Life as a mama with two young ones has not been easy these days. It would take more time than I now have to explain, but let’s just say my hands are quite full and most days end with me sinking into an immovable heap on the sofa.
Our big girl turned four and is truly a marvel to behold. Every day I am awed by her uniquely creative and wily imagination. She builds complex structures and makes elaborate art projects (she can create just about anything with paper, scissors, tape and ribbon). Her memory is especially remarkable (she can remember details from before she was even two). And oh, the questions. It’s wonderful, really, her innate curiosity. We read books and tell stories and she learns new things every day. Yet she craves more and has an uncanny ability to figure things out. Her logic and analytical skills are developing right before us. She is unbelievably amazing, our big girl.
Sometimes I forget that she’s only four. Her language is so developed and she is so articulate that sometimes we have to remind ourselves that she’s still a preschooler. Like most kids her age, she gets frustrated and overcome by emotion, and sometimes can’t find her words. She still has tantrums. Epic fucking tantrums.
While we were preparing to build our family through adoption, I was cautioned by several people (including a family psychologist and other parents) not to attribute every troubling behavior to our child’s adoption. I took this advice to heart as it made good sense. Sometimes a toddler is just being a toddler. Most teenagers pass through a phase when they don’t like their parents (to put it mildly) or want to run away. So as we’ve struggled to deal with a tough phase of troubling behaviors that include the most challenging parenting moments I’ve experienced to date, I didn’t want to make any unwarranted assumptions.
Often there are clear triggers for the types of behavior I’m talking about. Hungry or tired children, for example, are more prone to tantrums. You can see it coming, sometimes. But that doesn’t make it any easier if you can’t avert the situation. If such behaviors persist by the time a kid gets to school, the child may be diagnosed with some behavioral disorder. Yet I’d go crazy if I thought about how this may unfold over the years. This could just be a phase. And I can only deal with the here and now.
Usually our daughter knows her actions will have consequences. She doesn’t like it, but we hope this helps her learn about responsibility. Love and logic. We try to empower her to make choices and be accountable for them. But in these moments, in the midst of an epic tantrum, there is no logic. The best approach seems to be ignore the behavior, if she’s safe and not posing danger. Ignore, and don’t engage.
This time it’s preschool pickup. She sees me coming but isn’t ready to leave. She’s outside playing and upset as it’s time to go. But that’s not it. She looks sort of angry — furrowed brow, pursed lips — and she starts acting out. It begins with leading two friends in a round of pick-your-teeth-with-wood-chips, and leads to drinking dirty water after looking right at me. Then she howls when I take it away. As the screaming begins, her friends gather around. She is out of control now and saying hurtful things. I calmly yet firmly tell her to stop and b r e a t h e, say it’s time to go, we’re not doing this now, we’re leaving. I begin the countdown, which usually is surprisingly effective. 5-4-3… She approaches me and — using her force, and wow is she strong — she hits my leg then tries to push me away. She screams at me to go. She is about to spit. Her eyes are faraway.
It’s hardly the embarrassment that bothers me, though I am mortified. This violent outburst is deeply troubling. While not the first, it does seem to be the first time that I am the trigger. I am the target of her rage. And that look in her eyes — it’s a look I never thought I’d see until she was at least a ‘tween.
I take a deep breath myself. I know I need to remain calm. I know she needs both love and boundaries. I know she will test me, challenging me to both continue to love her and keep her safe. But right now? Right now I too want to cry and scream and ask for help. But right now it’s just me, just the two of us, and we need to find our way through this. Here and now.
Does she know why she feels this way? Did I sense sorrow too, or just anger? Can she identify the source of her rage? She’s just four years old. She’s not yet equipped with the tools a bigger kid (hopefully) learns to deal with overwhelming emotions. She’s not likely capable of processing and articulating all she’s feeling. While I can’t presume to know what that is, I do believe she needs help grappling with some complex emotions that appear to be simmering at the surface, some gentle guidance and support as she begins to explore what she’s feeling. If I can help her articulate why she’s acting out, maybe she’ll begin to feel some control over her emotions and actions. Maybe.
Is she just upset about leaving her friends, as she has been before? Is she mad at me for pulling her away? Or is it something far deeper? Is she feeling some sort of profound sadness or confusion about herself or how she came to be in our family? (At one point she said I was making her sad but she didn’t know why.) Has she simply eaten too much sugar (which absolutely affects her behavior in this way)? I wonder if and how we might get to the root of the problem. We may never know, or we may need help. I’m grasping here, a mama desperate to help her flailing, hurting child. I’m trying to hold it together for both of us. I’m really hoping I don’t screw this up.
She is still wildly out of control, and I need to do something. She’s not listening. She’s not being safe with her body or with others. She’s being mean and hurtful. She’s trying to hit me again.
