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Must Read Books for Your Toddler

My husband and I have been talking about how wonderful adoption is since we brought our son home with us from Korea. Now that he is 3, we intentionally talk to him about adoption more often and give him more depth to our own story about how we became a forever family.  I finally completed his life book, after agonizing over every word and picture, and presented it to him like it was the holy grail.  I must say I am pretty proud of it, but I must also admit that he loves several other adoption stories I’ve gotten for him just as much.

Horace by Holly Keller is a wonderful story that we’ve been reading since he was 2 about a leopard adopted by tigers.   Another one that we started reading then is A Mother for Choco, by Keiko Kasza, and it is my all-time favorite. Choco is a little bird who needs a mommy and goes to Mrs. Walrus, Mrs. Penguin, and Mrs. Giraffe to see if one of them could be his mommy. He thinks that because he doesn’t look like them, they can’t be his mommy. He then meets Mrs. Bear, who just happens to do everything he needs a mommy for (hugs, kisses, dancing, etc).  You can guess where it goes.  The illustrations are the cutest I have ever seen, and I think it’s about the best you can get for a toddler who might be from a different ethnic or cultural background.

Books that we have moved on to recently are The Family Book by Todd Parr, I Wished for You by Marianne Richmond, and Over the Moon by Karen Katz.  Before I got these I did a ton of research on Amazon to make sure these books had the right messages and language.  What I learned is that there is no book that has the perfect language and story, except for the life book you create for your own child.  I would read lots of glowing reviews, then all of a sudden I would see reviews from readers quite offended by something in the story. I used some of these reviews to edit my selection, but soon I realized that I shouldn’t set perfection as the bar.  These books are all great in that they celebrate the love and joy of families created by adoption, and that was really what I was after for my son at this stage.

The Family Book, A Mother for Choco, and Horace are also good options for helping toddlers from non-adoptive families understand adoption.  I plan to get these for the young children of our relatives and close friends so that Maximus’ inner circle has the same context and understanding of adoption that he does.

I have also started to look for books that will celebrate my son’s Korean heritage. I stumbled across the perfect one, called Bee-Bim Bop, by Linda Sue Park. It’s about a family preparing for a festive meal of bee-bim bop, a traditional Korean dish.  It’s got catchy rhyming, cute illustrations of the food, and makes the meal preparation fun and participatory for the toddler from start to finish.

I had some paralysis every time I sat down to work on my son’s life book because I was so afraid I wouldn’t get every single word right. Reading some of these children’s books on adoption really helped because they gave me alternate ways to explain the major concepts – birthmother & father, why they made an adoption plan, who his foster family was, etc. And seeing him just enjoy the books, instead of agonizing over every word like I was, made me realize that at this age, my attitude is more important than the specific language.

Happy Reading!

Monkey See Monkey Do

“Feel my muscles everybody!” Maximus says victoriously from his highchair, arms up in the air, with his little fists clinched.  This is after wolfing down broccoli, carrots, salad, and grilled chicken with a homemade yogurt smoothie on the side.  During this meal, as with all others, we have been talking up the benefits of healthy eating, so that by now Maximus fully expects to be “big, strong, fast, & smart” simply by eating all the virtuous gifts Mother Nature has to offer.  We figure that at 2½, it’s only a matter of time before he gets uppity and picky about his food, so we might as well pack in the goodness now.  Maximus eats pretty much everything we eat, including kimchi that would make smoke come out of even my scalp, thus sparing us of the French fry/chicken nugget strikes that afflict many families.

This is why I am starting to dread eating dinner with other families. Maximus is in the “monkey see monkey do” phase, and all it takes is for another kid at the table to say “Yuck!” at anything that doesn’t look like a French fry.  My healthy little eater then proclaims the same and pushes the virtuous yet offending food over to my plate.  We don’t mind if he indulges when we’re out at a restaurant because he knows by now fries don’t come from our kitchen, but I can’t help but think this is the start of all kinds of influences that will slowly chip away at Mommy’s credibility.  We also have a friend whose toddler runs away every time she lets go of his hand – as in literally flees like he has the Feds on his tail. Maximus almost always holds my hand and comes when he’s called, but not when we are with his friend The Fugitive.  He thinks it’s a hilarious game and takes off without looking back or acknowledging my panicked calls.

