Thursday, December 31, 2015

A year later

It’s the last day of 2015, and I’m reflecting on the impossible number of major events that have happened. The events are spilling from the edges of my memory, which is too full to keep everything in its place.

A year ago, I parked in front of a suburban home in Sacramento for the last time. We were there to pick up E and S, take them from foster care and into our permanent home. Everything the girls owned fit into our Civic, and we drove away with the four of us and all their things. I expected the girls’ sadness, anger, or fear, but the transition was easy. They were excited, and we were too. I remember willing myself not to cry, as we drove the 90 minute drive home. I couldn’t believe the moment was finally here – we were taking E and S home.

The sadness, anger, and fear I expected that day came later. The first few days we became accustomed to each other, and throughout the year we eventually learned how to be vulnerable and honest too. Kate and I learned how to be parents and accept our authority and decision-making roles. We learned what to expect and the type of parents we want to be (right now, at least).

During those moments I stopped posting to the blog because the story changed. It was now the girls’ story, not ours, and I do not want to tell their story without permission. There were fewer and fewer things I could share that felt like my story, not our story.

Kate took maternity leave. I went back to school when the semester started. We enrolled the girls in school, met their teachers, and began a routine. The newness wore off, and we were still left with amazing kiddos. Kate went back to work. We counted our blessings daily. We still do.

I trudged through law school, but was constantly worried about my job prospects. I knew I didn’t want to become a lawyer, but what? I volunteered in a middle school once a week, teaching.

At the end of the semester, we had a friend, M, over. I invited her because she wanted to become a science middle or high school teacher, and I though Kate’s experience as a middle school science teacher might help M. I was surprised at my own voice at the dinner table. As I was talking about my volunteer position, I suddenly realized how much I loved teaching adolescents. Two days later I decided to look into teaching.

So many people thought my descent from law school to middle school history teacher was a terrible idea. Salary, prestige, loan debt, and ability to get a job were some of the many reasons people attempted to dissuade me from the profession. I am a stubborn person, and continued despite their doubts. Now I’m in a teacher education program and it feels perfect. It feels like I found my calling.

Birthdays happened. We cycled through the Jewish holidays. We set our Shabbat table every week. We prayed over our food every meal. We blessed our children – our children! – we sang to them, read to them, and watched them develop.

We expected it would take over a year until we got the call for the girls’ adoption, but just eight months after they came to live in our home, we were in a room with a judge. She proclaimed our new family, and it took less than fifteen minutes to make it official. Kate and I signed papers, we took pictures, and then we left the room. One of the girls cried. Her heart both broken and full that day. She lost so much when we signed those papers – her relationship with her biological parents severed by my signature – and her heart hurt so much. She gained so much too. Such a big moment for the girls.

Our other girl is defiant in her happiness; we are her family she says sternly. She refuses her biological family’s company or existence, until she’s in the middle of their bear hugs and love. Then she consents – for just a moment – to their love and care.

We celebrated their legal adoption and Jewish conversion with a party. Each girl accepted her place in our big extended family. I held my family under my tallit. They are my sukkah of peace, my unstable shelter of love and kindness, joy and wonder. The four of us stood in front of everyone and declared ourselves a family – now and forever.

But not everyone was there to celebrate. Important people in Kate’s family didn’t join us – some because they were too sick, some because they were too old, and some because it was impractical to fly or drive to the Bay Area for a ceremony.

Cancer has struck Kate’s family twice and the anxiety of illness has weighed down our family. One person is recovering; the other person is terminally ill. There have been many tears. Our hearts are heavy and divided. What amazing joys came this year! And what incredible sadness came this year!

We look to the future. We talk about buying a bigger home so we can have more children and so I can work and live in the same school district. We visit our huge family, incorporating E and S’s family into the mix. We try to plan for a future, even as family members’ illnesses drop hints at an uncertain future.

In a week I’ll be 28. My mom was this age when I came into this world. I look forward to the wonder and beauty that will confront me in our next year together. I pray that there will be more good than bad. I pray that next year, I’ll have just as much joy in my life, and that we’ll have all our family members here to celebrate. But I also pray that if death is to come, it will be a good death – filled with those who love him because he’s brought so much love into this world. There cannot be joy without sadness, and I am grateful that this year has brought so much with it.

I pray for another year that is full. Though maybe a little less full. So much has happened, and while I wouldn’t miss a moment of it, it would be nice to cram a little less into our lives.

I can’t believe it’s only been a year since we drove E and S home from their foster mom’s home. I remember my hands tight on the steering wheel, afraid to ruin this incredibly precious cargo we were carrying in our backseats. Despite the hardship and exhaustion of this year, it’s been my best and most rewarding year yet. The children are incredible and both Kate and I are working toward a better future for ourselves, our family, and our communities.

