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Thursday, March 10, 2011

We are so lucky......

Over and over again, I hear how lucky my daughter is. How fortunate she is to be with me. How much better her life is here as opposed to there. She has been rescued. Saved.

Telling the people that voice these platitudes that I am the lucky one, that I’m the one that needed saving, that I’ve been rescued is usually met by blank, ignorant smiles. They accept this as something nice I’ve said, but they don’t get it. They don’t realize that my child is not the lucky one. That she is not necessarily better off here as opposed to there.

She hurts. Aches. Grieves. Suffers. She is confused, I feel guilty.

Sadly, I was completely unprepared for my adoption. Even worse, I was completely ignorant of this fact. I knew how to take care of a child, meet their basic needs (okay, my parenting skills of a preschooler could use some serious work!). I had lots of education in transracial and transcultural adoption. I read a little bit on attachment as it related to infants, I read a lot on the integration of an internationally adopted child into a new family. I thought I was prepared.

Until the grief hit. I wasn’t prepared for my almost-4 year old to suddenly wake up to her reality.

How can a child that was brought home at 9 months remember anything? You have to remember something in order to grieve its loss, right? You can’t miss what you’ve never had, right?

But what if you missed learning basic human interactions? Why do they put newborn babies right on the mother’s chest and encourage immediate breast-feeding? If that is so important, then how can you dismiss the longterm effects a child will experience from not attaching to anyone? How can you say that a child was too young (at 9 months of age) to be affected by the turmoil of adoption?

Yes, I just said adoption and turmoil in the same sentence.

My daughter was born. She had a mother and a sister. At around 3 months old, a time when most infants are starting to connect with the main caretakers in their lives, she was taken to an orphanage. She remained there 3 months….she was in a small room with only a few babies and a sweet grandmother of a nanny. When she reached the impressionable age of 6 months, when most babies are interacting and seeking attention from those they love, she was moved to a transition home. She remained at this transition home for 3 months, in a room full of infants with several nannies running around busily. At 9 months of age, a complete stranger showed up and whisked her away. To a new climate. A new language. New air to breathe (if you’ve ever been to Ethiopia - you know the air there is VERY different). New people. New routines. New tastes. New smells. New sounds. New emotions.

4 living situations, 4 “families”, 4 completely different environments in 9 months. 9 months in which she should have been learning who her family was. She should have been learning how to make lasting, trusting relationships. She should have felt unconditional love. She should never have known hunger or cold or fear or loneliness or anxiety.

But in those 9 months of life, she learned far more than most. She learned survival. She learned she didn’t need love. She learned to trust only herself. She learned that if she wanted attention, she had to initiate it. She learned that she existed for herself and no one else.

Will she remember these times? No. Do they still affect her? Yes, daily. Will they always affect her? They shape who she is and will become.

We are learning to let go of a lot of these things. I say we because she, while being very emotionally mature, is also very emotionally immature and needs help and guidance. She’s felt things we adults can never begin to imagine but she did not have anyone to teach her appropriate responses to emotions in the beginning…she is still learning how to deal with her feelings. She is giving up her independence….a tough balancing act for a strong-willed, spunky almost-4 year old. She is learning to trust me, that I will always love her - even when I’m angry, disappointed, or just plain grumpy. She is learning that she does not have to be the center of attention in order to be loved. She is, quite simply, learning what unconditional love is…..and testing it to the very limit to make sure it sticks.

We are also learning to grieve. Mari is sad and angry. It is very easy to blame myself for this and feel guilty. I question the choices I’ve made and the ways I’ve handled things as being the source of her deep-rooted confusion. But it’s becoming quite obvious that we are going through a grieving process right now. 3 years after the fact may seem like a long time but we’ve just now reached a new level of comprehension. Mari is learning how families start, how families live, how families interact, how families love. She is just now learning that hers is different than most. It’s with this newfound understanding that she is beginning to realize what she has doesn't have.

