Enough. Stuffed. Animals.

This is just one end of the bed.
This shot represents about one-third of my son’s stuffed animal collection. It’s no wonder bed-making is so stressful.

Every morning, Bini has a small anxiety attack about making his bed. We don’t expect hospital corners — we just want him to pull his comforter up and make it look neat. So we were puzzled when, every day, he’d start crying about how it was “too hard.”

Today, it finally dawned on me. The kid has 28 stuffed animals on his twin loft bed. If I had to try and make a bed look neat with that kind of plush-toy situation going on, I’d cry too.

I had a lot of stuffed animals as a child.  I remember distinctly having to arrange them in a precise order every night and every morning — early indications of my type-A tendencies. I also remember having about 10 stuffed animals, which were decidedly easier to manage than 28. My parents were smart. We, apparently, are not.

Whenever I talk to Bini about rehoming some of his stuffed animals, he gets agitated. “But they’re my friends,” he’ll protest. Formless, omnipresent maternal guilt stops me from proceeding further.

But I’m not above doing a targeted Goodwill sweep while he’s at school. None of the big guns, like Bucky, Cocoa Bear or Pangea, one of his three stuffed monkeys, would get the hook. I’d pick off the lesser knowns, like Giraffe or one of the stuffed bunnies that arrive, like clockwork, every Easter. But Bini would KNOW. The other night, he complained that he couldn’t find Zebra. Zebra is about the size of a miniature stapler, but he was lost, and Bini would not rest (literally) until he was found.

When we ask Bini for some ideas on solving the stuffed-animal-overcrowding problem, he offers one solution: a bunk bed. That way, he can sleep on the top, and the stuffed animals can slumber peaceably on the bottom.

That’s starting to sound like a reasonable idea.

Today, I totaled up my dog’s vet bills. That was a bad idea.

Jones, modeling his new Bite Not. I don't think he likes it.
Jones, modeling his new Bite Not. I don’t think he likes it.

That, over there, is Jones the dog. He’s wearing that contraption, a cone alternative called the Bite Not, because he’s chewing the hell out of his hindquarters. He’s on antibiotics and prednisone for the third time since we rescued him six months ago. In two weeks, I will take him to a dog dermatologist. He’s itchy.

Just for fun, I thought I’d tally up what I’ve spent at the vet in the past six months. Are you ready for this? $1,405.91. And that’s not including the private sessions with the trainer, or the obedience classes he’s in now. Or all the treats, or the Chuckit to replace the one he gnawed past the point of usefulness.

Our Jones is a particularly expensive family member, although he doesn’t hold a candle to Sophie, our German Shepherd who passed away in March (and shattered my heart into a million pieces). Her vet folder is seriously four inches thick. For Sophie, we did acupuncture and dog massage and aquatherapy. We took her spleen out. I took her to a dog opthamologist, even though she was four months into a terminal cancer diagnosis that the vets said would give us six months, max. What can I say? She was my best friend.

Both Jones and Sophie (and our cat Dexter, for that matter) came to us with problems. Sophie, a Hurricane Katrina rescue, had five different types of worms, including heartworms. Jones’ first vet visit revealed hypothyroidism, giardia and a skin infection. Dexter, who was not named for the HBO-series serial killer, had pneumonia when we adopted him. I remember calling the rescue organization, furious, but it’s not like I was going to give him back. I already loved the little guy. For the first two weeks, Dexter was quarantined in our spare room and our other cat, Jinx, tormented him with the paw-under-the-door thing. (Jinx’s vet file, by contrast, is very, very slim. Jinx will outlive us all.)

Dexter had pneumonia when we adopted him. But he was too cute to give back.
Dexter had pneumonia when we adopted him. But he was too cute to give back.

Actually, I’m glad I didn’t know about Jones’ myriad health issues when we rescued him. I might have passed him over, and I don’t like to even think about that possibility. Jones had been in rescue for nine months, and when I say “rescue,” I’m being generous. The organization is actually a woman who loves dogs and has a lot of property and asks her adult kids to help out. She’s overwhelmed, with 30-something dogs running around. Once the word gets out that you’re a rescue organization, people just dump their animals at your doorstep.

And so, for the nine months that he was in rescue, nobody inquired about Jones, who was originally named Popeye. The only reason I found him was because they changed his name to Anderson, in an attempt to get him more attention on Petfinder. It worked: The alphabetical search put him at the top of my list. Once I met him, I was in love, and stopping me when I love an animal is like trying to hold back a speeding freight train. It just ain’t gonna happen.

