Wednesday, May 6, 2015

10 things Johnny loves about me

Yesterday Johnny and I made a deal to each write a list of ten things we liked about the other. I followed directions and wrote a list. He paid no attention to the rules and wrote me the most amazingly positive, cheerleading, confidence-boosting love letter I have ever received. It's SO good to feel loved by my favorite person on earth. I needed it. And here it is:

The things I love about you. 

Your intelligence is extremely attractive and I'm always drawn to it. I always look forward to a good conversation with you. I've learned so much from you and I retain more and more everyday. 

Your drive. You get shit done. You have no idea how much I admire you for this. You wake up running. And because of your overzealous drive, you're pushy with me. Which is great otherwise I'd move through life in slow motion and do nothing.

You are an amazing mother. The girls have the perfect role model. I love how they adore you and cling to you. Well... I wish they'd cling a bit less for your sake. ;)  

The way you provide for and protect our family is fierce and infallible. You are our true source of strength and it amazes me to watch you work it.

Traveling with you and everything it entails. We work really well together this way.  The car rides, walks, conversations, coffee, spanning time together, everything. 

 You're an amazing writer. I love that you write about our family. The charismatic and elegant way you weave words together makes anything you write an easy read.   

 Your stunning beauty stops me dead in my tracks. When your eyes catch me, they lock mine in a timeless embrace. I could look at you forever. Your body shape and height fit so perfectly with mine. When we hug, it feels so perfect. When we.... ;)

Your smell. Your breath, your neck, your perfume mixed with you, your.... all of you is intoxicating.

I love your taste in music. Watching you dance with a huge smile to a favorite song or singing all the lyrics you have stocked in that wonderful mind of yours. It makes me smile every time.

That you're vegan and compassionate towards other humans no matter how annoying they are. I have a lot to learn here and I'm trying. I swear.

I fucking love you!!!!!

Thursday, April 23, 2015

Sticks and Stones

Last week, someone called Teeny the r-word. 

I wasn't there for it, but hearing about it from Johnny felt like a kick in the stomach. He was taking the girls to the Y for their swim class when it happened. On our street. On our block. Where we walk a hundred times a day. There was a group of teenagers leaving the playground that my family was walking past. It went something like this: 

"Look at that girl in the stroller. She looks fucking retarded."
"Dude, she probably is retarded, just look at her father."
"That thing behind the stroller? Oh shit, that's a man?"
"Look at that fuckin' faggot. Do you see what he's wearing?"  

Blissfully, neither child noticed anything because Johnny stayed calm and didn't acknowledge them. He just walked them past the group and to the Y. Then he called me. And a million things went through my head at once.

First, I tried to make Johnny feel better. I tried to make it seem not so bad, like it was no big deal and he should let go of his feelings. At the same time, I thought it was sort of ironic that not four hours earlier, I had posted this video on Facebook:

This video validates the power of words and why words like the r-word are never okay. (Also, I just loved Paul!) I scrolled back down my page and watched it again and I cried thinking about all the people in the world who are marginalized for some real or perceived reason and have to suffer the indignity of being disrespected or mistreated. I cried thinking about my own child who will someday have to find a way to tell mean kids and adults to go fuck themselves, that she is as capable as anyone else. I cried thinking of the times she has already said "I can't" when I encourage her to do something by herself that might be really hard. 

Then I got angry. I thought about all the times Johnny or I have been called names and we'd never spoken up for ourselves because we feared for our safety. Johnny's been called a fag a million times. Lots of times when we walk down the street together, men catcall to us "ladies." Cashiers and customer service reps call him "ma'am." I have been called a dyke. A poser, a loser. Freak. Walking past the gutter punks on the Lower East Side back in the 80s and 90s, they'd always catcall at me. "Oh my GOTH!" they'd howl. We have been teased for our clothes, our music, our hair, our shoes, his accent, my last name, my being Jewish, our economic statuses, even our veganism. At the awful summer camp I was forced to go to for ten years because my mother worked there (and therefore I went free), I got made fun of for my area code (really!) and for living in an apartment instead of a house. I was tormented when I was little just because there always has to be someone and I was an easy target. The kids made me cry and because I always cried, they tormented me more. After a while I stopped saying anything to the kids who picked on me and cried alone instead. But the pain didn't go away and by the time I was 12, I had stopped crying. I'd learned to take it out on myself. Eventually, I really believed I deserved their hate and that I deserved to be punished. The ACT UP activists were right. Silence really does = death. 

I cried because I don't want my daughters to learn that kind of self-harming behavior. I cried for my younger self, for not feeling like I'd had a support system to help me get though my adolescence and early adulthood. I experienced rage and depression and twice I attempted to take my own life because I felt so alone. I also cried because I felt compassion for those teenagers, growing up without being taught to love and respect others. I felt sad that they probably go home to families who use words like that all the time. They probably thought they were being funny or cool or maybe they just didn't think at all. I felt sorry for them because I was an unhappy teenager too and I remember very clearly what that felt like. I had hated the world. I had hated my life. I know there were things I did and said when I was with my friends that hurt people I didn't even know, maybe for no other reason than I was trying to impress some kid so they wouldn't make fun of me instead. I cried because as I remembered my own adolescent behavior, I felt shame for judging these kids -- and without ever having seen them! I made assumptions about them based on what they said and where they were and I hated them for doing something that 25 years ago I was probably doing too. 

So I told everyone I knew about what happened. I shared on Facebook. I texted friends. I told coworkers. I wanted to expose this dark thing to the light, to diminish its power in whatever way I could. Turns out everyone I know has a story. Most people I know are or feel marginalized in some way, and many in multiple ways. The world has become a much more tolerant place than it was even very recently but we have a lot of work to do before I am convinced that we are really there. This may have been the first time Teeny was called this awful name but it won't be the last. As her mom, I want to give her all the tools she will need to teach the haters a thing or two. But the truth is that I don't have them. I am still a crybaby. Words still really hurt.

I know she is loved. I know she is growing up in a family that embraces difference and diversity. I know she will have good days and bad days and that every day she will come home to parents and a sister who will listen and be there for her consistently and lovingly. But in the face of cruelty, we will have to trust her to find her own way. I wish I could package this up as a teachable moment, but it's too painful. Instead, it just has to suck. I hate that I look over my shoulder every time I pass the playground on our street, wondering if the teenagers hanging out by the baby swings are the ones that accosted my family.