A couple of months ago Maximus also learned from someone how to yell angrily if he doesn’t get his way. He still seems a little surprised about the high decibel outbursts that come out of his mouth, but mostly he seems to experience great pride and satisfaction.  Today we had him in a hotel lobby and there he was, yelling as loud as he could to anyone in proximity “GO AWAY!”.  This sweet, polite boy who normally shakes people’s hands when he meets them was somehow overtaken by an incredibly rude imp that I could hardly recognize.

I suppose this is one of the many reasons that being a parent is the most heartbreaking and rewarding thing anyone can ever take on. From here on out I suppose Maximus will be breaking away little by little every day, with the influence that my husband and I yield replaced by others and Maximus’ own judgment.  Today I thought of this as I watched Maximus plunge into the pool into my waiting arms below.  How wonderful to be a child and know that everything your parent does will always be in your best interest.  But how frightening too, that for many years to come, Maximus will give others that same trust.  My job is to teach my little monkey to think 1st vs do, but I always wonder how I will know how to do that as the monkeys around us become more influential and exciting.  Can a monkey who stays in the tree all night be as exciting as the one who sneaks out of the tree?  Can the monkey who eats the bananas be as exciting as the one who eats waffle fries and Twizzlers? What about the monkey who squawks rudely back to his mother vs the one who politely apologizes for sitting on her banana?

For now my strategy is to bury deep into his long term memory some lessons to live by and hope that they stick.  Vegetables make you big, strong, fast, & smart.  Big boys are careful.  Share with your friends.  Say you’re sorry when you’re mean.  Water only in the tub.  No toys in the potty.  Be gentle to the dog.  At some point I’m going to have to upgrade to the more life critical messaging around not doing drugs, working hard, doing unto others, etc, but for now I need to bask in the pride and joy of my little monkey demanding more broccoli and carrots.

Our First Family Adventure

My husband and I have been contacted by 2 families within the past couple of months who are preparing to make their journeys to Korea.  Just like we did in May of ’09, these families will board a plane with their own suitcases, plus one extra duffle with the items they hope will make a good impression on their new little family member.  I am envious of the thrill and adventure they have ahead of them!  I always tell people that adoption is the biggest, most thrilling, most mind-blowing leap of faith you can take.  As fulfilling as my life is, I don’t think I will ever experience anything so exciting as the anticipation leading up to and meeting our son for the first time.

My husband and I recanted our stories and coached the families on what to bring and do.  I thought about my huge red duffle that I packed with 60 pounds of “what ifs” and “just in cases”.  “What if he has allergies to the soap we use? I’ll pack unscented detergent and soaps.”  “What if he doesn’t like cotton and prefers fleece?  I’d better bring 2 blankets!” “Just in case he gets a rash, flu, or fever, I have my emergency medical kit!”.  What I didn’t know was that #1, his wonderful foster family would send us home with everything we could have possibly needed, including a big stuffed bumblebee, formula, diapers, pollock soup, burp cloths and several outfits.  #2, much to our relief as first time parents, Maximus didn’t really need anything else.  At 8 months, he just wanted to be clean, fed, and entertained.

When we first saw him, he was on the floor with his bumblebee and an airplane eating corn puffs with his foster mother.  He stayed with her for about 2 minutes, then his curiosity got the best of him and he came over to us.  We picked him up and tossed him around and zoomed the bee and plane around his head. He giggled with his big wide gummy smile.  We asked some questions about his caretaking though our translator couldn’t really speak English.  I watched his foster mother get teary as she answered our questions.  Soon it was time for us to go and we were told to report to the agency at noon the next day.

The next day we showed up and Maximus was there with his foster mother and one of his foster sisters. Their eyes were puffy and glassy and he looked like he belonged with them, not with us.  As happy as I was, I felt awful for them.  Thankfully Maximus didn’t seem to be phased at all.  We got all of our instructions and documents for Immigration, exchanged presents, then it was time to go.  We tried to express our profound gratitude and promises to give Maximus every opportunity in life, but who knows what his foster family really thought our parting words were.  They sent us home with 4 photo albums they had taken of Maximus since he had come to them, and it was clear he was a beloved member of their family for those few months.

