Wednesday, April 24, 2013

How I ruined it.

On Thursday of last week YH, Miss A and I found ourselves at a theme park in a neighboring city, getting ready to film a commercial. (I know. Whaaaa? It is a long story.)

As it turned out, things were running on a schedule different from the one we had prepared for and Miss A was required to be on-set, waiting, until after midnight. I am sure I don't need to tell you that this is far from the normal schedule of events for any of my children, much less the toddler.

And so I found myself "parenting with connection" a heavily over-stimulated, dysregulated, neurologically compromised three year old in full view of a few hundred strangers for over THIRTEEN CONSECUTIVE HOURS. It took every scrap of energy and focus that I had.

My friend Anna talks about "steering into the skid" when parenting our kids from hard places. By this she means reaching out to your child in the midst of the hardest times, the hardest behaviors, instead of closing him/her out. This takes so much work! It is much easier, and less taxing, to send a child in the middle of tantrum to "the thinking step" than it is to get on his/her level and *engage* in the resolution of the hurt and icky feelings.

I try my hardest to steer into the skid whenever I can; and I steered into it big time on-set. In a way, it was beautiful. YH and I connected in a deeper way; of that I am sure. I met his every single need over the course of that day. I helped him find a quiet place when he needed to regulate. I engaged in creative play with him, I sang him his favorite songs, I carried him in the dark, I helped him find words for his frustrations.

His brain didn't let his body turn-off for one second. No nap. No falling asleep in my lap. He was set to "GO"; alert and tense every minute that we were in the new location. When we finally stumbled to our car in the deep of night, he fell asleep almost instantly.

I wish I could catalog for you the tiny gains in attachment we achieved that day: how he effortlessly sprawled across my lap, lying on his back and whining half-heartedly while staring into my eyes (this from a child who *never* lies fully prone in my arms). The way he would return to my side every few minutes, patting my cheek or back to say "Hey! I'm happy I found you right where I left you!" The way his anxiety behaviors stopped the moment I scooped him into my embrace, and the way his little body softened against mine.

I returned home exhausted, but marveling at our strengthened connection. I was thrilled that progress is still being made; that my patience extended long enough to meet YH where he needed it most.

I was proud of myself.
And we all know where pride goeth....

And so, the next morning I promptly wrecked it all.

You see, Miss A had an early call-time for the commercial so we slipped out of the house before YH awakened. Sean and Sweet Bubs were set to head to the beach for the weekend--with YH, of course, but not with his full knowledge of what would transpire. No one had taken the time to explain to him that Miss A and I would meet up with them later, after her work was done.

And so my lovely boy awoke later than usual, with a heart still sore from the re-knitting of the previous day, to discover that his mom and sister had disappeared.

And then he himself left the house! With a packed suitcase! And only his dad and brother! And they drove far away and set up house in a new condo! The new place smelled nothing like "home". The schedule was different. And mom and sister were missing!

Because he is a trooper, and because he has been through this loss before, YH flipped into "busy" mode. He swam with abundant energy in the pool. He powered through dinner and exploring the touristy souvenir shops. He ate ice cream with abandon.

At bedtime, he fought sleep. He cried and fussed and asked for me over and over.

I did not come.
I was not there when he woke up the next morning.
I was not on the beach, holding his hand in the waves.

The following night I *was* there. Miss A and I arrived (again) after midnight. We left minutes after wrapping the shoot and drove on lonely country roads to find our boys. My daughter and I tumbled into bed together and slept heavily until mid-morning, when the joyous stampede of little boy feet let us know the brothers were awake.

I walked out into the living room, overjoyed to see my sons, and was summarily given the cold shoulder by YH.

He was MAD.
With good reason.

And over the next hour he raged. He thrashed and screamed and fought my embrace. He cried and kicked and nothing made him happy. We sat together on the floor of the closet in the rented master bedroom. I rubbed his back and told him I was sorry he was angry. I told him I loved him and that I always come back.

And I waited.
And I beat myself up over not anticipating that this would happen.

Once YH had finished his tantrum, we went about our day together at the beach. We built sandcastles and splashed and ate in cheesy restaurants.

Did I really ruin the connection we had forged earlier in the week? No, I don't think so. But I did inadvertently test the boundaries of my son's burgeoning trust.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013


When I was 21 and newly married I left behind my home and my husband to study in Madagascar. I spent a semester in Antananarivo, living with the world's most lovely host family. Each morning I would wake up and breakfast on milky coffee and bread with honey, or mofo gasy (sweet rice cakes).
I would kiss my host family on the cheeks, gather up my school things and walk outside to the "bus stop". The "bus stop" was really just a dusty junction at the top of our road where passengers would gather and wait for a "taxi be" (large van) to come transport us into town. I would queue up next to little old ladies wrapped in lambas (decorative white cloth, worn around the shoulders), men with baskets overflowing with chickens, stylish young women on their way to their office jobs.

