I Don’t Want to “Have It All” Anymore

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I sit on my back porch wrapped in a blanket I bought in Mexico on a college trip almost twenty years ago. It is 62 degrees; I have lived in Texas long enough that my skin goosebumps in a mildly cool breeze. My puppy plays frantically with her ball. The wind stirs the oak leaves in slow drifting circles across the planks of our deck. The local high school is having band practice and when the wind shifts, they are suddenly louder, the percussion section slightly offbeat because of the distance.

I wrap the blanket tightly around me and sit back. I do not feel sleepy. In fact, I am hungrily awake. My eyes follow the lights in the oak tree and I realize I am aware of everything. If I sit quietly enough, each sensation will play over me. My ponytail over the back of the Adirondack chair. The puppy’s nails clicking gently on the wood. The rhythmic shush-shush of the wind in the trees, the strains of music floating by.

All of it washes over me. I receive it. I breathe in and out. I feel the blanket on my skin, the air in my lungs, the wood under my feet.

I am newly born.

***

It has taken me longer than I expected to get over leaving my job. It was a job I worked tirelessly to achieve for years and years. When I began graduate school, I wasn’t sure a job in academia was my plan—in fact, I was pretty sure it wasn’t. But I have always been highly motivated by gold stars and gold stars were given to the students who followed the more typical paths and I began to find my plans adjusting to the strong motivations around me.

Actually, it’s more accurate to say I added those plans to the ones I had already made. I took nothing off. I just piled on more.

If life is a buffet table, I am the person with a large plate who wants to try everything. I am a gluttonous seeker of life.

There have been times in my life when this deep curiosity combined with an intense drive have been among my best traits. When I was in graduate school, my husband and our friend Caren and I started a non-profit working with Burmese refugee artisans. I learned to hone my willingness to learn new things into an ability to do whatever was needed to help our refugee friends. For example, I currently know how to order yarn for backstrap looms from Thailand using the correct terms: so many taklots, so many jai. I learned how to craft jewelry in order to teach artisans so they could make money for their families. For someone who hates sales, I have made more sales pitches on behalf of artisans than I can remember.

Whatever we needed, I committed myself to learning.

But I refused to sacrifice any of my plans.

***

This was me at the table of life:

Stay in my career? Absolutely.

Have children? I’ll take three, please. Also, we always planned on adopting, so we’ll do that too.

Be deeply involved in Austin’s refugee community? Yes!

Write about my experiences? Of course! I’m already behind on building a platform!

Be a gold-star student and teacher and administrator? Let’s go for it!

Take care of my children’s emotional, psychological, and educational needs? Done! Let’s add soccer and gymnastics and dance and piano. Maybe another language in there too. Why not?

Working out? Just a smidge of that, please. You have to give up on some things!

Keeping up on the latest news, blogs, books, ideas? Of course! Naturally!

Suddenly I was careening through life with a plate so explosively full I could not get through all of it in a decade, much less in a day.

It was all about to topple over, I think. I’m still not quite sure. I was too close to tell.

In May, I put my plate down.

***

The particular details about why I left my career when I did and not earlier, about this scenario and not others, are not for public consumption. In fact, I feel an increasing need in this age in which public oversharing is labeled “brave” and “authentic” to play my hand close. I actually don’t think it matters, in the end. It could have been another job in five more years or a realization seven years ago after my second child was born.

After years of soul-searching and agonizing conversations, my husband and I both decided we could no longer have plates as full as they had been. Our decision affected my job more than his, in part because our youngest daughter’s needs for me were different than her needs for him, but believe me, he has sacrificed as much as I have. We constantly adjust our family’s recipe of how much we need to live in what kind of house or how much time we spend in which activities or who we spend time with in which parts of town.

Our recipe is our own, but every person has tweaking to do. Living intentionally is hard work.

I hate universal blog posts in which people say, “I did this and you should too!” I will not say that. I definitely don’t think most people can or should quit their jobs. Believe me, I know what a privilege it is to have a spouse with a good job which allows me the space to sit on a lovely porch during preschool time and reflect on what it means to “have it all.”

This is not some prescription about what anyone should do other than me.

This is just my quiet moment in a day that was once filled with job and children and, least for this year, is now filled with mostly children (which is itself a difficult and complicated job).

This is my quiet breath in and out. This is the sun on my skin, one bright triangle ray dancing across my arm. This is me realizing I am alert to the world in a way I have not been for years.

Maybe I was sick and am now recovering.

Maybe I was an addict and am now detoxing.

Maybe I was asleep and am now waking up.

***

I have always hated the questions about whether women could or should “have it all” because they’re loaded and personal and complex. All I knew is I wanted my career—actually, let’s be honest, two or three careers simultaneously. I wanted children and a loving home life. I wanted a healthy body. I wanted meaning to it all. And I wanted to do it all dazzlingly.

At my core level, I think the truth is, I wanted to leave some sort of legacy. I wanted to prove that my existence had purpose. I wanted to show that the length of my life was not wasted.

I wanted to scratch deeply on the wall of the world, “Jessica was here. And she did something with her life.”

***

It took a hard adoption process and a series of deep griefs in my life for me to hold up everything on my plate and give it an honest look.

