Loving Imperfectly Well

On this day eight years ago, I became the mom of an amazing baby boy, adopted from Ethiopia. Happy Gotch-ya Day, B’man. I wrote this blog post a few years ago, but it’s no less poignant to my heart today. I love this boy, oh so very much. Happy Gotch-ya Day to my B’man.

This morning my daughter excitedly helped her brother get dressed as they both anticipated our early morning birthday celebration for Benjamin’s sixth. One thing I’ve learned with young kids; there’s no sense in waiting for cake. We do it first thing, candles and all. Let the birthday boy (or girl) start their day with all the extravagance my love can muster before 7 a.m. We trailed him downstairs as he exclaimed, “yey!” to our happy birthday wishes.

Facebook faithfully churned out a memory for me, of a toothy one-year old boy on his first birthday, just seven months after coming home from Ethiopia to join our family. And then I remembered, as I drove into work how I’d really felt when we brought him home. After the infatuation I’d felt in those first months with my daughter, also adopted from Ethiopia, and the bliss of a first child, I wasn’t entirely sure what to make of my hesitation to give myself over to that same abandon with my son. Instead, I settled into my role as his mom. This handsome boy needed caring for, but I felt, ashamedly so, like he had just interrupted me. After all, I’d been so taken by my daughter, falling for her uncanny sparkle and celestial happiness without any effort on my part. I wasn’t sure what to do when those same feelings weren’t immediately present the second time around.

This guy was no less winsome. He was no less deserving of my love, that same love I so easily found for my daughter. But just because he was mine, didn’t make that so. I loved him first in a responsible, care-taking way. I committed myself to meeting his needs as any attentive mother would. I actively loved him at first. I put my energy into the practice of that feeling of love I trusted would follow but, at times, wasn’t quite so sure.

Then, somehow, in that choosing, again and again, to give myself over to this baby boy–to learn what made him laugh; to admire him for the qualities that were uniquely him (not my daughter); to give him a bottle in those early hours of the morning and change countless diapers; to acknowledge my limitations in loving him perfectly and appreciating, instead, the process of learning to love him—somehow, I fell hard. I remember when I emerged from the uncertainty and worry–it was right about the time, my world was rocked by a blow that seemed to come out of nowhere. But, instead of jeopardizing that love that had really always been there, that dark time rooted my love for my son (and my daughter) more deeply. That love anchored me. It gave me purpose and direction and a reason to live well.

Loving is a discipline. We love in practice when we show up each day for the people who love us, and in the case of our children, need us. My son’s propensity to spitting up, although tiresome at the time, was an opportunity to practice love in the mundane routine of cleaning up, of washing out shirts, of paying attention to just what might be upsetting his stomach so much in the first place.

Love is a choice. We must give ourselves over to it. It cannot be passively expected to flourish when we don’t cultivate it in practice and pursuit. There should be no surprise when love goes dormant because we are not giving ourselves over to it anymore. We must choose to love and then make every effort to nurture that promise. Over time, I tossed aside the expectation that my experience of loving him would or should be the same as it had with my daughter. He was different. was different. But, in the end, the love was the same. Always there . . .  waiting to consume me.

On occasion, our beloved little elf-on-the-shelf, whom we affectionately have named Umpa, will make an appearance to decorate birthday cakes. Well, last night, I decidedly left Umpa on the shelf. I wanted some credit for a change. It was a perfect reminder of my imperfect love as it stuck to the pan, causing it to break and as I clumsily attempted to decorate it with yellow and black frosting. I knew, no matter what, he wouldn’t care if the batman emblem was smudgy or a corner that had collapsed was filled in with frosting. The most important thing was that he felt loved. And, after blowing out the candles this morning and scarfing down a piece, he scampered over to me and wrapped his arms around my legs.

“Thank you, Mommy, for my birthday cake,” he said. And then in that sweet and squeaky Benji voice, he followed it up with, “I love you.”

I love you, too Benji. I love you too.

Forty Days Til’ Forty, Day 38: This One’s for My Babies

As with most things in life, I was rarely the first kid to dawn the latest styles, relying mostly on a thrifty mom whose concern for the budget was greater than her concern for my vanity. We had many privileges, no doubt, but coolness did not factor in the order of priorities. So it was that as my friends were showing off their Cabbage Patch Dolls, both the official brand versions and the homemade sewn-together kind, I watched with envy, wondering when my day would come. Then one day, my mom who was prone to springing the occasional surprise, sent me up to my closet to look and see what she’d brought home for me. Stepping into the walk-in closet, there he was, perfectly-packaged and straight from the Cabbage Patch itself, my very first brown-skinned boy, complete with birth certificate, named Adam Vaughn. He was perfect.

