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Tuesday, August 09, 2016

On Being Adopted

It has been on my heart to write about my youngest and only adopted daughter, Soleil. We adopted her from Guatemala when she was 7 months old. She turned 10 in May. For those of you who don't "know" me, we have 3 older biological kids as well. Soleil went through a tender patch when she was seven when it suddenly dawned on her exactly how devastating it is to have been given up for adoption. It had actually started when she was just five. Evie, my then 8 year old, was asking me if she had ever been to New York City. I said, "Well, technically, no. But you were in my belly when we were there last if that counts for anything." As soon as I said it I saw the wheels start turning in Soli's head. "Was I in your belly, Mama?" We have always referred to Soli's birth/adoption story with as much candor as was appropriate for her age. So I said, "Remember you didn't grow in Mama's belly. You grew in your birthmother, Claudia's, belly. When you were born Foster Mary picked you up from the hospital and took care of you until you were 7 months old. Then Mama and Daddy went to Guatemala to pick you up and you have been with us ever since." She chewed on that for a minute, and then her little chin started to quiver and her eyes filled with tears as she leaned into me on the couch and whispered, "That's sad. They must miss me. I miss them, too." I expected that at some point the sadness of being adopted (or more accurately the sadness of having been given up for adoption) would hit her. But in my ignorance, I expected it to be...later. I expected the anguish to come during her tweenage years. I expected anger to come after that. At 5 years old I didn't think she would be able to wrap her baby brain around it. But she did. At least part of it. She felt the loss of both her birth mother and her foster mother profoundly. And it astonished me.

Fast forward a couple of years. Soleil was 7+ years old. She experienced a couple of months of heavy grieving. She was SO sad as she began to piece her life's puzzle together. The idea that she was born to a woman that didn't keep her was devastating to her. We had many heart to heart conversations during those months where she would crawl into bed with me and cry. She would say, "But why didn't she want me? Why didn't they keep me? Don't they miss me?" It was a helpless, heartbreaking realization to come to -- that I couldn't rescue my daughter from her pain. All I could do was hold her hand as she walked her path of grief. And I suppose that's the truth in parenting. We can't rescue our children from their paths. If we are lucky they will allow us to hold their hands as they navigate their own bumpy paths of life.

I was as gentle as possible saying, "I'm sure they miss you and think of you every day. In fact, Claudia might be thinking of you this minute and missing you as much as you're missing her. She was very brave to let you live with a family that could take care of you. She knew that she wouldn't be able to give you enough food and clothes and shoes."

"I wouldn't mind having no shoes if I could be in Guatemala with my birth family that matches me."

She was able to describe to me that she imagined her birth family in Guatemala complete with a brown mom and dad and a brown baby brother. All that was missing was her.

We have always spoken to Soleil with the utmost reverence for her birth country and respect for her birthmother, honoring her as a brave and selfless person. In doing so, I realized that we had inadvertently painted a perfect picture of life in Guatemala. And to a 7 year old adoptee that didn't make sense. If life in Guatemala is so rosy and my birthmother is so perfect then why couldn't I stay there? I understood that the time had come to introduce some of the harsh realities of life in Guatemala. I was delicate but clear as I described children eating from trash cans, sleeping alone and shivering in drainage ditches, begging and abandoned on the streets of Guatemala City. Things I had seen with my own eyes that had inspired me to adopt a child from Guatemala in the first place. I explained that Claudia did not want her to be alone and scared or eating from trash cans. So she made a brave and very hard but good decision to let her be adopted so that she would never be hungry, or cold, or scared, or alone. I could see that it hit home and the tears began to flow again.

Sometime later she wrote me a note. It said, "Dear Mom. I love you and our family. I don't ever want to leave." Initially, I thought she was worried that she had hurt my feelings by saying that she wanted to live in Guatemala with her birth family. So later I asked her, "Honey, what did you mean when you said you don't ever want to leave?" Her big brown eyes turned to liquid and she said, "What if they want to come take me away? I don't ever want to leave you." She crumbled into my arms. It dawned on me that although she will always mourn the loss of a birth family that she will likely never know, some of the torment that she felt during that time was the result of thinking that someone could show up at our house in the middle of the night and take her away from us. How terrifying to a little girl.

"Honey, no one can take you away from us. Even if you wanted to go, we wouldn't let you. You're our daughter and you belong with us."

"But what if they changed their minds and came to our house to take me away?"

"Even if they came to our house they can't take you away. No one can ever take you away just like they can't take Evie or Emerson or Cole. You are legally our daughter." (That word legally is so abstract to a 7 year old.) "We have the paperwork that says so."

Her eyes lit up. "You have paperwork?" (Aside - Soli LOVES paperwork. She can often be found sifting through the recycling bin by Dave's desk, rescuing bills and payment stubs and envelopes to add to the clipboard that she carries around to take "notes".)

