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my girls!

March 14, 2013

Lee took Mara to the restaurant where her dad works earlier this week. A waitress said to Mara, “Oh my goodness, you look just like your daddy!” Mara immediately and very seriously replied, “Not really! We have different shoes!” When Lee told me this story, Mara added, “And I don’t have a circle head!” so that’s apparently her word for someone with a bald or shaved head, which it’s very true she doesn’t have!

Then Lee turned to Nia at dinner the other night and flat-out asked whether Nia was afraid of her. Nia agreed that she was, but also agreed when Lee asked if she knew that Lee would never hit her. I think this broke the ice between them and I’m proud of Lee for talking directly about something she was thinking about, which is often hard for her but has often been successful for me. It may be too soon to see how this impacts their relationship, but they had a hilarious time through the rest of that evening and have seemed more comfortable with each other since then. 

Nia has a teacher in-service day at school coming up and so I’ll keep Mara home that day and the three of us are going to have some adventures. Already in the last week we’ve gone on a long nature hike, gotten to a Celtic music and dance fest, gone to a foster training with childcare the girls enjoyed, and spent some time with an adult friend the girls enjoy. This weekend we have a babysitter (a sweet and peppy education major at one of our local universities who turns out to have also been a gymnastics coach, so a home run in terms of making the girls happy!) so Lee and I can go to a neighborhood party. 

As a result of seeing our friend, we were looking back at old pictures and seeing how the girls have grown. Mara has gone from a clingy little thing to someone so self-assured she decided to have me leave the room so she could talk to her counselor. (She did, of course, talk about not wanting too moms, but this time clarified that what she really wants is for all her families to live together in one big house. It’s made me more sad for the day I hope will never come when we’ll have to say no to having her siblings move here.) Nia had just lost her first tooth when she moved in, and now she’s cut molars and is about to lose her first up top while Mara has a tooth hanging on by a thread and will probably have her first loss by bedtime. They’ve gotten taller and more muscular and their faces lengthened. They’re both more comfortable and so sweet and settled with each other. They’re growing into such wonderful little people, curious and hilarious, gentle and kind. I am so grateful for all three of the others who make our family what it is now.

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remorse

March 6, 2013

As I’ve said a few times, Mara has been telling me that she wants me to go live somewhere else so everyone in the family can have brown skin. Two nights ago, she elaborated that she wanted Nia to go with me so that she could move her South Asian best friend in to be her little brother. I don’t know if I’m dealing with this the right way, but I didn’t get upset or anything, just pointed out that she knows her friend’s parents and that they are taking care of him the right way and that he shouldn’t need a foster family because of that. I didn’t really take it seriously because I know she’s working out her own view of the world and not trying to hurt my feelings.

The next morning, I was getting dressed for work when Mara woke up and went in to snuggle with Lee, who takes her to school later than Nia and I have to make our own morning trip. Suddenly I heard hysterical sobbing and went in to find that Mara was losing it over the thought that I was getting ready to go to work and never come back. I scooped her up, took her back to the rocker in her room, and eventually got her to calm down and talk to me. Obviously she’s learned that sometimes parents go away and don’t come back, so I knew that was part of her worry, but I decided to flat-out ask if she was feeling sorry that she’d told me she wanted me to go away, and she agreed that that was her impetus. We had the usual talk, about how it doesn’t matter what she says or what she does, that I’m going to keep being her mom and keep loving her. I think she felt better, though I can tell some of her sadness and confusion is still swirling around inside her.

Then yesterday Nia came home from school with a card she’d made me that read I LOVE MY MOM, which she confirmed was meant for me. She’s called me “Mommy” like Mara does, most recently saying “I need Mommy Time too!” and things like that, but I’ve only heard her refer to me as her mom once before. We’re quickly coming up on the anniversary of her removal and are expecting to see some behavioral and emotional fallout connected to that, and I think playing with putting me in that “mom” role is part of that. However, she blew the positive momentum she had going by passing Lee a card she’d made her that read I HAT MY MOM. On the plus side, she’s never actually called Lee anything close to “mom” before, but the negative side is pretty obvious. Lee’s feelings were hurt, which didn’t seem to have occurred to Nia as a likely outcome, and Lee stayed sort of cranky for the rest of the night, having a little conversation with Nia about how we don’t say “hate” (which she knows is on Mara’s banned words list right now) and how saying that is unacceptable, which is probably not how I would have put it but still what she was feeling. I’m not sure what feelings Nia had been trying to convey, but think it was a joke of sorts but also a comment on how she likes me more than she likes Lee most of the time.

