Tuesday, April 18, 2006

The Agony & The Ecstasy

Bringing children into our home didn't come easily to us. Nine months after we were married I sat across from the doctor hearing the first of several infertility diagnoses. Pursuing infertility treatment was half-hearted at best. We'd talked about adopting before we were even married. Neither of us cared very much whether our children shared our genes, and while losing the pregnancy and birth experience was a minor loss, it was just that--minor, when compared with a lifetime of having a child to parent.

So we waited the requisite number of years to prove that our marriage was stable. A few days after our third anniversary we received an approval letter from the adoption agency, officially making us eligible to adopt. Naively we expected a baby to soon follow.

Over the next four years we endured one disappointment after another. We were called about a premature baby girl who had been born several months earlier and would be placed immediately. We were told to be ready to pick her up on Friday. On Friday nothing happened. All weekend no one answered the phone at the agency. On Monday we finally got through, only to be told that the birthmother had changed her mind and decided to place with another family, and the caseworker didn't see a reason to tell us until the following week.

Then there was a little baby boy with Down's syndrome. We fell in love, we KNEW this was our baby. We gave him a name, set up appointments with a pediatrician. The day before placement our caseworker called to let us know that his birthparents had decided to keep him.

As painful as these losses were, they paled in comparison what came next. As we got tired of waiting with this agency, we began the process of licensing for foster adoption through our state. It was rigorous and exhausting, especially on top of dual careers and some health problems my husband was experiencing at the time. When we finally made it through and had our license, we found out that we were the new parents of a sibling group--three active, wonderful boys.

Three months later they were gone, moved to another family, leaving big gaping holes in our hearts, lots of unanswered questions, and no clue what to do next.

Unfortunately that wasn't our last loss. Turning to international adoption, on Christmas Day I flew out to bring home our sweet little boy from Haiti. He was pure sunshine. We fell hard for this little guy. We knew going into it that there were some legal risks in his rather unusual situation. But somehow between the brand new agency and several adoption attorneys from around the country, things didn't get communicated properly, and we were horrified to learn that there was no legal way to complete his adoption in the United States. Three weeks after I brought him home, we made the saddest trip of our lives back to the airport.

At that point I realized that I really knew what it means to have a broken heart. Ex-boyfriends had nothing on saying goodbye to a baby.

Why bring this up now? It's birthday time at our house. All of my girls have spring birthdays, within about 5 weeks of each other. We're celebrating birthdays this year with pony parties and sign language parties and first time one year old parties, and I suppose the passage of time is making me a bit maudlin.

I'm the luckiest mom in the world. My three year old is a little dazzler, a high maintenance girly girl who loves ballerinas and princesses and nail polish and shopping and can't wait to start dance classes in two weeks and is counting down days until she can start preschool in the fall. She is the miracle that finally made me a mom for real, forever, my first *real* baby. She is the practice model, the one who usually bears the brunt of my parenting mistakes. She slavishly copies everything I do, the exact way that I do it. She is incredibly active, always on the go and never still, except when she needs mom. She is the most quiet snuggler I've ever seen. She curls herself up, molded into me, and goes so still that sometimes she falls asleep. For hours and hours she can sit, rocking on my lap. And I hold this little girl, who I love more than my life, more than the world, love so much it scares me to death, and I know that I am the most blessed mom in the world.

After the miracle of our first daughter we thought it would be tempting fate too much to hope or plan for the large family we'd decided on during our engagement. Having one beautiful daughter was enough, so we told ourselves to be content with that, and set about learning how to be a one child family. When she was nine months old the adoption agency called us. Her birthmom was pregnant again, with another little girl, and was hoping we would adopt the baby.

