National Adoption Month

November is National Adoption Month, a topic close to my heart. Two years ago, I wrote a blog entry about a very important aspect of our adoption experience, and it remains one of the my most viewed posts. I am re-posting it today in the spirit of the month. If you are planning to expand your family, please consider adoption.

Originally posted November 5, 2011

On Joy and Sadness

I’ve gotten some really great feedback on my post about adoption, so in the spirit of National Adoption Month, I will continue with another entry about our experience. Translation—getting serious again. I have changed the names of those involved out of respect for their privacy.

We were uniquely blessed when our adoption came about. We were contacted by an old family friend who had just learned their teenage daughter was pregnant, after hearing just days before through another mutual friend that my husband and I were about to re-start (that’s a story for another time) the adoption process. We were lucky to start off not as strangers, but as old friends separated by time.

Having not seen them for years, we got in touch that night on the phone, and in my elated state of disbelief at our great fortune, I was brought back to earth by my first glimpse of the reality of adoption, one that you don’t hear much about. One that, in my opinion, is critically important we as adoptive families keep in mind: our joy comes at the expense of others. Where we gain, they lose in equal measure.

Speaking with Karen that night, I heard the pain of a worried mother, listened to the strained tone of her voice, aware of the struggle they were already facing. They had just been to the women’s clinic, and had learned that Jenny was five months pregnant. Imagine, if you can, the weight of that kind of information. Your daughter, not yet old enough to drive a car, was going to give birth in mere months. Their lives were in turmoil, turned upside down by the news. As I spoke to her, I tried to rein in my excitement and reassure her that we were already absolutely committed to this baby, and would do everything in our power to help ease their minds. I volunteered to fly down to meet Jenny, and told her I would call our adoption agency first thing in the morning to get the ball rolling and put our adoption study on a “rush.”

As the months rolled by, my first visit turned into a birth plan. I was invited by the family to come down before the birth and stay with them until the baby was born, and would even get to be in the delivery room. I knew this was a risk, but it was just as much a risk for them. What if I fall in love, and they change their minds? How will I do this, with my husband at home in Wisconsin, 600 miles away? Could my heart take it if they wound up changing their minds? Could their hearts take it if they didn’t? What would this mean for all of us?

Two weeks before Jenny’s due date, I got on a plane, my bags filled with baby clothes, the tags still on. I couldn’t bring myself to remove them, despite Jenny’s reassurances that she would not be changing her mind. Everyone was on board, birth father included, but I was still afraid to let myself truly believe this would be a reality. As we waited for the birth, I got to know both families so well, and I could really appreciate how much love and heartache is involved in their decision. Is there a love stronger than that? Choosing to give someone else the gift of a family? Loving a child so much that you choose a life you can’t give them?

I spent a full month with Jenny’s family, living in their home, sharing in their meals, welcomed into their family. My heart was both swelling with excitement and breaking for these birth families as the days passed. The more I got to know them, the more I could see the love and selflessness it takes to do what they’ve done. It was a risk for all of us. How would this work once the baby was born? How would they be able to let us go? How would we be able to leave them?

My husband was a few hours away when our son was born, having left our house when Jenny went into labor. We would drive home together; the three of us a brand new family, once the ICPC office and both states cleared us to leave. He couldn’t get to us fast enough, eager to meet the son we hoped would be ours. Jenny’s commitment to the adoption was now being fought by the hormones in her body, the maternal instinct flowing through her veins. She still wanted the adoption to go through, and with the strength of her mother at her side, we were pretty sure this was going to actually happen.

It’s hard to describe the simultaneous joy and sadness this time brought to us. Holding our son in our arms the first time was a happiness like no other, but it was a feeling of elation tempered by the grieving process Jenny and her family were experiencing. The hospital let me room-in with our newborn boy, for which I was extraordinarily grateful, but just a few doors down his birth mother was grieving for the son she would never get to raise. She ached for him. She wept for him. Those two nights in the hospital were a delicate and sad dance, his bassinette rolling back and forth between rooms, all of us doing our best to share this beautiful boy we’d all fallen in love with, balancing our need to bond with their need to spend as much time as they could with him, time that was fleeting, slipping through their fingers like sand.

