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Sunday, January 25, 2009

Finding a new balance

Teresa VanWetten commented about "family balance" on her blog recently (click here), and she is far more experienced at adoption transitions than I am. So if she professes to be no expert, I certainly am no expert either.

When you first embark upon an adoption journey, your social worker will spend many a meeting discussing worst case scenarios and the trauma an adoption can visit upon a family. We listened attentively and made mental notes along the way - but deep down, both Jay and I had just a little bit of "that won't happen to us" syndrome.

I read all of the prescribed books (and then some) - and when we got home and the true adjustment began, I started to recognize a few of the "transition traumas" we had discussed and read about. With Wesley, we noticed his "indiscriminate affection with strangers". I commented on this behavior in a previous blog and as quickly as we noticed the behavior, we pulled together as a family and "quarantined" ourselves. No more large family gatherings and social events for awhile - the boys really needed to get firmly grounded within OUR family and figure out that we belong exclusively to each other.

Because we arrived home over the holidays, we flowed from one gathering to another, and from one home to another, staying over night at each of the grandparents' homes. Everyone was so anxious and excited to meet the boys - and we were just as excited to have everyone meet our sons. But in hindsight, I can see that this was probably not the best for the boys.

With our daughters, Emme (age 11) had about 2 weeks of feeling "off balance" and then seemed to quickly adapt to the new birth order. I explained to her in a later conversation that "she was the oldest before we adopted, and she is still the oldest". But with Maea (age 10) the adjustment has taken considerably longer.

Going into the adoption, Maea was the biggest fan about having little brothers. Even now, she is quick to point out that this is exactly what she wanted. But the reality is much harder to deal with than the idea. Our sweet Maea, our family firecracker, the spunky one, quick to laugh and quick to hug - suddenly transformed before our eyes into a solemn, angry and very sad little girl. When specifically asked what was wrong - she really couldn't pinpoint it. Friends and neighbors commented that the "sparkle had gone out of her eyes". How heartbreaking.

As Teresa VanWetten sagely commented on her blog, the best medicine is to talk about your children's feelings and validate them. Even if Maea couldn't quite put her feelings into words, we drew them out and discussed them openly - oftentimes laying side by side in her bed. After about 6 weeks, the laughter and the smiles are bubbling to the surface again and that sparkle is gleaming in her eyes again. We still have a long road ahead of us but for all of us adoptive parents - be aware that the family balance will most definitely be off kilter for awhile. Finding that new balance takes time and love and patience and some hard work.

Anyone that has more than one child has had to deal with this in one form or another. When an infant comes along, oftentimes the older child acts out angrily and with jealousy. Why did I not expect this even more so with older kids??? An adoption is an abrupt change of family order and balance - and it should be expected that each child is going to have a more or less difficult period of adjustment.

And even knowing what I know now - I would repeat this journey in a heartbeat and make the same choices. Despite the challenges, the experience has already been full of rich rewards ... and this is just the beginning!

A quick story ... we have been reviewing animal pictures with the boys and teaching them the names ... i.e. monkey, horse, chicken, turtle, zebra, etc. Wesley (age 2) memorizes the words quickly and can match up about 20 different animal pairs (what a smarty!).

Jayden too learns the English words quickly and tries to tell us stories if he has any personal experience with that particular animal. For "snake" he demonstrates a large snake and then mimics men crushing the snake with large rocks or cement blocks. When we got to the picture of the "goat" - he pulled his finger in a big slicing motion across his neck. When he saw our questioning looks, he again made a slicing gesture across his neck - this time with added sound effects. Oh - of course ... we saw goats all over the city being sold for food and many butcher shops had goat carcass enticingly displayed in the front window. Evidently Jayden had watched a goat being slaughtered. Nice memory!

When I pull out the camera to take a picture, Wesley is quick to respond with a big smile and crazy antics.

