Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Fun with Screens

We arrived home this weekend. The kids ran in the house and hugged and kissed their father. Then they ran to the desk and hugged their screens.


The spell was not lifted, the curse was not broken, the addiction was not overcome.

They still love their screens. A Lot.

We were nearly screen free for a month. But a few days of bad weather and a bad cut on Daniel's foot prompted us to let them have some movie time. Plus we HAD to to watch the Harry Potter movie after reading the book! Right!? So it was not so much a screen-free month as a screen- lite month.

We are back to trying to hold the line on the screen limits. Hopefully, the screen drama will not rage out of control any time soon...

This morning the kids took a device down to their playroom so they could listen to music. Later I found about a hundred new photos on it... Here is a sample from their impromptu photo shoot. ;))

Looks like they've found a new creative outlet...

Monday, July 28, 2014

Where are they from? And other adoption conversations with strangers...

Last week I took Lily to a local botanic garden. While she was clamboring all over the Children's Garden, an older woman caught my eye and said,

"I hope I'm not assuming... but is your daughter adopted?"

"Yes, she was born in Ethiopia." I replied with a smile.

"I have a daughter, who is black, and adopted. She's now, oh, 45 years old." She smiled wide, and I smiled back. Then I said, leaning in a bit,

"Did you always have people asking about her hair?"

The woman laughed and said, "Yup. My daughter was just saying to me, 'Mama, that's the one thing you did wrong. You didn't keep my hair tidy enough!' You always have to keep her hair nice and neat."

We chatted for another moment, and then moved on.
thumbs up for our neighbors swing

Later, an older man approached us as Lily as exploring the Fairy House Forest, and asked "Where is she from? Haiti?"
No, I said, she was born in Ethiopia.

We chatted for a minute, and before walking on he made a point to get Lily's attention and say, soberly, "God Bless You." Lily shrugged at him and skipped away.

The man driving the shuttle bus to the parking lot admired Lily, and said, you look just like my granddaughter!

The attendant at the ticket booth said, "What a beautiful family you have."

A woman in the cafe laughed and said, "What about her hair!? I bet you can't do a thing with it!"

My mother, after being asked "Where is she from?" while escorting Lily to the beach snack shop said to me, "Do you get asked these kinds of questions all the time?!"

Yes, I said.  Being an obviously adoptive family means fielding lots of questions and stares, pretty much all the time. I find it doesn't bother me, most of the time.  Most of the time I take questions from strangers as an opportunity to educate folks. I didn't know they don't speak English in Ethiopia, either, until about 4 years ago. I didn't know how to braid curly hair either. Sometimes meeting someone in a park or garden or beach is a lovely opportunity to make a connection.  It's fun to talk with some one who is also "in the club." Occasionally someone has said something rude, but usually out of ignorance, not malice. ("Where is their 'real' mother?", or "Is their mom dead?" or "I couldn't adopt, I don't know how you do that.")

I'm happy to have some kind older gentleman say "God Bless You" ponderously.  I'll take all the blessings I can get.

Being an obvious adoptive family means that I am very conscious of what we look like and how we act when we are out in public.  People are going to be looking at us; the least I can do is have the kids in clean clothes.  I die a thousand tiny deaths when the kids act up in public. Because now I'm "that white mother with those adopted kids."  And sometimes I'm that "tired white mom with those out of control black kids."

Which is why, when at the end of our month at the beach, at the end of our two day car ride home, at the end of our patience and our clean clothes and our ability to sit in the car,  it was tough to walk into the diner.  Lily's hair, braided so beautifully by her teacher before we left, and kept mostly sand and damage free for a month by my inexpert hands, was free. She was sporting a gloriously wild and beautiful Afro, slightly smooshed in the back from sitting in the car.  I didn't even think about it until we walked (sweaty and cranky and in need of home) into the diner and I saw the African-American hostess and her neatly coiled hair and I realized... oh *#$%, Lily's got "white momma" hair.

