Sunday, December 30, 2012

The dog days are over

Here are some things you should know about me:
When I exercise, I turn bright red--pretty much immediately.
I also sweat, a lot. Even if it is cold outside.

I stomp everywhere I go.
In the ridiculous dance class that I attend I never float across the floor. I awkwardly jerk my way through the songs, dripping sweat from my ruddy cheeks.
You would think I'm a 7 foot tall lumberjack based on the echo of my footfalls, but I'm lying when I tell you I'm 5'3" (5'2.5", so what???)

Any exercise related to building core strength automatically makes me want to puke. When we do hip openers in yoga, I cry. Every time.

Nobody has ever looked at me and thought : "Wow, there goes an athlete."

Least of all *me*.

And yet.
Over the last two years, I've come to recognize how necessary exercise is to my well-being.
My mental well-being as much as my physical well-being.

For a long time roller derby was my sport of choice. In retrospect, I think I enjoyed the community and social aspects more so than the actual sport. I tried to get back into it after a year-long hiatus but quickly learned that my community had dispersed. The new skaters were really driven and I'm positive they are lovely women--but I couldn't make it work for me. The sport that used to build me up left me feeling flat.

 And so I walked Ruthie all over town. Miles and miles--every day while the big kids were at school. While I waited to for YH to join us. While I tried to figure out who this new, work-in-the-home version of "me" was. I walked the dog and I looked around and I got lost in the doubts that filled my head.

My legs were tired at the end of our walks, but my heart was heavy.
I was lonely.
I missed my work friends, my roller derby friends.
My old life, and my old support systems.
Somehow they had all disappeared.
(the "somehow" had a lot to do with my retreating from the world during my darkest times; turns out when you are hiding from the world, life goes on for everyone else)

When YH joined us, and school started, and pneumonia hit, all of the "free time" I spent wandering through the streets suddenly disappeared.

And I started to go a little crazy.
A little unhappy in my skin, disconnected from my limbs, get-me-out-and-moving kind of crazy.

The first step was to join a gym that I had heard a lot of my fellow former derby friends talk about. The thought of attending a group aerobic hip-hop dance class seemed just absurd enough to rock my world. I am sooooo not coordinated, but I *am* an enthusiastic dancer with a secret love for young-person music.

I take my place in the back row two times per week and I leap and spin and fake my way through all kinds of fancy footwork. I feel silly and I laugh at myself, and I have the BEST TIME.
It's awesome.

A few weeks ago I added a once-per-week bootcamp led by one of my favorite people in the world.

As an aside: Have I told you that a large number of my friends became personal trainers when they stopped playing roller derby? Do you know how intimidating it is to to go out to dinner/the movies/coffee with a pack of women who look like they stepped off the cover of a fitness magazine? When you're wearing increasingly stretchy pants? It's not fun.

BUT. One of my newly-minted-personal trainer friends manages to be all inspiration and motivation, with very little intimidation. I love her for that, and I think she is the *perfect* personal trainer. I want to work harder for her; for ME.

And slowly, my confidence in myself has come back. I am finding ways to fill the post-derby community/exercise void. I am learning to believe in my own strength again.

Recently, I found a new piece of the puzzle.

A friend encouraged me to apply for a half-marathon challenge.
And as it turns out, my application was selected to be the sponsored athlete to train for the race and receive a TON of support and perks.


And y'all?

(and scared. I'm pretty scared, too).

But I can do this.

Before yesterday, a 5K was the longest distance I've ever run.

Yesterday I ran 4.2 miles.
On Friday I'm going to run 5 miles.

And then 6.
And then 8.
And so on, up to 13.1 miles.

I'm going to turn bright red and I'm going to sweat like crazy the whole way through.
And that's ok with me.

I *am* an athlete. I'm a short, slow, clumsy, stompy athlete.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

I'm sorry.

Recently we were at a park. A lovely park, with an enclosed playground in a neighborhood populated by many of our school friends. My three were running around and climbing everything in sight--engaged in elaborate games with their friends.

I stood off to the side, chatting with Sean and with our grown-up friends.
We were a happy pride of children and parents, celebrating life in the wake of a national tragedy.
Some of us were a little weepy as we watched our children's six year old forms and thought of the equally tiny bodies in Connecticut that lost their lives earlier this week.

(some of us are weepy again just typing that)

In the middle of the playscape perched a boy in a cheery red turtleneck sweater. He sat on a four-wheeled scooter type platform, and rolled back and forth across a bridge. YH clambered up the rungs near the boy and began to move past him. The boy thought YH was trying to take his scooter and he exclaimed in a loud and flat voice "I'm not sharing my scooter with anyone--not even you."

There was something about his tone and his word choice that triggered the alarms of our pack of children and big sister Miss A immediately confronted the boy.

"You can't talk to my little brother that way. He wasn't even trying to take your scooter."

And as she spoke her friends formed a tight circle around her, and the boy.

I saw the boy's mother watching the scene unfold from a nearby bench. I walked up to her and said, in a light-hearted voice "Are they ganging up on your son?"

She was calmly watching the interaction--which continued in rapid back and forth between the boy and Miss A. The boy's mother turned to me and said, "The thing is, he's on the autism spectrum so he doesn't always understand what other kids are trying to tell him. Especially about his tone, or how to make friends, or if they're inviting him to play."

At this point I heard Miss A raise her voice a notch and try to reinforce the finer points of her argument, her defense of her littlest brother.

"Oh," I said to the mother, "I understand. Would you like me intervene? Get my kids to back off?"

"No," she said."This kind of thing can be good for him--he might learn from it..."

She sat with straight posture, watching her son unravel the mystery of his peers.
Her eyes were bright with concentration, her shoulders set with resolve.

Eventually our kids began to splinter off, to leave the scene of the conflict.
The boy in the red sweater sat on his scooter and rolled back and forth.

His mom got up and walked to him; she spoke soflty in his ear and he responded loudly.





***                       ***

In the car on the way home we talked about how some people's brains work differently from other people's brains. How making friends and understanding social cues comes easily to some people, but is very hard for others. We talked about how for most people, a person's words are only a tiny piece of what he/she is saying. His/her body posture and inflection add to the words and can change the meaning of the words.

Miss A got it. I knew she would.

The exchange stayed with me all night. I turned it over and over in my mind, making it shiny with worry.

I wish I had said something to the boy's mother.
I wish I had told her that we were also raising a child who is not neurotypical; that our son could face similar challenges.
I wish I had let her know that I saw her son as just a kid. A kid with some challenges, but not a bad kid or a mean kid or a kid I pitied.

Especially in light of the news out of Connecticut, that the person who committed an awful crime was on the spectrum; especially because of the potential fall-out from that information.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

In defense of the elf.

Our elf hangs out with Willie Nelson, doesn't yours?

 Last night after a particularly long day, I settled in on the sofa with my laptop and a dog curled at my side. I was ready to end the day with bad tv and some social networking. And as I persued facebookery I discovered that our family was at the center of not one, not two, but three separate posts bemoaning a certain holiday "tradition".


The "tradition", of course, is the nightly antics of our elf, Happy Sam. Antics which amaze and delight my kids and which pepper their playground conversations.

Pinterest is awash in ideas of what to do with your Elf on a Shelf should you wish to engage. With the rise of pinterest and the ever-escalating adorability of elven tricks therein, there comes a number of articles/blog posts/status updates shaming those of us who participate in the ruse.

(click above for link)

And friends: I get it.
I totally, totally do.

I get that the concept of an elf spying on your kids can be creepy and not in keeping with child-centered parenting. I get that the original Elf on a Shelf contributes to the further commercializtion of the holiday season. I *know* that when some kids have elves that get into mischief it can make the kids without elves, or with more sedentary elves, feel bad.

I know that this a practice that can seem forced; that can seem worthy of derision and scorn.

But here's the thing: My kids have had a rough year. They have had to deal with a lot of very grown-up, very real issues. Addiction. Cancer. Surgery. Change in economic circumstances. Leaving friends behind in order to feel challenged and engaged at school. Starting at a new school where you don't know anybody. Adding a new sibling to the family, one who has lifelong special needs and who doesn't always *want* to be part of the family.

To be frank, a whole lot of this year sucked. It was painful. I would give anything to spare my kids the really, really rough stuff. I would.

And so now, if I have the chance to delight them with some suspended reality? Yes. Yes a million times.

If it makes them happy to discover that a stuffed elf has decorated the Christmas tree with their underwear, I'm going to do it.

***                     ***

Last year at this time we were all in a funk. We were demoralized by the seemingly never-ending adoption process. The big kids caught wind of some friends' elves hijinks and repeated the stories to us in reverent tones. I asked the kids to draw a picture of what *their* elf might look like. Miss A's was named "Sam" and Sweet Bub's was named "Happy".

The next day the big kids woke up to a plush elf sitting on the dining room table, bearing a letter of introduction from Santa.

His name is Happy Sam and he is not so much a punitive elf (no tattling for Happy Sam) as he is a merry-making elf. He stays with us for the month of December and plays little tricks and jokes every night right up to Christmas Eve. Then he leaves us until the following year when he returns on December 1.