Clearly she’s hurting inside.
Holding her baby sister, I take my big girl’s hands off me and tell her once more that we’re leaving, and I begin to walk away. She follows now but is still fighting. As we walk, I tell her that her behavior is unacceptable. She starts talking about something else, then I refuse to engage until we’re outside, alone. We make our way to the car, yet I know she’s only coming so willingly because swim lessons are next. She really wants to go and I’ve already said I don’t think she’ll be going. There’s no way I can let her go if she’s not being safe, not listening, not talking.
I take another deep breath — letting go of my own issues and insecurities. (How the hell do you parent through these episodes? what are appropriate consequences for a raging aching heart?) As I exhale, I make room for peace and calm. I create space for whatever will come next, and I open the car door.
This is hard.
Continued in part two…
Minutes before the day is new … midnight ~
Four years since the day she was born just after dawn ~ not yet ours though our hearts burst with love for this unbelievably magnificent child, and the amazing young woman who brought her into the world.
Four years ago we welcomed our daughter as a universe of love surrounded her. We were forming a new family ~ a beautiful one that defied and yet would be inextricably linked by blood, one that was chosen.
Four years ago I became a mama when this precious child was entrusted to our care ~ and every day since I have felt such enormously humbling gratitude.
From brand newborn to adorable baby and curious toddler, now in preschool and next year Kindergarten, our sweet girl is growing into such a marvelous little person ~ smart, clever, funny, creative, kind, sweet and strong. It will always be my privilege to share this life with her, to help guide her to become the person she is.
Happy 4th birthday, sweet Jaye ~ you make the world a brighter and more lovely place. We love you forever and ever and always!
I sang the book’s praise when it first arrived in the mail last month, with a certain thrill and sort of fear at seeing my words in black and white, on paper, when I flipped the book open to chapter one. By chance I landed on a page containing an excerpt from I post I had written over four years ago, just before our daughter was born, before she was “ours.” It was about letting go of fear and insecurity and embracing possibility and vulnerability. Ultimately that post was about opening one’s heart.
I wish I could explore all of the questions proposed by participants on this book tour. Though I planned to answer more, I only had time for two since my answers are long! Click through to see what others are saying about Lori’s book.
Holden encourages adopted parents to embrace an and/both mindset instead of either/or thinking, through a careful process of fostering connections of an adopted child to both first parents and adopted parents. Why do you think this approach helps a child “grow up whole?”
Excellent question. While I’d love to speak with authority on this one, our child is not even four years old and is only now beginning to ask questions about her story. But this approach just makes sense. Lori’s fundamental premise: that adopted children grow up with a split between their biology and biography, and that openness can help heal that split. Openness in spirit — i.e., talking about adoption, celebrating the child’s origins, embracing their first families, acknowledging loss, etc. — can help a child integrate these two fundamentally different aspects of themselves.
A child is born into one family, then raised by another. The child remains part of both families. Yet there’s a disconnect. The child’s first/birth family is still very much a part of the child. And the child is still part of that family, even though s/he’s not there. At the same time, the child is embraced into his/her new family and loved and cherished. Yet all the love in the world can’t make up for what the child has lost — i.e., the opportunity to grow up in his/her family of origin. It’s the one thing I can’t give our daughter, that experience. As full as her life may be, something is inherently missing. But I can help facilitate a connection to that sense of herself. When I embrace our daughter’s first family into my heart, I’m loving a part of her. When we embrace them into our lives, they become our family too.
My daughter didn’t choose to be adopted. The rest of us made that choice for her. She shouldn’t have to choose between her two families, where to place her love or loyalty. She shouldn’t be forced to feel a split in her identity, divided. She is not either part of their family or part of ours. She is both. Always both.
Of course I’m her Mama. And I can’t say it won’t hurt when she tells me I’m not her “real” Mama. But she has another Mama, too. That bond never ends, the love never stops. No one wins if we force her to choose, to pretend she exists in just one family. Most of all, she loses an important part of herself. Our daughter is both the result of her nature and nurture. We can help integrate these two vital parts of her identity. Openness takes away nothing from me, once I acknowledge there are certain things I simply cannot provide. Yet it could mean everything to our daughter, in that her first/birth family is a vital part of who she is. By embracing her birth family as extended family, our daughter shouldn’t ever have to choose between us. She may feel loss, but she should never feel split. Her love should not be divided but rather multiplied. Love is not finite or limited. There is enough to go around. She has a right to feel and express it all, and it’s our job as her parents to provide those opportunities.