When we adopted our kids I made a vow, perhaps a silly one, to never let my daughter have "white momma" hair. (Meaning, under-moisterized, tangled, un-braided, I-don't-know-what-to-do-with-my black-daughter's-hair, hair.) Thank God for the internet and Lily's patient kind teachers, Lily's hair is well maintained and usually braided or styled carefully. I take a lot of pride in it, and hair time takes up a good portion of our weekly schedule.

A few weeks ago an African-American woman stopped me at a carnival and asked me how I did Lily's twists. That was huge for me. HUGE.

So here we are in the diner, in all our end of vacation, didn't-have-time-to-braid-hair-at-the-motel glory, and all I want to do it shout. "I know how to do hair! We ran out of conditioner and patience and as soon as we get home I'm going to do a hot oil treatment!"

Thankfully, that proved unnessary.  No dirty looks were cast in our direction.

And as soon as we got home, I did a hot oil treatment and braided her hair into a mini-mohawk, as per Lily's request.

So the next time you see an obviously adoptive trans-racial family, go ahead and say "What a beautiful family you have." and add, "nice hair."

in all her natural glory

Friday, July 25, 2014

How to Survive a Vacation with your children...

bring your babysitter with you!

hahahahahaha... just kidding. But wouldn't that be great!?!

We are just finishing up a long stay at a family beach house. We are very, very blessed to have this beautiful place to get away from city life, and it has been a gorgeous month.

However... I am also really, really happy that the kids are starting camp on Monday morning! I will be dropping them off with a big smile, a hearty wave and a relieved "See you in 8 hours kids!!!"

Because let's be honest: a vacation with your children is not really a vacation. It can be lovely fun, but it's not exactly a loll around on your beach towel reading for hours kind of thing. As soon as you get all comfortable on your beach towel and open up that book you've been dying to read... some little person who's well-being you are responsible for needs to use the bathroom, or is hungry, or has fallen and scraped their hands, or is desperate to show you the dead crab they just fished out from the ocean.

You will never finish that novel.

Here are my tips for enjoying yourself while vacationing with kids.
demonstrating their excellent restaurant manners

1. Keep It Simple.  Food = Simple. Activities = Simple. Wardrobes = Simple.

Pretty much every day this month we got up, ate some toast or cereal for breakfast, put on our bathing suits and went swimming. We went to the beach.  Or we went to the other beach. Or the lake. Or the swimming hole.  Then we ate some sandwiches, fruit and carrot sticks for lunch. Then the kids ran around or played ball or rode their bikes or we went swimming again. Then we ate nachos for snack. (Daniel is a HUGE fan of nachos. We went through 8 bottles of salsa this month. 8 large bottles.) Then we went up to the ice cream parlor and got some ice cream. Then we started cocktail time dinner (spaghetti/mac n cheese/rice and beans, repeat), read some books, and went to bed. When it rained we visited the local library, or they watched movies on the computer or played in the attic. There were occasional trips to town to visit the five and dime and the grocery story for bribes toys and more salsa. Sometimes we put ourselves through hell went to a restaurant to eat. Other than that, it was peanut butter, nachos, ice cream and spaghetti. Bathing suits and bikes.
super excited to have taught his cousin how to make his favorite treat!!!

2. Try to keep the adult:child ratio balanced. 

My minimum for a vacation is a 3:2 adult:child ratio. That way, one person watches the kids, another one is cooking/cleaning/doing laundry/running errands, and the third person gets to relax. Keep rotating, and for at least 1/3 of the time, you get to relax! And, you also get the fun of fighting with the other two folks about who is spending more time doing chores and who is getting away with too much relaxing. It's just really not a family vacation without that argument.
swimmin' hole. no fear.

3. Keep Stocked Up.

You may have little people to keep alive, but this is still your vacation. So, stock up on your favorite vacation treats! We always have a ready supply of good strong coffee, chilled white wine, cocktail mixers, and sweets. My pants are bit snug, but my spirit is loose.