My beautiful Sophie. I loved her so much.
My beautiful Sophie. I loved her so much.

We needed Jones as much as he needed us. Sophie was diagnosed with hemangiosarcoma a year ago, and her final months were agonizing. I never knew, when I woke up in the morning, if I would find her dead on her heated dog bed. She would rally, and then falter. It was devastating for everyone. And when Sophie died, it left a giant, gaping hole in our family. It was too big to stay vacant.

Jones brought happiness to the house again, with his goofy demeanor, his floppy ears and his happy, half-Pit, half-Lab smile. I find it incredibly calming to throw him the orange Chuckit ball, over and over and over. He loves to go on long walks and hikes. He hops up on the couch and rests his head on Steve’s lap most nights. He likes broccoli and apples and kale. He hates celery, like me. (Look, there is NO WAY I could have influenced a dog to hate celery. He’s just smart.) He’s terribly flatulent, but it’s almost endearing. He’s a different dog than Sophie, but I adore him. We all do.

I wrote this post because I bought my dog a cone alternative for $47.98 this week, and it had me questioning my sanity. But also, because my friends lost their miniature Italian Greyhound, Joey, on Sunday. She was a fighter, and they fought for her, until the point where her little body was exhausted. I know they’re heartbroken. I know their vet bills surpass even mine. But I also know that they’d do it all over again, many times over.

Yes, kid, you lost. No, you don’t get a trophy.

That's me, the adorable one in second place. No, I didn't win. And I got over it.
That’s me, the adorable one in second place. No, I didn’t win. And I got over it.

When I was 5, I competed in my first figure skating competition. I didn’t win; I got second. I’m sure I must have cried or expressed displeasure at this, but that I don’t remember. What I remember, some 38 years later, was how my dad patted me on the head and said, “You did good. Now, go congratulate the others.” So I trudged over to the winner, a girl named Teri, who would later give me a pet crawdad named Big Bertha, and the others, and mumbled my congratulations.

I competed for years after that, and I won a lot of medals. First place, second place, third place, but also, eighth place, tenth place, fourteenth place. The point is, I worked for those damned medals. I lost as many competitions as I won. I skated for hours and hours every week, took ballet and jazz classes and did jumping and speed-skating clinics. Juxtapose that with my five-year-old son, who did eight weeks of tee ball and scored two medals. I was one of the assistant coaches, and I cringed every week when I had to give one of the kids a medal for embodying the theme of the week — hustle, sportsmanship, teamwork, etc. Every kid on the team had to have gotten one by the end of the season. We didn’t keep score during the games. And at the final practice, all of the parents made a human tunnel and cheered while the kids ran through. Then, they got another medal.

I saw the look on my kid’s face after he came out of the tunnel. He was STOKED. But also a little puzzled. Later, in the car, he asked: “Mommy, why were all the grown-ups freaking out so much?” Good question, buddy. Kids aren’t stupid.

There’s been much written about the backlash to excessive medal-giving. The Not-Its, a Seattle-based kid rock band, have a song called “Participation Trophy.” Today.com reported that a youth football association in Texas would no longer be giving out participation trophies. The reason:  “… giving participation medals or trophies isn’t sending our children the right message. Trophies are something you should strive for and earn. Life does not give you a participation job or medal, life makes you earn everything you get,” the Keller Youth Association wrote on its Facebook page.

There are a growing number of learned psychology types sounding the alarm about the participation trophy/over-parenting trend. My friend Kim shared this article, from Psychology Today, called “A Nation of Wimps.” In it, child psychologist David Elkind asserts that kids need to feel bad sometimes. “We learn through experience and we learn through bad experiences. Through failure we learn how to cope.” And in the much-posted “How to Land Your Kid in Therapy” story in The Atlantic, therapist Lori Gottleib described seeing young adults who had grown up with super-attentive parents. These parents had volunteered in the classroom, helped with homework, talked about feelings and intervened with things got rough at school. And yes, these young people felt close to their parents, but also, rudderless, and not as awesome as their parents had convinced them they were.

This is my second competition. I rocked it. And Teri? She's in second place.
This is my second competition. I rocked it. And Teri? She’s in second place.