One of the reasons I haven’t been writing here is that I keep reading all this stuff about how someday your children will read everything you’ve written about them. I know that’s true and I know it’s a possibility and so it’s been very hard to think about how to write about the confusion we feel about whether to agree to adopt Nia if her mom’s rights are terminated, which is a process that will probably begin as early as next month though stretch on from there. Lee and Nia butt heads a lot. Lee is not having the trouble she did with Val and Alex, but she’s a better adoptive and pre-adoptive parent than she is a foster parent. The uncertainty unsettles her and triggers some of her own concerns and just generally doesn’t bring out her best. I think some of this is race-based, that Nia also doesn’t expect the best from Lee because she knows what black moms are like and how they can let you down and be inconsistent. So they come at each other with their fight-or-flight responses at the ready and then wonder why things aren’t comfortable between them.

Also, Lee doesn’t know a ton about child development and since Mara is behind Nia age-wise, we’re going through stages with Nia first and some of them scare Lee. “Will she keep dropping her pencil on the floor while she does homework forever?” I dunno, probably not. She’s SIX, and soon she won’t be six anymore and she’ll do different things. Probably some of them will be annoying, but a lot of them will involve greater responsibilities and so forth. I’ve seen her grow in her time with us and I’m really not worried that she’s going to become a monster or anything, though I too have concerns about how good I’ll be at keeping up with her stereotypical girliness and how extreme her extroversion is. 

If her fairy godmother showed up and said that she was sorry she’d been away but was ready to take Nia to a magical home where she’d be surrounded by friends at all times and have round-the-clock nurturing attention and get to watch magical Disney shows that aren’t all about looking cute to get a boyfriend but would still make her happy and where her clothes would always meet her standards as “cute,” well, I think we might be relieved that she’d be going somewhere perfect for her but very sad to see her go. I really have a hard time imagining how crushed Mara and I would be to lose Nia, because just thinking about it feels overwhelmingly sad. I think Lee would be very sad, too, but guarding her heart as strictly as she has means she doesn’t have as much to lose either, and I realize that’s the point. 

Right now, though, there’s no fairy godmother on the horizon and all her known family members have been ruled out as options. So I’m stuck with feeling like we are not the best family for her in the whole entire world, but we’re a family where she’s found a place for herself and has flourished and I realize that’s not nothing. When she and Lee do end up stressing each other out, my initial response is to be sympathetic to Nia because Lee needs to act like the adult she is, and yet we have a policy of backing up each other’s parenting decisions as much as possible, so usually I’m walking a fine line there. And ultimately, there’s this family that we already have and if I believe Lee is not going to be able to function effectively and appropriately as Nia’s mom — which I’m not at all convinced is what’s going to happen, but it’s my worst-case scenario — then I can’t sign off on an adoption and I’m going to have to agree to break my own heart and have them find a new home for her. Ugh. 

Lee is actually not a bad foster parent, and I want to make that clear. She’s not hurting Nia or hurting Nia’s feelings inappropriately (and you have to understand that Nia claims Lee hurt her feelings by asking her to put her dirty clothes in the hamper, so basically she’s six) but just doesn’t have the same sort of connection she has to Mara and doesn’t seem willing to put in the work she’d have to do to get to that point, or at least not while there’s still some chance Nia might go home. All of this, too, is heartbreaking for me because it turns out I’m pretty good at being a foster parent, and so here’s that whole potential future closing off to me because Lee can’t and won’t keep up. Of course it’s selfish of me to be hung up on that, but that’s part of it. Being a foster parent is just too much for Lee, though she’s still convinced it would be easier for her with a boy than with a girl and that she really wants to parent a boy, which will probably happen because she’s getting calls from the state pretty regularly.

