Road trip! (Open-adoption style)

Over Easter/Passover weekend back in April, we went on a road trip to visit Gus' birthparents. As hard as I try to understand what it must be like for Gus to be adopted, I will never truly know. We chose open adoption, as we've discussed on this blog in the past, because we wanted to be able to provide Gus with biological ties. We are his parents, but so are they. And so, we are in contact with both of his birthparents. As of our visit, they were living together in Oregon. Gus had a great time playing with them in the park, sharing his food with them at lunch and then hanging out with them at the Hands-On Science Museum the next day. He is such a social kid and so comfortable with everyone, but it is touching to see him walk up and grab the hand of one of his birthparents.

Feeding lorikeets at Turtle Bay in Redding, CA

We do not talk about adoption everyday, but we do discuss it often. When reading a book that talks about babies, we talk about his birth story - about how he came out of birthmom K's tummy, about how Mommom was there to cut the cord and how I was in the waiting room and I KNEW the moment he entered the world. We talk about Gus' birthparents. He has a picture of them in his room. Now that he is getting older, we let him take the lead more in the discussions. Sometimes, he says he doesn't want to talk about it. Sometimes he just incorporates talking and thinking about them into his play. (After our trip, Gus was playing with magnet blocks on the floor. He was fitting them together and then pointed to different parts, telling me,  "This is Gussie, this is Mommom. Here's Mama, and here's K." So adorable, and lovely to see him working it out for himself.) I try to just sit back and let it happen. I think our job is to be available to answer his questions, provide him with access to his birthparents, and give him space to feel whatever he feels in any given moment.

It's not always easy though. This being mindful and aware of my kid's feelings. Let's face it, I'm not always aware of my own feelings. And on top of that, toddlers have lots of BIG feels. Their amygdala is pretty much running the show.  But if I can be quiet and still enough and not jump in when he's working to process, or ask, or tell me something, then it is really amazing. On the second day of our visit, as we drove from the hotel to meet up with his birthparents, he said, unprompted, "I'm feeling frazzled today." After we picked our jaws up off the floor, Shelley said, "It's okay to feel frazzled. There is a lot going on." I do not know exactly what his experience was during that trip, but frazzled seems like a pretty appropriate descriptor.


 I try particularly hard when he is processing through imaginative play not to contradict what he has to say. For example: a week or so after our trip, Gus and I were walking to daycare. He had decided to take a little stuffed monster friend with him. He'd been carrying it, but decided to stick it in the pocket of my hoodie. He grabbed my hand and said, "You are K and I am D and this is baby Gus." There are probably a million ways to respond to that. I think because I have tried so hard the whole time I've been parenting Gus to reflect things back to him, without even thinking I just repeated what he said. "I am K and you are D and this is Gus." And we just continued walking to daycare. I have no idea what was actually going on in his head at that moment. I just know that it was a way he was working things out, and I hope what I was able to offer is what he needed. Sometimes it will be and sometimes it won't, I suppose.

I really don't know how we got so lucky. Gus is the world's sweetest kid. And funny. And just so high on life. All kids' believe they are the center of the universe. That's just how it is. But Gus has this way of seeming to appreciate it. He does this thing where if friends or family are around and hanging out with him, he gathers us all into a giant hug. "These are my people" is what it seems to say. He did the same with K & D on the first day as we left the park. He was past nap time and needed a little help following directions, so I was carrying him. K was walking behind me and he reached out to her. She took him and then he looked around and said, "Where's D?" and then pulled them both in for big bear hug.

Because he's two and haggling with us is kind of his job, he will often brush off our attempts at affection. "No kisses! No kisses!" I try not to be intrusive, so I back off when he says this. The fact that I know he will come around and instigate a very sweet moment of snuggles and kisses helps me to give him that space, I guess. We talk about body autonomy with him - if you say stop to tickles or kisses, that's your prerogative and we will respect it. You get to say what happens to your body. Because our kiddo is so freakin' smart, he decided to use it against us when we were washing and combing his hair. "That's my hair. I don't want you to do that. It's my body." Nice try, Kid! I think we are going to have our work cut out for us when he's a teenager!

Birthparent hugs

Playing Catch-Up

When you are two, a lot happens in half a year. It is amazing to me how much Gus has grown and changed in what feels like just a blip in time. Where do I even begin?

Well, since I last blogged, there is a lot more talking. A LOT. Gus basically narrates every moment - what he's doing, what he's feeling (more on that later). And of course, he is full of questions. All kinds of questions. He has the cutest way of asking them, too. His voice goes way up high at the end. Which is how we indicate a question in speech, but the way he does it is so exaggerated. I have to work really hard not to crack up!

