A fork in the road

On Monday, my son called me his nanny.

He told me that it was my fault that he didn’t live with his birth mom, because I was the one who wanted him. He told me that he was sad all the time– at school, when he’s falling asleep at night. And it was my fault.

He told me all of these things in the dark, in his loft bed. We were playing “sleep,” and I was cuddling him. It’s a step up from the usual. Bini typically hits me with the heavy stuff when we’re driving. Our therapist told us that’s because it’s less scary than a face-to-face conversation.

I did what I always do when Bini starts lashing out at me: I comforted him. I told him that it was OK to feel sad, that sad is a feeling, like happy or surprised or mad. I told him that it’s important to feel the feeling, rather than hold it inside, no matter how bad it feels. He cried.

I also told him, gently but truthfully, that we didn’t steal him from Ethiopia. His birth mother decided that she couldn’t take care of him, and we adopted him. We didn’t take him. And we weren’t going to give him away. Not ever.

“Yes you will,” he said in a high-pitched baby voice, which he reverts to when he’s emotional.

“No, we won’t,” I said firmly. “Not ever.”

Steve and I are six months into the long, long process of adopting another child. Our home study is done (or it better be), and now, we wait.

On Monday night, while Steve slept beside me, I thought about what my son had said to me that day. I’ve read the books and talked to the therapists and been to the training sessions and I know what he’s saying is normal. Of course he grieves. Of course he’s angry. Children have so little choice as it is, but when he thinks about his birth mother giving him up, I can only imagine how powerless he must feel. It makes my heart ache to think about it.

But still, his words hurt. I get the brunt of Bini’s anger and grief, I guess because his birth mother is still living and his birth father is not. Steve and Bini share that — a father who is no longer living. So they grieve together.

And as I lay there, sleepless, I thought: I don’t know if I can do this again. I don’t know if I can parent another child who blames me for his adoption. I don’t know, I don’t know.

The next morning, I called our adoption agency. I had read something in the latest newsletter that bothered me: Families in our Ethiopia program should be prepared for a 36-plus month wait. I believed, I guess because that’s what I wanted to hear, that the three-year waiting period started when we filled out our application and sent the first check. But no, actually, we enter the three-year waiting period now.

Three years. I’ll be 46. Bini will be 8 1/2. Three years.

I texted Steve right away: This is too hard.

He texted back: It is. 

So we’re not doing it. And it hurts. It hurts more than my son being angry with me.

Steve and I said, when we kicked off the second adoption, that we only wanted to do it if we could go back to Ethiopia. We love Ethiopia. We wanted Bini to have a sibling from his home country. We wanted to take him with us. We don’t want to go anywhere else.

Two nights ago, I was doubting my ability to parent another adopted child, but now, it’s all I want. I want to take the risk. I want another child, damn it. I want my family to have another person in it. I’m so angry and so sad, so fucking sad that it’s so hard for us to be parents again.

Steve says that our reaction, our sadness, shows that we need to keep moving forward with adoption, even if Ethiopia doesn’t make sense anymore. I spoke to an adoption lawyer yesterday, and an adoption facilitator in California today. We want a child that is biracial or African American, and there just aren’t that many legally free African-American children under the age of 4 in Washington state. So we are considering, very seriously, adopting from the foster care system.

It isn’t the path we planned on, but it is a path we’ve considered. We’ve been talked out of it a couple of times, but here we are again. There’s a reason why we’re here. Before we decided on Ethiopia for our first child, we’d been “sure” about China and then South Korea. But something drew us to Ethiopia, and thank God for that. So is something drawing us to foster care now? I’m not sure. I feel like a sailboat after a storm, bumping along the choppy waters and looking for safe harbor.

Parenting isn’t safe, no matter what. Biological or adopted, they break your heart. Bini breaks my heart all the time, but I still want to do it again. I don’t know why. I don’t know if it matters why.