We've had some really wonderful days since then. Teeny had and loved her first hippotherapy session. We went to the ballet at Lincoln Center and saw Cinderella. We played in the park in beautiful sunny weather. The girls got cookies and smoothies at Peacefood. We bought them new sneakers for spring and when they got haircuts they left with pink balloons. And yet it lingers. Its ugliness, pervasive. If I had a nickel for every time I heard as a kid that sticks and stones can break my bones but names will never hurt me, I'd be a millionaire. I didn't believe it then and I sure as hell don't believe it now. It's in the back of my mind. Etched onto the insides of my eyelids. I can hear the word in my ears when there is quiet. It makes me look at my daughter differently. It makes me whisper the question to myself: Well, is she

A mom I know of a kid in Teeny's class shared a story with me. She said that she overheard a little boy on the playground ask his dad "What's wrong with that girl?" The dad said, "There's nothing wrong with her. What's wrong with you?" I loved that and it stuck with me. I know there's nothing wrong with Teeny. She's perfectly right just the way she is. What could be wrong about someone who makes me -- and so many other people -- so happy? But what's wrong with me that I'm still struggling a week after this three-second incident? What am I so afraid of? I accept her and love her and get so much out of knowing her just the way she is. Why can't I accept that other people might not? I say I don't care what other people think. So why does it hurt so much? What's wrong with me?

Sunday, March 15, 2015

Next Steps, or, Staying Where Their Feet Are

I am sometimes amused when I think about how different my life is now than it was twenty, ten, even five years ago. Most recently and not so amusingly, I can't believe that going through the New York City kindergarten application process for Bee took six full months of my life and more stress than I can describe. I realized recently how much of the rest of my life I'd put on hold to go through it all and just how absurd it all was. I was explaining the whole thing to a relative of mine and the story coming out of my mouth sounded crazy. Absolutely crazy! Even as I'm typing this, I am shaking my head. It's so unbelievably stupid. Was that stressed out person really me? 

I've written about some of it already here and here. If you read that, you already know it all started in earnest in the middle of last August. Between then and early last month, Johnny and I read two books on private kindergartens; researched thirty-seven private schools and every single public school on the island of Manhattan; toured fifteen private schools and four public schools; went to fourteen open houses and thirteen interviews; declined dozens of invitations to fireside chats, coffee with the headmistresses, diversity evenings, prospective parent Q&As and so on. Throughout the process we elected to withdraw our applications from four schools and didn't make it to round two of the very intense application process of another. I wrote twelve versions of a very long essay documenting what I thought our then four-year-old would need in a school and why; paid fifteen different fees ranging from $40 to $100; brought Bee on fourteen school playdates or interviews and I attended one workshop on financial aid. I met with our preschool director half a dozen times and called, emailed and texted her at weird hours when I couldn't get to the school to see her in person. I asked close friends for letters of recommendation, parents of my kids' friends for playdates at strange hours so we could be across town for early morning interviews, and I interrogated dozens of friends, colleagues, parents of my kids' classmates and family members for information about schools they or their children attend or attended and about schools they knew anything at all about. I emailed with and spoke to perfect strangers who were friends of friends of friends who had children in schools I'd read good things about. We read hundreds of web pages, rehearsed interview questions and wrote more than a dozen handwritten thank you notes. I spent hours and hours collecting copies of tax returns and finance forms, filling in bubbles and writing short answer questions and essays about why my family's financial situation is unique because of having a child with special neurological needs. With guilt and trepidation I subjected my four-year-old to six weeks of practicing with photocopies of patterns and sequences in fifteen minute increments to prepare for three rounds of testing. We had to listen to "feedback" from admissions directors told to us second hand via our preschool director, some very positive, some less so. We had to hear that perfect strangers thought this or that about our daughter based on a single, often awkward forty-five minute interaction with a very young and increasingly shy child who had not been prepared for these sessions beyond being bribed with a cookie or a balloon. In short, I let the process take over our family and almost every shred of dignity I had. The one thing I didn't do was lie about my address to get her into a public school in a better district, but I wondered at points why I didn't since the whole entire process was unethical and inhumane and it seems that's what everyone else does anyway. 

We did all that. And then, we waited. 

February sixth was Decision Day. The night before, I was in LA, working late in my hotel room. Emails started coming in at the stroke of midnight EST and with the very first one, I just knew I was in for the first all-nighter since before having kids. I was following a thread on the worst message board I could possibly be reading, one that was populated by over-privileged white stay-at-home mothers and, apparently, trolls.The thread listed each Manhattan private school by name and invited all the message board participants to comment whether they'd been accepted, wait listed or rejected, whether they applied for financial aid and whether they were of color or in some other way "diverse." I refreshed and refreshed and watched comments slowly post to the thread. I was mildly entertained by the term "troll," imagining some Shrek look-alike or worse announcing that her precious little boo-boo had been accepted at a top tier school that my kid would never have a chance at. I hated myself for feeling the awful fear of missing out, knowing full well that sleep would serve me better than learning who of New York City's self-proclaimed elite had been accepted where, but I couldn't help it. If they reported acceptances from schools I hadn't yet heard from, I surmised, it must mean that we had been rejected. I kept comparing myself to these anonymous posters, hating them and hating myself for getting all caught up in the drama.

Hours later, I was exhausted and in a tailspin. I had to work that day but I hadn't slept. I was only half-checked into the things I was doing because I kept refreshing my email and that awful website. People were talking to me and I was barely hearing them. "Huh?" I said as I moved through my day. "What? Oh, sorry."

Refresh, refresh. Text. Email. Call. Refresh again. And for what? Of the twelve schools we were waiting to hear from, in the end she was rejected from one and wait listed at 11. The rejection was from a school I didn't like anyway so the sting of rejection wasn't a sharp one (though I force myself to admit here that even now I can't tell this story without adding "But I didn't like them either, so it didn't matter!" which is pretty lame). Rejections -- even from snobby Upper East Side all girls' schools that you were warned you would hate -- sting. But wait lists really hurt people like me who just want to know already and can't stand the idea of waiting another second.

