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The Beauty of Bringing Home a Child with Challenges

Special Needs AdoptionFor many, a “special needs” adoption may seem intimidating. But as one mom found out, the joy and love that come with such a gift are boundless.  Read:

Parenting a Limb Difference Kid
by Jill Robbins 

and gain insight into the beauty and satisfaction of bringing home a child with challenges.

Love and Reflections

The other morning, my youngest and I were in the girls’ bathroom getting her ready for the day. I dabbed toothpaste on her snoopy toothbrush and handed it to her. My youngest then jabbed the toothbrush around in her mouth until it was full of suds, drooled the suds out into the sink, wiped her face on the hand towel, and smiled a big toothy smile at herself in the mirror. Next, I reached back into the closet, and grabbed a green polka-dotted washcloth, ran it under the not-too-hot water, and rubbed it across her face, cleaning off the sleepies, the leftover oatmeal, and the dribbled toothpaste smudge on her chin. As my youngest’s face was revealed to her in the mirror again, she looked at me through the reflection, and said in a very matter of fact tone, “Why doesn’t the brown come off?”

I replied out loud to my daughter, back though my reflection, “that’s a great question!” Then I started to talk about melanin,  skin cells, genetics, and, then, without hearing a word, she ran off to get her lovely tucked into bed, or “school,” as she calls it.

I have spent a good amount of time, since that morning, mulling over my daughter’s question, and my response. I’ve responded in my head to my daughter over, and over, changing my response depending on the weight of the meaning I placed on her words. I thought deeply about how we approach skin color, race, differences, and our multiracial family. I wondered, have I read anything new about children adopted trans-racially  Have I done enough to feed my daughter’s self-image and self-esteem so it can grow strong and beautiful?

I took a moment to look at our family, neighborhood, and community through my daughter’s eyes. Does she see her beautiful brown face reflected back to her through her teachers (no), in her classmates (some), in her neighborhood (a bit), in our church (yes), in her family (no), in her birth family (yes)?

My husband and I feel that having an open relationship with our daughter’s family, positively impacts our family as a whole, but also gives our youngest a direct, and authentic tie to her family, and culture of origin.  In our family our daughter sees her reflection, of her image, in her birth mother, of her heart, in her adoptive parents. Together, I have confidence that we will lift up our daughter to see her own image, of a strong and beautiful young girl, with a lovely brown face.

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!

Love and School

My oldest started Kindergarten earlier this month. It’s awesome! My youngest started Pre-K and that is awesome too! I love back to school. It’s so great to see the girls make new friends, experience new things, and to see how they integrate our home life into their school life (and vice versa).

I’ve preceded the start of each school year with a letter to the classroom teacher (and this year the guidance counselor too) which outlines our family makeup for them. My hope is that this letter will help the teachers and staff understand adoption, adoption language, and how adoption is for us. I do this in order to spare my kids the dumbfounded look of adults who don’t get adoption (or differences in family make up in general).

When I write the letter each year I have a line from the poem Black is Brown is Tan by Arnold Adoff, “This is the way it is for us, this is the way we are” running through my head. Basically, I like to spell it out as simple and clear as possible for the reader. I don’t give back story, nitty-gritty details, or write anything that my kids don’t already know themselves. I give labels to all the family members, what role the family members each have in my child’s life, and what open adoption means, and doesn’t mean for my family. I try to stick to “This is the way it is for us, this is the way we are” as this is also the motto I have for my family in general.

My girls talk about their birth families as they talk about everyone else in their life, integrated into their wondrous universe, which they are the masters of. But sometimes, I am taken aback by my girls’ depth of thinking about our big crazy open adoption family. This happened late last week. My oldest daughter had created an “All about me” project which was displayed for Parents Night in her classroom.  It was adorable, and pronounced her age, eye color, hair color, favorite color (blue!) and then for the last page it said “One important thing you should know about me is ________________.” My oldest wrote “i HV BUTHi”. I looked at the illustration she had drawn above the writing and it gave me no clue about the meaning. So I asked my oldest what it said, and she told me, “I have a brother”. My heart stuck in my throat, I turned to hug my sweet girl, and looked up to see her teacher beaming at me with a huge smile.  Thank god, I thought, this is a safe place where it is ok for us to be just the way we are.

Love and Reading part III

I’ve completed two books this month in the Adoption Reading Challenge, and I’m currently searching for my third. Upon completion (finally!) of Jaiya John’s memoir, Black Baby, White Hands: A View From The Crib, I came away with many conflicting feelings. However, I am glad I read it, and feel I have many takeaways from it. As I read Jaiya’s words, I felt as if a friend was telling me stories of his life, a little bit at a time, rewinding over the very good, and really bad parts, to make a statement, and to gain my understanding.  I do not think this book is for everyone. Jaiya is a poet, and he writes like one.  If you are looking for a concise book on the feelings of people who are transracial adoptees, this is not your book. However, if you are looking to understand the depth of the soul of one man, and his journey through life as a transracial adoptee, or to challenge your thoughts on what to means for a black child, to  grow to become black man in a white family, then this book should be a must read. Black Baby, White Hands is not an easy read, it’s musical like Jazz, and it’s painful, like a sunburn, but it’s worth the time for the insight that is gained.