We must be doing something right

In this cover illustration, the big brother is teaching his little brother how to climb a tree. Also, Steve and I did not deserve the co-authorship, but Bini insisted.

Today, Bini sat down and wrote a book. It’s called “What brothers do best,” and yes, I’m preserving the sentence case of the title because I’M NOT GOING TO EDIT THIS BOOK.

Anyway, the book details how brothers help you eat, learn to ride a skateboard, get in the car and go to the gym. An interesting assortment, to be sure. Chosen and illustrated by Bini. I helped with the spelling, but it was from afar, as I did the dishes and other thrilling domestic tasks. I had no idea my baby was creating a masterpiece while I put away towels.

The book is made of stapled-together printer paper and the words sort of wind around the pages, but it’s … beautiful. Clutch-your-heart beautiful. We’re-doing-something-right beautiful. My son is beautiful. God, is he beautiful.

Page two of "What brothers do best:" They help you ride a skateboard.
Brothers also help you ride a skateboard.

Bini really wants to be a sibling, and he asks us over and over and over when it’s going to happen. We tell him the truth: It’s going to take a long time, but we’re willing to be patient. He sets aside toys and clothes for his little-brother-to-be. And now, this book.

“What brothers do best” drove home something that I’ve suspected over the last few days: My son is thinking about family. There’s lots of talk about it at school right now, because of the holidays. And in an effort to not screw up like Mother’s Day, we’ve been talking about it all. Birth parents, Thanksgiving, Ethiopia, feelings. Sometimes Bini’s face crumples and he cries for the family he doesn’t know, and sometimes he asks for cheese puffs. Today, he did this book.

As any parent knows, there are good days, bad days, and plenty of in-between days. I didn’t realize that today, on an average Monday in November, my son was going to blow me away with his thoughtfulness, his yearning, his sweetness, his love. After he read the story to his dad, he went over and added our names as co-authors. We tried to dissuade him, because we didn’t earn the honor. But he insisted. There’s something deep there that I should probably interpret, but I’m content not to just now. I’m content to feel like today was a really, really good day, and that we’re raising a really, really wonderful boy.

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?

An incoherent post about Larry and Carri Williams

Hana Alemu’s was found dead in the backyard of her Skagit Valley home in May 2011. Her adopted “parents,” Larry and Carri Williams, were given long prison sentences for their roles in her death.

Yesterday, Larry and Carri Williams were sentenced for the death of their adoptive daughter, Hana. (I have trouble using the word “daughter” and “parents” in this case. These people were not parents. They were monsters.)

I wanted to write a journalistic post about Hana and her younger brother, Immanuel, who were adopted from Ethiopia in 2008. I wanted to speak eloquently about international adoption and the need for better screening and post-placement support. But I can’t. I’m too close to the situation, and objectivity is impossible. If I were in a newsroom, my editors would have barred me from writing a single word on the topic. But I’m not in a newsroom.

I am the mother of a son adopted from Ethiopia in 2009. Binyam is the joy of my life. Steve and I didn’t adopt him to “save” him, or to give him a “better” life. We adopted him because we wanted to be parents. We chose Ethiopia because we have a deep respect for its culture, its history and its people. We traveled there to get our child because we wanted to, not because we had to.

People often tell us how “lucky” Bini is to have been adopted. However well-intentioned, that statement is categorically false. Yes, Ethiopia is a poor country. But poor doesn’t mean worse. I’ve been to Ethiopia. It’s a beautiful country with gracious, proud and strong people. I felt incredibly fortunate to be there, and I’m still humbled that I was permitted to take one of their children back to the U.S. This isn’t bullshit, people. I mean that absolutely and totally.

Yes, Bini will have more opportunities here, but he’s separated from his biological family, his country, his culture, his roots. Those scars are permanent, and there’s nothing my husband and I, no matter how well-meaning we are, can do about that. All we can do is love him fiercely, give him our patience and our unwavering support.

