Monday 25 October 2010

A Virus, A Win and Several Fails

The babies and I have been playing pass the parcel with a whole range of viruses for about 8 weeks, now. It's been pretty unpleasant. Last week was my turn again. I got this virus (and yes, I totally lucked out and got the ulcers and the tonsil blisters) which means that I spent most of the week popping codeine and covering my tongue in what is basically krazy glue, while ranting at my immune system for not rejecting what is supposed to be a childhood illness.

Thank you, virus, for ruining my week. The virus is why it has taken me so long to count up the entries (and the happiness tips), go to, press a button and come up with the winner for the happiness giveaway. But now I've done it and can tell you that it's Imgnyc, aka Leigh! Email me your address, Leigh, and your book will swiftly make its way to you on the wings of the morning. And the rest of you all win too, because you all get to read this luminously beautiful post that she wrote a few weeks ago. I've been wanting to link to this for ages, but never quite had the right context. Well, now I do, because she won my giveaway. Huzzah!

Okay. So. Another thing I'm going to blame the virus for: I've come to think that I possibly should have dialled down the pain meds before pressing 'publish' on my last post. I've always felt pretty strongly about that issue, and I've been meaning (for more than a year) to write something about it. I was hoping that it might be helpful for people who haven't yet adopted to have a point of view to consider when thinking about how to deal with the issue when it comes up. What I really, really did NOT want to do was pass judgement on anybody who has made a different decision from the one that we made.

Another thing I really, really didn't want to do was to lay guilt on anybody. I really hadn't considered that I might hurt people who have talked (to parents, friend, whoever) and now wish that they hadn't. I'm really sorry for this - it wasn't my intention.

A few people asked for advice about what to do in this sort of situation. All I can think of is this: we all mess up. Parents mess up. Adoptive parents probably mess up more than average, not because we are worse people but because there is more stuff to mess up. I don't know what your personal messing-up areas are, but I know that I fail daily. I have ordinary motherfails: I lose my temper. I can be lazy. And while I may not face privacyfails yet, I have what might be pretty serious adoptomotherfails too, things I feel too raw or embarrassed to write about here. And I could try justifying them, but that's not the point - the point is that I have failed, and continue to fail. These things may be things that my children grow up to grieve far more than they would have if I had nailed their birth history to our front door. And it may be that there will still other things that I never considered that do it instead. What can I do about this? I can't turn the clock back.

I read a parenting blog ages ago (I can't remember which one, or I'd link) that was talking about goals for raising children. The author was writing from a Christian perspective, and she said: our aim as parents isn't to stop our children from sinning, but to teach them how to deal with their sin. (And a pretty basic definition of sin is failure to do what we should do, be what we should be). And as I've been thinking about my own failures this week, and pondering questions about privacyfails, I've been thinking a lot about this. We're never going to raise perfect children, and that's probably just as well because we are never going to be perfect parents, either. I'm not going to do a perfect job of being my children's mother. Not in the everyday ordinariness of parenting, and not the specific adoption parenting bits either. Please believe that I know I do not have all the answers. Far from it.

This is complicated, because while parenting failures are not unimportant, they are inevitable, and it's in facing our own human imperfections that we can help our kids to face theirs. A way I can really help my children deal with their own imperfection is to let them see me deal with mine. Firstly (and I'm going to keep this as brief as possible) I need to admit them - often out loud, to the person we've wronged. I think this applies both to small things like being unreasonably cranky (I'm embarrassed by how often I need to apologise about this to my children) or large things like talking out of turn. Secondly, our apologies mean nothing if we don't strive to correct ourselves. I'm working on getting less cranky. If you've been more talkative than you should have, you can not do that anymore. Thirdly, we can seek to set right any wrongs we have done. A few people asked about what to do when words have already been spoken that they now wish unspoken. All I can suggest is to speak to the people you've talked to, explain why you wish you hadn't and ask them to keep quiet about what they know. As several people have pointed out (on this blog and others) people do generally mean well. Trade on that. Fourthly, if you're a Christian, parenting drives you again and again and again to remember what it means to be forgiven because boy oh boy do I need forgiveness day by day for all the ways that I fail.

Adoptomotherfails. Crankyfails. Privacyfails. We need to face them, because they are a daily reality. Turns out this parenting lark is a whole new journey of humility. I was reading The Gospel Centred Family yesterday and there was a prayer in there that sums up exactly how I feel about parenting:

"Dear God, please have mercy on my children, because with a parent like me, they are sure going to need it".

All I can say is: Amen.

