Coming to Terms with My Own Struggles So I Can Better Help My Kids Come to Terms with Theirs.

Last night we had to sit down with one of our sons and break the world down for him a bit. We’ve noticed this child has started to do things just to be cool. For now it’s nothing alarming, mostly just wanting to wear all the “right” clothes. He layers on his accessories like he’s never heard the phrase “less is more”. Bless.

If one of the kids has a friend over this child is known to say things that are so clearly wrong -last night it was telling a friend that tofu was a fruit-only to try to sound smart. He also claimed to have finished a book his siblings had already finished so that he could watch the movie with them. With just one question about a main plot point in the book it was quite obvious he hadn’t read it.

Even just a few weeks into school we are starting to see a pattern where he’s finishing his tests and work in class as fast as he can or not bringing work home to study at all. Though his intention is to look smart/cool, it all crumbles when he receives a D on his test. His friends might not know about his terrible grade, obviously, but he momentarily forgets that his mom has 24 hour access to his grades online and that she checks it roughly once every hour knowing he is not a kid who will be able to skate through school on his smile and good humor alone.

In some respects I believe this is typical behavior for boys his age. The struggle between the illusion of independence from parents and the obvious dependence on the parents is real. It is, of course, the human condition to want to be liked and admired. I don’t even believe this in itself is a terrible thing. More often than not when other parents or teachers talk about this son of mine they mention how kind, caring and respectful he is-all attributes built from the same place his desire to be liked is housed. A double edged sword indeed.

But it’s also typical orphan behavior as well. This charismatic son of mine did what the adoption community calls “mommy shopped” for almost 2 years before we met him. His desire to be loved and seen as cute/cool went spectacularly in Ethiopia, every time a friend of ours went to Ethiopia before us they gushed over his adorableness and his friendliness. As soon as I was able to make public his photographs I received an influx of emails from people who had traveled the previous 2 years saying roughly the same thing, “As soon as we got home my husband and I prayed about going back for him. If we could’ve gotten the resources together we would have. You are so lucky!”

I remember when the kids were little being physically exhausted roughly all the time. Trysten and Dailah slept through the night since they were 8 weeks old (don’t hate) and the boys have all been phenomenal sleepers since we brought them home as well so I’m not really referring to the sleepy fog. I’m talking about being physically exhausted in the way that, when Zach got home, I basically threatened him within an inch of his life to not touch me. I so vividly remember being a human playground and often the only one able to comfort an upset child.

As the kids continue to get older I’m no longer physically exhausted, the tables have reversed a bit in that department-I’m typically the one smothering them when I’m feeling a little low or needing some personal connection. Parenting older kids feels so emotionally exhausting instead.

This thing with our son has stirred up some heavy reminders of when I used to be so concerned with being cool. I never did it in the ways he is doing it: I didn’t ever care much about what I was wearing or being the smartest in class. But I did care about my status as an athlete, always having a boyfriend, being liked by as many people as possible.

I’ve done some pretty terrible and painful things to other people and to myself in the name of “being cool”. One of those things I did when I was roughly the age of my son that still haunts me from time to time. My best friend in elementary and I had decided to be locker partners in middle school, we had bought the mirrors and other things in which to adorn our shared locker. But that summer I started hanging out with someone else more. She seemed so cool and didn’t have the elementary baggage that my other friend had (by the way, none of this is on the middle school friend-she continues to be one of the kindest, most compassionate people I know) so a week before middle school started I called my elementary friend to let her know I was changing things up and would no longer be sharing a locker with her. How she forgave me for that (and many, many other things) over the years and continues to be a friend I have no idea.

And honestly, as I got older, the stakes were higher and so were the MIstakes. The need to be loved and adored was so acute I hurt people so deeply that some, rightfully so, haven’t forgiven me since.

Last night I related all of this to my son and told him, “Do you know why I fell so hard for your dad? He showed up to our first date in clothes from Goodwill and shoes made of duct tape. He was the first person I ever knew to be so completely him all the time. Your dad has never put much thought into what people think of him and yet people love your dad. They are so devoted to him because they know the person they are claiming their devotion. They know it’s not going to shift and change depending on the season-your dad is your dad-take him or leave him.”

Then I reminded him that we aren’t expecting an overnight success in his ability to just be ok with dropping the masks and showing the world just who he is. We are ever evolving humans after all and, though Zach has inspired me to drop all of my masks since the day I met him, I continue to struggle with the old demons from time to time. That struggle is the reason I got “I am God’s beloved” tattooed on my collarbone-it’s a daily reminder that no matter how badly I’ve effed it all up (and woof are there some doozies in there) I am so completely and incomprehensibly loved.

And so is he. Because, as I told him, the people who will be put off by the real him were never meant to be in his life in the first place. And the people drawn to him? Those will be the people who will live and die for him. Those are the only people he needs to worry about doing right by.

I slept so poorly last night because I just kept thinking of ways in which I could save all of my kids, this son in particular, from making the same mistakes I’ve made in my life. I longed a little for the days when I was terrified of outlets and steps rather than BIG feelings like self acceptance and people pleasing gone too far. The risk feels greater now, the repercussions heavier. It’s impossible to know whether I’m doing the right thing as a mom now that my kids are becoming fully formed young adults before my eyes but every night I fall asleep knowing I did my very best and will apologize in the morning for the ways in which I fell short.

The risk is indeed greater but so is the reward. Getting to know my 5 on a personal level is one of the coolest experiences of my life. It’s so humbling to watch them wrestle with the same things I did at their age and so gratifying to watch them beat the beasts that took me so much longer to conquer.

Last night I looked my son in the eyes and said, “God made you so perfectly, son, I am so in awe of how wonderful you are. I love you so much there is absolutely nothing you could do to stifle that and nothing you could wear to make that love any bigger. Let’s show everyone else the son I get to see-they will be awestruck by the awesome.”

