Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Being a parent is hard

Here's an Eliana story for you all, and this time it will be my segue into today's topic: parenting. It's hard.

We were at a cast party for the show I'm currently in, and we were all sitting outside eating snacks. Eliana particularly enjoyed the cheese popcorn, and at one point asked if she could have some more. Seeing as she had already eaten about 5 cups of the stuff, we said no. Next thing we realize, she has gone into the house on her own, and emerged with her face full of an unknown food substance.

"Eliana," I said," What are you eating?"

She looks at me, eyes wide, the wheels in her head visibly spinning. "I was hungry," was the muffled response.

"Wow," says my director, "She's being intentionally evasive." I think he was simultaneously impressed and concerned.

I ask again. "Eliana, what is in your mouth?"

And again, she pauses to think, then shrugs. "I don't know," she replies.

Well now people are starting to giggle, and who can blame them? Here's my crafy future politician coming up with various ways to avoid giving me the right answer without actually lying. So I ask once again, this time with more (I think) anger in my voice."

"Eliana! Tell me now what you're eating!!"

She slowly turns to face away from me, and says, "Nothing."

Parenting is hard. It's difficult, if not impossible, to always know what to do in a given situation. I know Eliana was lying, but what do you do with that? Do you punish her? Will she understand what's so bad about what she did? Is talking to her the better road to travel? I just have no idea. Nor do I have any idea what to do when she gets upset and, as she did the other day to her father, yell with all the rage and fury she could muster, "Papa, you're nobody's best friend!!"

Research shows that the most well-adjusted kids are those with parents who are high in demandingness and high in warmth. I think we have the warmth part down. The demandingness, well, I'm starting to wonder. I've always known we had the potential to be too soft on our kids, but I thought we'd been doing pretty well with limit-setting, consistency, and consequences for her actions. And yet, she continues to ignore us, disobey, and come up with all sorts of reasons why she can't go upstairs to bed right now. Of course, much of this is typical 3-year-old behavior. But what are you supposed to do about it?

Our other dilemma is her nighttime behavior. Eliana is up at least once - sometimes 3 or 4 times - per night, dorking around usually, under the guise of having to go potty. We're trying a sticker incentive plan that I am stealing from my boss (nice to have psychologists around you sometimes), and it's working OK, but I'm not convinced the results will be long-term. It seems like with Eliana it is one thing after another, and those things usually happen around or during bedtime. I worry sometimes that we're letting her get out of control, and yet I have no intention of spanking her. Aside from time-outs and removal of privileges, what do you do?

I'll tell you: you yell. I can't help it. I know that yelling isn't the hallmark of great parenting, but lately I can't help myself. I feel like I'm yelling at her all the freakin' time and I hate that! Every day takes a toll on me, because it seems like every day is filled with me or Paul asking her to do something, and she then tries to get around it. We go through our little privilege-removal/time-out routine, and eventually we just yell. I get so crazy and frazzled that I can't even keep track of what is working. It's almost as if I'm so deep into it that I have lost all objectivity and I'm now going solely by instinct. And I'm definitely not convinced my instincts are praise-worthy.

Of course, all of this exhausting parenting business has me wondering just what the hell I signed myself up for when deciding to have another child. I never feel bored with this one, never have that "our family is missing something" moment, and never think to myself, "Gee, I sure love continuously interrupted sleep, no time to myself, temper tantrums and self-doubt as a parent. I know! Let's do it all over again!!" But I guess you just do it again, huh? Which is why God made wine and chocolate.

Friday, May 18, 2007

The Ethiopian Condition

Before getting into a fairly serious topic, i want to begin with another story about my daughter, Eliana. This kid cracks me up! She and I, along with Elise who was going to be babysitting that evening, were sitting at the dinner table, and Eliana was telling Elise about her kids' house. Eliana has for a long time now had an imaginary kids' house, where her 162 kids live. Elise asked Eliana what their names were, and Eliana told her that today there were 3 princesses living there. After a pause, Eliana said that she would tell us what their names were: "Jasmine, Cinderalla, and Jeff." Well of course Elise and I burst out laughing at this one, which Eliana didn't care for, as she was telling us a rather serious story. She then explained that Jeff didn't wear a dress, he wore a shirt. I later learned this shirt is pink.