I’m terrified to do more and I’m even scared to put this out here because I imagine people will talk about me and ask how could I even contemplate bringing a little boy into a home where he might not be loved and treated equally, where he might end up having to leave to go to another foster home rather than back to family. I know that stuff, really, and I’m honest about it. All of this is brutally hard for me, and there are plenty of times I’ve thought that we should just quit and not risk it. But if Lee is convinced she can do better and I’m convinced she can do better, I want to give her the chance to do that. And maybe adding a third will make it easier for her to find better emotional space for Nia. Maybe it will be a failure and they’ll both have to leave and we’ll close our home. I have no idea at all.

I didn’t really plan on going into so much detail here. Like I said, it feels inappropriate to even be talking about this, but it’s also what’s on my mind all the time. It will be there when I pick Nia up from school and hug her and ask about her day and when she bounds into the living room to hug Lee and talk to Lee about what went on at school. The truth is that she loves Lee, too, and Lee admits that she loves Nia even while she’s guilty about feeling that the love she has isn’t enough. They’ve both just been pushed off the path of easy, exuberant love by their tough early relationships with their moms, and I know they have the capacity to get through it and figure things out, especially the one of them who’s had decades to work on it. But Mara’s fantasy of a home for her and Lee is not on the table at all and wouldn’t be a good idea even if it were. We have the family we have and that will include Nia for as long as it can, I honestly hope forever. At least all four of us can enjoy it as best we can for what it is now, and most days we do that.

Whatever happens, I got to be a mom and I got to be loved, and that’s huge and so much more than I once would have thought I could have done. I have a lot of thoughts and big feelings about coming to the end of fostering in the next year or so, but I’m so glad and grateful that I got a chance to do it and I have so much love and respect for the children and families I’ve gotten to know in the process. I wouldn’t change that part for anything.

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beginning reader

March 4, 2013

Today Nia took a folder with her read-a-thon money to school with her. At our last PTA meeting, the principal and head of the PTA had agreed that surely every child would be able to raise $10, which actually seems pretty unlikely to me. But if the class averages $10/child, they’ll get some sort of reading-related treat I no longer remember and if the whole school hits a high enough target, the PTA will be able to bring in a theater troupe to perform for the kids and any extra money will go toward buying books they can read at school.

So at any rate, Nia went off to school this morning with enough money to subsidize half her classrom’s expected minimum level. I hope that means her class will meet its target! I’d said something on facebook about the drive, thinking that some of my relatives who know her might be interested in contributing or that I could hit up our neighbors without having to have her walk across the street. Instead, I got donations from friends from all over, parents and foster parents and non-parents, teachers and unemployed folks and my coworkers. I am so overwhelmed with this kindness from people who care about Nia and her schoolmates, probably half of whom have never even met Nia.

Friday after school, both girls went to the dentist and then we had a celebratory dinner out afterward. I took the girls to the bookstore down the street from the restaurant. Partly I was being selfish (and seriously, had me obsessed and dreaming furiously all weekend!) but I also wanted to get some new books for Nia to try to read.

On Saturday night, Nia read Mara a bedtime story for the first time ever. We’d had to go to a special shelf to find “level 1″ learn-to-read books at the bookstore, but we brought some home and Nia had puzzled through one with me in the afternoon (with some special help from Mara, who was able to sound out “sad” when Nia couldn’t) and then read it with a pretty high degree of comfort again that evening. Lee was astonished to hear her fluency because normally Nia is not much of a reader, though she enjoys writing and doesn’t generally make a fuss about doing her homework.

