Wonder

One of my favorite words is the word wonder. As a mom, it reminds me of my kids when they were all little. I loved watching them as they looked at the world from their vantagepoint, asking why and how about everything. They would construct new realities where they were teachers or bus drivers or soldiers. To make it seem real, they would use the information they had about their own experiences and then fill in the rest with their imaginative sense of wonder and possibility. What they chose didn’t always make sense to me, but, with a little reflection on what had happened in the days prior, I could usually uncover their reasoning.

For example, our youngest son loves to pretend he’s a dentist. He grabs a pair of latex gloves and a couple of plastic spoons and a straw, and he instructs me to lie down on the sofa as he places a pair of sunglasses on me. Once he’s draped a paper towel across my chest like a bib, he tells me to open wide. He puts the straw in the corner of my mouth like that sucking tube at the dentist office and begins poking around with one spoon while the other spoon is his “mirror”.

After a few minutes, he says that I have fifty cavities (which makes my cavity to tooth ratio a little off), and I should relax while he calls a different dentist to come in and pull out all my teeth. He pretends to make a call on an old, out-of-use cell phone, then he comes back and says that before the new dentist comes, he’s supposed to clean my teeth. Although it seems like a waste of time to clean teeth that are about to be pulled, I go along with it because I get to lie on the sofa while simultaneously playing with my kid. Mom Win!

He asks me which flavor of toothpaste I would prefer, so I ask him what my choices are. He says (and this is verbatim because I wrote it down right after we played) he has grape, orange, applesauce, Dr. Coke, alcohol, and Sprite. I tell him I’d like orange, but he says not to pick that because it’s too boring. “Okay. Then what do you want me to pick?” I ask. He says, “You should pick alcohol so that you will be like this…” and he acts like he’s drunk, stumbling around and tripping over the footstool. I tell him I don’t get drunk, so I’ll just stick with orange flavor, thank you very much.

Now I could be concerned that my 10 year-old son is talking about alcohol and getting drunk, but I use my own sense of wonder and remember the episode of I Love Lucy he recently watched when Lucy drinks too much of the Vitameatavegamin while filming a commercial and gets tipsy. I know he’s communicating what he’s seen in the world through imaginative play, so I can react accordingly. This works with my son, because we spend a lot of time together and I’ve made it my personal mission to become an expert on him and his three older siblings. But what about when people act or say things that are questionable and we don’t know them so well?

I heard a couple of therapists on the radio a few months ago discussing what life may be like for people venturing out on the other side of this often frightening pandemic. They said that many will suffer from PTSD, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, a serious condition which may have long lasting repercussions. The therapists recommended that we should strive for PTG, or Post-Traumatic Growth. The trauma is still there, but the emphasis is on the growth which can occur. They also discussed how we should regard those people with whom we come in contact who may be suffering, and their suffering manifests itself in ways that make them a bit unbearable to be around. One of the therapists said, “Instead of judgment, turn to wonder.” I had to park my car and write down this phrase, because it was so perfect. What if instead of judging someone, we asked the question: I wonder why? How would that change the interaction or even the relationship?

Our youngest son, the aspiring tooth-puller, spent most of his first five years in an orphanage on the other side of the world. Because of his rough start, we have had to wonder a lot—about behaviors and motivations and unknown history—and so has he. Back in April, when we celebrated having him home for five years, the same number of years he spent away from us, he told me, “Before I had a family…before I was five…my life feels like a long, black line with no words on it or a blank piece of paper. Mom, what was there when everything was blank?” I had to stop right then and write that down, too, because sometimes my hearts feels like it’s being crushed into tiny pieces and those pieces become lodged in my throat making it almost impossible to swallow, but wonders never cease.

Framily

A couple of years after our youngest son joined our family, I took Ezra to a birthday party for a school classmate. When the party was over and we were driving home, he asked me where the birthday girl’s siblings were during the party.

 

“She doesn’t have any brothers or sisters,” I told him. Ezra, youngest of four, was shocked. “Some families just have one kid,” I explained. “Some families have four kids.”

 

“And some have six,” Ezra said.

