Wednesday, July 30, 2008

One Year

First plane experience in Aug. 2007 (below) and second in July 2008 (top). Helpful hint for fellow travelers with wee ones ... the Baby Bjorn works wonders for in-lap babies and toddlers during long (or short) flights. Mihret can still fit in hers!
Back in the 70s, when international adoption was a little different, it was easy to figure out what your Gotcha Day was.

After all, back then, you'd get a call, and go to an airport, and someone there would hand you your child and that would be it. Gotcha Day!

But I remember, very vividly, one of the other parents in Ethiopia turning to everyone at the breakfast table, and remarking, "So... what are YOU guys using as your gotcha day?"

None of us knew.

Our timeline was like this:

On the 26th of July, Kara and I got on a plane.

On the 28th of July, Kara and I landed in Ethiopia and met our daughter.

On the 1st of August, there was a little ceremony and our children were handed over to us permanently. Rather than going back to the guest house childless, we all returned with a small person who was ours forever.

On the 4th of August, we all landed back home in the States.

I suppose, technically, that the 1st of August is the "right" day, but you could make a case for any day in that long wonderful week.

Much like this time last year, we spent a lot of time in airports just recently. Kara's side of the family has an annual reunion, and while we opt to drive there (there being Pennsylvania) most years, this time around we decided to take some of our hard-earned money and scarce vacation time and combine them in some way.

And so it was that while last year found us on plane on July 26th, this year that same day found us at the family reunion we missed last year.

It was an amazing day, and an amazing chance to show off our child, who will have been in our care a year on Friday, August 1st. She was shy, yes, but smart and smiling and wonderful, too.

She played catch with Papa.

She went for a walk with Nona.

And in general she was just her wonderful self.

The next day, we were all on a plane home again.

In a lot of ways, the flight home on the 27th of July didn't mirror our trip home last year. The trip back from Ethiopia was long and exhausting, with many hours in the air and a small child who barely knew us. This time we had two short flights, each about an hour, and we've been her parents for months.

And she was, of course, so different then. She had a lot of hair for her age at the time, but a year later her curls stretch out to nearly six inches worth of hair. She walks and talks and in general is just more like a real live adult person every day now.

Whereas then she was just a tiny thing that couldn't take care of herself at all.

It was our Lifebook DVD, and the second flight that did me in on Sunday. Just a day shy of a year, we watched ourselves meet our little girl for the very first time, and there, on the screen, I was crying. I was so happy.

And I still am. So I cried again.

As our second plane headed for the sky on Sunday, Mihret and I looked down over the city below us. Kara sat quietly on my right.

In the moment, I realized that in one important way, our trip home from vacation and our trip home from Ethiopia were exactly the same.

We were going home.

It's been a long year - with new jobs, family leave, medical problems, and friends and family all getting older - and some of them who aren't with us any more.

As I sat in my seat I felt my eyes well up - and then spill over.

The flight wore on, and Mihret played peek with us, and played with her Lion King doll, and read a book, and told us that bunnies go "Hop, hop!" And I eventually got myself under control.

We've been a family a whole year. What could be more wonderful.


Wednesday, July 23, 2008


After making jokes about looking at the What to Expect: The Toddler Years book in order to feel superior to other parents, I realized last week that it probably wouldn't hurt to take a peek at our copy and see if there was anything we should talk to the doctor about when we visit her in a couple weeks.

So I turned to the 18 month chapter, which I was a little early for, but, you know, close enough. Mihret will be 18 months old on the 28th, after all.

Mihret could do everything on the list, from the "Your child MUST be able to do this, or you should call the doctor," to the "Your child MAY EVEN be able to do..." listing the things that only the most precocious child manages by 18 months.

So I checked month 19. She could do all that as well.

And then I checked month 20, 21, 22, 23, and 24.

She can do all of it. And more.

The big one is words and pictures. Apparently, being able to look at a picture and tell you what it is? Is a very big deal. A huge one.

One so "hard" to do that your kid should be able to look at two pictures, by the age of two, and be able to tell you what they are.

Things Mihret can see in pictures and tell us what they are right now: Doggy, Kitty, Elephant (Ellie!), Nona, Papa, Monkey, Elmo. That's stuff I can just name off the top of my head.

Oh - and all her classmates at school, and her teachers.

She's supposed to be able to use, say, 75 words by age two. She knows more than 100.

She's supposed to be able to use two-word phrases by the time she's two. In fact, that isn't even on the list for a couple more months.