I would stand and shift my weight from foot to foot, peering across the road at the hillside and its terrace of rice paddies. A zebu would hulk its way across the road and a line of children in uniforms would straggle past on the way to school.

All around me was noise.

Cars. Chickens. Mothers calling after their children. Men stopping to converse with their neighbors. Older women exchanging neighborhood gossip. A young man trying to flirt with my host sister. Kids on bicycles riding past and calling out to me "Vazaha!!!!!" (foreigner)

I knew just enough Malagasy to strain to decode all that was happening around me. In the classroom and at lectures we spoke French with our professors, and in my host family we defaulted to French (a second language for everyone in the home) in order to communicate. Thus I spent most of my day trying to decode the Malagasy syllables I heard and translate them into French.

Never had my brain been more limber, or more overworked.

At the end of each beautiful day I would collapse into my bed, the family cat (Baby) curled by my side. My mouth and ears would be sore from the effort of *hearing* and *being understood*, and I would fall into a deep sleep until daybreak--when the neighborhood rooster would dutifully wake me.

Lately I have been thinking about that kind of brain-tired a lot. That kind of mouth-fatigue and ear-exhaustion feels very familiar to me these days, as I work to communicate with YH.

My son has made huge leaps in his communication skills--but it is still active work to *hear* him. If we are driving in the car and he is "talking" to me from the backseat and the radio is playing and traffic is heavy on the highway--I need to really, really concentrate in order to decode what he is saying to me.

It is frustrating for both of us, as we try to make our hearts known in each other's language.

I have such empathy for his struggles to get his thoughts out in a way that the rest of the world can understand. I can see his lips purse and quiver as he searches for just the right sounds to get his meaning across. His fuzzy eyebrows knit over his tiny nose in concentration. There is a small intake of breath before he launches into:

"Mama! Baby owl. YH hold it, hold it baby owl."

He is thinking about the baby owl we found over the weekend, stuck in a knot of tree roots in our backyard. He is remembering how daddy picked it up, with heavily gloved hands, and how excited YH and his siblings were to watch the little bird's yellow eyes blink open and shut at them. He is remembering how at the time he asked to hold the owlet, to take a nap with it.

He is remembering this because we are behind a truck with an owl sticker on the bumper and he recognizes his wild friend in the dingy plastic image before him.

And if it were late rin the day, or if my brain was less limber, I might miss this chance to fully appreciate the wonder of his tiny brain. The glimpse into how he sees the world around him. A sliver of his own labor.

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Change in season.

YH on the day we met

Spring has arrived in our city. Wildflowers are blooming, and the sun shines more birghtly each day. We've been swimming twice already and turned on the air conditioning once. We spend most of our days outside, chatting with neighbors or strolling through town. The jasmine on our front porch is getting ready to open, filling our home with its sweet scent.

It's a beautiful season in our corner of the world.

Spring has also arrived in our home. And with it comes the one year anniversary of YH joining our family. Feelings are blooming, and the memories sting more each day.

It's a painful season in our corner of the world.

For YH, this month is fraught with "traumaverseries". Intense memories or impressions of the big events that lead up to his separation from his foster family. The many doctors appointments. The trip to the embassy. The last dinner with his aunties. The last night with his foster brother, running wild in the living room while Hyung filmed him laughing and playing "peek-a-boo".

Walking down the street in his neighborhood in Seoul, a bag of shrimp chips in his hand. Sticking his little fist in the bag and cramming the treat in his mouth as he accompanied Appa on one last shopping trip. The dry taste of the strawberry cookies that they bought that night, in preparation for YH's long car ride away from the only family he had ever known.

These feelings and memories are expressed in different ways. Of course YH can't *tell* me "Hey I feel sad today because I am remembering this event."


Instead he has become more clingy, needing to touch me or be held at regular intervals throughout the day. Some of his anxious behaviors have escalated, and he is irritable. He cries. Just, cries. He wants to revisit the book we made that tells the story of how we became a family. He wants to see his grandparents every day, to check in on them and make sure they are there. He wants me to lie in bed with him and press my forehead against his as he falls asleep. At night he makes little moaning sounds. He sucks on his pillowcase when he wakes up, stuffing the fabric into his jaws.

When I am "helping parent" in his preschool classroom he becomes agitated. He does not like other children in my lap, or at my side. He flings his body around, crashing into things in search of a physical sensation big enough to match the turmoil in his little heart. We take a break and head out to a quiet space. He sits on my lap and stares into my eyes as we sing "Row, Row, Row your boat..." The rhythm of the words and the sweeping of our arms, hands clasped to one another, builds a protective cocoon around us.

We take a few steps back.

We are still a few weeks away from the traumaversary of the big hand-over.  The memories of that day are so bittersweet for *me*, I can only imagine how they feel for YH. For his foster family.

On the occasion of our first year together we will celebrate as a family--a beautiful family who loves one another and treats one another well. But we will also leave space for the sad feelings, the hurt feelings, the confused feelings. We will laugh when we need to and cry when we need to.