He has started going to daycare a few days a week and loves having other kids to pal around with. And now, unbelievably, we are into the preschool application process. I'd much rather deal with tantrums and the like than this type of logistics. But I think we've found a place that is a great fit for him and hopefully it will work out. He has to be out of diapers to go there, so we are working on that, with pretty good success.

Hmmm. Well, he wears them the "proper" way too!

On top of these developmental milestones, it is so cool to see Gus's understanding of complex concepts grow. He seems to really be working out the nuances of being adopted and what that means. We talk about it openly, and he asks questions. We've had some friends have babies recently, so he's been very interested in pregnancy/birth and talks about how he came out of his birthmom K's tummy. And earlier this month when I asked him to whom we should send Valentines, he said "Um... D & K!"

He's definitely working out the similarities and differences he experiences around him. He asks a lot about differing body parts. We talk specifically about who has what, but not about girls vs. boys. His concept of family is 2 moms, (When we see a "Mama" bulldozer and a "Baby" bulldozer at a construction site, he wants to know the whereabouts of the "Mommom" bulldozer), but he knows other types of families exist.  These distinctions are all matter of fact and "normal" to him. Because we teach kids to take issue with differences, to try to fit everything into a box with respect to families, gender, race. They aren't born with any preconceived notions about what is "normal" or "right".

Another really great thing about Gus is his awareness of feelings - his and others'. He is obviously a toddler, so he isn't always completely in control or aware of all of his emotions, but he definitely has a grasp of the concept. We talk a lot about feelings - how there are all kinds, how you can have one or more at a time, how they change. We have always tried to parent and teach by acknowledging the feelings behind behaviors, but I still think it's pretty amazing how well he seems to understand. For example, yesterday he and I were walking down the sidewalk. He ran into a store that I had asked him not to go in, so I had to carry him out. He was less than thrilled about this arrangement, and was pretty upset. But as I carried him back to the car, through his tears and snuffles, he said, "I'm very frustrated. I want to go in there." Crazy, right?! And when gauging others' emotions, he doesn't always pick up the specific feeling, but he generally gets within the right "category" (positive or negative).

One thing that has not changed is Gus's exuberance. He remains joyous, funny, friendly, and gung ho about life. We just went on vacation to Maui. Although he was a little hesitant about the very big waves in the ocean, he still went in (and had a blast). He wasn't sure about putting his face in the water (in the ocean. he has no qualms about this in the pool) but he tried it. We went on a boat trip (poor kid got a little sea-sick at first, but can't stop talking about Captain Casey and how much fun it was to see whales). He went skinny-dipping under a waterfall. He took a surf lesson in which he went out into the huge Hawaiian waves with his instructor. And even caught a few!!! It seems his mostly fearless, willing to try anything, adaptable temperament remains intact. In addition to doing all of that, he also had fun making friends with kids at the beach and in the pool. Some older, some younger, some his own age. He's such a little social butterfly!

I feel so fortunate that we get to parent such a carefree, hilarious, big-hearted, fun kid.

    Gus was very into non-alcoholic pina coladas. After his surf lesson, he ran down the beach yelling, "Where's my virgin?!!"


Just keep swimming

We travelled last week to Isle of Palms outside of Charleston, SC for our annual Shaylor family beach trip. We were lucky enough to get to all stay together in a house right on the beach that also had it's own pool, which was really awesome. As a child we did this for a week every summer. Some of my fondest childhood memories are from going to this island, playing for hours in tidepools. Dripping wet sand all over my grandmother's feet, eating homemade peach ice cream, swimming in the ocean. Running free over the sand. But the beach there is no longer the beach of my childhood. The constant crash of the waves has worn it down, changed it. In fact, at high tide, there is practically no beach at all. The tidepools that I loved so much as a kid were no longer there. That is, of course, what the ocean does - it is an unstoppable force for change. Everything, all of us included, are changing all the time. Morphing into new versions of ourselves.

Gus is so fully himself. I am absolutely in awe of it. It makes me wonder if I was ever like that. I'm not sure I was. I try to always be my most authentic self, but I find it quite difficult. Sometimes I don't have any clue where to even start being Me. Time and the tide have left their mark. Gus on the other hand, has no idea how to be anything but. He doesn't know yet that there is any other option than for him to be completely himself, all the time. I love it. My most fervent hope is that I never do anything to screw that up. That I can always support him of course, but also get out of the way so he can go on being himself.

