Archive for March, 2012

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preparations for Mara’s future

March 30, 2012

Mara has a late fall birthday, well after the kindergarten cutoff in our state, so she’ll have one more year of preschool in which she’ll turn 5 and then start kindergarten the year after that. Yesterday, Lee and I went to her preschool on the community college where Lee teaches to participate in the once-a-year parent-teacher conference.

If I were a good blogger, I’d link back to the post about last year’s conference and the other one about why we decided to move Mara up into the pre-kindergarten class at the end of summer even though she’d be one of the youngest kids there. Sorry. At any rate, I’m tired and just doing a quick run-down now. And Mara is great! She’s fully able to do everything she should be except color inside the lines, though she spends hours on very detailed drawings, and a few verbal markers like consistently using “ed” to mark past tense. Although she’s one of the youngest (and tallest) kids in the class, she’s really come into her own and is doing well in terms of peer interaction, no longer insisting on playing by herself. She is academically the strongest kid there, and all the teachers are sort of challenging themselves to come up with activities that will surprise and engage her, though her teacher was quick to add that Mara’s good about participating even if she already knows what’s going on.

When we went to get Mara after the meeting, the student teacher who was working with her dropped the “gifted” word and now Lee’s thinking again about what that might mean for Mara and her academic future. I was more happy to hear the rest of what this teacher, who’s in a wheelchair, had to say, that Mara is emotionally attuned to what’s going on and that she understands the teacher’s physical limitations more than the other kids do and is better at anticipating how to help and following verbal instructions when this teacher can’t show with her body what she wants the kids to do. I knew from very early on that Mara was bright, but seeing how loving and kind she is, especially given what I know about her history, is incredibly moving to me. I also love that her teachers value this, and that they’ve taken our lead and given her room to talk about both her families, so they know that I take her to the park and Lee watches basketball with her and her littlest brother is three and likes to play with marbles. I love that she’s getting so much positive support for expressing how she feels.

I’d had another big conversation yesterday afternoon, this time with Mara’s aunt Odelia. We’re invited to the family Easter celebration, whatever it’s going to be. We’re also going to do something new while the big kids are on their spring break and bring three of Mara’s siblings — Franca, 9; Andre, 8; and Trinity, 6 — to stay with us for a couple of days. I’m figuring I can take all four kids to the zoo or if it’s raining the museum center on the first day and then on the other day we’ll just hang around the neighborhood and go to the parks in walking distance. Their oldest sister will be staying with her dad in our town and she’d previously described the house as being right near the ice cream parlor, so maybe we can use that as an excuse to see her too. I’ll get the kids Wednesday night and probably bring them back Saturday so they have time to prep for Easter. This should give Odelia a break and she’s not sure whether her biological kids will stay with her and have some solo family time or go to a neighbor’s house so she can completely decompress. She’s very grateful we’re stepping in to give her that break, but also absolutely on the same page I am about keeping the kids in each other’s lives in a more active way.

I’m not anticipating any problems during the visit, because all three have said in the past they were open to the idea and I think doing it together should give them a chance to rely on each other if they don’t feel comfortable about something. The oldest two are very independent and the youngest needs a lot of affection and reassurance, but I think we’ll be able to balance it well. I’m looking forward to seeing Mara on her turf with her brother and sisters, which is not something she’s gotten to experience since entering care. She is absolutely thrilled about it and can’t wait to see them again!

We haven’t had any updates about Talia, but her worker knows we’re potentially interested and we’ll be talking to our social worker the week after Easter and I’m sure she’ll have some information then. Since Talia is still waiting for her parents’ rights to be terminated (TPR) there isn’t an official pre-adoption case summary, so our worker has asked Talia’s worker to pull some information together and then at some point the four of us will sit down and talk. I know one of Lee’s concerns was about whether the local school does a good enough job for gifted students to meet Talia’s needs. Since Lee’s going to be thinking about that again in relation to Mara, maybe I’d better go pick up a packet from the gifted services coordinator and let her have a look. (Mara would be eligible for gifted services in kindergarten because I think she’ll be reading by then; she’s certainly already at 4 academically beyond where Val was in late September of her kindergarten year. Talia’s fluid reading and general inquisitiveness have convinced me she’d qualify based on test scores and/or parent or teacher push, which is what it would take to get Mara in too.) I’m more ambivalent about gifted programs than Lee is, and neither of us was in one in the modern sense, though we both got chances to do extra things on our own or in small groups because we were academically advanced. I mostly just got to keep a book at my desk so I could read quietly when I’d finished my work and go to the library every day at recess to get a new book, though I eventually also skipped a grade. Lee got bored and feels she didn’t reach her full potential because she wasn’t being challenged. I’d say it was mostly choices I made that kept me from reaching mine, but there you go.