He smiled and went to bed and as he did I realized I was talking to myself, too.

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Preparations for the BIG trip to Ethiopia

Next month all 7 of us will be on an airplane bound for Ethiopia. Yes, all 7 of us.

We told the kids in March. This was their reaction, please play close attention to Binyam-our little guy in the corner.

Mostly excitement (and how much did you love Trysten’s reaction, “They are adopting!” When you’ve been sat down and told news of an adoption enough times you come to expect it at every family meeting) except for Binyam. If you watch Binyam close enough you can see him keeping his emotions pretty close to the vest, when the image is clear enough it’s obvious he’s looking around at all of his siblings waiting for cues on how to act excited. At the end, when I ask them if they are excited, you can hear him say “Kind of a little.”

It’s safe to say that for the last 6 months, everyone but Binyam has continued to grow increasingly excited. I’m not exactly sure why Binyam hasn’t been excited, I think it has mostly to do with the unknown. I’m not entirely convinced he understands that we will all be going over and we will all be coming back together. I’m also not sure he understands that we’ll be staying in something a little nicer than a hut or that we’ll have access to safe water and plenty of food. Though Binyam swears he has no memory of his 3 years in Ethiopia, it is clear some visceral part of him remembers and continues to be traumatized by it.

Tomas has been the most excited, with the obvious exceptions of Trysten and Dailah, which is true to his character. He remembers the most of his life in Ethiopia but, having come to America at 6-years-old, he has glamorized his birthplace to some extent. There was a time a few years ago where if there was something he couldn’t do (backflips, for instance) he would just tell us that he used to do them all the time in Ethiopia. He has outgrown much of those complete fabrications but I can tell a large part of him is excited because he remembers all the best Ethiopia has to offer, a natural thing we humans do when something or someone is no longer with us.

I was most nervous about telling Tariku. He has been in such a great rhythm, for the most part, the last year or so and I was terrified how news of returning to Ethiopia might set him back. I’ve been so pleasantly surprised with his reactions. He’s not scared like his little brother and he holds no illusions to Ethiopia’s grandeur as his older brother, he’s quite realistic about what might happen there-which is true to Tariku’s character.

As the departure date approaches the proverbial wet blanket has descended on the house. In kids who have experienced trauma or loss, anxiousness isn’t just a general sense of malaise but a relentless, never-ending assault on your emotions. What does that look like in young boy-men? It looks like notes on behavior with kids who never get notes on behavior. It looks like disrespect towards adults from a kid who is typically the most respectful. It looks like wanting to quit a sport that’s been a favorite for 7 years. It’s reverting back to orphanage coping mechanisms. They aren’t constant but they are obvious.

So why do it if I could see this happening?

There’s growing evidence to support the idea that kids who have been adopted need the connection with their birth countries and birth families to have the best chance possible at overcoming some of the trauma from the adoption. I won’t ever tell their personal stories on this blog, perhaps that’s something they’ll be interested in doing as a guest post when they are older, but I’ll just say another major impetus is that we still have people special to us over there and there are just too many unknowns in developing countries in terms of basic survival. I knew I would never forgive myself if I didn’t get the boys over to see their special people before they were gone no matter how nervous I was about whether or not they were ready for such a trip.

We have been doing a few things that I think have helped ease some of the BIG feelings for the boys in preparing them for their visit to Ethiopia.

Let them help plan: This one is kind of tough because there are some major logistical things that need to be worked out with international travel that can’t be done with too many (young) fingers in the fire. Plus, we didn’t want to tell the kids the trip was happening until we had bought the tickets and knew for sure the dates so we wanted to have a few things put in place first. For us that meant we wanted to make sure the man who has been our liaison with our special people was available for the dates we were going to be there. That was our first priority because both American and Ethiopian sides of the equation are used to him and respect him. Once we knew he was available, we booked the tickets and told the kids. Since then they have helped us navigate how much time they want to spend with their special people, if there are any cultural things they want to learn more about, etc. This obviously works so well because the boys are currently 11, 10 and 9-years-old but I think letting the kids help in an age appropriate way gives them the feeling of control, which is essential for our adopted kiddos.

Talk about potential what ifs, including the ones that might be a little scary: I’ve been so lucky to have many friends make this kind of trip before me so I’ve been a sponge for things they’ve learned along the way. One friend told me that sometimes Ethiopians will spit on the kids to either 1) ward off evil or 2) in celebration. We told the kids of that possibility. We also told Trysten and Dailah that when we were in Ethiopia both times, the Ethiopians loved touching and pulling my hair. We talked of the possibility that the boys could be carried on shoulders in their home villages but also that it would be a quiet homecoming. We’ve told them of the real poverty and what that actually looks like in Ethiopia. We also warned them that many beggars have club feet-a potential trigger for our son born with the same condition. Though no one who knows me will be surprised that I’ve taken a “tell it like it is” approach to the trip (I am, after all, the woman who just told my U12 soccer team that they have the right to protect their penises and breasts from the soccer ball but otherwise can’t use their hands-to which they all giggled and Tariku whispered to me, “Mom, jeez, can’t you just say private parts?”) Telling the kids of any known possibilities has seemed to curb the onslaught of fears of the unknown. The more they know the more confident they seem to be in the trip, which has been easier on all of us.

Talk about hopes and fears: We try to do this at the dinner table so that everyone is involved and the boys don’t feel singled out by the questions. Zach and I talk about our hopes and fears and prompt the kids by asking if they’ve ever wondered about something similar. Some good discussions have come up about the first time seeing and smelling this country they haven’t seen in so many years. If you’re doing this with your kids, maybe try to keep the discussions short and sweet. I’ve found when I try to drag them out the boys start to disengage but when I make a point to change the subject after a few minutes and then maybe broach the subject again a few minutes later, they are more open.

