Who We Are When No One’s Watching

It’s been awhile. So much to say. But for now go check out my post on the Mama Bear Blog (I’m posting over there a bit more regularly).

“Almost three years ago we moved from both of our families and friends in Iowa to relocate to Michigan. I would say the first year I relied pretty heavily on my phone for all the things. Most of those were healthy—keeping in touch with good friends, receiving updates on my nieces and nephews, keeping track of clients to make sure they were staying on their health journey, etc. But some of it was exactly what Esther talked about with us—I simply didn’t know who I was without constant reinforcement from my online community. While in Iowa I had friends and family for that reinforcement, so rarely would we go a day without seeing someone who could remind me of my worth. But once we moved I found myself relying more on the strangers behind their phones and computers to give me those reinforcements. A ‘like’ on Facebook, a retweet on Twitter, a comment on Instagram, they were all a poor replacement for Leslie’s hug or lunch with my friends, but it was enough to bridge the emotional gap for me.”

Go here to read more.

An Open Letter to My Daughter On the Precipice of Puberty…

An Open Letter to My Daughter On the Precipice of Puberty…

Yesterday we were at an orthopedic appointment for Binyam and while waiting for him to be done with his x-rays Dailah and I were talking. This is when she told me that for lunch she was able to have Doritoes and a few chunks of chocolate because a few friends of hers didn’t want to eat theirs from their lunch box because they said it might make them fat.

They are 10.

We had the conversation we often have when we pass magazines of women tucked, airbrushed and whitened. The idea that she will feel pressure to look a certain way or act a certain way is not new to Dailah because, like me, she is constantly watching and feeling. My conversations with Dailah have morphed from the “there is no one way to look or to be healthy and confident and beautiful” to “listen to your gut, don’t drown out that voice inside that tells you the world is wrong or that you’re too much of anything.”

We got home and I thought of the hundreds of other things I wished I had said to her in that moment. I realize she’s not ready to hear some of this but as I started writing I realized not only was I writing to my 10-year-old but I was also writing to myself as a young adult as well.

Parenting Dailah intimidates me so much because I feel like I’m still trying to figure out what it means to be a woman and how to listen to my gut instead of our culture or patriarchy in general. I’m just terrified of me being the reason she tries to hide her incredible bright light. Normal aging and figuring things out is a valid and understandable reason why she might struggle with these same things, those I can live with. But if when she gets older she tells me that I have had anything to do with her feelings of low self worth-whether that means I didn’t prepare her enough or I didn’t empower her enough-I don’t think I’ll ever be able to forgive myself.

So with most things I’m trying to figure out, I started writing. This one’s for Dailah. And for you, dear reader. Or your wife or daughter. And for me, of course for me.

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Before you I wasn’t sure I even wanted a girl. I’ve never been an overly feminine woman so I never had big dreams of getting nails or hair done with a daughter. I was also really scared of the daunting task of raising a woman. With Trysten I didn’t know what I didn’t know and I could fool myself into believing with a little work and a lot of heart I would raise him to be a great man-plus he was caucasian, even then I knew all the cards were stacked in his favor. With you I remember all the ways in which I failed myself as a woman or all the ways in which the world used my female body to discount my words, my thoughts or my work and I was overwhelmed at the thought of raising a female when I had messed up so terribly at being one myself sometimes.

Dailah, I continue to be nervous about raising a daughter. You’ve been physically gorgeous from the start you see; even when you were a tiny baby who hadn’t lost all of your fur covering all the nurses would come in and tell me you were the cutest baby they had ever seen. There are very few family outings that pass without a stranger coming up to you and remarking on your beauty. I think as your mom I’m supposed to beam with pride but instead I shrink just a little bit. Because I don’t ever want you to think your beauty is the thing that you were born to offer the world. When people focus on your physical body I’m worried you’ll forget about how creative you are-making toothbrush holders out of empty Kleenex boxes and decorating your room with new artwork on a bi-weekly basis. People will talk about your beautiful eyelashes and beautiful smile because they are indeed striking but in the quiet of the night I want you to be thankful for the brain that loves math and the heart that breaks every time you see a person without a home on the street corner. Beauty fades, dear one, but your inquiring mind and big heart are the things you are uniquely qualified to offer the world-focus on building those.

A father of one of your friends made you change your shorts after a cheerleading practice once. Your cheer shorts are more like underwear as they allow you to tumble and jump without riding up your lady bits but you were just 9-years-old. Since he shamed you for their short length I noticed you do something that you hadn’t done before, you pull on the shorts whenever you wear them, willing them to grow a few inches. There will be men and women who will shame you for anything you do. I too had a teacher yell at me on a bus full of my high school peers for the top I was wearing. Whenever I recall that memory my cheeks flush and my stomach drops. Living and moving through this world as a woman means you’ll end up getting used to this feeling. It isn’t fair and it isn’t right but it’s the truth and it’s one of the reasons I feel ill equipped to raise a daughter. For a people pleaser like me, it still hurts when people shame me about my style even though as an adult I know it has more to do with their low feelings of self worth than the length of my shorts or the cut of my top. Start to develop the ability to separate what is your actual style and what our culture is trying to tell you it is. Choose comfort over anything else because when you’re comfortable you’re confident, and confident is the coolest and most beautiful thing you can be.