4. Put them to bed early.

Lily has been heading up to bed around 6:30PM this month. Daniel is in pajamas by 7:30PM.  Yes, it's light out til 9PM, and yes the neighbor kids are still out riding their bikes... but no matter. Bedtime! By 8PM, the house is quiet, and I have time to pour myself another glass of wine herbal tea and enjoy my vacation. Lily will be climbing into my bed by 6AM to wake me up, and by 7AM the house is a unholy noisy mess again.  The day time is theirs, the evenings are mine.

If you don't put them to bed early, how will you ever finish that novel?
It's all about the ice cream.

5. Relax the rules, but not all the rules.

One thing I want my children to learn is that whether we are on vacation or at home, we are a family who helps each other out. So, since I still need to cook and do laundry, the kids still need to do chores. Tables must be cleared, toys picked up, garbage taken out. There has been a fair amount of grumbling about this, but not too much louder than the grumbling I hear at home.

On the other hand, it is vacation. So yes, you can eat ice cream every day. And yes, we will get that ridiculous toy from the bargain bin that will probably break in 5 minutes but be glorious, if brief, fun.  Yes, you can have nachos for breakfast. Yes we will listen to that ridiculous song on the radio, again.

And yes, we will take you to the lake to swim for 4 hours. I need to tire you out, anyway, so I can get you to bed early and start enjoying my vacation.

How do you survive enjoy family vacations?

Thursday, July 24, 2014

broken rubber band

Most toddlers, when you take them to a wide open area like a park or a beach, will run and run for a few yards, and then turn back to look at you. Then they will laugh and run very quickly back to you.  It's like they have an invisible rubber band attached to them that runs between them and you (mommy/daddy).  If they run too far, the rubber band pulls them back, fast.

Lily came home with us at 15 months. She had just learned to walk, and for the first couple of weeks she still had that step-step-stumble-fall walk of a young toddler. As soon as she got steady on her feet though, she took off.

We took her to wide open places and she ran and ran and ran. It was clear, her rubber band was broken. 12 months in a care center without a mommy or daddy to run back to will do that.

Sometimes I let her run away from me, just to test and see how far she would go. Would she ever turn around?

She never did. She just kept going. My own heart, my own aching rubber band, would snap, and I would chase after her and catch her up.  But it was clear, she would have kept on going.

Lily, you may have noticed, is something of a dare devil. If there is a sharp object within reach, she is picking it up (and when she was younger, putting it in her mouth. Let's see if this steak knife from the dishwasher mommy is unloading is really clean.) If there is a body of water to jump in, she jumps. If there is a tall tree or hill or large rock, she is climbing it. If there is a cliff or porch railing or window ledge, she is leaning over it. If there is a set of wheels to ride, she is on it. Running into traffic? That's so fun! Disappearing into crowds? Loves it! I have been paged over the YMCA loudspeaker to come get a (pantsless) child from the bouncy house she refuses to leave. I have grabbed her from the jaws of death (oncoming cars and trucks) three times.

This child has taken years off my life. YEARS.

And yet, she is still alive. Steak knife in the mouth at 16 months? Not a scratch.

Diving into a busy street? Fine.

Tumbling off of a high rock? Not a bruise.

She really does have a guardian angel.

A couple of days ago we took the kids to a huge beach near us. Waves! Sand! They were thrilled, and the waves were so much fun they didn't notice the water was like ice.

At this beach there is a large rocky island that you can walk out to at low tide. We all started towards it, but Daniel got distracted by the waves and we stopped to let him jump for awhile. Lily, though, wanted to get to the top of that island. She took off. I stood at the bottom of the slope, watching her, conducting the test again. Just how far and how high will she climb before she turns around? Has her rubber band, after 3 years with us, been stitched together at all?

She climbed and climbed and climbed without a glance back. Soon, she was out of sight. I had a vision of the waves crashing on the rocky ledge I knew was on the other side of the island. I started climbing after her.

Lily, as an adult, will be able to climb so high. She is so fearless, so ready to take on the world. Perhaps by then, we will have stitched together enough of the rubber band that she will not leave us behind.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Three things I'm glad we brought to visit our Ethiopian family...

and a couple of things I'm glad we didn't bring...