Now, about Ethiopia

Anyone who is at all concerned with anything in the world should read the book, There is no me without you, by Melissa Faye Green. This woman has written the most moving, amazing, infuriating, eye-opening book I have ever read in my entire life - and I have read a lot of books, just ask my mom. She attempts to explain the very complicated role the West has played in the disasters facing the continent of Africa. I know it's easy to say that the African people do it to themselves, with all the violence and female oppression and what not. But the more you learn about the ways in which our country and other Western countries have meddled in the affairs of Africa, the more you realize that we cannot wash our hands of what is going on over there, because we are partially (if not largely) responsible for the wreckage.

In Ethiopia specifically, there are a number of overwhelming problems facing the country. AIDS, of course, is a huge problem, and millions of children have been orphaned due to this disease, which is wiping out an entire generation of parents, doctors, teachers, and business people. Think about it: what would happen to our country, our economy, if suddenly we lost two-thirds of all adults between the ages of 25 and 45? Would we be fairing any better? Now imagine that other countries had medicine that could save millions upon millions of lives and stave off the disease that was killing off the adult population, but they refused to give it to us so that they could keep their profits high? That is what is happening in Africa. While they die by the millions over there, we here in the West have medication that keeps symptoms of AIDS at bay and prolongs the lives of those with HIV for decades. Most people in the US with HIV live long, normal lives now, thanks to the triple cocktail. But the pharmaceutical companies aren't interested in allowing the medications to be replicated by generic manufacturers, because they are making so much money from the pricey cocktail. Thus, aided by European and American government, Big Pharm keep the drugs way out of reach of most Africans. And they die, leaving their children without parents, and their country in shambles.

Then there is the health care crisis. And I'm not talking about what we call a crisis here in the U.S. Not to downplay the crappy deal many poor and elderly folk have been given here in America, but it pales in comparison to what is going on in Ethiopia. In the region where Meron Tihun was born, there is 1 doctor for every 36,000 people. Read that again. Now think about it. If a child gets sick, who is going to give them medical attention? If a mother develops complications in childbirth, who will assist? This is one reason why the death rate for mothers in childbirth is 1 in 14 in Ethiopia. In the U.S., it's 1 in 5,800. Mother and fathers also die of other illnesses, such as tuberculosis, illnesses that in the U.S. have either been virtually wiped out, or are easily cured. When we visited the International Travel Clinic in Eden Prairie for our vaccinations, the doctor there told us that if something should happen to us while we are in Addis Ababa - the capital city of Ethiopia - we should go to Nairobi, Kenya. Although I have been told by an Ethiopian friend that this is not necessary due to the existence of some newer private clinics in Addis, it still says something about the health care situation in Addis if the official advice is to flee the country should something happen to you.

Mothers who live in these conditions have to make the decision every day as to whether it is better for their children to remain with their mothers, or if the best thing to do is to give them up in hopes that they will have a better life elsewhere. As a mother myself, I can understand why they often choose the latter, and at the same time, I cannot fully fathom the indescribable pain of doing so. How lucky for me that I probably will never have to make that choice. And how undeserving I am of that luxury.

See, this is the part that tears at me. Going through this adoption process has thrown me into quite the existential crisis, the depth of which I promise I will spare you. In short, what have I done to deserve the right to live in a country where I can see a doctor because my eyes have been a little itchy lately? Where my most difficult decisions involve whether I want to stay in my cozy house in S. Mpls or move to a half-million dollar house in the suburbs?! What is so special about me that I won't ever have to decide whether I want my child to live with me, or if I would prefer that my child live past the age of 5? It's not OK. It's not OK that Meron Tihun's mother had to make this decision, and I do not. And I don't know how to resolve that in my head.

