Loving the Stranger Under My Roof

We had our family pictures today, which of course meant that we had to wear coordinating outfits. So my husband and I went in search of new coordinating clothing on our “date night” last night.

We decided that “the boys” would wear gray sweaters with bright blue matching Superman t-shirts underneath. The girls would wear gray sweater dresses with pops of hot pink. It was our first official representation of ourselves formally as a family. A pretty big deal.

On the way home, my husband and I chatted about whether we would wash the clothes before wearing them. There really wasn’t time to wash them before bedtime, and there certainly wasn’t time to wash them when we got up. So we decided to cut off the tags, and call it good.

The kids were delighted in their new clothes. We showed them how we were all going to match, and they thought that was hilarious.

I set out our daughter’s clothes on the ottoman in her bedroom for the next morning, and told her to take off her clothes for a shower because it was bedtime. I left the room to throw away the tags from the clothing, and returned to find her sitting on her new clothes, bare-bottomed, with urine running down her legs all over the new clothes, and even into the ottoman and carpet.

WHY?!

Was it because she had too much fun with the babysitter and was too busy to pee? This is her third wetting accident either while a sitter is here, or right after they have left. Is it because we left her with a sitter and so she is getting back at us? Does she have poor bladder control because of an infection, neurologic problem,  or is it just “normal” for her? I find it hard to believe that at six she is not fully toilet trained, when African children toilet train very early.

I must admit, I was angry. My husband was even angrier.  There was a bathroom 3 feet from her. She peed on her brand new clothes. To be so disrespectful of her new clothing is just baffling.

It’s this and a hundred other moments that I admit make it hard for me to love her. I don’t understand her. I don’t know who she is. The longer I know her, I realize the less I know about her. To strangers, she is a giggly little girl whose smile gets her anything she wants. But it’s just an act, and I know that. I know that as soon as I walk out of the room, the rules for behavior go out the window, and she does as she pleases. I know our sweet little girl is mean to other children at preschool and refuses to share toys. I know she can tease her older brother to the point of tears, and I can’t understand a word she says.

Even though she is my daughter, we are still strangers living under the same roof. I realize that I cannot love her in my own human strength. I need God’s love to love her through my hands, arms, and voice. It’s just too hard to love a child who is mischievous and misbehaving in her worst moments, and to not be able to trust her in her best moments. But she needs the love of a Savior who commands me to welcome her in His name. God, give me strength.

LOST

I used to love that show. Except for the first season.

During the first season of LOST, I was in graduate school, and didn’t have time to watch any television. I was so disinterested in the show that my husband would watch it in the same room when I was studying, and it wouldn’t distract me at all.

After I graduated, my husband asked me if I wanted to start watching the show.

“Oh, I could never catch up with the plot line,” I commented. “All I know is that there’s a bunch of people who crash landed on an island, and there’s a smoke monster, and a whole bunch of weird stuff that no one can explain.”

“That’s all anyone knows.”

“Oh. Huh. I guess I’ll watch it then.”

I became hooked, trying to unravel the mysteries of the island that the writers never quite fully explained.  Was it all just a dream? Were they in purgatory? Were the writers just trying to confuse us under the guise that they would explain it all in the last episode, and then got the last laugh? I guess we’ll never really know.

Our current situation with our little girl has me feeling, well, LOST.

Just like LOST, our initial trip to get our children was traumatic. In fact, so much so, that I have PTSD from our time in-country. It was nothing short of horrible. We fell victim to the corruption that is so prevalent in the country, and I have been paying the price in my mind ever since.

A traumatic start to any new relationship makes it difficult to bond. I am exhausted, hypervigilant, angry, and have frequent flashbacks.

I am disappointed in who I am as a mother, but I know that my kids cannot heal emotionally until I do, so I am doing intensive counseling and medication to get back to my “normal” self.

And then we have to find out what our kids’ “normal” is.

