Tuesday, December 28, 2010

The Things we Remember

It was a day like any other, Jada and Twila both woke with the sun, thick green mucus impeding their breath and speech, both hungry and chilly, needing to go potty or have her diaper changed (respectively) Twila needing help with wiping, Jada wanting nothing to do with the fresh diaper, both complaining (in their own languages) about being cold but neither being interested in the clothing I presented.

It was on this normal day, as I chased each one around with food and articles of sensible clothing negotiating complaints and shrill cries of indignation that things began to unravel. As is so often the case in motherhood, I started out with a wellspring of patience, loving language and a willingness to explain, talk, negotiate and persuade. But before nine o’ clock, my patience was running thin.

I opened my computer to check email which I hadn’t done since last week. Just as my computer booted up, I remembered that the last time I had logged on, I had worked for five or ten minutes when Jada’s shrieks of frustration got the better of me and I finally allowed her to slam happily on the keys of my computer while it was safely ( I thought) on the log-in screen. Soon however she had realigned my entire interface to look like something out of a cosmic bowling alley. Every screen was black with white text, bright primary colors highlighted Google’s home page, my Gmail account and any Word document I opened.

So on this morning, I struggled to figure out what she had done and how to undo it. It was around the time that my irritation with my computer was turning to tearful exasperation that Twila announced from the family room that Jada was done going poop. I thought this was an odd announcement since I had already changed and disposed of her dirty diaper. The reality of the situation settled on me like the chilling realization that there is someone in the room you didn’t realize was there.

There Jada stood at the coffee table, wearing a clean shirt, shoes, socks and no pants, no diaper. And Twila was right, she was now done going poop. The evidence of this was all over her ankles, the open book she stood over, the family room rug and the coffee table. There was a small trail leading from the place at the couch where I had distractedly left her crawling away from her clean diaper, to answer the phone. It was from this call that I had remembered an email I needed to return. And so it goes for the life of a mom.

Things went downhill from there. The three of us girls are all sick with a horrible, mucusy cough that has been the scourge of Minnesota this past month. I don’t know a soul who has been safe from this nasty virus. Jada was the first in our family to be at its mercy and was a fussy, tired mess over the holiday weekend. We cleaned and wrapped and cooked as best we could for the back to back holiday dinners we were hosting for Ryan’s family and then mine, while carrying around our feverish, coughing infant.

On Christmas Eve night, I felt a tickle in my throat, a weight in my chest and by Christmas morning I was not only sleep deprived but was undeniably sick. Monday morning as Ryan left for work, I was busy setting my expectations nice and low for the day.

That too I did well for a while. I am able to grant myself a certain amount of clemency from the many chores that stare at me from the counter tops, the laundry baskets, the dark corners of the bathroom, I can look away from their vacant staring eyes for so long and so I did, that morning, as best I could.

I made us all bagel sandwiches, using my happy voice to talk to Jada who fussed intermittently at me from the floor. I made coffee and took a big mug into Twila’s room where I sat on the floor and let Jada climb across my lap and was a sounding board for all Twila’s creative ideas. Then we all climbed onto the couch in her room and read story after story. This, I believe is the greatest gift I give to Twila: saying yes to playing in her room and reading “just one more” chapter. Sure she loved opening presents on Christmas morning, but not one gift compared to my agreeing to “play.”

She makes this abundantly clear to me each morning we wake up together. I regret how rarely I say yes, just yes with no equivocations, no strings attached.

But sooner or later the guilt creeps in, the fake guilt or something really corrosive masquerading as guilt because the choice that will make me feel truly guilty for years into my retirement is the choice to walk out of Twila’s room. But something that feels like guilt eventually pulls me out. I don’t know what it is, its this feeling that I should be doing something “productive” as if spending time with my daughters isn’t that. But its this panic or anxiety, it’s the mental to-do list that starts scrolling through my mind. What will happen if I don’t put the dishes in the dish washer? What if the laundry doesn’t get done? What if the tenants don’t get the snow blower in time? What if I don’t send a nice email apology to our angry tenant who can’t get out of the driveway because the snow plows blocked her in?

These thoughts begin to tick away and suddenly I find myself escaping the warmth of the pillow fort in Twila’s room, the true joy I find sitting on the floor amongst the stuffed animals and books, drinking coffee and playing. I find myself escaping to more “important” avenues for my time. And I know that it won’t be what I escaped to do but the beautiful scenes I escaped that I remember fondly when I’m old, when my children are old. Yet somehow I cannot bring myself to fully let go of those things I need to check off my to-do list.