Phrases she can already use: Help please, Down please, More milk, (Foodstuff) please. Also, Thank you, and Bless you, which she says when we sneeze.

Physically, she can run, throw a ball, and KICK a ball. And she's got amazing fine motor control.

I asked my mom, who specializes in development about this - did she know that my 18-month-old is basically two?

Yeah, she knew.

There's an old adage about your parents wishing that you had a kid "just like you" when you grow up, and it looks like it's actually happened.

And what's kind of scary about it is, I didn't realize it was a big deal. Which is exactly what happened to both my parents and Kara's parents.

In my case, it happened like this:

My mom wanted to get me into preschool, but I'm a June baby, which always throws that kind of thing off. Plus, boys are, I guess, dumber than girls, so they usually try to hold us June kids back for an extra year.

This was, more or less, what the teacher at the preschool was trying to explain to my mother, when I turned to my mom and said, "Look mom, there are two o's in the word school."

So the preschool took me.

I have no idea if Mihret is going to be an early reader, or some kind of sports star, or if she's even going to keep ahead of the curve. At some point, she might just become a child completely average and normal for her age.

We're okay with that.

But if she does end up as a famous dancer, a respected engineer, or a brilliant athlete, I guess I won't be able to say I never saw it coming.


Wednesday, July 16, 2008

I'll Teach My Kid 100 Words

There's something about milestones that parents love. I think the folks that write the "What to Expect" books are stone-cold geniuses, because it gives us all a chance to feel superior.

Really, I think that's what the books are for, because as far as health stuff goes, if you're taking your kid to the doctor at the correct intervals, they'll cover all the "well, if he/she/it's not standing by this date, then we'll worry..." stuff.

Meanwhile, we're poring over these books, checking the months against our little ones, and crowing, "It says here that by 18 months she should be able to use 15 words. Our kid is sixteen months and uses over 60! In your face, other parents!"

Mihret has proved to be an anomoly on every possible front. From the day we started the adoption process, we spent month after month after month being told that our child would probably be delayed, would probably need some special help, would probably... you know... be a little behind everyone else.

But with hard work, etc., everything would probably be okay.

This was hard to hear, but not always for the reason you'd think. Both Kara and myself accepted pretty quickly that those little markers in the Expecting books might be missed, or that our daughter might hit some, but not others.

We felt bad for her, really. Not for ourselves, which is what we were being trained against.

I can sort of understand why people might feel bad about their child not being up to whatever level these books have decided is correct. In a lot of ways, parents feel like their kids are an extension of themselves, and to have a child who is "not as good" as other children feels like a failure on their part - like if they'd fed them differently, played with them more, or just bought the correct educational toy, their kid would hit, and exceed, all the benchmarks.

But Kara and I just wanted our daughter to be happy and healthy. If she was a super-genius, then okay. If she was more "normal," then okay.

We felt bad not because of failure or shame on our part, but because it's hard to realize that while here in the USA there are myriads of ways for birth mothers to get what they need to make sure their child is getting the necessary nutrition, that simply isn't the case in Ethiopia. We felt bad that our child couldn't have what she needed from the moment she was born.

So we were as prepared as we thought we could be. We alerted our parents that there might be some delays, but that everything should be fine. And we got ready to enlist the help of my mother, who worked for a few years in birth to three, helping those kids who need help catching up to do so.

Kara even asked her to do an assessment once Mihret had been home for a few weeks, just to figure out what kinds of things she might need to work on. (Our daughter, that is. Not my mom.)

Then we got her home - and pretty much from the moment my mom saw her, she knew our kid was going to be okay.

From we first held her, Mihret was bright and alert. She watched people intently, fascinated by the big people who could make different kinds of sounds, who could move around, sometimes on two legs, sometimes crawling or stooping or doing all manner of motion.

She wanted to see everything.

My mom, watching her lying on the floor of our church, looking up at everyone, moving around, and smiling, sat next to her friend, who works the mentally challenged, and they both said the exact same thing: "She will never be in our class."

They're right.

Mihret started on the Smart Train early, and she's just kept on choo-choo-ing along. She sat up before I did at her age. She was pulling herself up to stand, and letting herself down slowly and carefully months before I was able to.

She walked two months before me as well.

And then came the words. At first it was some of the usual stuff - Ducky, Mama, Daddy, and so on.

Somewhere along the line, though, her collection of words exploded.