-Show pictures: Google is an amazing thing isn’t it? Even though some of the places we will be staying are small and have no online presence to speak of, we’ve been able to find a few images here or there. Tomas has come home from school a few times asking to see pictures of one of the hotels, proving they are thinking about it. This helps offset unrealistic expectations as well. Yes, we will be in hotels for many nights but no-none of the hotels will be like the hotels they are used to here.

-Join online communities: If you’re on Facebook and are interested, there are a few groups dedicated to homeland tours and one specifically for the are in which my boys were born. Email me for those details.

The planning for the trip hasn’t been easy. The hotels and service industries in general are not anything like they are here in America. I have yet to book an actual hotel room because I keep hearing, “Oh but your trip is so far away, contact us when you’re in Ethiopia.”

Gulp.

I find myself reacting in an adult version of the way the boys are feeling-since I can’t control what’s going to happen there in many ways, I want to control every other detail. It’s been so frustrating not being able to work out my control issues in that healthier, more widely accepted way. Also the image of 7 of us with our luggage and nowhere to sleep at 2am continues to wake me up in the middle of the night.

But ready or not, in a month we’ll be there. I’ll, of course, be posting here as much as possible. This continues to be the place I go to really work out how I’m feeling about any given topic.

Ready or not…

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On being a Christian who doesn’t go to church.

One of the more popular texts/emails I received after my last blog was from the Christian contigency of readers asking if I had found a church. If you’re not in Christian circles you might not be familiar with the very prevalent idea that once you find a church, you will also find a group of people to hang out with and thus never feel lonely.

I used to be better about accepting that ideology. Go to church, meet other believers, build your family around that church. When we first moved to the Quad Cities I was having a hard time finding friends with kids so my sister-in-law suggested I try a church she thought we would like. We did and I did. I ended up meeting some really amazing women there (you might remember it was at that church and with those women that the idea of Water for Christmas began.) I forgave a few things that bothered me about the church (namely that the pastor often said some rather sexist things in the form of terrible jokes) because I loved the women. But then the church waved proudly all the red flags I had been seeing over the years when, instead of helping some friends of mine after their world was shaken, they chose instead to kick them while they were down. It was an in your face way of showing how they really felt about sin-hide it, suppress it and don’t speak of it otherwise we will publicly shame you and push you out of the church.

Message. Received.

I didn’t go back to church after that and I started questioning everything I had once believed. I decided that if I were to go back to church, and take my family with me, I would no longer stick around if the pastor was a teeny bit sexist or if I thought the message was a teeny bit derogatory towards poor people. I didn’t (and don’t) expect perfection from pastors or a church but I certainly expect to hear more love and a little less joking at the expense of an entire group of people.

A few years later we happened upon a church that was taking place in a bar.* Sunday mornings they gathered, soles of their shoes sticking to the floor from the previous night’s shenanigans. It was a group of 50 or so who worshipped with their eyes closed, hands raised and their feet moving side to side coming unglued from the alcohol laden floor with the rhythm of the music. On our second time trying out the church a parade of members including the pastor and his wife got up on stage. As the music played they turned over cardboard signs with the worst sins they had committed written on them. These weren’t your “I stole an eraser from my friend in 4th grade” (I did that by the way) these were the big ones. And I started the ugly cry immediately. To be in a place where the leadership of the church was so openly admitting to their humanness was exactly what I needed.

Of course we stuck around. The two pastors were both equally amazing, always on point with their message. They never went for the easy sermons either, meant to make you feel ok about heading home to your cushioned couch to watch the football game on your big screen without a second thought to what it means to be a Christian. They were always asking us to do more, love more, give more (not to the church-but to community organizations or to the Water Party), volunteer more. Once a month on Sundays instead of a service, the whole church would volunteer at area organizations. Sometimes they literally just went to the neighborhoods surrounding the church and did little projects for the elderly that lived there. They welcomed refugees and helped them navigate life in America. They never confused a relationship with Christ and a relationship to a political party. We naturally became friends with people from that church, and continue to be today.

And then we moved. We moved to a small town in Michigan that features many churches. We’ve tried the largest church in our town that many of our friends go to. It’s not for us. I hold no ill feelings towards that church, its pastor or its members but I just can’t do it anymore.

I am no longer impressed by fog machines, cafes and hundreds of people. I am impressed by vulnerability, openness and authenticity. Those will always, always win out for me.

I no longer feel like church has to be a part of our routine “for the kids”. I would rather them experience God in nature on our Sunday hikes or in a book on our Sunday reading sessions. I would rather them get to know God because of how He talks to them in the quiet stillness that accompanies our relaxed Sundays than hear a bullet pointed kids sermon while they are gripping a climbing wall.

I would rather them grow up knowing God is love than grow up learning from the church and its people about what God hates. And by that I don’t mean what God actually hates but what Christians often hate.

I refuse to go to a church that dives into politics unless to talk about our commands to help the poor, welcome the refugee and love one another.

Any mention of an “us” versus “them” philosophy is a non negotiable for me. Whether that be Christians versus non-Christians, Republicans versus Democrats, Americans versus non-Americans, etc. If you’re into polarizing rather than uniting-I’m out.

If you spend more money on your church renovations and your coffee than you do on local community support, I’m not interested. If your church would close its doors and the community wouldn’t feel the pang of loss (other than the members), you’re doing it wrong-I’m out.

I don’t have much interest in piousness (as evidenced by my affinity for cussing and my aversion to the modesty culture for women) but I can’t get enough of the tenets of forgiveness, peace, hope and love.