But after several attempts to capture his charming smile, and me repeatedly saying "smile", this is what I get from him.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Surviving -25°

We had a "cold front" swing through that dropped temperatures to about -25 degrees (that's BELOW zero) for about 3 days. Not windchill - but straight temperatures below 0. It's usually about this time of year when I wonder why we have chosen to live in Northern Minnesota. In the spring, summer and fall - I need no reminding why we live here - it's beautiful! But right now - we all have cabin fever and we are hankering for green grass and sunshine. Today - it is 28° above zero and it feels downright balmy! Schools were actually cancelled on Thursday because of the dangerous temperatures (which does wonders for the cabin fever!).

Here is a recent photo of Wesley (2 1/2 years old) ...

I mentioned in an earlier post that the boys' hair has really grown since we have been home and they each have beautiful ringlet curls forming.

Even Jayden, who LOVES playing outside, is ready for some warmer temperatures. He walked up to the windows overlooking the backyard and announced "tomorrow .... no snow .... finished!!". Unfortunately there was still snow on the ground the next day.

Jay took the kids swimming recently and we were looking forward to seeing Jayden's reaction to a big, blue pool of indoor water. Jayden seemed unfazed as Jay and Emme walked up to the edge of the pool and dove in. They surfaced and turned back to Jayden, and without any hesitation he performed a perfect dive into the water. Emme and Jay looked at each other in surprise, and Jay told me that for a brief second he thought "wow - he already knows how to swim!" Then in the next split second he realized that Jayden wasn't coming to the surface and he reached into the water and pulled a sputtering, gagging child out of the water. No - he had never swam or been in a pool before, but he confidently walked up to the edge and did exactly what he had seen Jay and Emme do.

He now asks everyday if we can go swimming. He really struggles with the word swim, pronouncing it "smoi". He can't quite get his mouth around the "sw" sound but when we repeat it very slowly, he says it exactly right. Splashing is referred to as "choffa choffa". It could be the actual Amheric word or it could be an imitation of the sound of splashing. Regardless, we understand him just fine ... and more and more, he is understanding us.

Within the first 2 weeks of January, our adoption agency announced 10 referrals and they followed that up with a few more!!! This is great news for waiting families. I was also happy to hear that the sweet little brother and sister that had arrived at the TH while we were there (a very tearful and heartbreaking arrival) have been referred to the VanDruff family. I emailed Renee the photos we took as the kids were arriving and told her the story that I briefly mentioned on my blog while we were in Ethiopia.

We are amazed at the change in fortune for these kids. 6 weeks ago they were alone in the world and terrified of their new surroundings and today, they have the love of a family that will soon arrive to bring them home. We can't wait to see those kids come home to their forever family.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Slow and steady progress!

Above photo taken in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. (I'll post more pictures soon. When we picked up the boys in Ethiopia, both of their heads had been recently shaved because of lice. Their hair has really grown and is forming the most beautiful little curls!)

Today we have been home from Ethiopia with 2 new family members for 5 weeks, and each day it feels more and more like the boys have ALWAYS been a part of our family. Our transition has been remarkably smooth, especially when I pause to think about all the "baggage" these boys are carrying. They have so many experiences in their little lives that affect everything about them, experiences that have formed them as the individuals they are - and much of it we may never know about.

With Wesley, our 2 1/2 year old, for the most part he is a typical two year old. He is very quick to learn and to figure out what is acceptable or unacceptable behavior in our family. For example - saying "no" to him pushing the buttons on the remote would bring on a defiant stare and then deliberate pushing of the buttons . Repeated "nos" would bring on an angry stare and then pounding the buttons. He has rather quickly learned that not obeying brings consequences - usually physically picking him up and sitting him against the wall in another room. While we were in Ethiopia, we noticed that if we put him somewhere - he stayed right where we put him. So we use this technique when we need to - physically removing him from the situation and taking him to another room and stepping out of his line of vision for a few seconds. He is quick not to repeat the earlier offense.