We offered to leave the room when she signed the papers that morning, her family, the social worker and an attorney all crammed into too small a room. Jenny asked us to stay, so we did, holding our breath as she signed the papers, tears slipping down our cheeks each time the attorney asked her to be sure she understood her signature was irrevocable. We hugged her and promised to be the parents this sweet little boy deserved, we told her we loved her, that we could never really put in words our gratitude, and that we would always make sure he knows how much she loves him. Our words couldn’t possibly have been enough.

A week later the time had finally come. We were heading home, eager to start our lives together. I will never in my life forget that morning. The car was loaded up with a month of my things, and far more baby gear than anyone would ever need—a true sign of first time parents. We came back in the house and watched as Jenny said goodbye, a tiny miracle lying against her chest, silent tears rolling down her cheeks as she cradled him and whispered in his ear.

Thank you. All of you. For your love, your selflessness, the wisdom beyond your years and your amazing sacrifice. We are more grateful than we can ever say, and we think of you with love every day. I wish I could find the right words to tell you how much you mean to us.

Teaching and Learning

I’ve discovered a great new way to learn about writing and the craft of storytelling: teach it to fourth graders.

I recently volunteered to lead an afterschool club at my son’s school, and when they learned I am a soon-to-be-published author, they asked me to run a “storytelling” club.

Fun!

I jumped in with both feet, enthusiastic to share my love of writing with eager kids.

And then I realized I’d have to be organized, and detailed, submit a lesson plan each week, and find a way to keep a group of fourth graders occupied and engaged for an hour and a half, after a long day of school.

Gulp.

I started planning. Where to begin? What goes into storytelling? What are the fundamentals? I was all set to go with analyzing Harry Potter using Freytag’s five-part narrative structure. My husband (a few credits shy of his Master’s in education) felt I might have set my expectations a teensy bit too high.

So Aristotle’s beginning, middle, and end it would be. I was banking on all the kids being familiar with Harry Potter. I came up with games we could play, trying to discover ways to make my club as fun and relatable as possible. I had plenty of material to cover for my first session, I figured, so in I happily went in yesterday afternoon, ready to run my club like a pro!

Hitch in the road number one hit me before we even got started. All of the children gathered in the cafeteria for snack and recess before we were to go off to our clubs, and when my son (age five) realized he was not in my club…well, it got a bit ugly. Tears, wailing, begging to go home.

“But you’re in the Sports All-Stars Club!” I told him with great enthusiasm. “You get to play soccer!”

“Why don’t you want me in your club?” he wailed.

“We talked about this last night, and this morning, too,” I tried to explain. “My club is for older kids.”

“Don’t you want to be with me?” he sobbed.

Oh, boy.

Fortunately, his Kindergarten teacher is an absolute gem, and stayed with him until he calmed down, after I promised he only had to try his club just this once, and if he didn’t like it, he wouldn’t have to go again. “Because we made a commitment,” I told him as I left to sit across the cafeteria with my club.

Fast forward to club time. We get in our classroom, my eager students ready to go. And by eager, I mean…mostly. One boy was clearly there as a time-filler. “Do we have to do all this stuff?” he moaned as I asked them to circle up the chairs so we could have a group discussion. “This is dumb.”

I smiled and promised he’d have fun if he just gave it a try, and began to launch into my prepared speech about the fundamentals of storytelling. Not a complete sentence had passed my lips when four hands shot into the air.

“Are we going to be published?” asked one boy, beaming with excitement, practically bouncing out of his seat.

“Um, well, getting published is a long, complex process.” I told him. “We could self-publish our short stories in an anthology, if you’d like,” I offered.

Frowns.

“You mean we’re not going to get a publisher to put our stories in the bookstores?” he said.

“Well…”

You got a publisher, right?” asked the girl sitting next to him.

“I did. But it took a very long time.”

“How long?” she asked.

I thought for a moment. “I started writing my book in 2008, and worked on it off and on for a few years before really committing to writing it. I got my publishing offer last year. So that was four years.”

“That’s a long time,” chimed in another girl.

“It is,” I said with a nod. “Since you guys were in Kindergarten, right?”

This back and forth went on for a good half-hour before I got us back on track. We talked about Harry Potter; we discussed protagonists (main characters!), we talked about antagonists (Voldemort!) And they loved it. Hooray! I gave them Paul Bunyan stories I had printed out and cut up, and had them try and put the stories back together in the right order.