Thursday, May 17, 2007

An update on my baby girl

Kristina, our beloved social worker at Children's Home, sent us an update on Tihun. She is gaining weight, her ear infection is gone, and she is rolling over on her own. These may seem like little things to the casual observer, but to me they were huge. It means that she is healthy, that her body can fight off infections, and her brain is developing pretty much on track.

And yet, part of me is not happy. Part of me is really, really unhappy. And why is that, you ask? I am not the one observing the progress. I should be the one seeing her roll from back to front for the first time! I should be the one noting that her personality is "playful"! I should be the one putting medicine in her ears or giving her antibiotics, and holding her in my arms when she is fussing! Me me me!!! Given my tendencies toward control-freakishness, it's a major challenge for me - to put it mildly - to have a child that is thousands of miles away.

I now have to take a moment to share with you all a great quote from Eliana, who thus far has been woefully neglected in this blog. She was sitting on the floor putting on her sandals, and I was standing a few feet away. She looked up at me and said, "Wow, Mom, you're tall!" I replied, "You're right, I am pretty tall." Then she says, "You're taller than Jesus!"

Don't ask me where that came from, because I have no idea.

Monday, May 14, 2007

Adoption Etiquette

This entry is for friends, family, and anyone else who may be interested in the world of adoption, but are not so clear on the basic rules of etiquette. Yes, indeed, there are rules when discussing adoptions, and it is not as hard as you may think to utter a faux pas without realizing you are doing so. Quite honestly, I'm guessing that I still manage to offend adoptive families without realizing I'm doing it. Once I'm carrying around a black child, I imagine it will all become much clearer. It is a sensitive topic, adoption, due largely to the complex reasons why people adopt and to the highly sensitive set of circumstances to bring a child to a new set of parents. Many adoptive parents, I'm learning, get pretty hot under the collar when people ask the wrong questions or make insensitive comments. As someone who often manages to ask the wrong question, however, I'm more of the line of thinking that people can't be expected to know what they don't know. And why someone should know the etiquette of adoption talk with no prior exposure to adoption...well, this is why I'm writing this entry, so that now you can't say you didn't know.

1. Information about the child's background is usually kept private.

I write about this one first because I believe it is probably the most important thing for people to know, and yet most of you probably have no idea that this is the policy for most families. Once I explain, though, I think it will make a lot of sense.

All children come to adoptive families via some form of tragedy. It is a tragedy, pure and simple, when a child can no longer be with his or her family. Of course, there is an endless range of situations that lead to mothers choosing to relinquish their babies, but all of them involve an enormous loss. In Ethiopia, mothers give up their babies for so many different reasons. For many children, their mothers are no longer living, and the extended family does not have the resources to care for the children due to the overwhelming poverty that exists in this country. Other mothers become pregnant out of wedlock, and face shame and even exile by their own families. Many mothers simply do not have the resources to feed their babies, and no doctors anywhere to provide care if the child becomes ill (more about these issues in a future post), so they make the choice to relinquish their babies in hope that someone else will be able to provide the kind of life that these mothers cannot.

Whatever the situation, the story of how the child comes to his or her adoptive family is a private one, and it is up to the child to decide how much others should know. This is not to imply that there is shame involved in a child's adoption story - it is simply a matter of privacy, as these details of the child's beginnings are extremely personal and yes, for some, the details may be too painful to share with others.

The moral of the story: Do not be surprised if adoptive parents decline to share details of their child's biological family. It may be safer just not to ask. If the parents want you to know details, they will offer them without you asking, is my guess.

2. There are varying levels of comfort with discussing the cost of adoption.

This one pretty much explains itself. While Paul and I don't mind talking about the process, including costs, many people do. The feeling is that adoption begins to sound like a transaction, a purchase. It's also akin to discussing salaries, I think, in that discussing money (especially the kind of money involved in adoption) feels personal and revealing. So just be careful when asking these kinds of questions. If the parents seem to hesitate when you ask, leave it alone. For the record, our adoption costs around $20,000 when you factor in travel costs as well as all agency and country fees. We'll get much of that back in the form of a tax credit, and Paul's company will also give us $5000 to go toward the adoption.