I hear your brothers call you dramatic almost on a daily basis. Though I stop them every time and remind them of the times they sound exactly like you without anyone calling them dramatic-I worry about how it affects you. You’re not dramatic, baby girl, you’re a storyteller. And the world needs more authentic storytellers. A story is not worth hearing with just the facts, your audience needs you to set the stage and tell them how it felt to be living in that moment-what did you hear and smell? And you tell that. Your teacher told me of the time when you got up in front of the class to tell them about our trip to Ethiopia, originally you were reciting from your journal but finally the details got too big and the story too important to continue holding the journal. You threw the journal on your desk and continued the story, gesticulating wildly. It was one of the best stories she heard, she told me, it didn’t even matter if all the details were 100% accurate. You have stories in you my fierce daughter; do not let the world tell you that they are too dramatic to be counted. Keep the drama, dearest, keep it within the art you constantly create and people will see the world through your eyes. And it will be beautiful.

Your fellow women are the best things God will ever give you. There is no room for drama in your relationships, honey, so don’t pay any mind to the shit on TV, movies or magazines about that. One day you might get married or might have kids and to be sure those will be some of the greatest gifts God gave you too but your relationship with women will be one of the first gifts and one of the last. Here’s the rub and the reason I was hesitant to become a mommy of a young lady- our culture will tell you in so many subliminal and not subliminal ways that you are to compete with women. They will throw models on the covers who have been airbrushed and starved without telling you they have been airbrushed and starved. They will feature women in TVs and movies who have personal chefs, personal trainers and dermatologists on staff to preserve their six pack and their skin but they won’t tell you they have all of that. This is one of the biggest lies sold to us-that these women are our competition.

The truth is, honey, they are just doing them and you need to just do you. Find a few truth tellers for friends, the women who will let you know when you are better than the way in which you’re currently behaving and the women who will plan a girls night out when you get the long awaited promotion. You won’t get along with every woman, trust me on that, but you need to respect every single one. Because life is hard and being a woman is harder, we are all just trying to figure it out as we go. There is no right or wrong way to live this life so even when you don’t like a woman you need to find it within you to love them. Love them then send them on their way with no ill feelings towards them at all. Find your people, babe, and move heaven and earth to be the best friend you can be to them. You will mess up so when you do, apologize and move on. You will be hurt but when you are, accept their apology and move on. You need women, Dailah, no matter how great your future husband or wife is you need female friendships more than you can possibly understand right now.

You were born with a little bit of Klipsch and a little bit of Dawson coursing through your veins. This means your body type could be wide shoulders, small boobs and calves that can’t squeeze themselves into off the rack boots or you could have small shoulders, large breasts, a generous booty and long legs. You could have something of a hybrid of those. I have no idea what genetic code is within you but I do know it doesn’t matter. This is a tough one and one in which I spent too much of my life fighting and starving. Maybe there isn’t a way to talk to you about this to make you see what I see now-that being healthy and in love with your body no matter the rolls and wrinkles is the most liberating thing in the world-but I want to try. I want to tell you that the size of your waist or the curve of your hips are nothing more than more stories for you to tell. There will be people that will take it upon themselves to tell you that you are too skinny and ones that will tell you when you have gained a few pounds. The world will make you feel like there is one way to look but I need you to shut them out. You do so well with that now and I cry just thinking about the ways you carry on through life undeterred even when a fellow fifth grader tries to shame your low back hair or your little booty. In many ways you are more self-assured than I am-certainly than I was until my 30s. I hope you continue to wear your invisible armor, Dailah, because there is too much to do and see and being worried about how you look will stop you from experiencing that. Eat the food, drink the whiskey, and stay up until the wee hours of the morning playing silly games with your friends. Sleep with your make up on from time to time and go out the next day for pancakes and hash browns not giving a whit about the smudged mascara underneath your eyes or the slightly smeared lipstick at your mouth. Taste life without worrying what it’s doing to your hips, baby girl, and then call me to tell me all about it.

Use your body Dailah but use it how it was originally intended. Run if it feels good and dance when the mood strikes you. You will be tempted to use your body and allow it be used in different ways. You’re like your mama, sweet thing, and are already far too awake to the world. You notice that the world has already laid claim to your body and you’re just young enough to voice your concern over this truth. Fight this tooth and nail. I spent more years than I care to admit using my body in transactional ways because I didn’t realize that my body was mine. That I didn’t have to dress it up or starve it, expose it or offer it up. In the last handful of years I’ve learned to own my body. I work out when I want to because I feel like a badass not because I’m worried I’ll change my shape if I don’t. I eat what makes me feel good and indulge in vegan chocolate whenever it’s offered to me. I do this because whenever that small voice in my head repeats the language of our culture, I offer the language of love as rebuttal. There are days when I can tell you’re in your head and are not entertained by my required 5 minutes of dance while we cook. But once I start it’s impossible for you to stay in your head. You smile despite yourself. Because we are 100% in our own bodies, allowing that language of love to transform us into another time and space. When you become tempted to allow the language of culture dictate what you wear, how you move your body or who you give your body to-remember us in these moments. Remember what it feels like to be so fully alive and full of light and use that to chase out the dark.