But the more I accomplished the more stressful the day got and the worse we all felt. And I wondered, is any of it worth it? But simultaneously I thought, can I reasonably choose to not do any of these have-to’s? The answer to both questions was no.

A conundrum.

I thought, as I lay in bed with Twila last night, about Christmas Eve: how late she was up, eating cake and opening presents, playing and joyously anticipating Santa’s arrival. I thought of how the house was finally quiet when the guests were all driving home, when Jada fell, fitfully asleep in my front carrier and Twila insisted we write a letter to Santa. We sat down by the fire, now dwindled down to embers and popping remnants of wood, with crayons and paper. She drew pictures of reindeer with very human looking heads and I wrote the words she dictated to me.

Then she poured no less than twenty cookies on the coffee table before I could stop her and arranged them into a special design. Then suddenly she ran to the giant picture window in our living room, behind our tall Christmas tree and looked out over the damp, black sky. There in the distance, she insisted, she could see Rudolph’s nose.

“We better get to sleep before he gets here,” I said.

But she insisted we go outside and sing jingle bells to Santa so he would hear us in the distance and as I opened my mouth the say no, to say are you crazy, its nine thirty at night and its ten degrees outside and you’re in a Tinker Bell nighty, I caught myself and wondered, what do I want Twila to remember when she is old? So we opened that back porch door and shouted at the cold, black sky one verse of jingle bells then slammed the door on the frigged night air.

And just as on Christmas Eve, last night Twila was asleep almost the moment her head touched the pillow. But I didn’t get out of bed right away. I lay for a long time next to her listening to the steady rise and fall of her breathing, wondering at how all that mobile, cascading energy could be so motionless. How that perpetually talking and asking mouth could be so peacefully still.

Before I left her room last night I brushed her long hair out of her eyes and rested my hand on her arm. I kissed her temple, right next to her eye and breathed in the scent of her hair. I missed her childishness already. I vowed to remember that moment both when I am eighty nine years old and tomorrow when Jada is shrieking and Twila is asking for my time. And I will give it.

Monday, December 20, 2010

A Generous Adoption

My parents held their annual Christmas party last night in St. Paul. It’s the kind of party where crowds of people from all walks of life filter through, staying for various lengths of time while nibbling on artichoke dip on crostini, Thai shrimp rice salad, barbequed meatballs and black-bottom cupcakes. It’s the kind of Christmas party that draws many of the neighbors but also lines the block with cars from neighboring cities and suburbs. Once a year my parents’ small living room is filled to capacity with friends from the theater, from the church, from their children’s schools.

It’s the kind of party in the heart of the city, where gathered around a crackling fireplace, sipping strong eggnog and eating sesame chicken salad dip, you might chat with a director from the local college, or the new boyfriend of the host’s son’s girlfriend’s mother. Long time attendees from my parents’ church might converse with the professional actress from next door and her lesbian partner. You might even have the chance to get to know the adoptive parents of the host’s biological granddaughter.

It was at this party, while sipping on red wine and crunching on ginger bread that I caught up with my birthdaughter, her brothers, and her mom and dad. We’ve chatted on the phone and seen each other maybe half dozen times since Jada was born last January, but by and large, it’s been a busy year for our families. It felt good to have time to stand and chat. As usual we talked about everything. Of course Nicole and Twila are main topics of interest for us, but also marriage, love, commitment, work, family, home remodeling, travel plans, cooking and the holidays fill our conversation.

As the night wore on, we talked about the first holiday party they came to here in my parents’ home, just three months after Nicole was born.

Remembering this, I began to think, not for the first time, about how generous Sandy has always been with my birthdaughter. I did a radio interview about being a birthmom last week for a radio show called, Adoption Voices: Journey to Motherhood . As I answered the host’s questions, Mary Beth Wells made an astute comment about Sandy. She pointed out that Sandy viewed adoption in terms of abundance rather than scarcity. In all these years of being a birthmom, I’ve known this but never have I stated it quite that succinctly.

So often over the years, especially in the first years of our adoption, Sandy said to me, “How can more people to love a child be a bad thing?”