At this point, we’re all taking it as pretty much a given that Nia is going to be in first grade again next year. If she’s still with us, which is the most likely outcome, she’ll have her same teacher again. Her teacher has been there long enough to have been my teacher if I’d gone to the school and next year is her last year before retirement, but she’s still active and involved and I really like her, as does Nia. She thinks that Nia’s problems are not learning disorders (and the fact that Nia managed to learn a whole year’s worth of math in 3 months suggests the same) but a combination of being young — just 6 and a half when half the class has already turned 7 — and having gaps from her kindergarten and early childhood experience. If she can come in next year already knowing what the rules are an in a position to be a role model for less-experienced kids, which we know is a situation she loves, we all think she’ll be able to find a niche for herself where she can really succeed, especially if she can remember that she really does need to stop talking sometimes!

Now, though, first grade is so academic in ways it never used to be. Kindergarten is, too, and Nia started kindergarten last year in another state, then sometime in the fall was withdrawn from that school when her mom moved to the city where Mara’s siblings live, at which point she was eventually enrolled in a new kindergarten there, though not at the same school Mara’s siblings attend. (I’m curious about that and don’t know whether all the city schools each get a share of the kids from the public housing area or whether it’s that some streets in the development go to one school and some to another and because Nia lived up by Mara’s Grandma Joyce and not down by the siblings and cousins that she got bussed somewhere else.) One of the problems that brought her mom to the state’s attention was an inability to get Nia to and from school appropriately, though her mom was also active with homework and cares very deeply about Nia’s academic success. So then almost a year ago, Nia was removed from her mom’s care and sent out to a rural McMansion suburb where she was the only black child and the only child who couldn’t read in her third kindergarten that year for the two months or so that school lasted, and her teacher seemed (going by what I see on the papers Nia saved and what Nia’s prior foster mom said) to be uncomfortable figuring out how to meet Nia at her level and so chose to ignore her rather than try to get her up to speed or get supports in place to help her.

In any event, we enrolled Nia at the high-poverty school with a go-getter principal near us. I know most of our neighbors pay to send their children to private schools rather than be part of our city’s public school system, but I’ve been so impressed with the education Val and now Nia have gotten there and look forward to having Mara join in next year. I also feel more and more strongly that if more of the parents from our neighborhood <em>did</em> send their children, that the school would be a whole lot better. But from our middle-class perspectives, it’s hard to think about having to fund-raise to get something that seems as simple as a theater performance, and yet that’s the situation this school is in and the reality for the other kids who live in our city, who aren’t making it to the zoo and the children’s museum and art museum as often as Nia and Mara are, who don’t have the home libraries that we and our neighbors do. Okay, I’ll stop before I take off on a rant, but the more time goes by the more I’m taking it personally when I can tell people feel some kind of way about “those kids” when those kids are MY kids.

And my kids are wonderful! The girls have been asking about getting more chores and so yesterday they scrubbed the bathroom and couldn’t wait to show off its shine to Lee, but also practiced dusting baseboards and bumping down the stairs on their bottoms while holding rags to the sides to dust the edges along the hideous carpet runner on the stairs. They played well all weekend while Lee and I were different strains of sick and pitiful and I know I’ll come home to big hugs and big smiles tonight. Then after dinner, Nia and I will sit down and maybe Mara will follow us and we’ll all read a story, or Nia will read to us. She’s grown up so much in the time that we know her and I’m so proud of that and excited about where it will take her next.

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tiny addendum

February 15, 2013

I do know there will be times when Mara doesn’t want a white mom or lesbian parents and we’re as ready for that as we can be. Lee and I have both kind of shrugged when she’s been hitting us with the “I don’t want two moms!” thing, sometimes pointing out that actually she has THREE moms, so two isn’t even the problem. But I do know that’s a normal part of the development of most kids with queer parents or who are transracially adopted, and I’m not making light of that or implying we won’t deal with it. Just for now, neither girl seems to be dissatisfied with our family because she’s comparing it to that of her peers, just sometimes when she’s comparing it to the family she’d prefer to have if she were queen of the world. 

I am reminded of a friend of ours in our old town who asked what we’d do when our child asked why he or she didn’t have a dad and my immediate response was, “Who in our town has a dad???” Really, we’re so lucky that Mara and Nia do have parents who love them and have been involved in their lives. There are plenty of kids who don’t even have that, and while we’re the only lesbian foster parents at Nia’s school, those of us who are variants from the mom-dad-kids nuclear family seem to be the majority. 