And so we suddenly had two little girls, much closer in age and far more quickly than we'd imagined. My second daughter has a quick temper that flares frequently in her just-turned-two-years-old little body. She is also quick to love and help others. At 12 months old she would toddle around and clean up the front room at night, and she is first on the scene with gentle loves when someone is hurt or sad. She loves to sing, and her sweet breathy toddler voice entertains us throughout the day, draws smiles at the grocery store, and sometimes garners unanticipated attention at church. She is also a pint-size diva, refusing to share duets with anyone, even mommy. She is a chunky little ball of pure muscle, who wraps me up with the most passionate, extra-squeezy tight hugs. Not one for prolonged cuddles, she conveys her affection with enthusiastic and aggressive passion. Out of my girls, she is the hardest to understand, the most unlike me. Yet her gorgeous smile and deep belly laugh and infectious sense of humor pull me in and I cannot imagine life without this perfect, uniquely marvelous, absolutely one of a kind treasured child.

If two was good, three is better. We threw caution to the wind by updating our homestudy after number two came home. When our oldest was not quite two and our *baby* was barely 13 months old, we brought baby number three home. Unsure how this was all going to work, I relied heavily on her birthmom, who had chosen our family out of several others, and promised me that she KNEW this baby belonged in our family--even if we did have two babies already. She assured me that she WANTED these siblings so close in age for her baby, and she had confidence in our ability to parent these three active little tots. She'll never know how much I leaned on her faith in us during those first few months of adjustment to a world of three babies under the age of two.

I spent time wondering if it had really been fair to bring baby number three into this super busy household, where the demands of three babies had to be met, and often had to be delayed while the most critical needs were met first. I wondered if, given the choice, our girls would want to be part of such a crazy, chaotic home. Deep where no one else could see, I wondered if I could really love baby number three as much as the others, in the haze of three years running chronic sleep deprivation and extremely active, demanding older siblings.

It was silly to worry. Our baby could not belong more surely in our family. She is adored by her older sisters. I thought the first two were easy, happy babies, but they were screeching monsters compared to the third. She could write a book on finding your infant zen place. She patiently endures hugs and kisses so aggressive they border on painful. She lights up to see mommy or daddy--no doubt in part because we represent protection from *the loud one and the noisy one*, as my husband calls her two older sisters. She loves to play and be tickled and do peekabo and copy the hand signs she sees the rest of us do. She was sleeping through the night at two months old, 14 hours a night, a fact that has earned me death wishes from some of my friends. When I hold her tight in my arms, her older sisters circling her with toddler hugs and kisses, seeing her incomparable joy at being surrounded by so much love, I think life can't get any better than this.

Several months ago we began the long process of adopting another baby from China. And recently we started the paperwork to do foster care again--not to adopt, but to give another baby a safe place to be while it's needed. Bringing home baby number four is already proving to be far more difficult than we anticipated, with unplanned delays and a series of unexpected frustrations. Doing foster care again means more goodbyes, probably teary and difficult ones.

Some who know our long and tortured path to parenthood thus far think we're crazy. Some think we're saints (which my daughters would most certainly disagree with, especially on days they've dismantled every stick of furniture in their bedrooms and had potty accidents in every room of the house).

I still don't understand why some of the heartbreak had to happen. Most other adoptive families we know haven't had to go through as much loss, as many disappointments, as we have. And here we are, intentionally getting ready to wade through more challenges.

In William Nicholson's play Shadowlands, C.S. Lewis' wife Joy is dying of cancer. When he doesn't want to talk about the future, Joy gently reprimands him, "What I'm trying to say is that pain, then, is part of this happiness, now. That's the deal." Later, after Joy has died, Lewis tries to reach beyond his own grief to help Joy's young son deal with losing his mother. "It doesn't seem fair, does it?" he tells Douglas. "If you want the love, you have to have the pain."

Granted, we could have skipped the pain of infertility and failed adoptive matches and devastating failed placements, and still ended up with three little girls, and I still would have loved them with my heart and soul, and I would have appreciated them and adored them, and my love for them isn't grounded in other losses.