Thursday 21 October 2010

The One With All The Privacy

Before we met the babies, before we knew anything about them, I spoke to a group of friends who had adopted the previous year. I asked them if there was anything they would have done differently in their adoptions, if they were doing it all again. One told me: "I wouldn't have been so quick to tell people everything we knew about our baby's background". The other one agreed, saying "In our case, I wouldn't have been so quick to tell people that we didn't know anything, because it turns out that is a pretty big thing to tell, too".

We took this to heart, and J and I agreed, long before we got a referral, that we would keep all of our child's information private. We're glad we made this decision. Our reasoning is simple: it's not our story to tell. If the babies want to share, later, they can do that. If we do it now, and they wish we hadn't, we can never un-tell. Information only goes in one direction.

And so we brought the babies home, determined to stick to this.

"So why were they adopted? Did their real parents not want them?" a friend asks me casually. I draw in breath. Does he have any idea what he is asking?

I think about my babies' story, and I suspect not. Their story is not unusual for an international adoption. But stories that end in adoption are never happy stories, are they? I wish I could tell my children a story about their beginnings that wasn't going to cause them pain. But any story that ends with 'and then we took you home on an aeroplane' is going to start with something pretty difficult. Our children are too young to understand any of this yet, but one day, one night, they probably will lie awake wondering "Did my real parents not want me?" I feel sick at the thought, and I feel angry that my friend has been so casual.

I try to imagine anything in this man's life that might be a similar source of pain. I know he had a difficult breakup, a few years ago. He's never talked about it. Maybe I should ask him about that. Maybe I should ask him for details about why his girlfriend left. Was it because he had gained weight? Was it the back hair? Did she find him boring? Maybe I should think of every painful possibility, everything that keeps him awake at night, and use them to scrape my fingernails down the blackboard of his mind. Scritch. Scratch. And see whether he thinks that's an appropriate topic for small talk. But even that wouldn't really be equivalent, would it? Because he could tell me to shut up, or refuse to answer. No, I should strap him in a pram, gag him, and then ask his mother about it. And then see how he feels when she tells me everything she knows.

Okay, Claudia, calm down, I tell myself. You know he meant no harm with his question. And honestly, it seems that very few people do. It would be easier to shut these conversation down if the person asking was being rude, but most aren't. They might be asking about a painful thing, but their intent is not to cause any pain. Some people want to know about the babies' story because adoption is an interesting social experiment, and okay, they are a tiny bit nosy. Some people want to know because we are stuck making small talk and they have run out of things to say. Some people want to know because we are in the queue in the supermarket and they are just passing the time. Lots of people want to know about the babies' story because they genuinely care. Whatever the reasons, it does feel that pretty much everybody wants to know.

This means that sticking to our resolution not to talk needs committment because it is hard. It's incredibly difficult to refuse to answer a straight question. It's very socially awkward, because it implies the question was rude and Miss Manners will tell you that letting another person know they have been rude is, well, rude. It sounds trivial, but try it - it's not easy. And this social difficulty of refusing to answer is one of the big reasons we decided not to tell anybody at all the whole story, not even the grandparents.

Okay, maybe we had a specific reason for not telling the grandparents. When we started our adoption process, we hardly told anybody. We did tell some family members, making it clear that they weren't to tell anyone else. And yet, one of them did. And I've forgiven her*, but I've learned something too - other people don't care about our personal information as much as we do. Every degree of separation tends to make people fractionally less determined to keep what's private, private**. So I would remind prospective adoptive parents that before you decide to tell the proud grandparents-to-be everything in your child's referral packet, know this: your parents' friends will ask them, all interested and concerned, about what happened to that precious baby before it was lucky enough to get adopted by you. They will not mean any harm by this, but they will do it. And unless your mother has nerves of steel, it's unlikely she will be able to find a way to deflect the question because, well, it seems so rude. And then your mother's friends Raymond and Darlene will know, and maybe your cousin Jeanette, and then Jeanette's children. And after a few of these conversations, the person at the end of the chain has no committment at all to your children's privacy and it's just an interesting story to talk to their hairdresser about. And maybe your children won't mind about that, but maybe they will. I much prefer knowing that my parents, and J's, are saying "well, I just don't know what happened, Raymond and Darlene, because my freakish child refuses to tell me". I'd much rather be my parent's freakish child in this situation than my children's unthinking parent.

I think the point I'm making here is that I find it very difficult to politely, cheerfully put down a conversational roadblock when people start asking these questions, even though I'm extremely motivated to do it. If you want any privacy at all, I would advise thinking twice before expecting family to make this same committment.