Only a handful of things were giving me the sustenance I needed. Only a handful of things could stay. Shoving the other things off of my plate might honestly have been among the hardest things I’ve ever done. I have raged and worried and wept over the rightness of my life choices.

And just recently, in the last few weeks, I have had the space to recognize a truth that has been there all along.

I don’t want to “have it all” anymore. I no longer want to do what other people think I should do or what other people view as successful or what other people think they mean when they say “it all.”

I’m consumed with the desire to be urgently present right here. I’m ravenously hungry for the space to do the good things in front of me today and tomorrow and every day for however long I am here.

Maybe I’ll go back to a similar job soon; maybe I’ve left that career path behind. Maybe I’ll start something new tomorrow; maybe I’ll sit in the sun for a few more days.

Maybe I’ll write my name on the wall of the world; more likely, it will just be the wall of my family’s lives and, in a generation or two, the writing will fade.

I realize as I sit here that I am the one who has changed, that I have taken my ability to learn new things and turned it upon myself, adjusted myself to the needs of my own wild and precious life.

Time alone in the sun for a woman who rarely sits still is so unexpected, I forget to beat myself up or put up any pretenses. I see the truth.

My life is both full of purpose and also meaningful only to me.

I am neither a failure nor a saint; I am a woman making the best choices in front of her.

I breathe in and out and find myself smiling, baby-like, at nothing in particular and for no one to see but the yard and my dog and me.

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My Refugee Friends Make Me Proud to Be an American

I’m tired. I’m so tired of having this conversation. When Donald Trump Jr. tweeted this ridiculous image today, I admit, I blew up a little bit.CswRrhoW8AEo4Xy.jpg

It seems that no matter how much information those of us who love refugees get out, how many stories we tell, how much we say that refugees ARE what make America great, there are too many people yelling for refugees to not be allowed to be resettled in the United States because they might, just might, be a threat.

I don’t even want to get into the counterarguments–that white men kill substantially more people in the US every day than refugees ever have.

Three refugees in the history of the refugee resettlement program–three–have been linked to terrorism. 

Three.

Out of the 65.3 million refugees in the world, less than 1% are eligible for resettlement; of those thousands, three have been linked to terrorism. The track record is so high, I literally cannot understand why we are not welcoming refugees with open arms–they are, by far, the safest bet of the immigrant groups coming into the United States. (Which is a terrible argument, but there it is.)

But you know what? I don’t walk to have that argument. It’s not working. Fear is winning. And I’m tired of that more than anything else. In this political climate, it feels like facts mean nothing anymore.

You know what I want to tell you? About a time  a few weeks ago when my refugee friends made me proud to be an American for the first time in a long time.

***

My friend Caren and I met up with some Iraqi refugees, friends of friends, who had just moved to the United States. We lingered around the table for a while. As we talked about this political climate, I expected them to say that the political language used by Donald Trump and Ted Cruz and Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (who has led the charge to keep Syrian refugees out of Texas) or other politicians, has scared them or made them angry.

That day, they reframed the political narratives for me. (Two of them, Gandhi and Roxie, agreed to let me talk about our conversation as long as I gave them pseudonyms to protect their families still in Iraq: Gandhi chose his name because he is a man of peace and Roxie chose hers because she loves the show The Army Wives.)

Gandhi is a father of three children in his thirties who loves his wife. He is well-educated and well-read; the first thing he packed when leaving Iraq were books.

Roxie is a smart, devout Muslim woman in her twenties who can talk as easily about sociology as she can pop culture.

Though they didn’t know each other before we talked, their stories overlapped. Both were threatened by terrorists in Bagdad because of their association with the US military. Both had fled ISIS-controlled areas to be resettled in the United States.

But it is their very loyalty to the United States that made them the target for ISIS in the first place.

They are the victims of, not the perpetrators, of the anti-US violence. That’s why they’re refugees. That’s why they were able to be resettled here.

Gandhi secretly worked as a sub-contractor in the Green Zone. His friend would call and tell him, “It’s time to go to the market,” their agreed-upon code for the Green Zone. If he said out loud he was going to work with the US military, he would have been killed immediately.

Still, the terrorists found him. One day as he opened the door to his small sub-contracting company, he found a letter with his name on it, threatening his family. Within hours, his family was out of their house. They went to live with a relative who hid them for a few months before they got tourist visas to Bahrain. There, Gandhi found a job that supported them and they applied for refugee status.

Roxie’s story is similar. Her brother was the one secretly working to support the US military in the Green Zone; they hoped the terrorist threats would subside when UNHCR resettled him in Texas, but someone saw her brother’s posts on Facebook and word spread about their family in the neighborhood where they lived in Bagdad. Men in black masks menaced Roxie’s mother while she was outside; they followed Roxie’s brother while he was playing with friends.

For two years, Roxie was physically sick with anxiety for her family—every time she heard gun shots, she was confident it was someone she loved.

***

Resettling in Austin, Texas meant immediate relief for Roxie and Gandhi and their families from enormous stress. I asked Gandhi if it bothered him to start an entry-level job at Wal-Mart when he had been a manager and successful businessman in Iraq and Bahrain. He laughed and told me that he is sleeping through the night for the first time in years.