Yeah, some nights Sean and I are really freakin' tired. Yeah, it is work to do this and yeah, it's wholly unnecessary.

But before you roll your eyes at the lot of us who do this please remember that for some of us *manufacturing* joy for our kids is our effort to tip the scales for them. To provide counterbalance to the gross grown-up issues clouding their childhood and to let them, and us, believe in a little elf magic.

Does it really take away from your joy if for three weeks my kids gleefully recount Happy Sam's antics at lunch? If they talk about it with a smile because it's easier than talking about how hard it was to see their little brother in pain after his surgery? Or how stressed over money mom and dad are? Or how some their very favorite people suffer from illness?

It is not my intention to make things harder for you. I'm only doing my best to make things *better* for my kids.

I hope you understand.

Thursday, November 29, 2012


Tomorrow at 1:30pm we will file into a court room in San Antonio. We will wait for our names to be called, and then we will tromp in our official finery to the judge's bench. We will listen, and answer when asked questions. We will do our best not to fidget or scratch ourselves or otherwise behave inappropriately.

We will leave that room legally and permanently bound to one another as a family.
*Everything* will change in the court room and *nothing* will change in that court room.

YH will enter the room as a Korean citizen; he will leave as an American citizen.
YH will enter with the names chosen by his firstmother (including her family name); he will leave with those names still intact, plus two others.
YH will enter as a ward of our adoption agency; he will leave as our dependent.
YH will enter as an only child; he will leave as the brother of two incredibly proud older siblings.

I will enter the room as the mother of two, and leave it as the mother of three.
Of course I have been a mother of three for close to two years now--it was in early December 2010 that YH's tiny face first etched itself on my heart.

 Over the last six months my feelings for this child have grown in depth and complexity. Loving him is work--the most meaningful, incredible work I have ever done. This is not to say that he is hard to love; anyone who has seen him smile falls a little bit in love with YH. Rather, providing the love that he deserves has challenged me to work harder at parenting than I ever have before.

Prior to taking custody the "work" was a largely solitary, academic pursuit. I bathed in the theoretical. I read parenting books, books on prenatal alcohol exposure, books on toddler adoption. I joined every forum and yahoo group I could find. It was my intention to stuff my brain with so much information it couldn't help but trickle down to my heart.

And then.
Then a real live little boy was placed in my lap.
A beautiful little boy, with a crooked grin and a lumpy head.
A beautiful little boy with myopia and enormous feet.
A beautiful little boy whose laughter is nothing like the rage-filled tantrums I had prepared for.
A beautiful little boy who resembles none of the worst case scenarios in my books.

And I was lost.

What do I do with this perfectly imperfect boy?
How do I meet his needs?
Why does he run to me and hug me tightly? Why does he pinch my cheeks and honk my nose? Why does he say "Mama I love you"? 
When will the grief and rage come?

The marvel of YH's character is that *despite* the incredibly crappy hand that he has been dealt, he approaches each new situation with unbridled enthusiasm. He finds a friend wherever he goes. Every new food is an opportunity to discover something delicious.

"Mmmmm! MOM! Mmmmm!"
(and then he offers me a bite, so I can experience his joy too)

He does not hold a grudge. He shares toys willingly. He appreciates the beauty of a tiny baby and a friendly dog. Every flower petal is a thing of wonder and a large cactus will make him stop in his tracks and shout "WHOA!"

YH makes me want to be a better person.

So tomorrow afternoon in court I am going to recommit to being the best I can be for my family--my whole family. In truth this proceeding will simply change YH's legal status--but I choose instead to view it as my opportunity to make a promise to my husband, my big kids, and my littlest love.

 I am going to appreciate how each one of my children brings something different to our whole: Miss A's athleticism, leadership and sharp intellect; Sweet Bubs gift for comedy, his sensitive heart and his gentle nature; and now YH with his joy for the tiny details in life, with his belly laugh that makes us all giggle, with his unbridled hugs for those he loves.

I am humbled to parent these children, to do right by them.

Monday, November 26, 2012

No thank you.

We're on the other side.
We're past the endless weeping, and the pain with each step YH takes.

The seemingly endless course of antibiotics is done.
The bottle of pain killer sits undisturbed for most of the day.

YH is back to running and playing with his brother and sister.
He is sleeping through the night again.
He is eating lots and lots of food again.

And it is SO GOOD to see my baby feeling better.
There is nothing like a health crisis to cement the notion that this child is of my heart, if not my blood.
The degree to which his whimpering cut into my soul--unimaginable.

This baby is wholeheartedly his firstmother's child--I will never deny this fact, or prevent their relationship--but my lands, he is in my heart. I love him fiercely and seeing him suffer was awful.

 This morning we had our second-to-last post-operative appointment.

YH has quickly figured out that the children's hospital is not his favorite place; he drags his feet and kicks at the ground as we approach the building. We park illegally in a neighboring strip mall parking lot so as to avoid the garage fees. He tries to redirect me to the Starbucks.

"Mom! Mom, cookie. Mom, coffee. Coffee mom?"

We plod on, undeterred.

In the office waiting room he is warily optimistic. Maybe today we'll just play with the toys and then leave! Maybe if I look extra cute "reading" 'Mujer' magazine she'll let us leave.
(Nope, sorry bubs.)

He protests mightily at the weigh in. I *always* have to hold him as we stand on the scale together. Then I hold him (sobbing) at arm's reach as the nurse weighs me separately.

In the exam room he whines for a few minutes and then begins to zoom his toy car all over the spinning chairs. He opens every cabinet and presses every visible button. He is still YH, after all.

When the nurse practitioner walks in he tries to hide behind me.
She preps the exam table and sets out her tools for his scheduled catheter removal.
He becomes ever more still, trying to disappear.
She invites YH to climb up on the table but he is no fool.

"No thank you" he says and he burrows deeper into my shoulder.

I lift him up and lay him down on the table. There is a white towel spread beneath his abdomen.

"No THANK you" he says again, slightly louder this time.
The nurse practitioner begins to remove his diaper. 

"No thank you. No thank you" again and again, delivered in a voice clouded by tears.

My poor boy--so polite even in his distress.

The catheter comes out with no problems and we skip on our way out of the building.


We are looking forward to baths, to playgrounds, to preschool--to all of life.
We are not taking it for granted any more.

Monday, November 19, 2012

The post I wanted to write

The post I wanted to write went something like this:

"Thank you all for your loving wishes on my last post. On the big day YH cheerfully put on his hospital gown, held the anesthesiologist's hand and waved good-bye to us happily as he walked down the hall to the operating room. His surgery went without a hitch, and he is now up and running as if nothing happened!"

Sounds great right???

Sadly, the reality is not so great.

YH did not put on his hospital gown willingly. He screamed and cried out for me as the anesthesiologist took him away, and I wanted to die on the spot.

YH's surgery *did* go well--and for that I am SO thankful.

 But his recovery is very, very painful. And he is crying most of the time that he is awake, despite being on multiple pain control medications. There is a reason that most kids who undergo similar procedures do so at 6 mos of age; with YH's heightened awareness of his body, and of his bodily functions, the pain is more present for him than it might be for a younger child.

When he moves he is reminded of the pain, and all that he wants to do is sit in my lap and cry on my shoulder. He leans his full weight against me, tries to meld into me, and sobs. I rub his back and make "wuss wuss" noises to him. Tell him he is brave, tell him he is strong. Try to convince him to eat something, anything.

I try to enjoy the sweetness of his body pressed against mine. Try not to be overwhelmed by his sadness. Try not to let him see how much his pain is hurting me too.

In addition to the near-constant crying, YH has had a resurgence of anxiety behaviors. Things like bouncing in his seat or while standing. Rocking back and forth while sitting alone on the sofa. Talking and/or humming constantly, and using repetitive phrases.

These are all behaviors that had faded over the last few months as his need to self-soothe lessened.

Now they are back.
Now they are, once again, the only means for him to control his environment. To try and outrun, outsmart, and outdistance the pain.

It sucks.

We have been in contact with our pediatric urologist and all is progressing normally. We are all doing our best to manage YH's pain and make him more comfortable. As his swelling decreases over the next 48 hours we anticipate big improvements for him. And while his pain is still near-constant, the intensity seems to be waning.

I am hopeful.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Courting Karma

There is a lot going on with us these days.
A lot of hard stuff.
A lot of hard stuff that is unbloggable.

I hope that some day I can write about the unbloggable stuff, and the ways in which it has impacted each member of our family, but the person/s at the center of the unbloggable-ness do not wish to be a part of this internet record.

And so I let the keyboard rest.

***                   ***
One thing I can blog about, however, is that tomorrow YH has surgery.

That long off date we set with the pediatric urologist months ago is suddenly upon us.

Two weeks ago a nurse from the pediatric surgery center called me to go over the particulars of the surgery schedule. She talked me through each point.

She told me we should dress him in something he will feel comfortable in--does he have some pajamas? She told me he could bring a comfort object with him if we thought it would help.
She said I could hold his hand right up until they put him under and then I would have to leave him.
Leave him on a big bed, surrounded by tubes and wires.
Go wait in the special room for parents and family members of the tiny bodies being worked on by skilled hands.