So I spent that entire weekend distracted, irritated, Googling do NYC kindergarten wait lists move, refreshing that awful thread on that awful message board  and generally feeling shame about the whole thing. I picked apart the wording in each of the wait list letters to determine which were polite declines and which were real wait lists. Following advice from Bee's preschool director, I composed individual emails to each of the schools thanking them and letting them know we were still interested, with slightly longer and more personal and detailed notes to the schools whose wait lists seemed genuine. I couldn't relax, couldn't sleep. When well meaning friends asked what news we had, I held up a hand and shook my head. I really did not want to talk about it.

So then we waited some more. 

Those few days after "Decision Day" were among the longest in my life. (And yes, I know how ridiculously dramatic that sounds. We're talking about kindergarten, after all.) On Monday, I had to hear more feedback via our preschool director. She knew the state I was in, so she was very kind, but there was just no sweetening some of what she had to say. Here are the awful things I was told:

-wait list X, Y and Z were polite declines or nods to the weak connections we'd tried to work 
-wait lists A, B and C were genuine and she knew it because they'd told her how much they loved Bee, but:
              -it's about money,
              -it's about money,
              -it's about money and
              -schools need "visual diversity" first so that's where they start with their financial aid. 

What I heard in all of that was that a lot of the schools liked my kid and liked us, but we were not rich enough or poor enough, white enough or diverse enough. The comment about visual diversity was so ballsy that I couldn't believe an admissions director actually said it. It in one nasty phrase essentially summed up why this process was so incredibly fucked up for us and for many others. On top of not offering "visual diversity," we were not legacies, not siblings, not staff. We had no connections, no in roads. And on top of it, we couldn't pay full price so we just had to keep trying to make an impression somehow and hope someone liked us enough to take a chance (and that the "visual diversity" they offered their scholarship money to the first time got accepted somewhere they liked better). So the chips were down. But I am a pretty determined person and the game wasn't up until the game was up. I had until Friday.

So on Tuesday, I started calling the schools we had gotten the most positive feedback from. I reminded them of the amazing things they told our preschool director they'd seen in my kid and I told them -- each and every one of them -- that we would jump if they offered us a spot. In short, I was kissing admissions ass. 

And slowly, the offers came in. In the end we got three. And one of them we really liked, and snagged. And then, on Bee's fifth birthday, after I'd dropped off a check so big I needed help from my parents to write, it was over.

(I am leaving out the details of the process by which I also applied to twelve public schools. We won't hear about that or the last round of testing we did for another month or more. The likelihood of a favorable outcome from one of those is slim to none, so I'm not giving any of it any more space in my brain, if there's any left.)

The really scary part is that now we get to do it all over again. Teeny is nineteen and a half months younger than Bee, but because her current school is a DOE funded school, she will age out of preschool when she's four, not five. She will enter kindergarten one year behind Bee, when really, it should be two. Her school does not do "pendancy," which is a thing you sue someone for or file for somewhere -- although I have not yet found a single school that takes it -- to allow your young-ish child to do an extra year of preschool or two years of kindergarten. She is a late September birthday and she's really, really little. She needs extra time for everything. I think one of the kindest things a school could do for her is let her stay in preschool for another year. But what I think doesn't matter. 

How do I know that? Because in addition to all that crap I mentioned we did in that six month period, I also went to three seminars on the Turning Five process (what they call the kindergarten process when you have an IEP), one special needs school fair and one school tour. I had to cancel two more because they conflicted with school tours and interviews we had for Bee. I read through four different lists of special needs schools in the New York area, filled a notebook with notes on almost four dozen schools' websites and I spoke to parents of kids with IEPs at several private and one public school. I asked our doctors and other parents about the neuropsychological evaluation process. I interviewed several parents about having to retain a special needs attorney. I added all of these expenses up in my head multiple times and freaked out silently and, sadly, not so silently. How do people do this? 

And then I was totally overloaded and couldn't do another thing.

There are still parents I haven't spoken to. Friends of friends who went out of their way to connect me with people at Bee's new school, people who love it, people who hate it. There are tours I didn't make it to, calls I haven't returned, emails still stuck in my drafts folder. I have drafts of our potential schedule for next year, as Bee's school day starts at precisely the same time Teeny's bus is supposed to pick her up and Bee's school day ends at the precise time Teeny's bus drops her off. We are going to have to figure out how to get Johnny to be in two places at once or I am going to have to pick one of them up every single day. Every day? I can pull off a lot of magic, but that may be more magic than I can manage. Oh I am so burned out. I have a few more months to get through before we have to deal with that, so for now, I'm forgetting about it. Crossing that bridge when we get there and all of that.

Right now I want my kids to be kids. Preschoolers. Little beings without a care in the world. And I want to be the mama who is present and who isn't thinking about next year. I want to be where my feet are. Better yet, I want to be where their feet are. And where are their feet? We are in the midst of a particularly lively birthday party season and we go from party to party it seems. Their feet are in ball pits, swinging from chairs where they sit painting ceramics with friends, dancing like crazy to "Karma Chameleon," "Girls Just Wanna Have Fun," and "I Wanna Dance With Somebody," jumping up and down while they're shouting the adorably misheard "focus focus!" at a magic show, carrying them from snack table to snack table. 

Bee's feet are usually in her "fancy boots," tap shoes or ballet slippers. (Because they are rarely if ever in heels, even for dress up, she likes to point out every single pair of high heels she sees anywhere ever. The lady sitting beside her on the subway. The businesswoman clop clop clopping down the sidewalk trying to act like she can't hear as Bee hisses, "Mama! Look at her high heels!" Cyndi Lauper. Elsa. The way Bee tells it, everyone wears high heels except her and that just isn't fair, Mama!) Her feet have precious and sloppy pink, blue or glittery toenails because she refuses to let me help her with her home pedicure. They are "an eleven size," as she tells anyone who will listen, because that sounds "old" to her. 

Teeny's feet are still strapped into old braces that no longer fit her (which reminds me to call the orthotist again tomorrow to see where her new ones are already). They too have pink toenails, also sloppy, not from her painting them herself but rather from her impatience and inability to wait for them to dry once I've painted them for her. They are often dangling from where she sits atop the "big potty," Frozen-themed underwear around her ankles, pink toes peeking out. Lately she gets it right about 85% of the time. Her feet hold her up, some days with more strength than others.