I love Jesus but sometimes I find it so incredibly hard to love Christians.

In Rachel Held Evans’s book, Searching for Sunday, she writes, “I often wonder if the role of the clergy in this age is not to dispense information or guard the prestige of their authority, but rather to go first, to volunteer the truth about their sins, their dreams, their failures, and their fears in order to free others to do the same. Such an approach may repel the masses looking for easy answers from flawless leaders, but I think it might make more disciples of Jesus, and I think it might make healthier, happier pastors. There is a difference, after all, between preaching success and preaching resurrection. Our path is the muddier one.”

Yes.

I know many can grow in their faith and love in humanity through the hallowed walls of a church and, in some respects, I’m jealous of that. Because for me the times I’ve felt God’s presence the most have been when all 7 of us are snuggled on couches reading books, in the quiet moments right after my meditation when I’m breathing in the vastness of the world and in a tiny room in Ethiopia sharing tears and coffee with our special people.

In the end, though, I can’t quit the church entirely. Being surrounded by relatively likeminded people can be a salve at the end of a long week. A sense of belonging to something bigger than oneself is a powerful thing. Find me a church that’s not defined by who it leaves out but by who it lets in, and I’ll be there. Probably crying, definitely being vocal when I agree. Standing with my brothers and sisters who have done and seen the worst but still claim the worst powerless against love.

 

 

*Connection Church in the Quad Cities, go check it out or just listen to the podcast like I do!

Binyam is 9!

In case you’re keeping track-the birthdays of my kids actually follow their birth order throughout the year. Trysten (February), Tomas (March 7), Tariku (March 16), Dailah (July), Binyam (August). There is no real reason to point that out other than to tell you that I find that to be so interesting for no real reason.

For Binyam’s birthday he chose food that surprised no one who knows him. For breakfast he wanted donuts, preferably chocolate donuts with “stuffing”. Meijer had made some that looked like caterpillars, which made Binyam’s entire month.

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For lunch he wanted Tombstone pizza and root beer. Not just any root beer, he had a taste of the craft root beer found in glass bottles a few weeks prior so that was his specific request.

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Zach works with a truly fantastic woman named Judy. Judy has become a little like a grandma to my kids. Living far away from their actual grandmas can be hard when they are looking to get spoiled with love and affection so I’m incredibly grateful they’ve found a soft heart to land with Judy. When she heard it was Binyam’s birthday she went and threw a little party at her house, complete with a Happy Birthday sign by her pool, drinks for the adults and the most incredible food cooked by her husband. For a kid who grows 3 inches every time someone shines their spotlight on him, this is just what he wanted for his big day.

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Oh my has this kid shot up physically. He has no baby fat to speak of so I have no idea how his body continues to stretch but continue it does.

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I was talking to a mom yesterday about just how laid back Binyam is. Very rarely does he voice his opinion on any matter, he would rather the inquisition be on someone else thankyouverymuch. So it was that before we left for the open house at his school I asked him if he still wanted kids to call him Bean or if he would prefer they call him Binyam. I explained how each year he got to choose so if he didn’t want to go by his nickname he no longer had to. “Yeah, I think I would like them to call me Binyam this year.”

An hour later he introduced himself to his teacher with a “Hi, my name is Binyam but everyone can call me Bean.”

If I know anything about my Binyam it’s that he will need to end up with someone who really likes making decisions, otherwise the pair of them will spend their lives on the couch due primarily to no one telling them where they should go.

Life always amps up around Binyam’s birthday. This year the kids are involved in a few sports each so right after school we are hustling to various practices. A week after his birthday we were getting everything together to head to drum lessons, football and soccer practices when I realized he had just one shinguard. I sent him into the house to grab his second shinguard and loaded up the van with the rest of the kids (plus 2 extra friends of the kids). Van was full so off I went, dropping Trysten off at band practice first. When I was turning towards the football/soccer fields it occurred to me that I hadn’t heard anything from Binyam (this in itself is not surprising, he and I have went hour long car rides just the two of us without many words said. There are just so many questions I can ask him with one word responses before I turn the podcast on and we both learn something new from 99% invisible).

We had been gone 15-20 minutes when we arrived back home to pick him up. I wouldn’t be surprised if he was searching for that second shinguard for 19 of those minutes but when we pulled up next to the house there he was, sitting on the stoop looking unbelievably calm and charming, with both shinguards firmly in place. When Tariku asked him if he was scared being alone he said, “No, I knew mom would come back for me.”

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Some of my adoptive mama friends remarked that this showed great attachment that he knew I would return. I do believe that’s part of it, of course, but Binyam has never considered that someone wouldn’t come back for him. He trusts so completely anyone who gives him a kind smile or offers a gentle hug.

This summer Bean has been swept up by the Harry Potter books. He went from reading more typical 1st/2nd grade books last year to diving into the HP series. It has been so fun watching him get excited about the books and the movies. In the past Binyam has struggled with comprehension but something about the books (I obviously believe it’s just the magic and the power of the series) has him captivated to the point that he tells me what’s coming next when watching the movies. Just don’t ask him directly when he’s reading what he just learned or he freezes under the pressure to answer and his mind empties. If you come at him resembling anything like a test he will shut down, it’s just his thing.

For his birthday Binyam invited his two best buddies over for a sleepover. They’ve been his buddies since we first moved here, regardless of whether or not they are in his classroom or how often he sees them. Binyam is like a lobster-the guy mates for life. If he’s ever loved you he will continue to do so until the end of time. Being on the other side of that is truly precious so if you get the chance, make it happen.