At the end of our conversation the nurse asked if there were any particular religious or cultural practices that we wanted observed.

And I started to reply, "Well, he's only been a part of our family for six months and we've worked so hard to build a secure attachment...."

And that's when I lost it and began sobbing over the phone to the nice lady.
Because it seems so wrong to have carefully knit trust and attachment and the beginnings of love with this little boy, only to have it undone by a potentially traumatic medical procedure.

I am nervous.
Not so much about the procedures itself.
Nervous about the aftermath, about the look in YH's eyes when they put him on the bed.
When he wakes up from surgery and begins to feel pain.

I'm sorry baby.
I'm really, really sorry.

****           ****

So in preparation for this unraveling I've been courting good karma.
I have joined a million committees.
I have signed up for multiple care calendars for new parents.
I have funded kickstarter projects, bought from bake sales, donated to worthy causes.
I hold doors open for older persons and/or parents carrying babies.

I am hustling to put positive energy out into the universe in the hopes that the universe might pay me, my family, back in kind.

Ten days ago my facebookery news feed was inundated with messages about our city animal shelter being overcapacity. All fees were waived--the shelter was so desperate for space.

I took YH there "just to look". So that I could advocate for a specific critter, lobby my friends and family to take home a new best friend.
Not for us.
Oh no.

We looked at the small dogs, and the kittens. We watched their paws skitter across the plexiglass walls of their enclosures. Pick me! Pick me!
We went outside to the big dog kennels, where dogs with impossibly large heads leaned against the metal bars hoping for ear rubs.

In the third outdoor building, at the end of the row, a small dog curled into herself at the back of her kennel. We peered in at her and made kissy noises at her. All around us dogs barked.
The little dog thumped her tail, ears flattened against her skull. Slowly she put her paws forward and belly crawled across the concrete to the front of the kennel. She barely lifted her head from the ground and I could only get one finger through the bars to stroke her chin. When I touched her she flopped into a relaxed pile of fur.

All of this to say: we brought her home the next day.

I could not leave this shy, sweet creature in the overburdened shelter.

And so now we have Petunia. And she no longer belly crawls. Now she walks with her tail held up. Now she curls up next to Ruthie on the dog bed. Now she licks the cat's ears and piles into the car with the kids when we head to soccer games.

She's my good luck charm.
And today while I wait for the surgery center to call and tell us what time we need to be there tomorrow morning, I will rub her velvety ears. I will listen to her snore.
I will take comfort in my living, breathing bit of karma.

Friday, October 26, 2012

Blinders off.

Our afternoons have become a lot more hectic now that Miss A is attending a new school.
A new school located across town.

Now when YH wakes up from his nap we hustle to get to Sweet Bub's school where we wait in the hallway for his class to file past at the end of the day. We swoop in and pull him out of line so that we can all pile into the car and battle traffic to get to Miss A's school in time for pick-up.

Despite the frenzied pace, YH loves to spend time at Sweet Bub's school.

There is often a large man there with his impossibly tiny baby, also waiting for an older sibling. The baby has sparkly eyes and her hair is usually in tiny twists punctuated by candy-colored barrettes. YH loves this baby and he loves to sit and watch her every move.

He also loves the large fish tanks that adorn the hallway and office of our school. He watches the aquatic plants sway in the movement of the water and turns to me and says "Mom! Mom, trees. Mom, trees wind."

When the pre-K kids come out of their classrooms and sit against the wall outside of the gym to wait for the bus, YH tries to sneak into line with them. He walks backwards up to the wall and carefully scoots down next to the last kid in line. He waves at the other kids and kicks his feet happily.

Any time a teacher or staff member stops to chat, YH checks their school ID. I have no idea how or why this started but he insists on inspecting the plastic id cards at close range. He scrutinizes the pictures and, when satisfied, releases the cords and watches the id zip back up towards the teacher's shoulder. One of the school's Special Ed teachers has placed a puppy sticker over his picture, just to delight and surprise YH.

YH feels comfortable at Sweet Bub's school.
Which, in part, is why I was rattled by an incident that occurred there yesterday afternoon.

As per our usual routine, I carried YH as we walked into school.
There was an SUV out front, parked in the loading only zone.
The windows were all rolled down.
There were four or five teenagers in the car, one of whom was smoking and dropping his ashes out of the window.
The music was booming.

YH heard the dance beat and started wiggling his arms in his signature move.

The kids in the car saw him and started laughing.

"Yo man, look at that chinese baby!"
"That chinese baby has glasses. Do those glasses help you see out of your chinese eyes baby?"
"Hey chinese baby: ching-chong-ching-chong"

And so on.

And as I heard their words my heart started pounding.
And my throat got hot.

And I stopped where I was, about ten feet from their car, and I bellowed.

"STOP. The words you are using, the things you are saying about MY SON are NOT acceptable. You need to stop RIGHT NOW."

And they did stop.
For a moment.

And then they said "Whatever, you effin b***."

And I continued my walk into the school and went immediately to the principal's office. Another parent had witnessed the incident and taken down the car's license plate. She followed me in to provide back-up for my account.

The administration moved quickly to identify the people involved and as I walked into the hallway, a staff member pointed out that the mother of the teens was walking towards us.

I stopped her and introduced myself.
I said, "Hi, my name is Nora and this my son. Your children, the ones in the car outside, just verbally assaulted us. They used racial slurs to insult my son."

The mom said, "Was it the black kid int he car? 'Cause he's not mine."

(No, no it wasn't.)
(and also: WOW.)

As we talked, the little girl at her side watched with widening eyes.
She piped up, "That baby??? They made fun of that baby?"
And her incredulity broke my heart again.

****                          ****

The school district police were called and I am awaiting an update from the principal.

I posted about this incident on the facebookery and got a lot of comments.
And it was interesting.

Because my friends who are white were mostly outraged on our behalf, and appalled that this had happened to a toddler.

And my friends of color were also outraged--but not surprised. Because each of them has their own history of similar taunts, similar incidents.

Birth certificates that list their race as "yellow".

This stuff is real, and it STILL happens. All over the country.
It happened in my small wealthy college town outside of Philadelphia. It happens in urban Texas. It happens in rural Vermont, beautiful Berkeley, and everywhere in between.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Five months.

It is morning.
YH sits at the dining room table, carefully scooping yogurt out of a bowl.
He selects an O with his thumb and index finger and places it on the tip of the spoonful of yogurt.

"Good moring O, good morning 'ogurt" he says, laughing out loud before popping the whole thing into his mouth.

He chews and says "Mmmmm! Mom! Mmmmm!"
There is yogurt on his forehead, and a tiny smudge of it on his glasses frames.
He smiles at me and lowers his spoon back into the bowl, ready to do it all over again.

This kid.
This kid is so full of joy.

After breakfast we head to his preschool. He attends two morning per week, in a class with seven other two-year olds. His teacher is sweet and kind, with a quiet gentle manner. YH *loves* school. He spends the car ride over listing all of his classmates names.

"Mom? Mom? 'Mmily. Ooown. Oz. Tom. 'liza. 'livva. 'Omi. Kaaaai. BEA!"

We open the door to his school and enter the lounge-y common area. Moms and babies are making good use of the sofas and comfy chairs, chatting before heading out to their cars and bikes. YH makes a beeline for whatever baby is closest and leans over the infant.

"Hey baby! Good morning baby! Tickle tickle.."

 After his initial greetings are delivered to all of the babies present, he makes his way around waving to the adults and finally makes it into his classroom. We sign him in and wash his hands before heading outside to the play area. He finds a truck to push around and gives me a cheerful kiss goodbye.

I dawdle for several minutes before leaving. The leaving is still hard on me. (Not so much on YH, though he is always happy to see me when I come to pick him up.) I don't know what to do with myself when we're not together. More times than not I take the dog for a walk, belatedly remembering all the important errands I *should* have run.

YH has been with our family for five months now.
In that time he has made amazing (AMAZING!) strides.

When we first met, YH didn't play with toys so much. He picked up toys, and smashed them down again with great force. Or he pulled them apart bit by bit and discarded the shreds in an unsentimental heap. He moved with lightening speed from one destruction project to the next with few signs of engagement or imaginative play.

After a few weeks in our home he began to use toys for play. Pure play. He developed an interest in toy cars first. He would spin the wheels and zoom them around the house silently. Then his brother taught him to make zoom zoom noises and now we live within the deafening roar of a never ending speed trial.

But the toy cars don't just zoom around--oh no. Now they are nurtured by YH as well. Technically they are not allowed on the dining room table but YH will cautiously set one next to his placemat at snack time and say "Mom. Mom, car food mom. Car food." and pretend to feed the little car bites of cracker and GOOD LORD PEOPLE. How can I resist such a display of cute?

Last week he started making the cars talk to one another.
"Good morning orange car!"
"Good morning tractor!"

**followed by several strings of gibberish, punctuated by laughter.**

He makes the cars hide under a napkin and then pulls it off with glee yelling "Ta-DA!"