We played seven-word sentence in which we picked seven random letters and formed sentences. My favorite? GWRHAFC: George Washington rides horses and fights crocodiles.

And guess what?  Mister “this is dumb” had the most fun of all.

With the time we had left after games, I had the kids start to work on their short stories. I asked them to come up with their protagonist. Who is he or she? What do they like to do? Where do they live? What are their favorite foods? Who are their friends?

One of the girls asked me the name of my book, and the name of the anthology my short story is in. She ran off to a corner and began to work. When our time was up, she handed me this:

Image And my heart completely melted.

Yesterday I learned a lot, the most important point being this: if you can’t explain a subject to fourth graders, you probably don’t really understand it yourself. And if you talk to kids in a fun, relatable way, they will listen. What a great exercise in reflection and comprehension this was for me. I can safely say I got as much, probably more, out of our first club day as the kids did. I can’t wait for our next meeting.

You want to get better as a writer? Find an opportunity like this. You’ll learn so much.

And you might even get yourself a fan.

Collaboration

I’m pretty terrible at keeping up with my blog. I go in fits and starts, blogging consistently and then disappearing for weeks—even months. Successful bloggers fill their pages with consistent content, often built on regular columns or installments. So I’ve set to work coming up with ideas. For starters, I will be bringing back my Way Back Wednesdays reviews, because I, for one, found them to be lots of fun. And that box of books from my childhood isn’t reading itself…

 Today, I’m test-running a new piece, one which may or may not work as a regular thing, as it is dependent on the cooperation of a child. So…we’ll see how it goes. The idea came to me yesterday as I was driving my just-turned-five-year-old home from school. We began to make up a story together, and I thought it would be fun to blog our results. When we got home, we sat down to hash out our tale. He did most of the storytelling, and proved to have great resolve in the tone and theme of the story he wanted to tell. What follows is the results of our collaboration. I have changed his name and “kingdom” to preserve his privacy. Our story begins:

 

Once upon a time in the Kingdom of Wisconsin there lived a young prince named James. James spent his days adventuring with his trusty dog, Sully.

One sunny day while out on a particularly grand adventure, James and Sully came upon a bridge crossing a roaring river. The bridge was made of polished wood from the tallest Chocolate Tree in all the land. It smelled delicious.

Just as our hero James and his dog Sully were about to cross the bridge, they heard a mighty roar. The ground shook. James and Sully spotted an enormous dragon on the other side of the bridge. The dragon was a deep, shimmering green with red polka dots.

His booming voice called out, “Who dares cross my chocolate bridge?”

“It is I, Prince James of the Kingdom of Wisconsin!” James said boldly.

“Woof!” said Sully.

The dragon charged across the bridge toward the fearless duo. James raised his fist, and with the dragon’s breath hot on his face, he bopped the dragon on the nose.

“Woof!” said Sully.

The dragon reared back on his hind legs and drew in a deep breath. With all his might, he breathed a fiery breath upon the prince and his dog. But instead of fire, the dragon breathed jellybeans! The sweet beans piled high on the ground, covering James and Sully’s feet.

James reached into the pile and grabbed a strawberry jellybean—his favorite! He ate the jellybean, and the dragon began to cry.

“Cheer up!” said James. “Have a jellybean! There are plenty.” James took a handful of the jellybeans and offered them to the dragon.

The dragon wiped away his tears and smiled. “For me?” he said. “Nobody has ever shared jellybeans with me before.” The dragon smiled and ate the jellybeans.

“Woof!” said Sully.

And the duo became a trio. James, Sully, and their new friend the dragon lived out their days sharing many adventures together.

THE END

 

Way-Back Wednesdays!

Welcome to my first installment of Way-Back Wednesdays! Which, conveniently, can also be called Flashback Fridays! Perfect for a lazy blogger such as myself.

What, exactly, is Way-Back Wednesdays?

I’m so glad you asked.

Way-Back Wednesdays (not to be confused with Peabody’s WABAC Machine), is a new series in which I will be re-reading and reviewing books from my own collection. And it’s a very specific collection, at that. I will be limiting myself to the contents of a random box of books I was recently given from my childhood bedroom:

And there are some doozies in there. So prepare yourselves. There has been no cherry-picking on my part, no hiding the occasionally…umm…eclectic literary choices of my younger self. The USOC has monitored all box searching activity to assure the purity of the sport.