We visited our Ethiopian family in April, 3 years after Daniel and Lily came home to America. I say "our" Ethiopian family because "birth family", although accurate, makes it sound like the family gave birth to D and L, and that's it. End of story.  One of the many, amazing, eye-opening things I've learned through being an adoptive mother is that adoption is never, ever, the end of the story. Daniel and Lily were born to a family in rural Ethiopia, and raised by them for years (in Daniel's case), and now they are being raised by us in urban America. But they are still Daniel and Lily's family, and by extension, ours.  ("Forever Family" is another commonly used adoption phrase I have given up. Daniel knows, all too well, that "forever" is a myth. And their family of birth is still their family forever  just not the family currently making them eat peanut butter sandwiches or do homework.)

I like to think of our kids' birth family as a kind of "in-law" family relationship. Really, really, super complicated long distance in-law family relationship. We were very lucky and blessed that our visit in Ethiopia went so well.  We spent an intense, magical four hours filling ourselves up on our love for our collective children. We looked at each other, eyes shining with love, marveling at the miracle of being in the same room together.

But it was awkward... to say the least!

Here are three things we brought that helped make this visit a success. *

1. A instant print camera. (What used to be known as a Polaroid.)  We found a tiny Japanese camera that printed little photos. It was not crazy expensive or fragile.  We used it to take photos of us all together, and of our kids with their Ethiopian relatives, and then gave the photos for the family to keep. (We took photos with our regular camera at the same time.)  Watching the photos "develop" was lots of fun for both the kids and adults. And we were able to give our family a lasting keepsake of our time together.

2. An indestructible soccer ball. One World Futbol (http://www.oneworldfutbol.com) makes very tough, hard to destroy or wear out soccer balls. Each purchase donates a ball to an African community organization. We bought two, one for our home in NYC, and one to bring to Ethiopia. We met with our family at a local school, and as soon as we took out the ball all of us headed into the school's recess yard to play. Within minutes all the children and all the men (fathers, translators, drivers) were kicking a ball around. The language and social barriers dissolved and the initial tension of meeting our family evaporated.  Not surprisingly, all the Ethiopians have crazy good soccer skills. Even the tiny just-walking baby could pass the ball easily.

Lily and her sister T----- in their matching blue dresses. Lily still wears it, calling it her "T----'s dress".

3. Matching shirts and dresses for the children.  This is a tricky one, because bringing any type of gift can really create problems for your family and your family's community.** In this case, we relied on our (limited) understanding of Ethiopian culture, and my instincts. It was around Easter time, and a traditional gift for Ethiopian holidays is new clothing. There were many, many Ethiopian-Americans traveling to visit family, and all of them at the airport had huge, enormous suitcases- probably filled with presents for relatives. We were visiting our family, so we brought the children some new clothes.

Gift giving for visiting is also expected in American culture. Would you ever show up at your in-laws empty handed? No, you would not.

We brought matching t-shirts for all the boys, including Daniel. We brought matching dresses for the girls, including Lily.  When we took them out, all the children immediately put the new clothing on and everyone clapped and cheered. And here is where my mommy instincts were right on... Before the children put on their new clothes, we were an obviously poor family in almost rags, and an obviously wealthy-ish family in newish clothing. After the children changed we were one family, laughing. Look- we are all wearing the same clothes! Next time, I'm bringing silly matching t-shirts for everyone! (I'm thinking: I LOVE NY would be fun.)

The one thing I wished we'd brought, and will hopefully remember next time, is a simple illustrated book about where we live. Then we could have avoided the fruitless 20 minute explanation of snow that ensued after a relative's innocent question about the weather.... It does not snow in Ethiopia. Try explaining snow to someone who has no experience of freezing. And try to keep a North-Eastern American from complaining about the weather after the winter we'd just had!

Anyway, a simple children's book about New York will be coming with us next time...

* We are incredibly lucky to have a relatively uncomplicated birth family situation. Our Ethiopian family is extraordinarily lucky to be mostly healthy and whole right now. (God willing, they will remain so.) Sadly, not every "in-law" family has the kind of situation that allows for happy visits. This advice is meant for visits with intact, relatively healthy and secure family members.