While watching him play soccer yesterday I said to Trysten, “I know I say it every game but watching him run makes me get teary every time. What a miracle he is. Can you even believe he’s figured out how to do all of that with the legs he was given?” Because it is. And I’m not the only one who feels that way. At baseball this year the entire crowd (who did not know him and were not always the most supportive group of parents out there) were cheering for him and, when he got on base, were on their feet clapping. Not in a precious kind of way but in a powerful kind of way-sometimes being around Binyam makes you feel like you’re a part of his miracle. It’s absolutely intoxicating which is why I think so many people who meet our family for the first time are instantly drawn to him, he with those puss and boots eyes.

For every one of my other kids there are futures Zach and I have talked about that we wouldn’t be at all surprised to see happen. With Binyam, we just have no idea. I’m not sure if it’s his laid back approach to life or his absolute joy in whatever he’s doing that makes me believe no matter what he will continue to be the happy guy I know him to be. What a gift it is as his mom to know that with almost absolute certainty.

Love you so much, Binyam-ay. Honored to be your mama.

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Tariku is 10!!

I’ve been thinking a lot about this post for Tariku. I kept trying to come up with a way to say just how much I love him-to come up with a phrase that embodies who he is or what he means to me. It’s kind of eluding me quite honestly.

Have you guys seen the movie Boyhood? I loved it. At all of the press junkets when it initially came out the press would ask the creator Richard Linklater to tell them about the movie he would always pause. It was a pregnant pause to be sure because, even though he had undoubtedly been rehearsed as to what to say, it just meant too much to him. How can you talk about this baby you’ve created, sweated over and cried about for 12 years in a way that can be used in a headline for page 6? Well you can’t. He tried, of course, but anyone who has seen the movie knows that no matter what Linklater said in those junkets probably didn’t do the film justice.

If you’ve been here long enough (or followed this blog’s predecessor hotflawedmama) you know that no one has ever worked harder than Tariku at accepting love.

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Even from the beginning we certainly wanted to be mom and son. I had thought of, prayed for and cried over him for months before he came home and I have no doubt across the ocean he was hesitantly excited about the possibility of a family.

Reality was, of course, harder than the daydreams (always is) and so for the last 7 years we’ve fought tooth and nail to get where we are-described a little more here-but no one has fought harder than Tariku.

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It’s really hard to believe Tariku is just 10-years-old. If you watch Tariku interact with the world you get the sense that he’s seen it all before. If you’re having a conversation with him you’ll notice immediately that he is listening. Not just listening but listening. His brow furrows, he makes really direct eye contact and it genuinely feels like he’s listening to it all-the words, the body language, the cadence of your words. It’s incredible. If you get an audience with Tariku you run the risk of believing the world was made just to hear your words.

Boy is he inquisitive! Of course on the days in which I am less than who I was made to be it can test my patience but most days I admire him for it. There are no “just because-s” with Tariku. I’ve taught all of my kids to wrestle with and question the world but no one does it quite like Tariku. Needless to say, he learns so much quicker than so many of his peers because he doesn’t just want to know why 1+1=2, he wants to know why you’re adding in the first place.

If ever we need something found within the house we call Tariku. If I need something done well (all mamas know what I mean by “done well” oy vey the half assing of kids-it will be the death of me) I call Tariku. It might not be fair but he is his mama’s son and darnit if we are working we are not going to pussyfoot around-we’ll get shit done right. (Mom, no need to remind me of my earlier years, I’ve come so far. 😉 )

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Zach and I coach a basketball team with Trysten, Tomas and Tariku on it. It’s for 5th and 6th grade boys. Tariku is in 4th grade and so often when Tariku makes a play or a shot that belies his age Zach and I just laugh. Tariku is often 2 steps ahead of his teammates because he thinks so quickly on his feet. He is just so freaking fun to watch.

I got a note from Tariku’s teacher last week about how impressed she was by Tariku befriending a new student. She said he had been so kind and helpful and it’s made her job so much easier. When I asked Tariku what kind of cupcakes he wanted for his school birthday he asked me to get cupcakes of all kinds so that everyone could find something they liked. When I asked who he wanted for his birthday party it took him 2 weeks to decide because he didn’t want anyone feeling left out.

This is Tariku. This is the guy who is turning 10 and the guy a truly flawed mama like myself gets to mother every day.

I don’t worry so much for Tariku about the world hurting him so much that he breaks, the world has already done a pretty great job of trying and yet here he stands. I worry more that he won’t open himself up to love, that he won’t become vulnerable enough to reap the scary big benefits of a relationship with someone.

I worry about that only because I know what it’s like to be loved by Tariku, a young man who asked his mama to take a picture of the sunset on his birthday because it was just so beautiful.

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Being loved by Tariku is just like looking up at a sunset and believing it was planned just for you. In this moment. Regardless of how badly you’ve messed up in the past.

Being the mom of Tariku feels like a once in a lifetime sunset, an awe inspiring blessing undeserved.

Happy birthday my Chooch. Love you so much.

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Tomas is 11!

Tomas is 11!

The first time I met Tomas I could tell he had been well rehearsed on how to act when meeting his new parents. Of course I was happy to see him but I wanted so badly to know how he was really feeling.

Last week we were talking about Zach’s long hair he was rockin’ when we picked up Tomas and Binyam. Zach is a bit embarrassed of it now but I was curious what Tomas thought then so I asked him, “Tomas, what did you think when you first saw us in Ethiopia? Did you think ‘what’s this guy with goofy hair doing here?”’

“Oh mom, I don’t remember what his hair looked like. I was just so happy you were finally there. I finally had a family. All of my friends had gone with their families and I watched them go but finally it was my turn.”

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At the “going away” ceremony in Ethiopia I could feel the fear in the boys, it was palpable. Tomas was going from Ethiopian adult to Ethiopian adult, never coming by Zach and me and Binyam played with a balloon for 2 hours straight.