Monday, June 1, 2015

It's hard to say yes

Little Princess sinks deeper into her chair. Her face distorts in frustration, her legs kicking angrily beneath her. Her mouth is still silent, but I know soon the diner will reverberate with her screams.

The seven-year-old is overwhelmed by hunger and people. We spent the last day with Kate’s huge family, and she was inundated with thirty of some of her closest relatives. The wedding was loud and filled with people eager to meet their newest family member. By the end, she whispered to me, “I’m scared because there’s so many people.” I told her, “Well, that’s something mommies can fix. Let’s go!” We flew out of the party, running down the stairs and away from the noise, laughing all the while.

The brunch gathering is “small” by the family’s standards. There are only eleven people there – more people than in my entire, small family. After five years with my in-laws, I still feel like an outsider looking in. The family is grand, loving, and beautiful - filled with commanding, opinionated women - and while I easily fit among them, they have known each other for most of their lives. I am still new. It wasn’t until this recent visit that I felt like I final belonged. Children do that for family dynamics, I guess.

As the family chatted animatedly with each other, Little Princess sank lower in her seat. I have been working on building up compassion and love, and so I got up from my seat and went to her. I picked up her angry body and put it against mine. “Do you want to come outside with us?” I asked the Dreamer, who enthusiastically accepted.

Outside, Little Princess clung to my body as we walked among the California wildflowers growing in an empty lot nearby. As we slowly strolled, Little Princess’ body began to relax into mine, and soon she was smiling as the Dreamer pointed out the flowers that decorate the castle in her imagination.

Taking my child from a crowded restaurant, where I want to have conversations with family, is not in my nature. Compassion is hard for me. I was raised to value self-sufficiency and intended to teach this skill to my children, just as I had been taught. My childhood had stiff words and blunt reminders. As a parent, I found myself talking very sternly to my children when a gentle reminder was sufficient, or threatening a consequence when laughter could have broken the tension.

Not only was my parenting not working, I found myself angry at their ineptitude, yelling, and freak outs whenever they failed to do what they should do. Finally – after hours of screaming, crying, and hiding under beds – I realized that my children couldn’t learn to depend on themselves until they got the love they needed. After four months, I finally learned an essential concept: every time they asked for help, they were asking for love. Every time I said no, I told them I didn’t love them in that way. Once I understood that Maslovian need, I had to figure out how to say “Yes!” when all I wanted to do was to say “You can do this!!! Why are you asking me?!”

First, I needed to tell myself that it wasn’t forever. Their need for this type of parental intervention would end once their need was filled, likely in a year … or three. Their need for love would be eternal, of course, but soon they could learn to intersperse that need with confidence in their own abilities.

Second, I had to learn to say yes.

I started small. Every time either of the girls asked for pick up hugs, I would say yes. I would not necessarily say yes immediately – sometimes I say yes, but I am in the middle of this right now, I’ll come to find you when I’m done – but they would get their hug. I was going to be good on my word, and if they asked, they would get what they asked for. After a few weeks of saying yes to pick up hugs, I started to cherish their bodies against mine. I inhaled the scent of their hair, I felt the softness of their skin, and treasured their desire for love. Suddenly, I found myself thinking of a future without pick up hugs, and I became sad. The hugs were healing for all of us, it seemed.

I have started expanding the “Yes!” This is helped by the fact that I am a big kid at heart, and just want to play. The girls and I explore as Kate shops. We go bike riding, for walks, on hikes, and on adventures whenever possible – even if it’s just for ten minutes at a time.

And it’s working! A month ago, Little Princess would have slid under the table, screaming and crying as she protected herself from the overwhelming stimuli. By the time I picked her up, she would have been inconsolable, and I would have become frustrated that the family conversation was stalled. But this weekend, while there were tears, there were no meltdowns. She cried into our shoulders, snuggled against our bodies, and told us how her heart is hurting because there are so many people. There was no screaming, just love. 

It’s not foolproof. The car ride back home was hard and there was a straight 25 minutes of crying, but after the tears were gone, Little Princess regained her joy. By the end of the ride, we again were enjoying each other’s company as the girls colored beautiful things in the back seat.

When we got home, I gave each girl a pick up hug before bed. After the children were tucked in, and they grabbed my hands as I left the room to leave. “Don’t go, Mommy,” Little Princess said. “I love you.”

Parenting is an exhausting journey, but I am so grateful for all of it. “Don’t worry, honey, I’m just outside your door. I’m here if you need me. I love you.” Little Princess let go of my hand. “I love you too,” she said, as I closed their bedroom door.

“Those kids, man,” I told Kate.

