Monday, September 28, 2009

Because I think I owe it to others

I wrote this over a year ago, about 6 weeks after we brought Melkamu home. It wasn't easy to write. I never published it here because I didn't know what people would think and wasn't sure if I was ready to hear it at that time. But recently, I've decided that it needs to be published here. That other families who adopt toddlers (and children of other ages) need to know what it really is like, especially now that it's past this point. But having written it in such a raw and emotional frame of mind--that's where the important points come from. Because those were the real thoughts, the real emotions of an adoptive mom with a new toddler who couldn't walk or talk at 17 months old. It reminds me of how hard we had to work to get here, and makes me appreciate the joy of my family even more.

At the time, I wasn't ready to admit the difficulties. At the end, I've linked this post to the post that I actually published the same day I wrote this one. I read that post and think "I was trying SO HARD not to let people know that it was hard." And why? I have no idea. I hate showing weakness but this isn't a weakness. This is the reality of toddler adoption. And it's been such a progression.

Without further ado, here is what happened during our first month home with Melkamu.


Having Melkamu--it's really, really, REALLY hard sometimes. There are so many complicating factors right now, and there's really no way to talk about just a part of it--so that's my way of warning you that this is probably going to be a really long post, and not always PC. I'll probably try to split it up, maybe when I just get tired (it's almost 11:30 on Saturday night and Patrick had a friend sleep over last night, so no one got much sleep).

I hardly know where to begin. Part of me wishes that I'd documented more of our first month home through my blog or other writing; another part of me knows that was just asking too much on top of actually being home with Kamu; and a third part of me doesn't particularly want to think about a whole lot of it.
As it turned out, the times when I did see friends, Melkamu seemed perfectly happy. I was constantly getting comments--from family, from friends, even from his pediatrician--about how attached he already seemed to be. I agreed a lot at first, until I realized what it was...then I kept agreeing because I didn't know how to admit what was really going on.

It wasn't really attachment--it was grief and desperation and terrified fear that I would leave him. How could I admit that my child wanted me with him constantly because he was so scared that we weren't coming back if we were out of sight? How could I admit that I knew that I was making it worse because I went back to work less than 72 hours after we got home from Ethiopia? My beautiful, sweet-natured little boy was jet-lagged, scared...and I just left him in the care of people he didn't know, who speak a different language, and without being able to adequately assure him that I really WOULD be back.

Melkamu has a very, very shrill scream. It is different than his normal cry, but we didn't know that at the time because it was all we ever heard when he was upset. We just thought it was how he cried. The big problem is that it's at a frequency and volume that physically hurts my ears. Not just annoys me, but hurts so badly that I often simply handed him to Jason while he was screaming because I couldn't take it anymore.

Who does that? Who says "Gee, I know you are scared and want me right now--but I can't deal with the way you cry, and so I'm giving you to Daddy and going in the other room" to their new child? But I was so tempted--SO tempted--to just put my hands over my ears and yell at him to just shut up that I felt like it was the best alternative. He would do it for 45 minutes or more at bedtime or naptime, even though we would sit by his crib and hold his hand or rub his back, and take him out every few minutes to cuddle him and reassure him that we were there. We tried to have him sleep with us, but he was more scared of our waterbed than he was in his crib.

The day that I sat with him for a nap for an hour and 15 minutes, listening to him cry and trying as best I could to soothe him, when he finally fell asleep out of exhaustion but woke up only 20 minutes later and started crying again...I don't know how I made it through that day. Jason wasn't home that afternoon, as he was trying to catch up work from while we were in Ethiopia (the attorney who worked for him quit with no notice a week after we got back, which almost doubled Jason's workload). Patrick was in quiet time in the playroom but needed some one-on-one time with me that I had promised him as soon as his brother fell asleep. There is only so much patience that can be displayed by a 4-year old, and about the last 30 minutes of the hour and 15 minutes were both Kamu screaming and Patrick whining and begging for me to spend some time with him.

