Tuesday, May 31, 2011

epic post-placement post: 3 months

This is a follow-up to a post I wrote a couple of months ago, when Z had been home just 2 weeks. Last Saturday marked three months since we stepped off the plane and became a family of 5, so I thought it would be a good time to look back and see how things have changed since then.

As I said in my original post, beyond just recording these things for posterity, my motivation for doing this is mainly to provide a window into our experiences for the sake of those who are waiting to bring their children home and wondering what it might be like when they finally do. Of course our experience just represents one dot on a huge spectrum, so if you are a waiting parent your experiences may (and most likely will) be completely different from ours. Still, I think it can be helpful to know what life is like for those a few steps ahead of us down the road.

I'll try to cover many of the same categories as in my first post, with a few changes and additions. Grab a cup of coffee and get comfortable -- it's not called 'epic' for nothing!

For the most part we have stuck to the original boundaries we set and this has served us well. We hit a rough patch when Z figured out how emotionally invested I was in his eating habits. He is a smart little cookie and he realized that it really upset me when he didn't eat very much, so he decided to use this to his advantage. He started exhibiting lots of controlling behavior at mealtimes, and I would often acquiesce in the name of getting him to eat more. It took me awhile to realize this was happening, and to figure out why. I had this idea in my head that, since he was adopted from Ethiopia he must have a lot of catching up to do in terms of growth and therefore I should do whatever necessary to shovel heaps of food into him 3-5 times a day. Not so. He has not suffered malnutrition, he is not underweight, and he does not have catching up to do in this arena. On the contrary, he is so sure of his next meal that he is willing to totally refuse food in order to be in control and get an emotional reaction from mom. Yikes! When I realized this, I implemented a bit of 'mealtime boot camp' which basically meant FIRMLY holding to the established boundaries even if it meant he didn't eat a single bite. It also meant keeping my cool and remembering that missing one meal was a small price to pay in order to lovingly teach Z how to eat meals in our family. It is so important to me to be able to sit down to a pleasant meal together as a family, and it has been well worth it to take the time to teach Z how to be part of that with us. Now that we have worked through a lot of the control issues at mealtime, I have learned that Z loves to eat, is not picky at all, and is perfectly capable of eating a nice meal with his family at the table. He still has days where he puts up a fight, but it is much easier to handle now. Side note: watching Z eat Ethiopian food is one of my favorite things in the world! He has the technique down perfectly - he grabs a piece of injera and digs right in with a characteristically Ethiopian flick of the wrist. I love it!

We have made huge strides together in this area. For the first several weeks, either J or I stayed in the room with Z until he was fully asleep. Eventually we realized that although he definitely wanted us in the room, he was keeping himself awake longer to make sure we hadn't left, so our presence was actually depriving him of rest. I was torn because I knew he would cry if we left the room and I didn't feel ready for that. Thank goodness for J -- I was out for the evening with friends so he took the opportunity to try leaving the room before Z was asleep... and he only cried for 3 minutes! From that point on we were able to do our pre-bed routine (bottle, prayers, songs, & cuddles) and then leave, and Z falls asleep on his own. He still cries sometimes, or hollers for us, or talks and sings to himself, or takes of his socks and plays with them, but we don't go back in the room and eventually he falls asleep. Once he is asleep he usually sleeps well for 11-12 hours and takes a 2 hour nap. He wakes up and wants to be comforted in the middle of the night on occasion, but is easily calmed down and falls back asleep quickly.

Z is two. Oh boy, is he ever TWO! And by that I mean that he is fun and energetic and curious, and yes, challenging. He has turned out to have a very sweet disposition and is generally happy and quick to laugh. He is also convinced that he knows best, that he should be in charge, and that his will trumps all others. And of course, because I love him, I can't let him grow up thinking those things are true! So every day we work together to learn how to obey, how to listen, how to be flexible, how to wait, and how to be respectful of others. These are big lessons for any two-year-old, but especially a little one who has not been taught these things from the beginning. We have started using time-outs in certain circumstances, depending on what we think is motivating his behavior at the time. We also use lots of 'do-overs' (i.e. "We don't scream to get Mommy's attention. Please try that again in a nice voice."). One thing that has worked really well is to use our older boys as models of appropriate behavior. If we are working on a particular behavior, like gentle touching, it helps to have N & D model the behavior, then he will copy it and get lots of praise and reinforcement. As compared to when I wrote my previous post, we are seeing way less biting, scratching, spitting, and tantrumming. Hitting and screaming are the main things we are dealing with, but even those have decreased quite a bit. Z still throws a little fit when he doesn't get his way, but it does not escalate into a full-blown tantrum anymore. In my opinion, his behavior is now within the normal range for a two-year-old, which is all we can really ask for!