I love that Nia’s fellow first graders were drawing superheroes and in addition to the capes and cowls you’d expect, there’s a Wonder Woman with a massive afro and another with a bright blue hijab. I love that our being out has been one factor in some of Mara’s young teachers being a little more open about their own sexual identities, though I don’t know that the kids are aware of much of that. I think it’s great that the girls are seeing lots of different kinds of families and that they have a huge number of people who count as the families who love them. As far as I know, Mara’s teen relative everyone assumes is gay hasn’t come out officially, but I’m glad our very presence was enough to to show that Grandma Joyce accepted our kind of family as being just as good as the others. There are many ways in which what we have to offer is a plus.

But I’m also realistic about how much we’re going to come up short. As I tell Mara now, I have white skin because I was born from the bodies of people with white skin whose ancestors mostly came from Europe. I can’t have brown skin and curly hair and the personal history that growing up black would have brought me. I can do all I can to foster their cultural health, but I can’t do it as an insider and that’s just reality. Going into foster care and being adopted out of it is not the ideal for any child, and adding an interracial lesbian couple as parents just makes it more fraught. I’m not saying all of this is easy on the kids. It wasn’t their fault they needed us and it wasn’t their choice that they got us. But they’ve chosen to love and trust us, and I’m grateful for that. And it was our choice to take on the hard job of dealing with the rest, too.

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No Two Moms!

February 15, 2013

Mara’s been on a crusade to reform our family lately. For the last month or so, she’s mentioned periodically that she’s ready for Nia to go back to her family and that she’d like to trade her in for a little brother. (She always specifies that she wants a little brother who will be like her best friend, who moved here from South Asia and who, as she always reminds us, called her “MY Mara.” I also don’t think it’s entirely a coincidence that she’s had two very close friends who are boys a year younger than she is when she has a brother a year younger than she is, but whatever. (And since I’m being parenthetical anyway, she didn’t know this but the first time she made that statement was right after Lee and I had decided that we’ll keep our home open for a little boy — preferably black or biracial ages 2-4, which is to say younger than Mara — for the rest of this year and then probably close to fostering after that, though the girls don’t know about this decision.)) At any rate, Nia has heard her say this and we’ve talked about it a lot. Nia isn’t offended because she, too, sometimes wants to go home, though not so much these days, and they both understand that it’s hard to be a sister.

But Mara has also started complaining about having two moms. First she had plans about which of us should move out so her dad could move in and she could have a mom and a dad, but she realized that would be inadequate because she likes Lee and me to both keep playing the roles we already do. 

We’ve finally made it to the playgroup for kids with gay parents, and the only other child of color was also the only other child with a foster care history and the only other child whose parents were an interracial couple, so that was interesting. (There are other people who fit those categories in the larger group, but they just weren’t there that month.) Then last weekend we had our friends who run the potluck over, a black mom and her two black girls the ages our two will be in a few more years plus the mom’s white fiancee. This is going to be an ongoing thing because we all like each other a lot and had a blast, but also because each of us is the only other interracial-lesbian-couple-with-two-black-girls the other family knows. So I think once a month we’ll all go to playgroup and once a month we’ll do something with just our two families, and that’s both the weekends that their moms have custody. Even though all four girls are happy, healthy, well-adjusted, I think it will make things easier for them to see another family with the same or at least a similar setup. 

We had a family meeting earlier this week to address the “No two moms!” shout that’s been punctuating Mara’s interactions with us lately and also that Nia has started addressing some of her frustrations with Lee by saying that she doesn’t want to live with Lee. They loved the family meeting and keep asking to have one every night, but I think we’ll settle for one a week. We talked about parents’ jobs and judges’ jobs and who gets to decide who lives where and does what and why, and even though the girls didn’t get the answers they’d been requesting, they were happy with the outcomes of the discussion.