I don’t know what motivated the Williamses to adopt. They have seven biological children, ranging from age 7 to 17, and were devout Christians. There is a movement among evangelical Christians to adopt “orphans” (God, I hate that word), so perhaps that was a factor for them. I can’t speculate. But it seems clear that the Williamses were not prepared for the difficulties that some adopted kids can face, particularly older adopted children, when they arrive in their new homes.

I spoke to someone who works in adoption today, about how the Larry and Carri Williams could have been permitted to adopt. Steve and I have been through the process once, and we’re in the early stages of our second adoption from Ethiopia. There are mountains of paperwork and home visits and letters of recommendation and fingerprinting with government agencies. We’ve been asked about our preferred discipline methods, and how we were disciplined as children. At times, the scrutiny seems invasive, but in light of tragedies like Hana Alemu’s death, it’s completely appropriate. If it helps avoid abuse and suffering, I’m all for it. Put us under the microscope.

How did the Williamses get the green light? They probably seemed like perfectly fine people.  My source told me that it’s rare for people to intentionally mislead adoption agencies because they intend to mistreat their children. More often, people adopt because they believe they’re good people, but then they have trouble attaching. We hear a lot about the children, and whether they can attach, but less attention is paid to the parents.

Older adopted children, who have the cognitive ability to recognize loss, often act out: They break rules, they hoard food, they rage. Larry and Carri Williams may have been overwhelmed by the problems. They may have seen the children as problems. It’s pretty clear that they didn’t love them as much as their biological children.

What’s  more, said my source, it’s very likely that Larry and Carri Williams had had trauma of their own in childhood. There is a direct correlation between depression and other mental health issues prior to adoption and difficulty for parents to attach after adoption. “I would put money down that they didn’t know that they could treat children this way,” said my source. “They probably went into this with altruistic goals.”

If I’m honest, I can admit to having difficulty when Bini first came home. I didn’t reach out to my agency when this happened, because I was ashamed and disgusted with myself. I didn’t know that there were resources for me.

And that’s key here: Providing support for families once they’ve gotten home. “Support” and “resources” are often empty-suit words, terms you hear bureaucrats use when testifying in front of Congress. But support and resources are critically important when you’re struggling. Biological parents I know have admitted to feeling isolated, and adopted children often have a unique set of challenges. It’s not an insurmountable problem, but you need to know where to turn.

I also contacted Adoption Advocates International (AAI), the Port Angeles, Wash.-based agency that facilitated the Williamses adoptions. I was emotional, and I wanted to know HOW THIS HAPPENED. I didn’t expect a response, but I got one. I won’t identify her by name, or print her response verbatim. But she told me, in anguished language, how terribly upset everyone at the agency had been by the tragedy.

She told me that AAI has made changes in how they process adoption cases, and that she hopes that every agency has made changes as a result of the Hana Alemu case. She wrote that she knew the program director for Ethiopia had denied home studies and placements if there was the slightest question of concern about safety or the parent’s parenting practices, particularly in the area of discipline.

I believe her. And I believe that many adoption agencies are doing what’s in the best interest of the child. I haven’t read the Williamses home study, so I don’t know if they were honest about their extreme discipline tactics, which included starving, beating and isolation from the rest of the family. Maybe, as my other source suggests, the Williamses didn’t begin to employ those tactics until their adoptive kids started acting out. Most agencies send a social worker out for a post-placement report once the child has been home for a period of time. But after that, the follow-ups are self reported. Once internationally adopted kids come home, they are treated as biological kids. Which is the way it should be, except when things go wrong.

When that happens, it’s really up to the community. The Williamses home-schooled their kids, and kept them isolated from the world at large. There was no teacher who could have reported odd behavior or bruises to Child Protective Services, no classmate who might have mentioned something to her parents. These children were at the mercy of their tormentors — and the few outside adults they came in contact with. Hana died outside, alone and unloved by her so-called parents because no one cared enough to say something. That’s on all of us.