I especially feel LOST in this area when it comes to our daughter. The occupational therapist who tested her said that her motor skills are that of a 3-year-old, but much of her failure was on things she simply didn’t try. Does she not try because she isn’t there developmentally, or because she doesn’t want to be told what to do? Is she really developmentally delayed or just dislikes learning? We do know from stories from the orphanage that when the English teacher would come to teach the children, she would run and play rather than learning.

I have no idea whether to treat my daughter like a delayed six-year-old, or a six-year-old who is too interested in playing and doing her own thing to stop and learn. When she smears food on her face or wets her pants, is it an accident, or is it her trying to perpetuate the lie that she is four years old? Is her refusal to speak English more about a possible hearing loss, the results of a threat from her brother, lack of intelligence, or just stubbornness?

It’s very hard to set expectations for a child when you have no idea of their age, or their mental capabilities. And her mental capabilities cannot be tested until she learns English . . . or we find a translator for her African tribal language. (We’ve been entirely unsuccessful so far in this area.)

Until then, we are just LOST.

The Truth Shall Set You Free . . . Or Not

Since the truth came out, we’ve noticed that our kids’ behavior has changed in some pretty interesting ways.

Our son, who went from 5 to 8 years old overnight, has had much improved behavior. Dramatically. While we were having daily temper tantrums, multiple pouting episodes, and a not-so-subtle power struggle, those things have, well, disappeared. He did pout one time, for which he was sent to his room to think about his attitude. Ordinarily, being sent to his room would have resulted in a violent outburst. This week, he went, he cried a little, and then he changed his attitude and came out smiling and giggling at supper time.

Our daughter, who went from 4 to 6, has not been so appreciative of the change. While we hadn’t really focused on working with her academically, we are now pushing her like we have been pushing her brother. She does not like to learn, or be held accountable. But we are treating her like a six-year-old, and that’s uncomfortable. We’re treading on thin ice because we know she is developmentally delayed in her motor skills, and we are not sure yet about her intelligence. I don’t want to push her beyond her capability, but I was able to teach her to write her name in only 30 minutes with merely the promise of a bubble bath. (She’s not even been writing her letters.)

The giggly little girl who used her dimpled smile to get whatever she wants is now a happy, but pretty normal, little girl. Her attention has improved, she has learned much in the last week, but there is still some sadness in her eyes that she doesn’t get to stay four years old.

Aren’t we all a little sad that we’re not allowed to stay four years old?

Asking the Obvious

When the kids got home today, they knew something was up. I sent them outside to play while my husband and I talked. We hadn’t had a chance to debrief the news that our kids weren’t who we were told they were.

This morning, our son had spit oatmeal at me, refused to wear his jacket, and threw a temper tantrum all the way up to the point where he was climbing the school stairs, and he suddenly realized that it wasn’t cool to have a temper tantrum in front of 100 other kids. So he lost his backpack of toys and his jacket today for the way he acted.

I’m sure they were conspiring about how to run away, so I decided to break it up.

I called in our daughter, and asked her to sit down with me and look at her picture book. I took her picture book that we had sent to her in Africa, and showed her the picture of her in the orphanage. I asked her how old she and her brother were in the picture. I wasn’t too hopeful I would get an answer, since they don’t speak English, but she actually said that she was 6 years old and he was 8 years old in that picture. I made sure we were understanding each other. Yes.

I also got a good look in her mouth, and counted her teeth. She has her six year molars.

My four-year-old is actually six.

We started working on alphabet flashcards, and she only knew about four. Her preschool teacher said that she knew all of her letters when she was at school. So, like a good mom, I gave her a time out for not doing her best. Then I promised her a bubble bath with toys if she could get her letters correct.

She got a shower tonight instead.

My time out for her to think about how hard she was trying was strategic. I went out to her brother in the backyard, and had my husband ask him in French the same question: “How old are you in this picture?”

His head hung in shame.

We both told him that we will still love him if he is older, but we wanted to know what soccer team to put him on in the spring.

He told us (in French) that he was 8 and his sister was 6 in the picture.