And then there's yet another layer. When I think about the schools that our children might go to, I realise that they will probably be in the same year group as the children of a few of our friends. This concentrates my mind somewhat. As I watch people interact with their growing children, I realise that most people will tell their kids pretty much anything they ask. So I know that if we tell our friends what happened to our children, why they needed new parents, then their children will know as soon as they are old enough to ask the questions. I think it's a very rare person who can say "well, honey, that's an interesting question but I think that might be L and I's private information. We don't really need to know, do we?" I love my friends, but I don't think many of them are quite that rare.

And you know what? I don't want my children's friends, or even their cousins, knowing all there is to know about them. When I think about my children in a school playground, I don't want the other children to know things about them that would hurt. I feel like the bare fact of being adopted is enough to contend with. And being transracially adopted is more than enough to contend with. Personal details, the whole history, the what and when and why, the hard and scary stuff, that seems like too much.

I probably haven't made it clear enough that we don't want the babies to be ashamed of their story, or to think that it is a secret. Privacy and secrecy are two very different things, and it's the first one that I'm aiming for. I want them to be able to talk about these things to people that they trust, but I want them to be the ones who make the decisions about who deserves that trust. I don't want this to be a cloud that hangs over us; I don't want to be always hovering over them saying 'No! Don't say that! You might wish you had kept that private!' But neither do I want to regret that it was me who spilled all the beans when they are dealing with the fallout.

Because here's the thing: I don't get to decide how the babies are going to deal with their losses, and their story, in the future. I hope I can support them as they do deal with everything, but it's not up to me to decide that they aren't going to find some bits of their story hugely challenging. Origins can be an enormously important part of self-concept, and I can only imagine how hard it might be for them to work through all of this as they grow up. As if puberty isn't enough, kids, have fun dealing with this too! No, seriously, you're welcome. If it was me, I think I can guarantee I'd have gone crazy. But here's the other thing: these children aren't actually genetically related to me. There's a very good possibility that they won't inherit my tendency to overthink everything, and who knows, they might not inherit my tendency towards obsessive privacy either. My decision to keep their story private is definitely coloured by the fact that it is what I would have wanted done for me, if I was in their shoes. But they may be happy to share their story with everyone. Hey, they may just be happy**.

They may be. They may never see privacy about this as an issue. But I don't get to decide this in advance. I don't get to decide that they aren't going to want to keep their story to themselves, or at least restrict it to their close friends. And so I feel that it's just not my place to tell it. That's their decision to make. In the meantime, I'm keeping my trap shut.

And yet people continue to ask. I think that lack of respect for privacy about the babies' history stems from a lack of understanding about the losses involved in adoption. I think - okay, I hope- that if people understood what they were really asking about, they wouldn't ask. If they realised that they were asking for access to information that's actually very personal, they would be much less likely to do it. "This isn't really a suitable topic for chit-chat!" I want to say, but I never do. Because I know that honestly, I'm no different. I'm sure that I ask inappropriate questions about other people's lives, and they are endlessly patient with me. If it was my friends adopting, not me, I'm sure I'd want to know what happened, why these babies, where are their real parents?

So I'm facing my friend, and I reply to his question by saying what we always say. Big smile first, then: "I hope this doesn't sound rude, but we've decided not to talk about the babies' story to anybody else until they are old enough for us to talk to them about it first". And he looks at me a bit funny, but he shrugs his shoulders and says "Fair enough."

And really, I think it is.

*Honestly, I have.
**Ruth left a comment a few posts ago with her own harrowing grandparent tale, which kind of made my hair stand on end. So this one is definitely not just me!
***And speaking of happiness - you've got about 12 hours left to enter the giveaway!

To reward you for making your way through all of that, here is a gratuitously cute twin pic.

Friday 15 October 2010


A few months ago, I was in Anthropologie. I picked up a book that looked interesting, opened it in the middle and started to read. The author was talking about happiness, and the chapter I had opened to was about money and happiness. I only read a few pages, but I remember the author talking about how people have different approaches to purchasing - that they tend to be either satisficers or maximizers - Satisficers have criteria they are seeking to meet with their purchases (eg: I need a red shirt, not too low cut, flattering) and once they find something that meets their criteria they buy it. Maximisers, on the other hand, think I am looking for the ideal red shirt and will leave no stone unturned until they find it. The interesting thing about this phenomenon is that satisficers tend to be happier with their purchases, because the maximiser may have bought something nicer, cheaper, whatever than the satisficer but they are still thinking what if there was something better out there and I missed it?