At this afternoon's birthday party, her feet helped her crawl through a bouncy house and up the ladder to the slide down, wriggle through a foam ball pit, and jump through a gymnastic obstacle course. As soon as I saw the party was at this kind of physically challenging place my feet tried to turn us around and right back out the door we'd come in. I thought Teeny would not be able to do it and I was cursing myself for not calling ahead, cursing the birthday girl's parents for inviting a physically challenged kid to a place like that. But Teeny would not have it. "I want go in!" she pointed. And some parent I didn't know pulled their kid over to us, calling out "Hi Teeny! That's Teeny! Can you say hi to Teeny?" So we went in.

The birthday girl's mom turned out to be an occupational therapist who knew exactly what she was doing when she picked the place. Half the kids were also from Teeny's school and had issues of their own. The mom was very attentive and well aware of everyone's needs. Apart from the one employee whose teeth I wanted to knock in when she instructed the "kids with limitations" to stay over there, the staff members helped Teeny reach and spotted her when she insisted on doing what the other kids were doing. Limitations, my ass. That kid mastered every single thing she tried and held her own next to neurotypical kids, able bodied kids and much bigger kids. And she had a blast. Even as we were leaving, she was pointing to the uneven bars over the ball pits and shouting "I want to do that more!" 

So you see, her feet are in a better place than mine. Bee's too. My feet will have me running all over the place and I need to slow it all down. I have a few more months until the second round of kindergarten ridiculousness heats up. For now I'm calling it quits. I'm not going to worry about the future, at least not today. I have lots going on right here. 

Saturday, January 31, 2015

I AM adopted

I am an introvert by nature, and as a blogger I am also an oversharer. It's interesting to be the kind of person who would rather write something personal for potentially hundreds of people --- many of whom I don't know ---- to read on the internet than to actually pick up the phone and call someone I really love and tell them something I truly want them to know. I wrote about it a while ago here. It sort of amuses me in theory but in practice it’s pretty damn uncomfortable and I know I end up alienating people because a lot of the time I squirm at the thought of having a heart-to-heart. I read in a book about introverts that this is not uncommon behavior but I still think it’s weird and ultimately, it sucks. I never felt that close to any one person in my whole life but I always wanted to be. I wanted to have a best friend I was inseparable from, the kind I could tell everything to, or a twin sister who spoke the same secret language I did. I wanted to find my people, the ones I could kythe with like Meg, Calvin and Charles Wallace in the Madeleine L'Engle books I treasured as a kid. When I was little my friends and I would talk about how we’d be best friends forever, go to the same college, be in each others’ weddings and be aunts to each others’ kids. I still want that super close sister like the Braverman siblings on Parenthood or a bestie who lives down the hall from me. But then I would have to TALK to them all the time, wouldn't I? 

One of the things I have written a lot about is my adoption. I talk a lot about it too, now that I am comfortable with it. I wasn’t always; I was raised to think of adoption as a private family matter. And in some ways it is. When I was a child I suppose talking about my adoption would have raised more questions about my parents than it did me. People should know better than to ask others about their fertility and conception issues but they do anyway. When it comes to questions about how I ended up surrendered at birth and becoming a part of my family, those are not mine to answer here; how my parents came to be my parents is not my story to tell. But as an adult adoptee, I don't necessarily agree with adoption being a private family matter anymore because it is a huge part of my identity as a human being, as a daughter and now also as a mother.
I remember once reading in a book about adoption that there is a difference between saying “I was adopted” and “I am adopted.” The book advocated for use of the former because, the author said, it identified the adoption as a singular event. Using the latter instead made adoption part of one’s identity. At the time I bought into that and I still say most of the time that “I was adopted as a baby.” But the truth is that I am adopted. Adoption is not an isolated, singular incident. It’s something I am every single day. I recently read this article and was surprised to see so much of my secret self in this woman’s words. Many adoptees live with a pain that other people can’t understand. As an adult, sharing and writing about my experiences helps me to heal.
Though I was able to "pass" when I was growing up, the truth is that I don't look like my parents at all and I don't act like them either. When I was growing up, we struggled hard to understand each other. It was not easy. I love my mother and father very, very much. They are my parents. I get defensive of them when well-intentioned people ask me if I know my “real” parents; of course I do. And as I get older I appreciate my mom and dad more and more and have a great deal of respect for their journey as parents. Best of all, we have a better relationship now than we ever did. But it wasn’t easy for any of us for a long, long time.
My parents may not have wanted to talk about adoption, but they were always as open with me about it and answered my questions as best they could. They told me that the adoption agency said that honesty and openness was the best way to approach things, and they took that to heart. So there was no finding papers hidden away in a drawer, no hushed conversation I accidentally overheard. I always knew that I was adopted, and I always knew everything they knew. Unfortunately, they knew very little, because my adoption, like most in New York in the 1970s, was completely closed. So really, there wasn't a whole lot to talk about. And that suited them – and me – for a long time.

Even though I have internalized and still grapple with the concept of my adoption being a private family matter, I have written publicly here and here and elsewhere about my experience as an adoptee, especially after my birth mother died three and a half years ago. The love I have for her is unique for me. Hugging her was unlike hugging anyone else in the world. She smelled familiar in a way no one else has. I felt like I fit into her arms in a way I’ve never fit anywhere else in the whole world. It blew my mind that I was developing a relationship with the person I grew inside of, the person who birthed me, saw me, held me before anyone else ever did. She became special to me in a way that was totally separate and apart from the way in which my adoptive mother -- or anyone else -- is special to me, and I was absolutely devastated when she died. 
I am used to a standard set of nosy questions about finding my "real" mother, what I knew, how I felt, my search and so on. I don’t mind the questions. I am so happy that it is commonplace nowadays for families to come in all different configurations and I teach my children that adoption is just another way that parents and children are brought together. My girls know that parents can be of any gender or sexual orientation and that children come into the world and into their families in many different ways. I want to normalize adoption for them because I want adoption to be normal. I want people not to shy away from the tough stuff about adoption. I want them to know that it's hard even when you love your parents, even when you look enough like them that you can "pass." I want them to know what I once heard: that adoption is like grafting a tree. It's uprooting. And it requires a lot of love and work to take. It's a big fucking deal and people who are part of the adoption triad as birth parent, adoptee or adoptive parent carry adoption with them long after the actual event and it’s a part of who they are.
Contrary to the way I was raised, my birth mother encouraged me to talk about my adoption. In fact, the day she and I met for the first time in person at a restaurant we both loved, she told every single person at the restaurant that I was the daughter she gave up 26 years before. She told the maitre d', the waitstaff, the other diners, anyone who would listen. She couldn't stop hugging me and asking them if they thought we looked alike. I was shocked -- and I loved it. She was so open. I wanted to be like her. I was like her. For the first time in my life, there was someone in the world that I was related to.  