Anyway, we don’t know anything more about the big things than we did previously, but we’re filling in some potential lines of where our lives could go and trying to make the best of it now. I have no idea what will happen with Talia, nothing but a safe guess about whether Mara will go on being outrageously awesome. I’m just so glad Mara has so many people (both her families, her teachers, her friends) supporting and encouraging her. I hope that wherever Talia ends up, she’ll have much of the same.

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Mara being her marvelous self

March 21, 2012

Mara has been under the weather for the past few days, first featuring a slightly high temperature and general whininess and listlessness and now some fairly nasty congestion. Lee is feeling sinus pain, too, and the downside to this beautiful weather is definitely going to be the pollen count.

When Mara is feeling needy these days, she wants to pretend she’s being breastfed or at least talk about it. I have to admit, it feels a little weird to hear, “I breast you now, Mommy?” but I think it’s a stand-in for the idea of nurturing for her. We’re lucky enough to know from her early medical records some of what her mom did when she was a baby, so we’re able to talk about how she got her nutrition. I think she’s fascinated by this because of the Babies movie, in which all four babies are breastfed, but it’s something that’s taken on almost talismanic significance for her. We have to remind her that we don’t have milk for her because she wasn’t born from our bodies, and that her mom Veronica doesn’t have milk for her because the milk dries up and goes away when the baby doesn’t need it or isn’t drinking it anymore. She knows that, but she has really strong feelings tied up in the story of being fed by her mom when she was in her mom’s care and what we have and haven’t done for her since, and I know all of that is getting tied up in the concept of “breasting me,” as she’d call it, but I don’t know exactly what or how.

So in the middle of one of these epic breastfeeding conversations on Sunday, Mara said very thoughtfully, clearly gauging my response, “I not love my mom Veronica.” I immediately told her that however she felt was how she felt and that was fine, that she would make her own decisions about who she loved and could always change her mind. I also said that Veronica loved her but, again, that she wasn’t able to do the mom jobs and take care of Mara. Apparently she had the same conversation with Lee later in the day, and Lee’s response was just like mine. Mara had had a feverish meltdown the night before in which she got really mad at me for telling her (while trying to get her to come out of her time out on the stairs) that I loved her. Early on, she used to get really angry if Lee or I would tell her we loved her after she’d done something she knew was wrong, but this weekend’s major version was the first we’ve seen in a long time. She furiously didn’t want to be loved, and then the next day she wanted to try on not loving someone huge in her life. I know she’s processing all of this and I’m glad she finds some of the words to do so. Love is a big and scary thing, and I think Mara recognizes that. In the meantime, she cares for her dolls gently and lovingly and was pretending to breastfeed her bathtime doll last night.

Mara’s speech went through a huge improvement while Val and Alex were with us, and she now speaks in sentences and paragraphs, stories linked together with “decause, decause, decause” and all sorts of wild invention. She has trouble with prepositions, especially remembering the difference between opposing pairs. She uses “for” if she’s not sure what else to say, and I love “You play for me, Mommy?” because it sounds like such a queenly demand! She also is still inconsistent on the gender of pronouns and remembering to use possessive pronouns. Both of these strike me as the kinds of problems people (like me!) have in learning second languages. I’m not sure what was in Mara’s head before she knew how to speak, but I do suspect she’s approaching English differently than if she’d learned it all as a baby. She’s also hugely interested in sign language and will sign while walking down the street. I don’t know if this is because she had a lot of physical dexterity before she was able to talk (though she didn’t learn any ASL until she was with us and already talking, though with major delays) and so expressing herself through her body feels comfortable or what, but she has a particular interest and we need to figure out how to support that beyond letting her practice with some of Lee’s coworkers who know or teach ASL and watching Signing Time videos over and over.

She’s good about mimicking pronunciations if we push her to do that, but her everyday pronunciations are good enough that strangers have no trouble following her even if her sounds are not exact. She’s also really interested in spelling, though she tends to start with the first letter and the last letter, then fill in with the actual end of the word. Last night “cup” ended up CPUP and I think that’s pretty common for her, as far as I can tell. I try not to push her on this, just watching where she’s going with it and answering her questions if she wants help with a tricky vowel or a silent letter. I’m sort of surprised that spelling is coming before other kinds of reading, but she loves spelling and is interested in it and I’m fine with whatever works for her. She’ll often finger-spell along with spelling out loud, and maybe having the signs to go with it is part of the appeal. I don’t know.

I should have some cute Mara stories to cap this off, but I sort of don’t. It feels like most days are full of cute Mara moments, that this is just our reality now. She’s such a sweet, loving, insightful kid and I love getting to cuddle with her and read her books and do her ever-growing hair and watch her playing, singing, dancing. She’s been riding her little scooter on our front sidewalk and I drew a line with chalk to keep her away from the stairs down toward the street and then added an octagon with STOP in it. She immediately grabbed the chalk, added a long tail to be the stop sign’s stem, and kept decorating. She still sometimes complains about being “presteration” and gets more, um, “presteration” if you suggest she means “frustrated” instead. While Talia was here, she announced that she’s also able to get “purious”, which is “very angry angry and presteration!” (She doesn’t normally switch Ps for Fs; just two times there and not in other cases I can think of.) Despite having such a strong vocabulary of negative feelings and of needing to say at least once a day that she misses her family, she’s still an amazingly happy girl with infectious enthusiasm. It is so fantastic to get to be one of her moms.