It was from this perspective that Sandy and Tom opened their home to me, my mother, my brother and sisters, even my aunts and grandmother and some of my close friends. It was from this view point that she saw us, my family, for who and what we were, a family quite desperate to be a part of her new daughter’s life but not in a threatening or greedy way. We didn’t want to interfere with Sandy as a mother, we didn’t want to take Nicole away from her in any sense; we just wanted to see her, to witness her life, to hold her and smell her.

My mother and I remembered, after the radio interview aired, just how much we craved Nicole in those first months. It wasn’t a desire to influence or control her; it was just a biological need to be near her, to see her smile and laugh, and be happy in her new home.

We have always been grateful to Nicole’s family for welcoming us so wholeheartedly, so trustingly into their lives. But it’s taken eleven years to see fully how unique my adoption is. Its taken a decade of hearing other birthmother’s stories of struggle and negotiations just to get more pictures and letters. How mad birthmotherhood might have driven me if I had been kept from my birthdaughter. What a prison the condition of birthmotherhood would have been.

I wonder: would I have been able to grow through birthmotherhood and develop into my own kind of mother and live a normal life with my daughters and husband if my birthmotherhood wasn’t an enriching experience in my past but a gaping and unresolved wound?

It could have gone a million different ways, I thought as I stood before the crackling fireplace in the midst of the bustling party, watching my birthdaughter’s growing gracefulness. Now tall and self-possessed, as tall as my shoulder, she stands and listens and makes conversation with Ryan and me and her dad. Her brothers sit beside us, playing with Ryan’s Droid, engrossed completely in their own world. Nicole tells us about babysitting for her brothers, about school and her friends. She is beautiful. It’s the first time I’ve realized she can’t be called cute anymore. She’s growing into a beautiful young woman. And it’s almost chilling to realize.

Sandy reminded me about that first party, when Nicole was three months old, she remembered more about it than I did. I remembered her bare porcelain skin after Sandy took off her too-hot Christmas dress letting her sit in tights and tee-shirt by the fireplace. Sandy remembers worrying because she fussed when I held her; she worried that I would feel hurt, I think. But all I remember is that they were there. I remember being amazed and delighted that they would come. Would I have been that brave, as an adoptive mother? I have often wondered. Could I have been that generous with my newly-adopted daughter? I’d like to think so, but I can’t say ‘yes’ with any confidence.

What I am mostly sure of when I think of myself as this eleven year old birth mother, is that by their generosity; their bravery and courage in allowing our adoption to be so very open, I have been enabled to trust and to grow in ways I couldn’t have imagined twelve years ago when I was pregnant and thinking about adoption. It’s inconceivable to think about what my life would be like had my adoption gone differently.

My birthdaughter’s family chose a path on which we could travel together. They took a generous path that always included me and my family. It could have gone a million different ways. But it went this way.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

I Let Myself Laugh

The busyness of the season has amped up into full-on extreme, frantic, near-chaos. Part of the reason for this may be the fact that I’m saying ‘yes’ to a lot of things I might normally say ‘not this week’ to. The jury is still out on whether this is a positive development or not.

For example, I’ve been saying ‘sure!’ to a lot of offers for play dates, meeting out or having Twila’s friends over, and on the one hand this gives us lots more to do and therefore keeps us from getting all over each other’s cases all day long, but on the other hand it creates less space and time for cleaning, grocery shopping, the post-office, the bank, our annual Christmas CD, wrapping presents, returning overdue movies to the library and to Redbox, you know, all those thrilling things that normally fill our days. They’re not fun things but they are time-fillers and by adding even more events to our already full days, we are sprinkling in more joy and fun and entertainment, but we are also increasing the speed at which we have to accomplish all those other ‘have-to’s’.

So, the continuous message seems to be reinforced: life is about trade-offs. You don’t get something without losing something. Can that be true? It sounds so pessimistic. I want our life to be fun and interesting. I want to say ‘yes’ to riding the Santa train at the mall, meeting grandma out for lunch, taking Twila and Jada to the Eagle’s nest, hosting happy hours, baking cookies, painting canvasses and playing ‘blocks’ or ‘dance party.’ But with every activity I say yes to, I lose a little calm and gain a little stress.

