Friday 29 July 2011

I Have An Announcement To Make

It's a big one, folks. I would like to officially announce that yesterday, the 28th of July 2011, my two children sat down and spontaneously played together. Happily. For five full minutes. Without biting or hitting or screeching or weapons of any kind. Here's the photographic evidence:
(Yes, he's wearing a bear hat in the middle of summer. No, I don't know why either). 
For once, watching these two together wasn't like watching Fight Club.  I thought this day would never, ever come. Forget first words and first steps and first teeth - this is a moment I need to mark for posterity.

 I just don't have the words for how happy it made me. 

Monday 25 July 2011

Playing Favourites

Sometimes, when people are talking to me and they have have run out of things to say, they ask so, which twin is your favourite? 

That question always makes me do my "seriously?" face. My seriously face involves eyes squinched, eyebrows raised and head on the side, which is not a very attractive look so I do it as little as possible - but sometimes there's just no other option. Asking which twin is my favourite is sort of like asking which foot is my favourite - they both have their good points, but I wouldn't really want to be without either.  Once I've got my twitching under control, my answer is usually an eye roll and whichever one isn't screaming which seems to be a pretty standard response among twin-mums to that surprisingly common (if astonishingly dumb) question.

Because who would have favourites, right? They are both my favourite. Now that I have kids, I love watching just how transparent parents are about their favouritism for their children. And that's a really big reason why, except in the most exceptional of circumstances, I will always favour families for children over any kind of group home situation, no matter how wonderful. Everyone should be someone's favourite. Everyone should have someone in the audience who thinks that they are the smartest, the prettiest, the best company, who secretly feels sorry for all the other parents because their child is not cut from the same magical cloth as my fabulous child, or children. Because the strange thing is just how true it is that I really do have two children who really are my favourite. I never understood how that could be true, but it really is.  In a family, who would have favourites?

Ahem. Here's the embarrassing thing. Two people in our house do have favourites, it turns out. But it's not us, it's the kids.  I'm not sure whether they discussed it between themselves and decided okay, you get Mum but Dad is mine but there is some serious parental preference happening. Pink has decided that her heart belongs to her father. And Blue, it seems, is mine.

All day when I'm at home alone with them, Pink turns her soulful little eyes on me and says Diddy? Diddy?  I don't think she's asking after Sean Combs so I sigh and say he's at work, honeybun. Won't it be lovely when he gets home? and she's happy for about five minutes until she comes up to me again, forehead creased in concern and asking Diddy? Diddy? She loves me, but she really wants to know where he is at all times.  I've turned the front of our refrigerator into a family photo album and when she gets really worried I walk her in there and point at him: There's your lovely Daddy, Pink, he loves you so much! And she relaxes and points and says, joyously, Diddy!  Since he is usually home from work after she goes to bed, I think she's decided that he spends Mondays, Tuesdays and Thursdays actually living in the fridge. But hey, she seems happy about it so I'm not concerned.

Blue's preference takes a more - um - assertive turn. Remember all that attachment work I was doing with him so diligently? Well, it worked. Oh boy did it work. He's not worryingly clingy - he can play without me and occasionally he still likes to hug strangers - but if he's hurt or worried or hungry or tired or cranky (or, frankly, breathing) and he wants someone it's got to be Mama. Mama. Mama. Mama.  When he's with J, if he can see me, he roars for me.   I wanted this for so long, from him, and it seems so strange now that it is finally happening. Now I have a knee-high boy wrapping his arms around my legs and saying Cugga! Cugga! Cugga! because he wants a hug from me, only me. If I don't do it immediately, he cries. It's been happening for months now but it still feels a little strange, like he has decided after close to two years that he hasn't been making the most of having a mother and suddenly wants his money's worth out of this tall woman who lives in his house. Sometimes I think I was here the whole time, sweetheart. 

I'll be honest, part of me loves it.

But the other part of me is driven crazy by it. One of the good things for us about adopting two kids at once (and there were plenty of horrifying things) was that we never got confused about who was on whose side in our family.  J and I have always been a team. Our first loyalty is to each other, and we've always been united in how we manage the kids - and maybe there's the occasional high five when Team Parent wins a major victory.  Does that sound terrible? I don't mean we're against the kids, obviously,  just that there hasn't really been any triangulation. Even when I was really struggling with Blue's attachment (classic triangulation risk right there), J was nothing but supportive.  I've observed lots of families where the arrival of a child means a solid Husband+Wife team quickly becomes Team Wife+Baby and poor old Team Dad is the competition.  Whereas with two kids coming at once, there was no exclusive mother-baby bond because you just can't do that with two kids simultaneously. Dad was definitely not on the sidelines, he was up to his ears in wee and poop and sleeplessness, just like me. I don't think this is particularly an adoption thing - lots of people with twins say that an unexpected benefit is just how much more involved the Dad becomes than when there is only one baby.  I'm sure it's possible to share a baby when there's only one, but I'm also sure it would be harder.

