Wednesday 25 August 2010


We're about to go away for a few days, and I really shouldn't be on the computer at all; I should be packing, or at the very least pretending to pack. But it's impossible not to mark this day. A year ago, on 25 August 2010, we found out who our babies were going to be. It wasn't a one-instant finding out, but this was the day when we found out the answer was yes. The picture came the next day.

At the time, obviously, we couldn't post it. And then when it was legal, because we had passed court, we were in Ethiopia and juggling trying to care for them with trying not to go crazy, and I never got around to posting what we saw, the first time we saw their faces.

So, a year later, here it is. How I obsessed about this picture. Who was who? (Her on the left, him on the right). Did she really think she was an extra in the 'Thriller' video, or were her hands just naturally claw-like? (neither). Was there any hair underneath those hats? (not really). Did they expect me to keep up the matching outfits? (thankfully not).

Would we fit together? Could I love them? Would they attach to me? Would a day come when these faraway faces would really be part of our family? (Yes. Yes. Yes. Yes. Yes. Yes. Yes. Yes. Yes).



A thousand times: Yes.

Friday 20 August 2010

Me and Charles Dickens

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. Mr Dickens was writing about revolutionary France, but recently I've been wondering whether he was really trying to explain how it feels to mother a one year old.

At the moment, I'm having to eat every word I've ever said or thought about toddlers. Our babies aren't walking yet, but suddenly ,they are so different. They might not be officially toddling, but those proper baby days are definitely over. Suddenly, we're seeing behaviour that I wasn't prepared for, and it seems that I have no way of effectively dealing with it. I keep reading books that glibly advise 'a firm "NO" ' as the answer and I find myself thinking 'are you KIDDING me?' Our boy is utterly impervious to the word no. He understands it, but he's not interested in it. Instead, I need to pick him up and physically move him away from whatever it is he isn't supposed to be touching, and that causes a nuclear meltdown. I didn't realise such a small child could have such a big tantrum. And if I'm honest, I didn't really think that any child of mine would ever have a tantrum at all.

After about 8 weeks of training, I think that he may, possibly, have learned not to eat snacks from the cat's food bowl. Possibly. We'll see how tomorrow goes. But that's it for parenting successes. I find myself astonished, every day, by how little I can do to manage his behaviour. I always assumed that children's behaviour reflected their parents' actions, and now... I think I was wrong. OK, I hope I was wrong. "Loving consistent boundaries!" I said to the social worker, and I meant it. And do manage to do it, pretty much, by the grace of God, generally. Mostly. I think. And I try to make as much of the house as possible a 'yes-zone' where it's all safe, nothing is out of bounds, and the potential for conflict is minimised. But wow, it turns out that this is a child who can have a tantrum when I offer him a sippy cup of water. I should say here that, as far as I can tell, I don't think any of this is adoption related. I think it's human-condition related, and that's even more unfixable. The two things I say most often in frustration are "Baby I! Mummy is not making you eat it! I'm just offering it to you" and "It's not healthy to sit in poop all day! You really do need a clean nappy, I'm not doing this for fun!" but the rage continues and I'm all at sea.

The thing is, along with all of this, we also have a child who does behave like the children in the books. A firm "NO" in her direction is enough, and sometimes more than enough. If she was my only child, or if I had other children like her, I would think I had this parenting thing sussed. But it's extremely clear that I don't. I get so frustrated with him, and with my own lack of patience. Because I was doing fine, really, when they were smaller. It was hard, hard work, but I felt like we were all on the same team. Now it doesn't feel quite so much like that. She's banging her head on things and needing my attention and I want to give it to her, and play with both of them, not fight stupid battles over sippy cups and onesie poppers. It's hard to be patient and I'm having a hard time getting used to the fact that right now I am that parent with that child making that noise in a public place. That's not how I like to think of myself. It seems this is yet another lesson for me in dealing with my pride. I know that God's grace is sufficient, but I want to be sufficient, and instead all I do is fail fail fail.

