Saturday, September 29, 2012

Growing Closer Over Coke, Tej, and Tibs

Tonight was a game changer.  A totally unplanned, impromptu, let's get out and get to know each other better game changer. 

God said go...laugh a little, do what she wants to do.  Let her have coke and you some wine. Enjoy each other's company and listen with an open heart.  

So, we went.  To a local Ethiopian restaurant where the sights, smells, and sounds were home-sweet-home.  I watched happily as Big Sister sniffed and listened her way back to Ethiopia.  I was filled with joy.  Filled with sorrow.  

Transitions are tough.  Grief is tough.  Healing from a hurt past is tough.  Parenting five kids is tough.  Being immersed in an English classroom, when your primary language is Amharic, for nearly seven hours per day is tough.  Trying to help Big Sister with her homework after her brain has already been fried for the day is tough.  Trying to balance the demands of marriage, parenting, school, and extra-curricular activities is tough.  In short, life is tough.  For all of us.  1 Corinthians 15:58 tells us, "Therefore, my dear brothers and sisters, stand firm. Let nothing move you. Always give yourselves fully to the work of the Lord, because you know that your labor in the Lord is not in vain." 

And I absolutely believe that.  I believe that God's heart for the orphan is undeniable.  You don't have to take my word for it, ask anyone on this journey.  I believe that this work will never ever be in vain.  God is so amazingly close to the orphan that I feel his presence like never before.  His mercies are new each day and his love is unfailing.  But, it's still tough.  Every day.  Sometimes minute by minute.  And so we went out for some laughs and fun.

And. it. was. fun.  But is was also something else.  It was a safe space from Big Sister to open up to me, her mom, and share whatever was on her mind.  On her heart.  To not feel pressured by the demands of school or learning English or fitting in socially or measuring up to anyone.  And, share she did.

Somewhere between taking our first bite and asking for refill, she started talking about her brother.  The one she adores.  The one closest to her heart.  The one 8000 miles away.  The one she may never see again.  She told me all about him and how he looked out for her.  When it was 8:00 pm, he made sure she was indoors and out of harms way.  He taught her that nothing good happened on the streets after 8:00 and because she loved him and respected him, she listened.  She went indoors and stayed out of harms way.   She told me many other stories.  Heartbreaking stories.  Healing stories.  I listened fervently.  I prayed silently.  I sat in awe of God's faithfulness.  How he works the details when we are willing to be obedient.  

I saw her fidgeting.  She fidgets a lot.  She was gearing up for something, so I sat still.  Patiently.  Taking in my surrounding and missing Ethiopia.  Her smells and sounds.  Her beautiful people.  I sipped my Tej and she her coca.  I took another bite of gomen and miser wat folded inside injera.  We were eating from a shared plate.  My vegetables surrounding her tibs.  I adore eating this way.  It is so very intimate.  

"Mom," she said.  "You and your sister.  You miss your mom, right?  Sometimes you cry because she die."  "Yes, of course," I said.  "I miss my mom a lot.  A whole lot."  "Mom," she said.  "I miss my mather too."  "Mom?"  Tears were now overflowing from her eyes.  "Yes?" I asked.  " my mather dead?  Did she die?  How will I know?  She very sick, mom.  She die soon.  How will we know?"  

Now, we were both crying.  I told her I would do everything I could to find out her mother's health status.  I encouraged her to write a letter even though her birth mother had prepared her for the permanence of her adoption and more or less told her to move on, do what she needs to do, and simply pray for her.  I believe she was taught to suppress her emotions, as a sign of strength.  A cultural norm, more or less.  Conversely, I teach her to express them.  I am so very thankful when I can see an outward sign, any sign, of what is going on inside.  

She told me she would write a letter.  I promised her it would get delivered.  

By this point, Big Sister was happy to have had a coca, our meal was finished, and I was slowly finishing up my Tej, a "deceptively sweet wine that masks its high alcohol content."  It tastes like Ethiopia.  It was yummy and I was feeling lighter.  Too light, actually.  So, we walked across the street to a local Christian bookstore.

The rest of our night was filled with something we have oddly enough yet to do: bonding via shopping.  The Tej had me feeling good and I let her indulge.  A devotional book or three?  Sure!  A DVD?  Why not?  Throw a few CDs in too.  Sunglasses?  Find two pairs!  

We left the store and headed to a hair salon.  While at the restaurant, we were told of a local Ethiopian woman who could relax and style Big Sister's hair the way she has been asking.  

Unfortunately, by the time we made it to the salon they were closed for the evening.  However, I think we both had a wonderful evening with Christ, enjoying food, drink, music, good company, and a few consumables.  

We grew closer.  I can feel it.  She came hope happy and relaxed.  Will we still have many trials ahead?  No doubt!  However, I need to learn to listen more intently to God's voice telling us it's OK to take a break.  To relax and enjoy.  To sit and listen.  To sip drinks that we adore.  To not worry about tomorrow for tomorrow will worry about itself (Matthew 6:34).  