What I would have missed out on were the ways that each of our other children--the ones who didn't stay--changed me. I would have missed the chance to love them and be their mommy, if only for a few months or a few weeks. I would have missed the smiles and hugs and tender moments that came with each child, and left my heart more open, more pure. I would have missed the chance to find out firsthand that I could go through something I didn't think I could survive, and somehow, survive anyway. I would have missed learning firsthand that God is with us not only when the sun is shining, but in the dark nights of the soul.

And so yes, the joy of my little family is intrinsically wrapped up with heartache--the heartache of birthmothers making gutwrenching choices, the disappointments of our inability to have children, the losses suffered on all sides. Somehow, from that fertile ground of suffering, joy takes root. And it flourishes at our house--oh how it flourishes!

Thursday, April 13, 2006

The Trenches of Mommyhood: An Apology

When I had to title this blog, I mentally sorted through titles with enough over-analysis to do any Type-A personality proud. I knew that dealing with the daily realities of family life would be the overwhelming focus of my posts. "life in the trenches" seems like an accurate summation of my life most days.

Yet the phrase also suggests direct conflict and aggression--a war or battle with high stakes. After all, those in the trenches are the foot soldiers, the trenches are generally the places with the highest casualties in any battle. Trench warfare denotes brutal realities of war--bugs, disease, death, hunger, physical discomfort, and ever-present danger. If I'm in the trenches of motherhood, who and what am I fighting? Although there are times that it feels like every interaction with a two-year old is a battle worthy of any WWII vet, I really don't have an adversarial relationship with my kids.

It didn't seem to apply, yet I couldn't get the phrase out of my mind. Then I realized that I am perfectly justified in using it because I am very much in a war here, and the stakes could not be higher. Along with millions of other parents, I am a foot soldier, and the danger is real and ever-present, and no matter how uncomfortable the battles might be at times, I'm in this for the long haul.

I'm at war with everyone and everything that sees my children as potential sexual objects. Internet predators, child molesters, even hypersexed advertising that tries to entice my babies to grow up faster than they should--it's an all out war and I'll do whatever I can to protect my kids.

I'm at war with anyone who would keep my child back and prevent her from reaching her full potential. While politicians, teacher's unions, pundits, and administrators argue over who should control our children's education and how it should best be achieved and measured, I fight for my kids' right to learn. And not just the right to learn, but I fight to give them education, too. Reading at bedtime, counting peas on a plate, sorting colors in laundry, discussing where butterflies come from--this is a rather enjoyable aspect of foot-soldiering.

I'm at war with aggressive assaults on family time. While there are many worthwhile things in the world that clearly have value to many, I know when all is said and done what is accomplished within our home is the most important achievement in the world. There isn't a whole lot I can do for widespread global suffering and inequity, but I can raise conscientious, thoughtful, engaged citizens who will continue to make a difference in their own worlds. Accomplishing this goal, however, takes time. Time together as a family, not engaged in individual pursuits, not in front of the TV. Like the most zealous sentry in high-stakes battles, I guard my family's time.

I'm at war with those who believe my children are worth less because of external labels. We're a multiracial family, and our children have a variety of stories to tell about how they arrived here. They each have unique challenges and marvelous strengths. It amazes me how many people want to pigeonhole them because of their own prejudices and stupid thinking. I'm at war against racism, sexism, bigotry, and prejudice in any form. Hopefully the world my children inherit will be a more tolerant, more aware one.

I'm at war with confused values that give my kids distorted views of moral reality. I often hear the phrase "family values," and I'm not sure what the heck that means. To me, morality is very simple. Love other people. Forgive them. Serve them. Honor God. Do good things. That is the essence of what I want to instill in my children. Yet all too often *values* becomes a confused label that applies more to political rhetoric or denominational debate.

I'm at war with a super-materialistic culture that leads families into extreme debt and extreme unhappiness. The emphasis on having and getting "things" hurts parents and children both. I'm counterattacking within my domain by striving for simplicity and focusing on what brings TRUE joy in life.

This list could probably go on and on. The enemy is out there. Yep, it's really a war. Welcome to life in the trenches.