By the age of 18 months, kids should know, and know how to use, about 15 words.

At sixteen months, Kara sat down and tallied up the list of words Mihret uses consistently. She came up with 62 of them.

My mom came up with 63. And when they started comparing their lists, they both realized that had missed some.

Somewhere around 17 months, we just started saying that Mihret can use 70 words, but that comes with two caveats.

The first is that we don't include names of people. Mihret knows the name of her day care teachers, and all of the kids in her class, which is probably something like eight names.

The second is that Mihret is constantly busting out words that we didn't know she knew.

Case in point, I picked her up from day care one day. As we stepped out into the sun, Mihret turned towards one of the vehicles on the parking lot and said, quite clearly, "Car!"

A few days later, I was getting her ready to go home, and said, "Do you want to have some pasta?"

"Pasta!" she cried, like it was the greatest idea ever. (Which I suppose it is, since our household has something of an Italian bent to it.)

I figured she had just mimicked the word, until she got home and I put the noodles on her tray. "Pasta!" she reminded me, as she grabbed and chomped.

She also has a book called "Good Night, Gorilla," which I figured would probably just become "monkey," when she looked at it.
Until about a week ago, when she picked up the book, pointed to the gorilla on the cover, and yelled out, "Gorilla!"

She's done it a few times since then.

And there have been other things that just blew my mind. One afternoon, my mother-in-law asked if Mihret knew how to count.

I looked down at Mihret and said, "Mihret? Ooone..."

And she looked up at me and said, "Two!"

That was it for that, as we couldn't get her to repeat it. Until one afternoon, when Kara was reading a book to Miret, and she pointed at the various kitties on the page.

"Mihret. Ooone?" said Kara.

And Mihret kept pointing at the page, "Two, three, four..." and then she stopped and got off Kara's lap.

Kara said she heard five and six, but I didn't.

Even more interesting to me has been Mihret's physical development. The kid does not walk. She runs, and she climbs, and she knows that if she sticks her shoes out "just so," on a slide, she can stop herself from moving.

As a baby, she was like most kids, who look like tiny dolls with realistic movement.

Now, she looks like a little person.

When we got her, she was so small, and had so little of the baby fat that kids her age get.
She had a problem processing fats, one that soy formula seemed to fix, and the little rolls returned.

And now she's so active we can't keep them on her. She runs everywhere. She wants to push toy cars and shopping carts around, and when we're opening a door with her in our arms, she wants to help.

Kara and I have wondered, openly, if ours was a case of results not typical - of getting a little girl who would have been amazing in the hands of anyone, and if the other kids from Ethiopia are much the same.

I can't say.

As for myself, I've credited playing with my kid, letting her run around instead of trying to keep her still, and lucking into a good day care with a lot of areas where our kid can race around and have fun and interact with kids her own age.

Other people, kind people, have said that Kara and I are great parents, and how well Mihret is doing is because of how good we are with her.

Kara and I have kept in touch with the other families we met in Ethiopia, though, and all the kids are doing well. Some have fewer words, some don't run, but all are growing and thriving and getting more amazing every day.

And I suppose maybe I do have an answer to why that is.

Back many years ago, when Kara and I were first looking into the adoption process, we attended a fairly large gathering where a bunch of people looking into adoption got to watch a bunch of people who had adopted talk about their process, and their kids.

An older lady, a social worker, was there. And she said this: "The thing is, you see these videos, and the kids look sort of nonchallant, sort of not-all-there. But I promise you, once you've had them home for a month, they blossom like little flowers."

That's the secret - it's the love these kids get. With CHSFS, it starts all the way back at the Care Center, where the nannies love up on every one of them. I've seen it.

And it's even more powerful when the children get home. Because these kids aren't surprises, or interuptions, or anything other than the thing these parents wanted most in the whole wide world.

The kids might have their problems, but just as much as other kids, and maybe even a little bit more, every mom and dad wants to help their kid to succeed. Whether it's walking, or running, or building with blocks, or learning to speak 100 words, all of us, moms and dads, are ready to walk a little farther, stay up a little later, and babble a little longer.

Maybe all the warnings get are designed to remind us that sometimes working a little longer makes for a child who's a little more amazing.

Or maybe it's the fact that unlike most birth parents, who assume that nothing can be done, we've been told that something CAN be done.

Ultimately, it doesn't matter. Birth children, adopted children, the thing about all children is, they need our love and hugs and support. And we'd all do well to remember that.