And then there we were, taking photos of our new little family in front of the agency in Seoul.  Maximus’ hair was a wispy crown right at the top that made him look like a cockatoo from the side.  When he was in the Baby Bjorn, his head bobbed back and forth from front to back like a parrot.  He was so cute I couldn’t believe my eyes.  He still is.  I say to him all the time “Do you know that you are enchanting?”.  He looks at me, smiles coyly, and says “Yes”.  Anyway, we took him back to our room and got down to the business of being parents.  First time parents, to be clear.  We had to call my friend in the States during the first diaper change. He was so squirmy that I didn’t see how it could be done.  In addition, all his clothes had buttons instead of snaps or zippers!  We actually went to a department store searching for just 1 onesie with snaps or a zipper, and it didn’t seem to exist.  I admire the patience and dexterity of the Korean people!

Maximus slept a full 8 hours his first night with us (set aside that this didn’t happen again for another 3 months).  It was the strangest most wonderful thing to wake up next to this cuddly little fuzzy headed baby for the first time.  We had no idea what to do with him so we just followed his lead for the next 2 days until we headed back to the US.  We tucked him into the Baby Bjorn and set off sightseeing, meeting several American couples along the way in the midst of an adventure like we were.  We spent our first full day with an American mom, grandmother, and new family member baby Jenna.  We still keep in touch with them.  When you meet another family going through the same completely surreal experience in a completely disorienting place, the bond is pretty tight!

Maximus made the transition so easy.  Setting aside a harrowing 22 hour journey home, he was very gentle on us.  Sure he had his time zone issues for the first 2 weeks, but he adapted to our home, dog, and lives like a champ.  Sometimes if he cried I wondered if he was crying for his foster mom, and maybe he was.  But he was willing to take comfort from us too.  He was a smiling, cuddly bundle of joy with everyone he met, and still is to this day.

I can’t believe it’s already been almost 2 years since we had our adventure of a lifetime.  I think about my friends who had their adventures in the delivery room, and I know that theirs can’t even possibly come close.  They all knew what to expect – at least 80% of the thrill they can share with other friends or read about in books.  No one ever has the same adoption story.  We had no idea what to expect – it was a blind leap of faith the whole way through.  I still can’t believe how lucky we are.

Toddlers Unite!

“Daddy, want picture rainbow” says Maximus the other day.  This request was not tied to having seen a rainbow anywhere within the past 6 months, he just happened to want a picture of a rainbow at that moment.  Such a simple, sweet request that took our breath away.  And, I might add, a welcome antidote to the stark-raving crazy tantrum he had just a few minutes before because he didn’t want his diaper changed. How can this delicious little ukele-playing 2 & 1/2 year old summon so much rage when we are just trying to restore him to his sweet-smelling self?

The emotional ups and downs of toddlerhood are INSANE. Every time I walk past a parent in public who seems to have a peaceful toddler I wonder if only a few moments ago they too were making it clear that mommy isn’t to be hit/kicked, and if they are also waiting for the next tantrum time-bomb to go off.  I can’t believe the things I used to take for granted – leaving the house, getting into the car, walking up the stairs, eating a meal, moving quickly and efficiently throughout my day. Now everything is a battle of the wills that has makes us at least a half hour late for all of our commitments. “I do self!” is the warning shot, but often actually is just a bluff that really means “I have no intention whatsoever of doing what you want me to do”.  The daily battles have made me wonder who on earth ever decides to bring second child into their lives when their 1st is anywhere between 2 & 3.  Do these people have a muscle for patience that I don’t? Do they have bigger hearts than I do? I have several friends with multiple children and I want to be like them, calm and rolling with the punches, not concerned that leaving the house requires military-style planning or that 4 days might roll by before they even get into the garage.  I honestly fear that if we brought a second into our lives, we might never leave the house again. Or if we did, we might never make it back up the 3 flights of stairs to our apartment, forever stationed in the entry way of our building. There we would be, an exasperated, grubby pile of a family with the smallest members screaming out unrelenting demands:

“want raisins!”

“don’t want wear pants!”

