Friday, February 27, 2015

How are things going?

“How are things going?”  It’s a standard question J asked, and I felt bad for the answer I was about to give.  J is a staff attorney at the legal aid office I interned for over the summer.  We had bonded over our frustration with the legal system – the endless problems with few solutions – and our can-do spirits and little patience for B.S.  We don’t know each other very well, but we live in the same neighborhood and care about similar things.  I was tired – it was 8 p.m. at night after a long day at school – and we had bumped into each other on the dark street. 
“Honestly, I’m exhausted.  I can’t figure out what I should do ‘when I grow up.’”  I know this isn’t the answer that folks expect.  They expect me to talk about my family life, not my stalled professional life.  My wife and I are new parents with a seven- and eight-year-old at home, who came to us via the foster care system.  While I’m first to admit that parenting is exhausting, it’s not what causes me anxiety.  What keeps me up at night is my lack of professional direction, not the awesome, rambunctious kiddos we have at home.  I find solace in their beautiful spirits, their amazing emotional and academic progress, and their resilience. 
I came to law school to become a community college professor.  I want to help students build critical thinking skills and feel empowered to create the change they want to see in the world.  Most people don’t seek out this position – community college professors often accidentally fall into the profession – and people are surprised by my dream job.
I enrolled at U.C. Hastings because of the great loan payback program it offered to students who worked in the non-profit or government position.  I didn’t think to check the red tape, assuming a government teaching position that required a J.D. would qualify for loan repayment assistance.  In my third semester at Hastings I discovered my mistake and have fretted about my career ever since.  My schedule is filled with a wide variety of classes in hopes that some area of law intrigues me.  Yet, every semester I feel the same lackluster feeling about law school and my future.   
I tell J all about these fears and frustrations that warm February evening, and eventually I admit my biggest frustration with law.  “I’m not serious enough to practice law,” I admit.  “It’s not that I can’t handle the work – you know I can – but I just don’t want to be responsible for someone’s problems like that.  I want to have fun at my job.” 
“We have fun at our job!  You can’t take it too seriously, otherwise you’d be too overwhelmed and exhausted constantly.”
“I know, but it’s different, you know?  Laughing and a good office environment isn’t the same as the heavy responsibility of having someone’s problems in your hands.  Plus, I don’t want to be a cog in an ever-failing system.  I want to help fix problems and create leaders!”   
The truth is, I don’t want to be anyone’s savior.  I don’t want that pressure on my back.  I want to be a guide, someone helping to build another person up.  I never liked doing things for other people.  I want to be a co-creator – to help people understand the world they live in, help make the world a better place to be, and help people achieve a happy and stable life. 
“There’s lots of ways to change the world,” J reminds me.  “You’re doing it right now with your foster daughters.  You’re changing their world.” 
“Yeah, I know, and that’s why I chose foster-to-adopt instead of having a bio kid or adopting a baby. Actually, that’s a lie. I don’t like dirty diapers, that’s why I didn’t adopt a baby. But one of the factors we considered in adoption was the idea of adopting kiddos we thought were awesome, and the ones who needed us the most because they weren’t “young enough” for most families. Which is awesome, and we got great kids, but I still need to get paid at some point in my life.”
“Yeah, but you have time.  You don’t need to have it all planned out.” 

It’s so hard for me to hear that message.  I have always had my life planned out.  But it’s true – right now my life is awesome.  I don’t need a plan to ensure future awesomeness.  I need to enjoy my life as it is right now.  The present is a gift that I should enjoy now.  Worrying about the future – that will come regardless of my planning – just takes away from the gifts of the present.  And yet I fret, because I am only human. But it’s something I’m working on. Our whole house is one big working-on, trying-your-best household, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Saturday, February 21, 2015

Parenting is a gamble

This morning, I am sitting in a light-filled café with Bob Marley playing in the background. My second cup of coffee is sitting empty next to my computer, and my inattentiveness and jitteriness reflects the mistake. All I want to do is play outside with this energy, rather than study the day away.

It’s an unusually beautiful day outside – a sunny day in the 70s – and sitting in this idyllic café is torture, but necessary. If I want to be prepared for class, I must study before the girls get out of their extracurricular activity.

I wonder if preparation is overrated as college students laugh with their friends outside. After two hours of preparation, I finish homework for only one of my classes. One more hour before I have to pick up the girls. There’s never enough time in the day.

I dream about the afternoon. Maybe we’ll go on an adventure, exploring Oakland’s hills and the treasures in our backyard. I dream of the girls’ laughter and curiosity.

I think about this morning, a frustrating adventure in trying to stay present. Ima Kate and I are both sick, and I have little patience for E’s whining or S’s tattletales. I just wanted a nice breakfast, specialized pancakes of happy faces, crowns, and cats. Instead, the children were whining and hungry, eager to be at my side for every single damned minute while I’m trying to coordinate designs on a hot pan. E didn’t want to get dressed or brush her teeth or get the plate of pancakes she had specifically asked for. S told E what to do, answered for Ima and myself when she didn’t know the answers, and got in my way constantly.

