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!

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.

*****

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.

*****

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.

*****

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.

*****

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.

Waiting for Little Goudeau

We got the email from our adoption agency a few months ago: “There’s a little girl, are you interested?” We were. We are. We are smitten beyond our capacity to bear. We have been matched in the system in China and we are now, horribly, eternally, unswervingly waiting.

I can’t show pictures for now and I don’t want to reveal details for awhile. My heart is gratefully relieved in some respects. I have done extensive research, both before and after this referral, about the China Special Needs program, our agency, the specific orphanage, the region, the director, the medical team, the charity that supports the children, the medical need she has–this is as ethical an adoption as we could ask for. It’s also a perfect fit for us.

While the debate rages online about how to approach adoption in an ethical manner, the fact remains that there are still children who need a home or they will grow up in an orphanage. Our little one is one of those.

Anyone who has been around me for longer than five minutes has probably heard my spiel, but I want to say something briefly about why we picked the program we did: In the past, China’s one-child policy meant that there were hundreds, even thousands, of healthy girls available for adoption. In the last decade, that fact has changed tremendously. The one-child policy has been relaxed (my understanding is that the enforcement of it varies by regions). Many people who are themselves only children are allowed to have two children; since that’s almost a generation of people, the amount of healthy girls being abandoned because of their gender are becoming fewer and fewer. In another very encouraging turn of events, domestic adoption within China is also on the rise. I talked with a pediatric physical therapist who just got back from China (where she evaluated our little pumpkin); she told me 30,000 kids were adopted domestically within China last year. That is fantastic and as it should be.

The demand for adopted children within China rarely includes girls OR boys with medical needs. While there are a few cases of baby trafficking and exploitation in the system (believe me, I’ve read about all of them–I’m a tad bit obsessed), in general, the China Special Needs program helps get those children, who face stigmatization and institutionalization in their home country, into loving international homes. It’s an imperfect system, of course, but good agencies working with good orphanages whose work can be independently verified mean that it’s also one of the most transparent international adoption processes on earth.

This matters to me because, from the beginning, I didn’t want to adopt children that were “poverty orphans.” My experience at Hill Tribers and my research into educational development make me convinced that the secret in many regions is to work on a holistic level to enable mothers and fathers to have better maternity care, economic resources, educational opportunities and community support in order to help kids stay with their families or relatives or villages.

Adopting a child from China because of the political situation and strict (though changing) socioeconomic caste system is very different from adopting a child from another area. And in general adopting special needs kids is very different from adopting healthy young ones. Many of my friends have made different decisions about their adoptions and I love and support all of them in what they chose to do for their families. Adoption is very, very complicated and I don’t want my words to imply that China Special Needs is the only choice–there is much, much more to say, but the reality of the choice we’ve made has hit home for me in the last few months. We are very much at peace in this decision. For a researchy girl like myself, that is a huge relief.

This is what works for us. This is the journey we’re on now. We’re excited and nervous all at once.

And oh my word, I cannot wait to get my baby home. We are all systems go. Now we’re just waiting on bureaucracy to get the green light to travel to China in November or December.

As if that weren’t enough, my dissertation is almost done. I want to defend before we go get little Goudeau and to do that, I’m going to work like a freight train on fire for the next two months. I turned a copy of my dissertation in to my committee chair several weeks ago.

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I don’t mind telling you, I was more nervous about that than almost anything I’ve ever done in my life. I’ve been writing on my own for almost two years (which seems to me, at least, pretty unusual) and my fear that I had somehow drifted off course or written terrible arguments had me convinced that they’d politely ask me to leave the program once I turned it in. I might have been a teensy bit crazy at that point.

(Dissertations turn people into purple minions from Despicable Me 2. It’s a little known fact.)

I got extensive feedback from my professor last night. It was really good, actually, very encouraging with some nice happy adjectives thrown in, but of course there are modifications in every chapter and an intro and conclusion to finish. And the bibliography.

Y’all. The bibliography.