As Lori wisely says in a recent post, shifting to a “both/and” paradigm properly puts the child first. “We encourage them to claim all pieces of themselves, those from biology and those from biography. We enable our children to be claimed by both of their clans.” An adult adoptee friend puts it more simply: “Not half and half…both things. The two parts are not mutually exclusive nor inclusive. Not 1+1=0…but rather 1+1=1.” She further illustrates the point with this example: a mother with two children is not half a mom to each, but a full mom to both; similarly, adoptees exist in both families at once.
Adoption was once associated with secrecy and shame. Like a dark secret hidden from view, negative emotions can fester beneath the surface which can cause problems later. As Lori writes, openness can help shine a light on that darkness, calling it out, validating those feelings and naming them. Trust and open communication about adoption can help a child approach his/her parents to discuss tough issues in a safe and supported setting, rather than feeling stifled. While we can’t take away or “fix” our children’s negative feelings, we can hold them close and affirm them and help them release those feelings so they don’t insidiously gain power and influence over their hearts and minds.
To me, that’s how openness helps heal. It places the child first, always, even (especially?) when it pushes us beyond our comfort zone. It broadens our definition of family. It supports our children as they work through what it means to be adopted. It helps them claim their full identity, as part of both families. And it means they never have to choose.
Lori talks about her journey as an adoptive mom from initially feeling threatened at the prospect of openness to embracing it as a way to help her children be whole. How important do you think her experience during adoption school (when she was ‘the baby’) was to her process?
The short answer: a little empathy can go a long way.
I can’t speak to Lori’s process, but I can imagine that in those moments — where she imagined what it was like to have been “the baby” separated from the only mother she ever knew — engendered great empathy. Lori’s heart was open enough to get outside her own skin and limited experience, to ponder the heart and needs of the baby. And that’s how we put children in adoption first. We focus on their needs, from before they are born and throughout life. [EDITED to add: Of course all parents ideally do this, adoptive or not. Yet parents through adoption have an unique set of complex issues and relationships to navigate in parenting, which warrant special attention and care.]
I know during our process, my heart opened to embrace openness farther and faster than I could have imagined before. Yet there is a difference between approaching openness objectively — i.e., envisioning it in theory — and subjectively — i.e., living it daily. I can be logical and analyze why openness would be beneficial, but nothing could really prepare me for those intimate moments, sitting with my daughter and telling her how she came to be ours. That’s not to say I shouldn’t have prepared for those moments — because I did, I practiced and started telling her story long before she could ever understand, for instance. Yet in those moments, looking into her bright eyes and feeling the weight of her body against mine as she seeks little bits of information, only that which she is ready to hear and saving the rest for another time, in those moments I want to hold her tight and wipe away the hurt, even the hurt she might not yet feel because the magnitude of her story has not yet been processed. But I know I can’t.
Instead, my job is to hold that space for her to feel and process whatever emotions arise. It’s acknowledging that the day I gained a daughter, she lost a mother. Even as her birth mama remains an integral part of her life, our daughter lost the chance to grow up in the same home. Loss is loss. Acknowledging this validates her experience.
In those moments, I am so grateful for the relationships we have with our daughter’s first family, and I hope and wish and pray they remain strong for her sake. I wonder how accessible her birth mama will be as our little girl grows up and her questions (and understanding) grow more complex. I think about her biological father’s side of the family, and I wonder whether there will ever be more, and quite honestly, I worry about it either way. I think about how one day, she will explore such profound questions and deep issues so core to her very identity. I try to imagine her head and heart trying to grasp the reality of having been adopted, of being adopted. And all I can do in those moments is remember to breathe, open my heart a little more, and let it grow to make room for all of it.
Empathy above all is a quest for understanding. While I can never truly understand what it means to be an adopted child, I can seek understanding by opening my heart to our daughter as she discovers and experiences what it means for her. When I focus on her, everything becomes more clear. This is true now, just as it was before she was born. When I could set aside my longing to become a mama and focus instead on the well-being of the child yet-to-be-born, her interests and needs came first and it became clear what I needed to do. I can only hope the same internal compass will guide me as she grows, along with her understanding of her own story.
I suppose it’s no surprise that I’ve found it so difficult to write about my girls here. What once began as a blog about infertility and loss sort of shifted to adoption, parenting and openness, then morphed into unexpected high-risk pregnancy and life with a preemie and now as an older mama of two amazing children with their own individual stories, which I try not to share here.
Like our girls, I suppose this blog has its own unique story, too.
It’s not that I don’t want to write about my kids, really. While I know that some passing through on their journey might find it difficult to read about parenting — I know I did, at times — I’ve always known that I needed this space to process my thoughts and experiences, and I’ve tried to be sensitive. It’s partly that I’ve tried to respect my family’s privacy by not sharing too much, especially the parts that are not mine alone. Plus I have a far too neglected family blog at which I can share stories and photos for loved ones, though I haven’t updated it in ages (because I’m a bad blogger). And let’s face it, I’m pretty exhausted from caring for a high-needs infant and very energetic preschooler at age 43 (almost 44!), while trying to make room for a few hours of work when I can get it.