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what we did, what we’ll do

March 20, 2012

On Friday before I came to her foster home to pick her up, Talia went out in the yard to look for four-leaf clovers. She didn’t find any, but proudly showed off the clover with five leaves that we’d found instead. Neither her foster mom nor I knew what that was supposed to signify, but reassured her that it was definitely mighty special.

Then she hopped into the car and I drove her the half hour to our house, having an easy conversation about what foods she does and doesn’t like, why it’s hard to be one of two brown-skinned children in her class, what kind of books she likes to read, how it’s harder to find the lost tooth she then lost in her house than to find a five-leaf clover because a patch of clover is smaller than a house…. She settled in easily and she and Mara spent the better part of an hour doing art projects before the four of us had dinner. I thought her bounciness (it was a slow restaurant meal) would get to Lee, but they were sitting next to each other so Talia could watch the river and Lee could watch the basketball games on tv and they bonded over word searches and cracked each other up. After dinner, Talia and Mara chased each other up and down the ramps to the restaurant while Lee finished her drink and then I took the girls to the park to play until dusk, when we walked home. Talia held Mara on her hip when crossing some of the streets and gave her a piggyback ride briefly, and Mara was clearly smitten.

Halfway home, we saw a small group of teenagers walking. Talia leaned toward me, saying softly and nervously, “I think they have brown skin!” Sure enough, the boys in front looked black and the girls walking behind them seemed white, so I said, “Yeah, they probably live around here and it looks like they’re a mixed group, brown and white, like us.” She seemed okay with that response and the comfort I had that we weren’t in any danger, and so we walked past them with no problems and I could feel her relax. She and Mara watched a video, put their pajamas on, and then we read books until bedtime.

On Saturday, Talia was the first child up. She’d asked me if I’d do something with her hair, which is fully her responsibility in the foster home and I’d been horrified to see her taking a paddle brush to the roots before bedtime. She’d asked for hair like Mara’s, but she needed a lot of detangling and wasn’t ready to sit still for too long. In the 30 minutes she watched a cartoon, I detangled it all, got the front half into four flat rope twists (the Mara-like style) and then made a ponytail in the back. I explained what products I was using (she only has blue gel, apparently) and why I was doing things like using a wide-tooth comb to detangle from the ends of the hair. She’s only 8 and I don’t know if any of that will have any impact, but it was so cute to see her touch her hair throughout the rest of the day and say, “I look so cute! This is so pretty!”

Then she and Mara and I got dressed and headed out for adventure while Lee stayed home to deal with a contractor who was coming over to give us a quote on some work we need done. We started at the park we’d been at the night before, after which we walked across the river to the giant riverfront park. By the third playground, other kids with brown skin no longer seemed to strike Talia as remarkable, just as someone to whom you’d say, “Nice beads! Wanna get on the tire swing with me?” Then we tried to take a bus to the center of town for the St. Patrick’s Day festival, but the buses were being rerouted because of the parade and eventually we decided to just walk, which led to significant whining on the girls’ part and stoic ignoring on mine. We walked beside the parade, so they got to see that and the festival and get something to eat at the central square before turning around and having Lee pick us up, since the bus we were hoping to catch took off while we were still a minute’s walk away and I was not interested in adding another 15 minutes if the bus came on time when we were already late to return Talia to her foster family, though I’d left them a message saying we’d be late. I dropped her off at the same ball game where we’d met her the weekend before and her foster dad had only just gotten there, so the timing was perfect. She gave Mara a big hug and said goodbye to me and then Mara and I climbed back in the car and took off. (Actually, took off to the store where I was buying her pony toys because we’ve started a sticker chart and she has responded to it by actually not pulling her hair at nap time, which is fantastic.)

So that was all the stuff, and I did try to keep myself a neutral observer as much as possible. But I loved how genuinely sweet Talia was with Mara. Several times, she picked up books and started reading them to Mara and once she realized Mara knew her letters, had her join in on what she could read. She has a clear sense of her history and family story and felt free disclosing it to us since we’re “foster people” but doesn’t let it define her, either. She’s a fantastic reader, fluid and emotional, in a way that seemed noteworthy for a second-grader who’s had a somewhat choppy education. She’s thoughtful and funny in a quirky way, cracking me up with her explanations that Abraham Lincoln was shot “in a movie theater” but that Booth left Lincoln’s wife alone “because he didn’t have anything against her.” Like Mara (and unlike me) she seems to be a naturally positive person, someone who’s inclined to smile rather than brood. I really, really liked her and I think she’s a very good fit with our family. Mara was already calling her “my sister” as soon as she was gone, and that was only partly because each of them had some trouble remembering or pronouncing the other’s name.