Oh, and did I mention that Hill Tribers’ fall line launches soon? And our big flagship show, which my co-founder and I plan every year, is November 16? Artreach is awesome, but it is not a cakewalk.

So, in order to keep my sanity and to be ready when we ALL (that’s right, all four Goudeaus) go get our new little one in Shanghai, I’m going to take my own forty day break from social media.

No blogging. No facebook. No twitter. Not till at least September 22, when I’m planning on turning a copy of my dissertation in to everyone on my committee to get ready for an October defense. (You guys. My heart just stopped writing those words. I am READY to be done.)

After that, I’ll hopefully be back, full of righteous indignation and teary rants about injustice and poverty and all the happy things you always come for. I miss blogging terribly but there are just not enough words in my head right now and I need to protect what’s left.

Because that little girl we’ve seen in the videos our agency sent us, with her fat, fat cheeks and her forehead wrinkling while she concentrates, that girl is keeping me awake at night. That pumpkin is worth waiting for and she’s worth finishing for so that all we have to do when she gets home is schedule surgeries and plan therapy and just sit and gaze and get to know each other for a while.

Waiting for this little Goudeau is the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do.

Last Night in the Refugee Apartment Complex

I love that when I go to the apartment complex where the refugees live, everyone is outside talking on their porch to their neighbors. I took my oldest daughter, Noelle, to the apartments where many of our artisans live to recruit kids for a special project my college English class is doing this Saturday. We had permission slips in hand and we went from place to place asking kids if they could come. Some of them are old friends; some are new. It’s been a few months since I walked around these buildings and I love watching my daughter in action.

Five is a remarkable age, when she’s just independent enough to want to make new friends and stand away from me, but still wants me to be in sight at all times. She’s so comfortable here–while I talked to the moms, she played with Mary and ran around with Paw. She hit it off with a 9-year-old Kachin boy named Tom, who was not too boyish to be embarrassed hanging out with a little girl. They’re not far from the same height and they walked chummily together, swapping stories and laughing over jokes that are only funny if you want to giggle.

When Noelle fell and gashed her knee, I told her to cry a little bit, then try to be tough. We looked at it together and it seemed at first like it might be fine, but a small, determined trickle of blood ran down her shin and the sight convinced Noelle it was really, really painful. Finally we asked a friend for a band-aid and we went into their house to doctor it up.

The women we’d been talking to in one apartment had moved to another and without batting an eye, they made room for us, their children commiserating with my crying child. In a circle of refugee children and adults, we cleaned it with alcohol and band-aids. The children kept talking to her while I cleaned her knee. The scrape was deeper than it looks (it turns out the knee is pretty bad–not bad enough for a doctor, but a fairly deep scrape) and it hurt while I was cleaning it up. While her friends were watching, she tried to be brave, but when it became too much, Noelle buried her head in my neck in a futile effort to hide her tears and just wailed.

Every mother knows the difference between the dramatic cry and the real cry and it broke my heart to hear the depth of that pain for her little knee. We hobbled over to one more house and she was brave for a moment, but the knee started bleeding again and it all became too much. Almost in tears myself, I picked her up and carried her the last of the way to the car.

I can’t fix every boo-boo. I can’t cure every hurt. Today was the day we took her to register for kindergarten and the reality of that move hit me like a ton of bricks tonight in the car ride home. I’m so sorry to all of the mothers who have gone before me whose pain I didn’t quite get (c’mon, it’s kindergarten, not college! I would think). But it’s not that your child is leaving for school or that you need to control every moment of your life, it’s that this is the first separation, the first step in a life of leaving. And, while I’m so grateful for the independence and the grace that my daughter is developing, it’s mind-numbing how fast these days are slipping through my fingers.

On the way home, she started crying in earnest. We sang songs to cheer her up. She wanted me to sing the “Fruit of the Spirit” song over and over again; it’s one they’re performing in her preschool program this week. She kept coming up with silly things for me to substitute (“the fruit of the spirit’s not a ___”). Fourteen renditions later, we had established that the fruit of the spirit was not a variety of real fruits, nor a longhorn, a light, a big truck, a fence or a toothbrush. She was ranging wider and wider, eager to be distracted from the knee.