Kate gave me a look and smiled. “I know. They’re amazing.”

Thursday, May 28, 2015

Wedding Anniversary

“You’re my favorite wife, and I’ve been married four times.” It’s our favorite joke. It took four attempts to legalized our same-sex marriage, and two domestic partnerships, a Jewish wedding, and a legal marriage later, we finally get to receive the benefits of marriage, such as filing our taxes jointly.

It’s been four years since our real wedding, the one under the chuppah with our family and friends present. It had rained the night before, and I worried our outdoor wedding would miss out on the beauty of the Oakland hills. The morning brought sunshine, and it was a beautiful day, complete with goats munching on grass in the next park over.  That day, so excited about marrying the most fantastic person in my life, I nuzzled her nose with mine under the chuppah, before it was time for our faces to touch. It was a beautiful celebration of amazing people, and I was so grateful to have accepting family who loved us for who we are.

Last week, for Shavuot, we returned to where we got married and ran the steps with the girls. They were fascinated with the reflecting pool at Joaquin Miller Park, playing at the water’s edge until we called them back. They listened to the nighttime crickets as we sang zemirot (Jewish songs), watching the Bay skyline twinkle with lights. It had been a tough day for us – there was lots of crying and general annoyances – but it was so beautiful in the evening. Sitting on the giant stone steps – the same steps where our guests sat four years before – I marveled at our children’s newness. They have been part of our family for almost five months, but I marveled that they weren’t around for our wedding. Our family now feels incomplete without them.

I am grateful for Kate for so many reasons, including that she is a great co-parent. As the day wears on, my patience lessens, and I rely on my instincts – assert my dominance. You may not treat me like that! That hurts my feelings! I scream in my brain. Such thoughts are useless for parenting a traumatized seven year old, though, and I am so grateful for Kate’s patience, compassion, and ability to love no matter what.

I am also grateful that Kate likes to drink alcohol. For a year I pined for the redheaded beauty, a woman who I wanted to date since the moment I met her. At the time, I had a boyfriend of three years. Every time Kate and I hung out, he affably joked about my crush. By the time of the Nehirim retreat for LGBT Jews and allies, the boyfriend was gone and I was old enough to bring tequila to camp. As the bonfire glowed in the background, Kate’s hand found mine, and my heart was elated. For the two weeks before she was officially my girlfriend, she repeated the mantra that I was too young for her. By month three, we were engaged.

Our relationship has never been by the books. We are extremely silly, but always practical. We lead with our hearts, which is why we decided to adopt children while I was in law school. Kate quit her science job so she could organize religious communities. I quiet my job organizing religious communities so I could go to law school and teach community college. I fell in love with her heart before I fully knew it, and I have never looked back.

Happy anniversary, Kate, the love of my life, my beshert, my better half. I do not know how I was lucky enough to find you, but I am so lucky that we get to be on this ride together. You are my everything.

Thursday, May 21, 2015

Bamidbar: Exile and home

As the Israelites wandered the desert, my children too lived in exile.  Before they came to live in our Jewish home, they went from place to place, from person to person.  They tried to create a home with substitutes.  A foster mom and dad.  A bedroom that used to a house a different foster child and after they leave will house another foster child, and one then another.  An address they don’t memorize, a new school where they don’t know the children.  Their home was in their hearts as they cried for a Mommy and Daddy that couldn’t hear voices of children living in a substitute family miles away. 

The Dreamer tells me she doesn’t like foster care.  She tells me that she doesn’t want to move again, she wants to stay here forever.  Adoption means many things, but most of all it means permanence. 

In A Home Called Exile Diana Anhalt writes, “Well, finally.  I belong to this place.  I no longer live in exile.”  Her new apartment and family make her feel at home after a lifetime of wandering.  And yet, she continues to be unsettled.  “Because in the end, exile – and I use that world loosely – is simply one more characteristic of the human condition.  I realized that all of us, starting with Adam and Eve, are, to one degree or another, outcasts in search of home.”

Even as my children settle in their new Berkeley life – filled with Jewish customs, bay area irreverence, and an abundance of animal, people, and love – my children will always struggle with family and home.  They miss their biological family dearly, their hearts crying out for the loss they have endured so they can gain our family.  “It’s hard for me to trust you,” the Dreamer will say, when I tell her she’s my family forever. 

Manna fell from heaven for the wandering Israelites, and still they missed the intimacies of Egypt.  We disparage the Israelites, yet I find their yearning for home the essence of humanity.  My children yearn for parents unable to fulfill their childhood needs.  The joy and love of our family cannot eclipse the deep sorrow of loss.  We may provide them safety, love, and silliness, but we can never override their childhood trauma.  We can only help build a loving, safe space, and hope their hearts will one day call it home.