So now comes the question of what we do next. It would have been easy if it hadn’t been so easy to have her with us. Instead, though, we need to really think about whether we’re ready to have two children and how we’ll manage things if/once we do. After a lot of thinking and not as much conversation as I might have preferred, Lee and I are on the same page and have told our social worker that we want to be approved as a potential adoptive placement so we can read her file and use that information to assess what we can and can’t manage appropriately. We’re not saying that we’re ready to adopt her, but we’re also not going to rule that out. We’re just going to move as slowly and deliberately as we can and make sure we’re being honest with ourselves and each other about our feelings and what we think is best for all of us involved. We also said that whatever happens, we’d be glad to do respite for her in the future. She was sweet and a lot of fun, and I think it meant a lot to her to be in a home with other “brown” people.

I can absolutely see this working out, but I’ve also given Lee veto power because I know that the best way for me to be the parent I want to be is to have a dedicated partner by my side. After this weekend, I do feel ready to be the parent of another child and I’d be honored to have that child be Talia, but we’ll see how things work out. For now, we’re enjoying being a family of three in the Piano House, especially now that the weather is nice and our front porch is heavenly. Mara and I made a trip to the library and I picked up some fiction, and breezing through a book a day has made me feel better too. It’s spring, and the world is prickly with new possibilities. Right now I’m okay with not yet knowing what exactly is going to bloom.

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quick updates and caveats

March 16, 2012

I have a lot more to say about the biracial thing because in some sense Mara’s being raised to be culturally biracial even though she’s phenotypically black. Based on what other local people have said, I think that so far I’ve been exempt from the nasty glares white moms of biracial kids sometimes get because people who see me with Mara immediately think “adoption” not “OMG, you slept with a black man!” which is kind of ironic given that I sleep with a black woman, but there you go. I do think that our situation is different not only from standard transracial adoption, in which parent and child don’t match, because Lee and Mara do match and so Mara is part of an extended family of black people via adoption just like the white people on my side.

And then there was a question about adopting out of birth order, which is generally talked about as a bad thing. The only situation in which we’d adopt in birth order is if Mara’s mother had another baby who needed a foster home. We’re not actively seeking out children who are younger than Mara. For one thing, that’s because I think our parenting strengths are a better fit with older kids, though it’s also about keeping our options open because there’s a decent chance that “surprise baby” scenario may come to pass someday. I also think that Mara likes being our baby, our youngest, at least at this point. I do think she’d be able to give it up relatively easily for a baby who’s related to her, because her biological family just means so much to her and the chance to live with a biological sibling would be the best thing in the world from her perspective. But when we took Val and Alex in, they were both older than Mara (by eighteen months and six weeks) and I think that actually worked well, because it let them feel a little more sophisticated and aware of the world than she was so she looked up to them, but she was also the one with ongoing experience in our home and with us and it balanced well.

There’s also the issue of what birth order even means. Mara is the first child who’s lived with us in the time she lived with us, though Rowan came first of all. She was an only child in our home until Val and Alex came, but before that she was the youngest of four (a teenager and two within two years of her age, not quite as tight a clump as the three we had) in her prior foster home, then before that she lived with Samara and was a middle child and the only girl with Samara’s teen boys and Mara’s baby brother living there, and before that she was the fifth or sixth child of each of her parents but all the other children were being raised by other family members so she was sort of an only but also had contact with extended family. I’m not going to say that Mara’s status as an only with us doesn’t matter and I don’t mean to be flippant about all of this, but I can’t recreate the dynamics of her birth family and it seems like a “birth order” that begins at age 3 is a little weird. I have read a lot that’s critical of the idea of adopting out of birth order, and my personal take is that it’s more problematic when adding adopted children to children who were born into the family. That said, I don’t take any of this lightly and we’ve thought and talked about it a lot.

There’s also the issue of timing and how that differs between “normal” and foster/adoptive families. If we’d had a baby fifteen months ago and were feeling ready for a second, people wouldn’t be too surprised by that and would say that two-year spacing like that was workable, I think. If we had a four-year-old by birth and felt ready for another, that would seem reasonable too. But to have a four-year-old who’s been with us more like 15 months and to be thinking about adding another child seems fast to a lot of my friends who’ve created their families biologically and slow to a lot of my foster-adoption friends, who’ve basically said, “She’s been there a year, so what are you waiting for?” Obviously the twist there is that we had Val and Alex with us at right about a year and while the impact on Mara was quite positive on the whole, Lee melted down and I had to pick up a whole lot of slack, often not too graciously. In the last few months they were with us, we found a better rhythm and were able to make some serious progress in our relationship, but the people who saw me freaking out September through December have every right to feel worried about why I’d feel comfortable to even think about parenting again. But I am still thinking about it, because I’m not sure yet that waiting would necessarily be better and want to explore my options. Lee and I have the strongest foundation we’ve had in quite some time, maybe even since Mara came, and our counseling is about making things better there, not anything more dire. I do think we’re headed in the right direction, and I hope we’ll trust each other enough to do that thoughtfully and respectfully.