3. Keep your opinions about transracial adoption (or adoption in general) to your damn self.

I have learned a few things in the last couple of years about what people are more than happy to share regarding their feelings about transracial adoption. I've also learned a great deal from families who have already adopted from Ethiopia. I will share with you some of the most valuable things I have learned when it comes to talking about your friend's/family member's child of color.

For starters, to comment that a child is not "that black" is not a good idea. Think about it: why is this worth noting? Do you see that as a good thing? Should the parents be happy that their child is not "that black?" I'm not asking you to pretend that the child is not black. I'm simply asking that you stop for a moment to ask yourself what the point is of your comment regarding the child's appearance. Or just say, "Wow, what a beautiful baby," and leave it at that.

Many individuals in our society have strong opinions about white people adopting black children, and so many white parents with black children are really sensitive to others' comments. Paul and I have been on the receiving end of negative comments about adopting a black child, and it is painful to know that there will always be people who do not hesitate to discuss their opinions about transracial adoption. I think that many adoptive families are not all that interested in your opinions about transracial adoption, and we certainly would prefer that you reserve your comments for times when the child is not present.

4. Along the same lines: please do not say that the child should be grateful for having been adopted, or commend the parents on the amazingly generous thing they are doing.

This is a big one, and I probably should have put it higher on this list. I know that it seems like you are giving the parents a compliment, praising and supporting them for adopting an orphaned child. But the bottom line is that adoption is not an altruistic event. At a conference we recently attended, the Ethiopian speaker put it this way: You would never say to a husband or wife, "You really did a generous thing marrying him/her. S/he should be really grateful." Imagine that you were the other half of that couple. So it is with adoption. How do you think a child would feel when given the message that he or she should be grateful to their parents for adopting them? They did not ask for any of this, and can feel however they want to about it. They don't need to be grateful.

Back to the altruistic comment. Parents adopt or give birth because they want children. No one talks about how generous someone is for getting pregnant and giving birth to a child. But adoption is no different. We aren't adopting because we want to be Ghandi. We're adopting because for us it was the right way to expand our family. Sure, we're very much aware that we are giving a child the opportunity to have a life she would never have had otherwise. But we are first and foremost doing it because we feel good about doing it. It is for us, not the child, that we are adopting. Just like it was for us, not Eliana, that we gave birth to her. I know this might sound cold, but it is simply honest. It is a mutually beneficial relationship.

I think those are the major points I wanted to make. Please feel free to write comments or questions. I hope this was helpful!

Friday, May 4, 2007

The Name Game

We're making progress on the issue of naming the baby. Paul and I both agree that we will not likely keep Tihun as her first name. I hate to say this, but I just can't warm up to it. Sorry, Tihun's first mom. That being said, we are also moving away from giving her an "American" first name. Our daughter is Ethiopian, and we treasure that fact and want her to as well. I do not want her to grow up believing that her Ethiopian heritage was one we wanted to disguise or downplay by giving her an American name.

In Ethiopia, mothers choose names based on meaning. I think this is a beautiful tradition, and is one I have decided to use in choosing a name for our baby. I looked over a list of Ethiopian girls names and their meanings, and ran my favorites by Paul. I'll be honest: my search involved finding a name that had significant meaning but was also fairly easy for us Euro-Americans to pronounce. At the top of my list is the name Meron. It means "gift from God," which seems awfully relevant. It also sounds pretty. Paul agrees, and we've both been playing with it to see if it feels right. Eliana's verdict was immediate - she doesn't care for it at all and got a little upset when I proposed it. The good news is that Eliana will survive and will likely resign herself one day to the fact that her sister is not called Isabelle.

So today our new daughter's name is Meron Tihun Bly. Stay tuned for updates.

Tuesday, May 1, 2007

Why we're adopting

Since this is the first day of my blog, I might as well make a couple of entries, so that the one lonely post doesn't look so, well, lonely. Here is the story of why we chose to adopt.