I looked back at her in her car seat and the look on her face was so familiar. Half the time I can fast forward in her life and imagine her at sixteen rolling her eyes in the same impeccable arc. This look, however, was pure six-month-old baby, staring earnestly at me with eyes that were piercingly blue because they were red-rimmed from crying. Her lashes were wet, but her smile was delighted. Despite the fact that, when we marched into kindergarten this afternoon she had turned down holding my hand so she didn’t look like a baby, now she was my baby, clinging to my every word, glued to my expression, watching me to see how to respond to this pain.

If I could, I would scoop her up forever. But those days are already fleeting.

I took her hand and held it while I drove and began the song again for the fifteenth time.

Confessions of a Recovering Perfectionist

My name is Jessica, and I’m a recovering perfectionist.

I had a perfect day once. I woke up early to work out. I made a healthy breakfast. I read books to my daughter for an hour. I played the piano while a bird came and tweeted on the fence outside the window (really). I ate lunch with a friend. I came home to put my daughter down for a nap and made a delicious dinner, which we ate leisurely. We all went to bed at a reasonable hour. There were no fits, not crises, no angry-Mommy-tirades. It was a dreamy day.

It happened in June 2007. My oldest daughter was six months old. Now she’s five.

Enough said.

I want to do things right. I want to be more patient. I want to be more whimsical and spontaneous. I want to play educational games with my kids instead of watching TV. I want to serve gourmet meals instead of heating up chicken nuggets.

I also want to spend time laughing with my friends over drinks while wearing sparkly earrings. I want to write a brilliant dissertation. I want to be the best part-time grad school instructor ever. I want to run a non-profit that quietly changes the world.

I want my life to look like this:

Source: The Container Store

Instead, I feel like it looks more like this:

Source: Houston Press Review of “Hoarding: Buried Alive”

My wise friend Caren told me when our daughters were tiny, when we first started visiting refugees, that she was a recovering perfectionist. (She has a gift for mantras.) The power of that statement grew on me slowly, like wasabi that you barely taste at first and then explodes in your mouth.

I decided then and there to join the club, to take the pledge, to start the twelve steps–I was tired of being a victim of my addiction to perfection.

Being a recovering perfectionist has changed me as a mom. It means I have to watch myself around certain places, like an alcoholic who walks regretfully away from a bar. I can’t spend too much time on Pinterest, that glittery land where perfectionists rule. I barely go there at all. When I do, I can feel the tension rising in my neck, the twitchy fingers aching to execute that cake or that sock puppet or that cereal box organizer. It means I limit my friends–I can’t be around people who might lead me back into my old life of guilt over my own unmet standards. I like best the people who are real, who don’t have time to judge, who couldn’t care less about comparing our lives.

It means I have to accept myself for what I am–a loving, devoted, active, engaged, flawed, impatient, learning mom.

Being a recovering perfectionist has changed me as a grad student. I admit this is hardest for me, because I work in a field where perfect is the accepted measure of work. To be anything less than a highstrung, obsessively devoted scholar and writer feels like a failure to me. I feel pressure to be the job, to live, sleep, eat and breathe the job. Except I don’t and I can’t. Though sometimes I still stare at a blank page, paralyzed by my inability to write dazzling prose at the drop of a hat, I’m learning that getting it done is more important than getting it right.

It means I have to accept that perfection doesn’t come instantly, but is the result of revision and great editing, whether in my dissertation or other types of writing. No one ever writes anything perfectly the first time.

Being a recovering perfectionist has changed me as a non-profit director. In this, I’m so blessed to work with Caren. We walk away from things ALL THE TIME. We don’t walk away from people–that’s why we’ve started this tiny non-profit despite kids and part-time jobs. But we do walk away from all of the “shoulds” that people keep throwing at us: how we should grow, how we should change, how we should sell products in this shop or that boutique, how we should streamline our process, how we should be doing what we do but better and more. We admit that we’re doing this poorly much of the time–neither of us can do basic math, for heaven’s sake. Our artisans are impeccable and driven and would make endless amounts of products if we’d let them, but we stop ourselves constantly so that our growth is sustainable and empowering.