I don’t know a ton about Talia’s family and what problems led to the termination of her parents’ rights, but I know that she has plenty of relatives who live in the same town Mara was born in, one over from ours. This means that the odds are fairly high that she’ll have family who live in the main public housing complex where Mara’s family is, meaning that if she visits we’ll probably have to be open to eventual contact with them whether we want it or not. Being there could also be a trigger for her if she has a history with the place, which would probably be true for Rowan, who grew up there. I’m generally in favor of as much openness as possible, which is probably pretty obvious to everyone here, but I don’t want us to get into a situation where we’d be trying to see Mara’s family and avoid Talia’s or anything like that. Thinking about openness and the potential for unfair openness where Mara gets lots and another family might not be open to that is also intimidating when I think about the future.

I don’t have to think too far into the future, because I have to stop at the store to grab a few things and then pick Talia up in a few hours and bring her back to our house. My family is getting together tonight because my brother is back in town during his spring break, but I don’t know yet whether I’ll bring the girls and we’ll probably just play it by ear. I told my mom that we’re doing respite for an eight-year-old but not that the reason we’re doing it is that there are adoption prospects. I didn’t tell her too much about Mara until things were secure there, and she was initially very negative about my ability to parent Mara, so I don’t really want to hear any advice from her when she really doesn’t know what she’s talking about. Still, they enjoyed spending time with Rowan and also LeeLee, who was with us for true respite for a weekend, and my whole family adores Mara. I’ll probably wait and see what the girls want to do.

I’m sure there was more I wanted to say than this. Mostly I’m just not thinking about the future and trying to take it easy. I’ve been enjoying the spring weather, too. Mara’s gotten to play outside with the three-year-old twins across the street and the six-year-old girl who’s visiting her cousins next door to us and it’s all made me very happy about the choice we made to move to our wonderful house in our dream neighborhood. Tonight we’ll have Talia stay with us and I’ll try not to overthink things, not to worry about the future or what decisions we might make. (Lee is better at that than I am, usually, though in this case I’m predicting she won’t be.) We’ll do what we can to enjoy our time together and see where things go from there. I am open to criticisms and advice about our choices, but ultimately we’re the ones who get to make those choices. I’ve been fielding calls from Mara’s grandma, who wants her to get her hair braided since she thinks the puffs and twists we default to mean I’m not keeping it tamed enough. I got to hear from Talia’s foster mom how strange she thinks it is that we both work and don’t just try to keep all the beds in our home full, how a month after ending one foster placement we’re still not sure we’re ready for more. I appreciate that different things work for different people and I know that having two children (if we ever do) will be a huge change and not one we’d take lightly. We’re still thinking about it, but I guess we’re also trying things out. We’ll see how that goes.

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real-life decisions

March 13, 2012

This is going to be a weird, hard post to write. I’d said a month or two ago that our worker asked whether we’d be interested in being the adoptive placement for an eight-year-old biracial girl. Let’s call her Talia, because I’ll be talking about her a lot in this post. At the time, I wasn’t too excited about it, but the idea grew on me as I got farther away from having Val and Alex and eight didn’t seem too young anymore. Plus, there was another family interested in her and we weren’t going to be considered unless they changed their minds.

Well, they changed their minds. From what Talia’s foster mother told me, this was because they’d been hoping to find a built-in playmate for the biracial eight-year-old adoptee they’re already parenting. In my experience, adopting so your child will have a friend is a recipe for disaster, and indeed these two little girls had nothing in common when it came down to personalities and interests. Talia is sweet and gentle. She loves to read and swim. And when I talked to her foster mom on the phone, I was hearing that a lot of her difficulties were things that I thought we could handle and a lot of things Talia needs that it sounded like we could provide for her. Plus, you know, sweet, smart, caring, someone the foster family would love to adopt if their adult children hadn’t made them absolutely promise not to do any more adoptions….

So Saturday we drove out to where Talia was supposed to be having a basketball game, except it turned out it was a dodgeball game and instead of settling into the crowd of parents, we were the only adults (and four-year-old) there besides her foster mother, who was busy keeping her foster baby from being hit by any of the loose balls. So it wasn’t the ideal scenario, but we got to say hi to Talia and see her dancing around and playing with other kids and holding a baby.

Talia is clearly not used to being around black people, which we could have guessed from knowing she lives in a very white and rural suburb (next one over from where Mara’s former foster family lives) and because she’d been raised by the white side of her family before coming into care. I think she was fascinated by and shy with Lee for that reason, and Lee got some kind of weird vibe from her. While Mara has dark brown skin and tight, tiny coils of brown hair that refuse to clump into larger curls, both of which she loves, Talia has an olive skintone, self-identifies as “brown” but would rather be white, and has big coils of brown hair that curl. This is pertinent and I’ll come back to it, but I’ll add that they have similar strong cheekbones and arched eyebrows and I think they could pass for related if people were making assumptions from the outside about who goes with whom.