Men. Oy vey sweet thing. You will have your heart broken, it’s true. Sometimes that heartbreak will be mostly the fault of your love but sometimes you’ll realize in hindsight that the heartbreak lands on you, which feels even worse. Just as with your friends- you will need to learn to be the best forgiver that ever was because you’re dealing with another human and humans are fallible, even the best ones like your daddy. I hope you have many loves over your lifetime so you will know exactly what you want and won’t settle for anything less. I got married young, it’s true, but as soon as I met your daddy I knew I didn’t want to be with anyone else because I had spent the years before that falling in and out of love with various good men. Find someone that will hold you accountable for your actions, I don’t want you to end up with someone who will allow you to trample on them. You’re a strong personality-it’s why we call you Doozie-and I thank god for that every single day, but be careful about dating or marrying someone who will let you make all the decisions no matter their opinions. Power uncontrolled is a scary thing because it makes you believe that you’re right all the time and that’s simply not true of anyone. Believing that won’t force you to be internally reflective of the ways in which you can be better and do better, I want for you a partner who will push you to be the very best version of yourself. Find a nice man or woman, of course, but make sure they feel strong enough to tell you how they feel. An equal partnership is a mostly happy partnership. I want you to find someone that may not add to your happiness every moment but one that you’ll look back after years with them and be full of gratitude that overall the years were full of joy and love.

Sex. It’s a big one for women and it’s one that took me so, so long to figure out. The world wants us to be two different things simultaneously and it’s impossible. Our culture wants you to be a sex vixen that knows every position and also a virgin. Growing up Christian complicates this even more and I’m so, so sorry for that. I wish I could tell you how to work through that but the truth is I still am so I’ll keep you updated on my progress. I don’t actually know how to successfully navigate hormones and society’s pressures as I did a pretty lousy job when I was younger but I believe in you and I think you can figure some of this out on your own with your dignity still intact. Here’s what I can tell you about what I’ve learned about sex: it should feel good. Not just physically but mentally and emotionally as well. I spent way too much time in my teens allowing heavy petting to happen even though I didn’t want it to because some young men thought no was a suggestion or because I just genuinely didn’t know how to say no. Practice saying no all the time with little things. Start right now. So that when the time comes (and it will, unfortunately) you will say it loudly and boldly. And remember, “no” is never a suggestion. If you’re thinking it in your mind, say it with your mouth. If he doesn’t listen and keeps touching then get the hell out of there. I don’t care if he’s your boyfriend of a year or the good looking stranger you had crazy amazing conversations with at the bar. You get to decide where it goes, he doesn’t. You are already being told that your body is not your body by our culture but that’s the biggest lie sold to us as women-no one else gets to tell you what to do with your body. So tell your partner what you want and don’t want and get on with it.

Have orgasms. If your partner doesn’t care to wait long enough until you have an orgasm then he or she is not the right partner for you. Don’t be afraid to tell them what you like and if they are not willing to work hard to give you an orgasm then they are not worth your time. Also don’t fake it. There is no way for either of you to learn if you’re faking it. Be authentic, don’t be ashamed and stay in the moment. Sex is best when shared with someone who respects you, find that and there will be no regret in the morning.

Develop your voice as soon as you can. You’ve already started, there’s not a person who knows you that wouldn’t agree that you tell it like it is and don’t mince words. Your opinions and your thoughts matter just as much as the man next to you. You will have teachers and bosses who put more weight in the man’s ideas than yours but you need to keep speaking up. Sometimes sexist things aren’t as obvious as offering you 70% of what they offer your male peers, sometimes it’s as subtle as treating you like the administrative assistant in meetings when you’re a Vice President. Kindly remind them of the hard work you put in to get where you’re at and suggest they bring in the hard working administrative assistant so that you can focus on doing your job. You probably won’t change our culture at large or the culture in your workplace entirely by your voice and you will be sure to piss people off and hear people call you a bitch but baby, let that slide right off of you. Earn your place at the table with the hard work and determination that you ooze out of your little bones already and don’t give any mind to the haters. Revolutions don’t start with bra burning, they often start with one person bold enough to believe she deserves better and demanding others start treating her that way. When the situation calls for it, be that woman and know that I have your back. I won’t come in and do the hard work for you as tempting as it is, but I will be on the other end of the phone call when you’re done. You can let me in on the moments when you were scared, because speaking your mind is always scary, but you’re one of the strongest women I know already-you got this my love.

As strong as you are don’t be afraid of your emotions. They don’t betray you they guide you. For a very long time I thought that my propensity to cry rather easily was a weakness but now I see that all along it was a compass directing me to the things that moved me. I think you’ve inherited this from me, as proven by the other day in the car when you turned to me while reading your book with tears in your eyes, “Mom, the kitty didn’t make it. I’m so sad the kitty didn’t make it.” Let those tears out, sweet thing, and don’t be ashamed of them. It’s easier to hide your feelings and your emotions from the world then to let them out for people to misuse or dismiss them but that’s a cowardly way of moving through the world. Know that being vulnerable and learning to understand your emotions is one of the strongest acts we can do as humans. As long as you never use your tears to manipulate, each one is there for a reason. The world is beautiful and brutal place; if you’re not feeling both of those at any given moment then you’ve closed yourself off. Be strong enough to welcome it all and don’t let anyone shame you into suppressing your wild heart.

