Tuesday, March 15, 2011

epic (read: boring) post-placement post

In the months before we brought Zeke home I spent hours and hours imagining what it would be like when he was finally here. It was so hard to picture, because I knew there was such a wide range of possibilities and a large number of factors that could determine what life would be like after he came home. Well, here we are two weeks later and I can say that it has somehow been exactly what I expected, not at all what I expected, harder than what I expected, and easier than I expected all at once.

For the sake of any readers out there who are waiting to bring children home and wondering what it will be like, I want to give you a window into what these first days and weeks have held for us. Of course this just represents one dot on a big spectrum, and your experience may (and most likely will) end up being completely different than ours. But I think I would have liked reading the specific and detailed experiences of families who went before us, so maybe a few of you out there would too.

To the rest of you, feel free to skip what will probably be a long and boring post and just enjoy these cute photos:

I'll break this down into categories for easier browsing:

The Plane Ride
So much better than it could have been, thanks to Benadryl and prayer! The Benadryl helped Z sleep off-and-on for nearly 13 hours of the 16 hour flight, and I'm convinced that the prayers of many at home helped us get a seat in between us for free (we hadn't purchased a ticket for him). If you do try Benadryl, be sure to test it on your kid while you're still in-country -- some kids react by getting hyper or acting intoxicated rather than sleepy. Nothing like a drunk baby on a long flight, am I right? ;) Also, bring a medicine cup or spoon with teaspoons listed -- we forgot one and had to use one we got in Ethiopia which only had mLs so we had to guess how much to give. Oops. Having the Ergo carrier was a lifesaver during boarding, deplaning, and waiting in the Immigration line -- I have tried a few different baby carriers and this one is definitely the best, especially if your child is closer to toddler than infant. Plus it is manly enough for Dad to wear!

This was really hard when we were in-country because we had so little control over what, where, and when we all ate. It got a lot easier when we got home and could establish consistent routines and expectations. We set a few firm boundaries and we've stuck to them:

1. We only eat at the table.
2. Some foods will be fed to you by Mommy & Daddy, other foods you can eat independently.
3. No throwing food.
4. If you spit it out, it won't be offered again.
5. No crying or screaming at the table.

When #3 or #5 are broken, we take Z away from the table for a few minutes, calmly explain why, and then he uses signs or words to ask to go back to the table and we try again. Some meals we need to do this several times, other meals we have no problems. For the first few days Z would refuse all but a few foods: yogurt, Cheerios, oatmeal (sometimes), and banana. He continues to turn down much of what we offer him, but he has branched out and will eat other foods including spaghetti, bread, noodles, enchilada, as well as shiro wat & injera.

In Ethiopia Z went to bed without too much of a fight and usually slept 12 hours straight at night without waking. At home? Not so much. The first week he was waking a few times a night for various reasons -- he was teething, he was in a strange place, he was jet-lagged and off-schedule. He has slept through the night a few times, but it is still not the norm yet. When he wakes at night we go into his room and comfort him, hold him, sing to him, change his diaper if needed, and stay with him until he goes back to sleep.

The toughest part has been just getting him to fall asleep in the first place, whether for a nap or bedtime. The bright side is that he wants me with him and cries if I try to leave the room, which means he finds my presence comforting (yay!) and has learned that adults respond to crying (another yay!)... However. It takes him anywhere from 30 minutes to 2 hours to finally fall fully asleep to the point where I can leave the room. When you add in night wakings, there are days when I have spent up to 4 or 5 hours just trying to get him to sleep. Earlier this week I began to think to myself... Hmmm, I may be getting played here. Yes, I want to teach him that I am here for him and will give him comfort when he needs it. But when he asks to be held, then put in his crib, then held 5 minutes later, then put back in his crib, then held again and so on and so on for hours I am pretty sure the message I am sending is not "I will comfort you when you need it", but rather "I am your slave and will do whatever you want at bedtime."

So as of yesterday I am trying a new strategy wherein I hold him as long as he wants, then put him in his crib when he asks for it, but after that I do not pick him up again. I stay close, I sing softly, I speak comforting words, but I do not play the back-and-forth-in-and-out crib game with him. The first 2 bedtimes of this method were brutal and involved many tears from both him and me... but today at naptime? It worked!! He asked to go in his crib, then stood up and asked to be held, and when I gave him a hug but didn't lift him out instead of screaming he just plopped onto his pillow and fell asleep! Thank you Jesus.

Z will be two next month and it breaks my heart to say that we are his 6th set of caregivers. As has happened too many times before in his short life, he has been uprooted and taken away from everything familiar and normal. New sights, smells, tastes, sounds, routines, faces, and places have once again assaulted his senses. I am pretty sure that if this happened to me multiple times, I would probably also hit, scream, bite, scratch, scream, spit, throw, kick, arch, scream, bang my head, and scream. Did I mention scream?