Talia is going to spend the night with us Friday. That was the plan all along, and then for a while after we met her it wasn’t because Lee was feeling worried about not feeling the click of rightness with her that we felt with Mara. We decided finally that we’d be honest about that hangup (and others, which we have been) with our worker and with Talia’s foster mom but that we’d host her anyway to give her foster family respite as planned and to see how Mara does with an older child in the house and how we manage two girls. But then of course we’ll still have the question of whether we want Talia to move here when she finishes the school year, and I don’t know how we’ll answer that except that if Lee’s still feeling like no is the answer then I will definitely defer to that rather than risk getting in over our heads again.

The timing is in many ways not ideal. Lee and I have just started counseling, and I’d said that progress in counseling was going to be a precondition for my willingness to try again. But on the other hand, kids need homes when they need homes. Being able to live our lives as a family of three until June or so is still easier than just agreeing to have more kids in our home within a few hours, like we did with Val and Alex. Still, being able to take custody of a child without disrupting the school year would be really a fantastic thing. Over the summer, Talia would be able to go to school with Mara and Lee, since Mara’s preschool/daycare has an all-day program for school-aged kids, and that would keep her on a schedule, let her do fun things and build a rapport with Mara without them being in each other’s space all the time, and expose her to other kids of color before she’d start in at a school where two or three other kids out of ten will be black or biracial.

And there’s the biracial thing, which is a hangup for Lee and me. I know Mara’s going to get the cultural message that her hair isn’t the right kind of hair, that her skin is dark. Is it a bad idea to put her in a situation where she’ll be directly compared to someone within the family? She’s the only one of the girls in her birth family with natural hair, but her sisters do all have darker skin like hers and I hope that it will hold some weight to be able to say that it’s ridiculous to say that dark skin isn’t beautiful when her sister Franca is gorgeous. Lee had originally wanted a biracial child because she thought it seemed fairer since we’re an interracial couple, but now that we have Mara in the equation, that feels a little different. On the other hand, Talia deserves to be somewhere her racial background is embraced and celebrated and she’s not responsible for doing her own hair, which is what goes on now.

What matters a lot more to me than to Lee is that adding another child will probably mean having to draw back from some of the mentoring-type things we could otherwise do for Mara’s siblings and cousins. At this point, we’re talking about starting with monthly weekend respite and I have a hard time guessing how we’d do with a once-a-month slumber party with a nine-year-old girl, eight-year-old girl and boy, six-year-old girl, and Mara at four. Yikes! Though would it be that much harder to have five kids than just four? Heck if I know! (Lest people think that I’m taking on more responsibility than Lee in dealing with Mara’s family, I just haven’t written yet about how she took Mara to see her dad at his workplace last week, which was a great success and meaningful for all of them.)

I didn’t get the same “click” feeling with Talia that I felt with Mara, but I think that’s partly because it was so clear Mara wasn’t getting all the love and attention she needed where she was, whereas Talia is adored and flourishing so there’s no emergency. As Lee pointed out, we both felt that connection and commitment to Rowan from the start, but there too we were picking him up from his Residential Treatment Center and we knew about his sad family history already. With Colton, things were scary at first, awkwardly polite in his foster home, and then only became comfortable once we took him out to dinner. Again, he was living in a good place and we knew that and could rely on it. (He’s still living there and has made his college choice and is doing well in his senior year. We’re so proud of him!) So I’m not sure whether I’m hoping this weekend will bring a “click” or an extreme lack of “click.” I’m nervous because Talia will probably be able to guess what’s going on, that there’s some family-shopping. If Lee were absolutely not willing to consider parenting her, I was going to just cancel the respite so we didn’t put her through that, but it seems like that’s not the case.

Obviously I’m tangled about all of this, even more than I can express in this post. Meeting Talia has made me feel good about the idea of parenting a child in her age range. My next two brothers and I are each three years apart, so the four-years-to-the-week gap between Talia and Mara is not too hard to imagine. I had a dream that Lee and I were watching the two of them playing together, but I also don’t think I’ll feel heartbroken if Lee says she can’t possibly manage it. We’ll send Talia back to a home where she’s loved to wait for a home that will fit her. It feels strange to sound so cavalier about it, but I know that my first priority has to be the family I already have. Much as I’d love to be a resource for a kid who seems like a good fit, I can only do it if it seems like it’s going to be a good fit for all of us. And I guess we’ll find out soon whether she is.

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a postscript on privilege

March 7, 2012

I was 99% sure that Odelia would welcome us if I actually showed up at her door, that she was avoiding phone contact and not all contact, but I didn’t actually know I was right until I knocked on her door and she welcomed us.