Monday, April 1, 2013


2013 is the year of "yes" for me. If an opportunity arises that challenges me to push my personal limits, I will say "yes". I will take it on, and I will succeed or I will fail--but I will take it on.

So far the Year of Yes has brought me unexpected joy. Opportunities falling from the sky and landing with a gentle "click" to fit next to one another. A new job. *click* A new sport. *click* New friends who support my creative endeavors. *click click*

Through one of these new friends I learned about the "Listen To Your Mother-Austin" production. I put together a piece and submitted it, expecting nothing in return. Instead my piece was selected to audition for the show, and I stood in a room of strangers and read words that I had *never* said aloud before.

I cried, they cried.
We cried.

Despite the show producers' genuine enthusiasm for my work, and my reading, my piece did not make the final cut. In reviewing the cast list a little voice whispered to me "You fool, these people have all published books. Who do you think you are to compete on this field?"

I bristled at first, stung by the rejection of a piece so deeply personal. And then I felt relief, because I was spared the difficulty of saying those words out loud to a large audience. I was spared the responsibility of saying those words out loud to anyone. I could swallow them, hit "delete" on a file and it is as if they never were.


But because I said them out loud a part of me feels like I made them real. Do you ever feel that way? That until you name or claim something with words it doesn't really exist? That you can spare the world from your especially troubling and icky feelings by never actually giving them voice?

My piece gave voice to some feelings I've been trying to hide.

Mainly, that I am scared.

That I am scared of what the future could hold for YH.

The primary thrust of my piece was my frantic efforts to win YH's love. The lengths I go to to get him to trust me, to seek me out for comfort, to view me as his one true constant person.

Not so novel perhaps. I am sure many parents (adoptive or not) feel this way about their children.
But because of YH's diagnosis, because of his history of exposure to alcohol, my efforts in this area have a deadline. I wrote:

"At this moment in time it is hard to detect the damage within our son. Like many children affected by prenatal alcohol exposure he will “pass” as neuro-typical throughout toddlerhood. The first signs of compromised brain function may become evident as he starts school and slowly, as the years pass, the gulf between our son and his peers will widen.
It is bittersweet to look at our beautiful child today and know that this may very well be the best time in his life; that as he grows so too will his challenges.
The picture painted by “experts” is bleak: he is at risk for secondary mental illness and addiction. He is likely to suffer both from intense bouts of rage and from an inability to distinguish right from wrong. He will struggle with impulse control and long-term memory. His open and friendly nature (so charming in a three year old) will read as na├»ve and dim-witted to his future classmates. As they descend into adolescent snark, he will become an easy target; the kid they trick into doing “funny”, possibly criminal, things.
Because our son’s physical appearance is unblemished, he will be presumed to be a “bad” kid (instead of a differently abled kid).
It is a dangerous cocktail of impaired function that often leads to incarceration."
And so I am working like crazy NOW, when he is small and cute, to get him to love me and to get YOU (the world writ large) to love HIM.
Can you love him?
Can you look at his slightly-off behaviors and love him? Knowing that they will likely grow beyond "quirky" into full-blown "odd" or "off-putting"?  That as his toddler-chub melts away, as his lanky-boy body grows each day, so too might his difference?
I watch him when we are out in public. I watch him like a mama bear; I am ready to spring into action at the first sign of an opportunity to smooth his way. I intervene in "conversations" with other kids.

"YH loves Angry Birds! That's why he put his face so close to your t-shirt. I know you haven't met him yet, and it might seem funny that he came right up to you, but he just loves Angry Birds!"

I chirp and squawk and fake the cheer necessary to cover for the fact that he is bouncing with increased intensity at my side. I slide a hand onto his back and tap out a soothing rhythm until he quiets his little body.
I watch him with my family. I watch their faces watch him get riled up. I see how they don't trust him to be able to control his motions or his speed. How as he gets wound up (too many people speaking to him at once, too many demands, not enough space, too much sugar, too much waiting), they get weary.

I intervene here too and try to get him to fit into the expectations of the event, try to get him to be a little less *him* for the sake of family dinner night.

I do this all the while knowing that I can't do it forever. That I shouldn't even be doing it now. That I am not fooling anyone. That I am not fooling myself.

In a way it is easier to think about these things knowing that I am not the person who hurt him in this way. I am not to blame. I can look you in the eye and defend my son and stand up for him to be supported and at the end of the day I can comfort myself with the knowledge that I am not to blame.

It's thin comfort. It's comfort at the sake of blaming someone else, someone about whom I know very little. I know enough about his firstmother's life to make excuses for her decisions. (After all, that is a family specialty: we are experts at explaining away and minimizing one another's boozy habits.) But I certainly don't know enough to judge her, or pass that judgement on to the rest of the people in our lives.

So until I know how to do this differently, I will continue to play the fool. I will do everything I can to make each day better for YH , now, while I have the time. I will do everything I can to smooth out the ripples he leaves in his wake, to calm the waters that his energy churns when we are in public.