Roxie said the same thing; her face lit up when she told us how it feels to be able to leave the apartment just to meet friends or go out: “People here open the door for you and smile–this is a very kind thing.”

I apologized to both Roxie and Gandhi for the things they had heard about Muslims and refugees from political candidates in the recent weeks and months, especially the confusion of refugees with the terrorists they were fleeing. I told them that many of us do not agree with these views, that we support refugees, that we are friends with Muslims.

They were quick to reassure me—every interaction with Americans in their months here has been overwhelmingly positive. People come out of their way to let them know that politicians not speak for all US citizens. In fact, it is this ability to speak freely against the government that so impressed them. They reminded me that our ability to talk frankly about issues and disagree with candidates is a sign of our true freedom. We can live respectfully under civil law even when we disagree vehemently with each other.

Roxie and Gandhi spoke at length, with wonder, about how our ability to speak openly about our political differences in the US reveals our strengths.

***

I left our conversation feeling a patriotic burst of pride, swelling music and all, that surprised me.

We must speak out against people confusing refugees with the terrorists who are persecuting them. We must speak out against the xenophobic vilifying of all Muslims. As my friend Roxie told me, “We are good people. We just want peace. We want to make a future for ourselves. We want to build.” Our country has long been a place where refugees could dream with joy and gratitude about rebuilding lives that are rooted in peace.

This anti-refugee, anti-Muslim fear-mongering is beneath us. And frankly, it’s un-American.

And if you, like me, are more fearful of the fear-mongering politics than you are of the refugees, take hope: Gandhi and Roxie showed me that it is our ability to have these conversations, even when they are offensive and use vile stereotypes or ridiculous language, that already makes our country great. We can take it. We will continue to welcome and love and listen and be friends with people who are different from us.

There is still hope. My refugees friends taught me that.

Adoption and the Illusion of Control (Part 1)

I’m sitting here beside a child sweaty from throwing a fit who is finally taking a nap. We’re both exhausted. Only now, if I move, she will wake up, so for the next several minutes, this is my spot. (And a mosquito keeps biting me INSIDE MY HOUSE, so thank you, hot Texas fall, for making my day even better.)

Sometimes when I pull back the curtain on our adoption and show people what our daily life is like (as I did in this post and this one from last week), I hear from friends, “I could never do that” and “you’re so brave.” I appreciate it, I really do, but I also want to push back on those comments. I never want to set up a narrative of brave white adoptive mama talking about how difficult it is to adopt a kid from a hard place because, well, that narrative is a problem.

And frankly, sometimes I don’t want to be brave. I’m tired of “brave” being the standard I need to hit when I talk about adoption. I’m tired of the narratives I’m supposed to tell of complicated situations that lead to redemptive, teachable moments.

Nothing teachable happened today.

***

We are in the long, slow slog of years’ worth of change—this change is happening to me as much, if not more, than it is happening to my daughter. The impact of these changes are affecting every aspect of our lives. Opening this one door meant that I had to slam other doors closed and sometimes I’m OK with that and sometimes it’s painful.

Our daughter paid the highest cost in this adoption—yes, of course, she gained a family but she lost a country and dearly loved people in the process. We strongly believe that all children deserve a family, but too often the cost of adoption is ignored in our narratives that skip to the happy endings—the costs for our daughter are high. And sometimes I think people forget that she had no choice in this at all. If she had her way, this family is not what she would have picked.

This adoption is one of many things that didn’t go her way in her life.

We are the ones that made the choice to adopt. Because we chose this path, I often feel bad venting about it or asking for help. And I often hear from other people that sense undergirding their words: you chose this—what did you expect? 

Let’s be clear—when we decided to adopt our daughter, we made a series of educated guesses about what the future would hold for us, both in bringing her home and in the set-up of our lives during that transition. For us, adopting at the time in which we did was not unlike listening to weather reports about a coming hurricane. With the information we had available to us given to us by experts who offered their best predictions, we decided to stay in our home and ride out what looked like a Category 2 hurricane.

Then, against all odds, a Category 5 came along and all but destroyed us.

It wasn’t just the adoption. The adoption was one piece; other factors in our life came together to create the perfect storm for us for the last few years. And no, I will not be putting those things on the internet—some things are best left in private spaces. But trust me when I say—while complicated and fraught for our daughter and also for us—the adoption was not the hardest thing hitting our family.

Adoption is a gamble like almost anything else: I’ve gambled on jobs that I assumed were one way that ended up being very different or on friendships that seemed like a good fit but were not. I gambled on whether I could make it to the store before preschool the other day (turns out, I couldn’t). I’ve gambled and been right, and gambled and lost.

We thought we knew what knew what was going on when we gambled that it was the right time in our lives to bring home a daughter with special needs from China. Turns out, we couldn’t see very far around the bend. I’m so glad we didn’t know—if we had, we might not have made that choice then and I can’t imagine our lives without our daughter. She is worth every hard moment.

But also, I can’t imagine my life without learning in the middle of the Category 5 hurricane of my life what I’m actually capable of.