 

I agreed, but then I glanced at him in the rearview mirror and thought about his response. I wondered what he meant by his calculation. Did he choose it randomly? Or was he counting all of the people in our family? (4 kids + 2 adults = 6) He had only been in the U.S. for a short time at that point, which meant he’d only had about two years of speaking/hearing the English language with all its inconsistencies and eccentricities and double-meanings, so I was accustomed to repeating and rephrasing. He’d also only been in the physical presence of his parents, siblings, cousins, etc. for just a few years, so I had to constantly find new ways to explain the concept of a Forever Family.

 

“Our family has four kids,” I told him. I counted off their names on the fingers of my left hand as I moved the steering wheel with my right. “You, Knox, Ella, and Lucy. Four.”

 

“Six kids,” Ezra corrected me.

 

“What do you mean?” I asked. Then Ezra reminded me about the two college students living with us. They were there for the summer to work with our church youth group, and they’d been sleeping in our basement for a week or so. Ezra was ready to include them in his final total. I explained that the college boys had parents and they were too old to be adopted. “Anyway,” I said. “They’re pretty much already grown-ups.”

 

As we pulled into our garage and I parked the van, Ezra opened the door. He looked back at me before hopping out and said with all seriousness. “Mama, dem boys is our famry.” Then he ran inside to find his two newest brothers.

 

We’ve learned so much since Ezra joined our family more than five years ago, but one of the biggest lessons has been how we define family. More than ever, we’ve realized that family absolutely doesn’t have to involve a shared DNA. We can carve out deep, sacred relationships with people who cross our paths but never appear on a single branch of our family tree. We can make connections with others by being their cheerleaders for big moments and just being available on an average Tuesday night, by making room at the table and making time in our schedule. Then Friends can become Family.

Claimed

I heard a story on the radio a few months ago about a woman named Maris Blechner. Her first son died just after childbirth, then she adopted a daughter. Ten months later, she delivered a son, and then she adopted another daughter a few years after that. Believe it or not, people would tactlessly tell Maris things like, “I suppose you love your biological child the best. Surely the one who shares your blood is your favorite.” At the time, she wasn’t able to form a reply to their insensitive remarks.

 

Her three surviving children all got married and had children of their own. In fact, they each gave birth to a daughter within a few months of each other. Maris would watch her granddaughters play together, and she saw how these cousins who shared no blood relations loved each other without reservation. They were family. The rest was just details.

 

After opening her own adoption agency in Queens, NY, Maris eventually formed an answer to those narrow-minded questions around adoption: “There’s no such thing as ‘as much as’ when it comes to love. Love isn’t measurable,” Maris would say. “You claim your child and it’s forever. We claim our adopted children exactly the same way birth parents claim their children.”

 

That word—claim—stuck with me long after hearing her answer. Besides being in a similar situation with both biological children and an adopted son, I can feel an extra measure of weight in that word. To be claimed by someone you love and trust, to be received by them wholeheartedly, is the most freeing experience. For instance, to know my husband claims me isn’t restraining to my freedom because I also claim him. And I don’t have to be anything particularly special, because this claim is forever.

 

If we can understand this unconditional form of love in human terms, it’s a little easier to begin to understand God’s love for us. We see it in 1 John 3.

 

“See how very much our heavenly Father loves us, for he allows us to be called his children—think of it—and we really are! But since most people don’t know God, naturally they don’t understand that we are his children. Yes, dear friends, we are already God’s children, right now, and we can’t even imagine what it is going to be like later on. But we do know this, that when he comes we will be like him, as a result of seeing him as he really is.” (TLB)

 

With the start of a new year, choose to live like you are claimed, like you are valuable enough for someone to call you His own. Whether you have felt this level of love before or not, know that you have a heavenly Father who claims you as his child.

Will it eat me?

When Ezra, our African-born son, first came to America, he was 5-years old. In his first five years, he had developed an understanding of the small square of Congo where he lived, showered, ate and played. Though his world was limited, he was old enough to know what was safe and whom to trust. Then he was flown across the world to a new place with a different language, people, food and customs. He had to relearn so much about this new world.