It means we have to set limits and stick to them and accept that we are less perfect than many of the bigger, flashier or more influential examples we see. Slowly, inch by inch, we’re growing a non-profit that is rooted in relationships with our artisans, with our kids and families, and with each other.

Being a recovering perfectionist has changed the way I view myself as a woman. My hair is grayer and my eyes more wrinkled every year. My body is flabbier than I’d like it to be. No matter how many sit-ups I do (OK, not many), I still have to suck my belly into my jeans some days. My skin is pale and vericose veins form elaborate roadmaps behind my knees.

It means I accept that I am poweful and gorgeous and spectacular. Even when (or especially when) I don’t look in the mirror and see the ridiculously perfect and totally imaginary woman our society values. My body has birthed babies, my eyes are marked by thousands of grins and giggles, my gray hairs go along with the experience I have earned.  I value these hands that pat sleepy backs when I tuck in babies, these arms that are only muscular because I pick up squirming toddlers and stacks of books, these feet that have walked grooves in the nursery floor. I find beauty in this voice that sings lullabies, this hair that is usually back in a hasty bun, these unplucked eyebrows, these fading blue eyes, these dark circles that show that I work on things I adore while my kids are sleeping, these chipped fingernails that tap-tap-tap on my computer with an intoxicating rhythm. I see perfection in this body, lovely in its quirky imperfections.

Being a recovering perfectionist means that when I look at the future, I stop trying to predict what will happen, when my next baby will fly home with us from China, what job I’ll get when I graduate that will let me earn money while living out my crazy callings, what schools my kids will go to, what trips we’ll take to get away, what friends we’ll make, what house we’ll live in, what our lives will look like tomorrow and in ten years and forever.

I’m tempted to do those things; sometimes I do. I worry and I fuss and I guilt and I judge. And I also regret and get back on the wagon. Because living a life free of addiction and comparison and impossible standards is more important to me than being perfect.

Taking a Minute

Sometimes in the mad, mad rush of my daily life, giving my babies my all and squashing the rest in the tiny margins I leave, I  breathe in and am grateful.

It’s not easy, but I’m doing this thing. I’m raising these babies with this intriguing man who fascinates and pushes and engages me daily and who loves us enough to hold two girls in his lap at lunch so I could finish my taco in peace.

I’m writing these words. I’m teaching these students. I’m loving these women with whom I’m forging a beautiful and unlikely community.

I think that if little Jessica could have known those many years ago when she worried where she’d end up, she’d be pretty glad.

Walking down this gorgeous hallway outside my cube, in the cool of a spring evening on my way to teach, I felt deeply, deeply grateful to be this girl in this life with these people.

April Showers Bring “Meh” Flowers

This week I’m double-blogging here and on our Hill Tribers blog. I’m excited to share with you the stories of some of my favorite moms as we get closer to Mother’s Day.

We’re going to be featuring a few of our mothers in the weeks leading up to Mother’s Day. While many of our artisans have small children they stay home with, I want to start with Meh, one of the matriarchs of our group. Meh is standing on the right with her arm around her daughter Say, who serves as a translator for us, and occasionally as a model. Because she is both smart and gorgeous.

Meh's daughter Say models some of our favorite products

To the left of Meh and Say are two women, both named Oo. The one on the far left is Meh’s sister, the one in the middle is their sister-in-law. To keep them straight, we call her Oo the Second. They’re all part of a large extended family that moved here together–most of them have Meh as either their first or last name, so we call them the “Mehs.” Their family is part of the Karenni hill tribe, one of the many tribes targeted in Burma and systematically persecuted till death or exile. Meh is the oldest girl in a family with nine children; all but two brothers live here in Austin. They buried their father last year. Their mother is still alive, a tiny wrinkled woman who greets me with a large smile every time I walk in their apartment. She winds the yarn for her daughters while they weave.