All of this said, being a woman is also really incredible. There is nothing as extraordinary as sitting down with a group of women and relating in truly deeply ways. When we embrace all that makes us women there is nothing more powerful in this whole world, I truly believe that. Once you’ve learned to tune out all the rest, you’ll be able to harness the real power inside you that is uniquely female. This person that is both tender and fierce. The one that nurtures animals back to health and then turns around and fights injustice when she sees it. I don’t want you to be afraid or overwhelmed by all the ways being a woman is scary, intimidating or oppressing-I want you to build your life around all the ways that being a woman is empowering, liberating and unendingly beautiful.

I may not have been praying for a girl before I had you but every night I am so incredibly grateful that you’re mine. There will be times when life chews you up and spits you out but as long as you learn what you were supposed to from it, you’ll be just fine. Being a woman means you’ll forever live in the tension of trying to claim your body when so many others lay claim to it as well but there’s also so much beauty in womanhood too. Stand in your strength, expose your heart and don’t think for an instant you’re less worthy than anyone with a penis.

Remember that you are loved infinitely more than you can possibly imagine right now and that there is not a thing you can do to be loved more or less-by me or by God. I’m not perfect at this womanhood thing but as soon as I learned the extravagant love that has always been there for me, my fight got bigger and my voice louder. It’s what I want for you. Because you are deeply, truly loved.

-Mommy

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*Photo by Sy Abudu

How to Talk to Your Kids About Trump

How to Talk to Your Kids About Trump

A few months ago my sister-in-law and I started a podcast. (This is genuinely the real reason I haven’t blogged since it began.) I’ll go into that more in a future blog but it is because of that podcast that I’ve had MANY emails, Facebook messages and texts asking me how I talk to my kids and my family about Donald Trump.

We end each episode of the Mama Bear Dares podcast with a dare that (we hope) inspires the listener to live life with more love and compassion-for themselves, for their significant others, for their children and for all of humanity. So people aren’t reaching out to me because they think I have it figured out, they are reaching out to me because Leslie and I have created a platform that encourages people to continue to reach out in kindness and love.

The honest answer to their question about teaching my kids kindness when they are hearing sound bites from a man who could be our next President being the very opposite of kind? I’m genuinely not sure how to answer that.

I admit to saying truly unkind things about Trump. Maybe some are true, most are probably just fear coming out in words. Sometimes my kids are around, sometimes they aren’t. So if that’s where you’re at-where the fear and the anxiety and the sleepless nights have you being unkind-I get that.

Here’s what I’m going to try to do today though:

  1. Instead of just give my kids sound bites from me I’m going to sit them down and tell them why I’m not voting for Trump. I want my kids to see that I arrived at my decision because of facts not fear. I want them to learn what we value as a family by who we elect politically. When we read the Bible and hear about all of the times Jesus came to help the people the governments of the day forgot-I want my kids to understand the relevance of that today. I don’t want them to grow up thinking that Christians vote Republican. I want them to grow up being able to differentiate between someone who says they love Jesus and then treats everyone around them like hot garbage from someone who just does the daily work of loving those around them consistently and (sometimes) quietly. My kids deserve to hear smart, rational, non-fear based facts about how our country is right now and my hopes for the future. They won’t get that from me yelling, “What an idiot” at the TV.
  2. I will show them videos of past Presidents during their acceptance speeches at the conventions. I will try to raise kids who don’t just fall for the flashy lights, pretty words and rehearsed pauses. We will stop the videos and ask “ok this is what they said, what do you think this means?” Just like when we go past magazines at the store and one of them comments on the models I remind them of photoshop, lighting, make up and angles-I will also remind them of the difference between rhetoric and reality. I never want my kids to be disengaged consumers buying whatever anyone is selling. I want them to see past the rhetoric. Who is being included? Who is being left out? If Trump were to make this actually happen who benefits? Who doesn’t? In that phrase he just said is it inclusive or exclusive? Overall did you get a feeling that he loves this country and its people or did you get the feeling that he hates this country and most of its people?
  3. Every time I hear another racist, misogynistic, islamophobic, homophobic (all the ists and bics) instead of reacting out of anger I will label those things appropriately and, when able, ask our kids to imagine someone from that target audience and ask how they think it would feel for them to hear that. Because when Donald Trump is coming at us with anger, I want my kids to instead react with empathy. Just like I encourage my kids to empathize and defend the kid from the bully at school, I want them to see what Trump is doing and recognize it as the same. And I’ll also discuss the danger in other-izing an entire group of people. Once again asking, if someone talks about a group of people who looks, believes or acts differently than they do in a way that’s derogatory do you actually think they would ever go out of their way to make life better for a member of that group? I hope this teaches them that in the future when they hear of kids or adults speaking poorly about an entire race, gender, nationality or religion it’s probably a good indication that my kids’s energies would be better spent on someone trying to heal the divisions rather than widen.
  4. When my kids come home to tell me that their friends are voting for Trump instead of reacting with a “Jesus” (this is my go-t0 response, it’s whatever. I’m working on it but dam*. Bless) I’ll react with a “and how does that make you feel?” If my kids don’t have the words for how that makes them feel I’ll give them words for how it makes me feel when I have friends voting for him. It makes me scared. It makes me angry. It makes me sad. It makes me feel like maybe we don’t have as much in common as I thought we do. It makes me feel like we need to move. It makes me feel like I’m alone. It doesn’t necessarily erase any of their feelings but I hope it helps them process them in a healthy way. In a way that is able to sit back and understand that maybe those friends are just regurgitating what their parents say. That it doesn’t necessarily reflect on the children themselves but on their desire to relate to and be a part of the conversation in their own homes. It’s a good example of how wanting to be included can lead to things that maybe don’t actually reflect how we feel or what we think and I’ll stress again that being an independent thinker is one of the most powerful things you can be. Sometimes it’s lonely but you’ll always be able to fall asleep knowing you’ve stayed true to who you are.
  5. I’m going to remind my kids that they can make a difference. I genuinely believe this election will come down to who shows up at the polls. Obviously every election does to some extent but this one feels like the stakes are higher. I have told them for as long as I can remember that their voices, their bodies and their stories matter. But I’ll show them I believe my own life matters by voting in this election. And I will remind them that as they get older I want them to vote however they see fit not how I see it, not how their grandparents or their friends see it. I don’t want them to think that because they are Christian they need to vote Republican. I don’t want them to think that because they are white they vote this way or black they vote another. I don’t want them to vote with who their husband or wife is voting for. I want them to do their own due diligence and research all of the candidates. I want to equip them with the knowledge of how to do that and this election seems like a pretty great time to start so that when they turn 18 (just did the math…Trysten is eerily close to voting in the next Presidential election. Gulp) they are confident in their ability to choose for themselves and no one else. It took me far too long to learn that lesson.
  6. And I will point out the things that they aren’t old enough to see but that I believe is important. I will show them that most of the people at the RNC this week were white. I will remind them that whiteness doesn’t represent our country and that when any majority is allowed to go unchecked it always spells disaster for minorities. Always. So when I encourage them to be kind I mean to be kind to the people who are being left out of the conversation when Trump is at the podium. The people who run the risk of being exploited even more than they are already. I will remind them that our kindness is ALWAYS better spent on the people for whom our communities, our countries and our world discounts and sees as disposable. And I will wake them up to the privileges they have that others don’t. And use Trump as an example of unchecked and unregulated privilege. Though I’ve talked to Trysten specifically about winning the virtual privilege lottery (white, male, middle class, intelligent, no visible signs of disability, cisgendered, currently straight identifying, etc) I haven’t talked to the others about the other various ways privilege plays out and how we have to stay awake to the realities of others or we run the risk of neglecting them too.

This political season is a really great training ground for teaching my kids that fighting fire with fire burns the entire country to the ground. We are seeing this play out on the national stage but my kids do not need to see it play out in my house. If I genuinely want my kids to react to an angry person or an angry idea with respect and rationality then I have to show them how to do it. I’m absolutely going to mess up because I’m human and I’m still learning to process my emotions in a healthy and beneficial way but I have to start somewhere.

Last night a friend who, like me, has Republicans running down all sides of her family. People she respects and loves messaged me with “I need someone to tell me what to do.” I don’t think I know what to do but I’m going to start here.

Equipping my family with knowledge, agency, love, empathy and compassion feels like the most profound thing I can do. Today it certainly feels like the most revolutionary act that is needed from us.

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Are you feeling this same tension? What are you doing with you kids?

 

 

Ethiopia Trip-Our Second Day in the Villages

This post was written on Wednesday, November 11.

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I woke up this morning knowing I was going to make it to the villages. I had slept soundly through the night, despite sleeping most of yesterday. After careful calculations I realized I had slept 21 of the last 24 hours. My body put up a good fight and won, I’m so thankful.

This morning we were off to Tomas and Binyam’s village first. We spent the morning talking and playing soccer with his special people. Though the crowd of 200 people wasn’t there to greet us today, we had a truly beautiful time in the hut with our special people. True to our experience in Ethiopia, there was a steady stream of community members who came and sat at the doorway of the hut just to watch the ferengi (foreigners) talk with their fellow villagers. Binyam and Dailah remained fixated on the tiny chickens. Binyam, I think, because staring back at the dozens of eyes staring at him was just a little too much for my introvert. Dailah because they were simply too cute (one of T & B’s people told Dailah she should name the chicks. She named one “Cutie Patootie” and they all really loved that. )

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I loved that the special people didn’t just ask Tomas and Binyam questions but also Tariku, Dailah and Trysten. It was clear they saw no difference between the siblings and loved them because of their relation to T & B as well. It’s rarely like that in America where one of the first questions we get asked is, “But are they brothers?” about our Ethiopians, as if the fact that I called them all my kids wasn’t enough proof that they are brothers. The Ethiopians never asked if Trysten and Dailah were our biological children or how/why our family came to be. They just started calling Trysten, Dailah and Tariku “son” and “daughter” as well. What a beautiful thing that is.