 

When we would read books to him—books about farms and dinosaurs and pigeons and everything in between—he would point to the animals in the pictures and ask, “Me touch-ee him? He eat-ee me?” Never mind the plot, characters and dialogue. Forget about the story’s underlying morals or comparison to modern life. He wanted to get to the crux of what was displayed on those pages—does that pose a danger to me? Once I had explained that dinosaurs were extinct or that cows were docile creatures which give us ice cream, he was ready for the next page.

 

Having always lived here, my understanding was so different than his. For instance, I took for granted that squirrels posed no threat to my safety, but he needed to be informed and then reassured about those meek, little acorn-gatherers.

 

I came to realize that his first year in America was about a lot of things: attachment to his new family, strengthening his body, consistency in his schedule. But the main thing we did was reassure him. You are safe. You are loved. You are not alone. You can trust us.

 

To watch him now, after more than a thousand days home with us, I see an 8-year old boy who jumps in the deep end and rides his bike downhill and throws his body on the ground to stop a soccer ball when he’s playing in the goal. He still asks a lot about the world around him, but he doesn’t hold as much fear for the unknown. His curiosity can be exhausting, so I have to remind myself that this is how he learns and with knowledge comes a decrease in his worrying.

 

I love the way the Books of Psalms and Proverbs regard knowledge. It’s not about whitewashing the truth or ignoring questions. Knowledge is a powerful tool. “Lips that speak knowledge are a rare jewel.” (Proverbs 20:15) Or take Psalm 119:65-68 – “Lord, I am overflowing with your blessings, just as you promised.  Now teach me good judgment as well as knowledge. For your laws are my guide. I used to wander off until you punished me; now I closely follow all you say. You are good and do only good; make me follow your lead.”

 

That’s such a big part of parenting: Imparting knowledge that leads to wisdom that guides us to righteous living.

Otter moms

My family visited the Monterey Bay Aquarium over Spring Break. It is a beautiful facility right on the bay with a big emphasis on conservation and protecting waterways and wildlife. One of its biggest attractions is the sea otters, and for good reason! They are ridiculously cute!

 

While there, we listened to a talk about how the aquarium is involved in rescuing and rehabilitating sea otters. We learned that they have to clean their fur nearly all day long to keep it water-repellant and to make sure they stay warm and insulated in the chilly water. We also learned that they use rocks to crack open clams. Such smart little fur balls!

 

The presenter told us a story about a baby sea otter who was found in the bay without her mother. He said that she was squealing and calling for her, but no one came. He said this sometimes occurs after a storm when animals can be separated from their families.

 

They took the baby otter back to their facility to see if another otter, an adult female named Toola, would adopt this baby. They weren’t sure if it would work but hoped that since Toola had just given birth to a stillborn pup, she had the right hormones to make mothering this orphan pup an appealing idea. It worked and the baby—later named Luna for Half Moon Bay, the location of the beach where she was discovered—survived. Toola went on to be a surrogate mother to 13 pups over the years until her death in 2012.

 

Beyond the fact that otters are so adorable (please stop what you’re doing and watch a video of them right now), it was moving to hear how they care for their own babies or the babies they are given. As an adoptive mom with a son who is celebrating 3 years as a part of our family, I identified with Toola in a special way. Something as unbreakable and supernatural as a mother/child connection becomes even more miraculous when the mother is given a child to care for who she never carried inside her. But that connection is definitely there.

 

When we were called to be a family to our youngest son, we became more important to him than anyone else on earth, just as Toola was to all her pups. The aquarium employees and veterinary specialists who worked with Toola over the years gave her a lot of credit for the success of the aquarium’s sea otter program and even for the passing of legislation which protects sea otters in the wild. And all because she welcomed a vulnerable baby into her arms.

Sea Otter Cam!!

Biker wave

While vacationing in Florida and visiting a couple of amusement parks during Fall Break, I came to a realization: We parents need our own biker wave. You know what I’m talking about—a motorcyclist passing a fellow motorcyclist takes his left hand off the handlebar and does a peace sign with two fingers pointing to the ground.