Meh is a widow, the mother of five children. Her baby is still in high school. The oldest two daughters, Say and her sister, support the family. They are responsible, helpful, kind and communicative. They are the type of girls I want my own daughters to grow up to be.

I love the above picture of Meh because you see a glimpse of her as a mother. She is affectionate. She is loving. She is funny. She is also fierce. In the long trek through the jungle, while being chased by the junta across land-mine infested land, Meh had to help her sister deliver a baby. They stayed behind the rest of their fleeing family, just Meh, her sister Koe and Koe’s husband. In an abandoned hut in another ransacked village, Meh helped Koe bring a daughter into the world. The next day they ran together to Thailand and relative safety.

Meh brought her five kids up to be the people they are today. She showed them the kinds of sacrifices a mother makes in the face of adversity. She has been like a mother to her many nieces and nephews. She weaves every day in her home, like her mother and grandmother before her. Say and her sisters and brother still have a sense of who they are through the work of their amazing mother. Her artistry connects them to the past, giving them the roots from which they will grow in this new culture.

This week we honor Meh, as one of our favorite and fiercest mothers. We hope you will join us in honoring her too.

momsdaypromo

Raising Dirty Kids

We took our girls over to play at their cousins’ house the other day and they had a blast. It’s not because there were all kinds of toys and playground equipment in the backyard–it’s because the five oldest kids spent as much time as they could playing in a pile of dirt. They poked it with sticks. They moved it around with shovels. They saved insects and found roly-polies. By the time we were ready to go, my girls had dirt on their hands and dirt between their toes and they were as happy as two little clams.

I remember hot days playing outside until it was too dark to see, running barefoot through my neighbors’ yards, climbing trees and building forts. I remember the feel of unfettered freedom, of summer afternoons when boredom led to the most elaborate pretend games I could create with some carboard boxes and a handful of markers. I remember dust and bugs and skinned knees. I want to raise girls like with the same kind of dirt-in-my-fingernails childhood I enjoyed.

It’s become increasingly rare to find neighborhoods where kids on bikes ride anywhere they want. I don’t see many kids dangling from trees from their knees. I don’t come across pick-up games of soccer in the street.

Except when we go to visit our refugee friends. There, in some of the lower-end apartment complexes in Austin, I find kids hanging off of porches, yelling at each other in soccer matches, running to their friends’ houses, playing with chalk on the sidewalk, laughing, talking, and playing in a tumble of childhood that is really, really appealing to me.

I want my kids to be like these kids. I want them to know how to be dirty. I want them to be friends with people that look different from them. I want them to fit right into the sweaty, childish bunch.

And yet.

Many of the words these children yell are not the words my kids hear at home. The way their friends talk to each other is not in the same tone my sheltered pre-schoolers are used to. The subject these kids bring up are sometimes too adult for six- or seven-year-olds to ever be discussing, much less around my beloved and sensitive babies.

There are certainly times when I’ve intervened, and I watch my little girls like a hawk while we’re there. But I still let them run and play ring-around-the-rosy or hopscotch or paint their nails. I let them climb all over refugee apartments, hiding from their little playmates who watch them for how to play this new American game. I let them wander and get sweaty outside with their friends, some of whom are their age and some of who are much older both in years and experience. And, on occasion, they hear things they might not otherwise hear.

My goal isn’t to protect them from everything that could hurt them. It’s to teach them in age-appropriate ways how to enter the muck and the mire of the world, to see those who are dirty and different, and to be comfortable being their friend.

I want to be really clear–I don’t think the children we are around when we go to these apartments are dirty, or that their houses or dirty, or that their lives are dirty–I mean that things have happened to these kids I want to protect my babies from. War, divorce, poverty, drug use, abandonment, loss, pain–these are the things that have touched the lives of my kids’ precious playmates. These are the types of things no child should know.