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We were served roasted beans (delicious), crackers and soda. Despite my churning belly I was struck by how relaxed I was. Obviously no one in the tent save for our family, our translator and our driver spoke English but it never felt uncomfortable. It just felt really, really good to surround our boys with so many who love and pray for them every day-Ethiopian and American alike-and sometimes just sit and marvel at the miracles they truly are.

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We got to hear funny stories of Tomas and Binyam when they were younger. Both sides of the family (Ethiopian and American) loved to hear that, though so much has changed, in many ways the boys remain remarkably similar to how they were when they lived there. We have told similar stories they told with just a few different cultural variables. Some of the stuff I had worried might be adoption related with both of them turned out to be something they’ve done from the beginning. It felt so reassuring to hear details on those personality traits and think to myself, “Oh my, they’ve been doing that since they were babies, everything is going to be ok.” Very rarely with international adoption do you get to fill in holes of the adopted child’s story so I genuinely can’t tell you what it meant to do that in so many ways for Tomas-adopted at age 6 and Binaym-adopted at age 3.

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After many photos and prayers, we were off to Tariku’s special people for the afternoon.

We found out that one of Tariku’s special people had essentially told the village they weren’t allowed to hang around their hut the two days we were there. This special person didn’t want a spectacle made of the return of a beloved. It is perhaps why it felt so much like spending time with family while we were in their village.

They set up a soccer game, Tariku’s special person chose teams this time and definitely stacked one of the teams with all of Tariku’s people. Normally I would question the fairness as Tariku’s gift of excelling in sports ran rampant through his team, but it was clearly making his special person so happy so I just sat back and enjoyed the show.

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Zach and I sat on chairs with other special people to watch. Our translator walked around so it wasn’t as if we were holding conversations but there was something so universally joyful about those moments. To be watching the two worlds collide in such an ordinary way. No fanfare, no staring. It felt like a regular Wednesday in so many ways. I have to admit it was maybe my favorite time of the whole trip.

I’ve been asked if it was weird to not be able to communicate. Of course there were times when the translator was maybe in one area and we were in another that I would’ve normally started small talk with the people around me. But without the small talk, when we were able to communicate via translator our words had more purpose and more weight.

I realized that in America it’s so easy to “know” people. Maybe we small talk on a pretty regular basis, perhaps we comment on all the social media the other posts. We share the same language and perhaps we talk all the time but we don’t know each other. One of the truest gifts we received in Ethiopia was our ability to get to know our special people. When you don’t speak the same language there’s no fluff-our conversations were about the hopes, dreams and fears the other has. The stories told weren’t just silly anecdotes they were glimpses into a larger narrative about who my boys were then and how they’ve affected who they are now.

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We had some funny moments too to be sure because there was an awareness of the weirdness of the whole situation.

There’s no doubt God never intended Tariku to be with us and not with them, adoption was never part of the original plan. I think we were all aware of that in a rather profound way. But somehow we found ourselves huddled over a large plate of injera and shiro celebrating the messy, traumatic, complicated way in which we had become a family bound together by the absolute love we share for Tariku. If Tariku’s special person would’ve allowed village members in I have no doubt they would’ve recognized the common language of love in our adoring eyes and directed smiles whenever Ethiopian or American looked Tariku’s way.

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I was asked recently if it was awkward to be around Tomas, Tariku and Binyam’s special people knowing in some ways we share the same roles in their lives. In all honesty, I feel so grateful to have partners in this monumental task of raising our sons. An open international adoption is weird and inaccessible at times but when I’m feeling dark or hopeless about my abilities to raise my boys right I’m reminded of who is alongside me and I get a tremendous amount of strength from that. I feel more reassured that the boys will be okay knowing I’m not alone in raising them.

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When Zach was speaking to Tariku’s special people he said, “I just hope that I make you proud as his father with how I’m raising Tariku to love you and to love Ethiopia. I think of you often when I’m with him and just want to do right by you. Thank you for the opportunity to help raise our son.”

I thought it perfectly summed up our time spent with all of the special people. It was our way of thanking them for the gift it is to help raise our sons and to celebrate the gift in a beautiful multi-cultural, multi-lingual way.

Ethiopia Trip-On Water

Ethiopia Trip-On Water

While we were having lunch with Tariku’s special people at the hotel I started to feel my belly rumble. It had been feeling off all day but I assumed it was nerves and excitement for the day to come. I excused myself and made the long walk up 4 flights of stairs to our room where I got sick and then laid down until the dizziness passed. Over the next few hours I did this 3 more times, always trying to go join the group afterwards.

On the final time, the getting sick part was so violent and lasted for far longer than the previous trips so it took my body too long to stop shaking and sweating. I lied down and fell asleep until my family joined me upstairs.

This continued for the next many hours, roughly every 45 minutes. I would doze in between but because this is a family blog I will tell you I have never been as sick as I was at that time. Never.

I didn’t have a scale there but I would assume that in the next 48 hours I would go on to lose about 10 pounds because of the combination of getting sick and lack of appetite. I’m typically right around 125 (give or take a coconut milk ice cream sandwich, obvs) so 10 pounds wasn’t insignificant. I tell you this only so you can understand that after I came out of the worst of the fog I couldn’t shake the gratefulness I felt at having 10 extra pounds to give.