The over-parenting, over-praising thing made me uneasy when I became a parent. Obviously, there are other parents who feel the same way: On the Today.com article, an overwhelming 89 percent of readers believed that the Keller Youth Association had done the right thing by eliminating participation trophies. I wrote to the tee ball league, to ask if they’d consider phasing out the everyone-gets-a-medal thing, but I haven’t heard back. I’m sure they’d take a lot of flack from parents who believe that finishing something merits a medal, that it boosts self esteem. And maybe that’s true.

But I also know this, as an athlete and a student and a person: My copious losses have made me more determined and focused. It feels really, really good to work for something and succeed– especially if you know what it feels like to lose. I mean, check out my smile in the picture above. That was my second skating competition, and I won first place. And Teri? She got second. My dad still made me congratulate her.

Regarding the ‘Seattle Freeze’

Yesterday, I had coffee with a friend who’s moving to Austin in two weeks. She raved about the place (and the weather), the people (and the weather), the food (and the weather). I’ve been to Austin twice and loved it. I do remember the weather being relentlessly sunny, which is something I can only dream about nowadays. And I also remember the people being really friendly. My friend noticed that too.

Seattle natives take issue with the whole “Seattle Freeze”  thing, but it’s true: Washingtonians (and maybe Oregonians too, I don’t know) have a layer of reserve that’s hard to assign an adjective to. Once you’ve lived here awhile, you start acting that way too. It’s kill or be killed. Law of the jungle.

I suppose it could be argued that I’m only running into unfriendly people, but I just don’t buy that. In the eight years I’ve lived here, I’ve been in all kinds of situations, and around all different kinds of people. And we’re here for the duration, on account of Steve’s job. So I’m desperate to meet people who are not chilly. Here are two recent examples of what I’ve found instead:

  • I’m sitting at a gymnastics studio, surrounded by about 20 other parents. We’re sitting 2 inches from each other, me and these other parents. And everyone’s either immersed in their smartphones (because it gives them an excuse not to make eye contact — I know, I’ve done it) or staring straight ahead, through the big viewing window. So, I decide to try an experiment, and strike up a conversation with someone. The woman next to me drops her gaze from the window for a second, and so I catch her eye. “Those instructors really have their work cut out for them, don’t they?” The woman nods, gives a brief smile and says, “Yes.” And then goes back to looking out the window. No one else chimes in, though everyone’s heard my pathetic attempt. It’s as silent as a church. So I pull out my iPhone.
  • Yesterday, I was waiting for Bini, Nora and Timmy in front of the school. Oh, the awkwardness of the parent-assembling before school gets out. You’ve got the people who know each other and … the rest of us. I recognize, from volunteering in Bini’s class on Halloween, one woman who has a daughter in his class. She’s painfully thin, has pale, pale powdery-white skin and is dressed in all black. I walk over. “Hi there. I think your daughter and my son are in the same class.” She looks at me with suspicion. “Really?” This was not the response I expected. “Yes. Mrs. Bailie’s class, right? Your daughter is Serena?” She nods grimly, affirming. “Yes. Serena is in Mrs. Bailie’s class.” And that’s … it. I stand there, mortified, for the remaining three minutes until the kids mercifully burst through the front door and I can beat it the hell out of there.

Now that Bini’s in kindergarten, I often feel like I did when we first moved here. I was working from home and man, that was miserable. I got a dog in the hopes that I would meet people at the dog park. Nope. When I went to work at msnbc.com, I was so relieved to finally be around people who HAD to talk to me. And becoming a mom brought me new opportunities to meet people. I  had a great tribe there, for four-and-a-half years, and now, I’m back to square one. I’m feeling The Freeze again, and I’m weary of it.

Maybe I can convince Steve to move to Austin.

Not sure you’re ready to adopt? Then don’t

I’ll never forget an encounter I had with an acquaintance, about a month before we left for Ethiopia. This woman was young, and newly married and lacked, apparently, a filter between her brain and her mouth. She told me that she was very excited for me, and that she’d always wanted to adopt. She wasn’t having much luck convincing her husband, though.

“He says he doesn’t think he could love someone else’s child as much as his own,” she explained.

I know there are plenty of people who feel this way, and it used to make me crazy.  What rarefied bloodline, exactly, did these husbands think they were preserving with a natural-born child? Why would you put your body and your marriage through emotionally crushing fertility treatments when adoption was such a wonderful option? Why wasn’t my choice good enough for them? Were they judging my family as lesser? And worse yet, were they judging my beautiful boy as lesser, because he wasn’t our biological child?

