Work/life balance? Going great, thanks.

When we left off, I was beside myself about hiring a babysitter. Remember that? I was sure that 12 hours a week would give me enough time to get going again on freelance work, get some time to myself, etc. It seems fitting, then, that I would end my three-month blog-writing drought with a post about how it all worked out.

It’s harder than I thought.

Babysitter is and was great. But by the time she got here, I was typically so behind schedule that I’d spend the first hour extricating myself from the kids and taking a shower. Then, I’d have three hours left to return emails, make phone calls and write. Still, there was always, always a hiccup of some sorts. I did not budget in time for hiccups, like the cat vomiting on the carpet, or that midday physical therapy appointment that I’d forgotten about or a clogged toilet or the lack of food in the refrigerator. I often feel, at the end of the day, like I’ve barely outrun a pack of wolves.

And don’t even get me started on sleep. That’s a whole other post. What I’ll say is that pre-Evan, I used to do a lot of writing in the evening. But now, because Evan strongly believes that 5:30 a.m. is “good morning time,” Steve and I both stagger to bed like zombies at around 10:30. We don’t sit downstairs and binge on Netflix shows anymore. We do chores and then I try to switch gears and work for an hour but I usually end up staring into space or folding laundry.

I didn’t do any freelance work from mid-March to June. And I’m glad I didn’t. I was physically and mentally drained by the end of each day, just trying to adjust to having two active boys. But once Bini got out of school and I hired our sitter, I started saying yes to things. Just one story assignment at first. Then two. Then, I had to start saying no to things. Right now, I’m juggling three assignments and one that’s due in early December that I don’t even consider a thing yet.

I could always say no to everything and go back to being totally focused on my boys. But I can’t. I have to work. I am fortunate that I don’t necessarily “have” to work, but I need to. I love being a mom. I also love being a professional and using the talents I worked so hard to develop. I won’t give up working. Not ever.

And so, that work/life balance remains elusive. As a freelancer, I fear that if I say no, the work will dry up. On the other hand, I’m stressed and snappish and I’m not as patient with my kids as I’d like. I’ve also agreed to be a room mother for Bini’s classroom. (Oh, shut up.) It’s been a tough year for him, with lots of changes, and I want to prove to him that I’ll be there. That I’ll show up.

I can’t cut back on anything, not right now. My work ethic demands that I finish the assignments I’ve agreed to. My maternal love demands that I put the time in with my kids — watching the martial arts classes and ferrying Evan to speech therapy and practicing spelling words with Bini. My OCD demands that my house be somewhat clean at the end of each day. My need for personal time demands that I do some sort of exercise. I haven’t budgeted in any time for relaxation. It’ll just have to wait.

We hired a babysitter!

We did not hire Mary Poppins. But we did hire someone great.
We did not hire Mary Poppins.

Last week, I hired a babysitter.

You might be puzzled about why something so ordinary would merit a blog post. I’ll tell you why. My search for a babysitter was only slightly less difficult than keeping track of all the characters on “Game of Thrones.” (What about that season finale? Sheesh. Didn’t see that coming.)

Our longtime babysitter, Anna, came to us through a babysitting agency. She’s seen Bini through toddlerhood and into primary school, and she’s genuinely fond of him. She seemed like the obvious choice to get me some free time and Steve and I some much-needed date nights. But when I called the agency last month, they told me Anna was in Poland, and they weren’t sure when she was getting back.

I panicked, but then threw myself into the babysitter-search process. If you’ve never done it, you just don’t know. You just DON’T KNOW. It’s a nightmare.

I spent the next month asking friends for recommendations and posting on local websites and even signing up for I refined my job description to include 10-12 hours of weekday child-minding, since Evan was doing so well and I’m sort of dying to start working a little bit.

I had plenty of prospective sitters come on like gangbusters: I’m super-excited about the opportunity, you seem like such a nice family and I really LOVE boys, etc. But most were ultimately flaky, and gave me references that were out of date, or blamed a “family emergency” for missing our meet-and-greet date. Others just weren’t a great fit, either because they seemed ill at ease, or because they hadn’t figured a babysitting job would require actual work.

We did find a fantastic young woman, but she was looking for full time hours. When the final candidate vanished into thin air, not returning calls or emails, I was in despair. It looked like a long, hot summer with no free time and no work for Mama.