Just to show I’m being honest, here’s a book for the ages:

Today, however, I will begin with an absolute favorite of mine. In my house we have not one, but three copies of Norton Juster’s classic, The Phantom Tollbooth. In this box is a well-worn, and apparently STOLEN copy, belonging to my best friend. Sorry, Marsha. I will send it back, I promise!

My apologies for this ridiculously short review, but really, I can sum it up in one word: brilliant.

Our story begins with a boy named Milo, who is exceedingly bored with, well, everything. And that’s really all we know about him, but it works. Within the first few pages, Milo finds several boxes in his home, the contents of which are “ONE GENUINE TURNPIKE TOLLBOOTH” and an electric car. Milo decides to set aside his boredom and assemble the tollbooth and car, and in no time, he sets off on an adventure into a land of puns and wordplay.

Stuck in the Doldrums, he meets Tock the watchdog and they travel to Dictionopolis, where they are sent off to rescue the princesses, Rhyme and Reason. This is an adventure filled with clever puns and an ever fascinating play on words. Juster’s sharp wit leaps from every page, and Jules Feiffer’s fantastic illustrations only add to the overall appeal. It is such a brilliant combination, resulting in a perfect tale for the ages.

The overarching theme of finding magic in ordinary things is timeless, and this book, now more than fifty years old, is as appealing as ever.

I think one of the true tests of children’s literature is its ability to not only appeal to adults, but transport us back to childhood, sweeping us up with the same magic we felt as kids. This book does exactly that, and it’s one of the many reasons this will always be a favorite of mine.

If you’ve reached adulthood without having read this classic, you must go forth and consume it immediately. If it’s been years since you’ve had the pleasure of drinking in Juster’s words, go find that stolen copy you’re hiding in a box somewhere and read it!*

*And then return it, 25-30 years late.

An Open Letter to Bill Donohue

Yesterday, the Catholic League tweeted the following:

Today, in defense of adoptive families everywhere, I sent the following letter to the Catholic League’s President, Bill Donohue:

Dear Dr. Donahue,

I will admit, upon viewing yesterday’s ill-conceived tweet by the Catholic League, I felt a rising anger and disbelief that such ugliness would be so publicly displayed. As both an adoptive mother and an advocate for equality, I take such attacks very personally, and it was, no doubt, an attack upon us all. Married, single, gay, straight, you disparaged each of us.

Rather than the “normal” nine months, my husband and I waited a long, painful, heart-wrenching seven years to meet our beautiful, sweet son. Does this somehow disqualify us as parents, or, on some scale unknown to me make us lesser parents? Is there a blood-link bonus not granted to those of us brought together by adoption? My son grew in my heart rather than beneath it—did that leave me in some way less qualified to love, nurture, raise, or protect him? Will my son live his life wishing for a life he never had, a biological link we do not share?

Perhaps the Pharaoh’s daughter should have simply left Moses in the bulrushes? Or maybe you feel Mary and Joseph were insufficient for the task handed to them by God himself.

And while we’re on the subject, I’d love you to explain an anti-abortion and anti-adoption stance, as I am completely baffled. A child needs love and security, whether from a mom and a dad, two dads, two moms, a single parent, or grandparents. Love and stability are not the exclusive domain of a husband and wife. To think otherwise is not only archaic fact-denying, but pure foolishness and bigotry.

These angry thoughts occupied my mind for much of the afternoon, until a sudden and blissful feeling of serenity washed over me, replacing my anger with sympathy. It was when I realized that an organization so blinded by vitriolic dogma, so wrapped in anger and disdain, is missing out on something beautiful. For you will never know the overwhelming joy of reaching out and grasping that which has been beyond your reach. Without this struggle, and simply having a child “of your own,” you will never comprehend the desperate longing to be a parent; your arms stretched out, your lungs burning from the effort of chasing that dream, until that magical day when finally you cradle a beautiful child in your arms, your heart swelling with pride and a love like no other as the family you were meant to have is realized. You cannot appreciate great fortune unless you’ve first suffered misfortune.