Yes, he has done all of the above. But it is nothing we weren't prepared for and it is nothing I can really blame him for. On top of all that he has been through, the kid is almost two years old and a lot of the above behaviors are just par for the course, whether you're recently adopted or not. Our responses to these behaviors are mostly based on what we think triggered them and what's going on at the time. I must admit that they are also sometimes based on how tired and cranky we are. Hey, we're human. We have been doing lots of holding, singing, "time ins", distracting with toys, etc. and have seen marked improvement in the time it takes for him to recover from a tantrum and calm down. He used to have to cry himself completely out to the point of exhaustion, but now he can often recover after just a few minutes (depending on what the trigger was and how mad he is).

Lifestyle Choices
OK weird category title, but I couldn't figure out what else to call it. We didn't leave the house with Zeke at all for the first several days. On about day 5 we ventured out for a short walk in our neighborhood. On Day 7 he took his first ride in the car since coming home. Thankfully he enjoys the Ergo, the stroller, and the car seat and so far does not put up a fight with any of those things. We took him to the doctor on Day 12, so that was basically our first major outing and he did amazingly well (see "health" section for the details of that visit). A few days ago I took him to my parents house for a short visit. Other than those things, as well as regular walks in the stroller and dropping the big boys at school (but not getting out of the car), he has not really left our house or been out in public.

Although I am happy with the above choices, I do think he will do great when we start taking him more places. He has not exhibited much fear or anxiety about being out of the house with us, and he definitely seems to know that we are his caregivers and doesn't seek any attention or comfort from other adults (or at least he has not done so on the rare occasions when other adults are around him). Still, I'd rather be too conservative than risk putting him in a situation where he feels overwhelmed, confused, or anxious. We have allowed some family members and close friends to drop by for short visits, but they have mostly chatted with us and not interacted with Z. I am not quite sure how exactly we will expand his exposure to new places and people, but I do know that we will do it as slowly and intentionally as possible.

We are lucky enough to live in a city with not one but several physicians who specialize in internationally adopted children. We had a great experience with Z's new doctor, whose entire practice is comprised of IA children from all over the Pacific Northwest. After our hour-long consultation with her, I feel very confident that any and all of Z's health issues will be uncovered and dealt with successfully. The doctor talked with us about everything from nutrition to attachment to vaccines, and helped us understand what to expect with Z's health in the future. Along with all the usual well-child check-up stuff, she also scraped his scalp to test for fungus, ordered heaps of lab tests, gave us a prescription for Giardia meds (we had already gotten a positive test result for that), referred us to 3 other doctors (pediatric opthamologist, audiologist, and orthopedist), and checked out his club foot (it is functioning great but we'll see what the ortho doc says). He also got 3 shots and a TB skin test. We were absolutely amazed by what a champ Z was through all of this! Since taking the one-dose anti-parasitic drug a few days ago his tummy is definitely on the mend, and otherwise he seems to be in good health. He was in the 35th percentile for weight on the American Multicultural Growth Chart, 15th for height, and 85th for head circumference. We are happy to have such a big strong boy!

I guess I should also note that Z had a nasty cold when we arrived in Ethiopia, which turned into a terrible cough, which kept us up one night before we got some meds at a local pharmacy. Thankfully he was mostly recovered by the time we flew home.

This is one area that has proved to be much easier than I thought it would be. Given the fact that Z heard one language (Oromifa) for the first 12 months of life, then another language (Amharic) for the next 11 months, and now a 3rd language (English) in our home, I was expecting him to have a bit of a language delay. But far from being delayed, he is talking up a storm! At the guest house in Ethiopia we got lots of help from the staff figuring out the most common words he was saying in Amharic and we've continued to use a lot of those words, along with the English equivalents. He is picking up new English words every day, including Mommy, Daddy, his brother's names, and words for many common objects & activities in our home and things we can see out the window: eat, choo-choo, beep-beep, light, bubble, dog, tree, just to name a few.

We have also been doing a lot of sign language with him and he is picking that up at lightning speed. Many times he will do the sign, say the Amharic word, and say the English word for what he wants or sees [i.e. putting his hand to his mouth, saying "bilah," and then saying "eat" when he is hungry]. We are so glad to see that this area of his development is right on track.

The transition for our other two boys (ages 5 & 3) has gone fairly well -- tough at times, but overall better than we expected. N is a natural helper and teacher, so he loves interacting with Z, leading him around the house, helping him do things, showing him how stuff works. He has even taken a turn feeding Z at mealtimes. It is beautiful to see N growing in his big brother role and using the gifts God gave him to bless his new brother. D... well, he has always marched to his own little tune so half the time it seems like he barely notices that anything is different (except when Z is breaking his train track or getting to eat yogurt at every meal... so not fair!). Other times he seems miffed that he is no longer the baby of the family and acts out for attention. And still other times he embraces his new role as big brother with sweet and genuine affection and attentiveness toward Z. For his part, Z seems thoroughly pleased to have 2 big brothers to follow around. One of the cutest things we've seen him do is grab the washcloth in the bath and give his brothers a little scrub. Adorable.