***

The phrase “I could never do that” bothers me. I’ve stopped saying it. I get it, I really do—in some ways, I think a healthy level of self-knowledge is great. If you know yourself well enough to know that adoption is not your thing, then you should definitely not adopt. So if when you say “I couldn’t do that,” you mean “ever adopt a child,” then it’s probably best that you don’t.

But if by “I couldn’t do that” you mean sit on floor with your thrashing daughter while she all but vomits out the grief and rage of everything that she has lost, then you’re wrong. You could. You could do anything that was required of you.

I admit to a growing impatience with the “I could never do that” narrative or, on the flip side, the “you’re so brave” narrative that we use any time anyone tells us they face hard things. Saying “you’re so brave” distances us from that person, making them able to face things because they have an extra mutant gene we might not have—that extra special bravery bit that only some people have and some people don’t.

Awful things happen to everyone at some point. That’s the one universal truth of the world.

There it is—this isn’t a post about adoption. Not really. It’s a post about what you do when you realize that things in your life aren’t going your way, that maybe they never went your way. My friend Holly once put it in those terms: it’s not how you respond to suffering that matters, it’s how you respond to the fact that things aren’t going to go your way that changes you.

Even the times you thought you were controlling your destiny, that you made a deal with God or you sang with Julie Andrews “I must have done something good,” were really just you whistling in the dark. You can do something good or not. Things might go your way. Or they might not.

Everyone comes to the brink of this realization at some point in their life, whatever their belief system. Maybe they don’t stand at the edge of the cliff like I do many days, but everyone has moments where you look out over an abyss and wonder whether you actually know what you thought you knew, or if the world isn’t really just grander and scarier and more…more than you ever thought.

What you do next is what matters.

***

This summer I spent time with two dear friends who are both facing life with metastatic cancer. I’ve learned from them, am constantly learning with them, that you can do almost anything, even face the truth of your own mortality, because you have to. Not because these friends are exceptionally brave women (though they are) or the most insightful women I know (though they are that, too), but because to be human means you will at some point face the fact that you have no control over this world.

I move in circles where sometimes people see that kind of control in the way they pray or in the words they use, but it always crumbles for me: why are some people cured of cancer and some people not? Why do some people spend their lives worried about whether the time has come to flee impending war, and some spend their lives worried about whether their neighbors are ever going to cut their lawns?

Maybe I’ve spent too much time in the deep end of the pool, but honestly, I’m impatient with almost any pat answers any more.

Life is hard and kids can’t stay with their birth parents and they never stop missing those parents—they never, never stop—and refugees flee certain death only to have the entire world dismiss and ignore them and we still can’t have decent conversations about racial injustice in our country and my lovely life is built on the backs of people I’ve never met (a realization that haunts me every day) and my gorgeous, brilliant, funny-as-hell friends are facing death and someday I’m going to die and leave my husband who is so intertwined in my life that I cannot tell anymore where he begins and where I end—he gives me the walls I need and I give him the windows he needs—and my little girls are learning that the world is chock full of unfairness and rottenness and death and honestly, what the actual hell am I supposed to do about any of this?

The wispy sense that I ever had control, even for five minutes, dissolves like wet tissue paper in my hand. The world around me is always, and has always been, out of my control. I cannot pray enough or prepare enough or be good enough or help enough to change anything.

And there, now that I’ve admitted it, is my only choice: I can choose how to respond to my lack of control.

What I’ve learned about myself as I’ve faced the unexpected chaos of the last few years has surprised me. And those lessons are important because it’s my job to teach all three of my daughters how to respond to life when things don’t go their way. Sitting here beside my daughter whose world was ruled by chaos for years, I realize these lessons are crucial for both of us.

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Navigating the Mother-Minefield (Part 2)

(If you haven’t read part 1 of this post, start there.)

Here’s what I think most people picture when I write about my daughter walking into a room in a white-hot rage: that I’m the loving mother who thinks, I’m so glad she’s able to articulate her feelings. Let’s get to the bottom of this big emotion! as I open my arms wide and envelop her in a heartfelt hug.

That did happen, once, last week. It was at 7:05 in the morning. By 7:20, I had run through all of my tricks, all of my patience, and all of my tender feelings for my daughter’s angst. Already physically and emotionally exhausted, I stared down the rest of the long summer day: we only had slightly less than 11 hours to spend together working through ALL (all. so many. soooooo many) of the big feelings. And that was on a Tuesday.

The truth is, I know what’s going on in my kid’s head. And I wrote all of the hard stuff in my last post so that you’d have the background to picture it with me when I describe what really happens.

When she’s mad, she’s really, really mad at me. Not all the time. Not even most of the time. But when that rage comes, I’m the solid wall against which she throws that sense of loss.

And oh, she has lost so much.

But don’t, not for one second, get that “precious orphan” look in your eyes. She’s brave as hell, our scrapper of a daughter. And at night, when she’s asleep and I’m sipping wine and reading a novel, I secretly cheer her anger. She lives life “WHOLE BODY!” (her favorite phrase to yell while she shows off her fabulous belly).

I know intellectually what is happening. I can tell friends and my husband what is going on. I know this is not really me, it’s about all of the mothers before me, too.