I know I have friends that I could have called, who would have come to help, but how do you admit that you can't handle your children? That you desperately need one minute, just ONE MINUTE, of peace to get your mindset back. And what would they have done? They couldn't have sat with Melkamu, as it wouldn't have helped him calm down. They couldn't have helped with Patrick, since all he wanted was some time with me.

There are times, many of them after we first got back, almost none now, when I wish we hadn't done this, when I have no idea what we were thinking when we decided to adopt a toddler. When I don't want Melkamu around. When I resent him for changing our little family so much. It's easier to write that now that I don't feel them on an almost-hourly basis; how could I possibly have admitted that there were days when Kamu would cry and my first thought was "I don't care...cry all you want"?

Fake-it-'til-you-make-it. The fact that I've used that attitude many times in the past probably saved us. I'm a pro at it. Even when I thought I would run away if Kamu didn't stop screaming, I would pick him up and cuddle him, smile at him, tell him I love him. I would do everything I could, even if what I could do was to hand him to Jason and go hide my head in a pillow. Even if my brain was rebelling at the thought of hearing one more sound or feeling his little body fight mine as I tried to hold him, I still did what I could.

It's improved--he has an actual cry that we've learned to distinguish from his scream. There's a lot more to write and fill in the pieces, because it's hardly been a sudden change from the hopelessness that I was feeling within a week of coming home to the type of day that we had today, during which a friend at synagogue mentioned just how much he's changed since we've come home. But I have to finish this up sometime, and I really want to write about yesterday.
Yesterday was a really tough morning that simultaneously gave me some hope that we are turning a corner. I normally spend all day on Fridays with Melkamu since I have no classes. We were having friends over last night for dinner, and then their older son slept over--he and Patrick are in the same class and are good friends. My plan for the morning was to get the house clean and buy a mattress for Patrick's new bed, so that his room would be set up for that night. Kamu was having none of it. He was...fretful. He wasn't crying but he wasn't happy. He wasn't quite whining, but he was clingy and didn't want to be held. We were in the bedroom that he and Patrick share, and I was trying to get it all set up but couldn't with him grabbing onto my legs while refusing to let me hold him.

Finally, he started crying and I picked him up for the 80th time. He immediately started fighting, but cried louder when I put him down. And something clicked in me. I remembered reading about holding techniques during grieving, and thought about what might have triggered it that day. When Patrick's bed came in the other day, we moved around everything in their bedroom. His crib moved, the room looks entirely different now. Suddenly, his comforting bedroom was new and different. Everything had changed again.
I know I won't always be able to figure it out, but it might not even matter. Somehow it clicked that he was actually grieving and not just crabby, as I'd previously thought.

I sat with him on my lap, and he screamed and fought me for a while. Then he stopped fighting, and his screaming changed into crying, and he clung to me while he sobbed for almost 30 minutes. I talked a little about how I knew it was so scary and new, but mostly I just held and said I loved him and was there for him. We cuddled for a little while longer afterwards and he was starting to smile again. I turned him around to give him a toy, and he started to scream again. We repeated the whole thing--I held onto him and he fought and screamed, then he clung and cried.

An hour has never seemed so long. It was painful. It hurt my ears. It hurt my heart. When he started screaming the second time, I wasn't sure I could do it all again right away. But I was the only one home with him and I think that I somehow clued into the right way to deal with that problem, at that time.
He was exhausted afterwards. I put him into his crib for a nap and he started crying again--but it was somehow so obvious that that crying was different than what we'd just gone through, that I knew he was OK with me sitting next to him and rubbing his back or his hand. He fell asleep within 10 minutes and was out for almost 2 hours.

It was intense. It was difficult. And it has already made a huge difference in both of our attitudes and behaviors. He's just a little boy. He's gone through so much in his not-even 17 months. He's very, very much younger than 17 months emotionally and I'd forgotten that.

All of the reading that we did, all of the preparation? Most of it flew out of our heads when Kamu was actually in our family. It all made so much sense before we had him home but once he was there, we felt completely adrift. I think it's coming back now, and I'm feeling more hopeful. I know there's a long way to go, but I do really feel more hopeful now.