It’s said that the darkest hour is just before dawn. Last Tuesday, I was moping about when the phone rang. It was Anna.

“Hi there!” I said hopefully. “Are you back?”

“I am back!” she sang. “I hear you might need me this summer?” I hired her on the spot.

Now, our happy ending isn’t the only reason I bring this up. Adoptive parents reading this post probably know The Rule about leaving your newly adopted child with a caregiver: Don’t. Not for six months.

I remember being at an all-day training last year and the facilitator (a social worker) talking about the importance of hunkering down and allowing everyone to bond. She further advised that it was best if one parent could take six months off to assist in that process.

In the same breath, this facilitator also told us that we must find time to take care of ourselves — get enough exercise and sleep, and to nurture our marriages. One brave soul raised her hand and asked the question we were all thinking: “How do we do that and not leave our kids with a babysitter?”

“It’s difficult, I know,” was the maddeningly vague reply.

I broke The Rule with Bini, leaving him with a sitter for four hours a week so I could run errands and drive by myself in the car. I didn’t end up in Parenting Jail, but I’ve always felt bad about leaving him after just two months. Did it affect our bonding process?

I do think that I’m a better mother if I have a little time to myself each day — to walk the dogs, get some exercise or go to the grocery store without two kids begging me for Gatorade and Pop Tarts. I come back refreshed and more focused, which is good for everyone involved.

Now, if Evan (or Bini, for that matter) had been fearful or inconsolable whenever Steve or I left the room, we wouldn’t have even considered a babysitter. We’re not barbarians. Lots of newly adopted kids are understandably terrified of new people or new environments, and in those cases it’s crucial that families keep their child’s world simple and small.

But my kids aren’t like that. Bini was always a sunny, engaging and happy child. Evan is joyful and easygoing, delighted by new things and new people. The only thing that scares him is our coffee grinder.

I asked Evan’s pediatrician in early April how he felt the bonding was going. “I think you know best how it’s going,” he replied. “He seems to be attaching really well, but you’re an experienced parent. What do you think?”

I got a similar response from the social worker at Children’s in Seattle, when we had our initial visit with the cleft team. Evan had blown away the audiologist, the speech pathologist, the geneticist and the pediatrician with his intelligence and rapid language development, so the social worker said the same thing: trust yourself.

It took a visit from our agency’s social worker to convince me that I wasn’t a horrible, selfish person to need some alone time. He came to observe and talk with us for our first post-placement report, and Evan alternated between sitting on our laps and running off to play Duplo.

“That’s the gold standard, what he’s doing,” the social worker said. “See how he brings you a Lego, and then runs off to play with it? That’s attachment. And that’s exactly what you want.”

So I hired a babysitter. She starts next week.

Guangzhou, the introduction

The Garden Hotel, from above.
Guangzhou, through the haze.

Whew, it’s been awhile since I shared my story about the Chinese toilet. My parents and brother came to visit, it was Bini’s birthday, XJ has been snoring like a buzzsaw and we’re not getting any sleep, etc. That’s a post for later. I’m long overdue in posting about our travels, and we’re in the final leg, Guangzhou.

I should also note that we’ve renamed XJ to Evan, which is how I’ll refer to him forthwith. OK, back to the story.

We arrived in Guangzhou on Friday, March 13 (which yes, I just realized was Friday the 13th. Nothing unlucky happened, just a crappy airplane flight). It was nighttime, after 8 o’clock, and both boys were tired and cranky. We were met at the airport by Helen, who is quite possibly the nicest guide in the world. Except for Sarah and Elsie, who are also based in Guangzhou.

These aren’t their Chinese names, of course. All of the guides explained to us that they chose their American names while studying in college, and what’s kind of sweet is that they’re all these old-fashioned names, like Helen and Elsie and Sarah. Not a Brynlee or Kyleigh in the bunch.

I usually got polite, slightly piteous looks when I told experienced China travelers that our itinerary included eight days in Guangzhou.  Guangzhou — called GZ by those in the know — isn’t usually on anyone’s top five list of places to see in China. It has 14 million people just in the city limits, and it’s a major transportation and trading hub. But it’s not very pretty. It’s vertical, in the same way that Hong Kong and Shanghai are, and it’s modern. It has a sprawling skyline and a humid climate and it’s close to both Hong Kong and Macau. We were there because it’s also the location of the American consulate — the final stop for all families looking to leave the country with their adopted Chinese children.