While we were living in Maine, Children's Home Society & Family Services sent us a newsletter. We're not really sure why we received this newsletter, so if you're the kind of person who believes in fate, perhaps you will conclude that we were meant to get it. If you're me, you just assume that you probably got these newsletters before, but never noticed them. In this particular newsletter was a story about CHSFS's Ethiopian adoption program. I read the article, and it resonated with me. Paul and I had talked about adoption before, in a pretty hypothetical way, so I was open to the idea but hadn't really thought about it in the here and now. Something about this article, however, spoke to me in a more here and now sort of way. One night, while crawling into bed (in our tiny loft bedroom in a cabin in the woods of Holden, Maine), I mentioned the article to Paul. Turns out, he had read it, too, and had been left with the same feelings I had: maybe this was something we should do. I believe the conversation, in its entirety, went something like this:

"Hey, Paul. Did you read that article in the Children's Home Society newsletter about Ethiopian adoption?"

"Yeah. Did you?"

"Yeah. You suppose maybe we would want to do that?"

"Yeah, I think so. How about you?"

"Yeah, I think so, too."

"OK."

"OK. Good night."

That was kind of it. I mean, we talked about it a lot after that, but I think our decision was made in those few sentences late at night in a log cabin in Maine. For a while, whenever I was asked why I wanted to pursue Ethiopian adoption, I was unable to give a good intellectual reason. It just felt like the right thing to do. Or rather, it felt like something I wanted to do, could do, and was called to do (not necessarily in the religious sense of the word, but I guess that's not terribly important).

Then I did some research, spoke with people, and began analyzing it from a more intellectual perspective. Thus began a very difficult journey. As it turns out, it is one thing to imagine bringing home a motherless infant and meeting all of her needs with love and affection. It's another thing to fully grasp that this child is motherless because of global politics, racism, poverty, and cultural factors completely outside my realm of understanding. And then there is the reality of bringing a black child home to a white family, in a society where white privilege is very much the foundation of our country, and people will have strong opinions about our child, her family, and her background. Finally, this child will carry with her the most basic and primal of losses - that of a mother. And I will never be able to fully heal that wound.

Thinking about all of that nearly caused me to abandon the whole process. It was overwhelming. How could I ever be qualified to raise this child? What if she hates me? What if she believes in her heart of hearts that I did the wrong thing by her? How could I ever forgive myself if she were to conclude in her adulthood that I basically ruined her life?

I cannot say that I have fully resolved all or any of these issues. I have simply learned to tolerate them, to talk about them, and to be aware that they exist. I have spoken to many people about my own issues around race, and have done a surreal amount of self-examination (that some might call neurotic obsession) to understand my motives and expectations for this adoption. I have read books, blogs, and magazines, have watched videos and attended workshops, and have talked with women of color and with adults who were adopted transracially. In short, I think I'm doing my homework, and my hope is that it will benefit my daughter.

Now when I am asked why I am adopting from Ethiopia, I respond that I believe strongly that children need parents. I acknowledge that adoption is not a great answer to the problems families are facing in Ethiopia; that it is, in effect, the lesser of a number of evils. I state that I am committed to doing what I can to help the situation in Ethiopia, but that in the meantime, babies are being brought to care centers and orphanages, and they need parents, period. I can be one of those parents. I have found that my faith in this answer has to be strong, for many people I have encountered feel differently. Transracial adoption stirs up strong emotions in some people, and I have to be prepared for their energy being directed by way. We will see, when the time comes, how I handle negative remarks, anger, racism, and just plan rudeness. In the meantime, I will continue to educate myself and do the work that I believe is necessary to adequately care for an African child.

My first blog post

Today I feel old. I'm trying to create a blog for friends and family, to update you all on the exciting changes in our family, but I have no idea what I'm doing. So please bear with me as I attempt to create the Bly Family Blog!