Same answer, different child.

Confirmation.

The good news is that we now know how old our kids are. The bad news is that we are grieving. And we have to allow ourselves to do that. In 48 hours, we lost some good years. We lost 3 years with our son, and 2 years with our daughter. The fragile picture of our family, as dysfunctional and new as it was, has been shattered, and we now have to start over with new expectations, new rules, and a new plan.

Starting Over From Scratch

Over the weekend, I received a sweet message from another adoptive mom with children from the same orphanage. I have to tell you, the other adoptive mommies in my life have been nothing short of a God-send. Support, advice, camaraderie, and just a listening ear are all things that I’ve been given through my other adoptive mom friends.

One of the things that was in her sweet and informative message, however, hit me like a bombshell. Her daughter, who is now 8, was going through pictures from the orphanage, and telling how old she was and how other children were in the orphanage. She was remarkably accurate through the different pictures, even knowing that her age had changed while she was there.

She got to pictures of our kids, and said that when they came to the orphanage, my little girl was 5, and my little boy was 7. That would now make them 6 and 8.

Now, we’ve had huge questions about our son’s age. They told us at the time of referral that they were 3 and 4, which would make them now 4 and 5. But he is incredibly advanced for a 5 year old, and as the adoption physician remarked, “It is impossible for kids from orphanages to be developmentally advanced.” The physician said he could be as old as 9.

So to hear that he is 8 was a bit painful, but not a huge surprise.

To hear that our 4 year-old– who still wets her pants, needs a bib, can barely dress herself, and tests out at age 3– is age 6 is disturbing. But we can’t accept the fact that he is older, without accepting the fact that she is older too.

I always wondered why starving orphans were at the 95th percentile for height and weight from the moment they were dropped off at the orphanage.

I feel like I’ve been punched in the gut.

I’ve lost 2 years of my kids’ lives.

I’ve been deceived.

And either my little girl is extremely developmentally delayed, or she’s been pretending to be younger.

I talked to her preschool teacher today, and one of the things I told her was that we were going to be increasing our emphasis on learning at home. The teacher said, “Well, she knows all of her letters, colors, and numbers when she is at school already.”

She knows none of those things at home.

In fact, the other night, her brother got in trouble for not participating in learning during alphabet flash card time. When he was removed from the room for discipline, she suddenly got very smart and knew all of her letters. In fact, I got up, got my husband and he and her brother came back so we could show them how many letters she knew.

She couldn’t get a single one right.

There are days that I feel like I’m not cut out for this. This is one of them. My children have a pact with each other to not speak English, we are 99% sure. Now we don’t even know how old they are. Discipline and expectations for a 5 year old are much different than discipline and expectations for a 8 year old. The same goes for a 4 versus 6 year old.

My whole plan for assimilating these kids into our family and into our culture has just been ripped out from under me.

Time to start again from scratch.

Adopting “Healthy” Kids

When my husband and I started talking about adoption, we were really open to all types of children — ages, races, and even medical conditions. Since I am in health care, I feel like I’m pretty well suited for kids with medical needs.

Our agency, however, really only accepts healthy children, and we were immediately matched with two healthy children, even before our home study was approved.

So while it really didn’t matter, we were happy that our children were healthy.

But even for “healthy” children, our kids have spent HOURS at the doctor’s office in the last 2 months. At least 15 hours so far. Here’s what we know:

  • Our kids have a parasite that is considered benign in most people, but the doctor wanted to treat it anyway. So they are on antibiotics three times per day.
  • Our kids are TB skin test positive, but are negative for active TB. This means 9 months of antibiotic pills that have to be crushed daily and put in their food. We have to visit the Public Health Department every month for monitoring.
  • Our little girl has spina bifida occulta. She’ll need further assessment for neurologic damage.
  • They both have high lead levels. This will need repeated blood draws to make sure they come down in addition to multivitamins.
  • Our little girl is developmentally delayed in her gross and fine motor skills. We have to continue to monitor this, as she technically needs occupational therapy, but we are going to try putting her in more stimulating environment and reevaluate the need for therapy in 6 months.
  • Our little girl has high levels of hemoglobin F, which could mean mild anemia or thalassemia, and we’ll have to continue to monitor to see if the levels come down.
  • Our little boy is so developmentally ahead of where he should be, they think he could be as much as four years older than his stated age. We have to have a bone age done in 6 months to see if we can narrow down his age after 6 months of good nutrition.
  • They’ve only had a single round of vaccinations before arriving in the country, so we have to do vaccinations every month at this point.
  • And then there are the violent tantrums, which need to be assessed by a developmental psychologist. That starts in a week, and we all have to be there. We’ll see how often they want us to come back. I’m going to guess it’s going to be at least once per month.

Now of course, none of these appointments are after school. We have to pull our kids (who are already behind in school) out up to three times per week. And take off from work.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m glad our kids are “healthy,” but for being healthy, our kids sure have to take a lot of medicine and go to the doctor an awful lot! Turns out that our flexibility in adopting kids with special medical needs is coming in handy! I have to admit, though, that sometimes I’m a little overwhelmed by all of the medical stuff, in addition to the continued readoption paperwork, the loads of paperwork they each come home from school with each day, rearranging my benefits and financial plans, and working!

Discipline and the Internationally Adopted Child

I am a fairly well-educated person. I have the highest degree in my profession. I am well-read and reasonable. I read a plethora of adoption books before adopting from Africa. I even went to a conference talking about connecting with the adopted child. But I have been utterly baffled by the lack of good education about disciplining the pre-English speaking internationally adopted child.

There are lots of rules about disciplining the internationally adopted child. Lots of “don’t” rules, that is.

  • Don’t spank. They might have been abused.
  • Don’t take toys away. They don’t value them anyway.
  • Don’t put them in time-out. They will think you are abandoning them.
  • Don’t withhold, food, love, affection, privileges, and on and on and on.

What can you do?

Talk to them about what they are feeling. Encourage them to use their words. Make compromises. Reward charts.

That’s right, when it comes to disciplining internationally adopted kids, all the recommendations are language-based. But internationally adopted kids don’t speak English for months (especially mine).

So we have found ourselves for the last two months with tantrum-throwing wild children but no recommendations for disciplining them, other than what we were doing was wrong.

In the absence of better information, here are my thoughts on disciplining the internationally adopted child who doesn’t speak English. I am in health care, but do not specialize in pediatrics or child development, so don’t take me too seriously. These are just my thoughts.

Rules for Disciplining the Internationally Adopted Child:

1. Read the adoption books before you go get them. Then throw them away.

The books will have great principles, but the authors don’t know your child. They are not there when you are trying to keep them from jumping out of the car at 50 miles per hour, or are kicking or screaming at you at 3:00 a.m. while their sibling is trying to sleep. In my opinion, before a child can begin to feel loved, they have to feel safe, and much of that comes from structure and stability. Part of that structure and stability is discipline.

2. Not spanking is highly overrated.

Without language, it’s hard for kids to understand taking away privileges, reward charts, or explanations. They do understand a swat to the hand or to the behind. I’m not talking about beating a child, but getting their attention when they intentionally disobey.

3. Your sanity is more important than the kids’.

Your kids cannot become emotionally healthy if you are not. So cocooning yourself if you are an extrovert is a bad move. (Cocooning THEM if they are extroverts is probably a bad move too.)  Do what it takes to keep yourself sane: go for a massage, see a counselor, find a group of internationally adoptive moms to vent with, go on dates with your spouse. Leave your kids with (gasp) a sitter. I know this goes against all that the books say, but the authors aren’t living in your reality. Do what it takes to preserve your mental and physical health. Your kids will be much better off for it.

4. You will not screw them up any more than they already are.

My counselor shared this bit of wisdom with me. There are so many rules, tips, and guilt in international adoption. It is a lie from the pit of hell that if you don’t do everything exactly right the kids will have reactive attachment disorder. Give yourself some grace, relax the rules, and trust your intuition. God matched you with your specific children for a reason.