I have read so many conversations about open adoptions with “OMG, what if the birth parents just showed up at your (adoptive family’s) house?” and hysteria that ensues because that would be the worst thing ever. I wondered if I’d get any comments saying basically that, that it was wrong and rude and pushy of me to drive over and knock on Odelia’s door. It was pushy, sure, and I was aware of that, but I also tried to plan things as politely as possible. I let Odelia know we’d be coming, then showed up and knocked, plus Mara knew that we might not stop off and see them and that we had a visit with Grandma Joyce planned so that she would at least get to see someone in her family while we were over there. (Samara, her former caretaker who’s also raising her little brother, wasn’t home, but Mara got to see Samara’s teen sons, who’d been stand-offish the first time because losing Mara had been such a hurt for them, but this time were thrilled about hugging her and saying hello. One of them said excitedly to the other, “Remember how when she was a baby she’d hug like this?” and showed the little move she’d make. Getting to learn that about her younger days means so much to me.)

Anyway, I just wanted to say that I know as the adoptive parent I have different sorts of power here on the internet and in reality. Making this relationship work requires a lot of trust from all the adults involved, so that Odelia and Samara are okay with exposing their kids to Lee and me even while knowing that we could disappear and take Mara with us. They’re also letting us into their lives, and talking about Mara’s mom’s failings as a parent and the pressures it’s put on all of us to deal with the fallout of that in the kids we’re parenting means exposing some very personal emotions and beliefs. They know that I’ve read and been told stuff about their families in reading Mara’s files, but they know very little about me except that I love Mara, that I’m financially better off than they are, that I’m white.

I’m aware of all of this and try to counterbalance it by making myself open, by setting up situations where I can signal some trustworthiness. On Sunday I told Odelia to let us know how we could help her and she asked me to drop off some Redbox dvds for her. I did, but I didn’t realize what the cutoff time was and missed that day’s deadline, and so I mailed her money to make up for the difference and let her know about it. I’m not sure if that will mean anything to her, but I didn’t want her to think that I’d be casual with things that she’s asked me to do because I won’t be when those things involve helping with the children she loves and so I can’t be with things like rented movies either.

I guess all I’m trying to say is that believing I’m in a position of privilege and power means I need to interrogate that but also that since “where much is given, much is expected” I need to make an effort be the one making bigger leaps, doing more to make the connections strong and lasting. This seldom requires financial effort on my part, but I just try to be thoughtful about what I’m doing with Mara’s family and what the long-term implications of that might be. I know I will get things wrong and I probably already have, but the more I can do now to build a solid foundation, the more leeway I’ll have to make mistakes and get forgiven for them because I have a decent track record. So I see all that as a “mom job” right now.

But yeah, just wanted to say this, that I’m thinking about this and it’s on my mind. Foster care really brings to light a lot of double standards, and so I was thinking about this particular one.

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communication and more communication

March 6, 2012

Lee and I finally got started on our couples counseling and the woman we found is great! She also does attachment work and talked about how we have to prioritize ourselves as individuals, then our relationship, then children/work/etc. and immediately added, “But of course you have to factor in Mara’s attachment, so that makes the job much harder on you.” So yay, I won’t have to justify anything like why we do bedtime the way we do and why we don’t use babysitters as much as we could, though that part needs to change soon. Lee and I are both very happy with her and think this is going to be a great thing in terms of letting us process what went wrong so that she disengaged when Val and Alex arrived and how we can have better skills for the future.

On the Val and Alex front, still no phone calls. I just wrote to our worker to ask if I can give their worker the box of stuff we have for them once Alex’s class picture is available. Lee is really hurt and offended by this and has said, “Seriously, we took care of their kids and they can’t even call us back?” but I think that’s the reason why they can’t call us back, that it’s probably part of getting back to their normal lives that they get the relief of not having to check in with me all the time. Plus I know from experience how easy it is to let things you mean to do get away from you when you’re busy and it’s always awkward to have to call and say, “Yeah, so I know you called me a month ago and I’m sorry I’m just getting around to responding…”

We had a similar disagreement about how to deal with Mara’s family. Mara’s grandma likes to sort of get in the middle of everything and when I was talking to her a week ago, she put me in a position where I had to say the most polite, non-committal thing I could while knowing that it was probably going to get twisted no matter how I responded. So when Mara’s aunt Odelia, who’s raising the oldest siblings, suddenly stopped returning my calls about when we could celebrate Trinity’s birthday, I assumed Grandma Joyce had passed something along. I called a few times, because I know she often runs out of phone minutes at the end of the month and then can re-up in the first week, but I was pretty sure she was avoiding me and not sure how to respond to that.

