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 ( 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?

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