 

It’s a show of camaraderie. It’s a way of saying, “Hey there, fellow human with similar life experiences! I understand a little about you and I think you’re cool!” (Or something like that. I’m not a motorcyclist so I couldn’t say for sure what that small hand gesture means, but it seems positive. All I know is it doesn’t work as well with minivans.)

 

I had this epiphany while watching a mom, dad and two young sons at Sea World. The dad had hit his limit. His older son was whining to the point that he had apparently lost his ability to walk normally. The dad was attempting to move him forward through the crowd and the boy was floppily walking like he was the Scarecrow from The Wizard of Ozbeing forcefully removed from a sit-in against Munchkin oppression.

 

Once they made it to a short brick wall that served the dual purpose of creating a flower bed and providing seating to all of the hot and weary park attendees, the dad roughly sat the son down and told him not to get up. The boy began to cry, maybe from physical hurt but mostly from having his father lose his cool and aim it in his direction, while the dad looked at the Sea World map in his hands.

 

I couldn’t stop watching this scene. It just felt so familiar. Your kids, those darlings you would lay down in front of a bus for, can make you straight up crazy. I noticed right away that this particular family was comprised of adopted children with mom and dad of one skin color and sons of another. So from my own experience, I knew there were so many layers to what was playing out in front of me.

 

The crying son stood and tried to grab his dad around the middle, but the dad peeled him off and told him to sit back down. The mom who had been talking to the younger son sitting in the stroller calmly stepped in and said, “Let him hug you.” But the dad wasn’t ready to receive affection. He was mad. The mom hugged the son instead, and in a few moments they were on the move again, in search of rides or treats or shows.

 

Before we left the park, I saw this same family and the dad was holding the older son in his arms while the boy slept, his face cradled in the dad’s neck and his little arm slung across the dad’s strong shoulder. They had made their peace.

 

I wanted to reach out to this family and say something encouraging. I wouldn’t offer advice or try to show them how to parent their boys. I just wanted to flash that biker wave as if to say, “This is really hard, isn’t it? I’m sorry you guys had that moment of tension and separation, but I bet you get more things right than you get wrong, so keep on going. I understand a little about you and I think you’re cool.”

The prodigal

When my youngest son gets angry, he often gets dramatically pouty. It may start with something as simple as my refusing him one more handful of potato chips. It’s like I’m a snack bartender. I’m mopping up the bar and I see someone who’s tipsy on Cool Ranch Doritos, so I throw the towel over my shoulder while explaining that I’m under mom-bligations to let a person know when he’s has had enough and suggest something to balance out the junk food like an apple.

 

Once confronted and told “no,” he tends to go straight for the Oscar nomination for Best Whiny Pleading. If he’s feeling especially irritable, he’ll play the Runaway Card. There are some for whom running away is a serious proposition and definitely not a joke, so I would not make light of those circumstances. But for my son, it’s a calculated move. He has no intention of actually leaving our property, sometimes he only gets as far as the garage, but he’s wanting to tell me something and test my response.

 

When one of our daughter’s was younger, she would try the same thing. She would announce her intention: “I’m leaving!” and I would set up a camping chair by the house. I would say, “I always want you to be safe, so I’m going to sit here and watch you. Make sure you can see me. If you can’t see me, you’ve gone too far.” I would watch her walk down our very long driveway maybe with a backpack or a baby doll, and when she got to the mailbox, she would turn around and come back. This is what worked for her, my strong-willed girl who had always known me and counted on me to be her mom.

 

For our 7-year old son who’s only been a part of our family for 2 years, I have had to change tack and choose a different approach. When he marches off angrily, I know he wants to punish me. I also know that I am angry, too. I want to go inside and watch TV and let him sort it out alone. But even though my parenting correction was justified, I know that he desperately wants to be pursued.

 

This happened last Saturday. His pouting was like a carrot on a stick leading him to the overgrown field behind our house where the weeds were as tall as he is. I sat at the patio table and watched him as he glanced back at me over his shoulder a few times. The stubborn part of my brain wanted to show him tough love and let him get eaten up by chiggers, but an image came to my mind of a different parent, a fictional father from a story Jesus told in Luke 15.