We celebrate her family in Ethiopia. Her mother and sister. We’ve talked about them from Day 1. I call her birthmother Mama H, as if that’s her name. I don’t say your mother or your birthmother or your first mother anymore…’s too confusing. We say Mama H, just as we would say Grandma or Auntie, etc. We talk about her birth story in very simplistic terms, leaving emotions out of it and focusing on physical things like lack of food and shelter. We talk about how I came to find her and that Mama H was happy to see me, how we gave a stuffed toy to her sister to remember us. We have pictures up in our house and light candles on special days.

It’s only beginning to settle into her little brain. Why is my sister in Ethiopia, Mommy? Is she hungry too? Did you take her food? Does she go to school like me? Do I have to go back to Ethiopia? Can I go back to Ethiopia?

We talk, we cry, we hold each other.

Recently, the anger and sadness in Mari has escalated drastically. I had a feeling that it was adoption related as her behavior was very rejecting and hurtful towards me (this is her defense mechanism…she puts up a wall to protect herself….she can’t lose what she doesn’t love, right?). Finally it all hit a boiling point and one night she asked me “Why didn’t God give me a daddy?” I was starting to make supper and I could tell by the way she was asking (in the middle of quiet sobbing) that this was a turning point. I stopped everything and turned off burners and scooped her up. I explained, again, how I was not married so she did not have a dad. I explained that we did not know anything about a dad in Ethiopia, I was honest and brief.

And then she asked, “Why doesn’t anyone love me enough to be my daddy?”

We sobbed together for a long time (I’m crying as I type this and it’s been over a week). She was so sad and so angry because she didn’t have a daddy. And she thought she was the reason.

I’ve known for a long time that she wants a dad. What child of a single mom doesn’t dream about having a dad? But I never would have guessed that she felt it was her fault. We are still learning. And these lessons in life come neither easily nor painlessly.

Don‘t try to tell me that an infant is too young to know loss.
Don’t try to tell me that my child is lucky.

How many 3 year olds cry because they want to see their sister that they don’t remember?
How many 3 years olds cry because God didn't give them a daddy?
How many 3 years old are that lucky?


Mindy said...

Oh, Jill, what a beautiful piece of writing. So true, yet so hard for most to understand. I have two daughters born in China, just about to turn 16 and 13. My oldest was only five months old when she came home, but we've dealt, over the years, with exactly what you describe. She was taken to an orphanage as a newborn, and most people think that because she never knew her first family, she can't miss them. And that, as you know, is far from the truth.

Mari will be fine - better than fine, even - because she has you for a mother. Someone who understands and is willing to embrace the grief with her, to slog through it all, holding her tight. Each developmental level of understanding brings new grief, but you are giving her the tools and the words to find her way. Love can conquer all - IF that love is shown through empathy, understanding, and a willingness to open yourself to the pain.

Thank you, on behalf of adoptive parents everywhere, for sharing this. Yes, your beautiful daughter IS lucky, but not nearly as lucky as you!!

il panettiere... said...

Oh, Jill. I hope to come back and write more, but I am so sad right now. So sad that not a lot of words come to mind.

You have an incredible kid, there. An incredible, strong, brave little girl who also happens to have one incredible mama in her life.

This writing, this grief. It is so, so hard.

Thank you for sharing. It helps so many of us out here, the ones who are staring at the computer screen.

rebekah said...

I read this on and off while making and eating breakfast with my kids, one home at 6 months and now 3 1/2 and one home at 4, now 4 1/2. I live this every day. I see it in their behavior all the time. I could write months on this, and I have, actually, but your post is so all encompassing.

Thank you for sharing.

one + one said...

Jill, this was so perfectly written. Thank you times one million for your depth and honesty here.

"Don‘t try to tell me that an infant is too young to know loss.
Don’t try to tell me that my child is lucky." So very true.

The Journey said...

