million minus 1″ don’t mean much at 3 am when all you want is two hours of uninterrupted sleep, dear sweet Jesus. Or, after she’s sleeping well through the night (truly an answer to very real prayers), when you’d like five quiet minutes or an hour-long nap or just a chance to pee alone. Running errands to Target now feels like a trip to the day spa.

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And yet. Always the yet. Watching my big girls make room for their sister. Watching this fierce little spirited sprite learn and learn and learn. 80+ words in English in less than five months. 2 inches. 4 pounds. More eggs and bowls of oatmeal and servings of rice and dumplings than I can count. Running across the room now when weeks ago she could barely toddle.

The sheer miracle of loving a child I’ve known for less than a year with every fiber of my being.

The outrageous desire to do better by her tomorrow, to have more compassion, to see her for what she is, to hear her whines and shrieks and grunts as deep cries for love.

The unimaginable joy in seeing her in our family pictures, of feeling a sense of completion I’ve never experienced.

The highs and lows so impossible to explain.

Adoption has transformed us. It’s not always perfect and precious. She’s not a puppy, she’s a person. This is messy and exhausting and gritty and heartbreakingly beautiful. There are flashes of love so pure and clear that I’m closer to understanding the kingdom of God kneeling down on a dirty kitchen floor to wipe her grubby cheeks than I have ever been in my life.

Five months in, adoption is exhausted endurance riddled with raw delight.

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The Beginning of the End (Sort Of)

It’s spring and the refugees are moving. (I always think of one of the lovely poetic phrases of the Bible: “In the spring, at the time when kings go off to war…”) In the spring, at the time when the refugees move, everything shifts again. The Mehs, who were living down south, now live up north. Several of the families have already left for Dallas or Minneapolis or Kansas. I said good-bye to many of them, but not all. I’ve learned to hold our friendships loosely over the years.

There is one apartment complex where my refugee friends  have lived since 2009. We have had birthday parties in the parking lots, barbecues around the swimming pool. My girls have grown up playing tag with the children at least every few weeks. Last month we had dinner with some friends and watched the kids screaming with glee and bickering like old friends long after the sun set.

Man, these kids are goofballs.

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This is the complex where I fought battles with the slumlords and then the slumlords who came after them and the slumlords who came after them. There have been a string of malicious or incompetent managers and owners and we’ve been begging our friends to get out for years. But still, it’s the end of an era.

Every family that I know is leaving that complex. One family moves on Thursday. Another family leaves a week after that and the rest will be gone by June. They want to buy houses, but it’s expensive and hard, so they’re following the trajectory of cheap rent–further up and further out, away from the center of the city.

We used to rent an apartment in this complex as community outreach; we called it the VIllage Center. Now we’re using our friends’ place as home base. But when they leave, they don’t know if they’re going to live near all of their friends and we’re realizing we’re in a new stage again. It’s amazing we were able to last five years in this one apartment complex with the transient lives of most refugees.

But the biggest ending for HIll Tribers isn’t the fact that everyone is moving, it’s the fact that all of the artisans want a better job. It’s a good thing, to be honest–this has been our goal from the beginning. The time of triage is over. The crisis has passed. The women can speak English with us on the phone; sometimes I tear up just at the joy of having an easy conversation with Haung or Heh Ler or Nang. We laugh together over things we used to just gesture about. Their kids are older, in pre-K or Kindergarten, and they have more time on their hands. The refrigerator is usually full; they know how to call medicare or the dentist. The bureaucracy, though not easy, is at least familiar. They haven’t floundered in years.

We always intended Hill Tribers as a band-aid solution. We never thought these women would be weaving or tatting for their lives. We wish they could–their artistry should not be lost–but it is not really feasible. No women who could make a decent salary will be content with a small one. So we’re not surprised that the time has come when almost all of the artisans have moved on. We still have a few left–we’re with them to the end–but they’re getting jobs or moving away at a rapid rate.

We count it a huge success. We landed this little ship well. We ended up where we want to be. We’re sad but joyful all at once. We don’t know what this means in practical terms–we still have a lot of decisions to make about the future. But we’re celebrating that this community has landed on their feet. Believe me, it was touch and go for awhile.

It’s not the end, though, not really. We have long friendships and deep roots in this community. And the people that have stayed will probably keep on in Austin. In one of my favorite moves, several members of the community have been coming to our white suburban church for years now. They were Christians before–they’ve taught us more than we have learned–but they came because one of the leaders found a job at our building and he’s brought all of his friends. So now we’re talking about how to gather more often, in a weekly small group or once a month–they get together in class on Sundays and see each other on Fridays, but there’s a lot of hang-out time in each other’s apartments. If they’re moving, if the center is shifting, we’ll need to figure out what the next stage will look like.

So though Hill Tribers is winding down and the era of the apartment complex is ending, we’re also just at another change in our long-term friendship. We’ll weather this transition well; we’ve seen worse storms. We’ve been friends for the better part of a decade and we’re not going anywhere.

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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.

*****

*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.