"Huh!" I thought. "Interesting". And I kept reading, and there were quite a few other things that made me go "Huh!" again. And then I put the book down, and continued my quest for the perfect red shirt.

I found myself thinking about this book quite a few times over the next few weeks. I told my mum about it - my parents are trying to build a house and can't quite make up their minds about what it is that they need. I even used the concept I'd read to bring my 6 month sofa search to an abrupt end by saying to J: "Hey! This perfectly adequate sofa is hugely reduced! Let's just buy it!" and we did, and we're really happy with it. Without this book, I suspect I would still be googling "UK sofa vintage leather" in my spare time and frankly I'm glad I'm not.

Now, I wanted to read the rest of the book. Of course, I had no idea at all what the book was called, or who wrote it. And I wasn't motivated enough to do anything useful like call the store (which is in London), ask them to open up all their books to the middle, find which one talks about purchasing styles and then post it to me. So I kind of forgot about it.

Then, on Saturday, I was in London again, vaguely cruising for the perfect handbag. I found myself in Anthropologie again and there it was! The book!

It's by Gretchen Rubin, and it's called The Happiness Project*.

I forgot all about my handbag quest, went to the till and gleefully purchased it.

Then I got it out to read and thought what have I done? She's got this lovely, perfect life and she wants me to follow along on her quest to be more happy? Give me a break! and then I saw that someone had compared it to Eat, Pray, Love on the back cover and my heart sank even further because while I've never actually read that book, I've read this and enough similar opinions to make me pretty sure I would hate it. So I'm thinking Okay, it's got some good stuff about shopping but what have I done?

And then I started to actually read it, and it was wonderful. It's not a book about depression or adversity. She is very open about the fact that she has a great life, and talks a lot about happiness as a duty. My life is great, she is saying, I ought to be happy. I have no excuse not to be. And so she spends a year alters her own attitudes and actions. The most surprising thing about this book is that she is largely focusing on altering herself, not her circumstances. She writes about becoming happier in her marriage not by finding someone else but with the resolutions: Quit nagging, don't expect praise or appreciation, fight right, no dumping and give proofs of love. It's not about trying to change him, but changing herself. Each month focuses on a different area of life. I liked that she is so honest about how difficult this was. If she had said, at the end of the month 'and then everything was PERFECT' I would have been ill inclined to keep reading. But it's not that simple. She acknowledges all the complexities, and keeps on going.

When I began to love the book, I did find myself wondering, at times, how well this totally secular quest for happiness fits into my Christian worldview. Should I be loving this book as much as I am? She's wanting to be happy, but largely ignoring God. (I'm a Presbyterian at heart. We struggle with these things). And it's true that I did find the chapter on 'Contemplate The Heavens' the least satisfying. She learns a lot from reading about a saint, but has made what must be a very deliberate decision to totally leave out any discussion of God himself. Commercially, this was probably a very good choice, but I found myself thinking 'there is so much more here!' But while I was reading about her efforts to be happier - which are largely efforts in unselfishness - I found myself thinking that a lot of what she is striving for is what the bible describes as the fruits of the spirit: love, joy, peace, kindness, goodness, patience, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control. This book is full of practical wisom on encouraging these characteristics - that has to be a good thing. And Christians, we should be happiest of all, and so often we are not. Sometimes I say I'm looking for 'contentment' in life, when really what I mean is that I'm trying to spiritualise my grumbling. As a Christian, I felt hugely convicted by this very secular book - she is absolutely right. Happiness is a duty. Not selfishness, but happiness. When I confuse the two, I'm getting something very wrong.

I found this book compelling because so many of her struggles are my struggles. A sharp tongue. Cynicism. Well, when I say struggles, often I'm not struggling at all, I'm just coasting along and not dealing with them.

A quote she comes back to several times is: "It is easy to be heavy, difficult to be light". I keep finding myself thinking about this. I know how easy I find it to become negative about things. For me, this is the lazy option. It really is difficult to be light. And sometimes, recognising something as difficult is a good start in moving towards it. It's easy to think 'perhaps I'm not that way because I'm just not made that way'. But no - for me, I'm not that way because too often I'm lazy about it. I find it easy to think about what upsets me, what annoys me. I've always had trouble with Philippians 4:8: "Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable--if anything is excellent or praiseworthy--think about such things." I'm rarely thinking about such things. I'm usually criticising them in my head, instead.