I think he may be part fish. (Also part dog. But that one I've known for a while.) I knew he loved the water, he always has. But this past week I was amazed. This kid isn't even two and he can pretty much swim. He is fearless. He jumps right in. What's more, he stays underwater with his eyes wide open and a giant smile on his face as he's swimming. It's really kind of unbelievable.

Every morning when I'd go in his room he'd sit up and say, "Beach!" Out in the ocean, he kept wanting to go further and further past the breakers, asking for bigger and bigger waves, all the while swimming out of our arms saying "Fish, Fish, Fish." I wish I had that kind of confidence. I wish I were that fearless. I know that we will have to teach him a healthy respect for water, especially the ocean, but there's time for that when he is a little bit older. Right now we are obviously going to be right with him anytime he's in the water. Right now, I don't want to do anything to stifle his audacious spirit.

On top of being so fearless, Gus also just really digs life. He is so happy all the time. He really LIVES every minute. He is my little extraverted party animal. He loves everybody. In fact, sometimes he loves a little too persistently - in the form of hugging. He loves to give hugs. To dogs, his cousins, friends, strangers, it doesn't matter. Sometimes he doesn't realize he's bigger than those he's hugging, or that perhaps not everyone wants a hug all the time. That's another challenge for me. Sometimes other parents aren't so keen on Gus' over-eager cuddling. But I really don't want to discourage him from being loving and effusive. He's a toddler. He's all emotion and impulse. All he knows is that he has a lot of love to give and by golly, he's going to give it! In this world, how can that be wrong?

I hope that Gus will always feel comfortable being his most true self. With us and also out in the world. His experiences in life will shape and change him of course, just as surely as the ocean shapes the beach. But I hope that he will be able to not be pulled completely under, beaten down, when a huge wave comes at him. Or at least that he'll be able to come up mostly unflustered, and take a breath, ready for the next wave and the next one and the next one. I hope he will always be able to keep swimming.


The Whole Picture

Sometimes I think when we're right in the thick of things, living the day to day in and out parts of life, it's hard to see what we're doing. It's like standing in a museum with your nose right up against a painting. You can't see much but the blurred brushstroke directly in front of you. You have to step back to really SEE.

Sure, raising a kid is challenging. I joke that my new reason/excuse for things is "because toddler." I definitely have many moments in the drudgery of changing diapers, cleaning up hairballs, figuring out meals, wrangling clothes onto a toddler, suffering through screeching fits, where I can't focus on anything else. Honestly, it's kind of a shitty way to live. Being in the moment is one thing, I think that is important, especially with a kid. And kids are really great in helping adults be in the moment because they don't know any other way to be. But it's getting caught up in all the mundane stuff without being in the moment and enjoying it, or being able to see the whole picture, that I think is dangerous.

I also think this way of being was something that wasn't serving us well in our dealings with Gus's birthmom. We were right up against that painting, looking at one brushstroke - one moment, one set of interactions - and forgetting there was more to the picture. Sure, we knew intellectually there was more, there had to be. But emotionally we were having a hard time letting go of the small piece we were seeing.

We were able to step back and change that about a month ago when we travelled to Oregon for a visit. There was fear and dread and all kinds of feelings that we aren't very proud of that were keeping us stuck, but we pushed through them and you know what? It was incredible. From the moment we arrived, it was like we just sighed deeply and everything was okay.

As soon as he got out of the car, Gus walked right over and started picking up rocks and handing them to D (Gus's birthfather, whom we'd never met, who was there.) I always say he's never met a stranger, so there's that, but the kid is also pretty intuitive so I wonder if he realized he was the ice-breaker in an awkward situation. Then, we went to a park and Gus had a great time just hanging out and playing with D and K. It was a pretty short visit, but it was what we all needed to move forward. We talked a little bit about our regrets for how things had gone previously. It was nice to finally meet D. Gus looks like him! Gus and K got to bond over their mutual love of sweet potato fries at lunch. We got to share a lot of the awesome things Gus says and does with them and they got to recognize themselves in him. It was really cool. In a way, we share this amazing little guy!

It took us a while to get here, but I think - I hope - things will go more smoothly from now on. I'm sure there will still be hitches - we're all humans in a strange type of relationship - but I think being able to see Gus with them (and for them being able to see him with us) - really re-iterated the reasons we all chose open adoption. On an emotional level, not just an intellectual one. We still can't see the edges of the canvas yet, but at least we have a much better view of how the painting is shaping up.