At dinner tonight, I watched my boys eating their red beans and rice. Kamu had it everywhere, and Patrick started laughing at him. That made K start laughing, which made Jason and I start laughing. The whole family laughing together--this is why we needed Kamu in our family. He's brought us more opportunities to smile and laugh, and make more memories to treasure forever.


wilisons said...


You described the adoption of a child of any age who is grieving and mourning. Tamar was the same way and she was an "infant" at only 8 months and with a month of bonding under our belts. It is easier to admit once things have smoothed out but your original feelings are valid and normal. It is always a relief to hear others voice the same concern and know you are not alone. Please remember that next time and call, even just to vent. We won't judge but we will give you an outlet and then some encouragement to make until the next time...

And also remember so much has to do with the child, circumstances of their prior lives, personalities etc. Adopting Libby was nothing like the first go round. She is just different and transition so easily even when I put her in day care less than a week from arrival. Perhaps we were more in tune, perhaps she was just easier to read-her cries were and still are very different from one another, or perhaps she was just more open to blending into our family.


rebekah said...

Totally with you. Same sort of stuff. Same scream. Same ear pain. My left ear rang for about 6 months. I discovered earplugs too late. Same handing him over to his dad. Who would then hand him back to me when he was on the brink. Don't put me down but I won't let you comfort me. Nighttime anxiety was the worst.

After a month home I was beginning to plan how we needed to rearrange our lives to continue on like this. Downsize homes, work less. Then we began to turn the corner, whew.

Matthew was 6 months at homecoming. Quinn (our bio son) was almost 4. It's so so so hard in the beginning.

And while there is some preparation that can be done, it seems it's still trial by fire. And knowing that there is a corner to turn.

So, all the new adoptive parents who read your blog are going to want to know, how are things now:)

Shannon- said...

Erin- do you mind if I share this with others? I would really appreciate it.

Lisa said...

Erin, I just want to give you a hug :) While I have never experienced the situation you described, I can relate to your fear and frustration. I relate in a way that made me say "they don't understand my situation but I don't know what to do." When Aidan and Amanda were newborn and I struggled with bonding, nursing, schedules and other things that were unique to my situation, I was so confused and overwhelmed. I had met many other people that were parents of twins but I *knew* that they couldn't help me with myself. I used to absolutely dread nightfall when it was just me and the babies. As time goes on, the specific memories of those days become fuzzy but I'll never forget the emotions that I experienced. It is a part of their lives that I haven't shared with anyone. I thought about keeping a journal at that time but I was unable to write. I'm glad you were able to share your experience and I hope that other parents in your situation can feel like they're not alone even if it doesn't make the struggles easier.

On a positive note, I can't wait to see you guys soon. Aidan asks about his cousins all the time. Amanda still believes that only Emma is her cousin since Patrick and Kamu are boys. :)

stephanie said...

Oh Erin, I am so proud of you for writing this. Bravo! It is so important for people to know this part of adoption and I commend you for putting it out there. Seeing you with Kamu now, I would never have suspected what you went through early on. That is important to let people know too. It's so worth the effort.

Hope to see you Saturday.

Seestor said...

...Or maybe Kamu cried all the time at first because he couldn't believe he got stuck with such a lame set of parents?

Seriously, though, as unspoken as your struggles were to assimilate a new kid into your family, so was the admiration and awe of everyone who knows you guys (me included) for making it work.

Granted, I'm not a parent and never will be, but I think all parents--whether their kids are adopted or biological--want to kill their kids and wonder why the hell they did this to themselves sometimes. Still, you guys treat Kamu and Patrick like gold, and you're raising them to be the best people possible, and I hope knowing that makes all of the tough parts more bearable. nu nub.

Marcy Pett said...

Erin, I loved reading this -- about made me cry. The sheer honesty of your experience is admirable and inspiring. Being transparent about dealing with real challenges allows what you endured to help and encourage others who follow. Parenting is the hardest yet most rewarding job there is. There have been times that both Jim and I have felt the same when a crying baby won't settle down no matter what you do, the unimaginable, unspeakable thoughts and the guilt that goes along with that...but knowing that's normal and you are not alone helps. Always remember we are just a call and a few feet away...and we'll do the same.