5. Find your child’s “currency.”

Each child will value something different. For some it will be a certain privilege. For others, it will be a toy. For some, it will merely be your approval. When you discipline an internationally adopted child, you have to use what their “currency” is. For our daughter, she wouldn’t even notice if we took away a toy, but a look of disapproval and a strong warning corrects her behavior quickly. Our son is completely different. His currency is possessions, especially his favorite books and toys. If we want him to correct a behavior, a toy is set “on the block” and he thinks about whether he would rather change his behavior or lose a toy. He chooses changing his behavior most of the time.

Those are my thoughts so far. There aren’t many, but I’ve been frustrated at the lack of real advice out there for those of us in the pre-English phase of international adoption. Hopefully this will help someone else, and maybe some days, even me!

Scattered by Skype

One of the songs that was sung when our children left the orphanage, when translated, said, “We’ll see you in America!” It was ironic to think that all of the children that were crowded into that orphanage would be eventually going to North America — to Canada or to the United States.

But here we are, and scattered across the United States are other children that our kids spent a year with day in and day out. In fact, there was another family picking up their children from the orphanage at the same time we were. So not only had our kids spent a year together in the orphanage, they had spent a week together transitioning into their new American families. We parted ways in Europe, and while I’ve been in contact with their new mom, the kids haven’t had any contact with any of their former friends.

So after being home for nearly 2 months, we decided it was time for a Skype date with their friends who came to America at the same time. Since our kids don’t speak English, it was hard to explain, so we decided just to surprise them.

At the appointed time, we sat them down in front of my laptop, and sure enough, there were their friends from the orphanage. It took them a minute to realize that it wasn’t just a movie, but was in real life, but soon they began to show each other toys and chatter.

Only there was a difference.

Their little girl only spoke English. Our kids only spoke in their African language. The communication quickly dissolved as they no longer speak the same language.

 

After church this past Sunday, a woman came up to me and explained that one time she was in the nursery, and one of the babies used sign language to communicate. The baby was very upset and kept making a sweeping motion across her arm, but the woman had no idea what she was trying to say. For an hour, the baby cried huge tears trying to communicate, but no one understood what she wanted. The nursery worker became increasingly distressed and tried to recruit other people to help her figure out what in the world this baby wanted.

Finally, when the baby’s mother came, she said that was the sign for her blanket. So much grief and so many tears over not being able to communicate about a simple blanket.

She said that she had just a glimpse of what we go through every day, not understanding our children. They cry, they ask for things, they throw temper tantrums, and we have no idea what they want or why they are upset. Even things as simple as: Are you hungry? Thirsty? Are you scared to go to sleep? Did you have a bad dream? Do you miss your African family and friends?

So much of relationship building is about language, and it seems our children are resistant to learning ours. They seem content just talking with each other in their own African language. Sure, they know about 30 nouns in English, and can name colors and some numbers, but nothing like what other children who came home around the same time have been able to communicate: “Mama, your cooking is beautiful.” Ours have yet to put words together to make sentences on their own.

The truth is, it’s like I miss my children. They are here physically, but not verbally. I’m hoping that one day, they will have the same language explosion that typically happens in toddlers, and English will just begin to click.  My husband assures me that learning language is not a race. He’s right, it’s not. But if it were, we would be losing. I long for the day when I can break inside their world and communicate back and forth. For now, it seems like we are just on two different but parallel paths. We share the same address, bathroom, meals, and fabric softener, but not the same language.

 

Glimpses

I saw a “Gotcha Day” video this week from a family who traveled just before we did. I had communicated a lot with this family before our adoptions, but in the 2 months since we’ve been home, we’ve just been in contact on Facebook.

So when I saw her Gotcha Day video, of course I had to watch it: that glorious moment when a family is physically united. When all the prayers, hopes, and dreams come to fruition before my very eyes. It was beautiful.