Monday, May 11, 2015

Happy Mother's Day

There are six text messages waiting on my phone.  I clear them without reading the congratulatory messages.  I don’t feel capable yet of celebrating my newfound motherhood, and we ran away to the woods to avoid all the merriness.  Unfortunately, my phone still works in the mountains. 

I have always been conflicted about Hallmark Holidays – I don’t like Valentine’s Day either – and the idea of celebrating Mother’s Day fills me with dread.  As a mother, I feel like my joy stems from the every day adventures and exploration inherent in child-ness.  Sometimes, after an especially captivating adventure out to eat or exploring a bookstore together, I think to myself, This is what heaven would be like.   Giggling together, the four of us are captivated by everything life has to offer.  I don’t need a day to celebrate this wonder of motherhood – I celebrate it every day.  The richness of motherhood is inherent in the (grueling, hard) tasks of daily life.  I know a seven- and eight-year-old are unable to truly appreciate the daily tasks, and it feels like Mother’s Day is an exercise in self-promotion.

Wikipedia says, “Mother's Day is a modern celebration honoring one's own mother, as well as motherhood, maternal bonds, and the influence of mothers in society.”  I fear that pointing to myself as their mother will remind them to mourn their biological mother.

This week in school, Little Princess was prompted to make a card for someone who takes care of her.  LP made a card for her birth mother, listing the many ways Mommy R takes care of her.  In this card, LP reiterated the many things that we do to keep her safe and healthy.  It was a wish list of all the things that she wishes her Mommy could do.

This week in school, Little Princess was also prompted to make a card for Mother’s Day.  LP made a card for us, her moms.  She told us everything she loves about us, including our silliness and kindness.  She’s so glad she gets to live with us, she wrote. 

Translation: She’s so glad she gets to have us as her moms.  She also wishes she could have her biological mom take care of her.

Sometimes the girls dream about everyone living in one home.  Crammed in this imaginary house lives their biological family and adopted family, uncles rooming with grandmothers, moms living with Mommy.  But, most importantly, everyone is there to take care of them.  They are filled with love in this imaginary place.

It’s our job as foster/adoptive parents to fill their lives with the love, stability, and kindness they crave.  They need to know that I won’t yell back, I’ll always be on their side, and I work to keep them safe.  That is the only way we can answer the questions they cannot ask. 

There are so many questions.  Some of the questions are spoken aloud and followed with amazing emotional honesty. (Dreamer will say: It’s really hard for me to trust you.  But I love you.)  Even more questions are never spoken, and we must answer them anyway, with our loving words and actions.

No, there is nothing you can do to make us love you less.  (No, not even that.)  Yes, when we say forever, we mean forever.  Yes, your Mommy and Daddy love you.  Yes, you can do that and I will still love you and be here tomorrow.  Okay, now I’m disappointed, but I’m not angry, and I love you so much.  I’m so sorry your Mommy and Daddy aren’t here, love bug, but I’m here.  I’m here.  I’m here and I love you.  You’re my baby and I love you. 

It’s weird to tell a seven-year-old that she’s your baby.  As I cradle her in my arms, I sing a calming lullaby.  Her screaming has reduced to annoyed shrieks as she examines her chipping manicure.  I just spent thirty minutes being kicked, hit, and yelled at by a child who is about to blame me for all her problems.  (Leave me alone, forever! she yelled before she slammed the door in my face.)  She doesn’t know better, and – of course – it’s the role of a parent to do all these things gracefully and not ask for acknowledgement by the emotionally traumatized child. 

I am afraid that Mother’s Day is asking for that acknowledgement.  I am afraid that Mother’s Day is asking my kids to ignore Mommy R or focus on the loss of Mommy R.  I know she loved the Dreamer and Little Princess because they radiate love.  They are obviously the byproduct of love and nurturing.  I haven’t figured out how to balance that gratefulness and profound sadness at her lost motherhood (and my children’s loss) with the extreme happiness of motherhood and cherished memories.

I honor you, Mommy R.  Mommy To My Children, you were our children’s first mother.  You have given me such a gift of these two loving, curious, and amazing children.  As our children celebrate gaining us, they mourn losing you.  Even if you come back into our lives, they will always mourn the biological family they had to surrender.  Our lives are forever intertwined with you, and I hope one day we can celebrate Mother’s Day together and honor all of our mother-ness. 

I am not yet capable of celebrating Mother’s Day.  Monday, the day after the holiday, I answer my texts.  Thank you. How are you? I write, hoping that they won’t ask about my Mother’s Day.  And, they don’t.  I am loved and listened to, and one day I hope my children can feel this way too.