His language skills are hugely improved. He now speaks about 65-70 English words, mostly in two or three word sentences. I am probably the only human on the planet who can distinguish these 65 words--but still. We count them. Some of the words surprise me ('unbuckle' being a prime example). His receptive language skills are also vastly improved. He follows directions easily and delights in cleaning up and other daily routines.

One of my friends remarked on the Facebookery that it seems like there was a certain point in time when he started *smiling* in every picture that we took of him. She's right. After I read her comment I went back and clicked on each image, watching his tiny mug stare back solemnly at me through June, July, August, part of September...and then. Then the grins began. The big goofy grins, the sly smiles, the mugging for the camera. (Happy cry. Big giant ugly happy cry).

YH's tantrums have also changed recently. At the beginning of his time with us he would dissolve in tears or screams multiple times per day. He couldn't tell us what he wanted and we couldn't understand his desires. More importantly: we were not the droids he was looking for. The mere fact that he was hurt and sad and his best people--his favorite people--were thousands of miles away only added to his distress.

As his language skills have improved (and our toddler-mind reading skills have improved) the screaming-because-nobody-knows-what-I-need has lessened. I can read the signs of stress on his body before it escalates to tears. I know what times of day are hard for him, when he needs a snack before attempting a task, when rowdy play will be too much of a sensory overload for him. I can swoop him onto my lap and rock him back and forth while whispering sweet nothings in his ear.

He used to stiffen against me and put a forearm between his chest wall and my body when we would sit this way. He was ready to push free at a moment's notice. Now he wraps his arms around my back and gives my shoulder blades a few gentle pats as we rock. It always get to me--that he can softly thump out love to me, even while in the middle of a giant wailing fest. It's like he's saying, "Hey! This is rotten, isn't it? You're doing a good job mama."

Earlier this week he had the first tantrum I've seen that was very clearly a "Hello, I am two years old." tantrum (and not a grief tantrum, a life isn't fair tantrum). I told him to get the toy train off the table at breakfast. He looked at me and said "No." And then he tried it again, but this time with a raised voice,"NO! No. No. No. Noooooooooo." and he flung himself to the floor with dramatic flair.

And I have never been so happy to watch a two year old writhe and flop at my feet.

He's two. He's my baby and he's two.

 On November 30 we will drive to San Antonio to stand before a judge and legally cement our lifelong commitment to one another. We will dress in fancy clothes and go out for dinner afterwards. We will laugh and cry and at least two of us will fall asleep on the car ride home.

And the next morning we will wake up to forever.
I can't wait.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Scraping burnt toast

Do y'all watch Parenthood on NBC?

It's one of those shows that I officially watch "because there's nothing else on"-- but in reality I watch it because I love it. Some of the storylines make me groan out loud, and it is absolutely preposterous that any of those families can afford their homes in the Berkeley hills.

 I still love it.

Of course there is an adoption storyline: At the end of last season Julia Braverman and her husband accepted the placement of a 9 year old boy whose mother was incarcerated and had just terminated her parental rights.

The episode ended with an image of this small, terrified boy being welcomed from the dark night into the warm and modern home of his adoptive family. I rolled my disapproving eyeballs and my tiny cynic's heart clenched with visions of the rosy family that would be portrayed in episodes to come.

Here we go--I thought--another "happy ending" adoption story.

But I was wrong.

This season the character of Julia has said things out loud that many adoptive parents *think* or say only to one another. Things like "I don't think I love him yet." "This is so hard." "I can't do it all."

She is struggling. Her work is suffering. She is extending all of her resources to connect with her son. She is failing her biological child.

Her work colleagues react to her sudden unavailability with scorn and disdain. Her extended family members seem oblivious to the chaos that is her new reality, to the burden she is carrying.

She is burning the toast and scraping it like mad over the sink to get to any good part, any salvageable piece.

And man, do I get that.

We've been scraping a lot of toast in our house too. There have been hard times, times that no one else could see or understand unless they'd been through something similar.

The kicker of it all is that our son is relatively easy. He sleeps well, he naps consistently, he is a good eater and has a cheerful attitude. He loves his siblings and he is spontaneously affectionate with us, his parents.

When he tantrums he is easily comforted. His tantrums rarely last more than a few minutes. He is kind to our pets, if sometimes overenthusiastic in his demonstrations of love to them.

And yet it is *still* hard. It is hard to give every piece of yourself to a child new to your home and family. It is hard to spend every minute of the day alert and aware of the attachment process, ready to drop what you are doing at a moment's notice in order to help your new family member feel secure.

It is only recently that I wake up in the mornings feeling relaxed. For the past several months I would awaken with clenched fists, mentally filling the blocks of hours between dawn and YH's bedtime. I would grit my teeth and stiffen my body against the day--trying to block out the endless assault to my personal space that was about to being.

Ok, I just have to get through breakfast, then walking the big kids to school, some playtime, lunch and then it's naptime. I can do this. If we go to Target that will fill an hour...We can walk the dog and fill another hour...

I can do this. 

Now I wake up with fingers loosely curled, excited about the activities YH and I might experience together. What will he notice on our morning walk? What new words will he use? Should we see if his best bud Jacob is available to play?

It's a subtle difference, but an important one. Starting the day with my defenses up was exhausting and contributed to the feeling that I could never win, I could never get caught up. In retrospect I am sure I suffered from a mild case of post-adoption depression. PAD is real, and like post-partum depression it can be crippling.

Add unexpected illness, the death of a beloved pet (our tripod beagle passed away two weeks ago), conflict with loved ones, changing schools for my eldest, juggling work and sport's easy to feel overwhelmed. Easy to feel suffocated and trapped by your circumstances.

I feel lucky that I am able to see the past few months for what they were; that my family is safe and whole, that my youngest child is healthy and so well-loved.

I think our days of scraping the burnt toast are lessening--and I can't wait to see what tomorrow brings.


Sunday, September 23, 2012


This blog has been silent for the past few weeks because I've been recovering from pneumonia. And let me tell you friends, pneumonia sucks. I am now three weeks out from my initial diagnosis and I still feel deeply, deeply exhausted.

The best way to recover from pneumonia is complete bedrest, for 1-3 weeks. HA! That's hilarious. My three extremely active children laugh at your "bedrest"! Bedrest is for LOSERS. The two year old especially gets irate if I try to lie down on the sofa--he says "Mommy! No mommy, no!" and tugs and pulls at my arms and legs until I sit up. He cares not for television, so there is no respite bought by a simpering Thomas the Tank Engine DVD (believe me, I tried. Oh how I tried.)

The funny thing about having a serious illness is that your house does not automatically clean itself when you are unable to do so! The dogs do not stop shedding; in fact, one of them (coincidentally the one with the biggest bladder!) may become so anxious about your new state of lethargy that she decides to pee on the hallway rug. Over and over. The dishes continue to be used, and as such continue to pile themselves in the sink. Little droplets of milk left in sippy cups quickly transform into reeking sludge. And you watch all of this from behind the shackles of your infected lungs, because you lack the strength to even push a freaking vaccuum cleaner.

All food tastes revolting. If you are lucky, you can force down half a can of soup once a day. Gone out the window are your lofty nutrition standards. No more baby kale and fresh berry smoothies for breakfast, no locally sourced roast chicken with sweet potato hash for dinner, no poached eggs quivering atop a bed of brown rice. Nope. The antibiotics you are forced to swallow once a day make the act of eating repulsive. But in order to protect your gut from the evil medicine you *have* to eat, so you try to do so quickly, with absolutely no joy.

At nighttime you crawl exhausted into your bed. You are freezing, so you pile on the blankets and lean against a towering mountain of pillows. You spend the first hour in bed coughing every two minutes. You try to cough into a pillow, so you don't wake the two year old slumbering nearby. Eventually your body gives up and you sleep fitfully until morning. You wake up sore from coughing--it feels like a metal band is wrapped across your ribs and upper back.  You can't ever get a deep enough breath.

You feel terrible for your poor spouse, who has to pick up your slack on the homefront. You haven't had a meaningful interaction with your kids for days. You expend all your energy just trying to stay conscious--nothing extra.

And while this all transpires, while you are at your weakest, the world around you slowly explodes. One of your children is profoundly bored at school and is not able to work to reach his/her full-potential. You try to make it work. You meet with the child's teacher, hacking and sweating your way through an hour long discussion about differentiated learners in a typical classroom. You come to the realization that your beloved neighborhood school is no longer the best fit for your child--your child who needs to work at his/her own pace, to go deeper. You scramble and hustle to find an alternative. You put a call out to the universe and the universe responds with an amazing opportunity--an amazingly *expensive* opportunity. You take a deep breath and push forward--you can make it work. You *have* to make it work. You feel relief at the solution for your brilliant child and deep regret at the loss of your neighborhood school.

Somebody close to you takes it upon him/herself to help you through the illness. You are unable to connect with this person to discuss what "help" means to both of you, and the person arrives on the scene unable to contribute in a way that would make a difference for your daily struggles. There is conflict. A lot of conflict. A lot of extra draining, extra not-helpful conflict. You are angry that this person can't just actually "help" in the ways you need him/her to help, but at the same time cognizant of his/her limitations. You won't ever have the help you need and you need to get over it. You are angry at the other people involved, the people who won't stand up for you in the conflict, who refuse to take sides. At this time more than any other in your whole life you really just need to feel like someone has your back. Your achy, tired, weakened back.