About a year ago, Bini started having nightmares. We thought, initially, they were a combo of his super-active imagination and Halloween, which kinda freaked him out. As the dreams dragged on into December, and no one was getting any sleep, Steve and I were exhausted and panicked. My dear friend Robyn, who has been a nanny for many years, called me. 

“I don’t want you to take this the wrong way,” she said. “But maybe there’s something more going on here, like maybe related to his being adopted.”

It was a hit-your-head moment. I couldn’t believe that we hadn’t recognized that at the bottom of these dreams, which nothing we did could make better, was a deep-seated anxiety and grief. To be fair, all of the adoption books we read said to expect that kind of stuff a little later. It was a reminder, though, of something that we often forget: Bini is adopted.

Most of the time, parenting Bini is just like parenting a biological child. He’s hit or surpassed all of his developmental milestones just fine. He’s social and ebullient and full of energy. He’s a natural athlete and adores music. He loves reading and being read to. He loves to color. He thinks most girls are icky. He loves superheroes. But every once in awhile, Bini will act out in a way that we need to look at through our adoption “prism,” and assess whether what he’s feeling is typical of his age, or something more. That’s just what you do, when you’re an adoptive parent.

And so, I’ve changed my mind about adoption. It’s not for everyone. And if you don’t think you can do it, don’t. 

When you adopt, you’re becoming a parent to a child who already has parents, living or dead. And that separation is traumatic, no matter whether you adopt the child as a baby, as we did, or as an older child. Your adopted child will come to learn — because you must be honest, no matter how painful it is — that his birth parents gave him up. Even if the life you’re providing is wonderful and full of promise, that loss will always be there. Always.

And so, to be an adoptive parent, you must be strong. The first time your child tells you that she wants her other mommy, you cannot go to pieces. You must hold your child in your arms and tell her you understand. Later, you can go into the bathroom and cry your eyes out.  But you must never make her choose between loving you, the mommy who is parenting her, and her birth mommy, the one who relinquished her.

If, on Mother’s Day, your son sabotages the breakfast plans by acting out, you cannot, as I did, flee to Starbucks in tears. You need to remember, preferably ahead of time, that this day may be terribly confusing to him. All week long, he’s been hearing about Mother’s Day at school and making a card and thinking: “But I have TWO moms.” So next year, you resolve to do something to honor both of your child’s mothers, and you make sure to talk about his birth mom as often as he’s comfortable with.

To be an adoptive parent, you must recognize that you are part of a large extended family now, whether the adoption was open or closed. Your child will want to know his history, and he has a right to that. As I heard in a day-long adoption training this week: You are the gatekeeper of your child’s past. Take that responsibility seriously.

To be an adoptive parent, you need to trust your gut. If your parents tell you to let your brand-new adopted child “cry it out” at naptime, and it feels so, so wrong, you should ignore them. You should go to your newly adopted child if it feels right. And if your parents tell you that your newly adopted child needs to learn to soothe himself, you need to have the courage to tell them to piss off.

To be an adoptive parent, you must be patient. Your child may test you more than a biological child. Your child may act in ways that are more appropriate for a child younger than her. But because you know that she has deep hurts that she doesn’t understand, you will not send her to her room when she’s screaming, however tempting that may be. You will sit next to her for a “time in,” which attachment therapists believe are much more effective and less frightening for adopted kids.

To be an adoptive parent, you must be willing to ask for help. When we realized that Bini’s dreams might be a result of adoption grief and anxiety, we found a therapist to help us. We’ve sought advice from other parents, read books and attended support groups. These are things that bio parents do too, I know. But the stakes feel higher with an adopted child, because there is that undeniable layer of loss that you can’t erase, that you can’t love away.

You also need to be willing to get help for your own issues. When Bini came home, I had trouble attaching — something I wrote about a bit here.  I didn’t tell anyone but my closest friend and my husband, because I was so ashamed. That was a mistake — one that keeps me up at night still, some four-and-a-half years later. However, it was my son who forced me to get help for the eating disorder that had ruled my life for 26 years. Being Bini’s mom made me realize that I couldn’t simultaneously continue my destructive behavior and be a good parent. My three-year-old son got me to do what I hadn’t been able to do myself: Face down my demons, and win.

To be an adoptive parent, you need to address your infertility grief, and move on. I fell down the rabbit hole of infertility and it was dark, dark days. But once I closed the door on all that, I closed it forever. Really. I never, ever think about what it would be like to have a biological child because if I’d had one, I wouldn’t have my Bini. Why would I ever wish for anything different?