So when it was our turn to cut the cake I wrapped my arm around Tomas and, even though he didn’t understand a word of English, whispered, “I don’t know when, but it’s going to be ok. We will be ok.”

As nervous as I was about bringing these young men into our family, it was nothing compared to what they were experiencing. But Tomas? Other than a few rocky initial weeks, he has entered almost every bit of life with a joie de vivre that defies his circumstances.

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The day before his birthday we invited 3 of his buds over for Skyzone fun. He is a head taller than most of his friends but is the gentlest giant I know.

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I was able to pick up some birthday donuts and, true to form, on the day of his birth he waited for everyone else to pick out their donuts before picking out his own. This is despite the fact that I had publicly stated Tomas and his friend Riley were to go first.

Like his older brother, he too chose Buffalo Wild Wings for his birthday dinner out. Tomas isn’t a foodie so much as he is a lover-of-all-food. Cooking for Tomas (and Tariku) is my favorite thing because I can’t remember a single time they didn’t proclaim each meal to be the best they’ve ever eaten. When Tomas (and Tariku) go to a friend’s house and I ask how it was, 99% of the time they will talk about how great of cooks the parents of the friend are. I freaking love that.

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There is a weird dichotomy to how I feel about Trysten getting older and how I feel about Tomas getting older. With Trysten I get to just embrace every new step towards adulthood. With Tomas, however, I feel a constant tightening of the chest as he gets older. He’s gone from this squishy faced, adorable 6-year-old brown boy (as he liked to call himself) to a sturdy, solid 11-year-old young, black man.

Studies prove over and again that being a young black man is one of the more dangerous things you can be in America.

So though I as his mother still see so much of his childlike innocence, I also get a front row seat (quite literally since Zach and I are his coaches) to the basketball games when the moms of the opposing team yell that he (and Tariku) are being aggressive and out of control even though they are playing almost exactly like their white counterparts. Though Tomas has a smile that lights up the whole world, I know that only those who know him are able to focus on that as a symbol of his undying love of all the things. Everyone else? Well it’s clear they don’t always look much further than his black skin.

I worry more about it with Tomas, I think, because sometimes social cues are lost entirely on him. Not because of some inability to see them but rather because he has a genuine need to and gift of seeing the good in everyone. As he’s gotten older so many of our conversations have been about becoming friends with kids who do the right thing and encourage him to do the right thing. Tomas is so easily susceptible to the kids who manipulate because he wants to believe they are as good as they say they are.

It blows being in a world where this son of mine who walks around this world as if he’s not wearing any skin can so easily be hurt. But there it is. And since it doesn’t seem to bother him, I’m trying to live every day the same way.

Happy birthday my Tomas-ay. May you continue to serve as a reminder to us all that being vulnerable can be the most beautiful and brutal thing in the world. But that the beauty is always worth it.

Love you.

Christmas 2014

This being our first Christmas in Michigan and away from family the pace of life seemed altogether much slower. Had we been in Iowa there would’ve been a lot more dinners and lunches involved whereas this year we were able to really just have so much more time as a family-it was really kind of nice!

Christmas Eve we decided to make our delicious homemade pizza but add a Christmas twist-we did them personal pan style! I even bought sausage and pepperoni (blech) for my meat eaters and spoiled myself richly with 6 different veggie varieties (when we normally do family pizzas it’s cheese and more cheese 😦 )

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Hagrid, dressed in his Christmas best, helped keep an eye out for Santa.

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We actually got a FaceTime call from Santa! Usually he stops by my parents’s house when we are there but since we weren’t making it back there this year he made a special call just for the kiddos. I was actually excited to hear from him too, he’s a pretty special Santa!

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For the last handful of years we have done something you want, something you need, something to wear, and something to read for our gifts for the kiddos. I really can’t say enough how much I love this particular form of gift giving. They also usually get 1 present from Santa and stocking stuffers as well. This year I wanted to add “to give” so on Christmas Eve we told the kids their budget from us and they got to pick where that money went. We let them look through the websites of various nonprofits we believe in and they got to direct their money to a specific place. It was rather fun seeing where they chose, each unique to their personalities. Binyam just gave to where Dailah gave, which is true to his personality throughout the year. 😉

A few weeks before Christmas we draw names for each other and then spend one night shopping at Target for that person. We duck in and out of aisles and try to hide from whoever it is we are buying for. It’s really fun! We open those on Christmas Eve and I just love seeing what the kids choose for their siblings (and for Z and me, of course) there are no rules so I’ve been pleasantly surprised with how thoughtful the gifts have been.

The kids had spent the few days prior building a fort big enough for all of them to sleep in on Christmas Eve. The excitement was palpable and we could hear giggling on and off all night.

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Z and I always set a time that is the absolute earliest the kids can wake us up on Christmas morning. 6am (oy vey) was the winner this year and at 5:59 I started hearing giggles and shrieks downstairs from the fort. At 6am we heard them all sprint upstairs and then high five, hug and more screams. Christmas mornings will continue to stand as my favorite moments as a parent-all snuggled with Z in our bed listening to pure joy outside our room. It’s all the proof I need that I’m the freaking luckiest in the whole world.

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Tariku might be my favorite to watch on Christmas morning. He always keeps his emotions so close to the chest that only those who know him best can tell if he’s excited or sad or angry. But even my Chooch can’t hide his sheer bliss on Christmas, I tear up just thinking about it. Love him.

After we opened presents and ate our Jesus pancakes (this is what they are called on Christmas, obvs) we headed to Davenport for the Klipsch family Christmas.

First thing’s first (I’m the realest), Sintayehu gave us her preschool program in its entirety and I had to keep snapping pictures so people wouldn’t see me crying. I remember when Leslie called to tell me of Sinta’s referral and how she was nervous about a potential heart defect (that proved to be nbd). Looking at her on Christmas day it was quite clear the only defect she might have is a heart that is far too big for her little body and a joy that shouldn’t have to be contained in small stature either.