My husband brings nothing but loving feelings out in this girl. He is her safe place, her battery pack of energy, the firm-but-loving walls of her life. We theorize this reaction is because she had very few men in her life before coming to us. She welcomed him to her father-love room with open arms: Come on in! It’s so spacious in here! I’m so excited to finally have a dad!

But the room in her mind where she houses all of her mother-love is very, very crowded.

There is her birth mother, her source of all things, whose loss at a young age shook the earth and ripped the stars from the sky.

There are the ayis, the monitors who took care of her in the institution she called home for almost three years. We don’t know how many there were or what their names were. The fact that we can’t fill in those pieces is deeply painful—we have videos, but little information. Our daughter was a puzzle piece looking for a match. Not finding it, she shoved herself down anyway, loving the ayis because they were there. She would have done anything for a scrap of their time and love. And truly, they gave her as much as they could, but they were not her mothers and were not trained to be her mothers. They were efficient and kind caretakers, giving whatever they could to the several children they cared for each day. But for almost three years, they fit the enormous space she had, however imperfectly.

She learned in that time that the fastest and surest way to get attention was to be loud. And not only is she smart (smart like brain-surgeon smart, smart like mastering-a-second-language-in-two-years smart), she is clever, my girl. She can assess the room, find the fastest and surest way to get her needs met, and then fling herself WHOLE BODY! into whatever plan she’s devised.

I see it every day. It looks like she’s throwing a toddler fit (and people say things like, “Don’t worry, my kid did that too!”), but really it’s a battle for control and a battle to have her needs met. And she will WIN that battle because she is a savvy little survivor.

My job every day, all the time, is to teach her that she can get what she needs by asking, through our relationship, rather than taking or manipulating or controlling the room. (Again, I’m so glad there’s no mind-bending here because geez, I’d be a pancake by now).

When I walked in to her life in that government room, with curly hair and blue eyes and clothes that smelled like foreign food, taking her away to awful, foreign spaces where nothing and no one made any sense at all, I disrupted her world in every possible way. She definitely did not welcome me with gratefulness and tenderness into her mother-love room, nor did she appreciate my telling her that I’m her mother or acting toward her like a mother should.

Instead, for the first year or more, when I walked past her or gave her food or hugged her or snuggled her close or just breathed at all near her, I set off a chain reaction in her.

The idea of ‘mother’ is a ferociously painful place for my girl. She has no real reason to believe I’m not going to explode her life like all the other memories of mothers jostling for emotional positions in her little room.

In fact, she’s still pretty sure (despite repeated assurances) that I’m the one who left her in the institution in the first place—she thinks I left her there to go to work for three years. She’s five. I’m the only mother she knows and sometimes I leave and there was this other time she was left for a long time, so the two are clearly linked.

You can see how that is perfectly logical to a five-year-old mind.

In order to love me, or let herself be loved by me, my girl has to navigate unspeakable pain.

***

Here’s what that can look like on any given day:

A kid who, with little to no warning, goes from being a polite, regulated, sweet little darling to a tiger cub who pushes back against almost every word I say, who grabs everything around her, or who throws herself in epic fits in response to the most basic requests.

A harried mother who just wants to get out the door or go home without an outrageous, scream-punctuated battle of wills.

Other moms at the grocery story or playground who purse their lips in that silent look that all moms know: I’m so glad that’s not MY kid. With more ___ (fill in the blank depending on the situation: discipline/positive energy/gluten-free food), then that mother would have a child as well behaved as my own precious pumpkin. (Maybe they’re not thinking that at all. Maybe they have spinach in their teeth and they’re simply pursing their lips because they’re trying to dig it out while I wrestle my chimpanzee. It’s hard to tell because usually by this point, my hair is everywhere, my clothes are disheveled, and I just. want. to. get. out. of. there.)

Of course, it’s not like that all the time. Not even most of the time. I’d say most days, 80-90% of our day is really good. We have the normal interactions any mother has with her imaginative, spirited 5-year-old. I call these our Dr. Jekyll moments. Pretty good. We have fun.

(And y’all, she really loves me. She walks into the room and drops the phrase with devastating casualty: “Love you, Mom!”)

It’s the Mr. Hyde moments when my triggered kid turns into a whirling dervish of gigantic emotions that do me in.

I know what many of the triggers are—too much stimulation, loud noises, big transitions, new places—but so often I have no idea what caused it. And she doesn’t either.

She usually feels pretty bad after the fits, too. These fits are not because my kid is poorly behaved; it’s because she’s navigating serious triggers both of us are desperately trying to understand.

“I’m so sorry,” she’ll say.

“It’s OK,” I’ll say back. “I love you. I’m your mama. I can take it.”

“Can’t nobody take meeeeeee!” She usually yells that part over her shoulder as she runs off. It is one of the universal truths we repeat 500 times a day because each repetition drives it deeper into the parched earth of her mind where she houses the knowledge that mothers love children.

Nobody can take you. Over and over and over, we say it. You are here. You are safe. You are loved.

But sometimes, the repetition of those ideas dislodges another landmine of grief. And we start again.