In the last year, our oldest daughter has gotten particularly sensitive about this. There are a lot of times when I wonder whether or not we’re teaching her too much about the injustices in the world, but I’m not sure how to tell her about some things and not others. She’s obsessed with governments, who is “grumpy” (like Burma) and who is not (like the U.S.). She’s worried about our translator’s wife, who is still stuck in Malaysia because of bureaucracy, and wonders if that’s going to happen to her parents. We assure her it won’t, but she, like her mother, is probably always going to be stuck in the deep end of the pool. It occurred to her one day that all of her Hill Triber friends had to leave their country because of their grumpy goverment. It hurt her heart, but in a sweet way that’s made her want to help her friends even more.

While I would love to protect her all her life, I can’t, so I want to begin now teaching her how to deal with a world that is full of so much dirt. She will face it soon–elementary school begins next year. If time keeps racing ahead like it has the last five years, in ten more minutes she will be standing at a graduation ceremony with a lifetime ahead of her without us there to guide her every moment. Our time together is short and we are making the most of it.

Because when she stands there, I don’t want her to be a precious hothouse flower who has spent her childhood being sheltered from all of the things that make up life. I want her to be a hardy, outdoor plant who can spread her roots deep in the soil and weather a storm well. I want her to be independent, imaginative, confident, well-traveled, full of experience and ready to take on the world.

To do that, we have to get dirty together.

Dumptruck in a Disney Bag and a Clean-Up Dog

Our little Joy turned three last Saturday. Joy is a great name for her because she is so completely full of giggles. For her birthday, we went to San Antonio for the weekend because a family get-away sounded more fun for everyone than a party. We’re lucky to have a big family in town who get together for birthdays and have enough children to be a ready-made party, so we’ll have cake with cousins at the end of the month. We went to Sea World the day before her birthday on what was the weirdest cold and rainy day we’ve had in months–I love Texas. Of course it was 45 degrees on March 9. We went to the Rain Forest Cafe for lunch on her actual birthday and the waitress told her she was the jungle princess right before they sang “Happy Birthday,” so she’s been telling me she’s a jungle princess as if it’s a real role she has to work hard to fill.

When she woke up on her birthday, Joy just started giggling and she didn’t stop. She’s asked for two things for the last several weeks: a dumptruck and a clean-up dog. As far as I can tell, a clean-up dog is her own invention. She wants a real dog that will clean all her toys up with its mouth and vacuum for her (don’t we all?). In desperation, I took her to a toy store to give me a clue what she meant and immediately, she fell in love with this little creature:

Which of course makes sense, since the dog looks just like a dust buster. I bought her the cute broom and dustpan set and put them in a box. When she opened the Disney bag that held the dumptruck and unwrapped her weird little clean-up dog, she was so excited. I love her at this age–she knows exactly what she wants and she’s happy as a lark when she gets it. I only hope every birthday is as successful as this one for our quirky, adorable little girl.

My Own Privilege

To round out my seek of identity posts based on “The Awakening,” I just want to add that my education and my background and even my skin color give me privileges that I need to be aware of. So often I see blogs about being stay-at-home moms that don’t recognize the economic privilege that we have that enables us to spend most of our time at home with our kids. I work part-time, a luxury I choose because my husband has a lovely flexible job that enables him to also be with our children, and we make enough money to afford a home that, while pretty small by US middle-class standards, is enormous and decadent compared to most places in the world.

The first part of privilege is identifying it. I need to be able to say that I realize that staying-at-home, even part time, is not a choice most of the women in the world are able to make. And as a Christian who feels called to make a difference, I think I need to do something with my comparative wealth and privilege. That’s part of why we started Hill Tribers. It’s part of why we’re adopting. It’s also part of why we struggle to know whether we’re doing enough. Because while we look at the white privileged culture around us and think we might not be doing enough to “keep up with the Joneses,” in reality our lives are very, very cushy. And I don’t want to feel guilty about it, I want to feel proactive.

Identifying my privilege allows me to resist the desire for more and better and pushes me to use what I have to bless others.