Father God, I thank you for the special gift you gave us tonight.  The gift of enjoying one-on-one time that is so hard to manage in our daily lives.  The gift of safe spaces and open hearts.  The gift of intimate connections and healing.  The gift of your heart for the orphan and how that has so transformed every aspect of our daily living.  Thank you, God, for all that we see and all that is unseen.  Thank you for my daughter!   Thank you for her mother!  Help me to love and cherish them the way that you do.  

Saturday, September 8, 2012

The Adopted Child and Socially Awkward Behavior

The other day I heard a friend calling up to Sporty, who was near his bedroom window.  "Hey, do you want to come out and play basketball?," his friend asked.  Without missing a beat, Sporty responded, "Sure, I'll be right out!"  Now, I know what some of you are thinking.  So what?  What is the big deal about that?  Kids have these sorts of exchanges all of the time.  While that it certainly true, those of you who have experienced seemingly socially bizarre behavior with your adopted children know that it is a huge deal when our children learn to interact in socially acceptable ways with adults and other children.  I believe this past summer was our turning point! 

When we first came home with Sporty a little over 19 months ago (Wow, has it been that long?!), this exchange would never had happened.  In fact, the reality of how this situation has played out in the past had me scratching my head for quite some time.  (And sometimes apologizing to the 'victim'.)  Sporty, a child who was by all means very social and active at the Transition Home in Ethiopia, seemed to display socially awkward or downright rude behavior in most social situations here in America.  This went on for months.  A friend would go out of his way to stop by and try to include Sporty in some activity and Sporty would turn his back on said friend and refuse to answer.  An adult would ask him a question and Sporty would look at the ground and mumble some incoherent response.  Sporty's soccer teammates would try to start up conversation only to be met with a sullen facial expression and silence.  (Fact: I had more conversations with his teammates while carpooling to and from practice and games than he had with them the entire season last year.)  What was going on?  At home, Sporty had normal interactions with me and his immediate family, and his teachers were singing his praises.  He was cooperative and would play with others at school, but outside of the school setting he seemed to be at a loss for how to act socially.  Why the bizarre behavior in social settings?  

For those of us with older adopted children from Ethiopia, these awkward behaviors seem inconsistent with the social and engaged children we met at the orphanage or transition home.  Read: at the transition home.  In her or his home country, in her or his comfort zone.  Of course their behavior will be different in America, at least initially.  Everything is different.  Ethiopia was a place that he or she was familiar with and here, well, he or she is just learning about the new environment and I can only imagine how stressful that may be.  Do you like to be called on or called out unexpectedly in class or at a meeting?  Probably not.  Our children are called out daily...whether at school, church, or just out and about in the neighborhood.  Yikes!  All eyes on the new kid...

With Big Sister arriving on the scene this past summer, I had the chance to view her initial social interactions with veteran eyes and saw something that I probably missed last year.  Our adopted children, already under so much stress due to this huge life change and probably filled with anxiety beyond measure, were trying to hide.  I believe they were trying to make themselves invisible as a means of coping with the anxiety.  I imagine them having an internal conversation along the lines of this: "Maybe if I don't make eye contact, this situation that is making me feel distressed will go away?"  Or this:  "Perhaps if I don't answer, they will forget about me and I can just return to my comfort zone."  As parents who may want for our children to be connected socially with peers, these situations can be both heartbreaking and frustrating.  However, with compassion, consistent coaching, and lots of reassurance, our children can learn how to respond in socially acceptable ways and build confidence along the way.  Most of us are social creatures and crave acceptance and belonging.  We all want to live a purposeful life.  Our children are no different.  Just because they may not know how to respond, does not mean they do not really want to learn how to respond, no matter how hard they may fight us initially.  It is our job to teach them and coach them and eventually, we hope, things will start to flow.  

Last Spring, after prayers one night Sporty came right out and asked me how he could make friends.  He must have been wrestling with this for some time and came to a place where he was comfortable and secure and ready to take the next step.  So, we had a little chat about making friends, filled with examples and illustrations.  This past summer, Sporty spent a good portion of every day with neighborhood friends...playing sports, swimming, riding bikes, etc.  They had a summer like the ones I remember: outdoor all day with friends, home only to check in and eat.  And I was a happy mom.  

While Big Sister, perhaps due to her gender, craves social interactions and is thrilled to be in a classroom with peers and on a soccer team with girls her age, she has some socially strange behavior of her own.  She growls, friends.  Yes, growls.  And chews things she finds on the ground.  Two nights ago, my mother-in-law gave her a birthday gift.  Not knowing how to respond or how to be grateful, when asked what she thought she was going to do with the gift she said, "Throw it in the trash."  Yup, that is what she said.  Side note: I am becoming a damage control expert.  So just when we normalized one child socially, another has backfilled.  That is OK.  We will work through her anxieties as well.  One day at a time.  If you ask her a question and she doesn't respond appropriately, please do not assume she is being rude on purpose or blowing you off.  Trust that I am coaching and reassuring her at home and that her behavior may simply be rooted in anxiety.  Her previous life was not a walk in the park.  It taught her not to trust.  She is now learning that it is OK to trust and that will take time.  God heals! 