Subscribing as I do to the belief that God is the author of my life, I think of this fondly now as one of those moments of divine foreshadowing. Today, I am the adoptive mom of two amazing, bright-eyed and beautiful kids from Ethiopia.

What feels like a lifetime ago, I once wondered when, if, how I would become a mom. I kept my grief to myself. Those kids, the ones you hold in your mind’s eye before you even know who you’ll have them with, the ones that share your eye color and your quirky disposition–I would never know them. They would never be. One day while watching the movie “Julie and Julia,” alone in a theater, I sobbed over a scene where Julia learns that her sister is pregnant. The childless Julia cries as she reads a letter from her sister with the news. My grief occasionally caught me by surprise; my own tears startled me. I had celebrated the pregnancies and births of several friends’ children by then and kept relatively quiet about my own disappointment at not getting pregnant myself. I’d also experienced the joy of bringing home my daughter just a year earlier. Thinking back on this, I now understand that this is what we humans do when things don’t go according to plan. We grieve.

Even so, whatever was of that sadness has now been lost. There is just no room for it anymore. In its place, there is love for my two radiant kids. There are prayers for their well being, that they will know in their bones how deeply they are loved. There is hope that as they reconcile with the losses they’ve yet to comprehend in their own young lives, they will find peace. And there is joy in the adventure of getting to be there with them for the ride. Fort Days Til’ Forty, and this one’s for my babies. I love you Pooka-doo and Benjiddly. So much.

sarah and kids

Leaning In

The week before flying to Ethiopia in the spring of 2008, the adoption agency sent me a couple final pictures of my beaming baby girl. I longingly admired my baby-to-be and considered how I could not possibly have made such a radiant child. Her smile, full of cheese and delight, glowed at me through her photos. Later, when I did finally get to know her as my own, I would remark on how celestially happy she seemed. I had never known a child quite so content.

I sat at my computer and stared at the screen, the thought passing through my mind, “I’ve been kissed by God.” I ached to hold her for the first time after years of longing and months of waiting to finally bring her home.

Some time before, however, caught up in the paper trail that is the adoption process, I vacillated between hope and fear, often swept completely up in worry. “What if it falls through? What if the country changes their adoption regulations? What if . . . What if . . .”

There was a distinct point along the way, though, when I made a conscious decision to let myself get excited, to hope and prepare for this child who hardly felt like mine yet, but whose path was already inextricably linked with mine. Until that point, I attempted to protect my heart by making a disclaimer to myself every time I became “too excited.” Reciting various Debbie-Downer mantras we all have heard before when someone either wants to rain on our parade or is concerned we are going to get hurt, I would tell myself, “anything can happen; it could all still fall through; she isn’t really mine til I bring her home . . . . ” Reason was lost on me, though. An unconfirmed factoid I picked up along the way from another adoptive parent was that adoptive mothers gain 20 percent of the pregnancy hormones as expecting mothers. I was in too deep to backtrack. I had already started to hope. I gave up on self-preservation and accepted that no matter what attempts I made to intellectually protect my heart from possible disappointment, it wouldn’t hurt any less because of them. I was already in. My hand had signed the papers, and my heart had begun to grow around the idea of this little girl who would be mine. I began to prepare not just my heart but my home for her arrival.

Sometimes the only way we have to combat our vulnerability and our worry is by taking risks. We have to acknowledge the mind games we play with ourselves in attempt to spare ourselves from possible misery and lay them aside. When we try to think ourselves away from our deepest longings, the hopeful events we look forward to, we’re in a losing battle because hope has already taken root. It won’t hurt any less because we play as though we aren’t that invested in our dreams just yet.

Saying,”it’s not official yet; we haven’t signed the papers yet; we don’t have the keys yet,” doesn’t spare us from the disappointment we will feel if things don’t go as planned because you can’t put a rubber band around a heart to stop it from pumping. Hoping, longing, striving, are the forward momentum of life. They are the things that get us from January 1 until December 31 every year.

I had a choice to make, to be practical and cautious or to let go and and let hope take root. I could wait until I had the plane tickets in hand before I started to pack, or I could start a pile in my daughter’s room of clothes and diapers, bottles and baby toys that would collect for months. I chose the pile. I sat in her nursery and imagined her in it. I added to that pile regularly. One of the most memorable and sweet gifts of the adoption journey was sharing the wait with my friends who took the risk with me to hope for and eventually welcome my daughter.

On the flight home, somewhere over the Atlantic Ocean, I stood outside the bathrooms with my daughter in my arms. She was peaceful and content. I will never forget the moment because Charlie, another adoptive parent from our group, stood there too. Absorbing the unusual calm of my daughter who had just been whisked from the familiarity of faces and hands that had cared for her, he said, “You know you have been kissed by God.”

“Yes,” I thought, “And I’m so glad I leaned in for it.”