With each new plan I make for me and Ryan or me and Twila, I have to sacrifice the ability to move slowly, to take our time, in some ways, to enjoy what we are doing. And whether it’s this year, or this season, or maybe just this week (because sometimes my myopic mood feels universal in its totality) there is an atmosphere of frenzy billowing around our lives. I feel it in the Target parking lot; I feel it when the phone rings; as the clock ticks, and I feel it as we drive in the car, going from here to there and back again. It’s hard to catch my breath as we shuttle this way and that.

I find myself breathing shallowly, eyes flicking all around, wondering if I’ve had enough coffee (too much?) or if this adrenaline rush is from knowing we are going to be late for something.

Where is that happy medium between planning events in advent for Christmas to cherish in memory, enjoy in the present, and packing in all the things that look like joyous Christmas events but wind up feeling like stress and obligation more than joy and fun?

I got it in my head the other day that we should get photos of Twila and Jada in their Christmas things in front of the tree. What a brilliant Christmas gift this would make for Grandmas and Grandpas and I came up with it in enough time to order the pictures! I was so proud of myself.

It was no small task to get the girls cleaned up and dressed in their Christmas finery, but it was a task I am used to. We took our time; we brushed Twila’s hair gently, slowly and thoroughly.

I set them in front of the Christmas tree with specific instructions that Twila should just keep looking at the camera and I would get Jada to smile when I could. Smiling has never been a problem for Jada. Sitting still when there is an exciting bit of machinery with buttons and flashing lights within her reach however…

We gave it our all, Twila and I. I snapped a gazillion pictures and with each shot I got snappier and snappier:

“Just sit still! Twila, you stay still! Look at the camera! I will worry about Jada!”

Thank goodness that at some point it struck me how silly this all was, trying to capture the joy of Christmas by shouting, sweating and getting frustrated with Twila who was being an angel and Jada who is far too smart to care about such trivialities as getting the perfect shot of them in Christmas clothes when there is something fascinating that must be explored.

As the attempts to photograph a moving baby reached the point of absurdity, I finally let myself laugh. What am I doing? Who am I? I wondered. And as I laughed, Twila let herself laugh with me. And it was the best we’d felt all day.

Monday, December 6, 2010

The girls’ growing preference for Ryan leaves me wondering: why does any mom choose to stay home?

From the time we each wake up in the morning—making our collective way to the kitchen, slowly and haltingly, in various degrees of sleep deprivation—to the time Ryan and I divide and conquer bedtime routines, Twila and Jada make it their life’s work to be in Ryan’s arms.

When Ryan leaves for work five mornings a week, the girls cling and cry and moan and fuss as they say goodbye to their dad, stuck once again with boring, oft cranky mom.

I know that being a mom is a thankless job, it’s such a known adage that it’s practically the kind of thing people have cross-stitched onto pillows or fired on pieces of pottery and hung over their kitchen sinks. It’s not like it’s a surprise to me that my daughters prefer their fun and exciting dad (well okay I have to admit I am a little surprised that Jada at only ten months old puts up such a fuss when Ryan and Twila walk out of the room together or Ryan tries to hand her back to me after he’s come home from work in the evening. I mean, she’s still a baby. How has she already figured out that he is where the party’s at?) But it’s still somewhat disenchanting to work so hard for your kids and still be seen as such a distant second to your co-parent.

Try as I might to be optimistic about our different roles, I can’t help but analyze what makes Ryan so much more fun and interesting than me. First, there is the obvious mystique to being a father. Each day he leaves for ten hours, coming back only for a two hour play-party-dancateria before bed. The only days he is around for the entire day is everyone’s favorite two days which are filled with wrestling on the floor (pictured above), games, exciting outings, projects, lunches out, swimming, movies. How can five straight days of PBS Kids and peanut butter and jelly sandwiches hope to compete?

Then there is his demeanor. While I tend to vacillate from dull, to boring to crabby over the course of our fifty hours a week together, Ryan tends to run from exciting, to hysterically funny to almost obscenely energetic during his three hour daily cameos, leaving me by comparison in the ranks of science teachers and long-winded preachers.

While Ryan tells stories and practices practical jokes and dance moves with Twila, I lecture on the importance of washing hands after we go to the bathroom, keeping our fingers out of our noses and mouths and not leaving wet hand towels on the wood floors.

With his fresh energy, Ryan is able to talk through what he’s doing, what he is going to do, reiterate what Twila wants him to do, and then make a deal about what they’ll do together next. I am so exhausted by being asked to do, do, do all day, that I can barely muster an agitated plea to just be given a few moments of quiet.