Helen, who was that rare combination of cheerful and calm, shepherded us to a van and we were off. She told us a bit about what to expect in the coming days, and asked us how Evan was adjusting. We asked her to tell Evan a few things for us, in Mandarin: That we still weren’t home yet, that we’d be in this hotel for a few days and then we’d go home on a big airplane flight. That we loved him, and that he was a good boy. His face lit up at that one. “He likes praise,” Helen said.

We pulled up to The Garden Hotel, which from the outside, looked like a Vegas hotel. It felt a lot like Vegas on the outside, too, with the upscale mall across the street and the pedestrian overpasses crisscrossing the busy, wide streets. I was very curious about The Garden, which is where tons of adopting families stay. In the adoption community, The Garden is beloved for its Western beds, its spacious suites, its unflappable housekeeping staff, its varied and plentiful breakfast buffet and its expansive grounds. We spent a fair bit of time roaming the hotel in the ensuing days, for lack of anything better to do.

It was nearly 10 o’clock, but the entry of the hotel was a hive of activity, with staff scurrying about and people wheeling their luggage in and out. The lobby was enormous and ornate, with no fewer than three restaurants and a half-dozen fancy-looking stores just in the immediate area. For the first time since we arrived in China, I saw people of different ethnicities, and nobody gave our little rainbow crew a second glance. I saw Eastern European men decked out in club gear, a Middle Eastern family with piles of luggage, and lots and lots of Chinese kids and their new Caucasian parents.

The Garden Hotel, from above. I'm not sure how Steve got this picture. Maybe in his private helicopter?
The Garden Hotel, from above. I’m not sure how Steve got this picture. Maybe in his private helicopter?

Most of the kids had obvious special needs, like cleft lip, or microtia or Down’s syndrome. With others, it wasn’t clear what their need was, but the vast majority of families there were adopting children with some medical issue. Parents who want a “healthy” child can wait up to five years to be matched; after submitting our dossier, we waited five months to be matched with Evan. But I digress.

We took the elevator up up up to the 27th floor. Along the way, Helen told us that we could have breakfast downstairs, or in the executive dining room, on the 30th floor. “Most families on the executive floors find that dining room to be quieter,” she said with a smile.

I want to just clarify here that I didn’t realize our suite was going to be three times as big as my first San Francisco apartment. I knew it was a suite, that there was a separate bedroom and two bathrooms. But I didn’t realize that there would be a large living room and dining room, a wet bar, a walk-in closet and vanity area, and a big master bath. Three TVs, including one over the big jacuzzi tub.

“Wow,” I said to Steve as we toured the suite. “If you have to be in Guangzhou for a week, this is the way to do it.”

There was a knock at the door and a housekeeper wheeled in a crib for Evan. No cot for Bini, which irked me. We’d asked for a cot for him in all three hotels, and it had been this big issue. “What if we put the sofa cushions on the floor and it’ll be like camping out?” asked Helen. Bini was game for that idea, so the housekeeper scurried off to get a set of sheets, and then made up the cushions like a bed.

After giving the housekeeper a big tip, we unpacked as much as we could, wrestled the boys to bed and crashed out. We had the medical visit the next day, which was legendary in adoption circles for being hectic, tear-filled and characterized by long waits. “The medical” was another in the long list of official things we had to do before we could have our consulate appointment on Thursday, and get the heck out of China.

The Chinese Toilet Story

While this is not the toilet in my Chinese toilet story, mine looked very similar. Except way grosser. (Image courtesy of
While this is not the toilet in my Chinese toilet story, mine looked very similar. Except way grosser. (Image courtesy of

When I Googled “Chinese toilet” to bring you the image accompanying this post, I saw a lot of pictures. Obviously, I’m not the only person to travel to China and get all squeamish and Western about the facilities. And those pictures … man, they took me right back. So, so many vile toilets in China. But none like the one I experienced in the story to follow.