“where’s my penguin?!”

“no go upstairs!”

And then I try to think about how we’d be doubling our joy and that the positive part of the equation probably only requires a few sweet things to happen each day. Like the request for a picture of a rainbow.  Or today when I told him a surprise visitor was coming over who would want to give him a big hug.  “And big kiss?” he said.  “Yes!” I confirmed.  “And nibble my toes?”  wanting to understand exactly how much love would be coming his way.  It’s moments like this when I think maybe I could do it, and that I probably owe it to Maximus to give him a little brother or sister.  To have someone who looks like him and can relate to the adoption questions and challenges he’ll face as he gets older, to have someone to play with, to have a mentee in his “Toddlers Unite!” empowerment program.  I think an adoptive parent of an only child probably feels much more guilt about not adding to their family, because I think you can argue adoptees need siblings even more.

But then I go back to thinking about how I don’t think I have double the patience.  And how we’re so lucky to have such a healthy child who seems to be developing on track. And how we can give Maximus more if he’s the only one – education, travel, etc.  But fast-forward 20 years; would he rather have had a better education and trips, or would he rather have had a sibling?   You ask me that, growing up with an older brother who made being mean a sport, and I might have preferred the travel.  You ask my husband, only child of a doting Jewish mother, and he’d have preferred the sibling.  My husband definitely wants to double the fun but is willing to go with what I want.

So I wait for my epiphany.  The day it strikes me like a lightening bolt what to do.  Or maybe it will come in a dream and I’ll awake with a new found clarity and inner calm that all my friends with multiple children seem to have.  Or maybe it will spring from another sweet moment with Maximus, like when we’re done with the last book at night and he says “Snuggle with Mommy?”  Or when I get in the car with him after work and say “I missed you today” and he says “I missed you too!”  Can I possibly miss having 2 pudgy little faces smiling back at me???  We’ll see.

Elvis has left the building

I’ll admit I treasure my rockstar mommy status, though I do feel guilty about it. This is because my #1 fan treats his father like a bad opening act that he just wants to throw tomatoes at until the real rockstar comes on the stage.  Everyone tells us it’s typical for a 2 ½ year old, but they usually say “Oh sure, they go back and forth on their favorite parent so don’t worry about it”.  It’s then that I really pity my husband, because we’ve seen no going back and forth.  I always say that if Maximus treated me like he treats my husband, I would have to be heavily medicated to get through the day.  Here’s a typical day:

Morning wakeup – Maximus yells “Mommy! Mommy!” for a swift retrieval and if I can’t get him, my husband is greeted with “Go away!”.  Maximus flops back into the crib and refuses to get out.

Breakfast – “Mommy yogurt”.  I say “Look Daddy made yogurt!”. Unimpressed, Maximus says “No! Mommy yogurt!”

Me off to work – Complete and utter despondence; Elvis has left the building.  If my husband leaves first, he gets a jubilant “Bye Daddy!” accompanied by a big wave (or perhaps shooing motion?)

Getting out of carseat at end of day – “Mommy carry”.  I say “Mommy has to carry her computer so Daddy will carry you”.  Tears.

Bedtime – “Let’s go downstairs and read books”.  Suspicious clarifying question:  “Mommy read books?”  I say neutrally “Yes, Mommy and Daddy”.  Sherlock answers “No Daddy. Mommy!”

Today my husband asked Maximus if he loves Daddy. His answer:  “Tuesday”.  My husband took that as a sign of hope that at least on Tuesdays he could be loved.

I really do feel so badly for my husband and keep trying to convince him not to take it personally.  All of our friends say it happens to all parents eventually and that a few years from now Maximus won’t be all that psyched about me anymore.  This assumes however that I can’t overcome my fear of balls before then.  I am definitely scared of anything hard flying at my face, and this was even before Maximus broke my nose in an accidental head-butt a few weeks ago.  The thought of standing in front of him waiting for him to hurl a baseball at me seems ridiculous now, but I don’t think I’ll be able to let my rockstar status go without a fight.  I just wish both of us could be rockstars.  My husband is so much funnier and more patient than I am; he should really be the preferred one.

