Life in the time of coronavirus

IMG_3086I haven’t blogged in years. In fact, when our credit card was compromised and WordPress kindly requested my updated information, I deleted the email. I didn’t have time to blog for my personal site because I was working. And then, I became a podcaster. But since the new coronavirus, COVID-19, surfaced in my town on February 29, I’ve had this itch to write.

I live in Kirkland, the epicenter of COVID-19 in the United States. Life Care, the nursing home at the center of the outbreak, is less than three miles from my front door. We’re the test case for the rest of the country. And it’s kind of incredible how much has changed in the last couple of weeks.

At first, people in the Seattle area were concerned, but still going about their business as usual. Maybe washing their hands more. We asked ourselves things like: Was it OK for Bini to go to a sleepover? Was it OK for me to take the kids to visit my parents in the Bay Area? Should we have our PTSA board meeting in person, or virtually? 

News spread that the virus had likely been in the Seattle area six weeks longer than originally thought. That’s when the potential magnitude began to sink in, but the White House was still blowing it off. We weren’t getting any guidance from local health officials either, except to wash our hands and stay home if we were sick.

We began to ask ourselves different questions: Should Steve work from home? Should we cancel our spring break plans? Would we be able to travel this summer? We watched what was happening in Northern Italy and wondered if it was a harbinger for what was to come. My social media feed was split between those who thought this was really freaking serious, and those who thought it was “just a flu.”  It was hard to know if you were overreacting, or under-reacting. It felt like we were on our own. 

Stores started getting cleaned out of things like toilet paper, hand sanitizer, and Clorox wipes. Then, it was rubbing alcohol, and, oddly, razor blades. Parents in our school district were screaming for officials to close the schools. I was one of the people who thought they needed to chill out and stop imposing their panic on others. It’s possible I was wrong. 

On March 12, the district announced that it would close schools through March 27. When I read that, I finally panicked. Yes, I was worried about the virus, but also, about what the hell I was going to do with my kids all day. My kids are hard right now — Evan is nearly 8, and needs constant attention (adoption thing), and Bini is 11, and alternates between truculence and indifference (we think it’s an adolescent thing?). I pitched an idea of a homeschooling co-op to a group of second-grade moms, and everyone was on board. I was confident that our schools would be doing some sort of remote learning.

Then, things started moving very quickly. On March 13, Governor Jay Inslee ordered all schools closed until April 24, and a ban on gatherings larger than 250 people. That’s when shit got really real. We weren’t going to be able to do any kind of co-op. We were going to have to stay home, and do this social-distancing thing for real. And because of equity issues, it’s not clear that we will be doing e-learning as originally hoped. Steve and I will be homeschooling our kids, and cobbling together a curriculum. Once, when I pondered the fleeting thought of homeschooling, Steve said to me, very gravely: “That is not a good choice for our family.” That’s because I am not a patient person. So I’m going to suck at this, and my kids are going to hate me.

Today, March 16, the governor ordered a two-week closure for all bars and restaurants, except for takeout. Gyms, salons, and spas are shuttered too. Steve and Evan desperately need haircuts, and I can’t really imagine life without the gym, but this is reality now. Everything is shut. My inbox is clogged with emails from places I’ve patronized announcing their closures, from retail stores to Evan’s dojo. Arts organizations are openly begging for donations to stay afloat.

In other states, like California, the changes have been swift — a major punch to the gut instead of a flurry of quick, sharp jabs. In other states, people still think the COVID-19 is a hoax cooked up by the Democrats, or a hysteria created by those libtards in Seattle. So either we’re the test case, and the drastic steps we’re taking can slow the spread, or you’ve just read what your state will be facing. Soon.

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.

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?