Yes, I feel sorry for you. You tilt at windmills, choosing to spend your time attacking the transgressions of silly and forgettable movies that, most likely, no one will watch, as though a girl in a bikini is somehow a bigger threat or insult to your faith than its hierarchy’s systematic, organized cover up of decades of the most hideous child abuse by your .02%.

You attack us all for a thoughtless comment of one. One wouldn’t think a man such as you would need a reminder on scripture, but it would seem a lesson is in order.

 A father to the fatherless, a defender of widows, is God in his holy dwelling. God sets the lonely in families, he leads forth the prisoners with singing; but the rebellious live in a sun-scorched land. –Psalms 68: 5-6

 I hope you can find the humanity, charity, and spirit of Christian faith which seems so sorely lacking in your actions and words.

Sincerely,

Michelle E. Reed

I will update if I receive a response.

Getting A Little Obsessed

It’s funny, the thoughts that occupy the minds of preschoolers. I can’t speak for all of them (I only have the one, after all), but my son goes through obsessive phases. They can last days or weeks, becoming his primary interest.

Right now he has two:

Elvis:

and

 

the Tooth Fairy:

An odd, yet awesome combination, no?

Whenever we’re in the car, Elvis is his first—and only—choice. He runs around the house singing The King’s greatest hits. He grabs his Phineas and Ferb guitar and rocks out. He’s working on his “Thankyuuuuu, thankyuuuverymuch,” and I find myself asking if he’s busy TCB (he always is).

With Elvis, it’s pure fandom. The Tooth Fairy, on the other hand, is something else entirely. He saw a children’s show a few weeks which dealt with Ms. Fairy and her role in the lives of children. As the excited cartoon child placed their tooth under their pillow and fell into a peaceful slumber, things went south. Seeing the arrival of Ms. Fairy, kiddo clamped his hand to his mouth and screamed “WHY WOULD SHE STEAL MY TEETH???”

Oh, boy.

I explained that she does not steal teeth. It is merely a business transaction. In exchange for your tooth, she gives you cold hard cash. Capitalism!

He remains unconvinced. And to be fair, having some strange magical woman float into your room while you’re sleeping and make off with your teeth is a bit…weird.

He now keeps in his room a letter he had me write. I was merely the secretary, taking dictation as he issued his Tooth Fairy Directive, which follows:

I can’t wait to see what obsession he comes up with next.

Reinterpreting The Saga

When not busy dismembering his Lego Minifigures (which can be seen here), my kiddo loves reenacting scenes from Star Wars.

 

 

Everyone remembers the gripping confrontation between Darth Vader and C-3PO, as Yoda tried in vain to bring an end to the conflict…

 

 

…and the edge-of-your-seat, pusle-pounding duel between Yoda and the battle axe wielding cheerleader…

 

 

…all leading to the action-packed melee in the exciting conclusion.

 

 

Take a bow, everyone!

Ride Like the Wind

My son turned four last month, and he has recently fallen in love with the idea of getting a “big boy” bike. In other words, step aside tricycle! Spring is coming, and that trike is so last season.

We took him to the store a few days ago (evil big box retailer once again. We are weak. Weak, I tell you!), and let him try out a few, to see what size would be the best fit. Unless you have kids, you probably don’t realize that little kid bikes come in several sizes. We were quick to learn he’s in the 16” frame market. And they had Spider Man! Cue happy kid (and happier Dad!).

As we were busy corralling him so he wouldn’t take off down the aisles on “HIS” new bike—explaining he’d have to wait to see if maybe the Easter Bunny would bring him one is a whole ‘nother story—I took note of how blissfully stable the training wheel setup was. And I got jealous of the safe, fun way in which he’ll get to learn to ride.

A little.

When I was a kid, learning to ride a bike, even with training wheels, was a bit…terrifying.

Why is that, you may ask? Oh, you silly youngsters.

Not to age myself, but I have no choice if I’m going to explain this properly. You see, when I learned to ride a bike in the magical year of 1979 (I was in kindergarten. Yeah, I’m old. Get over it.), training wheels weren’t the lovely, stable, smooth, run flat on the ground support enjoyed by kids today (and kids since sometime in the early 80s, I believe).