Growing up, I didn't know that many domestic adoptees of my generation but those I did know were a lot like me: adopted within the same race and even religion, able to "pass" with their families, all records sealed. Some of them searched, but always for their birth mother. Just like me. Of all the wackadoo questions I was asked, very few people asked me about my birth father. If they had, I wouldn't have had much to say. Until this year, that is.
If my parents knew next to nothing about my birth mother, they knew absolutely nothing about my birth father. When I was 18, I wrote to the adoption agency to ask for my "non-identifying information," which was basically the only thing New York adoptees could legally do to satisfy their curiosity about where they came from. This was supposed to be enough but it wasn’t. How could it be? In the letter, I learned very little about my birth father; it seemed that my birth mother wanted it that way. I read that she refused to give the adoption agency any information about him at all. I didn't know why, but that was enough for me to put him -- and her -- out of my mind for another eight years.

When I was in my mid-twenties, someone told me that adoptees discover something critical about themselves when they reconnect with their birth mothers. This person, an adoptee himself and a former adoption counselor, explained that adoptees often grown up feeling somewhat lost.They're born and then immediately abandoned, after all. Maybe they lack a sense of true belonging. Maybe their identities are somewhat splintered. Maybe it's such a deeply subconscious feeling that they can't ever name it, but they know that something is just... off. He said that when they meet their birth mothers it's like fitting that last piece into the puzzle. And I believed him. But he never said anything about adoptees and their birth fathers and I never thought to ask.
I had never thought seriously about searching for either of them before that conversation. My birth father I’d written off as nothing more than a sperm donor. If my birth mother didn’t want him involved then I didn’t either. I fantasized about seeing my birth mother through a glass window, recognizing my face in hers, seeing her move from afar. In my mind, we never spoke. And yet, we made our ways back to each other and it was easier than I think either of us ever expected.  Some people hear the story and say I found her and others hear it and say she found me. Maybe someday I will write more about how it all happened. One way or another, we found each other and after a decade of trying to figure out who we were to each other, I had a baby and suddenly, she was Grandma and we became very close.
The relationship was and had always been, however, more or less on her terms. She was amazingly generous with me at times, and was the best and most thoughtful gift-giver I ever met. She drove hundreds of miles on a regular basis to spend just a few hours with me. She gave me books when she finished them because they made her think of me. She bought me cookbooks she thought I might like and we made the recipes together. She took me to museums, restaurants and shows she knew I would love. She was always willing to try new things, visit new places and have new experiences with me. She called me regularly no matter where on the planet I was living and no matter what our relationship was like at the time. And I loved her for all of that and more. But there were a couple of things she refused to do.

One of those things was to connect me with my birth father. When we first met, she gave me her high school yearbook and showed me his pictures. She told me everything she could remember about him. She answered every question I had and when I asked the inevitable one about whether she was going to tell him we were in touch, she grew vague and distant. Let’s think about that, she said. If you want to meet him, tell me. I am not sure I know how to find him, but let’s talk more when it’s important to you. I want to be the one to connect you, but not now. I was unsure and afraid, so I tucked that away. I figured we had plenty of time, and I didn’t think I could handle another reunion like that just yet. And what if it was worse? What if he didn’t want to hear from me? So I didn’t push. And then, decades too soon, she was gone.

A little more than a year ago, I got a call from a childhood friend of my birth mother’s. She left me a very cryptic voicemail in which she mentioned my birth father by name, saying she’d had a conversation with him that she wanted to fill me in on. It took three or four agonizing days of phone tag for me to catch up with her. When I did, she explained that she was not only a childhood friend and classmate of my birth mother’s, but also my father’s, and that year their high school class was holding their 40th reunion. There he learned for the first time of my birth mother’s passing and that she and I had been in touch. He wanted to meet me; did I want to meet him? I was excited but afraid. I said I didn’t want to be the one to reach out first, so I gave her my contact information to pass on to him. And when I checked my email the next morning, there was a letter from my birth father in my inbox.

Maybe it’s that I’m older. Maybe it’s that I’ve been through this before. Maybe it’s that I have a better relationship with my parents now than I did in 1999, or maybe it’s that I have children of my own and have less to lose. Maybe it’s that I’ve had years of therapy about adoption, or maybe it’s that he lives 3000 miles away so I don't feel a ton of pressure. Maybe it’s a little of all of that, and maybe it’s that what little of me is easygoing and direct is the part I get from my birth father. Our connection worked right away. 

With him I feel like myself. It’s easy to be with him. He’s funny, kind, generous, emotional.  He cares deeply for me and always has, it seems. I liked him immediately, and couldn’t help but see myself in his face, in his behavior. I thought for so many years that I was my birth mother’s doppelganger and perhaps I am, but I am also clearly this man’s child as well, not only in looks but in personality, in spirit. We met exactly a year ago and we grew close quickly; I feel like I’ve known him my whole life. And in some ways, I guess I have.