Sometimes though, it’s because I can’t find the words. Or I’m not ready to utter them. Or I haven’t yet processed the thoughts to articulate the words and commit them to writing.
Today Baby Z is 18 months old, according to her adjusted age; she is actually closer to 20 months, given her birth date. I still balk when someone asks how old she is, not knowing whether to explain the fact of her size or abilities for her age. Sometimes when I share her actual age I add “she’s small” or “she was early” and sometimes I don’t. Eventually I won’t feel the need to.
Like her big sister, Baby Z is an amazing light force in our family. Her eyes smile when she’s happy, her laughter is infectious, she is affectionate and adored by all who meet her. I can’t even explain how this experience has affected me — i.e., this privilege of having a second child after giving up all hope of a sibling for Jaye, and a chance to do it again. It is beyond measure, how blessed I feel to have this baby in our lives.
Yet she is also what we’d call a “high-needs” baby. She has never been a good sleeper, though thankfully she wakes less often now than before. While she is now on the charts for size, she has never been a great eater, to the point where she begs for snacks after meals, refuses to eat foods that touch each other, and wakes hungry in the middle of the night. Her cries are more like urgent demands and can be tough to soothe. If her routine is upset, so is she. She is super sensitive to different touches and textures (see also picky eater). And oh, is she stubborn. Not that we expected anything different, under the circumstances. This last trait she shares with big sister too.
As can be expected with a preemie, she has experienced some developmental delays. While we’ve been extremely fortunate that she hasn’t had major issues with lungs or eyes or other conditions common to prematurity, some delays have posed certain challenges. She was slow to roll and sit and didn’t crawl until nearly a year. Her crawl is really more of a “scoot” and has been for about 8 months. So while her muscle tone seems OK, her core is underdeveloped which impacts her ability to stand or walk for any length of time. Only now at nearly 20 months has she really started trying to walk, and she’d rather scoot as she can move quickly that way. And while I do love holding this baby — and I do love how long she’s been a “baby” — it really is time for her to start getting around on her own better. Her lack of mobility has fostered a strong dependence.
Her speech too has been delayed. Unlike big sister who had a substantial vocabulary and was forming sentences by this age — not that comparison is valid, given that each child is different and they don’t even share genetics — little sister barely has a handful of words and she doesn’t really use them. She mainly communicates using a few signs, by pointing and vocalizing, and by crying and screaming. Her reception and comprehension are just fine. She understands a lot. But her expressive abilities are limited which causes frustration for everyone.
While I’d been worried about the lack of progress, I told myself there would be no real cause for concern until she turned 18 months. Some doctors said she should be caught up by one year, others said two. So I went with 18 months, a milestone age for walking and talking. And yes, I know some kids don’t talk until age two, but given her history I was concerned and early intervention is best. So, 18 months. But which 18 months? Actual or adjusted?
Our girls have twin cousins who were born just days before Z. Our niece also had a high-risk pregnancy and we texted and chatted during our bedrest. We each delivered by c-section just three days apart. Her twin girls, born at nearly 37 weeks gestation, were bigger than Baby Z at birth (who was born at 33w3d). These girls have been walking since 9-10 months, which is literally half of their short lives. I know that’s early, but still. We had the pleasure of spending the girls’ 18 month birthdays together, the first time all four girls met in person. We had a blast, yet it was interesting to note the stark differences in the babies. When we came home I was resolved to get Z the support she needed and after her 18 month check-up I made some calls. The result: four appointments in a one-month period including three evaluations (speech, PT and neurological) and an assessment by a wonderful local agency that would provide services at no cost if she qualifies based on the extent of her delays.
Already I’m relieved that she has made so much progress walking since that first phone call and evaluation. She seems stronger every day and better able to take those first confident steps. The physical therapist gave us some tips to strengthen her weaker side, as well. We haven’t had as much progress on the language front, however. On one hand she seems sort of stalled in her ability to sign and speak and I was concerned about regression. Yet she continues to learn new words every day and her comprehension is remarkable. And we’re getting good tips from the therapists, even though we’re only in the evaluation stage.
I would like to believe that Baby Z is merely experiencing a normal delay, that she will get support and catch up and eventually be just fine. Yet I know there is a possibility for some long-term effects or some more insidious problem. Either way, she is an incredibly resilient child, not surprisingly. And I suppose we’ve grown pretty strong too.
So there it is. I imagine we’ll know more soon. Time will tell.