And yet. They are both crawling at about the same speed, so they often chase each other around the house, at a hilariously slow pace, giggling until their whole bodies shake. Their hair is growing, and they now have the most astonishing spirally curls. I never thought two human beings could be so beautiful. They are learning, learning, learning. They seem to have mastered their first abstract concept - they have started waving goodbye when someone leaves, without any 'wave' prompts. They sleep on their tummies, with their bottoms pointing heavenwards. His babbling has changed so that he now sounds like he is having a real conversation, with modulated pitch and pauses. She ate her first spider. They continue to worship the cat. They are both absolutely crazy about pancakes; if I let them have pancakes at every meal they would surely explode. When I stand, they pull themselves up, one on each of my legs, bounce dramatically and shout at the top of their lungs, like noisy happy barnacles.

It is the worst of times. It is the best of times.

Tuesday 17 August 2010

Two In A Series: Why

First up: more meta. Are you bored of this yet, people? I expect so, because I surely am.

Turns out IntenseDebate is like a bad, bad boyfriend. Seems so fine. Looks so good. Says all the right things. Then he lets you down. You get over it. You move on, maybe go back to the one who was there all along. Then he comes back into your life, saying 'Hey, baby! Remember me?' and promising that things have changed. You waver, then let him back in, maybe against your better judgement. Your future looks so bright. And then, then, oh, then.... he breaks your heart all over again.

And by break your heart, of course, I mean swallows your comments.

I got an unexpected email the day after I published my last post, from another blogger, saying that all of my comments (by which I mean your comments of course, dear readers) had been redirected to her blog. Which was a bit surprising for her. Turns out the delightful people at IntenseDebate tech support had done something with her blog, and then when they fixed mine they left her codes in the template. Or something equally helpful. I don't know quite what. Not knowing about all this stuff is why I do not work in IT. Anyway, we both contacted tech support about it, and they haven't got back to either of us. In the end, she managed to let the comments through to me a few hours ago, I've copied them as text into blogger, and deleted IntenseDebate from my system forever. I am super cranky about this, mostly because of the time we've both wasted. But we all have better things to do than think about my commenting system, right? Like watching some paint dry.

And so, onward and upward! This has galvanised me into thinking that yep, I am finally going to have to make the big move over to wordpress, for all kinds of boring reasons. But not today. Today I'm moving on to a photography topic that probably should have come first of all:

3: Think About Why You Are Pressing The Shutter

This one is short and simple.

You don't have to be taking wonderful photographs to make those photographs worth taking. But I think that you do have to be taking them purposefully.There are many, many excellent reasons to press the shutter on your camera, from 'ahhhh, that's another Pulitzer Prize for me!' to 'I just like the clicky noise that it makes'. The only truly bad reason, in my opinion, is 'It's digital, so I don't have to think about it! I just leave my index finger on the button all the time!'

When you turn into Digital Dan, it's likely that you'll end up with a computer full of images that you'll never look at, because you never really wanted them in the first place. So another way to ask 'why am I pressing the shutter?' is to ask 'why will this photo make me smile when I find it on my computer?'

For family photos (which is what I'm talking about here) I think there are two particularly good reasons to click: either I want a nice photo or I'm recording a happy memory. There can be overlap, of course, but usually it's one or the other. (Trying to get both at once can be a very effective shortcut to ruining a happy family occasion, she said from experience).

I should have written this topic first, as some kind of disclaimer. Because mostly, what I'm wanting to write about in this series is the pretty photos. You already know how to take the happy memory photos, right? Really, you don't need me, or anyone else, to tell you that it's a good idea to get some kind of record of your child's first birthday party. And nobody takes those 'just given birth' photos because they think they will look good in a modelling portfolio. But sometimes, when you start thinking about pretty photos, you can look at the memory photos and think 'arrgghhhh! I'm so embarrassed!' which is not the point of this series at all. Just know why you're taking the photo, and asssess the results against the purpose. If you wanted a beautiful photo, and you got a beautiful photo, then you've succeeded. If you wanted a beautiful photo, and it's not quite beautiful but you're practising, then you've succeeded. And if you wanted something to remember a special day by, and you get an out of focus child blurring through a wonky frame, covered in cake and butt-naked, and you're going to look at it in ten years and smile, well that's definitely succeeding too.