***

Adoption is hard. And here’s what you’re expecting: the redemptive moment at the end where I say, Don’t worry, gang. It’s all OK and it’s SO WORTH IT. But I don’t want to end there. I started there. I never even questioned that idea. Of course adoption is worth it and wonderful and full of glorious moments. I think, at least in the circles I move in, those good times are what most people talk about.

I’m questioning the rainbow-and-unicorns narrative that I think too often people expect adoptive families—and especially adoptive children—to perform. Our happily ever after is our daughter’s worst nightmare: her birth family is gone, never to be recovered. Her precious development years were spent in the wasteland of a government-run institution where there were not enough caretakers for babies coming in.

There are no pumpkin patches, no fairy babies in this story. Just government bureaucracy and deep societal injustice and decidedly unfair access to health care and maybe a smattering of cultural bias against special needs.

Our family didn’t adopt our daughter because we wanted rainbows. Frankly, most adoptive families I know are too busy dealing with the metaphorical—and sometimes literal—shit to produce any rainbows at all.

***

To be totally honest, this summer has been fantastic. This summer has been better than any other time we’ve had. Just in case you think I’ve finally cracked and things are much worse than you knew, I want to be clear: things are better than they’ve ever been.

But adoption is still hard. We can talk later about what that means, about what you can do, about how to support the adoptive families in your life, but somewhere between the “I’m-so-sorry-your-family-is-a-wreck” sympathy looks I get when I write about hard things, and the “Aren’t-you-so-glad-your-fat-Chinese-baby-is-home?” looks I get when I don’t write at all, we live in our daily reality.

We’re making it great. But don’t think for a second that’s because there are any rainbows or unicorns anywhere near the messy work of dislodging landmines of grief. That’s the work we engage in every blessed day.

We wake up each morning and, over our breakfasts of scrambled eggs with cheddar cheese and bowls of Life cereal, we get started, facing the hard truths of the world right here in our own home. I can’t imagine living our lives or raising our kids—any of them—any other way.

Navigating the Mother-Minefield (Part 1)

I’m so glad our daughter doesn’t have telekinetic powers, I thought while finishing off the series Stranger Things with my husband last week. Watching Eleven—the latest character that fits the Hollywood trope of damaged-child-with-wild-superpowers—smash cars with her eyes and break necks with a flick of her head made me shudder. The scene was exaggerated and dramatic, of course, but there was a core of truth that hit me close to home.

‘Damaged’ is not the word I use, or will allow anyone to use, for our daughter who is adopted from China, but it is a word I’ve heard said about her and other adopted kids, and it always makes me cringe. If you know me in real life, please never call my daughter ‘damaged.’ (Also, while we’re at it, don’t call her an orphan either—she has two mothers and a bunch of ayis who loved her fiercely in those years in between mothers. Call Oliver Twist an orphan, but not my kid.)

I like the term ‘comes from hard places,’ which many attachment-savvy parents and therapists and social workers use. It puts the focus on the situation from which the kids came rather than the kids themselves. I remain resolved in my commitment not to talk about our daughter’s hard places on the internet—her story is hers to tell.

But lately I’ve had too many conversations with other people in my life who were surprised by the truth of our daily life. Out of a desire to protect my daughter, I’ve often been silent about what life is like with an older child who was adopted out of an institution (Again, I’m not too fond of ‘orphanage’ either—in China, they’re called Children’s Welfare Institutes, or CWIs. I’ve found ‘orphanage’ sounds too romantic, too “Please, sir, can I have some more?,” for most Americans I know.)

As I’m learning, silence on the internet can often mean that everyone assumes our life is lovely and grand, full of sparkly tea parties and earnest adoption talk.

Let’s go ahead and bust through that myth.

***

Our daughter has been home for almost three years. In fact, this month marks a milestone—she’s been home as long as she was in the institution. In most ways, it’s hard to believe that it hasn’t even been three years. So many things have happened. She was the size of an eighteen-month-old when we met her in that tiny government boardroom crammed with oversized mahogany-like furniture. She toddled in wearing a yellow panda coat and looked at us with mild interest. I knew at the time she was checked out—how could she not be? She had no idea the depths of the transition that was happening.

I don’t think it occurred to her that this was a real life change until the third day, when we tried to entertain her all day at a government office with stickers and snacks and she let us and everyone around her know that she was done as done and just wanted to go back home

She is strong-willed and spirited, this little one. She fits right in to our family.

We did take her home, one more time, when we visited the institution where she lived. We went for less than an hour. My girl who could barely walk toddled as fast as her short legs would carry her back to her crib.

She clung to it with the white-knuckled grip of a drowning girl who finds a life raft.

We had to peel her fingers off of the last safe place in her life.

She still talks about that crib. She still remembers what it felt like to be in that room. She still knows the layout of the place, the faces of the ayis who loved her, the faces of the children who were her constant companions.

Those kids have become “my Chinese” and she surrounds herself with them constantly in her mind; they have become her imaginary playmates. When we are separated, she sends some with me so that some of “her Chinese” can be with her mama even when she cannot.

And when the desire for real-life time with “her Chinese” comes up, when things change unexpectedly, when breakfast is five minutes late, when someone grabs her Lego, or when some thick shard of grief surprises her, she rages.

How could she not?