At the same time someone else close to you steps up to the plate in a most unexpected and delightful way. This person has his/her own struggles, yet he/she drops everything to come to your aid. This person does not accept your pitiful attempts to refuse his/her help; he/she shows up on your doorstep and takes all three kids to the park. Even the toddler goes happily with this person, cheerfully blowing you kisses from the backseat of the car as it pulls out of the driveway. Your gratitude to this person knows no bounds.

Most of all you are angry at yourself for still being sick. You hate feeling weakened by illness. You cry with frustration at the things you can't do, things that are necessary for your family's health and happiness. You feel betrayed by your body. What was the point of eating well, exercising 5 days a week, nurturing your mind/soul--what was the point of all that self-care if you were going to be felled by a secondary infection anyway? You might as well have been stuffing your face with peanut m&m's and watching "Here Comes Honey Boo-Boo" all day long.

You wait it out. You have to; there is no other option. Slowly you will regain your strength. Slowly you will pick up the pieces of the broken relationships around you, of the frightening transitions in schooling, of the neglected pets and dirty house.

You will get better. You have to.

Monday, September 3, 2012

Some truth: Three Months post-placement

There is a recent blog post that is quickly making the rounds of adoptive parents:
Jen Hatmaker: The Truth About Adoption One Year Later

Jen Hatmaker is a wonderful writer, and the words of this piece in particular resonate with many of my friends in the adoption community. Several of these friends are singing the praises of this post because it says out loud what some of us are afraid to admit is happening in our own homes. It is comforting to see that other families are also struggling, that our childrens' reactions and behaviors are not unique--especially when there are so many other adoption blogs that document a seemingly flawless transition to family life. That with time our family lives will return to something close to 'normal'.

It is a relief to read the post and identify which stage your child is currently in; are we still in "Spaz out?" Could we be in "Triage?" You nod your head in sweet agreement when you find the description that matches your reality.

And I get that, and I appreciate that.

But, as Ms. Hatmaker herself writes in the start of her post, the "One Year Later" timeframe is specific to HER family, and HER experience. For many children the truth about adoption one year out is that the challenges are *just* beginning. Some children, like my child, have irreversible brain trauma that may manifest in behaviors that *never* go away. Other children are so overwhelmed by stress that they can't self-regulate. For some families the first-year post-adoption is a whirlwind of doctors appointments; urgent medical needs masking the equally-urgent emotional needs beneath the surface.

So while seeing a list of stages with specific time-lines attached can provide relief for some families, for  others it can only lead to frustration and feelings of failure. What if at five months post-placement your family is nowhere *near* triage? What if your child's grief-fueled rages get stronger with each week that passes? How does the family with a child recently diagnosed with PTSD feel when they look at that post?

Of course this is all part of the bigger issue, right? Just as the "happily ever after" adoption blogs don't tell the one true story, nor do the posts like Ms. Hatmaker's--the ones that are supposed to speak to the rest of us. The truth is that there is no *one* true story. The truth is that the story shifts and changes for each child, for each family.

The truth is that while your your family may identify with Ms. Hatmaker's post today, tomorrow could bring you to your knees in unexpected ways.

****             ****

In our home we are barely able to speak to the truth about adoption *three months* out.

YH and I walk the big kids to school each morning. We wander back home together and do chores, or wait for our Early Childhood Intervention Specialist to come over, or go to tumbling class. Starting next week we will spend Tuesday and Thursday mornings in YH's preschool class.

In the afternoons we pick up the big kids and go to a park, or out for ice cream. We play until Sean comes home from teaching high-school math and we eat dinner together. YH takes a bath and then goes to bed while the big kids finish their homework or clean their rooms. The big kids are asleep by 8:30pm and Sean and I have some time to ourselves. We could  use this time to cleaup, or play cards, or make-out but mostly we sit on the couch and watch "Breaking Bad". It could be worse, we think. At least we're not meth dealers. It could be much worse.

And from the outside it all looks lovely--like a "happily ever after" post.

But inside the house, inside my heart, it is hard.

I love this child so much more than I ever thought I could at three months post-placement. Before we took custody I had prepared myself for the fact that we might need to "fake it until we make it". That we may need to demonstrate love to YH, without actually feeling love (this is not uncommon for families joined by adoption).

But from the beginning the love was there. I LOVE him. I do.

And he loves me back--at least a little. We are at the point now where I am his preferred care-giver. He does not reject Sean, but if he has the choice between the two of us he will choose me. He gives both of us hugs and kisses--sometimes without us asking. He follows directions for both of us--with the occasional two year old tantrum/protest.

When it is just the two of us he needs to be aware of my presence every minute. "Mom? Mom? Mommy?" I cannot be outside of his line of vision. If we are in the same room he needs to be touching me. Meals are consumed at the dining room table, sitting on my lap. If he is playing with his toys he will stop every few minutes and come over to me, needing a hug or a pat on the back. We hold hands when we are walking next to one another. YH will sometimes get out a sling or baby carrier and bring it to me, asking me to wear him while we walk around the neighborhood.

Sean and I try to make sure that we alternate which one of us puts YH down for bedtime and naptime. During the week this means that Sean usually covers the bedtime routine. He tells me that when he leads YH back to "his" room (in reality a part of the master suite) YH happily drinks his milk while Sean reads him his books, then he lies down and pulls his blanket up tight under his armpits. He smiles as Sean leaves the room, sometimes blowing him a good night kiss.

 When I put YH down for bed/naptime the routine is different. We read stories, yes, but YH insists that I climb into his toddler bed with him. I sing lullabies to him and he pats my face. We rub noses and whisper things to one another. Sometimes we just whisper words: "car" "truck" "bird" "airplane". Sometimes we whisper the names of all the people who love YH: "Miss A" "Sweet Bubs" "Daddy" "Appa" "Nuna" "Umma" "Halmoni"...and so on.

YH pulls my arm across his body. He wants the weight of it on his stomach as he tries to fall asleep. When I kiss his cheek and say "Sweet Dreams" in advance of leaving, he cries. He pats the mattress over and over. "Stay. Please. Stay."

I give in and stay for five more minutes. I am in desperate need of some time to myself; time when NO ONE is touching me. But I stay--how can I leave?

By the end of the day I am fried. The sensory overload of having somebody touch you all day long is intense. I am an extrovert and yet despite this I am still depleted by meeting this child's needs all day long, every day.

I do not feel like myself--ever. My skin feels like it doesn't fit quite right. I bristle and chafe every time someone other than YH touches me. His little hand grounds me at the same time that it saps me dry. I feel like my only purpose is to lift him up.

I go to a boxing class, or a hip-hop dance class, at my gym three or four times/week. It sounds like a lot of time when I type it out like that, but those hour-long blocks of time are often the only chance I get to start to reclaim my body as my own. My mind as my own, my heart as my own.

Parenting YH is a lot like parenting an infant. I remember feeling similarly depleted when my big kids were three months old--and in terms of tenure in our family, YH *is* only an infant. He has the physical prowess of a toddler, but the dependent heart and soul of a baby. We need to prove to him that we are worthy of his love and trust, just as you do with an infant. When an infant cries you pick him up--and I do the same with my 30-month old "newborn".

The challenge is that lifting a 10lb newborn takes a fraction of the energy that it takes to "lift up" a 31lb newborn. I should have been in training for this months and months ago.

There is more. There are self-soothing behaviors that YH exhibits that worry me. I know they are behaviors that he exhibited when living with his foster family too, but that doesn't make my heart stop clenching when I see them resurface. I know they are driven by anxiety. I know they are an external expression of the turmoil in his wee heart. I know they help him cope.

But man, I wish I could take them away.

(I can't. I know this too.)

All I can do is softly clasp his hands, stroke his cheek and say "Please be gentle with my YH." All I can do is try to provide alternate stimuli for him: deep pressure back rubs, stroking his arms, rubbing his scalp--all in hopes that his reliance on these behaviors will lessen each day.

I watch and wait. I wonder what tomorrow will bring. I take stock of my arsenal each night and prepare to fight for him anew each morning.

Monday, August 27, 2012

The worst, the best.

One day last week the worst thing ever happened.
YH came up to me distraught. In his hand was THE microphone--the one with his foster mother's recorded message on it. He held the microphone out to me, saying and signing "Help. Please. Help. Please." over and over.

I took the toy and pressed the "play" button.


No words. No Umma's voice delivering her message to YH.

Just a tinny "click" followed by sickening silence.

YH stood before me with tears in his eyes.
"Help. Please. Help. Please."
His little hands smacked together harder and harder each time he signed "help".

I pulled him into my lap and told him there was nothing I could do. Umma's voice was gone. Someone had accidently deleted it; no way to know who.
I'm sorry baby. I miss her too. Should we look at some pictures of her? I'm so sorry baby.