So Team Parent has always remained strong in our house. But now, I feel like the preferences that the children are showing are beginning to divide us into Team Blue and Team Pink, and that's what's driving me crazy. We don't like each other any less than we did, but since Blue wants to be with me, and Pink wants to be with Diddy, and Pink and Blue can barely stand to be in the same room with each other... we end up taking the easy way out and gravitating to the child who wants us.  We know that we should be making an effort to spend one-on-one time with the child who prefers the other parent (ouch) but that isn't really happening. We're all so exhausted at the moment - I haven't been well since we got home, and J is picking up a lot of slack - that being deliberate about this kind of thing just feels too hard.  And shutting the door on a child who is yelling for me, while holding  a child who is yelling for their other parent... also too hard.

I feel a bit lost, people. Has anyone else dealt with child-induced favouritism? I worked so hard to show Blue that it was safe to form secure attachment to me, but I didn't want it to be at the expense of his relationship with his father. Or at the expense of Team Parent. How do I keep his attachment to me secure while nurturing the other ones, too? Maybe the real problem is that I worked so hard to get here, I'm a bit frightened of losing what I've got now.  Maybe I should just take a Valium and not think about all this so much.

Like I said to someone else earlier today, life never gets easy, does it? It just gets different.

Wednesday 20 July 2011

Stretch Marks

Want to know a secret just between you, me and the entire interwebz? I've never had a baby. I've never been pregnant. But I have stretch marks.

I looked at myself in the mirror one day and thought 'huh. I was sure my appendectomy scar never used to be on my thigh' and then looked a little bit closer and saw that my scar hadn't migrated after all. I had a stretch mark. It was sort of like a small ghostly caterpillar, and when I looked again I saw that actually my skin was now host to a whole family of ghost caterpillars. What on earth? And the more time passes, the more there are.

I always thought stretch marks were what happened when you had a baby. In fact, every time I hear 'stretch marks' it's someone talking about them as badges of honour, a sign of the exchange that women have made for generations, the one that goes: Dear Universe, I would like to trade this perfect youthful body for a baby, please. And it's not just the stretch marks either, is it? It's drooping breasts and weight gain and a hundred other thing and the usual narrative goes this is the price I have paid to become a mother and look at this picture of my adorable child on my iPhone! See? It was all totally worth it.

So how am I, never-pregnant Claudia, supposed to think about how my body is changing, now that I'm in my thirties? I have stretch marks too and I can't tell anybody they were worth it because they got me nothing. They don't remind me of nine months of protecting a child. If they remind me of anything at all, it's that I don't exercise enough, or maybe they remind me of the six months during 2008 when I was really stressed at work and ate way too many oreos. And they remind me that I'm getting older. But none of that is anything to do with maternity, the one acceptable reason for getting round and eventually soft. And so I feel ashamed of the way my body is changing, of the way my body is ageing. Society doesn't have a body-change narrative for just getting old. It's all about bearing children. So if most women bear their stretch marks as battle scars, mine feel like something I got from stupidly riding my horse into a tree. Something to hide.

And then there's body shape. I have heard a lot of people talk about the way their metabolisms have slowed down after they have children and I haven't been there so I'm in no position to argue. But I can't help wondering how many changes women talk about are hormones and how many would have happened anyway, but I don't feel like I'm even allowed to raise the question. Would an endrocrinologist know the answer? I'm so far from being an endocrinologist that I don't even know if he would be the guy who would know those things. Here's what I do know: I've never had a baby, but now that I'm in my thirties my body is slowing down too. It's heading towards a sluggish metabolism and a thickening middle and a control bra but I don't feel like I'm allowed to be this way. I didn't make the trade. I didn't make the baby so I should still have the body. Right? I should still be lean and lithe and unstretched. But I'm not. Really, really not.

Maybe I'm the only one who feels this pressure.