With everything she has lost in her life, with the way that her life was uprooted without her giving permission AT ALL, how can she not respond with rage? She has had zero agency. She has been in charge of exactly nothing. She had no choice about any of this adoption business.

***

Here are the people who have had choices in our daughter’s story: the government officials, the adoption agency, and us. The people whose lives were affected the most—her birth parents and our now-daughter—had the most limited choices available. For a variety of reasons I won’t put on the internet, we know that her birth parents did everything in their power to care for that tiny, squalling scrap of life. When it became clear that keeping her would essentially be a death sentence for her because of her medical needs and the health care available to them (which was, in reality, probably none at all), they made one grand gesture of enormous, death-defying love.

They made sure she would be found.

And if you think for one second that she wouldn’t have been better off with the birth mother whose heartbeat filled my daughter’s ears for nine months, with the parents whose DNA twisted together to give my daughter someone’s eyes, someone’s ears, someone’s grandmother’s nose, with the parents she longs for with every fiber of her being and whose loss defined her life, then you are wrong.

I am her mother. But I am not her only mother. And I never want to forget that fact. There is room in my love for my daughter for those other parents. I love what I see of them in my girl. I love them with my whole heart.

And, whatever grand ideas I had about adoption before we brought our daughter home, now I know—I would give anything, for her sake, for my daughter to have been able to stay with those parents.

Their loss has forever defined her and, subsequently, defines our relationship.

***

When something changes—Mommy goes on a trip, or Daddy leaves early for work, or sisters go to school, or preschool starts up for her—don’t you believe for a second that my strong daughter takes it in stride. Of course not. That happened to her before and she had no choice in the matter, no words to articulate the rage and grief that ripped through her body. She was young, so young many people dismiss her losses, but she does not. And we do not.

Any of those changes can trigger an explosion in the part of her mind where she processes her mothers’ love and the love she feels for her mothers. In my biological daughters, that area is pretty wide open—they love and are loved in a cycle that has been uninterrupted since the womb.

For my youngest daughter, a mother’s love is a minefield of loss. And any transition or even a good day with her mom can trigger an explosion in that minefield.

When that happens, with her anger electrifying the air around her, she charges into the room. That anger is good. It is healthy. It is a sign of a girl who is learning that her mother—her adoptive mother, still every inch her mother—is a safe place. She is learning that I can handle the grief, that I can stand with her in the rage. She knows, because I tell her every day, that even when she is upset, that I will not leave her.

And so she lets those wild explosive feelings slam against the solid wall of my love for her.

But I’m not going to lie: I’m deeply grateful she doesn’t combine those feelings with Eleven’s mind-bending, earth-destroying telekinetic powers. It’s hard enough to take as it is.

The Ministry of Keeping Vigil

We wait. We wait for the rage to subside, for the fit to play itself out. Attaching to a new mother when her first mother was not able to keep her, when in between those mothers are a series of mother-like figures who could not love her like she needed to be loved, means that rage is the only appropriate response to the grief that wells up like lava, overflowing, overwhelming, consuming.

We  wait. We do not look like we are waiting. We look like we are living, but every regular moment, every shared joke, every meal is an act of thumbing our nose at cancer. We have lived this summer and loved each other and eaten good food and cried with laughter. We have also cried with grief. The grief limning our days makes each moment stand out in sharp relief.

We wait. We wait for the baby to be here, the unbearable heat like a drumbeat of tension. The birth will be good, will bring joy. We wait until the sweet cheeked baby slips squawling into the world.

We wait. We wait for the tension to break. We wait for the knowledge that the depths of the sides that keep us apart cannot be resolved, that the cultural boundaries that remain uncrossed are damning us. We wait for good people to speak calming words, for kind people to stop trying to help and start trying to listen. We wait and the violence threatens to erupt again like thunder in the distance.

We wait. The refugees have waited before. The jobs have either come or they have not. The mood has either shifted or it has not. They know how to leave in the dead of night. They know how to move faster than their enemies. Being a refugee means learning how to survive at any cost. It means knowing that any peace is always tenuous, always fragile.

We wait together. And in this act of waiting, we keep vigil with one another.

***

Today, my dear friend ends her wait to release a book into the world that is stunning in its ability to hold complexity without resolving the questions. Assimilate or Go Home by D.L. Mayfield is a series of essays about life with refugees and confronting the truth that we too often make others characters in our own stories. She challenges that idea by confronting the truth of her own relationships with the refugees she first set out to help. It’s been my joy to walk alongside her in this journey for years; this remarkable book is the result of a remarkable life. I’m so glad you to get to share it with you.

Go to her author page to buy it: http://www.dlmayfield.com/book/

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When God Sends You a White Mother-In-Law

On August 8, a conservative evangelical council called The Gospel Coalition published an article titled, “When God Sends Your White Daughter a Black Husband.” It was written by a nurse named Gaye Clark whose daughter, Anna married a man named Glenn. The systemic racism that this article points to–and the fact that a Christian organization like The Gospel Coalition would find these views mainstream enough to publish the article–are terrifying.