No, our training wheels rode a couple of inches off the ground. The idea was you’d learn balance, but the wheels would catch you so you wouldn’t actually fall. This resulted in an odd combination of elation and terror. A feeling of panic grabbing your heart as you tilted first to the left and then to the right, your heart racing as the training wheels caught you at the last possible second before certain death. Panic and blind fear. That’s the way to learn, man!

“I’m doing it! I’m riding a bike!”

“AAAHHH! I’m gonna die!”

“Yes! The wheels caught me! I’m INVINCIBLE!”

This range of emotions would span a period of mere seconds, repeated on a continuous loop until you a) learned to ride a bike b) said “Screw this! I’m going inside to watch The Love Boat!” or c) gave up and rode a Big Wheel for another year.

And we didn’t have helmets.

But we did get to ride bikes with banana seats. And there is something to be said for accomplishment gained through terror. It’s more meaningful to overcome than to never have really faced adversity. We conquered our fears. Not to say it won’t be a little scary once the training wheels come off, but to have no fear of falling before they do? I think you miss out on something.

And did I mention we got banana seats? Suck on that, new millennium!

Sometimes My Kid Can be a Little Creepy

Is dismembering Lego characters normal four-year-old behavior? Because, to be honest, it’s freaking me out. A little.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

It’s a bit weird to find dismantled Star Wars figure displays scattered throughout the house, no?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Perhaps we should be glad he has no access to carbonite. Notice how Darth Vader is exempt from such treatment?

 

Nature vs. Nurture

Photo courtesy of Volume One http://volumeone.org/

As an adoptive parent, I often ponder the role my husband and I play in who our son is as a person. How much is genetic? How much is our influence—the environment we’ve created? These are certainly not new ideas. The nature-nurture debate has raged for centuries, and I have no delusions about bringing anything new to the discussion, but it is a topic brought to the forefront of my mind a few nights ago while attending a concert.

We’re big fans of the Celtic band Gaelic Storm (check them out! http://www.gaelicstorm.com/), and see them whenever we can. This past summer, we took our son to his first show, and he was hooked. This week took him to show number two. We were front row, center, which gave kiddo the chance to really ham it up, which he did with great gusto. He spent the evening dancing right up by the stage, and by the end of the night, was completely wiped out. It was well past bedtime, and as they were playing their final song of the set, he finally sat down with me. My husband and I were sure he would fall asleep. Snuggled up to me, his sleepy voice asked, “Mommy, can we go home now?”

I told him they would play one more song, the encore, and then it would be all done and we could go home. He was agreeable to staying until the end.

After raucous applause, the band came back for their encore, and played “What’s the Rumpus?” Hearing the familiar song begin, a reenergized kiddo jumped up and started to dance again, joining the rest of the crowd which was on its feet. As the song went on, he began to run out of steam, so I picked him up so we could finish out the night dancing together.

Patrick Murphy, singer, musician, and all around cool guy, came to the front of the stage and motioned to me. He looked down at kiddo and held his hands out. With only a slight feeling of trepidation, I handed him over and watched as our little man was lifted on stage. I looked at my husband, knowing we shared the same thought. This would either be a smashing success, or a colossal failure. Our kid is not shy, but he was tired. And when he’s tired, watch out.

Fortunately, he was thrilled. He was handed a mallet, and given free rein to bash away at a cymbal. He embraced the task with great gusto, and the crowd went wild, cheering with each crash, egging him on. He looked from band member to band member, as if suspecting it was all too good to be true, but they smiled and encouraged him, seeming to enjoy the moment every bit as much as he.

After this went on for a bit, I went to the steps of the stage, figuring he would see me and come running.

Not even close.

I found myself onstage, standing next to a gleeful child still bashing away at that magical cymbal. When I finally got him off stage, he asked, “Can I have the violin next?”

After the show, he hammed it up some more with the band, and Pat expressed his admiration, telling us on the occasions when they do take a kid on stage, they usually stand there, frozen.

Not our kid. He was fearless and grabbed the moment with both hands, which got me thinking. I was the same way when I was a kid: a bold people person who would have done the exact same thing, begging the question: where does he get it? Is it our influence over him, teaching him never to be afraid of being himself? Do his observations of our interactions with the world shape the outgoing personality he’s developed? Or is it just who he is? Is it in his DNA?

We may never know, but it sure is fun to think about.