I’ve read a bunch of articles online to see how we can get my #1 fan to appreciate his father, and I think we’re doing all the prescribed things.  Maximus has special outings with Daddy, like eating their way through the Asian supermarket and picking out inter-galactic shaped fruits and vegetables.  (Maximus is from Korea and has already acquired quite a taste for super spicy kimchi thanks to my husband!). We make sure we share the care-taking tasks vs me doing them all, and I am constantly chatting up Daddy’s assets (“Daddy got that car just for you!” “Look, Daddy fixed your drum. He can fix ANYTHING!” “Daddy makes such yummy burgers.”)  Being a principled man, my husband could have locked up his #1 status months ago with some M&Ms, chocolate milk, and letting Maximus stay in either his tub or his jammies 24 hours a day, but he didn’t.  I admire that because I’m not certain I would have done the same.

We waited a long time for Maximus to come into our lives and being his rockstar mommy makes it all worth it.  Mercifully my husband seems to be able to cope with his “opening act” status, tomatoes and all.  I always suspected my husband was the kindest, most patient man in the world,  and Maximus gives him the chance to prove it to me every single day.  I know I should be taking notes for when I topple off my thrown, but I’d rather spend my time basking in the wonderful and fleeting devotion of this precious child.

Ear infection for the imperial king

My husband and I call our son Maximus. It struck us one day when he was about 10 months old, slumped in his highchair with a look of disdain on his face as my husband was feeding him paté. Yes, paté. Maximus is quite the carnivore, so much so that we can drive excitement for pretty much any food by calling it “egg-meat” or “cheese-meat” or “pear-meat”.  Anyway, since then we have found his imperial view of the world wildly entertaining as well as terribly humbling for us, two well-educated professionals reduced to being the personal valet of a sometimes temperamental  toddler. Maximus is 2 now and his basic needs have turned into extremely strong preferences. We are learning the trick of positioning everything as an opportunity for him to exert his preferences and 2 yr old authority:

“Monkey jammies or dino jammies?” (ie no jammies not an option)

“Mommy will carry you or Maximus walks” (ie laying on the ground in the middle of the grocery store not an option”)

Last week we indulged our imperial prince with several extra luxuries because he brought home a painful ear infection from the petri dish (I mean pre-school).  It was the first time since we brought him home at 8 months that he’s been so sick.  The poor kid’s engine, which normally operates at about 80 mph, was down to about 10.  He was so sorrowful – a burning hot lump of coughing, wheezing love in tear-stained monkey jammies.  We brought out the big guns – Sesame Street, juice, sleeping with Mommy and Daddy – perks reserved for the most pitiful Maximus.  It started off with quite a bang at about 1AM last Sunday morning. I heard him screaming at the top of his lungs, went running in there, and found him standing in his crib with blood all over his hands and face. He had an awful bloody nose that had gotten everywhere – like a small rodent had met its demise in his crib. I cleaned him up and brought him to sleep with my husband and me.  I put him on me and propped myself up to help with his congestion and coughing that seemed to burst onto the scene all at once with the nosebleed.  It was like I had a burning hot, wheezing Darth Vader on my chest. That was the end of my sleeping until last Thursday night, when Maximus finally made it through the night in his own crib. During the week his fever went up and down multiple times, leaving him lethargic and sorrowful.  I’d prop him up in front of Sesame Street with a cup of apple juice and he’d stay there sleeping and watching until I moved him.

I must confess that as sad as he was, I loved the extra cuddling time.  When he’s well he’s definitely up for a hug, but I have to be quick or turn it into a game to get him to stick around.  He was incredibly snuggly all week when he was sick, and even the nighttime interruptions were worth it to me to get to be so cozy with him.

Every day I wish time would stand still because I know the day will come when I won’t be his rockstar mommy anymore.  The ear infection seemed to slow down the time a little, by slowing down and multiplying all the hugs and snuggles that tornado by me when he is well.  And of course his bug spent 4 days fortifying itself before it made its way into my husband and me, so now we’re down to 10mph while he’s back to 80.   Maximus’ personal valets may not be performing to his exacting standards right now, but when we’re back in action we’ll make sure his paté is just the right temperature, spread with just the right thickness on his whole wheat party crackers.

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