"Yes. We have the paperwork. From Guatemala. That says no one can ever take you away."

"Can I see it?"

"Yes. And I can even make you a copy that you can have for your clipboard."

"Thanks, Mom."

We met Soleil's birth family in Guatemala for the first time in October of 2015. Soli was 9 years old. It was a heartbreakingly beautiful reunion of the likes I am certain I will never experience again. I was stunned and amazed by her grace and poise and her ability to give and receive love unconditionally. And I was equally amazed that her vision of having a brown family, all matching her, was absolutely accurate. Her birth father and birth mother are still together. And she has not one baby brother, but two (100% biological siblings), as well as two older half brothers. One is also adopted to the States and the other is still living with the family in Guatemala. After meeting them, I watched a very visceral peace come over Soleil. It's as if she now has all of the pieces to the puzzle of her life and can put them together and see the beautiful image of Self take shape in her mind's eye.

Recently, while cleaning out her room, we came upon the clipboard. We looked at each other and smiled. And she said, "I don't need that anymore, Mom. Will you save it for me in my baby book?"

For sure.

Teenagers Over Toddlers

I woke up this morning with a pit in my stomach at the realization that my babies suddenly (like overnight!) seem totally grown up. I wrote down their ages the other day (19, 16, 13, & 10) and I sorta wanted to barf. Everyone's in double digits and pretty soon I'm gonna have a twenty-something?!? WT%? Now, don't get me wrong. I love teenagers. I LOVE them. In all of their pimply, first kissing, driving-themselves-to-school, going-to-parties, awkward, gangly, glory; I love them. I always say that I will totally take a teenager over a toddler, and I mean it. But I think my heartache today is coming from the realization that I've missed my window of opportunity to do some specific activities with them. Like taking them to Bonfante Gardens (is it still even called that?). I've been meaning to do that for several years now, but, alas, it's too late. They don't want to go and play in the splash zone! And just the other day we were all talking about when our next Disneyland trip might be and 3 out of the 4 (4 out of 5, if you count Dave) totally gave Disneyland the "hard pass". Thankfully, Evie still wants to go with me. But, seriously! How did that happen? And when? 
I must be hitting a transition time in life. I've been here before and I struggle with transition sometimes. I think what has happened (although I hardly noticed it happening) is that all my babes have graduated out of "kid-hood" and into some level of "teenage-hood". I remember when they graduated from "baby-hood" (with very little pomp and circumstance and absolutely no raise for me, btw) and suddenly I had no babies! Everyone was solidly in "kid-hood". I remember the very day it happened. Soli must have been about 4 or 5, and I looked out my front window and noticed one of those irritatingly adorable groups of darling young moms and babes across the street at the park with their Lulu Lemon jogging pants and their jogging strollers. You remember the ones? Anyway, I thought to myself, "That looks fun! I've been meaning to join one of those. I'm sure they're not as irritating once you get to know them. Good thing I didn't let Dave get rid of my jogging stroller last year! I'm so smart." But then I realized that I had absolutely no baby to go in my jogging stroller. I had had a baby for so many years at that point that it hadn't dawned on me that one day I would wake up, and I wouldn't have one. And there would be no more "Mommy and Me" playgroups for me in this lifetime! Shocking. Uttering shocking to my sensibilities. For 15 years and the entirety of my adult life, my world had revolved around Mommy and Me and suddenly it was over. Just like that! And I was not invited back in the club. Where was my certificate of completion? Or my cash prize? Or a medal or a standing ovation or something? And I feel like I am hitting another one of those milestone transitions - where suddenly no one wants to play with the play kitchen or the American Girl dolls; no one is bringing me "tea" in the little pink tea set for me to pretend to drink; and the Star Wars action figures are covered in a fine layer of dust. Oh my aching heart. How did it happen? 
I do know from experience that the closing of one chapter leads to the opening of another (hear me trying to convince myself?). And although the next chapter of parenting teenagers and young adults may not involve a trip to Bonfante or little pink tea sets (or a raise), it will bring tons and tons of goodness, as long as I let it. For example, Cole may not want to go with me to Disneyland, but he did say yes to my invitation to go on a hike the other day, just the two of us. And although Emerson no longer plays with Star Wars action figures, a mini light saber dangles from his key chain as he drives to meet me for lunch, which he loves to do. Evie still loves to hang out with me so long as we're going to the mall or the beach or Starbucks. I can live with that. And my baby girl, Soleil, may not pretend to take my vitals or my medical history anymore (she used to love to play nurse), but she told me just last night that I should download "Tree World" so we can play together. I'm totally down. 
And, dusty as they may be, I'm saving the Star Wars Actions Figures for my grandkids. Amen.
P.S. Even if they let me back in the club, I would never go back. Forty something moms are smarter, sexier and generally more bad ass than we ever were in our twenties. They can keep their Lulu Lemons. High Five, Ladies.