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Her fellow Ethiopian cousins remained riveted-smiled when they knew she wanted it and clapped in between each song. (Julius was obviously equally impressed)

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Though I’m partial to gifts I will say it took me a second just now to remember what the gifts were because I’ve been so grateful and focused on what a blessing our extended families are to me. And what a blessing they are to my kids.

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Even Trysten (who typically just wants to hang with his older cousins) had some good heart to hearts with Julius, made me remember how great he was with little ones when he was a little(r) one.

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Oh my nephews and niece. I love them so much.

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Papa Frank and Mimi Terre got each of my kids an electric scooter, they are pretty frickin cute riding through camp I must say.

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The next day we celebrated my nephew/Godson’s 8th birthday and my sister (in-law’s) 28th birthday. I have 0 pictures of that except for this one of Z and Dailah playing the piano together. We’re going to say it’s because I was doing really well at living in the moment but it probably had more to do with the delicious bagels and coffee that were being offered. 😉

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I got to have lunch with my friend Alex (who gave me this ornament-so cute!) I would spend more time trying to find someone like her in Michigan but after agreeing with me that our lunch portions were too small and then ordering a 2nd meal (each) I knew it was just never going to happen. Someone who loves Harry Potter, food and sarcasm as much as I do is a once in a lifetime find.

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Also got to take the whole family to my bestie’s house to see her and her family (obviously) but perhaps maybe even more so her new puppy. 😉 Life without my bestie can be really, really hard sometimes. I’m grateful Z gets along so well with her hubby too because we forget about everyone else when we’re together. There’s a lot of catching up to do.

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My family all came into town Friday night. Usually we spend Christmas in Altoona but because my sister is due any minute (seriously God, let her deliver already!) we thought we should bring Christmas to Kara and Matt in Davenport. Friday night was remarkable because I asked Tariku if it would be ok if I snuggled him and he replied, “You can lay your head on my lap.” This is pretty big for the child of mine that abhors physical touch and touch wherein he can’t escape when it feels too BIG is just unheard of. Hagrid and Barbara Streisand saw an opening and both came to snuggle as well.

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The next morning my boys talked their uncles, dad and grandpa into playing some outdoor football. Though I believe the older men ended up enjoying it, I do believe my kids were beside themselves with happiness and will be thus making it an annual thing. (Right outside the door is the furthest I got-it was coldie out there!)

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My Landry Mae usually prefers her mom/dad or my parents over me but I was able to keep her on my lap with the promise of white chocolate covered pretzels. And really, who wouldn’t bribe this face!

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Of course there were presents involved here too. Man I love those little humans.

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Sunday we drove a few hours away to celebrate with my mom’s side of the family. Z and I talked on the way there about how lucky I am to have both of my grandparents. When we walked in (a little late mind you) both of them were playing cards and drinking whiskey. I think they are on to something! One of my cousins and his family from Australia were able to make it this year, as well as a cousin from Kentucky and one from Nebraska. (My grandparents with their grandkids/spouses. Only missing 1 in Kentucky, 1 in Chile and 2 in Iowa.)

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And their great grandkids! (missing 5)

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My Dawson family.

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I’ve been around long enough to know that it is a true blessing that I genuinely look forward to seeing every one of our family members. If you are one who has too many painful memories associated with the holidays or hates them because of how hard various family dynamics can be understand that I think of you often and don’t take one second of this for granted.

My favorite Christmas tune continues to be O Holy Night, the last verse consistently bringing me to tears.

Truly He taught us to love one another;
His law is love and His Gospel is peace.
Chains shall He break for the slave is our brother
And in His Name all oppression shall cease.
Sweet hymns of joy in grateful chorus raise we,
Let all within us praise His holy Name!
Christ is the Lord! O praise His name forever
! His pow’r and glory evermore proclaim!
His pow’r and glory evermore proclaim!

I hope beyond hope you were able to find some joy this Christmas, if not then might I wish you peace for the new year?

Much love,

Tesi

Tomas is 10!

Friday I walked downstairs just as the sun was peaking through. I love mornings when I’m the first awake, when I can start the coffee and maybe a good book before everyone else takes their first bathroom break. Truth be told I was really looking forward to a few moments alone, the last week has been crazy stressful, until I heard Tomas utter quietly under his breath, “I’m 10!”

As I’ve told many people, I have no doubt this second son of mine will greet every birthday of his until the day he dies with as much fascination, wonder and joy as he greeted his 10th. I think he might get that from me. 😉

I remember when we first considered adopting Tomas and Binyam how scared I was to bring a then 6-year-old boy into our home. I pictured someone really sullen, moody and temperamental. Of course any kid with his history would have more than enough reason to behave that way or even worse but I’ve never been able to describe Tomas with any of those words. From the moment I saw him, the light that came from his sturdy body was bright and I knew we would be ok.

Tomas has an alter ego we named, “Intensity”. The thing I love about this alter ego of his is that it doesn’t just come out in moments of competition or play, it comes out in love and friendship too. A few months ago he came to tell me that there was a new girl in his class and he was pretty sure he was in love with her. When did she start school? I ask. 2 days ago, he confirms.

Intensity (pictured here in the center).

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This boy who will be the very best partner in life as he’s constantly bending over backwards to compliment Dailah and me. When I asked him what he wanted for his school birthday treat, “Anything homemade. You are the best baker in the world.” I make all my baked goods straight from a bag or box. There is nothing special in my baked goods. But I tend to believe Tomas sees the extraordinary in the ordinary. (Pictured here with his awesome teacher and equally awesome Grandpa…oh and boxed brownies).