Maybe this afternoon will be one of those magical ones, where their smiles and curiosity melts my hearts. Or maybe this afternoon will be like yesterday’s, full of whining, crying, and deaf to directions. At the store yesterday, I constantly reminded S to “look with your eyes, not your hands.” After the fifth time of repeating myself S said, “You keep saying that!!!” Yes, my love, I do, and it’s frustrating to BOTH of us that you are a seven year old child who has almost knocked over two displays in the course of ten minutes, so keep your darn hands to yourself. Not that I said that, of course, but sometimes those girls, man…

But then there’s these moments that are just magical. Last night, after we had dinner and taken the dogs for a walk, Ima Kate and I were exhausted. One of the girls recommended we read. The four of us sat down on the couches and silently read our own books, intermittently interrupted by a child asking how to say a word or what it meant. At bedtime, the girls giggled and laughed, playful and extremely loving. Sure, E had just whined terribly a few minutes before, but her nighttime smile always makes it worth it. 

And that’s the glory of it. Parenting isn’t predictable, but the gamble sure is worth it. If, for nothing else, a beautiful smile and lots of laughter.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Serenading G-d's Ocean: 8 Year Olds & G-d

“What do you think it’ll be like when you go into the ocean?” I asked the girls, who were staring, amazed at the magic of water crashing against the land.

“Super cold,” S yells, excited and scared. The Central Coast’s water is warmer than the currents in the Bay Area, but it isn’t LA. We had warned the excited children that the Pacific Ocean would be cold. It was February, after all. They didn’t care and brought their swimsuits anyway.  

“Alright, go on in,” I said. The girls ran to the ocean, only to run back as the water lapped at their feet. They played this game of tag with the ocean for a few minutes before the ocean exercised her power and overcame the girls, soaking them with a big wave they could not outrun. Their introduction was loving and kind, and the next two hours were spent in the waves, sitting, running, and jumping as the water washed over their bodies.

The night before, I drove our family of four from Berkeley to the Central Coast. An hour into the five-hour drive, the girls started asking if we were there yet. Ima Kate and I laughed at their inexperience with the trickery that is time, a magic that moves fast only when you want it to move slowly.

By the end of the drive, their (educational) tablets had lost some of the magic, and the girls requested songs instead. First, S asked if we could sing her favorite, We Shall Overcome. Then, E, asked for her favorite, Miriam’s Song.

We were loud and punchy as we finally pulled off the freeway at our exit. It was past their bedtimes, but I wasn’t yet ready to go to Great Granny’s yet. We passed her house and I drove the extra few blocks to the beach. I parked along a dark strip of road, across the street from the water.

The ocean’s rhythmic crashes enveloped us as we got out of the car.  The power of the ocean was pounded into us by the sound of every wave. “I’m scared,” E told us, as she gripped my hand.

“It’s okay, mija. You’re safe with me.” E, tentative, slowly led me to the grassy bluff that looks over the water. Her wonder constantly conquers even her most primal fear. It’s a quality I admire in her, and something I hope will stay with her as she grows older.

The powerful waves crashed against the shore, looking fearsome in the night sky. It was the first time the girls met the ocean, and they were humble before it. Above us is G-d reflected in thousands of stars, each a pinprick that helps light our way. 

E is obsessed with G-d.  On the drive up, she found a bright star and said, “I think that’s G-d.”  I tried to explain to her some Talmudic interpretation that immediately went over her head.  “We’re all G-d,” I remind her. 

Standing before the ocean, I think to myself, “This is G-d.”  I don’t know what G-d is, but surely it must be found in the magic that makes up our lives.  In the waves that crash against rocks to create sand, in the capacity of a human to live through tragedy and love again, in the night sky that twinkles from million miles away.

How do I explain to an eight year old that I believe there’s a little bit of G-d in everything, that when I say “It’s a G-d thing,” what I mean is “Somehow the universe came together in a magical way that may or may not involve a higher being?”  All E wants is the belief that someone is watching out for her, that she has a purpose, that somehow her pre-destined life will include good.  My belief system disregards pre-destiny, and so often I feel at a loss of words for her.  I worry that our views of G-d will one day split us apart, but I try to stay optimistic that our love of magic will bring us together.

And there is so much magic.

“Can we sing the song?” E asks. 

The four of us begin to serenade the dark ocean, linked together in hand and in destiny, waiting for a future that surely will be magical. Our voices are both magnified against the bluff and drowned out by the monstrous waves. 