Mara snuggled up to me last night at bedtime and said, “It’s hard having two moms and it’s hard to be a sister!” I was sort of glad she’s picking up the language from me (“it’s hard” or “I’m having a hard time” being one of their standard ways of asking for emotional help because that’s how I always frame it for them, but also that HAVING two moms is a situation in which she finds herself but BEING a sister is about how she is actively involved in her relationship with Nia, which doesn’t involve a whole lot of parental control. When I talked to her about this, wondering whether she was jealous of the kids in her class who have a mom and a dad, which seemed weird since they’re definitely in the minority, it turned out that what she meant was that she misses her first parents and she wishes she could have been raised by them. Having a mommy and a mama is an ongoing reminder of that broken history for her. And so I hugged her and we talked about how of course it was hard and sad and that it makes me sad for her and for them, that when Lee was a little girl she was also sad about missing Leah and angry that Leah and Richie weren’t doing the work to raise her. Mara really seemed responsive and had a lot to say about all of that, 

And then there’s race, of course. At one point, Mara’s comment was that she wanted me to leave and her dad to move in so that everyone in the family could have brown skin. It seems that most of the time, Nia wants to have white skin because it makes her sad to see the shelves and shelves of dolls with white skin and the people on commercials with long hair she’ll never have while Mara wants me to have brown skin and curly hair because she wants us to match and wants my visible differences to disappear. They’re both having to grapple with a culture that values whiteness, and they’re doing it in age-appropriate ways, but it really is heart-breaking to watch sometimes. I had to stop at the drug store to pick up some more decongestants last weekend and Nia, in a very offhand way because she’s trying on how she talks about our family, told the woman sorting makeup, “I have a white mom!” as we walked by. All I can do is support them, let them experiment with how the feel and what they think, but from the outside it’s hard. 

Meanwhile, Mara is seeing her dad more often but not her mom as much, and taking her to her grandma’s grave seems to have calmed a lot of her concerns about death. Nia is not getting that same level of family connection, but for the most part she seems okay with that and is using the time to mentally separate her identity now from her history, which I think is good and bad but also only a step along her process to however she’ll end up seeing herself eventually. And Mara’s desires are complicated by the fact that seeing her dad means getting to eat her favorite cake at the restaurant where he works and her desires to see her mom are really about wanting to see the baby who lives in that house. She certainly gets something out of seeing her parents, but I think she takes that part of it for granted and is into the personal perks at this point!

So in case people want to know how we’re doing, it’s that. Nia wants to be white. Mara wants to be back with her parents. They both know that’s not going to happen. Lee has made big strides in interacting with Nia in a way that doesn’t trigger fears from her former life, and that’s led to a lot of unexpected hugs and happiness from Nia directed toward her. I’m glad I got in the middle of things and held a family meeting, and I’m reminded again how much being a parent for me means paying attention to what I think the girls are trying to say and help them find the words to say it without putting my own words in their mouths.

So we talked about “No two moms!” and why it’s not a useful rallying cry. If you want more chicken at dinner, you don’t get it by saying “No more french fries!” If you want more chicken, you need to tell me that you want more chicken, and even so sometimes we will have eaten all the chicken and you’ll have to wait until next time. If you say you want no two moms, that’s not going to happen in this family, and Mara knows about the judge who decided she’s a part of our family forever. (Yeah, someday we’ll get into the details on how I don’t actually have rights to her and that judge actually opposes families like ours, but for now we’re focusing on other things. She’s five. And Nia is already obsessed with the idea that we should and will get married since our friends are doing it, so we’ve got plenty of family pressure on our plates already!) One phrase we’ve had a lot of luck with is telling the girls, “If you need extra love, you need to tell me with your words rather than your behavior.” They do know that they can ask for extra love and do so regularly. Unfortunately what they’re telling me right now is that they want extra love from people who can’t necessarily give it to them, want things that they can’t have. And while that’s reality, it’s a sad reality. And it’s hard. And I’m not saying we’re doing any of this right or trying to set out a framework others should use, but we’re muddling through it. We have a long weekend coming up for these two moms and two kids and I think all four of us are looking forward to it.