(To all the Lonely Planeteers, who are rolling their eyes and thinking I’m high maintenance — you’re right. I refuse to apologize for the fact that I prefer my toilets to be elevated. Also, not full of human waste.)

One day, we were parked in the van with our driver, waiting for Sherry to pick up one of our Important Documents. That’s when XJ started saying “Niau Niau,” which means, “I have to pee” in kid Mandarin. If you said that to an adult, they’d think you were an imbecile.

Steve and I looked at each other. The cadence of XJ’s whimpers indicated that the situation was becoming increasingly urgent. The driver, who knew very little English, understood our frantic hand signals and he hopped out of the car, scanning the nearby businesses and finding one that he thought might be of help.

I grabbed XJ and we raced to a storefront that said “Language Institute.”  Our driver had a quick conversation with a security guard inside. The two of us pounded up two flights of stairs, me holding my new child, who’s crying “Niau Niau! Niau Niau!” and I’m like, I get it, buddy, just hang in there and then, we arrived at the women’s toilet.

OK, so I’m going to try and paint a picture here. Outside the lavatory, there was a trough-like washbasin, which was leaking and rusted. The air already smelled strongly of urine. I pushed through the plastic strip doors and Jesus, Mary and Joseph, the cacophony of smells in there — I can’t describe it. Trust me. You don’t want me to.

So, there were four stalls in the bathroom, where you can squat over your pit in private, but they were all occupied. At the very end, there was a pit toilet out in the open, up a wide step. XJ was practically clawing at my arms at this point so I staggered up the step, trying not to trip on the drying urine puddles and got his pants off. With one arm, I held him under his shoulders and across his chest, and with my other arm, I bent his legs at a 90-degree angle, my giant handbag dangling precariously from my elbow. (Did I mention that I have an injured rotator cuff for which I’ve done twice-weekly physical therapy session for the past six months? Oh well.)

Then what happened? Pretty much the worst thing you could imagine. I forgot to push his little penis down between his legs, and his urine stream did two things: It went up, hit the ceiling and dripped onto my hair, and it also ran down his legs, soaking his pants, socks and shoes.

Poor little guy was then wet, crying and undoubtedly concerned that his new mom could not navigate a damn hole in the ground. So, I’m simultaneously saying, “It’s OK, it’s OK” in Mandarin and doing arm origami to get the wipes out of my bag — there WAS a reason for the giant handbag — but it wasn’t possible. So, I had no choice but to place my pristine, Western knee on the urine-covered step to get the wipes and there, six inches from my face (which had pee on it), was, quite literally, a steaming pile of shit. I remember very clearly thinking: Well, this is a particularly low point.

But, one must endure, so I wiped down XJ as best I could, and beat it the hell out of there, eager to get to my antibacterial gel.

“How’d it go?” Steve asked as we climbed back into the van.

I shook my head. “That’s the most disgusting bathroom I’ve ever been in. You owe me one.”

Then we went back to the Sheraton and burned our clothes.

How to survive in Xi’an with your kid and a kid you don’t really know yet (hint: TV, yelling and alcohol)

Our last night in Xi'an. And yes, that is a margarita in a martini glass. It did the trick.
Our last night in Xi’an. And yes, that is a margarita in a martini glass. With a slice of lemon. It did the job.

So, when we last left off, Steve and Bini and I had just met our brand-new family member, and ferried him back to the hotel. We’d been bundled off into the elevator by the kind, curious and solicitous Sheraton hospitality staff, and finally, we were in our room. We’d done it.

All the home visits, the paperwork, the notarizations, the check-writing and the waiting, waiting, waiting — it was over. Steve and I had made this happen. With the help of our agency, we’d navigated the legal requirements of two countries and flown halfway across the world and been united with this little person. It’s awesome and yes, I’ll admit it, empowering. Because it does feel so theoretical, for such a long time. Even when you know there’s a child out there that’s been earmarked as yours, until he’s in your arms and in your hotel room it’s just not real. And then it is.

After all that emotion, and adrenaline and huge, euphoric smiles shared between Steve and Bini and I, there he was: Xiao-Jie, in his split pants, his multiple layers and his squeaky shoes, looking around our suite with an inscrutable expression. Now came the real hard part.