In the first few weeks home, Z didn't leave the house much as we let him adjust to us and to the new environment. After about a month, we began taking him on short outings - the grocery store, the park, part of a church service, etc. He did so well with these outings that we were able to gradually resume most of our normal activities by about 6-8 weeks home. We have a pretty low-key lifestyle to begin with - just your basic take the kids to school, run an errand, pick up the kids from school, have a friend over, make dinner, eat dinner, go to bed type of daily life. Z took this all in stride and only rarely seemed to get over-stimulated or stressed. One example was during Holy Week, when we had him out past bedtime for church services and family events three nights in a row. He hit the wall during Easter Sunday services and needed a very quiet day or two to get back in the swing of things. But you know what? So did the whole family. :) As long as we are home for naps and bedtime every day, Z seems happy to be out and about a lot of the time. We recently went to a fellowship night for Ethiopian adoptive families -- over 50 adults and children running loose in a children's museum... and Z did great! He didn't seem overwhelmed and frequently checked in with mom and dad as he played. I honestly thought we would have to cut back on our activities a lot more than we have, but Z has surprised me and adjusted quickly and happily.

We chose not to leave Z with any other adults for the first two months that he was home. At the 2 month point we started leaving him for short periods in the church nursery, which has gone great. There are only a couple of kids with him, one of whom is his cousin, and he seems to understand that we are close by. We left him with my parents for the first time about 2 weeks ago and again, he did great. This past weekend we went out for the evening and my parents had our kids at their house, which was another big step. Though he went to sleep pretty easily for them, I wasn't quite ready to leave him overnight yet - we carried all the sleeping boys to the car and tucked them in at home - but it is nice to know that he is so comfortable with them now.

Besides the one big health scare and hospitalization (read more here, here, and here), Z has been quite healthy. The giardia and scalp fungus are long-gone and he even avoided the flu bug the rest of us suffered a few weeks ago. We have been going to the orthopedic doctors at Childrens Hospital every week for the past 8 weeks for treatment of his club foot. The treatment procedure is called serial casting, which involves Z getting a new cast put on his foot every week to slowly stretch the tendons and adjust the orientation of the foot. His last cast comes off tomorrow - hooray! After that he'll wear orthotics during the day and a brace at night. Z's blood work showed that he was slightly anemic so he has been on iron drops, along with his daily multivitamin. Beyond that we have not had any health issues - he is healthy, growing, and thriving!

Adopting a toddler is so fun because they are at the perfect age to learn language. Z has been learning new words every day! Though we still use a few Amharic words, Z is picking up English quickly and now says far more words in English than in Amharic. I do think he remembers a lot of it though -- when we are around Amharic speakers he is still able to understand them. He regularly puts two and three words together, such as "Up Mommy please" or "Wow Daddy car". Tonight I even overheard him tell J, "All done brushing teeth". He still uses a few signs, but he knows so many words now that he doesn't need them much.

Z continues to adore his brothers, and the feeling is mutual. Z and N have always been sweet together, but lately D has been showing more interest and willingness to play with Z as well. He is doing a better job of coming down to Z's level and joining him in play, or inviting him to activities that he knows Z enjoys. There are still frequent property disputes and turf battles, but overall the boys get along well and have fun together. I think having the two older boys made Z's transition quite a bit easier on both him and us. Rather than having to depend solely on me and J for all interactions, he has 2 other little people to watch and imitate, 2 other people who give him love and attention, 2 other people to play with and learn from. Watching them all give each other hugs and kisses before bed makes my heart swell with joy and gratitude!