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updates

February 11, 2013

I haven’t written here in way too long, though I’ve wanted to. I’ve been sick and now I’m sick again, though it’s nothing dangerous. The girls are wonderful. Nia was chosen as student of the month for her class (just as Valerie was last year this month, so we’ll see if Mara can keep up the pattern next year in kindergarten!) and I had a good meeting with her teacher last week. Her lawyer and both caseworkers are coming over later this month before court, and I suspect that means that her caseplan is going to be changed to adoption. I guess we’ll know more about that soon. I’m sorry that her mom hasn’t been making progress and that Nia is having to deal with so much sadness and uncertainty, but she’s doing it amazingly well.

I think, too about the shadow children. Val and Alex have been gone for a year now. I talk to Colton pretty regularly, but Rowan isn’t a part of our lives right now, though I’ve heard he’s spending more time in our area. I miss him very much and hope he’s doing okay and that I’ll get to know first-hand someday soon. I don’t expect to hear more about Val and Alex, really, though I think of them often and Mara has been talking about them more lately. Mara’s siblings seem to be doing okay living with relatives, but because I’ve been contagious I haven’t gotten to see them yet. That will change when it can.

Lee and I are doing well, too, though we have moments of seriously getting on each other’s nerves. We’ve learned and grown so much in this last year and I’m incredibly grateful to have her as a partner in whatever happens next for our family. Today is my birthday and she’s worked with the girls to make a lot of lovely things happen for me. 

I do have a lot more to say, more than this, but I want to say how grateful I am for the people who’ve commented to say this miss hearing about us, for the people who don’t say that but still read. It’s been hard to figure out how to balance writing what I want to and still being respectful of the privacy of others. I took a break from twitter for that reason, because I’m tired of venting online and it’s not productive for me. But I do want to be able to write here and I expect to do so more soon. I love that I get to do this, all of this, parenting, blogging, loving someone who loves me! I am so fortunate in so many ways. (But also sick. Blech!)

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thinking about contact

January 4, 2013

In thinking about contact and what my obligations are to Mara’s family, my first priority has always been in keeping her connected to her siblings. (Even that is not entirely true, since the only other of her dad’s kids she knows is her one full sibling, but I hear from her mom that her dad’s older children are aware of her and want to meet her soon, which would be great.) I like both her parents and appreciate having them be a part of her life, but ultimately the choice of whether to be there or not is up to them. Her young siblings, though, didn’t get to choose to be separated from their sister and I feel like I have an extra strong obligation to make sure they don’t lose contact with her. (Obviously this is on my mind even more now that none of them are with the aunt with whom I’d cultivated a good relationship, though the great-aunt they’re with now was so lovely to me at Mara’s grandmother’s funeral and made a point to tell me to pass on the family’s love to my “wifey” too.)

And since I parenthetically brought up Grandma Joyce’s death before I meant to, I’ll say that some of my thoughts about family contact stem from all the emotions her death brought out in me. I’d only known her nine months and we were just starting to figure out what the dynamic between the two of us was, though we clearly respected each other’s love for Mara. So losing her meant not only losing that relationship but realizing how close I’d come to never having a chance to help Mara get to know her at all. Mara took her grandma’s death hard, and has been commenting on it every day for the last few months. Earlier this week, and partly in preparation Grace’s memorial service today, I took Mara to the cemetery where her grandma is buried, as is the sibling who died before she was born. We tramped through the snow and Mara looked at the dirt and we talked about how Grandma Joyce’s body was in that dirt and that’s why she can’t “be back alive” or come to dinner or any of the other things Mara has asked for. Then the whole way home, Mara and Nia peppered me with questions about death and the specifics of Grandma Joyce’s death and burial. Mara had a weepy meltdown later that evening, but since then she’s seemed better with the idea and doesn’t spend as much time talking about being sad about her Grandma.