What I ended up doing was talking to Grandma Joyce directly and saying, “Look, I think Odelia’s avoiding me and I don’t know if it’s because of the conversation I had with you or because she’s having phone problems.” Her response was a little evasive, but Sunday I told her that I’d leave Odelia a message that Mara and I were going to try to drop by to drop off Trinity’s present and then see how things went from there. Since Odelia wasn’t answering her mother’s calls either, her mom called her other daughter, who called Odelia and I guess passed along the message. I left Odelia a message that we’d be by and I understood if she didn’t want us to hang out but that

Lee didn’t know all the details of this but said she didn’t have a problem with me being pushy if I thought something was in Mara’s best interests (and Mara was desperate to see her brothers and sisters) but that it was rude of them not to call back and not fair that I was doing more work than they were, so I should quit and let them call me. Obviously I didn’t take her advice. Instead I took Mara to my parents’ house to pick up a lamb toy that belonged to one of my brothers as a kid and I knew she’d like in part so that even if the visit didn’t work out she’d have seen some extended family that way, then to the hardware store. I reminded Mara that Trinity might not be home and asked if she still wanted to try to find her. She was adamant that yes, that was what we wanted, so we headed over there.

I knocked on Odelia’s door and she was glad to have her son let us in. The three younger kids from her four and from Mara’s mom’s four were there, and Mara was initially a little intimidated by so many people in such a small room. She loosened up quickly, especially after Trinity (who’s 6 now and almost exactly the same size as Mara, plus strikingly similar in looks) hugged and hugged her and got all excited about her presents. Trinity, Mara, and Odelia’s three-year-old bopped a balloon around the room while Odelia and I talked. She had been avoiding me and she was also happy to talk to me in person, and I think we bonded and made a lot of progress in our relationship. We’re both oldest daughters and know about the kind of added responsibilities and resentments that can bring with it, and I think she appreciated the chance to vent.

After an hour or two at Odelia’s, I walked all the kids over to Grandma Joyce’s place to give Odelia a little break. By that point, Mara was clearly just one of the gang, though each kid had individually done something special for her to make her feel welcome and appreciated. Trinity and her young cousins wanted to know how I was her mom if Veronica is also her mom, not to mention Lee, so we talked about adoption and about what I am to them, which wasn’t something I really knew how to answer. I told them that I’m like an aunt, and the kindergarten cousin guessed that maybe I was more like a stepmother, since she didn’t have a stepmother, while Trinity thought I should be the “adoptive mom” to all of them. We definitely don’t have words in English for the kind of relationship roles we’ve got going here!

Mara was thrilled to see Grandma Joyce again and Franca, who’s 9, proudly showed off all the many, many family photos. I still haven’t seen any of Mara as a baby, but seeing pictures of her sisters with their puffy cheeks and big smiles gives me a pretty good sense of what she must have looked like. There was one moment where I could almost see Mara rehearsing in her head before saying, “Grandma! Grandma!” and the way she lit up when Grandma Joyce smiled and responded was so much like the way her brother and sisters lit up when she hugged them.

While the logistics — managing phone messages and somewhat sensitive conversations being held in elliptical ways because there are seven children rolling around on the floor and knowing that what’s said to one person will trickle through to others elsewhere — aren’t exactly easy, actually being together and having those conversations and watching the happy, happy kids is easy for me. When Trinity was sitting on my lap, I didn’t have some internal narrative of “Oh, this is what it will be like when Mara is six!” but it was just that she was sitting on my lap because, like Mara, she needs some extra attention sometimes to recharge her battery. When she hopped up, she was able to talk more clearly and play more happily and I somehow felt just comfortable in my role, aunt-like or whatever it is.

Grandma Joyce says she’s impressed with how polite Mara is and with my parenting, which is always rewarding when dealing with these sorts of race/class/history differences. She started to ask who did Mara’s hair (in four puffs that day) but I don’t think she heard my answer, so I can conveniently avoid assuming there would have been some criticism there. Mara was baffled about why Grandma Joyce was wearing a scarf over her hair, so she knows that’s not the norm in our household (though she also knows that Lee has such short hair that it’s not really applicable for her) and I’m sure we’ll get to the way I’m not meeting social standards with Mara’s hair at some point and I think I’ll be able to explain myself then. Her sisters and cousins all touched her puffs in amazement at various points in the afternoon. Her sisters all have relaxed hair and her cousins have a much looser curl pattern, from what I can see, and all but the oldest have been wearing heavily beaded cornrow styles most of the times we’ve seen them, which isn’t an option for Mara because she rips the beads off and eats them and any hair she pulls. (Sigh.)

I think that’s enough in the way of updates for the blog, though I could go on. I love seeing Mara with her brothers and sisters. The next time we see them, we’ll probably be bringing a few to stay with us for a day or two to give her aunt a break. I’m looking forward to that. I love them so much, like an aunt or whatever it is I am, like they’re my daughter’s siblings and so much like her in looks and sweetness and wicked humor that I just can’t resist adoring them. She loves them so intensely and I love that they love her back the same way. She fell asleep Sunday night holding the stuffed lamb from my mom’s house and the stuffed bunny Grandma Joyce had given her. While she misses her family every day, at least I know she knows how much she’s loved.

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