The Good Stuff
We have known since getting our referral that Z is controlling spirited and demanding strong-willed, but it wasn't until we brought him home that we got to see how FUN he is! He is so silly and animated and it has been an absolute blast to see this part of his personality come out. It fits in so well with our family dynamic. Some of the sweetest moments we've had as a family have been tickling, wrestling, hug-tackling, and having silly face contests with our three goofy boys. It has also been great to see his playfulness come out in pretend games -- he especially loves to play with the toy food and utensils and walks around the room giving everyone a bite.

In addition to being playful, we are surprised at how affectionate our little guy is. Of course we give him tons of affection throughout the day, but on top of that he actually initiates hugs and kisses with us on a regular basis! I thought it would be months, or at least weeks, before I got an unsolicited hug or kiss from this tough little cookie but it turns out he is a softy underneath it all.

In the last few days Z has been learning to join us in looking at picture books, which is great since at first he seemed to want nothing to do with them. His favorite book to look at is the photo book that our agency gave us with pictures of him in the Widow & Orphan home and with the nannies and some of his little buddies. He holds it up to his face and kisses their pictures so lovingly... We thank God every day for the wonderful care he received before he came to us.

The Interesting Stuff
One of the most fascinating things about these first weeks has been uncovering all the skills, talents, and interests of this child who is at the same time our son and yet also our newly-made acquaintance. He knows how to dribble a basketball. He knows what to do with a jump rope. He loves using hand sanitizer. He doesn't grimace one bit when we dump a bucket of water over his head in the bath. He knows that Q-tips are for cleaning ears. He grabs anything that looks like it could be a phone, holds it up to his ear and says "Hello? Ciao!" He loves dogs from afar but is terrified of them up close (no surprise there considering what dogs are like in Ethiopia). He's great at kicking and throwing a ball. He knows exactly how to use chap-stick. We did not teach him any of this... I wonder what else we have yet to find out about this amazing little boy.

The Hard Stuff
Overall I feel like we were very well-prepared for the things we have faced in these first weeks post-placement. The one area where I have felt completely blindsided has been my own emotional state. I am positive that our training talked about this, as well as books I've read about adoptive parenting, but I guess it didn't really sink in for me until I was living it. Just about everything in our process took longer than we thought it would, and after all that waiting and praying and waiting some more, I was sure that feelings of happiness and relief would flood over me when we finally had Zeke home. Sure, we'd be jet-lagged and dealing with tantrums and food fights and night waking... but we'd have our son home!! We'd have the fulfillment of God's promises in our arms, which would mean warm-fuzzy feelings of love and tenderness, right?

It is hard to admit this, but no. Not so much. I know it happens for some moms, and I am glad. But the fact of the matter is, inviting a grieving, traumatized toddler I barely knew into my life 24-7 evoked a whole slew of negative emotions that were not trumped by the happiness of completing the adoption process. And following closely behind these frightening negative emotions were waves of guilt and shame that only brought me further down. Thank God for a few more experienced adoptive moms who were there to give me a listening ear and the assurance that I am not, as I (irrationally) feared, the first person to feel this way. In fact, according to them, these feelings are actually... wait for it... normal. Oh thank God. And, apparently, it gets better with time! Praise the Lord.

And guess what? It already has. As this adorable but turbulent newcomer in our home becomes less of a stranger and more like just another Ballast boy I notice the negative feelings ebbing and fading. In their place something is growing, slowly and steadily. It's a little early to call, but I think it just might be head-over-heels, wild-and-crazy, go-to-the-ends-of-the-earth-for-you... LOVE.


  1. Oh.my.goodness. Ok, now to wipe the pesky singly salty tear away and get to what I want to say.

    What a well-written, thorough, informative, educational tool you have graced us with! It is so wonderful to read about the past 2 weeks through your words and get a feel for the hard stuff and the beautiful things that have come with bringing Z home. Thank you so much for this. Everyone who had been praying for you all will be so glad to read it. Keep this stuff coming!

  2. Haley - you are my hero. Thank you for sharing so thoroughly and HONESTLY. What a gift this will be to so many other moms and dads.
    You and Jon and the boys remain in my prayers...

  3. Thank you so much Melissa & Becky... you are 2 women whose opinions matter A LOT to me so I cherish your words! :)

  4. Thank you for your honesty Haley:) This is a beautiful post and I look forward to hearing more about the fam and little Z.

  5. this is so great for even your neighborhood friends! we want to know these things so badly too, but don't want to intrude on Zeke or ask you a million times. we crave to know him as we know Nate and Dexter too! thank you for your honesty!!

  6. Haley - nothing, and I mean NOTHING about this post was boring! So glad that you wrote this all out so thoroughly and honestly - I hope that lots of people who are waiting READ IT!

  7. Thank you for writing with such sincerity and honesty! What a blessing.

  8. Oh Haley... I could so relate to this and am so grateful that you are writing this out for others in the process...

    Way to go on beginning to figure out the balance between responding to Z's every cry/need for the sake of attachment and knowing when to hold back - that was a tough one and took us much longer to begin to figure out.

    Grateful for your honesty - I too thought I was crazy when I felt so much resentment and negativity toward G - but you are right, it does get better and I love your final statement...

    Hang in there girl!