I’m not going to go into the details of the everyday, so let me sum up: Bringing a new child into your lives is bewildering, for everyone involved. We didn’t know what his cries meant, or if he liked baths, or what he liked to play with, or if he hated spicy food. We knew all of his vital statistics: his height, his weight, his head circumference. But we didn’t know anything about the person. There’s no way to shortcut that process. It just takes time.

Playing in the hotel room.
Playing in the hotel room.

Steve and I deliberated about bringing Bini to China. We felt, ultimately, like it would be an amazing experience for him, both to visit the country, and to be a part of this huge change to our family. We wanted to share that with him. There were many, many times on that trip where I wondered if we’d made the right decision.

From the day after The Day, Bini was tough. Not always, but mostly. Bini kept up a constant, running commentary about everything he deemed unfair: that Xiao-Jie “got” to sleep in a crib, that we helped Xiao-Jie get dressed in the morning, that we held his hand to help him walk. We tried enlisting him as a helper, and sometimes that was effective. Most of the time, Bini gave us a look that said “nuh-uh, he’s YOUR problem” and continued with his litany of complaints.

At home, we could move to a different area of the house, but in China, the four of us were together. All the time. For 12 days. If Steve had Xiao-Jie, I had Bini. If I wanted to take a shower, I had to haul ass because Steve was lion-taming Bini and trying to meet Xiao-Jie’s needs. If Steve took a shower, I was on duty. It was man-to-man defense. And nerves started to fray.

There wasn’t much for us to do around our hotel. Steve took Xiao-Jie and Bini to a weird park one day, but XJ got tired on the way back and Steve had to carry him for many blocks (with Bini complaining that he also wanted to be carried). So we mostly just prowled the hotel, went to stores on aimless errands, or went sightseeing with Sherry.

The amazing Terracotta Warriors.
The amazing Terracotta Warriors.

We went to see the Terracotta Warriors, and that was as impressive and awesome as everyone had described. But what we didn’t know is that from the entrance, it’s about 100 miles to get to the excavation site. OK, I’m exaggerating, because that’s what it felt like. XJ walked fine, but very slowly, and we didn’t bring a stroller. So I put him in the Boba carrier my mother-in-law had bought me, and quickly learned that it made my back and injured shoulder very, very angry. That limited our outings as well: That XJ could only walk so far, and neither Steve nor I wanted to carry a 28-pound kid for hours. (Note: He’s now 30.5 pounds.)

We also went to see the Big Goose Pagoda and the impressive City Wall. These excursions would have been way more fun if we hadn’t had Bini and Xiao-Jie, but we were happy to be out of our hotel room.

On the Xi'an City Wall. I'm pretty sure we had to bribe Bini with Pokemon cards to get this picture.
On the Xi’an City Wall. I’m pretty sure we had to bribe Bini with Pokemon cards to get this picture.

We still had adoption-related errands to run with Sherry. We had to go back to the office where we’d taken custody to finalize some paperwork, and to the police station to get XJ’s Chinese passport. We had a driver, so we were in the van a lot, and in traffic a lot. We had a few potty emergencies. Once, XJ had to pee into a plastic grocery bag because we were gridlocked in a tunnel. There was another time, which I’ll write about later, that involved a Chinese toilet and a particularly low point in parenting.

By the time we were ready to leave Xi’an, five long days after getting Xiao-Jie, Steve and Bini and I were all snapping at each other on a regular basis. I was speed-reading “Siblings Without Rivalry,” and would start every day armed with good intentions. By lunchtime, though, I was beyond irritated and yelling SHUT UP SHUT UP at Bini. I was not the best me I could be on this trip, I admit it. Steve and I were doing the best we could to just go with the flow, but it was really stressful.

A fellow-adoptive-parent friend told me, via text, that China is all about survival, so, we relaxed our rules with Bini regarding iPad and TV time. He became an ace Madden Mobile player, and was allowed to watch “Captain America: The Winter Soldier,” which had long been denied him. My personal rules about alcohol consumption (Wednesdays and weekends only), went out the window. Since wine isn’t sold by the glass in most Chinese restaurants, Steve and I bought a bottle (or two) at the grocery store and started pouring at PRECISELY 5:00. That’s how we got through it: Yelling, TV and alcohol.

Next: The Chinese toilet story. Be sure not to read that one on a full stomach.