Sunday, August 28, 2011

epic post placement post: 6 months

It's time for another installment in the 'epic post-placement post' series! (To see previous posts click here and here.)

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.

Z continues to eat well and try new foods often. Since Z's graduation from 'mealtime boot camp' (see 'eating' section of this post) we have been able to loosen the reins a very little bit on mealtime boundaries, including eating meals at other people's houses, restaurants, the park, or the backyard. And rather than cutting him off at the first infraction, we are typically able to give him a chance or two without instigating a battle of wills or inciting manipulative behavior. Another huge milestone has been teaching Z delayed gratification: "If you eat X, you can have Y." Believe it or not, this finally clicked for him when X was chili and Y was... green beans. Kid loves him some green beans. Despite these victories, there is still usually one meal per day that ends in Z being excused due to inappropriate mealtime behavior (when he is 'excused' he still sits at the table with us until the meal is finished, he is just done eating for that meal). Most of the time this behavior stems from Z's desire to control every element of the meal -- how the food is served, where things are on the table, who gets served first, etc. Sometimes he can recover from not being granted this control, and sometimes he can't. Still, overall Z is eating well and growing in the family skill of eating meals together at the table.

We had about two or three months of decent sleep at one point, I think it was in the Spring. More often than not during that time, all our children went to bed fairly easily, stayed asleep all night, and woke up at a decent hour in the morning. It was lovely. Then we went on vacation and were on East Coast Time. Then our 3 year old suddenly needed his sheets changed multiple times per night. Then it was summer and we stayed up too late. Then Z went through a gnarly separation anxiety phase. Now (knock on wood) we have had two uneventful nights in a row, which I hope is the new trend because school starts soon and we need our sleep! Since coming home Z has gone through phases of night-waking, waking 2 or 3 times per night every night for a few weeks, then sleeping through without waking for days or weeks at a time. Most of the time when he wakes up he is easily comforted back to sleep, but once in awhile he wakes up seeming angry, scared or upset and he won't let us touch him. Those are the hardest times. Even though this is within the spectrum of normal toddler behavior, I can't help wondering if he is reliving something from his past. But since he is too young to tell us what's going on, there is no point getting worked up about it -- we just do our best to comfort him, and we pray.

Z is still two, and I do mean TWO. He is so much fun, and he is so much work. I am trying to keep a long view of things when it comes to working through Z's behaviors. He had 2 years to learn these behaviors and they are not going to disappear overnight. None of Z's specific behaviors are outside the scope of normal two year old stuff, but in my (albeit limited) experience they are just more frequent, more easily triggered, and more intense. We still have spitting, we still have screaming, we still have tantrums, and we still have the occasional biting and lots of hitting, as well as a hearty dose of controlling and manipulative behavior*. Is it better than when he came home? Absolutely. Is it better this month than last month? Maybe. Like I said, long view. We use time-ins (Z in his crib, me in the chair next to him), redirection, do-overs, and a wee bit of what psych professionals call 'aversion therapy.' In our house it is called Rude Juice. Crimes of the mouth (spitting, biting, and screaming) result in a very small amount of vinegar being squirted into the offending orifice with a medicine dropper. It is decidedly unpleasant, but not harmful, aggressive or mean... and it works like a charm. I can't wrap up this section without noting that Z also has lots and lots and lots of adorable behaviors to balance out the challenging ones! He is playful, fun-loving, affectionate, friendly, and has a great sense of humor. At the park or pool I often get asked, "Is he always this happy?" To which I usually reply, "Oh, he just loves the park/pool!", because that sounds better than "No, he's not." Anyway, my point is that although we do lots of daily hard work together on appropriate behavior, we also have lots of good fun.

*In case you've never seen this, here's an example: I ask Z if he wants to read a book. He says no. I say OK. He has a breakdown and starts screaming 'book! book!' Now if I were not wise to his ways, I might be tempted to give in, pick up the book, and try reading it to him. At which point I'd put 10 bucks on Z saying 'no book!' and double or nothin' he throws it across the room. So instead I explain 'Mommy listens when you say no, and you said no, so that means no book'. And he cries like I shot Ol' Yeller.