It is amazing to me how much of me comes from two human beings I never knew growing up and who, apart from an intense and magical teenage romance, really didn’t know each other either. It’s almost scary. I have flip-flopped considerably when it comes to where I stand on nature vs. nurture, being staunchly pro-nurture as a young person, probably because I hadn’t yet seen any evidence of nature in my life at that point. Then I was essentially agnostic for years, since I felt alienated from my adoptive parents and everyone else. Nature and nurture could suck it, I thought then. I was very isolated. That’s when I started reading books on adoption and learned that many other adoptees felt as I did: lost and alone. Meeting my biological mother was eerie in some ways and made a naturist out of me. Watching her move, listening to her voice, just looking into her face often felt like looking into a mirror. We barely knew each other and yet we could finish each others' sentences. Even when we struggled it was like I was fighting with myself, and I found myself trying to remember all that I had read in philosophy class about predestination because it almost seemed pointless at times to try as hard as I was to pursue a life of my own when I was this much like this other human being. The difficulties we had I believe had less to do with us not understanding each other or being dissimilar and way more to do with how alike we were, both adoptees, both such strong personalities, both so afraid of losing one another, of losing in general. I clung to her as if knowing her gave my life meaning, and in some ways I guess it did.

It’s true that meeting a birth parent is an eye opening experience. Finding your face in the face of another human being you’ve never seen before is indescribable. Then there are phases to reconnection that go beyond the initial reunion. There’s the “coming out” stage, which happily I was spared. I was very touched to learn that both my biological parents had been open about my existence to their families just as my parents had been open about my adoption to me, so there were no secrets to be revealed on either side. Then, introduction. There was the meeting of spouses and half-siblings. Siblings! I am an only child and somehow, I also have four siblings, and two nephews and a niece! I suddenly have huge extended families and lots of people who knew my parents who now also want to know me. It’s all so beautiful and strange and sometimes it’s overwhelming. If it’s hard for a biological parent and child to reconnect later in life and sustain that connection, think about how many times harder it is for the biological parent’s family to sustain a relationship with her biological child long after her death. That’s one we are still working through. There’s no instruction manual there, and we’re all just figuring it out as we go.

I felt deprived of family for so many years and now I sometimes catch myself feeling guilty for having three times as much family now as most people ever do. I find it laborious and, frankly, like TMI to always to have to say “my birth father” so sometimes I just say “my father” and then I feel a wave of shame. What about my adoptive father, the man I still at the age of 42 call "Daddy" like the Daddy’s girl I have always been? How would he feel if he heard me call someone else my father, even if that man really is also my father? But don’t I, an adoptee, really truly have two dads and two moms? I do, and still I feel like I am saying something wrong or that someone’s feelings will be hurt. Oy, some days it makes my head spin. This last and longest phase is assimilation. What am I to these people? What are they to me? Are these people my family? What is family, really? And what if there aren’t words in the English language to accurately describe this experience and the feelings I feel? That this is still something I think about is why I choose to say that I am adopted instead of saying that I was adopted. It was more than a hand-off, more than a signature on a form, more than a heartbroken teenage girl walking away from her baby and more than a baby coming into the lives of a couple who had been waiting for years. It’s still my story.

 Maybe it is a story I need to write someday, so I can create the words and tell people what it’s like, but not today. Because the rest has yet to unfold. I don’t know what will happen and for today it doesn’t matter. I tell myself the more people there are in the world who love and support my children and me in whatever way they can, the better. We are all still learning each other, and with every interaction I also get to learn more about myself. How could that be a bad thing? 

Friday, January 2, 2015

Nothing Changes on New Year's Day (I Will Begin Again)

What? 2014, where did you go? Suddenly here we are and it’s 2015. There is so much about the past year that I want to record that I haven’t. There is even so much about the past week that I want to record. 

More than once this past week of vacation, I’ve felt like I should just follow my children around and write down every cute or funny or inspirational thing they say in a notebook that I can reread when they are grown. I wanted to write down the time a couple days ago when Johnny was leaning in to turn up the volume on The Nightmare Before Christmas. Teeny, currently obsessed with Jack Skellington, was afraid he was turning it off. “No!” she cried. “Don’t turn it off!” I was amazed. I didn’t even know she could say that. In a flash I remembered how a year ago I had created a list of all the words she could say and put it in a Google doc. I gave her teachers and therapists access so we could all update it whenever we heard new words. At the time, her words were so few and her pronunciation so poor that most people had great difficulty understanding her. That list, on a spreadsheet that included a column in which I tried to recreate the way she pronounced particular words and phrases (like “AH-waht” for “I want”) served to help everyone understand what she meant when she tried to express herself and I wasn’t there to translate. 

Now she speaks in complete sentences almost routinely. They are slow and deliberate but they are pretty accurate and, to most, pretty clear. What’s funny is that I don’t always like what she has to say! “Did you finish peeing? Wipe yourself please,” I will say, a thousand times a day, handing her a wad of toilet paper. “No. YOU wipe me,” she will retort, pointing a finger in my face. These days she so is full of “No. YOU do it” that I have just started doing things for her that I know full well she can do herself. But this is dangerous territory for a three-year-old, neurotypical or otherwise, because as soon as I do that, she will of course shriek, “No! Teeny do! Teeny do!” and collapse into hysteria if I dare to do so much as flush the toilet for her when she’s finished because she decided a nanosecond too late that she wanted to do it herself. 

She’s becoming very stubborn. Half ultra-independent (“Teeny do it self!” and “No, I want own muffin!”), half-clinging to Mama (“I want to sit lap, Mama” and “No, YOU do it, Mama.”) Always pointing. Usually polite. And for me, never resistible.  As frustrating as it was to be outside with Bee when she, at eleven months, was taking her first steps, needing a half hour to cover one city block, it is a thousand times more frustrating to be outside with a three-year-old who wants like hell to walk but simply cannot. “I want WALK!” she will shout as we are loading her up into her wheelchair or her stroller or carseat. But then as we are putting on her shoes she will declare, “No braces!” When she doesn’t wear her braces, her ankles collapse easily and even standing becomes more challenging. So we try to reason with her about that, which gets us nowhere. Sometimes she wins and sometimes she doesn’t. When she wins, we walk. But it doesn’t stop there. “Just one hand,” she will instruct me as she pulls herself to a stand, leaning on me. To step without her walker, she needs to support herself with both arms, but this is too restrictive for her liking. I automatically take both her hands in mine to help her, but she invariably yanks one hand away from me, repeating “just one hand!” When I can, I let her try this even though we both know that she can’t take a single step without us holding both of her hands. I redirect that other hand to whatever’s closest – a chair back, a table edge, a windowsill, another person’s hand. This clearly makes her feel more independent. But it would probably take us a year to walk down one block. We take one very slow step after another, correcting the way her right foot crosses her left when she isn’t paying attention and the way both feet do it when she gets physically tired. But she presses on until she can’t go any further. “Take a break,” she will announce and sit down right in the middle of wherever she is, whatever she is doing. Two minutes later she’s usually ready to try again. This kid’s spirit is almost indefatigable. (Almost. She does have moments of extreme frustration when her body can't do what her mind tries to command it to.) For me it’s an exercise in patience and self-restraint that I do mostly happily because I know this new level of determination is a sign of incredible progress. Plus there’s something about it that’s awfully endearing, even when she’s at her bossiest.