This might make it sound like the book is very po-faced and worthy - it doesn't feel like that at all. It's about happiness, and it's a very happy book. One of the concrete ways she becomes happier is by targeting her time more effectively. This reminded me of the rule that J and I have for ordering in restaurants -we always look at the menu, look at each other and then say "order what you DO want, not what you think you SHOULD want". Sometimes this means I end up having a burger, even though it's a fish restaurant, but you know what? It really works. She's basically applying this principle to time - do what you DO want in your free time, not what you think you SHOULD want. Why didn't I think of focusing like that? Well, I will from now on.

I mentioned above that I felt like I was reading about my own personality struggles. Well, my most surprising moment of self-recognition was when she admitted to eating brown sugar straight out of the jar. I thought I was the only person who did that! (Yeah, don't accept cake at my house). I found myself convinced that she must be my soul sister, my long lost BFF. And I guess that is the joy of her writing - I suspect she will make you feel like that too, even if you don't have the same sugar issues that I have. She says often that what she is learning to stop being someone else, but instead to 'be Gretchen'. At the end of this book, after spending a year watching her learn about happiness, I wanted to be Gretchen. But not like a stalker, I hasten to add.

It's hard to review this book properly, because I think my babies have just woken up and there is still so much that I want to rave about. I particularly liked her secrets of adulthood - too long to type them all out here, but they're along the same lines as my restaurant rule above. Some of my favourites were bring a sweater, what's fun for other people might not be fun for you, over the counter medicinces can be very effective and people actually prefer that you buy wedding gifts off their registry. Ah, so true.

Have you realised that I think you should all read this? Since I can't forcibly march you all to the shop to buy a copy, I'm going to do the next best thing. I've never done this before, but it's my 200th post and I'm feeling a bit giddy so I'm having a giveaway. I'm going to give away a copy of this book to one of you, yes you. I'll choose a winner using a random number generator. You can live wherever you like - I don't think anybody reads this in the UK so if I closed it to international readers I would be buying a second copy for myself. I'll order the book from Amazon in your country (or post it if you don't have Amazon) so it doesn't matter. Just leave me a comment with your name - and you get an extra entry if you also leave me your favourite happiness tip, or one of your own secrets of adulthood.

You've got a week - comments close next Friday at 12pm GMT.

By the way, I've just done one of her resolutions, from November - give positive reviews. And do you know what? I do feel happier.

*Having just found this on Amazon to link, I've seen that it was a New York Times #1 bestseller. I guess that means everyone else has already read it and I'm terribly behind. I'm trying not to think negative thoughts about that.

Wednesday 6 October 2010

Home Truths

Babies are such a joy. So many things in life are more fun with children in the house.

It turns out that renovations are not one of these things.

This last week, J has had our floor up. He's replacing the old laminate with oak flooring. It's going to look great. But in the meantime, I am going CRAZY. Not just a little bit crazy, but C-R-A-Z-Y. We can't use downstairs in the house at all. The living room and dining room have big holes in the floor, and the kitchen has a piano in it. Being confined upstairs is not fun. Trying to nap with a circular saw buzzing is not fun either, apparently, judging by the howling. And it's raining, and the babies are still crawling, so outside is a no-go. Being in the pram is an option, but the babies are at that go-go-go stage and they want to be DOING things, not stuck in a wheely thing. They don't ask for much, they just want some space to crawl, and right now they can't have it.

Oh, also they are teething again.

Have I mentioned I'm going crazy?

I keep finding myself thinking that this would all be so much easier if I didn't have to look after two little people. I get so stuck in accidentally thinking that the babies are the endpoint of our adoption story, the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, the happy ending. But on days like this my story feels neither happy nor ended and then I get all confused. How can I feel so fed up with my pot of gold? I must be a bad person. But I knew motherhood would be hard. Maybe I'm not a bad person after all. It's just that I got so sick of hearing people complaining about their children, before I had any. It used to make me cry. But then today I cried because baby I wouldn't settle and then smeared fish all over the floor. So does this mean that I think my complaining friends' attitudes were okay, now? No, I don't. I don't think it's okay to act as if children are a burden, a curse, a liability. If I didn't think they were a privilege, I would never have worked so hard to become a parent. But if I'm so convinced they are such a privilege, why am I so utterly frustrated with them so much of the time? Why do I get so resentful when they seem like such a swirling vortex of need? I just cannot deal with the cognitive dissonance.

I beat myself up about this all the time.

Am I the only one?

I'm really curious about this. Other adoptive parents, or people who became parents after a long and difficult journey - how do you deal with it? Or is it not an issue for you?