 

We often call this parable The Prodigal Son. The main idea is that we are like this son, messing up everything and wasting what is good, then finally coming to our senses and turning back homeward. The father is our God, waiting there for us with open arms, forgiving all our stupidity. But I tend to think there are several layers to these stories, and I wonder if we are sometimes called to be the father, too.

 

Did this father stand outside looking toward the road from town for days and weeks and months, praying that his son would come home? Did he keep his love ready for his son’s return by reminding himself that it wasn’t about him but instead about his wayward son?

 

This is my inspiration. When I was given this job as a mom, it was an invitation to grown up, or as the Apostle Paul said in 1 Corinthians 13: “When I was a child, I spoke and thought and reasoned as a child. But when I grew up, I put away childish things.”

 

I followed my son to the field and stayed in his general proximity until his anger had subsided. (I may or may not have fibbed and said I saw a snake in the tall weeds to get him motivated.) At bedtime, my husband and I discussed with him about how to calmly tell us how he feels and how his actions will never make us stop loving him. Hours after the initial disagreement, he was finally repentant. And while this is what we parents are ultimately looking for, it became clear to me that my job is not only to work towards favorable behavioral results in my kids but to be there for every step of the process.

Happy (2nd) Gotcha Day!

To the baby of the family,

Ezzy Bear,

Lieutenant Happy Face (more of a reminder to cease complaining than an actual title),

Ez,

Lil Man,

Ketchup or Enchilada (codenames for when we’re talking about him in front of him because spelling his name sounds too much like his name):

 

You leave no soccer ball unkicked and no question unasked and no burger uneaten.

You have taught us things about ourselves and the heart’s ability to love.

You make us smile when you ruffle the hair of your teammates and pat their backs to console them after a missed kick.

You make us laugh when you put on your “rocky roll” shows in the basement, complete with dance moves not seen since the days of Solid Gold.

You make us proud to be your family.

 

Someone asked me recently if I am at the point in my parenting of Ezra that I truly love him as much or in the same way I love my older three. I answered something generic—I don’t really remember what—but I gave this some thought later. I decided it’s not just about love. Love implies self-sacrifice and devotion and meeting basic physical needs. My maternal instincts create this kind of love for children. It pours out of me pretty easily, like water running downstream. I love most all kids, so yes, I love (read: adore) Ezra. We help him shower and brush his teeth. We pack his lunch for school and quiz him with sight word flash cards. But wholly parenting a child who didn’t come from me is more about connection than love. I loved him before I met him, all those years he grew up without us, a world away.

 

But now we have found connection.

When he leans into me when I read him a bedtime book.

When he trusts me when I offer an explanation to something confusing.

When he believes me when I say everything will be okay each time I take him to the doctor’s office to get a shot.

 

On the second anniversary of his homecoming, we marvel at all he’s learned and how he’s changed. How every time he saw an animal on TV or in person (even a squirrel), his first questions used to be: “Me touchy him? Him eaty me?” We selfishly mourn the loss of Ezra-isms like “inja” for ninja and “crocogators” for crocodiles (or alligators?) and “package” for practice and him making kissing noises to simulate a referee whistle. But we know this is a natural and positive alteration. He needs to grow and change.

 

At this point, it just feels like he fits in our family. Looking back on our original decision to adopt, I don’t know what we expected. All I know is that God asked us to make room in our family for another kid. There have been growing pains and stretch marks as we created space for this one, but God always provided the elasticity required. Now Ezra is tethered to us in a way that can never be severed. I’m sure there are times when he’s wished for a different family—one with a mom who would let him drink Coke for supper and stay up late on school nights—but he’s stuck with us, stuck because love means commitment but also because we’re forever connected.

Family Reading Night

At the end of February, I was given the opportunity to speak at a Family Reading Night at my son’s elementary school. I spoke for about 20 minutes about different types of book genres and my writing process. I showed the kids (and their parents) examples of the books I’ve written. The kids were great listeners and asked really smart questions at the end.

 

Before the second session started, I asked my son Ezra, who was born in Africa and added to our family almost 2 years ago, to pass out bookmarks I had brought for all of the kids in attendance. Three elementary-aged girls—two younger white girls and one older black girl—sitting at my feet, waiting for my talk to begin, noticed my black son calling a white woman “mom,” so they asked me about it.