Then I burst into tears as he said "No. No. No." over and over.

****               ****

We've been a family for three months now.

We are riding the waves of grief and transition as they come--for all of us.

The big kids are grieving the way our lives were before YH joined us. Back when we could be more spontaneous, stay out at the pool later, eat at any restaurant. When it was easy to buckle themselves into their booster seats (no cumbersome car seat smushed in between in the backseat of the Honda Fit). When our days weren't carved into tiny windows of time between meals and nap.

YH is grieving his former life too--his foster family, his first home, all that was familiar. His grief shows up in many ways. Fussiness. Tantrums. Frustration. Constant eating. Crying. Needing lots of physical contact.

Along with the grief there is joy. My Sweet Bubs has found his groove as a big brother--and YH *loves* him so much. YH calls out his name and follows in his footsteps. He repeats every word Sweet Bubs teaches him and copies everything he does.

Miss A also loves to teach YH new things and she claps loudly at his every accomplishment.

YH has started calling us "Mommy" and "Daddy". He draws out "mommy" into at least eight syllables, rising and falling like a song.

That part is bitter-sweet. We miss being called "Umma" and "Appa", but we are happy that he knows he is loved by a Mommy, a Daddy, an Umma and an Appa. (And his first mother).

At three months home we've found a normal, but I don't think it is the normal. I imagine it could take years to get to that point. I do know that I love my little family. I love the work we're doing, and the way we can laugh our way through the uncertain parts.

****                   ****

The day after the worst thing ever happened, I received an email from YH's foster mother. I try to send her a written update (translated into Korean) on YH's growth and development every other week. I know she is worried about some of his special needs, and I want to be sure she knows that we are doing everything we can to help him rise up.

This email was the first response we received from her. She said she was glad YH was doing well and receiving the medical attention he needs. She said it has been hard for her family to be in their apartment without YH. That she was very sad and missed him very much. She thanked me for sending emails and lots of pictures of YH in our home. She asked after the health of my mother, and sent her love to the big kids.

Then she said she was sending three videos to YH--would we show them to him? Three videos: a video message from each member of the family, each telling YH he was loved.

I cried when I watched them (I cry a lot these days).

As soon as YH woke up from his nap, I sat him in front of the laptop and pressed "play".
There was Umma--her face, her hands, her  voice.

And YH's face LIT up. The hole left by the deleted microphone was filled. He laughed and waved at the screen. He kissed his foster family's faces. He turned to me and yelled out "Mommy!" in delight when his Appa appeared on the screen.

And I cried again, but this time it was happy tears. What a gift--and what perfect timing.

It was the best thing ever.

                              (Please forgive my high pitched squeal--it couldn't be helped)

Friday, August 17, 2012


There's a game I play sometimes.

I fix a drink (usually gin and topo chico with cucumber slices). I swirl around the ice and listen to the clink clink clink. I take a sip and feel the bubbles on my tongue and the bite of gin on my gums.

I finish that drink and I fix myself another one. More ice this time, a little less cucumber.

At this point I am usually feeling a little happy, a little buzzy, a little extra lovely.

I finish my second drink. More slowly this time.
At this point I am feeling a little tired, a little woozy, a little impaired.

I rarely make it past the second drink before I give up the game.

I don't feel good if I drink more than that. I get the spins, my mouth gets dry. I fall asleep easily but wake up an hour later with my heart pounding. I'm not good at drinking a large quantity of alcohol,
so I doubt I'll ever win the game.

The point of the game is to try to drink a specific number of drinks in one sitting. To try to equal the number written on the grainy fax we received in mid-December 2010. To swallow the booze and sit with the effects. To feel what it is like to flood my bloodstream with the alcohol.

To take it a step further and imagine what it would feel like if I was pregnant.

If I was pregnant with YH.

If I was pregnant with YH and I drank the number of drinks his firstmother reported drinking--every night for the first seven months of her pregnancy.

I can't do it.

****                  ****

The thing about prenatal exposure to alcohol is that it is horrifying. The amount of damage that can be done to every major system of a developing fetus is staggering. The injuries can be profound and life-altering--for everyone who loves the affected child.

There is no way to predict how ANY amount of alcohol will impact a child in utero. It's like a tornado, or a freak hailstorm. A wildfire that completely razes some homes to the ground while passing over others.

 Some children may have the "classic" facial features of Fetal Alcohol Syndrome: thin upper lip, smooth philtrum, low nasal bridge, and small palpebreal fissures. Some may also have secondary physical characteristics like "railroad track" ears, "clown" eyebrows, epicanthal folds, bent pinkie fingers, short stature, and microcephaly.

Some children may have none of the facial features or physical characteristics of the disorder. These children carry their congenital brain damage on the inside. They pass for "normal" because they don't look different, but may struggle with social immaturity, impulsivity, learning difficulties, impaired memory functions, global developmental delays, and mental illness. They may become easy marks for people looking to take advantage of them. They may battle addiction and incarceration.

The other thing about prenatal exposure to alcohol is that the damage is irreversible. Once a child's brain has been hurt by the toxins that injury can never be reversed. It can be accommodated for, and supported with interventions and therapies--but it can never be undone.

****             ****

Talking about children affected by prenatal alcohol exposure makes people uncomfortable. Some medical professionals are hesitant to diagnose the disorder because it assumes injury by another party, ie the woman who carried the child. Children who are affected by exposure and who remain undiagnosed are at greater risk than those who are diagnosed, and diagnosed early.

Children suffer because of the judgement and shame associated with the damage caused by prenatal alcohol exposure. Kids with prenatal exposure are often labeled "problem" children. They are talked about in whispers, they are used as central figures in cautionary tales about adoption/foster care. They are assumed to come from bleak backgrounds. They are punished by society for the presumed sins of their mothers.

Earlier this week YH had his last big doctor's appointment, with the geneticist. The aim of this appointment was to get him diagnosed on the Fetal Alcohol Syndrome Disorder continuum. While we wish our beautiful son had never been exposed to alcohol in utero, we are thankful that his firstmother disclosed the exposure when she relinquished him. It is much easier to get a concrete diagnosis with confirmed documentation.

The geneticist did a thorough evaluation of YH's physical features. She talked to me at length about his developmental and birth history. She took measurements and plotted them against the averages for children his age. She went through the diagnostic criteria with me step by step.

Our son does not have Fetal Alcohol Syndrome (FAS). This is usually the most profound level of impairment, often presenting with very low IQs and severe behavioral and emotional challenges. Failure to thrive and feeding issues are also often present in this group. Diagnosis requires the presence of the "classic" FAS facial anomalies.

Our son does not have P-FAS (partial-FAS, sometimes called FASD or FAE). This category includes some but not all of the classic facial features, plus a combination of other developmental and physical growth challenges.

Our son does not qualify for the next category down the diagnostic criteria: ARBD (alcohol related birth defects). This group presents with defects of the skeletal systems and other major organ systems.

The letters that YH walked out of the office with are: ARND. Alcohol Related Neurodevelopmental Disorder. This means that his outward appearance and physical self are not visibly damaged by exposure to alcohol. He is at risk for developmental delays, learning differences and behavioral challenges due to the damage caused to his brain by the exposure. We do not yet know the extent of the damage (his development is currently on-target); we sit and wait for new symptoms and challenges to present themselves.

Because of his "normal" appearance he will pass as neurotypical.
And that terrifies me, for many reasons.
But I am THRILLED to have those letters recorded in his file now, before he turns three.

They will serve as our magic pass into future services and evaluations. They will automatically qualify him for certain interventions.

These letters will not define him, but they will be an important piece of lifting him up. A key block in the very strong foundation for success that we are building for him.

****          ****

It would be easy for me to pass judgement on YH's firstmother for the "choices" she made while pregnant. It is absolutely heartbreaking to think of the challenges YH's future might hold--challenges caused specifically by his ARND. I am angry and sad at his diagnosis, but not at his firstmother.

As I said in an earlier post, I recognize that the information we received in YH's referral is at best an incomplete snapshot of a (very sad) moment in time in his firstmother's life. I cannot pretend to know anything about her daily life or her own challenges and struggles. It is not fair to imagine that her life today, in this moment, is anything like the life described in his referral.

So instead of thinking of her in anger I choose to hold her in peace.

****                ****

At bedtime last night YH wanted to drag out our routine. In addition to reading five board books and singing two songs he wanted me to lie down next to him. He insisted we sing "Happy Birthday" to each member of the family--Miss A, Sweet Bubs, Papa, Mama, the dogs, the cat. He clapped at the end of each round and blew out an imaginary candle.

He wanted to put his nose up against my nose. To take his index finger and trace the outline of my eyebrows, then his eyebrows. My nose, then his nose. My ear, then his ear.

At the end of the day he is the same sweet and silly boy that he was before his diagnosis. He is smart (so smart!) and curious and loving. He is all of the letters in the alphabet and all of the colors in the rainbow.

He's YH.
And he's perfect.

Friday, August 10, 2012


The tiny dot in the middle of the frame is me, on my way back to shore

Each day in Maine I take the time to swim in the ocean.