** Two things I'm glad we didn't bring:

1. Any money, food or any other gifts for our Ethiopian family. Not that they don't need it; they do. They have a tough life. But if they brought back some cash or a big bag of rice to their village, and explained that it was from their relinquished children's new American family... how many more children will be relinquished, abandoned or worse- stolen or sold- in order to possibly ensure the health and safety of their families? Just the color photos and the brand new t-shirts is more than most in their village have or ever will have.  Adoption fraud and child trafficking happen in communities that are desperate. We are trying, perhaps ineptly, to stay connected with our family without adding to the incentives that already exist for exploitation and un-ethical adoption.

2. Our i-phones, jewelry, fancy bags or cameras.  In a small Ethiopian town we are conspicuously rich Americans, there is no escaping that. Even an Ethiopian who has never left the village of her birth knows that plane tickets are not cheap.  But, we tried not to show off. I wore only a simple wedding band. We wore plain, simple clothing. We brought only the basics with us: our identification, our camera, a bit of cash, a water bottle.  I carried it all in a simple canvass bag.

Families who have visited "back home"... what did you bring, and why?

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Summer Scenes

We are ensconced at our family's beach house, feeling very, very lucky. It's kind of like being at camp....

There are lawn sports:

Grandpa teaching L the art of croquet
There is First Aid training...
Daniel sliced his foot on a shell while swimming...
Quiet reading time...
which was a perfect opportunity to get him immersed in the world of Harry Potter
Roller Skating!

Copious amounts of ice cream...
L's favorite flavor: purple!

Arts and Crafts
Grandma lets them paint. I took the photo and ran off. Arts and crafts with my kids stresses me out...

Sparkler fun...
it was all fun and games until L burned her finger... about 5 seconds after this photo was taken
Fishing with friends...
L and A
Bouncing at the local County Fair...

Animal Husbandry
L with a muscovy duck baby

More fishing...

And just general goofing off...

We hope your summer is full of silly fun!

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Easy Peasy Mac n Cheesy

We (the children and I) decided that this was the summer to teach Daddy how to cook. (A true Italian boy, the man cannot boil water.) 

First on the menu: Mac N Cheese. This is Daniel and Mommy's favorite food.  Lily won't touch it, but we keep putting it in front of her because who doesn't like mac and cheese?! One of these days she'll wake up and realize the error of her ways. 

Here is what that Daddy cooked today, which huge success!

Easy Peasy Mac N Cheesy

Boil up a box of your favorite pasta. We usually use shells or elbows.

Once the pasta is done, drain off the water, keeping the pasta in the pot. Most of the time, I turn the burner off, but on really cold days I might keep it on low.

Toss into the pasta pot: an inch cube of butter (about 2 tablespoons), a heaping tablespoon of flour, a cup of milk (we use whole), and about 2-3 cups of grated or cut up cheese. We usually use cheddar, occasionally tossing in some Parmesan or cream cheese or whatever mild cheese I have in the fridge. 

Stir, stir, stir til everything is melted and gooey and looking delicious. Eat immediately. 

Tonight we had ours with a side salad and some crunchy bacon. Heaven. (Lily ate a piece of bacon and some pear slices. Silly girl!)

What should we teach him to cook next!?

Friday, July 4, 2014

"I'm up to Level 5"

I wrote the middle section of this in mid-June, but I was too overwhelmed by the end of school, and frankly, nervous I wouldn't follow through to post it.  Here goes...
*      *        *      *      *

Dear Daniel,

Years from now you will read this and hate me all over again. I know, I'm sorry. I love you, Mom

Is managing "screen time" the bane of modern parenthood, or is it just me?!

This Saturday I took my son's i-pad privileges away, forever.  That afternoon, after a long, tearful conversation, I gave them back... With the understanding that I just. cannot. keep. arguing. about. it. anymore.

This morning I find him standing at the table, ignoring my requests for him to eat his breakfast, playing Minecraft/Star Wars Lego/Whatever game he is into right now.  Morning screen time has been forbidden in our house, for like, forever.  So I pulled the i-pad away, and threw his breakfast on the table.