If you're interested in developing the aesthetic appeal of your photos, it's absolutely imperative to develop a critical eye (which is another topic to come). But it's just as important to be able to turn that critical eye off when it's not needed. It's definitely worth taking what you know about making pretty photos when you take memory photos. But if you get too caught up in wanting the composition, the light, the background and the matching outfits to be perfect, when all that stuff isn't why you're taking this particular photo, you'll be tempted to say 'naaaaah, I'm not going to bother'. And the photo you don't bother to take definitely won't be a success.

So before you click, think. Why am I taking this? If it's for memories, click with impunity and don't worry about anything else. But if you want to take it up a notch too.... that's when things start to get really interesting.

Friday 13 August 2010

One in a Series: Cameras and Backgrounds

I've been doing project 365 this year, where I take a photo every day. I'm going to share with you a few things that I've learned along the way about photographing babies. I am absolutely not claiming that I know everything there is to know, or that I'm some kind of brilliant professional photographer: that's not what we're here for. If you want professional photography, google 'portrait photographers' in your area and I'm sure someone will be happy to take your money. This is about ordinary you with an ordinary camera, capturing what's in front of you every ordinary day.

Because I'm me, I have far too much to say about this. And my posts have been far too long lately, so I've decided to split this one into a series. Today, you get my top two points.

1: Don't Buy A New Camera. Yet.

I think the most common mistake people make when they want better photos is to buy a new camera. I'm here to tell you - don't do it! Once you've squeezed every drop of juice from your current camera, then you may buy a new one. Once you are absolutely certain that it's holding you back,and you know why it's holding you back, then okay. But until you get to the stage where your photos are limited by the camera (and not by what's behind the camera) it's just not time yet. I dont know you, but I'm 99% certain that you can do better with what you've already got. I'm 100% certain that I can do better with what I've already got.

In fact, if I was running a photography course (which I'm not, but you are welcome to give me $500 if you like) the first thing I would do is take away all the fancy cameras, give everyone something ultra-basic, then say go forth and click! The reason is simple: once you take away the ability to fiddle with the camera, you actually have to think about what you're photographing. A simple camera gives you a great gift - it forces you to think about the composition of your photos, because that's all you can control. So don't buy a new camera, because then you'll be thinking about the camera. Think about what you're photographing instead. It will make a bigger difference, I guarantee it. Also, it's free.

The best way to start doing this is to digress into photographic philosophy for a moment. You need to think about the difference between a beautiful photograph, and just a photograph of a beautiful thing.

Were you listening? I'm going to say it again. You've got a beautiful thing - your baby - but there's a big difference between a photograph of a beautiful thing, and a beautiful photograph. For example, roses are beautiful, right? But this is not a beautiful photograph. And neither is this. This, on the other hand, is beautiful, because the photographer has looked past the pretty thing in front of him and thought: how am I going to arrange that in my viewfinder?

You can do the same.

2. Think About The Background

People, I cannot say this loudly enough. If you do one thing - ONE THING - to make your photos better, do this. For the love of all that is precious, think about the background.

Put it this way. You have a cute baby, yes? The cutest in the world? Well, of course. But if you have a baby, this means that you also have piles of washing strewn around your house. Or maybe lots of plastic toys. And a pram. And while these things are all useful and unavoidable, they do not improve your photos. This comes back to what I said above about beautiful thing vs beautiful photograph- your baby's always going to be cute, but if he's sitting in a typical messy house then it's hard to make the photograph look good.

There are lots of great ways to include a good background, but for babies I think the easiest is to go as plain as possible. Compare this and this. Two equally cute kids, and there are absolutely no fancy photography techniques in either. But the second photograph is a killer, and it's all because of the plain background behind the baby. The key here is that there is nothing to distract the eye. You look at it, and your eye goes straight to the baby. With the first photo, it's nice enough but your eye kind of wanders around, looking at all the different things in the frame. It's a total waste of visual energy*.