Bee is now six weeks away from her fifth birthday. She is both sassy and sweet. This week she helped us with the border of our 1,000 piece puzzle, scouring the piles for corners and edges and seeing where they fit together. She happily sorted hundreds of pieces with me by color and pattern. “Oooh, Mama!” she announced, waving a tiny piece at me. “I think I found another piece of that lady’s green dress! Look!” Later, border complete, we were chomping at the bit to get started on the rest so we set the girls up with a movie. “Are you almost done with the puzzle?” she called to us, about a half hour later. “No,” I answered. “It’s a big one. We’ll be working on it all week!” I could hear the smile in her voice when she responded, “All week? Oooh! That means more screen time for us!” 

Cute, right? But I don’t need to follow them around with a pad and paper. Kids are cute at every stage and in thirty years I will look back and some of it I will remember and some of it I won’t and that’s okay. I don’t need to post every little thing they say and do to Facebook or other social media since my friends all have adorable children or cats or dogs or hobbies or homes too. They get it. I don’t need to do anything except enjoy it. And for me, sometimes that’s really, really hard.

That’s what I sat down to write about tonight. It’s January 1, a day of resolutions and new beginnings. In the past I would resolve to get skinny. To work out every day. To make that person fall in love with me. To stop saying stupid things. You know what I mean. At some point, though, I realized that those kinds of resolutions don’t work, that despite my determination, a half hour into my starvation diet I was ready to eat the house, that I hated the gym, that I had no control over other people and that maybe it’s not that I said stupid things but that I just didn’t have the confidence to believe in myself and to own what came out of my mouth. So I stopped making resolutions and started to think about ways I could be the person I want to be. I didn’t have to wait for January 1st to do any of that. I could do that today, like right now.  
This year I want to do a little of both. At the tail end of a vacation in which I was essentially forced to unplug, I realize now how much I liked it. Work was, for all intents and purposes, closed for the time I was away and I had next to no responsibilities or reasons to even check in. Cell phone service was intermittent at best, so my phone was quiet except in fits and starts, and wifi in the house we rented was weak so powering up my laptop was pretty useless. I sent texts and social media updates in a flurry of strong reception, usually when we were in town for some reason, and then had little to no way of responding to the replies back at the house. Making calls in one spot not moving at all lest the conversation dwindle into “what?? You’re breaking up. What?!?” got tiresome and after a day or so I gave up on emails altogether. But you know, a girl could get used to that. I found myself spending the week with my family. I mean, with. I wasn’t multitasking. I wasn’t in a million different places while sitting on the couch with my kids. I wasn’t constantly thinking about what I had going on at work that wasn’t getting done or that I had to email so-and-so before falling asleep or what I was going to make for brunch when company comes next week or the bills that needed to get paid or that the cats didn’t get fed yet or that what Teeny just said would make a cute Facebook update. I was there. I was here:

One morning Bee woke me up early. Teeny and Johnny were both still asleep so we pulled on our coats and hats and boots and went for a walk in the woods. We talked about metta – the Buddhist concept of lovingkindness – and, stretching our arms out, we practiced throwing some love out into the universe. It was a pretty sweet moment for me, seeing who came to mind for her as we named many people and animals we loved and for whom we wished happiness, health and peace. When we came back to the house, I took out the box of items I have for when I meditate and I explained to her what they were. I showed her my little meditating Buddha statue, the lotus candle holder, the mala beads. She loved my Tibetan singing bowl and she sounded it several times before setting the timer. She settled in next to me and tried to just breathe. She was fidgety, so we tried putting our fingers on the mala beads. That worked for a little while. But after three minutes I could see her mind beginning to wander, so I let her sound the bowl again and we put everything away. Honestly, I wasn’t sure what she really learned, if anything. After all, she is only four. But she talked about that experience quite a bit and a day or two later she asked if we could light the flower candle again and sit with the Buddha and the beads. I was pretty surprised, and happy. And today on a walk in town, we stopped in one of those hippy-dippy tourist-trappy stores for rich white ladies trying to get in touch with themselves, full of overpriced jewelry and self-help books where everything is breakable, nothing is kid-friendly and where they play Enya and burn incense all day long. “Look!” she shrieked, and tore into the store, the door's chimes tinkling as she went in. A hundred disapproving eyes were instantly on us. Disregarding them, I looked. And following her gaze, I smiled. “What are those, Bee?” “They’re Buddhas, mama,” she answered proudly, pointing. They were!

Maybe she will retain nothing from those three minutes, but they were among the most important minutes for me of this whole week. I felt truly present. I was there. With my kid. It didn’t matter to me what she took from it. It didn’t matter whether she was really meditating or just trying to sit still because I asked her to or if she understood that by sending love out into the world the way we did, we really did make the world a better place. It was a moment we had together and it was fun for both of us. We were talking and we were listening to each other. It was only a few minutes, but they were uninterrupted minutes for a mama and her girl and they meant a lot to me. For a moment I was, as a friend of mine likes to say, where my feet were. That’s presence.

I was fully present in other ways this week. With the phones taking a backseat, I noticed that we talked more. Johnny and I completed our 1,000 piece puzzle working together over three awesome, engrossing evenings. We had friends join us for two days and we all sat around the table and talked and took turns playing with the kids. 

We walked in the woods behind the house, jumping on logs and inspecting the stream and the ice forming at its edges. “Look at that ice! It’s freezing over! I think Elsa has been here, don’t you, Mama?” Bee pontificated more than once. 