Monday, July 14, 2008

The List of Love

Most of the posts I've put up here lately have been a little too poignant - and I've been thinking about another one along the same lines.

So here's a cute list of the ways that Mihret shows her love, both to Kara and myself and to other people.

1. The "It's Daddy/Mama!" Giggle.

Mihret does this whenever we haven't seen her for, say, ten minutes. I didn't realize it was unusual until someone at church pointed it out to me.

At church, both the kids and adults have class. So afterwards, we haven't seen each other for, oh, maybe thirty minutes.

But the minute she sees one of us, she starts laughing and laughing and laughing. It's awesome.

2. Blowing Kisses

This is also cute as all get-out. We have her do this with people when she's saying bye-bye.

The best part is that she not only blows kisses to loved ones, but she has also learned to make the *mwah!* noise when she does it.

3. The Full-On Hug

Usually we get these when we ask for them. "Mihret, can I have hugs?"

She comes up and clings to us like she's never going to let go. If we're extra-lucky, she'll also says "Huuugs!" when she does it.

4. The Stealth Hug

Mihret is finally learning to show affection of her own free will. Instead of us asking for hugs or kisses, she will sometimes race up to us and give the only part of us that's nearby (which is to say, our legs, usually) a big hug.

Sometimes times, when Kara is sitting on the floor, Mihret will sneak up behind her and give her a big ol' hug that way.

5. Get the Mama!/Daddy!

This one is just fun for everybody. Either Kara or I pick up Mihret, and then yell "Get the mama/daddy!" and hand Mihret off to the opposite person.

Mihret thinks this is hilarious and hugs and wiggles and laughs.

It's the best stuff in life.

6. Give kisses!

I saved this one for last because it's got a certain magic for me.

There was a short period where Mihret got really good at giving kisses. You'd ask, and get a big sloppy wad of drool on the cheek.

She doesn't do it a lot now, except for when we're visiting my Grandpa and Grandma. For whatever reason, Mihret has never turned us down when we say, "Give great-Grandpa kisses!"

I don't know why this is. Maybe great-grandpa has extra soft cheeks or something, but she has never pulled away or said no. She just gives him the world's sweetest kiss on the cheek, and then she gives one to everyone else as well.

It's hard to think of a time in recent memory that I've seen my Grandpa and Grandma look happier.

Oh look, I've gone and got poignant again. Such is life with a toddler.


Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Discipline for toddler calls for a time-in

Living with a feisty, active, curious 17-month-old, we're always walking the line between nurturing her personality and nudging her back within the boundaries of good behavior.

When she wriggles out of our arms to walk from day care to the parking lot, we don't mind. We just hold her hand tightly and teach her about watching for cars.

And when she talks or sings loudly at church, we don't want to discourage her from participating. Instead, we try to quiet her by making a game out of whispering or saying, "Shhh."

But Mihret has also developed some willful behaviors we don't want to indulge. They include swatting at people, screaming when she's not hurt, sick or scared, and repeatedly touching things she shouldn't, like DVDs or the contents of our wastebaskets.

Sometimes she'll stop herself, and we'll praise her. Recently, she put a DVD back immediately after picking it up and told herself, 'No, no, no.'"

When she gets a certain gleam in her eye, pauses, and then lets out another shriek or lunges to hit, she's having too much fun testing us to move on without encouragement.

We started time-ins after Mihret turned 1, because we can reasonably expect her to sit in a lap for about one minute. We hold her close and tell her why her behavior wasn't acceptable, and what we'd like to see instead: "Hitting Daddy hurts. We use gentle touches." Then, we take her to a toy or book that usually refocuses her energy and attention.

The message we hope she's getting at a young age is, "We love you, but we don't like wrong behavior. Let's work together so you can learn what's right."

And also: "No matter what you do, we will always hold you close."

Kara Patterson: Post-Crescent staff writer

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

I'm Not a Hero - I'm a Dad

Not long ago, I found myself on the phone with someone who was looking for information about myself and my family.

(I'm being vague on purpose here, as the person on the other end of the line seemed like good people, and I don't want to hurt their feelings if they should ever read this.)

When it came time to talk about my daughter, I decided to save some time:

"Let me just spell her name for you: M - I - H - R - E - T. Mihret. It means Mercy in Amharic, which is the primary language of Ethiopia."