I pray that one year from now I will be able to report on the relationships she has formed and the hurdles she has jumped.  God is walking with us, carrying us some days, and telling us to pick up the pace on others.  Some days, God simply asks that we survive.  Being an active part in God healing a broken child is extremely difficult.  Sometimes I don't have an ounce of energy left at the end of the day.  I crawl into bed and pull the covers up.  I thank God for transforming me on this journey and allowing me to take part.  I thank God for another day in his creation and ask that he provides all the wisdom, discernment, and energy that we all need to make it through another.  I thank God for new mercies each and every day.  Then, I crash.  Joyfully, humbly, and purposefully having exerted all of the energy I was given for the day.

Because of the Lord's great love we are not consumed,
  for his compassions never fail.
They are new every morning;
  great is your faithfulness.  -Lamentations 3:22-23
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Sunday, September 2, 2012

Adoption: A Beginning, Not The End State

This morning at worship, our pastor asked how things were going with Big Sister and the overall transition.  I said things were going well, that transitions are of course stressful, and that it was amazing to be able to witness the healing taking place.  The brief dialogue made me reflect on the bigger picture of adoption, one that we might not think about during the hectic paper-chase stage, the painful stage of waiting for our child or children to come home, or the euphoric homecoming and honeymoon period.  In the bigger picture, the one which led us to adoption in the first place, we adopt...we choose love...because we were adopted and loved first.  Adoption is a story of redemption, of healing, of taking broken things and making them whole.  In short, adoption is the story of Christianity.  While the completion of an adoption might very well feel like crossing the finish line, the truth is that another race begins almost immediately.  

I hope you take some time to catch your breath at the finish line, re-hydrate, and prayerfully prepare for the marathon of redemption and healing that lies ahead, which you will take an active role in and in the process be transformed yourself.  It is a very painful journey, have no doubt, on in which you will cling to your Savior like never before, but also a journey in which you will actively witness and bear witness to God's healing and redemptive power in a broken world.  During this marathon of your new life, God may very well open your eyes to bigger and more painful issues.  At least, that is what happened to our family.  Those same issues and injustices that necessitated adoption are now painfully and joyfully interwoven into the fabric of our family.  As I have said before, I do not believe adoption is God's "Plan A" for children.  And while adoption may very well be a family's Plan A for adding children, praise God, the mere fact that children need to be adopted points to issues much larger than a child being placed into family.  While God's hand is certainly all over that entire matching process (as our house full of dynamic and unique personalities can attest),  I believe that God uses adoption to point our heart toward the underlying injustices, the abuses of position and power, and the way in which the church is or is not responding to the least of these.  Adoption is not an end state, it is a new beginning!  Not just for your child or children, but for every person involved in your own adoption journey.  

I pray that those words resonate in your heart and that you allow God to open to your eyes to whatever issues God chooses.  For those of us with adopted children at home, we understand that each child's brokenness is not the same.  Some have dealt with physical abuse, some with sexual abuse, others with neglect and abandonment, some with simply the absence of a loving and caring presence.  Others may have had all the love in the world but not enough resources to feed, clothe, and educate.  However, underneath all of these issues there is another layer.  Again, the injustices that are rampant in our world leave a fertile breeding ground for these superficial fleshy issues to take over.  And take over they do.  Whatever issues our child has faced or dealt with, I believe, are now the issues woven into our family.  How can I pretend I do not know?  I can't.  This truth has gloriously wrecked my life, praise God! 

The apostle Paul, in 2 Corinthians 6:18 tells us, "I will be a Father to you, and you will be my sons and daughters, says the Lord Almighty."  Like an earthly father, our heavenly Father does not just give us new life and then depart.  What would happen to a newborn baby left at the hospital without loving care and subsistence?  Our God stays with us, guiding and correcting, teaching and growing us.  And so it is with adoption.  Just as our heavenly Father adopted each of us into his family, when we adopt a son or daughter into our family and assume all parental roles and responsibilities, God walks along side of us, using our flawed bodies and minds to bring healing and redemption to another human being.  God heals!  If you don't believe me, pop in any day of week and witness God's work in his children.  If you read their life stories, you would expect them to be broken beyond repair.  If you read their life stories through the eyes of God, you would understand that God has beautiful plans for all of his children.  However in a broken and unjust world, we cannot sit back and expect God to pour miracles from the sky.  We, brothers and sisters in Christ, ARE the miracles and are to be the miracles to others bringing God's story of hope and redemption to the world.  

As such, I hope that each of you along this wonderful and wonderfully challenging road, begin to see adoption not as an end state to be reached but as a lifelong journey.  While your homecoming day will certainly be remembered and celebrated for the rest of your lives, as it should be, I believe there is more to the story.  There is more to our story and there is more to yours. 

What else is God trying to teach us?  Where does God expect us to go from here?  How could God be using adoption to transform our own hearts...weeding out self-severing tendencies?  What does God want us to see?  What does God want us to do?

Those are just some questions bouncing around my mind.  How has God used your adoption journey to open your eyes to other issues?  
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