We still don't leave Z with babysitters or other adults very often - not nearly as much as we did with N & D. However for our own mental and marital health, we need to get out once in awhile! My parents have watched the kids on occasion and J's parents watched them a bit while we were visiting them in June. We also slowly introduced Z to a couple of our favorite babysitters and have recently begun leaving him with them for an hour or two at a time. We left him with a (non-grandparent) babysitter at bedtime for the first time this week and it went well. We talked about it with him several times throughout that day so that he knew it was coming, plus he had skipped his nap so he was exhausted and very ready for bed regardless of who was putting him down. Z continues to do well in all different kinds of social settings - church nursery, playdates, family gatherings, etc. He will attend a two year old preschool class at our church two mornings a week this fall which should be lots of fun for him and a nice regularly scheduled break for me.

We are so thankful that Z has been a healthy little guy all summer! He got his cast off in June and he hit the ground running, if you'll excuse the pun. :) He had a follow up appointment last month and the doctor was very happy with his progress, saying that when he grows out of his orthotic he will not need a new one, though he'll continue to wear his brace at night for another year or so. (Which reminds me, I need to call the doctor... Z got mad yesterday, grabbed what was handy, and chucked it across the room. And what was handy? You guessed it, his brace. And it broke. Sigh.)

Like his mom, dad, and brothers, Z is a talker. He can string together 5 and 6 word sentences now, and his pronunciation is improving quite a bit as well. I studied linguistics in college and Z's language development has been absolutely fascinating to me. The most amazing thing has been how quickly he learns to both say and understand new words. When I am trying to learn a word in Amharic, I need the speaker to repeat it for me several times and I usually have to come up with some little trick for remembering it, or I have to use it in context immediately and with some frequency - otherwise it is gone within minutes of hearing it. By contrast, Z can learn a new word the first time he hears it, understanding its meaning and then using it again correctly days later. Toddler brains are incredibly wired for language learning and it has been so fun to have a front row seat for this process! I am also fascinated by which words from Ethiopia Z has kept in his vocabulary. I intentionally say "words from Ethiopia" because the words which have persisted are not Amharic or Oromifa words, but rather baby-talk approximations which I am guessing were the first words he ever said. It stands to reason that the words he has been saying longest (and therefore spoke the earliest) are the ones which would take the longest to be replaced by English words. If that conjecture is true, then Z's first words were Oromifa baby-talk for "no" and "sit", and "give me". Sounds about right to me!

N (age 6) and Z continue to get along swimmingly. N loves to help Z, play with Z, teach Z new things, etc. I would say that of all the members of the family, Z's adoption probably had the least impact on N. His place in the family did not change - he is still the big brother and he has enjoyed having another younger sibling to play with, teach, and help. D (almost 4) however, has had to make a significant adjustment: less attention from me, more sharing, more compromising his preferences, and a small person taking his toys, monopolizing his mom, and generally just getting up in his mix. At first he seemed rather indifferent about the change, as though he was just trying to ride it out until things went back to how they were before. But when Z had been home about 4 months something clicked. I think D realized that this was, in fact, the new normal... and he was not a fan. We have spent the summer working through these issues together: talking, praying, processing feelings, giving focused attention, and doing lots of hands-on coaching to help all our kids treat each other with kindness and respect. Though it hasn't been easy, this has been good, necessary, and inevitable work for our family.

Bonding & Connecting
In the 'sleep' section I mentioned Z's recent bout of separation anxiety: I consider this to be a major bonding milestone! It made for a tough few weeks, and I am thankful to be through it -- not only because we are all sleeping better, but more importantly because it was a priceless opportunity to build trust. We were able to teach Z that even when he can't see us, we are here. There are very few things I want to plant deep into his heart more than that.

We continue to engage in activities that intentionally foster connection between us and Z - tickling, wrestling, cuddling, etc. One of the bonding activities that has borne the most fruit for us has been bottle-feeding* Z before nap-time and bedtime every day. No matter what kind of day we are having or how we may be feeling about each other leading up to that point, our bottle time is almost a guaranteed blessing. Z will cuddle on my lap (or J's - we take turns), look into my eyes, give me kisses, and fully relax into my arms. It did take work to get to this point, but it was well worth it as we now have two sweet bonding times built into our daily routine.

*For those who want specific details, we started out bottle feeding with 6-8 oz of milk, then switched to water after a few months, then reduced the volume to about 4-5 oz.

Cultural Connections
We haven't been able to spend as much time with our Ethiopian friends this summer, but we have started eating a lot more Ethiopian food at home since finding a great little store that sells injera, spices, and other Ethiopian items. I'm going to devote a whole post to this soon, so check back later to read more.