He protested, yelling, "But I'm up to Level 5!"

To which I yelled back, "I don't care!" And then I slammed some things around for a while.

It's June, it's the end of the year school, and I have no patience (or maturity, it seems) left. AT ALL. I have about a 9 month supply of patience for a 10 month school year.  I'm all out.

But seriously, what we do about screen time? 

We've tried some different approaches. When Daniel first got the i-pad for his birthday last year, we let him use it all he wanted. Which led to hours long sessions of game playing and Netflix watching. After a few days of that, we started limiting him. And then the fighting started. And it pretty much has not stopped since.  Lily now joins in, and they battle over both our tablet devices with intense passion.

I've tried pointing out that they don't fight for or over any other toy they own. I am met with blank, incredulous stares.

I've tried pointing out how much MORE fun they could be having with: any. other. toy/ each other/ out doors. I'm met with angry, incredulous stares.

I've tried setting timers, making screen time a reward for behavior goals, putting up firewalls and passwords. I've threatened to toss them in the garbage. I've taken screens away for days at a time.

Still the fighting continues. I'm exhausted.  And I think it's ridiculous. I mean, I don't set timers to limit how much they play with Barbies or Beyblades!...

And then I remember... they see me with my phone. All. Day. Long. It does little good to tell them that I'm reading or sending a text to their dad or working.  I have unlimited screen time. No one is telling me "time's up!", not even me.

So what do I do... let them loose? Give them unfettered access to the devices? Watch them develop neck cricks and twitchy eyes?

Some people think that kids will eventually get bored by their screens. Since I just flew to Ethiopia and back I happen to know that both my kids can keep going on screens for at least 12 hours. Sleep, who needs sleep when you can watch Frozen 87 times in a row!?!

And they complained when I took the screens away after a full day of using them!

This summer we are going away for a month to heaven the beach. We will not be bringing any devices. My phone has no service there, so I'll turn it off and leave it in a drawer.  I think the person who will have the hardest time withdrawing from the constant comfort of the screen will be: me. What will I do while waiting in line at the grocery store!!!??

So if you have a baby, get married, renovate your kitchen, or see Jesus in your breakfast cereal in July, please email or snail mail me photos because we are going cold turkey this hot summer!

*      *      *       *
snorkeling, so much more fun than mine craft

I am pleased to report that one week into our screen free vacation we are going strong! I do miss the cold comfort of my phone, sadly. It's a very good thing I deleted my Facebook and Feedly apps because despite the terrible service here at the beach I have been tempted to try to check in. Not having the phone with me has forced me to be bored. Which has forced me to think of other things to do besides read what other people are doing. Which is a very good thing, so far.

The kids have had a great time, and there has been no fighting over screens, because there aren't any screens! Today, I admit, it was raining all day, and I turned on the electric babysitter (Thank you, computer screen Netflix!) because after a week of intensely loud family time I really needed to sit with my coffee cup and my book and be by myself for a while.

We will see what August brings, when we return to hellish hot NYC and all our tempting tablets.

How do you handle screen time... your own, or your kids?

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Summers Off!

these two. They drive me so crazy, and then they go and do this and my heart melts.


We made it through the end of the school year! I wasn't sure... it was touch and go there for a few weeks. I didn't think I would pull it off this year, but somehow did. The report cards were written, the attendance records updated, the room was cleaned and packed up, the students were sent off for their summer.  I bought, made and delivered thank you presents for D and L's teachers. All of the end of year parties, tips, notes and check lists were attended, collected, completed. We did the last day of _____ (gymnastics, basketball, dance, school). We did it. Phew.

And then we left! Hooray! We are up at our family beach house this month. We are eating our way through the ice cream menu at our local ice cream parlor. We are running, swimming, biking, playing and chasing and non-stopping to our hearts content. Okay, the kids are.  I'm making sandwiches, drinking a lot of iced coffee and reading on the porch. I am NOT making: to-do lists, school lunches or homework assignments. For that, I am very thankful. 

Plus I get to do this:

enjoying a windy sunset at the Lighthouse

and for that I am very thankful.