And the women dancing with their timbrels
Followed Miriam as she sang her song (woo woo)
Sing a song for the one whom we’ve exalted
Miriam and the women dance and dance the whole night long

After we finish the song, E urges us back to the car.  We tell her that tomorrow the ocean will seem less scary.  She doesn’t believe us as we drive to Great Granny’s house, but she trusts us, and that’s all we can ask.  It’s like magic.

Saturday, February 7, 2015

Growing Burches

“The man is taking a long time,” S says halfway out the door.  It’s 7:59 am.  We must leave our house by 8:01 am to make it to school before the bell rings (as long as the parking G-d is with us).  The morning is NOT the time for riddles, I think.  We have to go, go, go!!!

“The man?” I ask, trying to keep my voice free from the time pressure, grumpiness, and frustration that morning always brings.  E is slowly dragging her backpack across the ground and I notice fur stuck to the side.  It must be from one of our gazillion animals – the same animals that have kindly tolerated being picked up, “pet,” and called to “come” every twenty minutes by my children.  The animals are great with the kids, but they need to learn to shed OUTSIDE, I think.  I mentally reprimand myself for not sweeping last night (then remind myself that even if I had swept last night, the fur would probably still be there), and try to gently dust the backpack clean with my foot. 

“Hey!!” shouts E. “Don’t kick my backpack!”  She stomps outside.  Well, at least she’s made it out the door.  It’s 8:00 am.  We have one minute left before we’re late.

 “There was some dust there from you dragging your backpack around.  I was trying to get it off.”  Defensive, exhausted, and frustrated, I offer my excuse as if it will somehow bring her calm, when what really irks her is that it’s morning and it’s a school day.  Sadly, I can’t fix those problems.

S looks outside at her pouting sister, then continues her thought while very slowly putting one foot in front of the other.  “Yeah, the man.  The one who will change our last names.  I wish he’d hurry up.”  Her words melt my heart.  She means the adoption judge, of course.  We’re many months away from this moment, but the girls talk about it a lot. 

There’s a lot that has to happen before they share our last name.  First, there must be a Termination of Parental Rights hearing – TPR for short.  This is a big, sad moment.  This is the moment that mom and dad lose their legal rights to the kids.  California waits until the last possible second to grant TPRs because our state doesn’t want to create legal orphans that California is then legally and financially responsible for.  I worry about how we’ll explain the TPR hearing to the kids – they already know that we want to be their forever home, and they know that they won’t live with their parents again.  What will TPR change for them, really?  Other than another chance to mourn, another chance to cry and scream, another chance for me to be there with them in their grief, and say I love you. 

For many adoptive families, TPR hearings are uncertain and hard.  We’re lucky that it’s very unlikely that the court would continue parental rights, but that’s also what makes our kids’ situation so devastating.  The parents’ lawyer will oppose TPR, but all believe the rights will be terminated. 

After TPR, the next legal process is the actual adoption.  A child must be in your care for six months before you can apply for adoption, which makes June the earliest we could submit our application.  Then we must wait for the court to schedule the hearing, and then wait to get before a judge.  Because the girls have a competent social worker, we’re hopeful that they will be our children, legally, by the end of the year, much quicker than we were expecting.

Our kids are already our kids, though.  The quickness of our bonding reminds me of dating Kate.  Within a few weeks of going out, Kate and I were talking about marriage.  When you know, you know.  There’s more to learn about each other, sure, but we know we’re a family. 

Our kids are amazing and perfect for us.  They are everything we wanted.  They’re smart, silly, artistic, kind, gregarious, sweet, and have huge hearts.  They love us lots.  They try their best. 

They’re also kids.  They fight and scream.  They cry – a lot.  They’re selfish and inoculated from reason.  They can’t dress themselves on school day mornings without supervision, unless we want to be twenty minutes late.  They need our input on every single thing, and teaching them self-reliance and independence is slow-going and produces lots of screaming.  They have terrible understanding of what personal space is.

Letting the good overcome the bad makes parenting fun.  My kids want me to be their mother, want to be part of my family.  What difference does it make that she refused to get dressed this morning?  She’s now dressed, out the door, and ready to be part of our family – forever.

“The judge won’t give us an answer for many more months,” I remind S.  “But in my head, you have the same last name as us because you’re our kids.  We don’t need a judge to tell us that.”  S nods, skips down the steps, and starts drawing hearts out of the condensation on the car windows.  E draws a heart monster. 

We arrive to school with one minute to spare.  E, still grumpy, runs ahead.  My legs are longer than hers, and I catch up easily.  She lines up with her class – looking away from me – and I become the beloved character "unresponsive frog," hopping from kid to kid with a frown on my face.  E’s face lights up with giggles as we play.  The bell rings and E gives me a hug and kiss goodbye.  “I love you,” I whisper, afraid she’d be embarrassed if her classmates hear.  “I love you too,” she says proudly, as I hop away.