I've used this line a few times - if you're a writer, like myself, you'll see that it conveys a lot of information in one go. It tells you my daughter's name, how to pronounce it, and where it's from, which is usually a tip-off as to where she's from.

So you avoid making someone feel awkward (and some people do) by avoiding that other A word - adoption.

Now, I have no problem talking about adoption. There will come a time, in the very near future, when it won't be up to me any more. Mihret will start to learn what that word means, and to really understand where she comes from, and if she doesn't want to talk about it, she doesn't have to. And if she doesn't want me to talk about it in front of her, I won't.

That's her right.

But I digress.

The nice person on the other end of the phone wanted to know just how impressed she was with me. "You adopted a little girl from Ethiopia?" she gushed. "You're a hero, you know? A real life hero."

I didn't say anything for a moment. The pause wasn't long enough to be awkward, but it was long enough for me to breathe in and out of couple of times.

I wasn't offended. I had heard the same words before, from other people. I had even been warned by our social worker that people would say something like that.

And I get it. I do. Every child is adopted for a reason, and every one of those reasons has something in common: Someone out there in the world didn't have the means to care for a child.

So to step in, and to say, "This little person, who might never have a chance? I'll give this child a chance," it sounds heroic. When some rich individual offers free dental care to kids who couldn't otherwise get it, or money for school, or food, or clothing, or any one of a hundred things that kids need to grow up and become adults who can add something to the world, they give those people medals.

Or plaques.

Or they name a day in their honor, or give them the key to the city, or any one of a hundred things that say, "This person is a hero."

And here come people like me, who provide it all - everything - food and clothing and love and dental appointments and an education - and it makes us sound like heroes.

I think parents want to be heroes to their kids - but they don't want to be THAT kind of hero.

I'm not a hero.

I'm a dad.

It doesn't matter that my child doesn't share some kind of direct genetic link with me. I'm her dad.

It doesn't matter that she came into my life because of a bunch of paperwork and some plane rides. I'm her dad.

Ask any set of parents who had their kids the way we all think of parents having their kids, and they do all the things I do. Buy the clothing, brush the teeth, change the diapers, figure out when kids are supposed to stop drinking milk before bed, try to figure out how to pay for college...

It's all the same stuff I'm doing, and no one calls them heroes.

(Or maybe they do. But no one is doing it when I'm around.)

I've wanted to be a dad for as long as I can remember. When I was younger, I changed my tiny cousins' diapers and played with them and thought about having kids of my own.

How I had them didn't matter.

How they came into my life wasn't important.

I just wanted to be a dad.

Today, I'm a dad. I'm a dad to one of the cutest, smartest, most hilarious seventeen-month-olds on the face of the planet. And I mean it when I say she's hilarious. My little genius understands comedic timing.

But more importantly, she's my daughter. And I'm her dad.

I could have said all that to the person on the other end of the line, but I didn't want to hurt their feelings.

Instead, I said, "You know, I've always wanted to be a dad. And now I'm a dad. I'm very blessed."

The voice protested. "But you gave her a life she might not have had otherwise!"

"Yeah," I said. "And she gave me one, too. Like I said, just a dad."

"Weeelll..." I could hear the person on the other end of the line winding up, getting ready to add something, to change my mind, to convince me they were right.

"Really. I wanted to become a dad, and now I'm a dad, and it's wonderful, and also tiring. That's all."

The voice paused for a second. "I still think it's amazing. I'm going to tell all my co-workers I talked to you tonight. What a great guy."

I let another couple of breaths go by. It was clear to me that I could spend another ten minutes on the phone telling this person that really, I was just happy to have a child after so many years of wanting one, and that I was the lucky one, and no more or less impressive than any other father who dotes on his kids.

But I didn't.

Instead, I said, "Really, I'm just a dad. Is there anything else I can do for you?"

As it turned out, there wasn't, and we hung up.

I stood in the kitchen, phone in hand, for a full minute, playing and replaying the conversation, trying to figure out how I could have convinced the person on the other end of the line that I was no more wonderful or special or heroic than any other dad on the planet.

All I could think of was this:

Being a hero makes you separate from other people. You're not really someone relate to, you're someone to be in awe of, someone who is just a little untouchable.
I don't want to be untouchable. I want to be there for my kids, and for them to know that I made mistakes and learned from them. And that when they don't feel good, I'm there for them. And that when they need something, I'll do everything in my power to get it for them.

Heroes are just out there.

I'll always be right here for my kids.

Because I'm not a hero - I'm a dad.