The Crazy Easy Stuff
And the winner for most surprisingly easy part of the last six months is (drum roll please)... potty training! I wasn't even thinking about potty training Z, but apparently he was way ahead of me. He would often ask to sit on the potty when he saw his brothers going, so I had gotten into the habit of sitting him there a few times throughout the day. I didn't give it much thought until one day I realized he was actually doing most of his business in the potty! Well, how 'bout that. He is not super reliable about telling us when he has to go (though he will do it on occasion), so I can't officially stamp him as 'potty trained', but considering how little effort I've put in, I am happily surprised by how well he is doing.

The Good Hard Stuff
So, to summarize, life is good. I cannot say that life is easy, or organized, or quiet, or predictable, or even really manageable on some days... but I can say that life is very good. After 6 months together, our love for each other has grown and woven itself through the fabric of our daily lives. We are experiencing God's grace and watching him work in us in ways that are sometimes painful but always glorious. We are learning to be a family together and I wouldn't trade any of it for the world.

And now, your reward for scrolling down past reading this novel: a few pictures from our recent photo shoot with my amazing photographer friend, Liz Quitiquit.

Friday, August 19, 2011

he rocks

So, I may have promised my husband that I wouldn't do this... but I just can't help myself! The world needs to know (and by world, I mean the millions dozens of you kind readers out there).

This blog is supposed to be about our family's journey through adoption from Ethiopia, but since I tend to be a bit narcissistic self-absorbed focused on my own perspective, I'm afraid it might not always tell the full story. And the full story? Is that my husband flat-out rocks.

If I am writing on here about some revelation I've had, chances are that J helped me to see it. If I share about a struggle I'm having, you can bet he is down in the trenches with me. If I gush about a recent successful parenting strategy, it was probably his idea. And for goodness sakes, if I even have the time to be writing on here it is most likely because he is upstairs giving 3 kids a bath or washing a sink-full of dishes!

I could go on and on, but instead I'll let his words speak for themselves. These are just a few of the things he's been known to say regularly:

What can I do to help?

Wow, honey the house looks great!

Looks like he needs a diaper change -- I got it.

Why don't I take the kids outside for awhile so you can rest?

You're pretty.

Let's go on a date.

How can I help you take a break?

Let me get you a Kleenex... It's OK, hon... That's not a dumb reason to cry... It's OK to feel that way.

You're a great mom.

I would not be who I am without him, and he is the best husband and dad the boys and I could ever ask for!

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

i guess we're doing ok after all

When I was in 4th grade my teacher had a coupon system. Everyone got 10 coupons at the beginning of the year and each coupon was like a 'get out of jail free' card for turning in your homework late, but if you kept all 10 coupons the whole year there was some special prize. I don't think I'd ever turned in homework late, but for some reason this whole system pushed my crazy button. I remember sobbing in my bed because I was afraid I wouldn't be able to keep all 10 coupons all year. My mom rubbed my back and told me it didn't matter, that I should just do my best and not put so much pressure on myself.

Fast forward 20+ years and I am still not taking her advice.

True, there are no coupons or prizes in adoptive parenting but that hasn't stopped me from putting insane amounts of pressure on myself to do it all just right. And you can imagine the resulting neurosis, since there is no right way to do any of this. "I'm just so afraid I'm gonna mess him up," I told my sister the other day. "Oh, you will," was her immediate reply. "We all do. No sense being afraid of it." She is younger than me, but a far sight smarter.

The trouble started a few weeks ago when Z began having trouble at bedtime and reverting to some old behaviors. Normal, right? Not the end of the world. But in the blink of an eye guilt, fear, and pride crept in and turned a small setback for Z into a huge messy pit for his mama. I fell down the wormhole of worry and forgot a lot of important things on the way.* I forgot to take a long view of things and to accept setbacks as a normal part of the journey. I forgot that I am not in control. I forgot to give myself grace. Most significantly, I forgot that Z belongs first to God. His life, all of it - good, bad, painful, and beautiful - belongs to God. I am Z's parent, but I am not his creator, his healer, or his savior.

And in that truth there is great freedom to let go of all this pressure. The pressure to know exactly what is going on inside him... his Creator knows. The pressure to heal what is broken... only the Healer has power to do that. And the pressure to do it all right so that he will look back someday and be OK with himself and his life... Jesus Christ is the only thing that makes anything OK. I pray that Z knows this for himself one day, but that is the work of the Holy Spirit.