Getting a plain background is harder than it sounds at first, especially if you live in a teeny tiny house like me. Grass is your friend. Plain rugs are your friend. Daddy's shirt (while being worn by Daddy) are your friend. Plain painted walls are your friend, but only if (as in the photo I linked) you can get a low angle so you are seeing just wall, not wall and floor and baseboard. And while we're talking angles - if you're thinking about grass, you should think about shooting from above so that it really is grass you're getting, not grass and trees and sky and half of a billboard. Whatever you choose, fill the frame with it. Often, this means getting really close to your subject and cropping out everything else. In the Daddy's shirt example above, you just want baby + the shirt + the supporting arm. If the purpose of the shirt is to be background, you do NOT want Daddy's head.

Carpet is not really your friend - it's always going to look like carpet, but it's better than some of the alternatives. Patterned rugs (unless it's something graphic and simple like stripes or big spots) are absolutely not your friend. Highchairs are your deadly enemy.

If you'd like a project, here's a project for you: take a picture today. Don't worry about anything else, just think about the background. Use a simple, frame-filling background to make your subject pop. I'd love to see it!

Again, people, if you're going to make one change, make it this: Think about the background.

The eagle-eyed among you may have noticed that I have switched photos here. By linking to that first photo it seems I upset the photographer - for which I sincerely apologise. If you're still reading: I wasn't saying you're a bad photographer, just trying to talk about the power of a good background. All of us, without exception, are prone to taking photos with too much stuff going on. I have now specially uploaded an old photo of my niece to flickr as a new example of background clutter. I would apologise on your flickr page, but now that I've replaced the link I can't find you.

Wednesday 11 August 2010

Complain about Commenting Software HERE

Okay, so the people at IntenseDebate got back to me, promising that they have now fixed the glitch that caused me to delete their software a fortnight or so ago. I'm going to try installing it again, because I'm clearly some kind of masochist. (And I do REALLY LIKE being able to reply to comments).

Anyway, dear readers, I'm going to ask you a really big favour. I'm leaving this post with the normal blogger commenting system turned on. IntenseDebate comments should reactivate with the next post, once I've installed the new template. So if you find that you would like to comment on future posts but are unable to, please click back to this post and tell me. I know it's a pain, and you have better things to do, but think of it as your good deed for the day. I'll leave a link on the sidebar.

Your reward for another post about commenting software is this incredible website. It's just beautiful. But you have to wonder what she's doing to that baby to get her to sleep for long enough to do this. Hat Tip: my sister.

And while I'm breaking my 'no more metablogging ever again' rule, I remembered something I meant to say last time. Some of you don't have your blogger public profiles enabled, and it means that we can't see your blog. (Kerry in Oregon, I'm talking to you!) You comment, I click on your name to go across to YOUR blog and say hi and... there's no link. If any of you do have a blog, but it's not visible when someone clicks on your name, I'd love it if you could leave a link. If you don't mind sharing, of course.

Coming up next... more from choose your own adventure blogging . I've now done #5 and #2 from the list and I'm feeling a bit like I'm beginning to take myself a bit too seriously. So I think that next up will be #8: Photographing Babies. Because nothing says Not Serious like accidentally lying down in dog poo to get the perfect angle. Not that this has ever happened to me. Obviously.

Thursday 5 August 2010


Earlier today I admitted to someone outside the adoption community that I really struggle with knowing whether or not my children are securely attached to me. I feel like I’ve admitted to a murder. I can’t believe I said that out loud! As another blogger said recently - like lots of adoptive parents, I find it hard to admit the hard parts to the wider world because I’m always thinking ‘What will this say about adoption?’*

I’m trying to learn to let go and remember that it doesn’t say anything at all about adoption, really. It says something about our adoption, not something about every adoption. But the problem with being in a minority is that each story is too often treated as a shortcut to every story. J and I are the only adoptive parents that most of our friends know. This means that, to them, we are adoption. Our family is adoption. Our story defines what adoption is like. I don’t like this, but it’s the way it is. I put myself under unreasonably heavy pressure to make everything look great, all the time**. I’ll do anything to keep it positive, because if people have negative views of adoption, then I feel like they are judging my children and then I start to hyperventilate and I need to go and get a paper bag to breathe into.