I jumped right from Black Baby, White Hands, into another memoir written by an adoptee. The Mistress’s Daughter, written by A.M. Homes, tells the story of the author’s reunion with her birth parents in her thirty’s.  I cheated a bit on this Adoption Reading Challenge, as I actually listened to the book on It is narrated by Jane Adams, who I had to often remind myself, was not the author, as she narrated the memoir so genuinely. I felt as if Ms. Homes wrote like a journalist while telling the story of her reunion with her birth mother, Ellen, and her birth father, Norman. Her writing is to the point, pragmatic, and almost devoid of feeling. However, the stories Homes tells are both touching, and revealing, about the void that is filled by knowing where one comes from.

Homes takes the reader on a journey through the everyday nitty gritty of living in a once closed, and now open adoption. Homes also explores her own fantasies of her birth parents and her adoption. Even after the reunion, the continued not-knowing in the story drives the author to genealogy, to look for a connection to her families and her place in them. Reading/Listening to Homes’ memoir has confirmed for me that having an open adoption, no matter how it plays out in the future, at least provides a door for my children to walk through on their path towards discovering who they are, and who their birth families are. Knowing who we are seems such a basic right, that I am often perplexed by the stories of hidden truths, or falsehoods by omission, about children who joined their family through adoption. Although the truth is sometimes hard to swallow, sometimes hurtful, sometimes scary, I think untruths’ can create deep wounds that are hard to heal. Again, I pray that I am on the right path for my girls. I pray that they truth will heal them and make them whole.

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.

Love and Reading Part II

Life has gotten in the way of my Adoption Reading Challenge this month. Although, I have read 179 out of 350 pages of Jaiya John’s memoir, Black Baby White Hands: A View From the Crib, I have failed to complete it. I tried to overcome the obstacle of reading while in a darkened hospital room, watching a  sick relative sleep, by bringing along a book light, but those places are so jacked full of oxygen and warm air, I’d fall asleep 50 words in.  Then, I tried to read last week while my husband was away on business, my babysitter was on spring break, and both my girls were home with the flu, but apparently when the girls watch Caillou for the 70th time in a day, I am meant to watch along. 

Life; it sucked the life out of me, and my reading mojo. So, I am breaking up my response to reading Black Baby, White Hands into two parts. Honestly, I could break my thoughts about this young man’s journey, up into a hundred parts. This book is chock-full of thought provoking poetry, mind-rattling storytelling, and such raw and honest self reflection that, I had to re-read several parts, to gain the full meaning of Jaiya John’s words.

Jaiya John’s book retells his story of being an African American child adopted by a white family, with powerful images, and unforgettable pain and insight into himself, his family, his community, and the historical impact that race in America, had on his soul. Jaiya John was placed for adoption by his mother, Mary, at birth in the late 1960’s. Jaiya spent most of his first year of life in a foster family and then was adopted by the Potters, a white, middle class family from Los Alamos, New Mexico. Jaiya John was the first transracial adoptee in New Mexico.

Jaiya’s description of his feelings towards the social workers that worked with his mother during his placement into foster care stung my heart. Jaiya described the services provided by the social workers as having “built a wall of shrunken possibilities” (John, p. 17). This description of social workers in the late sixties offering no supports other than placement into foster care, and eventually adoption, made me want to reach my arms back in time to embrace his mother. Equally as powerful are Jaiya’s thoughts about his father’s role (or lack thereof) in his placement into foster care; “the first step in being a father is to be informed that you are one” (John, p. 17). This part of Jaiya’s journey, made me reflect on my own girls adoptions. Did their birth mother’s feel a “wall of shrunken possibilities” surrounded them? If so, did I help lay the bricks for that wall? Did our greater community and individualistic society lay those bricks? Or did my girls’ birthmothers feel they had pathways of hope? Hope for themselves, for their child, for the future? I don’t know the answers to these questions, nor do I know how to ask them.

The love that obviously flows from Jaiya’s parents, siblings, and extended family is poignant, but just not enough to heal his soul.  Jaiya repeatedly explores his feelings of loneliness, isolation, otherness, and not being “seen” by those around him. The issue of low self-esteem also reoccurs in Jaiya’s description of his childhood, despite his loving family and his excellence in his education, social circle, and in athletics, he yearns for confirmation of himself as an African American. Jaiya’s words describing how he himself and his brother (also an African American child) are perceived by their family, friends and greater community also hit home for me.

               “That we should feel lucky to be growing up in such a wonderful town, in such a loving family.They took for granted the thing most lacking but equally important to our true happiness: Seeing our face looking back at us. Most of these people had the comfort of being White in a White community.  (John, P. 10)”

When I comb my daughter’s curly brown hair, and we stare at each other in the mirror, I both love and despise when she says to me, “we are the same, our eyes are the same, we both have green eyes.”  We don’t, her eyes are certainly brown, and my eyes are for certain green.  I feel that yearning for connection emanating from her soul and pray that I can be enough for her, that I know more, and have more resources than Jaiya’s family did. But what mark will remain on my daughter’s soul from being a bi-racial child being raised by a white mama?  Will the open adoptions help with my daughters’ connectivity to their birth cultures? Will our diverse community be reflection enough for their hearts? I am doing the very best that I can, as I am sure Jaiya’s family did, but will it be enough? I pray.

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