Obviously Gus is still so little he doesn't really understand who D & K are and all the complicated nuances of this relationship (though he knows they are his birthparents and he knows he is adopted, whatever that means to him in his near 2 yr old brain). I do think he has an unconscious awareness/memory of K and his separation from her. He had a hard time the night after the visit. We had to get him out of his crib for extra snuggles and read an adoption book to him, then sit with him as he fell asleep (none of which is normal routine for him). He also seemed to have a harder time with separations from us in the week or so following our visit. Maybe I'm overthinking things and reading too much into it, but I'd much prefer to err on the side of acknowledging the possibility of him having some strong, confusing, unconscious feelings than to just ignore it all. He has suffered a loss. It is something that he will always live with. Open adoption is great - being able to see and know his birthparents is a good thing - but it won't ever completely erase that loss.  

Gus with K & D in Ashland, OR
So this is part of our lives, but it's not necessarily in the forefront every day. Sure, we read books about adoption. We also read books about the potty, not pulling animals' tails, Toot and Puddle the pigs, construction sites, dinosaur buses, rainbows, choo-choos, a cat who loses his buttons, penguins, San Francisco... and the list goes on and on. Gus definitely loves books. When I go into his room in the morning, after he says "Hi" he says "Book". When he is in his room by himself, (he's gotten great at pretty good amounts of independent play, which is great for my sanity!), I sometimes peek around the corner and see him flipping through books, "reading" to himself.

He continues to amaze me. When I can pull back from my overwhelm with his fighting diaper changes and "no no nos" I see this really cool dude. (He says "dude" now, too! and "guy") Most of the time, I really dig hanging out with him. He's a toddler, so he developmentally does toddler-y things like refusing to share and running from me when I'm trying to dress him and yes, even peeing on the floor sometimes, but overall he's still a pretty laid-back, adaptable, happy and sweet kid.

We play at "taking turns". Gus and his babydoll, or Pooh bear, take turns with a ball, or blocks or something. He thinks it's really funny to offer something and then psych you out. He laughs and laughs, but I'm trying to help him learn that even though it can be funny, especially with adults, it's not really that nice. He's super cute because when he's successful at our "taking turns" game, not only is he happy and proud, but then he goes over and gives whoever he's taking turns with a hug and a kiss. It's so sweet. Sometimes, he randomly climbs out of the sandbox at the playground and gives another kid a hug! Just because.

The other thing he's getting into now - which makes this Mama super happy - is drawing and painting. He calls writing and drawing "G", we think because whenever we draw with him, we write his name, saying the letters out loud. It's funny. We joke about needing a Gus to English dictionary. He calls painting "Bu" because all colors are currently blue. (it's the only one he can say). In front of the art store they have a little easel and paints and Gus loves to "paint" there. We both usually end up completely covered because I've had to struggle with him to leave, but I am looking forward to us making art together.

Stepping back and looking at the whole picture, the fun with the challenging, is what's going to help me survive the toddler years, I'm sure of it. It will probably serve me well in life, too.

Treading water

We just got back from a visit with Shelley's parents (Nonna & Nonno to Gus) in Florida. Gus was in hog heaven because not only do they live on the beach and have a pool, but several of his cousins live very close so he got to play with them, and some even brought their DOGS! This kid could not have been more thrilled. The mommies were also really impressed with what an adaptable little guy we have - no problems with jetlag or being shuffled from place to place. (We on the other hand were wrecked from our red-eye flight. Thankfully Shelley's parents have plenty of coffee!)
Gus swam everyday, multiple times a day. He and Shelley go to swim lessons at the Y every Saturday, so the kid has some skills. Nonna and Nonno got him a little thin life jacket-y thing, and he was excited to have such independence in the pool. It was great to see him enjoying himself so much. He spent hours dog-paddling around and treading water.
Treading water never felt like very much fun to me. Sometimes, though, it's just what we have to do. Maintain. Currently, we're navigating how to do that in our relationship with G's birthmom. I say our relationship because at almost 20 months, Gus doesn't really have a relationship with her yet. Right now, all the relationshippin' falls fully on us. And sometimes, often, it feels like treading water. Like we are staying in the same damn place no matter how much effort we exert.
Don't get me wrong, we are committed to having an open adoption for many reasons, (some of them I've talked about here and here), and we want Gus to be able to have a relationship with his birthmom because she is just that, the person who gave him life and had to make a really hard choice. But none of this is black and white, and some of the reasons that she made that choice are also the same reasons that sometimes maintaining a relationship with her isn't the easiest thing in the world.
But I have to remind myself, relationships are often hard. Especially, let's be honest, with relatives. And that's what K is, she is related to us through Gus. It feels, currently, like there is a great chasm of grief between us. There are a lot of uncomfortable feelings from all of us churning around in there. Nobody wants to swim in it, with the exception of maybe Gus, he'd swim in anything. But the water is a little too deep and treacherous for him right now, I think. So our job is to teach him and support him and hone his skills so that he's prepared to confidently dive in at some point. Because even though the job of maintaining the relationship is ours right now, it is and always will be, about and for him.