As I slowly recovered Zach and I tried to figure out what it was that caused me to become so violently ill. Because he and I were eating roughly the same thing for meals we originally couldn’t come up with something that could’ve made me sick and not touched him. Then I remembered eating some fresh greens that hadn’t been cooked but had been rinsed by local water sources.

The irony that I had gotten sick from unclean water was not lost on me.

Even though I’ve been a pretty passionate clean water advocate for 7 years, being sick by unsafe water put things in a whole new perspective for me.

-What happens when these children, mothers and fathers don’t have 10 pounds to lose?

-What happens when they don’t have a support system like I had in Zach who took care of me in ways never foretold in our marriage vows? (Seriously, moment of appreciation for the man that Zach is. I am crying just thinking about his service to me.) What happens if their support system needs to work to keep the family alive or feed the family?

-What happens when they don’t have the world’s best driver leave his hotel for the night to get prescription medicine, rehydration packets and bottled tonic water?

-What happens when they don’t have access or financial resources to access those in the first place?

Well we know what happens to them don’t we? 1 out of every 5 deaths of children under 5 in Sub-Saharan Africa is still caused by water-related disease. I don’t just know that statistic anymore, after personally suffering from water-related sickness I know that statistic. Without all the things mentioned above, I’m not sure what my survival rate would have been and I’m a grown, healthy woman.

The day after the special family trip to the hotel we were supposed to go to the villages of all 3 of my boys. I woke up that morning determined to go, regardless of how I felt. I was able to put some clothes on and walk downstairs but as soon as I smelled food I made the 4 flight trek up the stairs just in time to get sick again.

I missed the first time my boys saw their villages again because I was sick from unclean water. This is nothing when you compare it to the 44 million school days that are missed because of water-borne illness in Sub-Saharan Africa alone. Or the 64% of the families who rely on women to collect the family’s water-and will often go without when she falls ill.

Missing a day in the villages was a really big deal for me and I still haven’t quite gotten over the guilt I feel about it. That said; it becomes easier to not revel in self pity when the reality of the world water crisis is so much bigger than my few days of poor health.

Once I was able to get the strength to correspond I sent my sister (in law) Leslie a text saying essentially, “After this whole debacle I am even more passionate about the Water Party, let’s do what we can to not let this happen to anyone else.”

I’m so grateful I have a healthy outlet to channel my outrage at getting sick because of dirty water.

The Water Party is in 3 days. This year the committee working on the event is bigger and more motivated than ever to get people passionate about the water crisis. We are raising money once again to provide local people (this time in Tanzania through Empower Tanzania) jobs as well mechanics. These well mechanics will go on to fix the broken wells that are pumping out dirty water and making their families and friends sick. My favorite thing about the last few years of the party is that we’ve been creating sustainable solutions to the water crisis by providing jobs and dignity to my brothers and sisters around the world-empowering them to take the crisis into their own hands.

When I was sick Tariku’s special people went out of their way to bring me bananas. Solomon, our driver, dropped everything to get me medications. While Zach took the kids to the villages, the Ethiopian people in the Lemma hotel stopped by my room every hour to check on me and see if I needed anything-offering to go outside of the hotel for more medication if necessary. Our translator came to my room offering a ride to the hospital. Tomas and Binyam’s special people gave Zach a local herb that I was to chew that settles the belly. This bitter herb smelled terrible but worked in the short term. And the next day when I arrived at the villages, before hugging the children, these special people came to me and asked if I was better-praising God when I told them I was.

The Ethiopian people didn’t withhold love or care because I wasn’t Ethiopian; they took care of me as one of their own and did it in a way that restored dignity to me.

And I want to do the same for my Tanzanian brothers and sisters. I know there is so much pain and suffering happening right here in America but if we continue to close our borders (literally and figuratively) when the world needs us they will do the same when we need them. I’m not sure what my week in Ethiopia would’ve looked like without the care given to me willingly by Ethiopians, I truly don’t want to think about it.

So this week I’m going to celebrate that in the midst of so much terribleness in the world, on Saturday we will change mourning into dancing. We can’t change lives for everyone but we can do all we can to change the lives of as many people as possible.

You can join us, if you too are needing a little celebration. If you’re in the Davenport, Iowa area please come to the event. November 21, downtown Davenport, 3rd floor of the Redstone Building. Check out the event page on Facebook to hear how we use local vendors and artists to provide global resources. We have always believed that we can do both as Americans-support and encourage small business in America while working to end the water crisis. It’s the very best kind of 2 for 1.

If you can’t join us you can still donate. 100% of your donation goes to providing access to clean water because Leslie and I fundraise separately for the cost of the event. Go here to donate.

You can also purchase these beautiful handcrafted bracelets. Designed and crafted by local Maasai tribe artisans, these bracelets are a show stopper-I’m always getting compliments on mine when I wear it out! For just $30 you’ll be providing clean water for 2 people, what a small price to pay for fashion. Buy those here.

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You can also enter our raffle to win a $300 purse, a $350 bottle of Opus One Wine, an authentic Maasai kanga and one of the Tanzanian bracelets. We will ship to you should you come out the victor! Enter to win here.