I was thinking about this recently, when I read what a few adoptive parents had to say about a film dealing with issues surrounding adoption. The consensus was but it was really negative and that’s not what adoption is really like! Adoption is fabulous! and I found myself getting angry along with them until it hit me: hang on. This film isn’t claiming to be the adoption story, just an adoption story. Do I really think that there are no adoptions that result in massively dysfunctional families? Of course not, any more than I think that there are no massively dysfunctional families who are all related by biology. So why am I so threatened by an adoption story about people who are seriously messed up and miserable? I can watch a film about romantic betrayal without thinking that it’s really about my husband and I, why can’t I watch a film about adoption without assuming that it’s really about me and my children? It‘s a story, but it‘s not the only story. It shouldn't threaten me. It‘s not my story. ***

And this has spun me onto noticing more that a similar set of dynamics - the desire to ignore and dismiss inconvenient stories - are often at work during dialogue within the adoption community. So many people in the adoption community - and I'm including all triad members here - are so passionate about what adoption has done to our lives (either for good or ill) that we can easily see everyone else's story as either a reinforcement of or a distraction from our own view. Adoptive parents (and maybe particularly prospective adoptive parents) are notorious for dismissing what adult adoptees really have to say. And as for listening to first parents.... sorry, what? Are they even part of the conversation?

Adoption and the personal story have a tricky relationship. Sometimes, adoption feels like a space where too many stories collide. We want everything to balance. But it doesn't, and our stories show this, and that can be profoundly uncomfortable. Your wonderful story of love against the odds might be someone else's story of loss dismissed and ignored, or an adoptee's story of a happy childhood jostles messily against the experience of a first mother who wishes that she had never been convinced to relinquish.

I remember how it felt to read adult adoptee writing, as we were just deciding on adoption as our future. I'd like to pretend I welcomed the new points of view, but no way. I kept wanting to say shut up, shut up! If you keep on talking like this, people will get the impression that adoption isn’t fabulous! I wanted to say if you’re going to be negative like this then your story can’t be true, or if it’s true, it can’t be important.

In short, I was a typical PAP. I had just decided that adoption was a Good Thing, so I was really only interested in having that view reinforced. And this isn't unique to APs and PAPs. It's human nature to want everybody’s story to reinforce the view that we already have. Sometimes adoptees do it to each other as well: but I’m perfectly happy about my circumstances so your trauma must be invented or you’re too happy, you must be repressing something. Sometimes we are so busy having a point of view that we really aren't willing to listen to each other's stories.

We forget that if the circumstances had been different, we could so easily have been at a different point on the triad. I think that adoptive parents are most guilty of forgetting this one, of treating first parents as if they are a different species rather than equally real, equally important people caught up in totally different circumstances. We think adoption is a happy story because our story is happy. But the unwillingness to listen to another story can flow in other directions, too. I’ve read some remarks from adoptees about infertility that are, frankly, pretty heartless. I suppose that if you’ve grown up hearing about how your parents tried and tried for a baby and it never happened and then the lady from the adoption agency called and they got YOU well, then, that narrative has probably lost a good deal of its punch, especially if you have come to wish that phone call had never been made. But once or twice I have found myself thinking - this could happen to you, too, sunshine, and then you would find out first hand that fertility grief is as real as any other sort of grief. I can see that the happy adoptive parent story threatens their view of adoption, in the same way that adoptee honesty can threaten adoptive parents.

Personally, I couldn't be more glad that I read some of the those threatening things. My thinking about adoption has changed a lot, so I no longer want to shut down the critical adult adoptees. Quite the opposite, in fact: if anything, I've become a groupie, and I know I'm not alone. Sometimes I wonder what some of these adult adoptees think of us, their dedicated group of wide-eyed AP fans. They must be chortling into their coffee a bit at our expense, yes? I've left my fair share of comments that say I'm really grateful to you for sharing your experience here. I'm an AP and I have really learned a lot from your blog. Thanks so much for your perspective - it has really changed the way I think and it's ALL TRUE, but seriously, Claudia. Really, it's the emotional equivalent of "Oh wow, you like cookies? I totally like cookies too. You have such pretty eyes! CAN I BRAID YOUR HAIR?" and I sort of hate myself for it. Why do I feel compelled to do it? There's a mixture of motivations, of course. There honestly is a lot of gratitude for having my thinking challenged. There's a genuine outrage that the wider media ignore and dismiss the adult adoptee voice. There's a real desire for dialogue. But I wonder if I am also so eager to be an ally because allegiance is a two-way street? If I can get an adult adoptee, particularly one who is critical of adoption practice, to be an ally with me, this will validate my approach to adoptive parenting and then I have got it MADE, baby! My kids will definitely be happy with their childhood and their family if I have that kind of seal of approval, yes?