Tihun - the inspiration for our blog
I was inspired to create this after receiving our referral for a beautiful baby girl named Tihun Tesfaye. She was born around November 15, 2006, which means she is only 5 months old!! We were completely expecting an older child referral, so we are still straining to wrap our minds around what we will have to do now that we will be bringing home a BABY!! Our house is currently prepared (more or less) for the arrival of a toddler, since Eliana was 2 when we moved in. But a baby...well, that's another story altogether. So we are in the early stages of discussing high chairs, bottles, formula, onesies - I still cannot believe we are going back to that phase of parenting.

I'll admit, I kinda thought I had managed to worm my way out of parenting a baby again, by extending our referral age to 24 months. Don't get me wrong, I love babies! But my memories of Eliana's first year are blurry from sleep deprivation, and loaded with anxst and frustration. Not to mention a healthy dose of postpartum depression. My hope is that all of that will remain in the past, and that with my previous experience as a mother, I will be able to weather the challenges of babyhood with less neuroticism than last time. But I would't count on it.

Naming the baby
One of the first dilemmas we are facing has to do with Tihun's name. In Amharic, it is pronounced Ti-hoo-nah. If you say that out loud, you may notice that it sounds a lot like Tuna. I am having a really hard time warming up to the name Tuna for my baby girl. On the other hand, I'm reluctant to just willy-nilly change her name just because I don't particularly care for the name her birth mother chose for her. It seems awfully presumptious. We originially thought we would name her Isabelle Tihun. In fact, we sent out an announcement to our friends and family with that name. But now Paul and I are both unsure of that decision.

On the one hand, she is now our daughter, and giving her a name that we (actually, Eliana) chose has some meaning for us. It is symbolic of her entering our family. On the other hand, her mother named her Tihun, and to just toss that aside, or assign it middle name status, has a touch of disrespect in my opinion. As though we are trying to downplay her heritage, or declare that her Ethiopian name wasn't good enough, and that she would be much better off with an American one. Another thought I had today was that we could give her another Ethiopian name, one that has a particularly meaning for our family (Tihun means Let her be). Names apparently are chosen for their meaning, and I think choosing an Ethiopian name that has a special meaning to us, with Tihun as her middle name, may also be a good option. My plan is to consult with an Ethiopian woman (a friend of a friend) and get her thoughts on this topic. Obviously, it's one I don't plan to take lightly.

Traveling to Ethiopia
Lastly, for today, I wanted to write a little bit about our upcoming trip. One thing we are debating (we do a lot of debating in our home) is whether to stay at the Guest House or at the Hilton. Paul says that he promised himself, after spending a year "roughing it" in Tanzania, that the next time he went to Africa, he was going to travel in style. Or at least, in relative comfort. Apparently, the guest house is quite nice, but can get a little crowded, and electricity and showers are far from guaranteed. The Hilton usually has reasonable rates, and we have enough frequent flier miles and Hilton Points that we may very well get to stay for free, depending on availability when we are given our travel dates. And then our showers are guaranteed, and we would have some time to ourselves to unwind, perhaps with a glass or two of wine, at the end of each day.

Regardless of where we stay, I am so excited for this trip, 30 hour plane ride and all. I know it will change my life forever, and I hope for the better. We will get to travel south, to the region where Tihun is from, and perhaps even meet her birth family. This will probably rip my heart right out of my chest, and I know that I will have strong doubts about what I am doing, and wonder how on earth it is ok for me to take another woman's baby to the other side of the earth. But I suppose I will write a lot about that later.

We will likely be traveling in late June or early July, much to Paul's dismay, as that is about the busiest time of the year at Thomson. I feel kind of bad for him. He's trying to be the best Thomson employee ever, while also doing his best to be father of the year. And while he gets pretty darn close to achieving both of those goals, I don't envy him. We'll see how it goes this summer. Paul may acquire a few more gray hairs and some additional wrinkles on his forehead before it's all over. I feel pretty grateful to him for affording me the opportunity to stay home with the children for a while. I think (I hope) that we will all benefit from my taking a few months off from work.

That's all for today. Thank you for tuning in to the first post on the Bly Family Blog. Stay tuned for updates!!