Sometimes I feel like society misses something important when we talk about the way women's bodies change throughout our lives. As a woman who has never had a baby, I guess I'm saying that sometimes I feel like my body is not allowed to get old. Physically, I'm 'pre-baby'. But that doesn't mean I'm twenty. I'm not disputing that pregnancy accelerates physical changes, slams many of them together into nine efficient, terrible months. But in the end, I think they happen to us all. Having an unused uterus does not get me out of ageing. And I look around me at the women I know and I see that there is no difference in body shape between the older women who have borne children and those who have not. I know thin women in both camps and fat women too. I could not tell by looking who has been pregnant and who has not. People say that feeding a baby destroys the shape of a woman's breasts but it seems that so does turning fifty. Or forty. Or, okay, if i'm honest, thirty is already seeming like a good start.

I don't know what my body would be like if I'd had a baby. But society doesn't really know what women's bodies would be like if they didnt' have babies. My guess is much the same. Maybe it doesn't happen as quickly, but baby or no baby I think everything droops in the end.

But this isn't the way the story usually goes. I don't get to be proud of my stretch marks. They aren't a badge of honour. I didn't earn them through making new life. The only thing I did to earn them was manage to cling tightly to this planet while it hurtled round the sun some thirty-odd times, and probably eat too much cake. The only life they signify is my own. That should be enough, but when groups of women gather and talk it never feels like it is.

But this is the reality: I'm getting older, and my skin is getting thinner, and I've got stretch marks.

And that's just the way it is.

Saturday 16 July 2011

We Are Home

and I'm glad.  The journey back was much better than the journey out - merely a giant, annoying drag, rather than a major trauma that will require years of counselling.  Now we're facing the jetlag and the unpacking. J is a very enthusiastic unpacker but I am realising that he really does not know where a lot of stuff goes in this house. 

I owe about a hundred emails, a thousand comments and a million phone calls. If that's you, I'm really sorry. I'm not ignoring you, I promise. I'm getting there.

And then there's all the stuff still swilling around in my head. I'm struggling with what to write here next, and I can't just blame the jetlag. Amanda recently summed up the feeling well, although some of her reasons are different from mine. If you're in the mood, help me decide what I should squeeze out of my cranium first. Here are your choices of post titles: 
1) I bought my genes at TK Maxx  
2) My life as a celebrity (I was going to write this ages ago, but never got around to it)
3) Maybe it doesn't all even out
I was going to subtitle them with what the posts would actually be about, but if I had that figured out, there'd be no need to write the post, right? 

It's strangely hard to type while jetlagged. I have to keep on backspacing, because all my fine motor skills seem to have deserted me. I think I'd better stop. More later, when my brain is functioning again. For now, here's a photo of me and my boy. 

(And this photo reminds me: GUESS WHAT? All three of us (me and the babies) are getting ukes for our birthdays. I'm tomorrow, they are Saturday. One week, one house, three ukeleles. Bring it on. Now is a good time to be very glad you're not our neighbours). 

Wednesday 6 July 2011

Truth and Beauty

This post is about searching. This feels like an odd thing for me to be writing about, because you all know how strongly I feel about protecting the privacy of my children's story, but I'm going to keep all of this very general. Please forgive me if I occasionally veer into annoyingly vague. 

So okay, searching. I'm in favour. Some people who adopt are able to have meetings with known birth family through an independent translator and then uncensored ongoing contact - for everybody else, there's searching.  For families with relinquished children, searching provides the chance to make independent contact with birth family, verify (or otherwise) the information given at referral, provide mutual updates and somehow inch towards openness.  For families with abandoned children, searching provides the possibility of finding birth family, if they are able and willing to be found. If they are not, it provides the chance to make contact with other important people in the child's history, fill in gaps and, again, verify that the story the family was given is true.  Some people say the whole thing is very expensive, but if you don't want to spend a lot of money, don't use the overpriced American lawyers. There are other people out there. Honestly. 

Some people search while they are in country. In some ways I am glad that we know our children better at the point we are searching, that we have eighteen months of photos of them looking happy, but honestly it would have been better to do it sooner. I wish I could say we did, but I couldn't handle even thinking about it while we were in Ethiopia; I was too busy freaking out and vomiting.  After we got home,  we decided to wait until our UK process was complete and the children were citizens. And then after that, it took months and months of false starts and delays before things could actually get underway so we're only doing it now, after our children have been with us for about eighteen months. We never intended to wait this long; we were thinking more like six.  But this is how it's worked out, and so here we are. Now. Right now. 