As they say on their website, The Gospel Coalition—a conservative council with ties to the Reformed tradition—tries to encourage and educate “current and next-generation Christian leaders by advocating gospel-centered principles and practices that glorify the Savior” so they can “speak and live for him in a way that clearly communicates to our age.” A 2014 child abuse scandal rocked the organization, but they have continued to be the leaders in and peddlers of a particular kind of conservative Christian viewpoint. Even a year ago, before Trump’s candidacy revealed the underbelly of white supremacy still seething in America, it might have been easy to dismiss The Gospel Coalition’s publication of Clark’s article. But as we try to have conversations that enact real change about racial injustice in 2016, understanding the viewpoint of the audience of this article seems particularly crucial.

These are the conservative evangelicals Trump is trying to woo.

The article provides insight into a predominantly white subculture for whom interracial marriage is a fraught and difficult concept. Clark gives a brief history of the 1967 Loving v. Virginia trial in language that shows that the information might be new to many of the readers. She describes family members who have “fears, concerns, and objections” (but advocates for not calling “Uncle Fred a bigot” since that “dehumanizes him”—God forbid we dehumanize Uncle Fred!). She notes that “several people” asked Anna and Glenn which “world” they will live in, “black or white,” which she finds problematic not because these are set up as two mutually exclusive worlds, but because “interracial marriage in Christ” is about “unwavering allegiance to the one true God.” As she writes, it is clear that Clark considers herself to be moving, and leading her audience towards, a place of greater acceptance and racial awareness. However, the gaps between her level of awareness and actual consciousness—being woke—demonstrate the acceptable benevolent racism in many corners of the Christian world.

Throughout her article, Clark describes her son-in-law Glenn in ways that figure him as less than ideal, even though that seems to the opposite of her intent. She thought she was “open-minded” when she prayed for her daughter to marry a man who was “godly, kind, a great dad, and a good provider.” She names the ideal of that type of man: “a college football quarterback who loved puppies, majored in nuclear rocket science, and wanted to take his expertise to the mission field.” But, as she puts it, “God called my bluff” by bringing her a man that she sets up as the opposite of that ideal man: an “African American with dreads named Glenn.” The paragraph in which she describes Glenn relies on a level of surprise that he is “on his way to being a great dad and good provider” by listing his accomplishments, including opening doors, “even at the grocery store.” (In addition to Othering her new son-in-law’s body, she also names his place of employment online, which seems spectacularly uncool. Seriously, Glenn, the entire internet feels for you right now.)

Clark makes her intended audience clear in a number of places: she is writing to “the parent like me who never envisioned her daughter in an interracial marriage.” She also helpfully provides eight tips to remember when “your white daughter brings a black man home for dinner.” (Batten down the hatches, everyone, they’re COMING FOR DINNER!) She appeals to this audience by saying that thought “I never shared this prejudice, I never expected the issue to enter my life”—the ‘issue’ being her new son-in-law, Glenn, who at this point is probably ready to quit his job, cut his well-documented hair, and run for the hills. Clark’s audience is able to live in an all-white world and assumes that their white children will marry other white people.

The whiteness of the world that Clark describes and appeals to indicates the depths of the divide in conservative American Christian culture.

In a particularly disturbing example, Clark describes the day her daughter Anna brought Glenn to church; a friend leaned over and “gingerly asked, ‘Are they . . . dating?’” (Ah, the ellipses, useful tool of every awkwardly racist family friend.) Clark responds by grinning, winking, and telling Mrs. Ellipses they are engaged. Mrs. Ellipses replies with “a pained smile, and then sighed and shook her head. ‘It’s just . . . their future children. They have no idea what’s ahead of them!’”

Here are a variety of responses that Clark could have given Mrs. Ellipses:

  • “You are racist and gross. Please stop.”
  • “Are you serious?”
  • “How are we still friends? Please stop looking at my daughter and her fiancé and go away.”
  • “What’s ahead of my future grandchildren like, they might become president someday?”
  • “I’m not sure I know what you mean. What’s ahead of them? Would you go into detail?”

Instead, Clark responds by saying that life is hard and no one can avoid hard things. She stopped believing what she calls “the lie we could control our trials years ago.” She does NOT say that her future grandchildren will be perfect just as they are.

To be clear, she is calling being the biracial children of loving parents “a trial” that her future grandchildren will have to overcome.

Clark never questions one of the central tenets of racism: that being black is less desirable than being white. Instead, she counsels white parents in how to handle the situation when your daughter marries a less than desirable man. Glenn is dehumanized throughout the article, certainly not Uncle Fred.

There are aspects of Clark’s piece that demonstrate a desire to move past systemic racism, but whether she means to or not, she too often relies on racist tropes to make her point that, even though her new son-in-law is black, he’s OK. As she says, “Glenn moved from being a black man to beloved son.” That statement summarizes the problem with this article: he didn’t “move.” He is still a black man. And he may be beloved, but the unfortunate way she phrased that statement is still racist: she might as well have said, “I love him in spite of the fact that he is black.”

Clark and her family have several conversations in their future about how to talk about children and about blackness in America. The real issue is that The Gospel Coalition is perpetuating the worst aspects of racist language by publishing an article with the unquestioned assumption that a black man is an “issue” a gracious white mother-in-law must learn to overcome.