She does still say, if she’s sad or thoughtful, “I miss my Grandma Joyce.” Before that, it was “I miss my Lulu Veronica” and before that “I miss my Daddy.” As each of those pieces has been filled in for her, she’s stopped (mostly) using those as catch-all terms for her sadness or discomfort or whatever it is she’s expressing. Before any of those, though, she used to talk sometimes about missing “My Papa who Lives in the Forest.” That was back when Lee and I had no contact with her family at all yet, and so we didn’t know if Papa and Daddy were the same person or what was going on. But at Mara’s great-aunt’s house at the family get-together right after Grandma Joyce died, Mara’s mom Veronica walked Lee a few blocks away to the big house where Mara’s paternal grandfather lives, where trees run down to the river. When Mara was a baby and before her parents separated, they lived for a while with this grandfather. I get the feeling Mara and her mom might have stayed there even after her dad was gone, but I rarely get much of a timeline from anyone on when things happened. So now we know where Mara’s Papa’s forest is.

But Mara’s dad has been clear that his dad doesn’t want to know Mara. Mara’s mom reiterated that too. I’ve googled him, though, and found a lot of interesting things. He’s the guy to talk to in our area if you’re interested in local black history, which I am. I found an article mentioning a black church where the stained glass windows were paid for and then dedicated in memory of parishioners, including an ancestor of his (and thus Mara’s). I believe that Mara was named for his mother, though she had the more traditional pronunciation and maybe spelling of the name. He’s been active in reaching out to other people in the community, but he’s cut his son off and they haven’t seen each other in quite a while, maybe years. Knowing that Mara and Lee would be gone for a few days, I brought home a dvd from the library that I know includes an interview with him. Tonight or tomorrow, once Nia is in bed, I’ll sit down and finally see Mara’s Papa for myself.

So the question is whether to contact him when I’ve been asked not to do so. Lee is inclined to say that if Mara’s dad says he doesn’t want to be in touch with Mara, we respect that. Me, I have a hard time believing that a man who cares so much about the children who attended the first black school in our town before our 110-year-old house was even built would probably also want to know his own granddaughter, or should at least be given the chance to make that choice himself. I want to send him a letter and a few pictures. Honestly, I’m not going to defer to Mara’s parents’ wishes on this, though I am waiting until Lee feels ready to do it. If he doesn’t want to know Mara, well, nothing will change on our end. But if he said something he didn’t really mean in a moment of bluster when he was sad about losing his granddaughter and angry with the parents who were failing her, I don’t want him to have that stand as his final decision about his role in Mara’s life.

And in all of this, as I talk about what I owe to the various people involved, the person who truly has my allegiance is Mara. She’s made it clear she wants to see her Papa again, which tells me I should get on the ball in contacting him, which is why I brought this movie home and will let Lee look at him (which she really wants to do) and hear him talk and see if that makes him real in a way that makes her want to contact him even if that’s not what his son thinks he wants. I don’t want to see an obituary and know that we missed our chance, though I also don’t spend all my waking moments hunting down the relatives we don’t know.

So I guess I do have a certain amount of clarity about this. In the last six months when Mara’s mom has complained about some of the things her sisters were doing or not doing, I made it clear that I wasn’t going to get in the middle of it. I didn’t get in the middle when one of the aunts was angry with Grandma Joyce and venting to me, and I understand why Odelia has talked to me about her frustrations with the kids’ mom because she knows that I’m raising one of Veronica’s other children and it will make sense to me even though I’m also not going to have the same exact frustrations because Veronica and I don’t have the same history. It’s been very clear that there are a lot of different versions of the truth running around that people tell themselves in order to feel okay about whatever they’ve done, and I include myself in that group. I don’t need to judge the veracity of the pieces when what I’m doing now is holding onto all of them for Mara so she can patch together her own understanding someday. I hope she’ll be able to do it not only based on what she hears but on what she knows and has experienced growing up in contact with her family. But I hope, too, that someday she’ll see those pieces of stained glass that are part of her heritage and maybe that she’ll see them with her Papa. She has so much love to share and I’m delighted that Lee’s family is finally getting to experience that in person, but I want that to keep expanding along all the branches of her family. I guess we’ll see how that goes.

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