Love. Love. Love. I feel sometimes like I might be swallowed up by all the hate out there in the world, but I have to remember the only way to fight back, the only way that will ever make a difference, is love. But it's difficult. When there are people saying things about my family? When they don't even know us?

I don't think Gus has a hateful bone in his body. He loves animals, and kids on the playground who hit him, and homeless people, and just about anyone who seems scared. Even when he was a tiny tiny baby, (like only days old still in the nursery at the hospital tiny) he seemed to tune in to other kids who were upset. I would hold him and whisper that he was okay, that it wasn't happening to him, that the other kid who was crying would be okay too, and he would settle down. Maybe (big possibility) I was projecting stuff onto him, but I don't know. He does seem to be empathic. He goes up to kids who are crying and comforts them. He puts his arm around kids in his swim class who are scared. 

Gus, on the other hand, doesn't seem to fear much of anything. He got 4 shots at his 18 month appointment and didn't even flinch. He goes down the big slide by himself at the park. Sometimes he falls because it's so fast - but he hops right up and starts climbing the stairs, ready to go again. He's been okay being dunked under water (at swim class) since he was about 7 months old. He goes to sleep at night in a completely dark room all by himself (that's new and we are sooo proud!).  Maybe there is a connection between his fearlessness and his big-heartedness?

I do think there's some lesson in there. Because hate is driven by fear. So the best response would seemingly be to show the haters love. But, damn, that is hard. Especially when they are hatin' on me just for being myself. I think I may be too old and cynical to be able to respond with love. The best I can do is walk away. But Gus, I think, could be a little ambassador of love. I think kids often are. I know many stories about icy relationships melting once kids are involved. But it doesn't seem fair to him, to be put in that position. Then again, he has to live in this world. Hate and fear are taught. So is love I guess. I'm not sure. All I know is that I want to do my best to encourage him to continue to be confident, to be fearless where it counts: to love.

Who's Adopted?

Gus is obsessed with books. This high-energy, full force blur of a toddler will not stop for much, but he will sit still on my lap for book after book. He's been this way since very early on. When he was about 4 or 5 months old, he'd happily allow me to read him half a dozen to a dozen books at a time. As an introverted bookworm, I of course love this (except that it makes it hard for me to hold boundaries sometimes when he is asking me to read another book. Who wants to say "No" to that?) Also, it has been helpful when we need to get a concept across to him. Tails Are Not for Pulling is a popular one around here, and much appreciated by the cats! 

His favorite books when he was wee (he still loves them though he's begun to add others to the repertoire) were Todd Parr books. I think all the bright colors really captured his attention when he was really tiny. Many of Todd's books talk about differences; being unique, different types of families, and adoption. And we always add commentary while reading ("our family has two moms", "you're adopted"). So now, when we get to a line in a book about adoption ("it's okay to be adopted", "some families adopt children"), Gus points to himself! (The first time he did this with Shelley, he pointed to himself and then gave her a huge hug!) I'm not entirely sure he understands exactly what being adopted means, but he knows he is. And he feels that it's a positive thing.

We have a bunch of friends who also have adopted kids, so I think Gus may have gotten a little bit confused about it once we started telling him that Malcolm is adopted, and Baby Ben is adopted, and Baby Vaughan is adopted, because then he started pointing at his baby doll and saying "adopted", so I suspect he might think that all children are adopted. But I'm not sure. All I know is that it feels pretty great that he knows. Even if the concept isn't entirely clear, we're laying the groundwork. We talk to him about his birthmom and his birth/adoption story. We strive for openness in all things in our family. 

The other thing I'm pretty sure he knows, that I hope he knows, is that he is LOVED. I don't believe that love is enough to erase all the pain he may one day feel about being adopted. It's complicated, and his feelings about it are bound to be too. But I do hope that if he is secure in our love for him he will be able to one day talk about and explore the feelings that he has surrounding the loss of his biological family. And I hope, for now, being accepted, and being loved, and knowing he is adopted (whatever that might mean for him in his toddler brain at the moment) will be enough. I feel like it's a good start.