I put one foot in front of the other with purpose as I enter the freezing water. I keep walking even though my calf muscles seize and twitch in horror. I walk out to my waist, letting the icy waves wash over my belly. I walk out up to my armpits, clenching and unclenching my fists.

I swim for as long as I can stand it--sometimes for 20 minutes or more. I swim in a straight line out to the horizon, not daring to look down into the waves or back to shore. I move slowly at first, fighting the urge to gasp for breath as my lungs shudder against the cold. I alternate between the crawl, sidestroke and breast stroke. If I keep my face in the water for too long my chin will go numb and my lower lip will droop. Salty rivulets will run down my neck.

At first the cold is all-consuming. I cannot think of anything but the water temperature--my body won't allow me to forget what an idiot I am for doing this. After a few minutes the fact of the cold disappears, leaving a feeling of being scraped hollow in its place.

My limbs are heavy, but they keep moving. My scalp is taut and my eyes are clear. My whole body is numb--plunging forward through the water. I feel like my brain and the beating of my heart are the only things that matter.

I enjoy this feeling of weightlessness.
I enjoy the feeling of being on the brink of disaster.
I enjoy the silence, and the sun, and the knowledge that there are unseen worlds beneath me.

Back on land I am breathless as my blood begins to warm. I become aware again of the parameters of my form, of each hair on my skin. I hear the birds, and my children, and the sound of the waves hitting the rocks. 

I miss being numb--and that feeling of loss follows me home to Texas.

****                  ****

At home I find myself trying to withdraw into the numb, to avoid the world around me.When I step outside the heat rushes in to wrap my head in fire. It is like living in an oven, the opposite of being numb. Instead of feeling nothing I feel everything: every pore, every wrinkle.

The sweat and the sun serve to highlight physical sensation, and I hate it.

I don't want to be reminded of the mosquito bite on my ankle, or the too-long-hair at the nape of my neck.

I want it all to be erased by the ocean, with only my brain and heart left.

****                   ****

I watch the Olympics with my daughter and sit with the knowledge that only thing I could have medaled in as an adolescent was disordered eating. I roll the desire to be numb, and feel scraped hollow, over and over in my memory. I find its match in the strictly regimented days of my youth, when conquering hunger through sheer will power was my ultimate goal.

I have a physical memory of how triumphant I felt with an empty belly. Of how it felt to be dizzy and shaky and still feel like this was winning. Eventually, I could flip the switch and disconnect my mind and body. I could be numb.

It is scary to recognize that my daily swims in the ocean summoned that physical memory. That now as an adult, who prides herself on being balanced and healthy, my mind and body could betray me. 

Right now everything in my life is turned upside down: my professional life, my role as caregiver, my daily routines....All of it has changed. I can't control any of these changes--and I thought I was ok with that. But part of me is still panicking. Part of me wants to lock down the self-control to get a handle on all that is changing.

****                   ****

The difference this time around is that I am aware of why my mind/body are reacting this way. Why I crave the numbness in the face of the unknown and uncertain. And I am prepared.

I have my support people, I have my friends, I have my group work (which I really need to tell you about in another post).

And I'm going to be ok.

Even in the heat.

Saturday, August 4, 2012

Dr. Feelgood

YH squeezing a teddy to death at our first ever meeting

The seemingly endless march of specialist appointments for YH is drawing to close. We have our genetics appointment later in the month (after which I hope to be able to be a bit more explicit about YH's "risk factors" and diagnoses) and after that the pages of the special "YH Medical Calendar" that I bought unfurl in beautiful blank space until November.

This is a relief for me--and not just because my sweet boy deserves a break. (And believe me, he *deserves* a break). It is a relief for me because of all the parts of parenting that are fraught with potential landmines from my past, interacting with the medical establishment is the one most likely to explode in my face and render me useless.

I have a deep-seated fear of doctors. This is not "white coat hypertension"; this is active purposeful avoidance of medical professionals.

(And hey--some of my favorite people in the whole world are doctors or nurses.)

I can explain to you in great detail the hows and whys of my fears. I am self-aware enough to know from whence this all springs, and I can acknowledge that it is irrational and potentially self-harming to avoid medical care to the degree that I do. I can also spend hours justifying my choices to you.  I can ignore and explain away potential health concerns with the best of them.

I need to tread lightly on this subject, because I do not want to sound like I am laying blame on anyone else for my irrational fears. I do know that when I was a child someone very important to me was chronically ill, and bearing witness to this made me feel helpless. I felt that I needed to be perfect in order to avoid causing this person more pain. If anything was wrong with me I needed to hide it, cover it up, take care of it on my own.

I got really good at hiding things. Really, really good.
And the more successful I was at hiding things the more resentful I became that NO ONE noticed. Nobody noticed for YEARS that I was ill or hurting. 

And then I became a parent and you just cannot live in hiding when you are a parent. My kids dragged all my hidden secret crumbly bits out into the light.

I work HARD to not let this impact my parenting. I *do* strive to take care of myself and to live life in a full and healthy manner for my children. And myself. And if my kids are sick or injured I will tear down walls to get them help from professionals.

But is so hard to confront your fears.
So hard.

****                   ****

 Helping YH get the care he needs has been a type of immersion therapy for me. Before each appointment I grit my teeth and put on my mental armor. I can do this.

Some appointments have been total disasters (pediatric opthamologist) and some have been pretty good (craniofacial team).

Yesterday's appointment went beyond "pretty good", into the realm of AWESOME. I have a new favorite doctor and he's a pediatric urologist.

This appointment was the one least likely to yield any surprises. We found out in January that YH needed surgical repair for a "minor" issue. We knew the ideal window of time to do the surgery was between 6-12 months but obviously that wasn't going to happen for our boy.

I did my due diligence with Dr. Google, researched surgical procedures, trolled adoption forums for related threads, engaged in some self-flagellation with the self-righteous posters over at mother*

I was prepared but not enthused for the appointment.

YH and I sat in the waiting room for thirty minutes while I filled out paperwork. I'm getting good at writing "unknown" on all the medical history questions. Unknown. Unknown. Unknown.

YH played *with* another little boy there, which was something new and pleasantly surprising. They pretended to catch and eat little fish suspended in a window of gel on an exersaucer in the corner. Adorable.

The nurse called YH's name (correct pronunciation on the first try! No avoiding it by just calling out his last name!). We walked back to the exam room together and YH started to cry. He is SO tired of being poked and prodded. The nurse was very sweet and went and gathered up every car-related toy she could find and brought it in to us, building a precarious pile on the exam table.

The doctor came in a few minutes later. He got down to YH's eye level and asked if he could play cars with him. They raced and zoomed and made "vroom vroom" noises together for ten minutes before the doctor even began to ask about why we were there.

YH shrieked like a banshee during the exam. The doctor looked at what he needed to look at and then said "I'm sorry I upset you buddy."

He talked me through the repair process, drew diagrams, listened to my questions and seemed to appreciate my google expertise. He told me things look very favorable for YH; his case is moderate and should be fully addressed in one out-patient surgical procedure.

Then he asked me how soon I felt we could schedule surgery without disrupting YH's transition/attachment process.

For real.

This doctor, this wonderful man, was aware enough of the needs of children like YH to know that a surgery could hurt his tiny heart. That the trauma of the experience might damage the fragile bonds of attachment we've worked so hard to nurture.

People, this is a big deal. Not every medical professional, not every medical specialist, is well-versed in  the special needs of children who joined their families through adoption. As parents we need to always be on our guard, ready to educate and advocate for recognition of these special needs. It was a relief to meet a doctor who "got it"--who didn't need my canned speech.

We agreed that later this year would be ideal, and he said "Let's reserve a spot now and we'll check-in as the date gets closer."

And YH and I *both* left the appointment feeling happy.
And it was a good thing.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012


At the end of our first meeting with YH our social worker expressed some concerns. She said she had been worried about him, about his tendency to fly from one activity to the next. He would pick up a toy and then drop it in favor of another one. He wasn't interested in books and hardly watched videos or television. He liked commercials, but mostly for the music.

She said she had hoped he would naturally grow out of his "busy-ness" but that she was very, very worried about him. She asked what we thought when we observed him--was his behavior what we expected?

To a large degree his behavior was exactly what we expected. YH's risk factors often result in a comorbid diagnosis of ADHD/ADD--we knew ahead of time this was a potential challenge for our son.

And certainly, the first few weeks with him were in keeping with what we had observed at that first meeting. His busy-ness knew no bounds. Each day every toy in the house would be taken out and dropped in pursuit of something new. By 9am our floors were carpeted with toys. YH was always good about helping to clean-up, but the sheer volume of playthings strewn about was overwhelming (I know: first-world problem).

His interest in books slowly increased. We read him the same five board books at bedtime and naptime and he grew to anticipate the rhythms of the words. We have books of trains and cars (his current obsessions) that he would flip through, occasionally glancing at the pages. The books he seemed to pay the most attention to were a series of small board books focusing on different vocabularies (food, around the house, toys, etc). Each page held a single image--BALL. APPLE. PANTS.

He would ask to watch Korean cartoons on the laptop but would wander off after one or two minutes of viewing.