A piece of advice from me to you - do not instigate a search during a month abroad visiting family. It's not smart and it's not fun. This is what has been taking up a large part of my headspace for the last few weeks, and I do not recommend it. I do not recommend that you spend hours hiding in the food court at a mall for privacy, typing out a list of questions for an investigator and trying not to cry. I do not recommend that you catch a late movie with siblings and then swing by the seven-eleven for a quick slurpee and oh, also to quietly transfer a bunch of money to Ethiopia on their moneygram machine.  And when I say 'you', of course, I mean 'me'. I'm not trying to be secretive about all this (obviously) but I don't really want to talk about it at family gatherings either, because it's impossible to talk properly without getting into specifics. Or breaking down.  

Oh yes, the breakdowns. Now that we're actually doing this, I'm realising how much I don't actually want to be here. There are lots of plausible reasons other people give for not searching but I'm going to be honest with you and say that  in reality, all my reasons for not-searching would be really bad reasons. In fact, they mostly boil down to one reason: there is a great big chunk of me that doesn't really want to know the answers to the questions we're asking. 

Honestly, I'm not particularly afraid that we will uncover anything unethical or corrupt.  I'm aware of the possibility, of course,  but I don't really think that's what's going to happen. We have no reason to suspect any of the details of our adoption; every reason to trust the people with whom we worked, so I'm not really expecting that kind of tragedy. What I am afraid of is any one of a number of less spectacular tragedies, the unspectacular sort of tragedies that it would be easier to know less about, easier not to talk to our children about. When I'm talking to my kids, it's much easier to deal in generalities about cultural attitudes to single motherhood, the prevalence of waterborne diseases and the realities of poverty. On the other hand, learning that something real happened to a real person, or (more difficult) that a real person made a real decision with real effects- this has the potential to be much less palatable.  I think what I'm saying is that the 'beautiful country beautiful people rich culture unavoidable decision' rhetoric can be a very effective way of blanking out that our children come to us from specific people, for very specific reasons, often unpleasant ones. 

But none of that is good enough, is it? My discomfort with finding out uncomfortable things is really pretty irrelevant. J and I aren't doing this for us (please, start the swelling orchestra music now), we're doing it because we owe it to our children to give them a history of themselves that we know to be true, that is as complete as possible, that leaves as few questions unanswered as we can, a history as complete as we would want for ourselves if it was us who had been adopted.  Doing this feels non-negotiable, to me. Morally compulsory. The more I read about open adoption, the more convinced I am that it what we should be working towards, no matter where we start. And we cannot leave this until our children are eighteen; the information won't be there.  I have the power to open up my children's history for them, or keep it closed. My conscience tells me that, for our kids, in our situation, only one of those options would be right. I could not look them in the eye, when they are old enough to ask the questions, and tell them that we never tried to get all the answers we could. 

Okay, end of stirring speech. Stop the orchestra. Because honestly, knowing this in theory is one thing; facing the reality is quite another. I am committed to this course of action but in some ways it feels like the hardest thing I have ever done. There are so many ways (it feels to me) like this could go so very badly wrong. I could easily find myself five miles out to ethical sea and many fathoms out of my depth. I could find out things that break my heart. I could find out things that will break my children's heart. I could be opening Pandora's box.  I'm terrified. It's so easy to mouth the platitudes about my child's best interest and pat myself on the back for my commitment to ethical parenting but in my heart of hearts I'm screaming out loud.  If anybody is in the mood to criticise me for finding it emotionally difficult to do this on my children's behalf - don't. At least not until you've done it yourself. Any adoptive parent who claims this isn't hard is lying. Or has absolutely no imagination. 

I have to remind myself - there are things that we might find out that I would rather not find out. But really, the problem is not with the finding out. The issue is that I do not want any of those things to be true. And not looking for them would not make them any less real, if they are real. And it's better to know than to wonder. I think. Keats said: 

'Beauty is truth, truth beauty,—that is all
    Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.'
I think about this quote all the time at the moment, because I think he's flat wrong. There are a lot of true things that aren't beautiful, and a lot of beautiful things that are a long way from true.  Sometimes in adoption I think we have to pick one of those things: truth or beauty? Beauty or truth? Actually - no. That's not quite right. It's not either / or, because some things are both. But which do we choose for our starting point? Which one do we hold on to, if we can only hold on to one? It has to be truth, surely. It has to. We can spin beautiful stories for our children but surely, surely it is better to give them something real, even if it's hard. And so we search. And I don't know what we're going to find. I'll be keeping it private. I hope it will be true. 
But I would bet a lot of money that it's not going to be beautiful.