Ryan leads excursions to Home Depot to buy lights and planks to build an ice-skating rink on our lake; I drag the girls to the grocery store twice a week and never let Twila buy the treats she wants.

Ryan and Twila go to the Vikings game and buy hot dogs and skittles; I fight the good fight against the dwindling Halloween candy supply and insist she eat some protein first.

Ryan plays; I clean.

Ryan says: yes; I say: just a minute.

It’s no wonder the girls prefer his fresh energy and smiles to my tired repetition of ‘have-to’s, and ‘not right now’s. I get it. I really, really do, but lately, I just don’t like it. I don’t like who I am. I can’t help but think that even these seemingly small disappointments and constant delays to the fun are going to add up to a less-dynamic relationship with my girls when their older. It’s not that it’s a competition with Ryan; it’s just that I don’t want him to be seen as the better parent!

Lately I can’t help but wonder: will they look back and think: how great that our mom stayed home so she could be there to take care of us day in and day out, twenty-four hours a day, or will they just think: remember what a crank and a nag mom always was?

I always thought it was such a treat to stay home with my girls, that being present for them was the best gift I could give them. But I can’t help wonder these days as I snap at Twila and scurry around in small circles, Jada fussing and clinging to my leg as I wash one last dish before nap time, am I really doing them a favor?

My mom always says: There’s something so valuable about just being there. Dad’s are fun but moms are there for stability and comfort. That’s great and all, but I want to have fun too.

If I worked out of the house, my house would stay clean all day and we could all come home at night to a clean house and then we could all have fun for a couple of hours before bed. Maybe then I would be as exciting as Ryan, a rare commodity like he is.

I decided to try injecting some of Ryan’s parenting style: his concentrated attention, his energy into my interactions with our kids today. So this morning, nice and early (Jada’s been popping awake at five am) as I started the coffee maker, I picked Jada up and perched her bottom on the counter next to the single-serve coffee dispenser and told her what I was doing.

“Do you hear it heating up?” I asked

She hooted appreciatively.

“See those flashing buttons? Now we get to push one. Do you want to push it?”

She did.

“Nice work! Now it’s making mommy’s coffee!”

Just then Ryan came out.

“Jada’s helping me make coffee!” I announced brightly.

Just then, as my head was turned, Jada screamed. I looked back at the coffee maker to see three of her pudgy little fingers under the stream of boiling hot coffee as it dispensed into my mug.

I cursed loudly and swirled Jada around to the sink where I ran copious amounts of cold water on her burn, which seemed to hurt even more than the hot coffee. Tears streamed down her face as she wailed for an hour and then another hour and then another hour. She couldn’t stop long enough to nurse. I gave her Tylenol and slathered her fingers (now swollen sausages incased in puffy blistering) with fresh aloe vera. But nothing helped. We spent the morning holding frozen vegetables and breaking our “no television before two” rule. Elmo’s World seemed to be the only thing that could thoroughly distract her from the throbbing pain of her fingers.

Curses, I thought as I sat all morning holding my baby who was in too much pain to go down for a nap, getting truly nothing done. There seems to be some sort of Karmic lesson in her pain, in my failed efforts, though I can’t quite pinpoint what it is. Am I trying too hard? Not hard enough?

As always, the unpredictability of the stay-at-home mom’s life leaves me wondering if I am simply being self-punishing to expect anything more from a day besides keeping myself and my children alive. Do I expect too much by thinking I might have wholesome fun with my daughters on top of keeping the house clean, washing everyone’s laundry, grocery shopping and planning and cooking dinners, paying bills, returning phone calls, checking emails, returning library books, taking Twila to school, watering our half-dead plants and making each of the four beds on the nightly ‘musical beds’ rotation? And if that isn’t too much to expect than why do I feel so high-strung as I frantic my way through the day, ordering my kids around and clapping my hands to emphasize the need for alacrity?

On days like this, when everything seems to crash in around me, I question my sanity when I think, maybe now’s a good time to sit down and write. It’s difficult enough keeping people from getting major injuries (sometimes even that seems too ambitious a goal) where do I get off thinking I can enjoy the luxury of sitting in front of my computer for an hour? Then again, if I’m going to be a stay-at-home mom, if I’m going to be the least-appreciated parent, then sitting down in front of my computer for an hour may be the only thing that keeps me sane.