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Tomas chose Buffalo Wild Wings for his birthday dinner, as sons of vegetarians are prone to do apparently. Ahem. And, unlike his big brother, was thrilled when the place sang him Happy Birthday and delivered the biggest piece of cake I’ve ever seen.

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Tomas is the hardest working kid I know. He’s completely caught up (and passed) many of his 4th grade peers. This after entering his school in 1st grade knowing no english. He gets overwhelmed and and frustrated like we all would but then he works. I can’t imagine all that he’s done in order to catch up but man does it leave me feeling proud and humbled all at the same time.

For his birthday treats he chose some clothes, candy and iTunes gift cards. And, of course, had to bring back a little gift for Zach and me too.

Man alive I can’t wait to see what this kid does. Whatever it may be I know it’ll be done with more love than is necessary and more grace than is called for.

Love you so much Tomas-ay. Happy birthday.

October

I’m not quite sure how it is October already. Here in the great midwest the temps are still in the 80s and the ground is so brittle it breaks beneath my footsteps. It’s unlike any October I can remember and so it just surprised me the other day when a participant in one of my classes wished me a happy October.

October means a lot of things around here, but mostly (for me at least) it means planning Wine to Water. It’s the 5th year this event is happening which boggles the mind. I think because it’s taken up such a big place in my heart the last 5 years I’ve become quite reflective this year in particular.

Truth be told I considered not doing it this year. It takes a lot of energy to get it up and going and even though I have all of the contacts who more or less agree to whatever I ask, I hate asking people for things. I mean hot, hot hatred hate. Even though I believe so strongly, more strongly than ever in what we’re doing-it’s just not in my comfort zone.

But lately I’ve been really thinking about things like poverty, orphan care, jobs and the like. I’ve actually read some really great stuff on those subjects too.

Kristen Howerton talked about it in her blog, “How the Christian orphan care movement may be enabling child abandonment.”

I really think that Christians need to be more vocal about the way we are approaching orphan care, so that we are not doing harm. We need to stop setting up ministries that encourage desperate parents to relinquish their children, and funnel our resources into programs that support families.

And Jen Hatmaker wrote The Truth About Adoption: Two Years Later and explains how orphan care becomes a huge narrative after 2 years.

We need not shy away from these hard conversation, because they can only make adoption stronger, first families better, second families healthier. The more we know, the more we are responsible for, and it is a privilege that God has invited us into the story of orphan care. We are a committed, resilient bunch, I’ll tell you. We love one another and love each others children, and I am grateful to the core that this is my tribe.

Jamie the Very Worst Missionary had a guest post, Would Jesus be cool with keeping poor kids in orphanages?

All over the world we are confusing poverty for families not loving their children In Haiti, in Cambodia, in Kenya, in Brazil, in Honduras. I’ve spoken to folks working on the ground in all of these countries and the common experience is that not enough is being done to help poor families keep their children.

Perhaps to the outsider orphan care and Wine to Water have little to do with each other. But or me, they are inexplicably entwined.

The more I research orphan care the more I am sure poverty cannot be a reason children are relinquished to orphanages. It says so many horrible things about our world that parents are having to surrender their children because we would rather spend money on adopting their children than supporting their intact families. I say this knowing I’ve been a part of this in large and small ways, I am not blameless by any means. But now that I know better, I’m doing better.

In January I got to go to Haiti to witness The Adventure Project in action. You can read my posts here, here and here. I really believe their model of job creation works and is one of the best models at fixing so much of what ails us as a global community.

So we’re doing it. We’re gearing up for Wine to Water 2013 because it needs to begin with me (as Glennon Melton so eloquently wrote).

We’re doing our best to create jobs, eliminate poverty, keep families intact, provide clean water, give kids shoes, send kids to school and empower people around the world. We’re doing it all by creating well mechanic jobs in Uganda.

November 16th in Davenport, Iowa. We would love to see you and, as always, there is plenty of space to stay for free here at camp. If you’re not able to make it but would like to donate-email me at tesileagh@gmail.com. You know a phenomenal artist who would want to become involved by donating a piece of their art? Contact me.

I love this life. I really, really do. The least I can do with this incredible life of mine is work my butt off to provide a glimpse of it to others. Join me?

My Bean

We are just coming back from an epic (I don’t use that term lightly) week and I have many posts coming regarding that, but for now I thought I should celebrate my Binyam WHO TURNED 7 ON AUGUST 31! Can’t even believe he’s 7.

This guy who has a threshold for crazy shenanigans from animals and humans alike.

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The guy who goes by “Bean” at school because he got tired of trying to get other people to say his name properly.

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The one who his teachers love for his huge smile and willingness to go with the flow.

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My babe who loves chocolate more than anything else in this world.

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Only thing that could compete with chocolate in his eyes are his siblings and cousins. Those people? Yeah he’d do anything for them.

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It’s always so fascinating to me that whenever I talk to people who know our family they usually say something like, “I love all of your kids but that Bean has a special place in my heart.” Of course I can guess the reasons for that, but at the heart of it all is simply-his heart.

He is light, love, joy and cotton candy goodness. His authentic giggle will have your sides splitting. Because he didn’t walk for his first 3 years of life (he was born with club feet) almost every time he runs I get a bit choked up. He also didn’t talk much his first 3 years so when I hear him in one of his rare monologues with his siblings I can’t help but believe in miracles.

Being the mommy to a boy like Bean is so very humbling because he’s a constant reminder that most of the shit we moms tend to dwell on just. doesn’t. matter. Do you love me? Will you take care of me? Will everything be ok? Then nothing else matters.

I love him, I am beyond grateful for him and I will spend my days trying to earn this gift that was given to me.

Love you Bean, happy birthday buddy.