Inattentive. Easily distracted. Hard to keep engaged.

And then.

Then his glasses came in.

And his world suddenly came into focus.

And *everything* changed.

It almost happened overnight. Once he started actually wearing the glasses (instead of taking them off every few minutes) his attention span quadrupled. He started really seeing the world around him, and paying attention to the things that interested him. I can only imagine that prior to glasses his visual world was a blur of indistinct colors and shapes--and now with glasses, he is able to completely rebuild his mental maps.

Now he really watches his Korean cartoons--more than one 10 minute episode at a time. He really studies his favorite books--pointing out things he sees on the pages. Look, a piano! Look, a dog! Look, Little Pookie is a pig!

He has started to put shape puzzles together--instead of just playing with individual pieces. Yesterday morning we did an art project together--something I never would have attempted in life pre-glasses. But he loved it! He concentrated on putting the stamps in the ink and then pressing them onto the paper, in just the patttern he wanted.

When you are parenting a child with irreversible brain damage the ability to positively change his environment--to augment his abilities--is so, so sweet. I know that the glasses were a relatively easy fix for a tiny piece of his larger challenges but oh! What a beautiful piece they are. 

Sunday, July 29, 2012

In for a penny, in for a pound.


As it turns out, we went to Maine.
I know, I know.

My "perfect on paper" plan fell by the wayside once we realized how much we all--especially YH--missed the big kids.

And so we packed our bags and followed them north.
And it was lovely.

It was the kind of vacation that defies a linear narrative--you know those experiences that seem to happen beyond the scope of time and place? It was one of those.

****                       ****
YH at the lobster pound.

It is hot inside our rental car and the sun is shining so bright. The heat is unusual for this part of the country, this time of year. We laugh because it is rainy and gray at home in the South and so so sunny bright here in the North.

We have decided to surprise the big kids--they do not know we are coming. We are giddy with thoughts of our subterfuge. We stop at our favorite lobster pound (Lunt's) for lunch and place a call to my parents' house.

We talk to Sweet Bubs, who is busy helping my father build a set of stairs down to Ghost Hollow. We tell him we will call him back at 5pm--make sure he is at home. Make sure Miss A is there as well.

We kick our feet with anticipation as we eat our lobster rolls. YH sticks to french fries and lemonade.

****                          ****

On the ferry.
 When we arrive at the ferry terminal the line of cars stretches down the road and over the hill. So many! We slide into a "reserved" spot and wait for the chance to board.

On deck there is a new ferryman guiding us into parking spots. He looks like the character "Skinny Pete" from Breaking Bad. He has a New York accent and fidgety movements; he is not who we expected. He parks the cars four across instead of three (as is custom) and we find we are trapped in the car for the duration of the ride.

Sean scoops YH into his lap and lets him "steer" the car. We roll down the windows to let the smell of salt water and kelp in. It stings my nose and fills my lungs. We are so close!

Once we reach the island we roll off of the ferry and begin the short drive to my parents' house. We remind ourselves to wave at each car we pass--island etiquette requires it.

I see all the "For Sale" signs dotting the roadway. Taxes on waterfront property were raised last year. Blue realtor signs sit askew at the edge of the treeline up and down the road as far as the eye can see. Gravel roads lead into the pine trees, cloaking houses that have sat vacant for months. Years.

We turn onto our street (peeking to see if the trailer at the corner of the road is occupied this year) and into my parents' driveway. We stop short of the house and call the kids.
Sean says to Miss A. "Hey--you should go look outside." She is skeptical. Why should I go outside?

The door opens as our car drifts into view. Miss A comes spilling out with the receiver pressed to her cheek. She sees Sean and grins. I jump out of the car I am so happy to see her. YH yells out her name and struggles to be free of his car seat. Sweet Bubs is not far behind and he gets swept into the love crush.
My family. My beautiful family.

****                    ****
The secret place

It is dusk. I follow the kids down a narrow path into the woods. They are taking me to their secret spot, their clubhouse. We wind through saplings and fallen trunks. The hollow, with its briny tides, is to our left--barely a glint peeking through the trees. The path is soft with pine needles. It dips and rises on a whim, trying to trip you with a lattice of slick tree roots.

This way, the big kids say. They are impatient with my cumbersome adult form. They slip through the brush with the ease of hares--I am not so swift or fleet of foot. My parents' dog, Nina, stays behind to make sure I stay with the pack. She has become Sweet Bubs' constant companion over the last two weeks.

Suddenly we are there. Carpets of moss unfold around large gray boulders that reach to the sky. Rays of sunlight break through the treetops and warm patches of the moss, creating magnificent spots to curl up with a book. I catch my breath--it is the most perfect secret spot ever.

The kids spend hours here. Miss A is a queen and Sweet Bubs is her royal guard. He works for a three hour shift, wielding a staff to ward off intruders. After his shift is done he gets a two hour break, during which the Queen throws him a party--complete with cake.

It sounds like a good gig.

****                     ****

Sweet Bubs has gone feral. When he wakes he runs out the door, hurtling towards the trees, the mud, Ghost Hollow. He clutches swords made of sticks and brandishes them at imagined foes. He scampers up and down the rocks and over the tree stumps. He is agile and fearless in a way I never noticed before.

At the quarry he leaps into the deep water with abandon. He dog paddles furiously, and hauls his little seal-form onto the floating dock in the middle of the expanse. He knows the other boys there by name and soon they are engaged in an elaborate effort to wrangle an inflatable raft from one end of the quarry to the other. His laughter bounces off the sheer granite walls that surround his swimming spot.

He discovers something new and amazing at Fine Sand Beach. He walks over the rocks that ring the beach until he comes to a quiet and sandy cove. "Secret beach! I found a secret beach!" There are submerged rocks a few feet off shore that keep the water in cool, shallow pools made vibrant by seaweed and schools of bright green eel-like fish. There is a large flat rock that tilts toward the water-- it becomes a water slide for the intrepid at high tide.

At night, after YH is in bed,  he insists on playing ruthless games of Disney Princess Uno. He plays by his own set of rules--a trait that was encouraged by his grandparents, but that drives his father crazy. Sweet Bubs says things like "Pretty savvy move there Dad, pretty savvy." When one game concludes he says "Ok, ok--just 100 hundred more..."

****                         ****

Miss A waiting for her musical number in  the island review


If Sweet Bubs has gone feral, Miss A has become shockingly civilized. Shortly after we arrive on island my parents hand me a piece of paper dotted with colored squares. It is Miss A's calendar--the schedule of all her social commitments. She attends Rec Center two times a week, Library Program two times per week, and rehearsals for the Hockamock Players Musical Review. She also has playdates with her friend Sage.  Where the rest of us retreat into solitude on the island Miss A is taking after her paternal grandmother: a woman who loved to socialize and entertain.

At the beach she hones in on any other child around her size. She walks up to her target and says "Hey--do you know how to catch a hermit crab? Let me show you!" and soon she and her new best friend are thick as thieves. One dy she manages to get a group of six Quebecois kids (who are only speaking French) to help her round up as many hermit crabs as they can find. The little tribe builds an elaborate habitat out of sand and water and fills it with over thirty terrified crabs.

"Mom", she says, "I don't care that my new friends aren't speaking English--we're having fun anyway."

Miss A helps us clean out the barn. She comes across an old blue metal trunk in the corner. Inside are old furs, a musty silk pillow, and several dusty scrapbooks. There is also a yearbook from an international school--class of 1958-59. She studies the signatures on the inside cover intently, determined to solve the mystery of who the trunk items belong to.

She makes lists and cross-references them with the black and white pictures of girls and boys in tightly lacquered hair-dos. She comes up with several theories about who might own the treasures--the most plausible being a member of an island family that owns several houses near us. She makes up her mind to go to the closest such house and ask if they might know who the owner is--she has figured out a first name based on the looping scrawl in the front cover.

She marches up the drive and knocks on the door. A woman comes and Miss A asks if she is the homeowner. The woman says no, hold on...And then she turns and yells out the name from the yearbook cover! Another woman comes to the door and against all odds, it is her. The trunk's rightful owner.

****              ****

YH is thrilled to be with his siblings again. They all play together in new ways: scampering across the front yard down to the harbor, collecting rocks at the end of the lighthouse trail, curled up together with books.

His sleep is rocky at first. He wakes in a strange place and calls out for me. I scoop him up and bring him into my bed. He presses his cheek against mine and kicks his feet in a rythmic thump...thump...thump until he falls back asleep.

He loves the beaches we go to, alternating between warm sand and cold cold waters.

It wasn't such a dumb idea to come here after all.

****                    ****
We leave the island with sand in our pockets and heavy hearts. Sean and I have a list of things we need to do to the house next summer; it is overwhelming in the best possible way.

When we get home things are not so great. A big storm has delayed our flight so that we don't get into our home until 4 am. One of our dogs has had high anxiety in our absence and she is wounded. Our loved one is struggling with his/her addiction again. We realize our careers in education are unlikely to fund all of our dreams...

It's life. It's ugly and it's beautiful all at once.
We are together again, and that's the best thing we can hope for.