Sunday, July 3, 2011

Ethiopia Revisited--It is not flesh and blood but the heart which makes us fathers and sons. ~Johann Schiller

It's been two years since our trip to Ethiopia to adopt Helen. Wow! Two years already.
I was eating lunch with the children a couple days ago and saw what was obviously an American adoption group at another table. Everyone knows my penchant for striking up conversations with random strangers, so I had to go over. Looking at the new families, I was struck at how I must have looked two years ago. Exhausted, wide-eyed, a little nervous of this little person with whom I was now in charge. . .families that were adding siblings (as ours was) or brand-new parents with infants who were just trying to figure out what in the heck was going on with this tiny person. It was a strange moment, remembering the past, yet living very much in the moment with my Ethiopian daughter.
Then, I realized I was a bit selfish. Thinking only of my experience, I wondered what Helen must have thought when she met us. "Two big Farenjis bringing me shoes, candy, and books" must have been at the forefront. I also thought back on the horrific afternoon when she cried for two hours straight and I could do nothing to soothe her. I have never had a more frustrating parenting experience in my life. It must have been equally horrifying for her. Strange smells, new language, strange looking people, weird food--no wonder the child was scared out of her mind. After two hours of holding and trying to soothe my child, I'm not ashamed to say I just gave up and put her down in bed. A few minutes later, she had fallen asleep, and I looked at this sweet, little pudgy cheeked face, and wondered what in the hell had I gotten myself into?! Why did I think I could do this? I began doubting myself. As a woman, as a parent, especially as a person--who could turn their back on a child, who by what little information we had, had been abandoned?
Then, I understood I needed to give myself a break. We were both way out of our comfort zones. I was reminded of Lucas and what a difficult baby he was. And how, I still didn't feel connected to him after more than six weeks. And he was my biological child. How could I expect an instantaneous bond with a child who was 2 1/2? And I realized how much unrealistic pressure I'd put on Helen and myself. Did I expect gratitude? Or love? Or all of the above? Anyone with children has experienced the egocentrism that only children have.
I saw I was selfish. I expected Helen to automatically love me. And when she favored Sam over me, I took it personally. I left it to him to provide a majority of the affection to her, while simultaneously convinced I could do it myself. Talk about shooting myself in the proverbial foot.
At some point, I realized I was losing myself with my daughter. After experiencing some anxiety issues, I asked for help. Luckily, I found a therapist who had experience with adoption.
At the session, I was surprised. I was reassured I was normal. Bonding takes time, give yourself a break. Stop trying to force a relationship and relax. It will happen.
Two years later, I'm happy to report this is true. Looking at the new families, remembering my own hesitation, looking at Helen now and seeing my amazing, bright, silly, loving daughter, I was able to assure the new families that, "Look, see, this is what happens when you open your heart."
I'm not saying everything is beautiful and wonderful, we still have our moments when Mom and Daughter are not exactly getting along and I imagine this will repeat itself over the years. But now, when we have these moments of frustration and even anger, I look at the core of myself and realize that what I feel for her is love. With that, and maybe a pedicure, we can get through anything.

"The family. We were a strange little band of characters trudging through life sharing diseases and toothpaste, coveting one another's desserts, hiding shampoo, borrowing money, locking each other out of our rooms, inflicting pain and kissing to heal it in the same instant, loving, laughing, defending, and trying to figure out the common thread that bound us all together." ~Erma Bombeck