By the way, the real issue behind the sleep and behavior problems? Good ol' fashioned separation anxiety. I figured it out when I dropped Z off at the church nursery and, for the first time ever, he had a total melt-down. The exact same kind he's been having at every bedtime. I probably looked like a horrible mom as I walked away grinning, but I was so happy to have an answer I couldn't help it. Now at bedtime I give him extra reassurance (Mommy is right here, I'll be close by, I'm not leaving just stepping outside the room, etc), and pop my head back in the room a few times to prove that I haven't disappeared... and it works! He lays his head down and goes to sleep. All that drama and worry, and it turns out the kid likes us enough to be sad when we leave. I guess we're doing OK after all.

*I also cried big alligator tears of self-pity at the YWAM Ethiopia moms group last week... and arrived late... and left early... and I'm the one who organizes the group. Yeah, it was that kind of week. Thanks for the grace and Kleenex, friends!

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

airplanes and helicopters and bikes, oh my!

We are in the midst of a bit of a rough patch at the moment. It probably feels rougher than it actually is, because it involves sleep and everything feels harder when you're sleep-deprived (can I get an 'AMEN').

Starting sometime last week Z began showing signs of anxiety and fear about bedtime and naptime. At first I thought his behavior was just more of his usual tricks -- Z is a master manipulator and we deal with power-play control battles on a daily basis. But after a few days I began to see signs that this was something different. He was clingy and cried when we left him, he had more frequent night wakings, and he sometimes woke up crying in the morning. Usually we stick tightly to his bedtime routine, but last Saturday night I stayed a bit longer in his room and offered him some extra comfort after putting him down. As I rubbed his back he whimpered, "Airplane... bike.... helicopter." Was he scared of hearing loud noises outside while in bed? I gave him all the reassurances I could think of: You are safe, Mommy's here, you have your blankie, no airplanes or bikes or helicopters can hurt you, you're OK... A white noise machine has helped a little bit, but for the most part he is still a wreck at every naptime and bedtime. We haven't dealt with this type of fear and anxiety in him since his first month home. It is hard.

My crazy analytical brain wants to figure out why this is happening. Does it have to do with how long he has been home? Did something recently trigger a traumatic experience from his past? Is it related to a recent two-night stay at my parents' cabin? Curious as I may be, it is not important (or possible) for me to solve this puzzle. It is important for me to remember that his feelings and fears are real to him, even if they don't make sense to me. It is important for me to keep listening to and respecting those feelings, and responding with empathy, compassion, and comfort. It is important for me to know that this type of thing is normal. It's not my fault, nor is it the result of some mistake on my part (though I've made many). I can't control when or how set-backs happen, I can only control my response to them. Although I hate to see my son scared and upset, I am thankful for the opportunity to be there for him and offer comfort in the midst of it. If nothing else, I hope it will strengthen his trust in me and help him to know that he is not alone.

Friday, August 5, 2011

this week in iphone photos

Since my brain is on summer vacation these days, I am taking a page out of Kristen's book and doing an iPhone photo post. Enjoy!

brother hang-time at the cabin

Uncle Travis is a brave, brave man.

I made shiro wat. And yes, it is supposed to look like cat poo. It tastes good, I swear.

On our way home from a family photo shoot in our traditional Ethiopian gear. More photos to come...

Sportin' some new kicks.

A version of Angry Birds which is slightly less guilt-inducing for Mommy.

Monday, August 1, 2011

summer tidbits

Z is loving the summertime. In the pool he barely comes up for air and screams like a banshee when it's time to get out. At the beach he throws rocks to his little heart's content and plays for hours with his cousins. Life is good.

Last night he was so proud of himself for getting a big bite of ice cream on his spoon all by himself. He grinned up at me and said, "Mommy, high five! I did it!"

Also overheard at meal time is the boys' current running joke, which involves pretending to burp and then shouting "Pizza!" Z thinks this is the funniest thing he has ever seen or done.

Z saw a bunny in our front yard the other day and hasn't stopped talking about it since. A few times a day he will reminisce about that special moment by telling anyone who will listen: "Bunny! Bunny eating! Bunny eating grass!"

Here, bunny bunny bunny!

Last weekend was the annual Dolphin Point Beach Bash at my parents' cabin -- Z had the time of his life running in the kiddie races, charming the crowd, and eating lots of good food.