Please give yourself and Mari big hugs from NY today. Make sure one of them is just from Ash to Mari. The two of you are both such incredible, strong, lovely women.

Troy and Rachel said...

Jill - you're a great mommy and one day Mari is going to look at you and be amazed that you were her mommy through everything.

You are doing great. You are keeping everything open for her which is the best possible thing.

I know you weer blessed with her, but I also believe God blessed her with you. I also dislike it when everyone says Daniel is the lucky one, but I'm starting to see both sides. I firmly believe that we were blessed, but I know God blessed our children with us as well. After all, family, no matter how it comes together, is a blessing all the way around.

Stacie said...

Oh Jill, my heart breaks for you and I am crying too after reading what poor Mari is thinking. So thankful she felt safe enough to talk about this to you and that she has an amazing mom to talk to about it. You are such an amazing mom. You are both very lucky and blessed.

Christine said...

This is so beautiful. This girl has a mother who is willing to stand with her as she faces these parts of her oh so young life. You are a very good mama.

Pam said...

Hi Jill--I have been perusing your blog periodically for the past few years as an adoption social worker. I used to work at CHI in Chicago and occasionally check in on some of the blogs that are on their website to see how some of the families are doing. I also have a little boy who will turn 4 in May, so I can always relate to your stories about Mari.

As an adoption social worker who has worked in the field for 15 years, I just say to you about this You get it. It generally takes adoptive parents a lot longer to be attune to some of those heart wrenching adoption issues that you just mentioned and that just poured out of your heart.

You will never be able to erase or resolve those issues for Mari, but your open acknowledgement, support, love, encouragement and willingness to allow your self to hurt with her is going to put her miles ahead of other children in her circumstance. I applaud you for writing this post....not only for you and Mari but for other adoptive families who may be struggling with the same issues and not realizing that they are directly connected to adoption and loss.
Sincerely--Pam Shepard

Aimee said...

Yes, yes, yes. I have one daughter adopted at ten months and one at 7 years old. They both grieve very differently but they both do grieve. And, neither one is what I would consider "lucky."

Kris said...

Wow, your post really spoke to me (tears came to my eyes). I cringe when people say that my Ethiopian son was lucky to be adopted by me when I know that really, I was selfish in that I wanted a baby, that I needed to mother a child. It's me that is the lucky one. Both my son and are of African descent, so it's not readily apparent that he is adopted. At 2 years old, I'm starting to introduce the concept of adoption to him. It's harder than I thought it would be and I am scared that it will change our relationship. I want so much for him to speak Amharic and be in touch with his Ethiopian culture, but I know that it will be hard to connect him thorougly to his Ethiopian roots. I am also a single mom and I feel guilty that he does not have a daddy. I also worry about how he will handle the realization that he is adopted. Still...I have faith that we will survive. And so will you and Mari.

LinZi said...

I think this is a beautiful post and it is so important... I hope that you share this will other people-- those adopting and those not. I think people need to have a more full understanding of adoption and what it means for a child, and this post really can give a good idea of that-- both it's positives and the grief and struggle that comes with it.

Julie said...

Oh Jill, I cried through this post. You know we have seen many of these behaviors also.

You are such a good mommy to be able to understand all of this. Thanks so much for sharing.


Single PAP said...

wow, this is hard. i have an almost 3 year old at home, adopted from ethiopia at 19 months. she has already asked where here daddy is as well. she asked me if he was "lost". i know we are going to have a lot of questions and grieving as she gets older. sending hugs your way from a mama who understands.

Pam Shepard said...

Hi Jill---I had a question about sharing some of your entry at a grief and loss (in adoption) seminar I'm doing soon....I would do it anonymously and take out Mari's name...whatever you request. I just think that this is such a powerful post and really gets to the heart of the matter with the grief and loss issues in adoption. It definitely helps coming directly from an adoptive parent living it with their child. Could you email me when you get a chance? Thanks so much! (I commented earlier on this entry...I used to work for CHI in Chicago).