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We are living in a moment of time riff with violence and devastation. The only way I know how to cope is shine a little light in the darkness. It doesn’t necessarily help the people of Lebanon, France, Kenya or Nigeria but hope is contagious. I just want to plant a seed of hope this week and see how it grows over time.

Thank you for reading these blogs of our trip. Despite the sickness (or maybe because of?) I am eternally grateful for the opportunity to take our family and for the outlet this blog has provided to wade through my experience.

Much love.

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An image in Southern Ethiopia of kids swimming, bathing and collecting water from this river. Zoom in to also see the animals doing the same.

Ethiopia Trip-Singing in Joy and Sorrow

I wrote a few blogs while in Ethiopia but never had solid enough wifi to post them. I’ll post some now and then I’ll write a recap blog that is more about specifics about our itinerary, cost of the trip, etc for other people considering taking their kids back to Ethiopia for a birth place visit.

I just need to urge any adoptive families to do it. And do it as soon as possible. Zach and I don’t have a lot of money-he works for a non-profit and I’m essentially a stay at home mom-so I understand how daunting it can be to consider. But it’s so worth it, I promise. And I genuinely believe it’s essential for our adoptive kiddos. Essential.

On to the trip…

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As soon as we touched down there were cheers, clapping and singing. Our Qatar flight from Doha, Qatar to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia was full of Ethiopians-save for the 4 American borne of us and 2 other Americans we would later learn were about to bike across Ethiopia (silly ferengi). As soon as the cheering and singing started, a huge smile lit up Tomas’s face. He was home.

This theme presented itself throughout our 8 days in country. From our 3rd floor private room, we huddled around the windows overlooking the front entrance of the Lemma Hotel waiting for Tariku’s special people. Our breaths held until they let out in forceful puffs, steaming up the windows. Finally, a glimpse of our translator pulling up and our special people getting out of the car one by one. Tariku, usually one to keep his emotions tightly in check, began to wave frantically-catching me so off guard it knocked the camera out of my hands. In his excitement he knocked on the window and caught the eye of one of his special people. She looked up and started to mirror his frantic waving. In this moment Tariku forgot it was safer to not let anyone know how he was actually feeling and just allowed it all to come out without over-processing. It struck me as the first time he had behaved quintessentially Ethiopian in 7 years.

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The next day was spent in their villages of birth. Tariku’s was up first. I spent countless nights before the trip praying that Tariku wouldn’t close himself off to his special people, knowing they would want access not just to him physically but emotionally as well. Not only did I think they deserved to meet my real “Chooch” but I knew he deserved knowing what it felt like to reveal himself fully and be fully loved in return.

And he did. In the pictures it’s easy to see he didn’t just allow people to hug him, he fully embraced them as well. Tariku also welcomed the wet kisses, hands placed on forehead while prayers were whispered, and tears of both joy and sadness that ran from the eyes of his special people down his cheek and on to his shirt. Though he didn’t shout out or sing-he was at home in a way that he’s not often in America. The land had a way of reminding him that he was made to wear his emotions on the outside because the whole community would do the same. It’s impossible, in that way, to be lonely in Ethiopia.

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As Tomas and Binyam entered their birth village, the crowds began to gather. Soon enough, around 200 people had come to celebrate the return of two of their sons. A church choir was brought in to sing, 2 chairs were placed at the head of a table for which to seat their little princes. On the table, flowers bursting with color and scent-all worked to join in the celebration of their arrival. Tomas, adopted at 6-years-old, has always been good at embracing his feelings. Perhaps because he had the most time of my 3 in Ethiopia, whether it’s joy or sadness he’s feeling-it’s quite easy to tell. But in Ethiopia even the tone of his highs and lows were brighter and more vibrant. His smile had no pull at the edges, only full abandon-taking up the majority of his face.

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Our Bini is perhaps too introverted to thrive in an environment where he’s seated at the King’s table and made to sit and watch as the community pays tribute to his homecoming. So he spent the time in his villages playing mostly with Dailah and the chicks instead. It wasn’t until we got back to the hotel where he could unpack what had just happened that he told the story with giggles and gesticulations not common with our Bini. He too, had embraced his Ethiopian nature to live life in a big way.

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It was essentially the same as we left the villages on our last day as well. Though I’m sure the words in the songs were different, there was still singing. There was still clapping and there were still tears. Even as an American who considers herself pretty openly emotional I felt rather stunted, I had no idea whether to laugh or cry. It occurred to me that I can do both as it was the happiest and the saddest I had felt in a very long time. Though I’m not currently able to do what Tariku calls “The Ethiopian yodel”, I am able to feel two seemingly contradictory emotions at the same time. Arguably that’s what makes them even stronger, being able to compare the high and the low right next to each other in the same moment. One without the other dulls them both.

Only time, the true author of our stories, will tell whether they continue to allow that openness in a considerably more closed off America. I hope so, because over time they will grow to understand that their emotions and feelings are safe here too, even if we don’t express it as empathetically. If nothing else comes from our trip but the ability to better express what they are feeling then it will have been worth it. So, so worth it.

Upon landing in Chicago I turned to Tomas and started clapping and jumping in my seat. A smile spread across his face and he joined. Next time, I told him, let’s start cheering too. Yes, he said, let’s do!

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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