One of the parts of the video included a trip to the orphanage, and I could hear the children all singing in the background. As the camera panned around, I caught a glimpse that took my breath away.

My daughter. With her shaved head, her yellow orphanage dress, and her filthy once-pink orphanage shoes.

Was it only 2 months ago that she was living in that world? No one tucked her in. No one make sure she had optimal servings of dairy, fruits and veggies, whole grains, and protein. No one read to her four bedtime stories, or massaged her head, back, hands and arms after shower time. No one carefully rubbed lotion on her skin religiously twice per day to keep it from getting ashy.

She was one of 75, lost among the dozens of other children surrounding her, waiting for their own “Gotcha Day.”

Now, I wonder. Is she happy to be a part of our home? Has all of the change been worth it for her? If she were to have a choice right now, would she go back to the orphanage, or to her birth family? Does she know she is loved? Does she know she is finally safe?

Or is she weary from being told when to go to bed, to chew with her mouth closed, to use her inside voice? Is she tired of unfamiliar foods, a language she doesn’t understand, and living in a world with mostly white people? In the midst of all the people hugging her, touching her, greeting her with smiles and kisses, does she know that I am her mother?

I don’t know. I would love to catch a glimpse of what is going through her head. I would love for her to communicate to me in a language that I could understand. I would love to know if her laughter is genuine or just a coverup for the grief and fear she should rightfully be feeling.

Someday I hope I will know.

But today is not that day.

I can only look at the girl across the room in her pink corduroy pants and flowered top and hope that we are who she hoped for, and more importantly, who she needs.

After the Silence

You’ve read the international adoption blogs, from choosing a country, to submitting the dossier, receiving a referral, waiting through months of governmental mayhem, and finally the “gotcha day.” There is, of course, a beautiful airport welcome-home ceremony, complete with video cameras, Facebook posts, and old-fashioned signs.

And then many blogs fall silent.

My own blog has fallen silent.

It’s too hard to explain the sheer fatigue, range of emotions, number of temper tantrums, and amount of just plain work that comes after the gotcha day, especially to those who want your adoption to be the happily-ever-after everyone wants it to be.

What will people think if I tell them the truth about what is going on behind our cheerful polka-dotted curtains? Will they understand? Will they criticize? Will they say, “I told you so?” and shake their heads in self-righteous condescension?

The truth is, I don’t know.

But I also know that I am a writer, and maybe somehow by telling my story anonymously, I might sort through this beautifully hideous thing called international adoption. Maybe someone else will read it and know that they are not alone. Maybe another will read it and realize what their internationally adopting friends might be going through, and know how to support them.

So here we go. A new blog. A new journey.

To start, I thought I would reveal some little known facts about our adoption. In the last 6 weeks since we’ve been home with our 4 and 5 year old, I’ve realized the following:

1. My husband and I are really glad that we don’t drink alcohol at all because we would be alcoholics by now.
2. When we drop them off at school, we don’t miss them.
3. Our children understand enough English so that one child tells the other in an African language to do the opposite of what we’ve just told both of them to do in English.
4. The same child refuses to speak English.
5. Screaming bloody murder is apparently an appropriate response to being asked to lower the volume of one’s voice, hang on to a swing with both hands, and to wash one’s hands before lunch.
6. We have no idea how old our kids really are so giving them age appropriate discipline, education, and responsibilities is remarkably difficult.
7. Our dog bit our little girl (just a scratch) and we were almost strangely relieved when it finally happened, so that we would get to stop warning her for the 1.5 billionth time that she shouldn’t try to startle the dogs.
8. We have consumed more chocolate and potato chips in the last 6 weeks than in the previous 6 months. We have still each dropped more than one clothing size.
9. I still feel like a full-time unpaid babysitter.
10. We both look for chores to do so we have an excuse to not watch the kids. Our house is way more clean now than before we had kids.

So there you have it, a peek behind our polka dot curtains. There is more to come.