Bonding & Connecting
Naturally in Z's first months home we have been doing lots of things to intentionally foster our bond and connection with him. We try to spend time each day doing activities like peek-a-boo, tickling, wrestling, and anything else that makes us both smile and puts us face-to-face with each other. We also spend time holding, cuddling, and rocking Z, particularly before and after naps and bedtime. We look through his life-story book together and talk about all the important people in his life before he was home with us. But the one thing that has proven most valuable in the bonding process has simply been time. Time together, both in the sense of number of weeks that he has been home, and also in the sense of committing to spend lots of quality time together every day.

I shared before my struggles with feeling a positive emotional connection to Z at first. I wanted to be overwhelmed with warm-fuzzy feelings of love for him from the get-go, and I felt guilty and sad that this didn't happen. BUT... it just took time. And now? I am wild and crazy in love with my sweet boy! As we both got used to each other and adjusted to our 'new normal', the feelings I had been waiting for slowly crept in and took root until one day I realized that my love for Z had grown from action into emotion and moved from my head into my heart. The feelings of frustration and anger still resurface sometimes, mostly in moments when I feel rejected by Z in some way, but they are few and far between these days. It helps that Z is pretty head-over-heels for his mama now too - he absolutely showers me in hugs and kisses every day and says "I love you" all the time. The other day he was singing a little made-up song with the words, "I love Mommy, I love Mommy!" It doesn't get much sweeter than that folks.

Cultural Connections
We are committed to maintaining a connection to Ethiopian culture within our family however we can. Through the preschool our kids attend we have become friends with a few Ethiopian families and enjoy getting together with them regularly. This week I took D and Z to my friend's house for a coffee ceremony and brunch. Going to her home feels like being back in Ethiopia in some ways - the smell of roasting coffee and inscense, traditional music playing in the background, women chattering back and forth in Amharic while I soak it all in and try not to be awkward or spill wat on my shirt (failure on both parts, but still fun). We have a favorite Ethiopian restaurant that we take the kids to, and of course we get together with other Ethiopian adoptive families as often as we can. I am glad that Z will have the opportunity to interact with other Ethiopian adults and children, both adopted and non. We can teach him to be a lot of things, but we can't teach him how to be Ethiopian because we're not. The best we can do is help him to make connections with others who share his heritage and can help to fill in that gap for him.

Random Other Stuff
So, this is rather embarrassing, but up until about a month ago I was under the assumption that because Z was a boy I didn't have to pay any attention to his hair. I didn't even know that you are not supposed to use shampoo on African hair more than once a week, if that. My poor child's hair and scalp were so dry that I actually thought his fungus had come back... nope, just a case of ignorance on the part of his mama! Once I realized this, I got to work trying to figure out what worked for his hair. Coconut oil has been great, and upon first usage immediately cleared up his dry scalp. I've tried a few different conditioners, lotions, and leave-in products but haven't settled on a definite favorite. There are many different types of Ethiopian hair, and Z's is on the coarse side. I don't think he is going to have soft curls like some of his little buddies, no matter what product I try. For now we are just going to keep his hair pretty short and keep learning how to manage it.

And now, your reward for slogging through this long post: pictures!

N had a pirate-themed birthday party and all three boys loved it!

Family outing to Red Robin

Curious TWO-year-old!

At the Ethiopian adoptive families fellowship night

Reading Z's life-story book

This is what happens when we don't make it home in time for naps.

Born in the same town, now live less than 2 miles apart.

Riding bikes at Papa's house.


  1. Wow! Lots of great stuff here!

    Thanks for writing all of this out for those of us who will follow after you. You put it here in such an easy, simple way. Actually watching you do all this is more fun, of course. But I appreciate reading it as well.

    You are a great mom and all three of your boys are blessed to have you! And yes, you are blessed to have them as well


  2. The Boyds love the Ballasts! I'm glad it's going well. :) ~ C

  3. Oh wow, MEGA EPIC! This is a great post - you are so good to be keeping a record of this stuff. It's great to be able to virtually follow your progress as a family :)

  4. Thanks for sharing all the info! It is so helpful to me. Can you email me if you get a chance--I would love to hear more about the life-story book? Is it like the 3-picture story, with pictures of life before adoption and then after? It looks like one of the snapfish books. That is a great idea!!

    If you have time, let me know the details!


  5. Good stuff Haley. Thanks for sharing!