I let Johnny sleep in one morning and he let me, too. I had a little time to myself when I needed it and so did he. I brought a new cookbook with me and together he and I picked out new recipes to try. I dutifully made a shopping list two pages long with all the ingredients I would need to make those several very complex dishes. Our afternoon shopping trip outing -- one I was really looking forward to -- would involve a couple of different stops: at the supermarket, a gourmet grocer and the food co-op. We were thirty miles from the house when I realized I had forgotten it. I was devastated and the afternoon I was so excited about crumpled before me. But I realized I had a choice about how to behave. I decided to enlist my family's help to find everything I needed, and in the end we had great fun doing our food shopping together. And because I had been so involved in what I was doing, because I was so committed to creating these new dishes and because I had been so fully present when I made the list, somehow, I remembered every single item except one, and that one was easily substituted by something we already had. I couldn’t believe it.

Today I noticed that after five minutes walking in the woods with me, Bee’s conversation shifted from Elsa and toys and stuff in general to exercise, air, trees and love. This evening before dinner we walked the half mile to the end of our road and back, and we discussed the week we’d had and what we liked best. We talked about who and what was waiting for us at home, what we had coming up in the next few days. As we walked, she took my hand and said “I really like our house, Mama.” Which one? I asked her. This house? Or our apartment at home? “Both!” she said, smiling. “They’re cozy. Can we skip now?”  So we skipped the rest of the way down the hill holding hands to keep our fingers warm. 

This year I want more moments like that. So my resolution is to be more present. That’s vague and it’s meant to be. Maybe it means unplugging a little more, so that I unlearn the this-is-a-Facebook-moment-wait-where's-my-phone thought that I think at least a dozen times a day. Maybe it means doing one thing at a time and letting go of the notion that I am a good multitasker. Maybe it means putting myself first more. Maybe it's about worrying less and asking for help more. Spending more time listening. Meditating. Writing. Reading. Exercising regularly in ways I really like because I love my body and I love to be outside. Doing the things I love with the people I love and for the people I love. Maybe it's a little of everything. 

And yet as I type those words, my brain is already working against me. “You should have your resolution be clearer so you can hold yourself accountable,” it says. "That's what it takes to get things done." Maybe that's true for short term goals, but I want to change myself in this way for good. But my brain wants my New Year’s resolutions to sounds like this: You should read 50 books this year. You should work out six times a week. You should sleep at least eight hours a night. You should see friends once a month, balance your checkbook twice a week, eat only this number of calories every day. You should meditate once a day for at least 20 minutes a day. Do a blog post once a week. Read a book on active listening. Take up ceramics. Go back to school. Put the phone on airplane mode for two hours a day. My brain is yelling at me. “Those are all loving things! Accountability is key! Do them all and do them all right!” 

Maybe “be more present” means nothing more than that I stop telling myself all the things I should do and that I am a failure if I don’t do it perfectly. My brain wants to quantify everything as though it’s a measure of accomplishment – or more like a measure of my failure since there is no way I can hold myself accountable to that much. My brain challenges me: if you can do all of that, why can't you do more? But if you know you can't do it all, then why even try? Because clearly you’re awful at everything and you can’t get anything right. 

I don't want to hear that talk anymore. If I'm so busy crossing stuff off my list, am I really enjoying any of it? I do a lot of those things a lot of the time already. Isn’t that cause for celebration? And wouldn’t it be something if I could let myself off the hook for not being perfect and savor the truth of the many the things I do mostly right most of the time? 

I am so controlled by the clock, by the Outlook calendar, by timers, alarms, reminders and confirmation calls. I look at a clock to know when to eat, how long to run, where to be, how to get there, what to wear, whom to contact. Some of it is unavoidable, but the truth is that I can’t remember the last time I tried listening to my body, looking out the window at nature, or looking at the expressions on my children’s faces to make the decisions I have been allowing a beep or a ding to make for me. I am tired of being so overscheduled that I can’t use the present moment to help me determine whether tonight is a good night to read one extra chapter at bedtime because I am instead too busy thinking of all the things that might go wrong if they are up ten minutes later and all the things I still have to do and oh yeah we still have to water the plants and when will we be able to afford bunk beds for the girls and is that my phone ringing and goddamn it I forgot to put the wash in the dryer and I still have that thing to do for work so these kids have to get to sleep now so I can make some tea and fire up the laptop, and then I’m so lost in thought that I haven’t heard a word the girls have said and I completely missed bedtime anyway even though I was sitting right there.

I am not naive enough to say that this all stops today, New Year’s Day. But I can chip away at it. Over the past week I have felt a new love for my spouse and a genuine appreciation for the things we have in common – shared interests like music, certain kinds of food, doing puzzles, walking in the woods, stopping for coffee -- and a real respect for our differences too. We listened a little better to each other this week and we helped each other more. Our voices stayed a little lower and we laughed more than usual. And my patience with the girls lasted longer than usual too, and that was thanks to being present. So what if Teeny was always insisting on being in my lap or on my hip? Why should that be annoying? So what if she’s getting heavy and I can’t check my email while I'm holding her? It was an opportunity to smell her hair, sneak a kiss on her cheek, give her a squeeze. So what if Johnny was sitting reading his book instead of helping me in the kitchen? Preparing a meal is meditative for me, so how much help did I really need? And besides, isn’t he on vacation too? I loved seeing him engrossed in a book and when I really needed his help, I got to practice asking for it. So what if Bee wanted to play hide and seek, choosing the same hiding spot over and over and clearly not understanding the point of the game as I knew it. “I’m hiding in the closet, Mama!” she said every single time, giggling and hopping up and down like mad whenever she heard me come near. This gave me a chance to get creative. “I’m looking in the cabinet, and she’s not in there! Hmmmm… no Bee in the dresser drawers! Where could she be this time?” And this had a real snowball effect: I snuggled with Johnny and the girls a little bit more than usual, I offered to read to them a little more, I hung out in the bathroom longer than I usually do while Teeny splashed in the bath busily pouring water in and out of an empty bottle of shower gel and I spent a lot longer preparing new, interesting, loving and healthful meals for our family. These are things that I do already, but this week I did them a little bit more and with a lot more love, because I was really there for it all, soaking it up and feeling the effects resonate in my body, my mind and my heart.  

So here’s to another imperfect year. But maybe a just little bit less imperfect, with me being a little more present.