 

“Is he your son?” asked the older girl, probably a 5th grader.

 

When you have an adopted child of a different race, this is a normal question and, in my experience, not usually meant unkindly, so I’ve found it’s best to just answer honestly and without a lot of details. You can always elaborate if they need more information.

 

“Yes,” I answered.

 

“He looks different than you, like you’re light and he’s dark,” one of the younger girls, a 1st grader, commented.

 

“He was born in a different country, but he’s in our family now.” I wondered if they would ask the uncomfortable question: what happened to his real mom? That’s the one that makes my chest tighten up and causes me to scan the room to see if Ezra heard the question, so I can read his face. As a rule, adopted parents prefer to be considered real (It’s not like I’m invisible or anything), but I have been around the block enough to know that vocabulary sometimes fails us, and what people say isn’t always what they mean. In other words, it’s not helpful to assume people are judging the whole adoption/race thing and get yourself all worked up.

 

But these girls didn’t ask the dreaded question, so I didn’t have to talk about the sad events in Ezra’s life with perfect strangers. Instead, these precious leaders of tomorrow had this discussion:

 

1st grade girl: Did you know that a long time ago dark-skinned people couldn’t go to school with light-skinned people? But Dr. King told them that was wrong.

 

5th grade girl: Yeah, Dr. King wasn’t president but he was still really important. He told us that we’re all the same.

 

1st grade girl: That’s why it doesn’t matter if your son looks different than you.

 

5th grade girl: You can love everybody.

 

The other girl who had been silently listening to this enlightened discussion finally spoke. She said, “I’m excited about your talk but I feel like I’ve already learned a lot from you guys.”

 

I jotted down the words they said before I left the school, because…come on. That’s amazing. When you start thinking we adults have really made a mess of everything, say a prayer of thanks for the kids at John Pittard Elementary School.

 

We can get along. We can talk it out. We can learn from the mistakes of those who came before us. When kids are shown loving, mature examples of empathy and given a chance to spend time together in this kind of atmosphere, they will figure out how to make the world a better place.

Just a regular Wednesday

There are some mornings when it doesn’t pay to get out of bed. Take this morning, for instance.

 

I killed a wasp in my bathroom. Getting to our master bathroom involves a series of turns—five turns from the front door, to be exact—so it was a bit of a surprise to see it buzzing around my mirror. I had a bad reaction to a sting this summer, so I have to admit I went a little Rambo on the poor creature. I ran to the garage to get wasp/hornet spray. I drenched the insect (and my mirror and everything on my side of the sink) with the horrible stuff until it fell, paralyzed, into the cup full of Q-tips. Then I dumped out the cup and beat the wasp to a pulp with a flip-flop. Not a very romantic way to go.

 

My nostrils full of pesticide, my husband texted me from work to say he left his coffee on the kitchen table. I told him I was having a similar kind of day.

 

Then I listened to a voicemail from my bank saying my debit card was suspended due to questionable charges. Seeing as how someone once stole my credit card to buy a subscription to Soap Opera Digest, I took the call seriously. I got it all sorted out and wheeled my bike out of the garage to go for a ride.

 

I paused in the driveway, weighing the risks. With the way the morning had been going, would it be more prudent to stay indoors?

 

Because that’s a lot of what my day boils down to: balancing the risks and the rewards. Should I drink the milk a day after the expiration date? Should I stop at the yellow light or keep going? Should I introduce myself to that person? Should I quit this job to take that one? Should we buy that house? Should I start an adoption?

 

As I walked my son to school this morning (before the wasp episode and the call from the bank), we talked about his classmates and what the day might bring. He told me that he was worried no one would play with him or talk to him. He feels unsure of how to make friends, though we have seen him win over most anyone in a one-mile radius of him with a giant smile and a side-hug. I asked him if he thought he should go back with me and do school at home. He chewed on the thought for a few seconds, then he said he should go to school.

 

“Me make friends,” he said, adjusting his backpack and squaring his shoulders resolutely. “School hard but good.”

 

Risks and rewards. Totally worth it.