And so I no longer want to shut this kind of dialogue down, but I've become so invested in it that now I find myself wanting to shut down other points of view. Now, if someone says oh hey, do you want to hear my story? It really shows that adoption is FABULOUS I find that I'm doing my little mental shut up shut up! routine in their direction. I've learned a lot, and I've grown a lot, and I've changed a lot, but I'm not really sure that I've become more open minded. Sigh.

For a lot of us, adoption plays a big part in defining who we are and what our life is. So unavoidably, we end up with a view about what it is and what it means. (This is true even for adoptive families who don't think or talk about adoption - what they have decided is that adoption is something that doesn't really matter very much, and this is a point of view too). And then someone else comes along, touched by the same thing but in a different way. When they tell their story, it's almost impossible not to hear it as telling us no, adoption isn't like THAT, it's like THIS.

And sometimes, that is what the person is trying to say. But more often, they are just saying: this is what happened to me. This is how I experienced it. When we are unable to really listen to other people saying this, it's time to stop and think. And I'm not just talking about people who aren't willing to hear the negatives, either - I guess I'm also talking about people who aren't willing to hear the positives, or people who think that adoption has to be done only one way to be successful (whatever successful means) or people who have decided, on your behalf, that adoption is going to be your lifelong scar. We become unwilling to really listen to stories that don't mesh with our own, where we don't agree on who the good guys and the bad guys are. Once this meant that I didn't want to read critical adult adoptees. Now it means that I'm unwilling to read stories about families who want to rescue orphans. My viewpoint has changed, but it's as rigid as ever.

It's hard to know what to do with this, really. I'm trying to come to terms with the fact that we will never be able to say okay, what is adoption like? and really have an answer. I'm trying to remember that it truly is a mosaic. Adoption doesn't have one face, any more than families have one face. There are happy stories and sad stories and a lot of stories in between, and nobody should have the right to censor any of these or pretend they don't exist. This doesn't mean that we should be unthinking as we listen. Some adoptive parents write with such entitlement that it's tempting to find out their addresses, go to their houses, and give them each a giant wedgie***. Some people can make sweeping statements about ALL adoptive parents, ALL white people, ALL non-adopted people that I think are unjustified and unhelpful. And I've read some first parents (and adoptees, and even the occasional regretful adoptive parent) who write off all adoption, everywhere, for all time, as evil, and I don't agree with that either. I don't mean that we should become relativists who suspend our powers of judgement, but we should listen very hard before we exercise them.

For me, I've been thinking a lot lately about how I present my story to the world. I think I can be a bit of a hypocrite - internally, within the relative safety of the adoption community, I'm very interested in the gritty bits of adoption, but externally, with my friends and family, it's all smiles and laughter. I need to remember that if adoption doesn't have one face, I shouldn't feel any pressure to be that face. I am trying to be a bit more nuanced in what I say, but it feels like fighting a losing battle with my own fears about what other people think of me, think of my family. Does anybody else find the same thing? And like every adoptive parent who has ever blogged, I'm thinking about writing it down as a book,***** and that's its own whole can of worms. But that's a topic for another day.

*I'm putting the link here rather than in the main bit of the post because I have to warn you - this post has a lot of bad language. Really, a lot. She has a lot of very thought-provoking things to say, and I'm glad I read it, but You Have Been Warned. I know some of you are rolling your eyes at this, but I feel a bit weird linking to a post that uses so much language I would never use myself. Also, the comments section? SKIP IT. Or, no matter what your views are on ANYTHING, you are just going to want to SCREAM. Again, You Have Been Warned.

**Not on this blog, obviously!

***I'm still not going to watch Juno, though. That would be a step too far.

****Please do not do this to me. Thank you.

*****And gosh, did I really just say THAT out loud?