Early on, Wesley would absolutely refuse to try new foods or anything that he does not recognize. And what he recognizes is bananas, crackers, bread, and pasta with red sauce. Add meat to the red sauce and he won't eat it. Put corn or strawberries or grapes on his plate, and he clamps his mouth shut and refuses to try it. Since we can't allow him to eat only what he wants - bread and crackers - then the battle lines are drawn (especially since he is so undersized already and fruits and vegetables need to be part of his diet). We employ ketchup at times to get him to eat some foods. At other times, we use crackers to dip and scoop stew or soup that he would not eat otherwise - and slowly we are introducing him to new foods and flavors that he discovers that he likes. But no progress on vegetables so we tried a new tactic...

I put the bowl of pasta that he wants, behind the single piece of broccoli he does not want. I make it very clear that he must try the broccoli (or corn or apple - or whatever the offensive food item of the day may be) before he gets the pasta. He is extremely stubborn and would choose to skip the meal entirely, thinking that he'll get a snack later. But when snacktime came - there was the single piece of broccoli sitting in front of the pasta. Again - he chose to skip the snack, but by dinnertime he knew the routine. And once the broccoli was presented in front of the pasta bowl - he chewed and swallowed the broccoli (and I could tell by the look on his face that he liked it) and then he was presented with the big bowl of pasta - which he gobbled down and even had seconds. Out of curiosity, when we were done eating, I offered him another piece of broccoli and he happily ate it. So we have now added broccoli and corn to our food repertoire.

I have gone back to work full time and I was pretty certain that he would not bat an eyelash when I dropped him off at daycare for the first time. We had been noticing that he was quick to go to any stranger - not fully understanding that his new family was a forever deal. Sure enough - he was fine with me leaving, especially since the new "nanny" (daycare) was nice and her house was warm and he was being fed. But when I showed up again at the end of the day - he glanced up at my voice and his face registered pleasant surprise that I had come back for him. Ever since then, I think he has started to figure out that this family is a "long-term gig" and he is becoming more and more secure with us. Today at church, instead of running to every person that greets us, he stuck pretty close and preferred to be in the arms of a family member. That's reassuring and good progress!

With Jayden (7), the only situation we have needed to address is his possessiveness of Jay. Anytime Jay gives any attention to one of the girls, Jayden jumps up and inserts himself between them. A few times, he has physically pushed the girls away from Jay. When Jay says "no" to this behavior, Jayden is quick to turn on the tears. At this point, I step in and we go have a conversation in the next room about how many kids mom and dad have ... 4 not 1 ... and he is quick to turn off the waterworks and re-join the family because the insta-tears have not worked. Jayden continues to LOVE school and looks forward to going each day. He is learning English very quickly and understands more and more of what we say everyday, even though he is not able to speak English as readily as he can understand it.

Last night at dinner, we had tacos. And Jayden was eating his tacos everywhere BUT over his plate (you can imagine the mess). We kept reminding him to eat over his plate and he kept forgetting. So Jay finally explained to him ... "In America, we eat like this" (demonstrate eating over the plate on the table), "not like this" (demonstrate eating in several other goofy positions). Jayden quickly caught on and we were laughing at Jay's exaggerated demonstrations. Then Jayden said ... "In Ethiopia - eat like this" ... and then he went into a full demonstration showing us how you grab your food, hide it and scarf it down as quick as you can. Then he demonstrated someone grabbing his food and running away with it. He then pretended to be the "thief" and after he finished eating the stolen food, he came sauntering back to the table with his hands in the air, shrugging his shoulders as if to say "food? what food? I didn't eat your food?"

We were all laughing with him at his great demonstration and how well we were able to understand his "charades" - but at the same time Jay and I glanced at each other and once again commented on how much these kids have experienced that we may never know or fully understand. We are both looking forward to the day when Jayden has a better grasp of English and can tell us more about his life in Ethiopia!

These kids are smart and they have developed survival skills and tactics that have worked well for them in the past. They operate on all 5 senses and can sniff out a pack of gum in someone's pocket within 5 seconds of walking in the door. Those street smarts don't always work within a family environment - but both of the boys have adapted very quickly to our family and we continue to fall into a comfortable routine. Some days we make great progress - then things regress - then it seems we go several days with no progress - and then suddenly something clicks, and everyone is operating within that new and better balance.